Unfortunately, most writers see themselves as artists.
However, writing is not art. Literature is art, but writing is manual labour. If you want to create great art, you have to sit down at your desk and push all thoughts of that goal from your mind.
Instead of the hoped-for product of your work, you need to focus on the work itself: on your process.
Over the years, I have struggled to carve and keep the space for writing in my life, when massive workloads during my PhD studies and the post-PhD work-world threatened to destroy me.
Now, as I struggle to take care of young children (aged four and two), while working both as a teacher and a writer, I have had to further develop and refine my systems.
This week’s podcast focuses on the sometimes surprising things I have learned about being a productive writer over the years.
I share my Top 5 Productivity Tips:
Pick One Priority
Don’t Multitask, Doubletask
Batch Your Baking
Start Right Now
You can give it a listen here, and read more about each tip below:
Pick One Priority
Imagine you have two tasks. You consider each a priority.
Welcome to the land of paradox, where writers accomplish nothing.
Why? Well, a priority, by definition, is “a thing that is regarded as more important than others” (Oxford English Dictionary). Please note the singular. The word “priorities” exists but it is something of a misnomer.
By definition, work on your “priority” should happen before your other work. You should focus on your single priority above all else.
Sometimes, of course, that is not possible. Most of the time, however, the only thing really, truly keeping you from focusing on your priority is that you do not know what it is, or you think that you can have two.
You cannot have two. You need to know which thing, of all your things, needs to come first. You should always focus your efforts toward one thing.
While your priority may change, there is always one task or project that, if completed, matters most over the long term to your writing life.
Spend real time thinking through this question: “What would, if it were already done, make the greatest difference in my life?” Focus on that.
Maybe it’s a massive project, and you need to break it down a bit, or clarify it. Maybe you need to take the time into account, both the time it would take to complete and the deadlines coming up on your calendar.
You might switch your priority over the course of time, but you want to try to NOT switch unless you finish. Sustain your focus.
Don’t Multitask, Doubletask
A related problem is that writers so often switch between projects, working on whatever catches their eye that day, like crows chasing shiny objects.
The problem with working on multiple projects is that you end up being 73% finished 37 things, and rarely finish anything.
Develop the discipline to stick with a project and see it through. You are always better off doing ONE thing. However, sometimes you can make it count TWICE.
Millions of words have spilled like blood from the wounds of dying articles that everyone ignores about the dangers of multitasking: its unproductive nature, its neurological costs, et cetera. Without delving deep into the topic, suffice it to say that what we refer to as “multitasking” is, in reality, a method of task-switching, and every time you switch tasks there is a productivity cost.
Although you feel like you are getting a lot done when you work on many things at once, actually you just do a lot of work but get very little done. I don’t know about you, but my goal is to work less but get more done. I would rather play with my kids than work.
So, I need to focus on developing methods that actually make me productive instead of just making me feel like I am productive.
One of the most useful methods is something I call doubletasking.
When you doubletask, you work on one thing but it serves multiple projects and purposes.
My priority project right now is preparing December’s podcasts (that is why I am writing these words you are reading). As I write these words, it is 7:12 a.m. and in 18 minutes I have to get my four-year-old daughter up for preschool. I won’t finish this before then, and when she is gone I will have my two-year-old son to look after.
Around 2pm they will go down for their naps, and then I will record an interview with Ryan Fitzpatrick for a different podcast episode. Then I will come back to finish this article. So, although I am doing multiple things, they all serve my priority project (December’s podcasts).
How I make real headway on a project like this is by doubletasking. You are reading this article on my website, where it serves two main functions: as show notes for the podcast episode and also an article that “replaces” the podcast in case you prefer reading articles to listening to podcasts.
But this article is being written prior to recording the podcast. It will also serve as my outline for when I record the podcast. In other words, these words are both prep work and post-production material.
That’s the power of doubletasking. Instead of doing two things (outlining the episode and then later writing show notes), I am doing one thing that serves two purposes. Often, the result of doubletasking is to do a better, more thorough, higher-quality job on one task, while eliminating a second task and saving yourself time overall.
Try to find ways to doubletask. Maybe you have a novel you want to work on, but you also feel like you need to publish more short stories. Well, find a chapter or a sequence from the story that is self-contained. Write that chapter first, as a short story and submit it around while you pick another chapter or sequence and do the same.
By the time you have completed your novel, you will have published some of its chapters in alternate forms. Even if you abandon the novel, you have those short stories you could work into a short story collection. I often write short stories in lieu of film treatments, and then use these stories in grant proposals seeking funds to develop the project, rather than the usual unpublishable outline.
Batch Your Baking
I used to work the night shift at a donut shop. My boss owned three franchises across the city. Partway through my shift, the cook would arrive, and while I manned the counters he would cook up all of the donuts needed for all three locations. Then I would pack them up in the boss’s van and drive them to the other locations.
(Well, to be honest, I actually drove them to my house…)
Instead of hiring three cooks, or having the same cook do a big bake at each location, my boss paid me minimum wage to drive donuts around (much less than he paid the cook). The same principle applies to writing. Do a big bake, and then drive your donuts around.
As I said, right now I’m creating all of December’s podcasts. I will do four weeks of podcasts plus blog posts in the next three days. When I first started the podcast, I pre-created 10 weeks of podcasts in two weeks.
I did a few more episodes on the fly as interview opportunities presented themselves, but overall I worked on my podcast for part of August, launched the podcast in September, and didn’t really work much on it again until now — December. Meanwhile, new episodes were releasing automatically every week.
Batching tasks like this helps in two ways. You are able to stay in the mental headspace of the project and keep your momentum going. You also have big breaks between batches. If I made a new podcast every week, then I would feel like I never stopped working on my podcast and it would make me feel overwhelmed with constant work. I would always be struggling to hit a deadline and it would quickly become less fun.
When I used to publish my “Haiku Horoscopes” column, I would often pre-write a month's worth of columns in a day. I would pre-load a year’s worth of column posts in advance. I spent an annoying week or so getting everything ready, and then forgot about it for a year, while every week a new set of horoscopes went live on my site.
I even programmed my old website to auto-post them all to Twitter and Facebook. It seemed like I was working on them all the time, but really it was one week each year. When this podcast/blog post goes live, my website will auto-post it on social media as well.
I often leave social media for months at a time, while robots post in my stead upwards of 10 times a week.
Conversely, rather than trying to complete your current project, maybe you should just quit.
What’s the worst thing that would happen if you never completed your project? Before you really begin, take a moment to consider this question.
Maybe the answer is existential. If you never finish your novel, then you will not be a novelist.
Maybe the answer is practical. If you do not meet your article deadline, then you won’t get paid and you’ll lose a client.
Often the answer is nothing.
If the answer is nothing, or not much more than nothing, just quit. Why are you wasting your time on things that don’t matter?
Doing the wrong thing is almost as bad as doing nothing. Not really — you can take the wrong thing and use it for good, but you can’t use nothing for much. But you are still better off just sitting there, staring into space for a few hours, figuring out what the right thing would be.
Don’t overanalyze and paralyze yourself. Don’t spend weeks staring into space. There is no perfect task or project that will make or break your entire world. But do stop focusing time and energy on projects and tasks that have little consequence.
If your project or task does not have a massive negative consequence when it is not completed, then it will not have a massive positive consequence when it is completed.
If I don’t write this blog post and record the podcast, then I won’t have a podcast for you this week, and I will start to seem inconsistent to you. If I appear inconsistent to my audience, like I don’t know what I am doing, then this will erode my authority.
Everything in my career depends on two things: the quality of my work and the authority it grants me as a working artist. That’s why I don’t just focus on teaching and make time for writing whenever I can. I focus on my writing and my teaching is secondary, even though teaching brings in more money most years.
Existentially, and from the point of view of wanting to teach from a position of expertise, I cannot in good faith tell anyone how to write if I am not actively engaged in writing. I don’t want to be one of those people that can’t do but teach.
On the other hand, I don’t take attendance in my classes. Why bother? It wastes the students’s time, makes them feel surveilled, treats them like children, and is more work for me. If I don’t do it, the worst that happens is that the university gets annoyed with me.
They request who has been attending and who hasn’t been on a form each year, and I don’t fill out the form the way that I’m supposed to fill it out, because I don’t have the data they are requesting. I’ve been doing it this way for years now, and not once has anybody noticed or said anything to me.
When you do one or two things like this, it doesn’t seem like much. It only takes a few minutes to build an attendance sheet, and a few more minutes each class to take attendance. The problem is that you do stuff like this all the time, and it adds up. A few minutes here and there, and over the year I would spend hours on attendance. You spend hours in your day on nonsense that you think you need to do, but if you didn’t do it there would be no real consequence.
If you’re skeptical about this, take a week and do nothing. Take a secret vacation. Just relax and read books and don’t do any of your work.
How long does it take people to notice? And how much did it really matter? How many things actually were noticed, because they mattered? Next week, just do those things. Don’t do anything else.
Don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.
Start Right Now
If you are reading this article, or listening to this podcast, then most likely you could be working on your top priority instead.
Probably an excuse just popped into your mind as to why you are not. Recognize it as an excuse.
Are you driving and listening to this podcast when your top priority is writing a short story? Turn off the podcast and think about where you are stuck on the story and why. Is it that you don’t know what your characters should do next? Spend this driving time thinking through options.
Maybe it’s just that you don’t have a writing schedule so you don’t know when you will write next. Well, turn off the podcast and think about it while you drive. Make a plan.
If you’re reading this, then whatever device you are using to read it could also be used as a writing tool. Open up a writing file and write. This article will be here for you to read once you've finished your writing, but this time is flying past.
Start now. Even if you only do it for five minutes. In fact, commit to just five minutes. Set a timer. If five minutes seems too long, do three. Or two. Or one. Just start.
Start now. Momentum is everything. The worst thing is the blank page, the moment before you step on stage, the anticipation. Get past it. Just start.
Start badly if you need to, but start. It is easier to continue than to start, so start. Start now.