For a professional writer, it’s so many words to write and so little time. When I’m feeling lazy and need to get stuff done, I rely on a few tips to get me through the day, which I’ll share below. Not every writing task is created equal, after all.
I’ll preface this list by saying that I’m no productivity expert. The times I don’tfollow these tips vastly outnumber the times I do, but they’ve worked for me when I do them, and I hope they can help you also, in writing-related tasks or otherwise.
1. Make yourself go to bed on time and get up early.
Yep, we’re starting with perhaps the hardest one. Like most, I was really bad at this one in college. With flexible workloads and afternoon classes, it was easy to justify sleeping in and not worry about a bedtime. But really, I just ended up putting off the work to later in the day, and I regretted it every single time.
In reality, the best work gets done after a good night’s rest. After a long workday, staying up late watching Netflix feels a lot more appealing than going to bed and ending the day, but your brain can trick you into these unwise decisions when it’s tired. You’ll wake up with interrupted REM cycle dreams and your body in pain from the lack of rest, and it just isn’t worth it. Granted, some people are night owls, but those people know who they are, and I’m not aiming at them with this point (if you’re not sure if you are a night owl, chances are you’re not).
On a related note, staying up late to finish something doesn’t work well, either; instead, the better approach is to go to bed at a decent hour and get up early to resume the work with a refreshed brain. That said, this only works when you get up early also; sleeping in practically guarantees a less-than-productive day.
It’s really hard, but after the few moments of lingering “I don’t want to get up” thoughts have passed and you’ve turned off your obnoxious alarm clock, the rest of the morning is a breeze in comparison. If you need to, give yourself an enticing reason to jump out of bed, such as a fun breakfast or the smell of brewing coffee. You’re more likely to follow this tip if you reward yourself for it.
But why is this a “productivity tip”? Because you have to start the day well for everything else to fall into place. Few productivity tips will help you if you’re battling staying awake. Success starts with having enough energy in the morning, and caffeine will only get you so far.
2. Write to yourself at the beginning of the day.
This one might seem weird at first, but it helps me start the workday with a roadmap. I’ll open a notepad tool (I use Sticky Notes in Windows) and then write myself a to-do list. But this isn’t just any to-do list… this one’s conversational.
Let me demonstrate with an example. Compare these two lists:
- Finish blog post
- Edit user guide and write comments for Tim
- Prepare materials for new hire training session
- You’re really close to getting that blog post done for the company site, so finish that this morning. Just finish that last paragraph, proofread it, and then send it to Jane.
- Tim sent you that user guide to edit and he needs it back by the end of the week, so make sure you work on that this afternoon. His first draft was almost there, so his next draft should be a breeze once you get started. Try to get the first 10 pages done by the end of the day.
- Remember that you’re delivering Mike’s new hire training session on Thursday. Make sure you review that checklist and finish up your notes before then.
What’s the difference between these two approaches? The first one is very straightforward, while the other is less so. However, the latter has some distinct advantages. For one, it gives your tasks a human-centered value. Remember that professional writers write for other humans, and that’s easy to overlook. If you remember the greater scale of what you do, sometimes that keeps your workload in perspective and inspires you to work harder.
Two, it makes your tasks seem more measurable. In the second list, I gave myself timelines and tangible details about getting each task done. That user guide, for instance, might take several days to edit, but today’s to-do list will only talk about today’s tasks. Let tomorrow worry about itself, and just figure out what needs to get done today.
When I follow a to-do list in this format, it keeps me inspired about the daily work I accomplish. Of course, emergency tasks can come up that I can’t foresee, but if that happens, I just shake the dust and adjust the to-do list tomorrow. A stressful to-do list (or no to-do list at all) leads to a stressful workday, and that never bodes well for productivity.
3. Work in blasts and plan short breaks.
In short, work for 25-minute stints followed by 5-minute breaks. Consider this an abbreviated version of the Pomodoro Technique®.
If that seems simple enough, it is – it just might take some adjusting at first. I often use Google’s in-browser timer (literally type “timer” into Google) since it beeps until you shut it off. 25 minutes is a perfect time frame because you can get a lot done without burning out.
Especially if the task is boring, keeping yourself on task for 25 minutes straight is very doable, and it gives you relief at just the right time. If you shut out everything else and maintain focus during that span, 0:00 will come quicker than you might think.
Here’s the second part of it, though. At the end of a 25 minute period, take 5 minutes to do something else. No, it’s not optional. If you’re like most writers, you sit all day at your job, and you need to get up every so often to keep the blood flowing and the muscles working.
The break is important because it gives you an end in sight. Even if you’re feeling “in the mode” when the timer goes off, finish the sentence you’re in the middle of and then stop. Go to the restroom, get a cup of water, walk around your cubicle ten times, whatever. The point is to get out of your chair in order to recharge for the next 25-minute shift. Don’t check your Facebook during the break, either; save that for your lunch break (and yes, you should take one of those, too).
If you’re having doubts, just try it once for an afternoon and see what happens. The first time I tried it, I was stunned. Never before have I gotten more done in an hour’s worth of the day, and particularly for long-winded tasks that just aren’t that enjoyable, it’ll make your workday fly by.
4. Don’t try to multitask. Just don’t.
Here’s an annoying truth: multitasking is a myth. Our brains simply can’t process more than one task at a time… at least not very well. Instead of getting more done in less time, we end up putting out a lower quality of work and forget little details along the way. At the end of the day, everyone loses.
Instead of juggling many tasks at once, work on one thing for a given amount of time (like in tip #3) and pour your all into it. You don’t need to spend the whole day on it; just pick a few things and focus your attention on each one individually. While you may feel busier and more productive by having a thousand tabs open on your browser, you’re really just overcomplicating your workflow. And especially when it comes to writing, thinking about a lot of things makes it that much more difficult.
Taking this a step further, not every task will let you listen to music while you do it, especially ones that involve writing and reading. Podcasts and talk radio are even worse; its effect is just too similar to someone talking to you in person. Loud background noise can be a distraction to a task at hand, and you might end up rereading the same paragraph over and over. Ever notice that if you’re lost when driving somewhere, you instinctively turn the radio off? It’s because your brain wants to focus on the task at hand, and you need heightened awareness to figure out your situation.
These ideas aren’t necessarily easy to put into action, but if they were, a lot more people would be doing them and we’d live in a more organized and less chaotic world. It’s hard to start new habits, as that can mean recalibrating your internal sleep clock and remembering to do something different. But the bottom line is that self-discipline is the key. Once you exercise it, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done, and that unlocks many unexpected possibilities.
If you’ve tried any of these and have had success, let me know below!