“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
I HAVE THIS HABIT of starting each new year in high productivity mode and then later, as the year progresses, find myself slowing down. By fall, my commitments to myself and my writing are sliding, I’m spending more time on social media than I would like or procrastinating on a writing project (mostly due to a period of lack of confidence in my writing), or otherwise sabotaging my writing time.
Here’s how it happens: I’ll sit down to write and decide I need to check my email first. From there, I click on a link to a “really important” news feeds, which in turn takes me down a 30-minute news reading frenzy. Or I decide I need to answer that contact form query before I work on my next scene. Then, before I know it, my scheduled writing time is nearly gone and I’ve gotten nothing accomplished.
Sound familiar? If so, then following these 10 tips will help you recover or increase your productivity.
I know, because when I recommit and follow them once again, my writing productivity soars, returning to its rightful place in my life.
1) Schedule time to write when you won’t be disturbed.
This may mean getting up extra early, staying up late, or moving to a location outside of home or office. It means scheduling a start and a stop time — both are equally important to productivity.
And keep in mind that you don’t need one long writing session to be productive. Schedule several 15-minute sessions rather than a one-hour block, if that works best for your schedule. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in 15 minutes when you put your mind to it.
2) Set firm boundaries and stick to them
Your writing time should be sacrosanct, and everyone around you should know it. Set your priorities and communicate with family or coworkers. If someone wants you to do something, you can say, “Sure, right after I complete what I’m doing.” If you don’t want to be disturbed, put a note on the door, but let people know when they can get your attention. If they know when you’ll be available, they are more likely to be patient. Communicating your boundaries will train people to leave you alone when you’re writing.
3) Turn off your phone and all electronic notifications
This tip is a continuation of setting boundaries. The world won’t end if you don’t answer your phone. And, at best, email and social media notifications are distracting. When that urgent email notification pops up, you’ll feel obligated to stop what you’re doing and reply, breaking your concentration. To be most productive, you need to focus on one thing at a time. There is no such thing as “multitasking” — which is actually just moving attention back and forth between two or more tasks. Multitasking is a myth and studies have shown that it reduces productivity.
4) Write before doing anything else.
Check email, etc. AFTER you’ve completed your writing session. Otherwise, like me you may fall down the rabbit hole of link clicking and task follow-up. Write while your intention and focus are clear, then reward yourself with some email catchup and link-clicking time.
5) Write with intention
Know where you’re going to start. Ideally, this means you have an outline — your roadmap to productivity. (When you’re writing nonfiction, an outline is essential.) If you’re a dedicated “pantser” and completely resistant to the idea of an outline, then at the end of each writing session decide what your goal will be for the next writing session and leave yourself a note to begin there.
6) Get to a good stopping point before switching to other tasks.
Finish your thoughts and/or the basics of that scene before moving on to something else. Changing gears in the middle of a scene (in other words, trying to multitask) will negatively affect the quality of your writing.
7) Establish word count goals and track your progress
When I wrote my second memoir, I set an extremely modest goal of 100 words per day — that’s 35,000 words per year, so I knew I could finish my memoir in 2 years. And that’s exactly what I did. I also have a 300-word-per-day goal when working on my blog articles every weekday.
Scrivener — my writing application of choice — has built-in goal-setting and tracking features, but you can also use a spreadsheet to track your writing progress. Seeing those words stack up can keep you motivated and encouraged, especially when you’re in the messy middle of a project.
8) Use noise-canceling headphones to block out external noise
I write in the O’dark early hours of the morning and rarely need to deal with distracting noise or conversation. But if you’re writing while the family is watching TV in the other room or at the office where phones are ringing and colleagues are having conversations, put on the headphones (or earbuds) and play some quiet music. When I really need to focus, I use a Hemisync concentration soundtrack.
9) Separate writing (creating) from researching and editing processes.
Creativity is a right-brained activity. Research and editing are linear, logical left-brained activities. When you try to mix these two types of activities, you’ll struggle to accomplish either one. Separating the two functions means embracing the shitty first draft. If you’re in the creative writing flow and find that you’re missing historical information for a particular passage, don’t stop to research. Instead, make a comment or note in the body of the text and keep writing. Let the words and ideas flow onto the page. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, historical facts, or coherence. All of that can be accomplished later, during the editing process.
10) Allow yourself to play and experiment with your writing
We writers tend to take ourselves (and our writing) too seriously. So what if you try a new technique and it falls flat? How will you ever find your voice and learn new ways of expressing yourself if you don’t experiment? In line with the previous tip to keep logical and creative processes separate, allow your curious and creative inner child out to play when you’re in creation mode. You will not only be more productive, but your unique and expressive voice will also develop naturally.
Though these tips are not listed in any particular order of priority, I recommend not trying to begin doing them all at once. Start at the top and work your way down, gradually implementing and making a habit of each one. You have nothing to lose, and both your productivity and ability to focus will be greatly enhanced.
Do you have any productivity tips to add? Please share.