Recently I completed a course on productivity taught by Dean Wesley Smith, a writer with forty years experience in the business.
Dean has published over a hundred novels and he blogs daily about his writing routine and life. He and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are passionate about helping other writers and they offer a huge amount of free information, as well as publishing ‘how to’ books.
One of the main insights was that the secret to writing prolifically is rooted in mindset.
On one level, I already knew this, but I hadn’t realised how much I was still expecting to be told to ‘buck up’ and work harder. I often beat myself up for being a lazy lump, and think that if only if I could be more disciplined, then everything would fall into place.
Yes, there are certain practical truths about productivity – the more time you spend writing, the more you will get done and, if you up your word count total per day, you will get more done per year – but the real crux of the matter is how to accomplish those two things.
If you can change your mindset, your writing habits will follow.
Like anything worth doing, changing your negative beliefs and unhelpful thought patterns is not easy, but it is entirely under your control.
A key area is to keep writing fun.
Once you move from writing as a hobby to writing as your profession (or when you begin to begin to send your work out/take it seriously), this can be a challenge, but it’s essential to stay happy and productive.
Remind yourself of why you love doing this, of how good it feels to finish a story or to immerse yourself in your own fictional world.
Tell yourself that you are just playing – making up stories to amuse yourself. Ignore what comes after.
Feed your imagination with books and television and film and music and art – and enjoy it! Let yourself be swept away.
Write whatever you find interesting or fun – write what excites you.
As the recovering Queen of Procrastination, I know more than a little about this subject.
Let me begin by saying that I know it’s not easy. If you are procrastinating horribly and repeatedly, please be kind to yourself. You are most likely operating from a place a fear, and your procrastination is your subconscious trying to protect you from that fear.
The good news, however, is that practical productivity hacks really do work.
I am writing this article, for example, because it is scheduled. I have another forty minutes in which I must write, edit and post it. That puts me against the clock and helps me to focus.
The deadline also helps me to get the thing finished and published before the self-doubt prevents me from putting it out into the world or my perfectionism convinces me that I need to do another three days of research before I write it.
1. So that’s my number one productivity hack: Make scheduling your friend.
Block out time in your diary for writing and then protect that time with the ferocity of a mama bear.
2. Set a timer.
Regular listeners of the podcast, will already know my love of using a timer. All kinds of dispiriting tasks (cleaning the kitchen, writing 500 words when I’m stuck and tired and not in the mood, business admin) become instantly manageable when tackled for just ten or twenty minutes.
3. Treat Yourself. Often.
I’ve mentioned my love of using stickers to track my progress, but they also work as a reward. Who doesn’t like a shiny star sticker? You wrote 2000 words? Fine, you get a biscuit, too.
4. Eliminate distractions.
I’ve used Freedom in the past, but am currently using Chrome extension, StayFocusd. (The developers spell it without the ‘e’. I don’t know why.)
I also recommend headphones with music. If you don’t like writing to music you could try ambient sounds such as stormy weather, rainforest or crashing waves, or even just silence via noise-cancelling headphones. Anything to help you cut off from reality and enter the world of your imagination.
5. Develop your own rituals.
I know that it’s a job and that we should all be disciplined enough to scribble words whenever and wherever, but I think optimum writing performance and productivity can be achieved through considered use of ritual.
You can use a particular type of tea, scented candles, a special writing place or dedicated writing machine (or pen/notebook) to signal to your brain that it is time to write fiction.
Do make the rituals things you are happy (and able) to continue daily throughout your working life, however. And it might be best to avoid rituals which are seriously detrimental to your health such as chain-smoking…
How about you?
Do you use rituals for your creative time? Or do you have any productivity tips to share?
Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach, and author of non-fiction. As well as coaching individuals and businesses, Mark runs two highly successful websites for creatives, Lateral Action and Wishful Thinking. Mark’s first non-fiction title, Resilience, offers practical ways to deal with two mainstays of the author life: rejection and criticism, while his latest book, Motivation For Creative People, shows the reader exactly how to break down their own barriers to productivity.
Mark has been coaching creative people for twenty years and saw the same issues repeated; resilience, procrastination, lack of motivation, and creative block.
In Motivation For Creative People: How to stay creative while gaining money, fame and reputation(see my review here), Mark describes the different types of motivation and how they can be harnessed to increase productivity and satisfaction.
Hypnosis and meditation for unlocking creative block.
How Mark built his confidence through blogging and how the blog led to the book.
On choosing what path to follow:
‘Start with your curiosity.’
‘Your body is your best coach… If you pay attention to your body and your heart, the physical sensations will let you know how strongly attracted you are to it or not.’
On the tension between art and business:
‘I’ve spoken to hundreds of creatives and they all say the same thing. You have ambitions for your career and, yet, as soon as you achieve them or are close to achieving there is this pressure and there is a conflict… But that is normal… It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you personally, it’s an occupational hazard.’
Mark talks about the power of focusing entirely on one thing at a time and being
‘Cocooned in the world of an individual chapter’.
He also mentions the benefits of meditation and practical tips such as finding physical/habitual ways of marking out the different states (creative writing state distinct from ‘answering emails’ state for example).
And I ask Mark what he would advise a creative person who feels blocked or has fallen out of love with their work.
I’ve been using Stay Focused, a free Chrome extension to moderate my internet use. Highly recommended!
Headspace: I’m going to give meditation a try and I have heard good things about this meditation/mindfulness app. I will report back next month on how I get on…
If you have a writing (or publishing) question that you’d like me to tackle in a future episode, please get in touch via email or Twitter.
I’ll answer it on the show and credit you (unless, of course, you ask to remain anonymous).
Subtitled ‘How to stay creative while gaining money, fame and reputation’, this book sounded right up my street… And it was!
I like my self-help to have a strong practical side and this book delivers that in spades. While it focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of getting (and staying) motivated, it does so in a very clear and jargon-free manner.
It’s also written by a creative entrepreneur – someone who walks the walk as well as talking the talk. Mark is a poet, psychotherapist, writer of non-fiction and a coach to creative professionals, and his experience shines through.
The book covers getting started (working out your true passion in life), and the different sorts of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic, social and personal motivation, as well as the roadblocks to using these (such as resistance).
It’s full of tips to keep you productive, but will also help you to reflect (honestly) on your own unique set of values and influences. I think discovering the factors which affect your own inspiration, creativity and productivity could be genuinely life-changing.
I also love the way he addresses the tension between art and commerce – and the challenge of remaining inspired when your pay packet relies on that inspiration.
Mark also offers a free 26-week email course. I’m following it at the moment and you can sign up here.
I’m excited to announce that Mark will be a guest on the podcast very soon. If you have any questions for him, please let me know in the comments!
In the last podcast, I answered this great question from Helen Redfern. I’ve have had enough messages since to know that it’s an issue for lots of folk, so I thought I’d jot down my answer and add a little more on the subject.
How do I learn to write for just ten minutes? I feel that if I don’t have a few hours uninterrupted there’s no point in starting and just doing ten minutes. How do I change that?
I definitely used to struggle with this, but I have managed to shift my thinking on it.
I say ‘shift my thinking’ because that’s really what is required. You have to alter your perspective on ten minutes so that you stop viewing it as a tiny, unusable slice of time.
First off, I suggest you prove yourself wrong. Set a timer for ten minutes and write. Not to add wonderful words to your manuscript, but purely as an exercise. See how many words you have written when the timer goes off. It doesn’t matter if you have 30, 50, or a 100 words, it is concrete, recordable evidence that something can be achieved in that time.
If you’re feeling too much resistance to this idea and you really feel you cannot write for just ten minutes, do consider that this is fear talking. It’s offering a reasonable-sounding excuse to prevent you from having to put words down.
The way to blast that excuse is to set the timer for ten minutes and NOT WRITE. You have to sit and stare at the blank screen or page of your notebook and not write a single word. You can’t do anything else, either; no music to listen to, no browsing the internet, no reading. Just sit for ten minutes. I bet you’ll be surprised at how long that actually is.
Okay, so once you’ve proved it’s possible, you might still feel that it isn’t worth it. That adding 75 words to your book or working for ten minutes is a drop in the ocean.
Now, you need to make it fun, make it a challenge. See how many micro writing sessions you can fit in this week. Reward yourself for every ten minute session. As long-time listeners know, I like stickers. A sticker for every ten minute session over a week. At the end of the week, count them up and marvel at the hours you have worked.
Congratulate yourself on your wizardry – you have created writing time where none existed before.
Or, you could draw a grid of boxes on a sheet of paper or use some squared paper. Every time you work on your book for ten minutes, colour in a box. When you look at that ever-expanding block of colour you’ll have a visual reminder of how that time adds up.
Another tip is to prepare for your ten minute sessions so that they are as valuable as possible. If you know you could grab some time when you get home from work, then use the commute to think about your story and about what you’d like to write next.
Finally, it’s good to remember and to truly understand – deep in your bones – that this is how books are written.
They are written in small chunks. Word by word. Sentence by sentence. Paragraph by paragraph.
As hard as writing is, I think we sometimes think it ought to be even harder. So difficult that we couldn’t possibly dash off a few sentences while waiting for the kettle to boil. The secret, if there is such a thing, is that the time taken to write the words does not reflect the quality of the writing. Some will come out well and some will not. Some will be cut and some will not. And, sometimes, words dashed off between appointments will be the very best, because you didn’t have time to second-guess yourself and were able to access your muse or sub-conscious or wherever you believe your writing comes from directly.
A final tip is to consciously alter your thoughts. I know that mantras and affirmations sound a bit ‘out there’, but they do work. I like to use positive phrases which have success built-in. They describe the belief or behaviour as if I already possess it, making me feel instantly more positive and capable.
So, for this issue, I would use something like: ‘I am the kind of person who grabs every spare moment and uses it to write.’
If this doesn’t speak to you, try different wording until you find something which chimes. Then repeat it. Whenever you remember to do so and whenever you think about your writing or schedule. It will feel false and ridiculous, but if you stick with it you will find the statement becomes more plausible. Repeat it often enough and you will believe it. Magic!
Was this helpful? Head to the comment section if you have a follow-up question (or a tip of your own to pass on). And thanks for reading!
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo (or are slogging though a first draft at any time!) there will be plenty of days when you get stuck.
First off, know that this is entirely normal. It doesn’t mean that you have failed or that your book sucks. It (almost) definitely doesn’t mean that you are working on the ‘wrong’ project and that you should switch to the Shiny New Idea which is fluttering its eyelashes and looking adorable. A couple of weeks with that idea and you’ll be in exactly the same situation – trust me!
So, if you can’t switch projects and you’re not going to give up (as if), what can you do to get the words flowing again?
Stop writing and go for a walk. Or do some cleaning or crafting or take a shower. Activities which engage part of your brain (and get you away from the blank screen), can be perfect for mulling over tricky plot points.
Try a different point of view (POV). Try writing in a different tense or POV (switch from first person present to third person past, for example) or write from the POV of a minor character. Remember, these words aren’t intended for the final manuscript, so it doesn’t matter whether they ‘work’ or not. They’re just to get you writing again and to give you alternative insights into your characters and story.
Go meta and write about your story. Open a new document and tell yourself the story as if you don’t know it. I like to begin with: ‘This is a story about //name//who wants…’ Then you just waffle on about everything you know about your book; where it’s set, what happens, who is in it and what they are like. There will be lots you don’t know and that’s fine, too. Ask yourself questions! Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right away, just typing them out will plant them in your mind, ready for your subconscious to answer.
Write a list of everything you thought was cool about your idea when you started out. The stuff which would make you want to read the book if you were the reader, not the writer. If you’ve done this already, revisit the list and remind yourself of what got you excited about the book in the first place.
Make a book collage (or Pinterest board) or book soundtrack. Concentrate on getting the feel for the story; the atmosphere and tone, but don’t over-think your choices. Just pick the pictures or musical tracks which you feel instinctively belong in your book.
Finally, try not to fret too much about your word count goal (even if you have signed up for 50,000 words during November). All of this day-dreaming and noodling about and writing words which are for your eyes only is part of the process; it is the work.