For And Against Pre-Scheduling Posts

For And Against Pre-Scheduling Posts
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

I wrote this post in the past, and pre-scheduled it to only publish now. (Yes, everything you read was written in the past, but this I’m writing to you from longer ago than necessary. Hello from several months ago! Things are pretty sucky here, I hope it’s going better when you are).

I’ve been pre-scheduling a bunch of my writing for a while now -- specifically the kind of writing I want to get into a regular habit with, such as blogs and newsletters. I think pre-scheduling these posts has a couple of big benefits and a couple of major costs:

Pro: The Psychology of Imperfection

For many people, one of the hardest things about writing is the self-doubt and uncertainty around your writing not being good enough. You start a draft, you avoid it for ages, you edit it a little, you tell yourself you’ll get back to it, months go by, you never actually finish it.

Pre-scheduling posts, I find, has two big benefits in terms of making peace with imperfection:

  1. I write a draft that feels 60%-good-enough and schedule it to send for a month or two from now. The impending deadline of the post’s release to the world means I have to go back and improve it before it goes live.
  2. I somehow feel less-embarrassed about future-me sending out something that isn’t as good as I want it to be. I can’t decide if this is my longer-term self being wise (your writing doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile, and I’m able to see that on behalf of me-two-months-from-now) or my short-term self being incredibly stupid, but it seems to work.

It is not lost on me that the reasons above should be mutually incompatible, but it’s one of those things like money or society or whatever, it all holds together so long as you don’t question it.

Pro: The Psychology of Maintaining Habits

Relatedly, another psychological problem solved by scheduling is the issue of missing a week.

There’s a general sense for habits -- going to the gym, meditation, whatever it might be -- that it goes well while it’s going well, but it’s hard to get back on the horse when you fall off it. Pre-scheduling posts means that if you miss a week or month, the habit itself (regular publishing) maintains itself through the helping hand of your previous self.

I think for publishing, specifically, there’s an additional element: the longer it’s been since I sent out a post, the more that I feel that the next post has to be Really Good to make up for it. (It’s similar to the thing with emails from friends: the longer you’ve left them dangling in your inbox, the more you feel that your reply has to be long and valuable, and therefore you leave them even longer and enter a vicious spiral and never write at all).

As such, the pre-scheduled posts don’t just keep the habit going but lower the bar for whatever else you’re currently writing, making sure you never have to write a Back After Long Absence-worthy post, only a here’s-my-weekly-column-worthy post, which (as these things go) makes it more likely you’ll actually write the thing that would have “justified” a long absence in the first place.

Con: Detaching Efforts From Rewards And Feedback

On the negative side, I think pre-scheduling posts sadly works against the natural reward-system of writing. Writing is unpleasant, but getting social approval for your writing is very pleasant, and it’s much more appealing to think “if I finish this post tomorrow then other people will see it tomorrow” than knowing it’ll be months before you get the rich rewards that will surely come your way on publication day.

Social media is of course built successfully on a near-instant reward cycle -- you write quickly, post immediately, and get the dopamine hit instantly -- and it’s definitely been alleged that some of the bad habits people display on social media are created exactly by the instancy of the rewards.

By contrast, traditional academic or book publishing creates a one-or-two year gap between writing and the rewards from writing, and I’m not honestly sure how academics and authors stay motivated that way. I talked to an author recently whose book was about to come out, and when I asked if he was excited he said “well, honestly, I think the topic was important two years ago but it isn’t really now -- I’m spending all my time thinking about something else instead now.”

Similarly, putting a big gap between writing and getting feedback might damage your ability to improve your writing -- if you (dear reader) give me a useful comment on this blogpost that improves my writing forever, I’ll wish I had that insight months earlier.

Con: Batching As A Habit-Killer

The other downside I see to pre-scheduling is that it can lead you to a binge-and-bust habit of writing. You wake up one weekend with a surge of writing-energy and knock out six posts at once, scheduling them on a monthly cadence for the next six months. The problem is that now for the next five-and-a-half months there’s no pressure at all to write again.

I’m not really sure how to prevent pre-scheduling from “allowing” this pattern. It’s a broader issue for writers that doesn’t only apply to pre-scheduling posts. There’s a famous piece of writing advice to always quit for the day when you’re in the middle of something, when you know exactly what’s coming next, so you can pick things up more easily there the next day; there are also writers who claim to write exactly X,000 words each day and not a word more, stopping themselves there so that they don’t get into a binge-and-bust cycle.

Conclusion Pre-Scheduling Is Alright

Overall, my feeling is that pre-scheduling posts is pretty useful and currently under-rated (I mean… at least at time of writing, who knows what your distant future world is like).

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