Making Time to Write—Two Mind Hacks from Bob Pozen

Are you too busy to write? Before you answer, consider Bob Pozen.

Bob Pozen is busy. As chairman emeritus of MFS Investment and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, he essentially works 2 high-profile jobs.

At the same time, he’s a prolific writer. In addition to producing an avalanche of articles, he wrote Too Big To Save? How to Fix the US Financial System and The Mutual Fund Business, a seminal textbook.

How does he get all that writing done?

Pozen revealed his productivity secrets in a series of interviews conducted by Justin Fox for the Harvard Business Review blog network. These led Pozen to write yet another book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, published in 2012.

Focus on thinking—not time

Fox asked about how to write quickly, and Pozen’s reply blows me away. He turned the question around:

A lot of people confuse a thinking problem with a writing problem. In order to write quickly, I need to see the line of argument very clearly. If I don’t fully understand the line of argument, I cannot write even a paragraph. My brain won’t let my pen move.

In order to spell out the logic of the argument, you need to compose an outline before writing. Only by playing around with an outline can you get comfortable with the key steps in the argument. For an article or a speech, an outline does not have to be long or detailed. Just the four or five key points, with a few sub-points under each.

True, a book is more complicated than an article. For books, Pozen writes a detailed outline and then sends it out to reviewers before drafting chapters. The strategy is essentially the same—start by thinking clearly through the whole of what you want to say.

See the first draft as a process of discovery

Even though your outline (table of contents) represents a complete prototype for your book, you’re going to learn a lot more when you flesh it out into a series of chapters. As Pozen said:

After you clarify your thinking by writing an outline, you’ve got to be willing to write a first draft that is rough. Most people feel they have to write a really good first draft and that’s why they get writer’s block. In many cases, it’s only when you actually finish your first draft that it comes to you how the whole piece fits together. 

That short paragraph unpacks a lot. First comes one the most common pieces of writing advice—let the first draft be rough. Keep your expectations low.

Then Pozen adds something profound and easy to forget: When creating a first draft, you’re still finding out what you want to say.

In fact, we could justifiably call this process something other than “writing”—like creating a “discovery document” or “expanding the table of contents.” Don’t even say that you’re “writing a book” until you start the second draft.

Semantic games? Try it and see what happens.