IN THIS SERIES on writing productivity, I have borrowed heavily from general principles of productivity that, when applied to work and life in general, can bring about positive results. These principles include setting and achieving goals, and managing and maximizing your writing time.
But does ALL advice about productivity translate directly to writing productivity?
Yes and no.
Each of us is a unique individual who interprets and processes and applies strategies in our own way. Strategies that work for me might work for you, and they might not. For this reason, I encourage you to question everything you hear and read about productivity — even here on this blog.
Experiment and test and tweak until you find the right combination of methods to get the most out of your writing time.
For example, some people swear by an early morning ritual. Others write into the silent hours of the night. Most writers need some sort of daily schedule to stay focused and make progress. Yet others write best in binges, not writing for days or weeks and then locking themselves in a room for three days and nights (or whatever).
The point is that it’s important to know yourself, figure out what works for you, and then fine-tune that strategy to maximize it.
Here are a few bits of productivity advice that I’ve questioned and modified for myself.
Advice I’ve received: Don’t multitask, because multitasking is death to productivity
I know that there really is no such thing as true multitasking — doing two or more things at once. What we are actually doing when we think we’re multitasking is switching back and forth very quickly between activities.
I also know that multitasking has been proven to slow productivity. However, this is only true when the activities are cognitively in competition with each other — for example watching TV and reading at the same time (yes, I am guilty of this strange practice). Or reading emails while writing — or more accurately, attempting to write.
Each of those activities requires taking in, expressing, and/or processing language. So when we try to do both at the same time, we can’t. We can only jump back and forth between the two until we give up and focus on just one.
But when two activities are complementary and don’t take the same cognitive effort, they can actually improve overall productivity.
For me, this means combining physical activity with intellectual activity. When my body is engaged in an activity that I don’t have to think about and is mostly automatic, my mind and imagination are free to be creative, think, process new information, and learn.
- Listening to audiobooks or podcasts while cleaning house, walking, cooking, gardening, or driving.
- Plotting my next chapter while taking a bath or showering (or any of the above physical activities).
- Reading while listening to instrumental music (lyrics would compete cognitively with the reading process).
In this way, I can actually increase the time I spend working on my writing project or improving my writing skills while not actually writing.
Of course, the act of writing is both physical and mental and therefore needs to be focused on exclusive of other activities for best results.
Advice I’ve received: Procrastination is bad.
I am not a natural procrastinator. When there’s something I don’t want to do, I usually force myself to get it done so I can relax and do what I want. Even as a child, I would eat the bad-tasting food first, so I could end the meal with the good-tasting food.
And I’m naturally enthusiastic. When I get an idea, I tend to jump right in and get started implementing it. However, I have learned that when it comes to following inspiration procrastination can be beneficial.
Waiting until I have had time to think more about an idea, to consider its pros and cons, can end up saving time. I may find that my “brilliant” idea is not actually all that smart, and I’m better off not running down that path. By waiting, I give myself time to research alternatives. To improve on my idea. To accomplish more and better the first time around.
By waiting, I waste less time doing things I’m better off not doing, or having to back up and undo mistakes made by not thinking my idea through.
Procrastination, in this case, improves my overall productivity.
Advice I’ve received: More time writing = getting more writing done.
We Americans tend to think that we are the most productive people in the world, and we work the hours to prove it. We take fewer days off each year than people in every other developed country. Underlying our long works hours is the belief that longer hours gives us a productivity edge.
But, according to the Harvard Business Review, “Numerous studies . . . have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.”
Granted, these studies have to do with how much time people work in their jobs, not necessarily how many hours they write; yet, I think we writers can benefit from re-thinking our own attitudes and beliefs about our writing work. If we write more hours, will we really be more productive.? Will we finish those essays or that book faster and better?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I would argue that the quality of your writing time is more important than the quantity. And while it is important to put in some seat time — in other words, don’t use these studies as an excuse to not work — writing should be an activity you’re so passionate enough about that it doesn’t feel like “work,” even when it’s difficult.
I realize that statement may seem oxymoronic, but it’s not. Writing can be both difficult and enjoyable at the same time. But if you’re in a state where you dread sitting down to write, if it feels like sitting down to eat a big plate of broccoli when you hate broccoli — well, I suggest it’s time to take a break from writing.
Abstain until you’re hungry to write again. Because when you write only because you’re “supposed to,” your work will be forced, dry, and unengaged. Your work will reflect your mental state.
But, when you write because you’re hungry for that special self-expression that only writing can offer, then you will produce heartfelt and authentic work. That’s when your writing will tap into your unique voice.
And so, to sum all this up, I come back to my point that all advice — even the best advice — must be questioned and analyzed and individualized for best results.
What great advice have you found to be contrary to the way you work best?