Ah, the #writerslife, #amwriting, #wordcount — wait, hold that thought — #amlookingatmyphone, #destructiveprocrastination, #twitterblackhole, #zerowillpower … dammit what just happened?
Every time I pick up my iPhone, I lose a minimum of 20 minutes that I could be writing a first draft of something, anything. The cult of “busyness” beckons me: I scratch at my notification box, ponder an unanswered email, and feel the nausea of my productivity losing altitude.
All writers face this epidemic daily, and it’s not going away.
We’ve recently learned from psychology that constantly staying “busy” can kill your creativity, productivity, and even your ability to plan.
“Little good comes from being distracted yet we seem incapable of focusing our attention. Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when you’re constantly busy. Being able to switch between focus and daydreaming is an important skill that’s reduced by insufferable busyness.” – Derek Beres for Big Think
It seems we can credit daydreaming, subconscious incubation, and even boredom, with important roles in our ability to regularly produce innovative, original work.
Einstein termed it “… combinatory play … the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words ….”
Of course, he didn’t have a smartphone.
How professional writers work
In today’s high-speed, meme-obsessed world, it’s easy to forget that there are learned mentors and teachers we can turn to for advice on how to beat entropy and regain our productive flow.
Sometimes unplugging and taking a walk is the answer, and sometimes turning to other tried-and-true productivity hacks from well-known writers can get you back on track.
Over the last four years, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to interview a wide array of more than 70 prolific, renowned, and bestselling authors for The Writer Files series.
Each interview studies the habits, habitats, and brains of writers. I ask all of them roughly the same set of questions about how they get words consistently onto the page.
Below are 21 cherry-picked highlights on productivity. You may notice some themes among the writers I’ve tapped for advice on keeping the ink flowing and the cursor moving.
1. Seth Godin
Seth Godin (bestselling author of 18 books) on the power of deadlines:
“The deadline focuses the mind, of course. The curse of the traditional writer is that the publisher wants a book no more often than once a year. So procrastination is part of the process.
“But blogging? Once a day. Not every minute like Twitter, which provokes mediocre writing because there’s so much of it. But every day? Better write something, better make it good.”
2. Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon (bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist) on procrastination:
“Practice productive procrastination — have two or three projects going at one time, so if you get sick of one, you can jump over to the other.”
3. Maria Popova
Maria Popova (prolific author of the critically acclaimed Brain Pickings) on staying organized:
“I keep a comprehensive editorial calendar that stretches weeks, months, and sometimes well over a year into the future, where I plan my reading (and thus my writing).
“I take copious notes on books I’m reading, as well as online materials, and save everything to Evernote, where I tag meticulously — it’s so easy for any extensive library or archive to become useless if the items in it aren’t searchable or retrievable, and I find the tagging system is an incredible memory aid to help counter that.”
4. Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert (#1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love) on the inefficiency of perfectionism:
“I abide by Goethe’s rule: ‘Never hurry, never rest.’ I never go into crazy fugue states, but I don’t ever stop, either. I’m a plow mule. I’m very disciplined, and I have a great regard for deadlines — usually my own.
“[Our mother] … taught us not to become perfectionists, which is where a lot of procrastination and time-wasting occurs. Nothing is less efficient than perfectionism. Her great adage, which I still adhere to, was: Done is better than good.”
5. Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink (multiple NY Times bestselling author) on setting daily word counts and unplugging:
“When I’m working on a book or it’s at that stage where I’ve done enough research, where I feel like I’ve more or less mastered a lot of the material and can move on to executing it, I actually think of it as bricklaying where I’ll come to my office, show up in my office at a certain time, like say 9:00.
“I’ll set myself a word count for the day. Let’s say 500 words. I will then turn off my phone, turn off my email, and then I will do nothing, truly nothing, until I hit my word count. If I hit my word count at 11:00 in the morning, hallelujah. If it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I still haven’t hit my word count, I’m not going anywhere.”
6. Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse (entrepreneur and founder of Problogger) on working in public and finding a flow state:
“I tend to write offline when I can. So I do go to a café quite a bit to write if I need to do that, and they don’t have Wi-Fi. I could get on with my phone, but I tend to avoid doing that unless I have to. I find that once I get in the zone of writing, I can go anywhere from an hour to four hours without any problem and almost get lost in it.
“I love that space. I love being in that zone and just firing. It does get a little awkward when you’re not drinking coffee in the café. Typically during the day, I’ll work in 50-to-60-minute bursts, but I go with the flow if it’s firing.”
7. Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey (bestselling hybrid author of WOOL) on going offline and getting started:
“Open up the document, turn off the internet, and start writing. If you’re not sure what happens next in the story, skip to the part of the story where you know what is going to happen. Start writing there. Just start writing ….”
8. Joanna Penn
Joanna Penn (New York Times bestselling indie author and entrepreneur) on scheduling and writing every day:
“I write something every day [and] schedule specific blocks of writing for first drafts for books. So, I would say that I try to create something every day. I try and put something new into the world.
“When I’m actually writing a book … I actually schedule that in my diary along with any other business appointments, because this is a business as well as an art, and I pretty much block out every day, half a day, five days a week, to go and write a hardcore first draft.”
9. Andy Weir
Andy Weir (bestselling author of The Martian) on motivation:
“A great writer … I blanked on who it was … said, ‘Sometimes you’re writing and you’re extremely motivated, cranking out words … and other times it’s just a slog. Every word on the page is a huge amount of work, and you feel like crap, like you’re hammering away … it doesn’t feel good at all.
“One thing you’ll notice is, if you wait a week, and then look back on the stuff you wrote, you can’t tell the difference between when you were motivated and when you weren’t.’
“It’s really important to remember that the quality of your work isn’t greatly affected by the amount of enthusiasm you had at the moment you wrote it.”
10. Jeff Goins
Jeff Goins (multiple bestselling author of five books) on writer’s block and not editing while you write:
“The best way to work through writer’s block is to write … I talk about working out like writing because they’re both difficult for me and I wish I did them more than I do. I could make excuses for why I don’t go to the gym, ‘I’ve got weight-lifter’s block,’ and I think of creativity as a muscle, the less you use it the harder it is.
“I don’t think it’s that hard to write, we get in our own way when we wear more than one hat. I don’t edit while I write … I have times for writing, editing, and publishing. All different blocks of time. I call it the ‘three-bucket’ method.”
11. Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue (Oscar nominee and international bestselling author of Room) on outlining and pre-planning:
“Planning’s not just sensible, it’s the rope that guides you through the wilderness. So many young writers get about a third of the way through a novel, get stuck, and abandon it.
“I often meet young writers who say, ‘I’ve got three or four novels that I started …’ I think planning … for something longer like a screenplay or a novel, is hugely helpful. It lets you make a lot of your mistakes at the planning level, so they don’t take up months of your life.”
12. Adam Skolnick
Adam Skolnick (award-winning journalist and author of One Breath) on writer’s block and outlining:
“If you’re struggling to figure out what to write, it means you don’t know what you want to say. The way I deal with that is, it means I haven’t outlined thoroughly enough and I haven’t reduced that big, blank page to smaller, little blank blocks.
“What I try to do is get all of it outlined as detailed as possible. That way you reduce the space you need to fill, and it’s much more manageable. Whenever I feel blocked, I just try to get into that space and try to figure out what I want to say right then and that usually solves the problem ….”
13. Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova (New York Times bestselling author and New Yorker columnist) on standing desks and staying offline:
“Because I’m in front of a monitor all day, I use a standing desk, in terms of process. I’ve been doing it for years, and I love it. It works for me but I know it’s not for everyone.
“I have a wonderful program on my Mac called Freedom, which blocks the internet for me, for as long as I tell it to. The only way to circumvent it is to restart the computer, which is one more step than I’m usually willing to take. It really helps when I need to get work done … There’s so much distraction always waiting to happen.”
14. Sonia Simone
Sonia Simone (co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Rainmaker Digital) on reading outside your echo chamber:
“There are no days when I’m not reading at least two hours a day. It can go up from there depending on what I’m working on. Two to four, I would think. It’s a lot of time.
“I research for the projects that I’m working on professionally, but it’s also very important to me to have reading time in things that have nothing to do, or seemingly nothing to do, with the business.
“It’s just very important to me to keep putting things in my brain coming from other places, whether it’s a Terry Pratchett novel or an interesting piece of neuroscience or something that comes from outside my echo chamber. It’s really important to me.”
15. Mark Dawson
Mark Dawson (international bestselling author and entrepreneur) on finding time to publish a million words in a year:
“I would commute back-and-forth for three hours a day on the train, and I still had the kids, commitments, family stuff … and I managed to publish just short of one million words in 12 months.
“The reason I was able to do that is I found the most perfect mobile office, which was the train … I’d get a coffee, open the laptop, put some noise canceling headphones on. I deliberately [turned off] my phone so I couldn’t get onto the internet easily. And I’d just write, I could very easily do 2,000 words in an hour and a half, getting there, and another 2,000 getting back.”
16. Heather Havrilesky
Heather Havrilesky (New York magazine columnist and essayist) on finding your best writing time and deadlines:
“You’ve got to use those prime hours when your brain is functioning really well. For me that means 5:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. … I try to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write for two hours before the kids wake up.
“Try to get into the zone quickly, and if there’s flow, go with the flow no matter what kind of madness you’re writing. I find the more deadlines I take on, the better my writing flow is. Having a weekly column really helps there.
“I think people who have giant projects hanging over their heads, and they can’t get in the flow, they’re blocked. A lot of it is because they don’t have a daily writing exercise. Like any kind of exercise, if you’re not limber enough, it’s going to feel like you don’t even know how to do it.”
17. Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly (New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of Wired magazine) on first drafts and formulating ideas:
“I don’t feel like I’m a writer. I write to figure out what I’m thinking … for me the killer thing is the first draft.
“The hard part of trying to have an idea generally comes out when I try to write down stuff in order to have an idea. I don’t have an idea to write; I write it to have an idea. So that means writing stuff that won’t be used, but I have to go through the process.
“That’s painful because when I’m writing it usually isn’t very good. I know I’m not saying anything new … it feels like I’m inadequate … the usual fears that artists have. ‘I’m not very good at this.’ It takes persevering through that where you can pick out the stuff that works, isolate it, and then recombine it.”
18. Jay McInerney
Jay McInerney (bestselling author of 11 books including Bright Lights, Big City) on writing every day and finding inspiration:
“You have to be ready for inspiration. One of the things that Raymond Carver taught me was that you need to be sitting at your desk virtually every day. You need to be in front of your computer, and you have to be trying. If you aren’t there trying, the Muse is less likely to visit you.
“It’s about showing up every day, and it’s about trying, and being ready for the Muse. Some days I sit down and I can’t seem to get anywhere, but I have to keep going until something occurs to me: a sentence, a voice, a memory that sparks a flight of imagination.”
19. Greg Iles
Greg Iles (prolific #1 New York Times bestselling author) on letting your subconscious do some of the work:
“Writing is a much more passive thing than people think it is, and that goes back to what I said about the actual writing, words to a page is like a bag of tools.
“The real work is done passively, in your mind, deep in you when you’re doing other things. I try to go as much of the year as I can without writing anything, and the story is working itself out.
“It’s like one day, you’re a pregnant woman and your water breaks. Then I haul butt to get to my [computer] … and I start.”
20. Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland (international bestselling author of 14 novels, including Generation X) on writing on airplanes:
“The only other place I can conceive is on an airplane, which is great because there’s no Wi-Fi, to be honest. There’s this super focus, and also it’s a chemical thing. You get one or two glasses of white wine on a plane with the decreased oxygen and it’s like magic. The words just flow.”
21. Brian Clark
And, last but not least, Brian Clark (content marketing pioneer and founder of Copyblogger) on beating procrastination:
“Let me get back to you on this one.”
All right, enough procrastinating …
It’s time to put the phone in airplane mode, turn on the Freedom app, and get back into a flow state … #amwriting again, thank the Muses.
Remember, even for prolific, bestselling authors, it never gets easier to simply start.
Drop your own best productivity hacks for writers in the comments, and you can always check out more than 100 episodes of The Writer Files here.
Cheers, see you out there.