Why I set work aside for a while before calling it done

A former supervisor called me the other day. He’s having quality control issues at his new gig, and quality control was one of the things I did when I was working for him. He wanted my insight. And he was very direct with one question he asked me.

“You would always set work aside and then come back to it,” he said. “Why?”

He knew my tactic worked, but wanted to know why it worked.

It’s pretty simple. If I come back and look it over right away, I don’t see what I wrote. I see what I meant to write. Sometimes they’re the same thing, but the one time they aren’t is what gets you in trouble. So when it comes to written work, I always set it aside for as long as I can, then come back to it, make sure it still looks good, then call it done. A day is good. A week is much better. In a pinch, an hour or two will do, especially if there’s other work to do that will take my mind off what I just did.

I need enough time to forget what I meant to write, so I can see what I actually did write.

The same thing can help when it comes to things like scripts and configuration files, but the computer can give feedback. If the script or the configuration works, then there probably isn’t much wrong with it. But even when you have the benefit of immediate feedback, it doesn’t hurt to come back later and double-check for subtle mistakes that the computer won’t forgive forever. At my present job, I’ve been tweaking two Unix shell scripts since November. They worked back in November, but as time goes by, I find ways to make them better.

Then I told him a story. When I was in the fourth grade, my science teacher gave my class an assignment: Write an essay for an essay contest by the local University of Missouri Extension Office. I didn’t want to do it. The subject matter was an intensely private matter to me, and besides, what did this composition have to do with science? Nothing. It was about my family.

So I waited until the night before it was due, and wrote an essay that was probably about five words longer than the minimum required. Half of it was about my dog. I wrote it in one draft, probably taking about half an hour, then put it in my folder. Mom asked if it was done. I said yes. She asked if she could read it. I said no, rather emphatically. “It’s fine,” I added, firmly. And the next day, I handed it in.

I was right. It was fine. But Mom still did end up reading the essay. So did all of my teachers and all of my classmates, and pretty much the whole stinking town. The stupid essay I didn’t want to write won first runner-up in that stupid contest I didn’t want to enter, and they published it in the local newspaper, along with a picture of me with my family. Minus the dog, in a travesty of justice.

Even though my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t try very hard, I did a good job on it. It flowed well, and every paragraph had a topic sentence and every other sentence in every paragraph supported that topic. When I struggled briefly in a freshman-level humanities course and my professor wanted me to get a remedial writing tutor, I realized she was trying to teach me things that I had right in that essay I wrote in the fourth grade. When I started to write like that again, she stopped hassling me.

Even now, I see stuff all the time written by adults who make a lot of money that isn’t as well written as that essay.

But it didn’t win. Why? Mistakes. It had a couple of capitalization errors and at least one incomplete sentence. I guarantee all of my classmates had more egregious errors in their essays, but the essay that won didn’t have as many. A lot of people liked my essay better, but the winning one was more technically sound. So it won, and I finished second.

Had I given that essay a once-over before handing it in the next morning, I would have caught most of those mistakes, and I would have won that stupid contest I didn’t want to enter in the first place.

That’s why I set work aside, even now, and come back to it later. I even do that with most blog posts. As small of an audience as I have, I guarantee that if I misspell or misuse a word, I’ll hear about it. They don’t want to see mistakes and I don’t want to hear about it, so I write most things a day or a week or a month in advance, schedule it, then read it one more time the night before it goes online. Doing that, I only hear about it once or twice a year.

My old boss knew what he and his new team needed to do. Now he knows why.

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