As promised in the FRAB to Fab series on my personal blog, I’m doing a spin-off series on increasing your writing productivity. Today is an introduction to what I call the Productivity Pyramid…Except that it’s not really a pyramid at all, but rather an upside-down triangle (as you can see below).
STILL, you get the idea. The top of the triangle—ritual—is what I consider to be the most important technique for increasing creative output. Then each technique beneath that builds on the one before.
Make sense? It will, I promise. And if you check back on my personal blog over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into each technique in a workshop-style format.
But before I dig into my Productivity Pyramid, I want to explain how I became so obsessed with the science of productivity. On top of that, I also want you to see how much these techniques affected my writing life (in an amazing way).
So it all started in mid-2013. I was in something of a slump (to put it mildly). I wrote Strange and Ever After in a frenzy that drained me on so many levels. Then, after a short break, I started a new project called Truthwitch and hammered out the first 200 words in that…
And then nothing. NADA. I was under revision deadlines, I was traveling a lot for events and tour, I was organizing all my own promo, and THEN I was revising some more. Any spare time I had, I knew I should be writing, and yet…I couldn’t.
The same thing had happened to me the year before, in 2012. I was away from writing for so long because of self-promo, traveling, and revision deadlines that I totally lost touch with HOW to write. Yet,in 2012, I had an e-novella and a book 3 due, which forced my butt in gear. (Deadlines are good like that.)
This year, I had no such deadline after Strange & Ever After was finished. I still had to travel and coordinate self-promo, but I figured with all this open time, I should be able to hammer out a TON of books. Why, I’d just fall right back into my frenzied writing like I used to do, all those years ago before I had a book deal.
But—and here’s the BIG BUT—that didn’t happen at all. iIt took incredible effort to even get myself to a keyboard. Even writing Truthwitch—a WIP I knew I loved and that had initially just exploded out of me—wasn’t working.
At first, I thought I was just being lazy. But BICHOK didn’t help. I could spend six hours at the keyboard, but every word was terrible. Like, truly terrible—that wasn’t just self-doubt pushing its way in. I was writing words on a page, but when I went back to read them the next day, I knew right away they’d all have to be cut and rewritten. There was nothing salvageable.
Next, I thought maybe the problem was that I was writing the story wrong. That I was forcing my WIP in the wrong direction, and as such, I was losing my passion. So I listened to music and daydreamed and scribbled ideas for days. But days soon became weeks…which became months, yet I remained as uncomfortable at the keyboard as I had been before.
Basically, I tried all the amazing things Janice Hardy suggested last Monday, and nothing worked.
Needless to say, I was frustrated. Really, really frustrated. And terrified out of my mind. What if this was it? What if this was the final proof that I was a hack and that I wasn’t cut out for life as an author? Why did the thought of hammering out books make my stomach clench with fear?
WHERE HAD MY MOJO GONE?
It turned out my writing mojo had fled for two reasons. One of those reasons was plain ol’ fear—and I just wrote an entire series on how I combated my Fear—Based Artistic Blocks (or FRABs for short).
The other reason was that I’d developed a lot of bad habits. Like, a lot. All of the wonderful, productive, and empowering habits I’d developed before I had a book deal—the habits that helped me draft, revise, and ultimately sell Something Strange & Deadly within a single year—were gone.
So while I worked on embracing my fears, I also started reading about habits (my favorite read of 2013 was hands-down The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg). Those books then led me to read books about willpower. And then I moved on to reading about creative behavioral psychology. And finally, I devoured books on how all those various things work together to make some people highly productive and not others.
Basically, I read a lot of books and blogs and articles on what makes a successful creative.
And I was FASCINATED.
More importantly, it changed my life.
Because what I discovered was that there IS a master plan for how to create good art in an efficient manner. If you look to the pros in any field, you see the most successful ones all have a few major things in common.
And this is where my Productivity Pyramid comes into play. Let’s look at it, shall we? And then, let’s define what each part is.
1. Successful creatives develop a RITUAL or triggering habit with regards to their creative time. This is a sort of behavioral cue that triggers your brain to think, “Oh! Now it’s time to create!” For example, as long as I have a spiral-bound notebook and a pen, I can easily fall into creative flow. Here’s what Stephen King does:
“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.” (from Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, via Daily Routines)
You can read more about the power of rituals in the next part of this blog series.
2. Successful creatives have a strict daily ROUTINE. Why? Because willpower is a finite, and it can run out if overused. The more decisions you have to make in a day, the more your daily willpower supply gets depleted. Yet, if you can routinize your day to reduce how many decisions you must make, you will have more energy and willpower for your creative endeavors. For example, knowing what you’ll wear and what you’ll eat for breakfast can actually save you loads of mental capacity you could later use for creative pursuits.
This is why Obama wears the same kind of suit everyday—so he can save his decision power for the Important Stuff. This also why everyone says NOT to start your day with email since it will drain your daily willpower supply before you’ve even gotten started on your own Important Stuff.
Here’s what Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s extreme (and I find enviable) routine looks like:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” (from The Paris Review, via Daily Routines)
The really critical thing, though, is to make your creative time part of your daily routine. If you block out every evening from 9 to 10 as “Writing Time” it means you will never fall out of the practice of writing (trust me: creativity is a muscle and must constantly be used to stay strong). It also means you will always be producing and moving forward on your projects. And most important of all, it means you don’t have to be afraid of your creative project since it’s just part of your daily routine—no different from having breakfast or driving to work.
You can learn more about the power of routines in this portion of the blog series.
3. Successful creatives also know their energy RHYTHM throughout the day. In other words, they know at what times during the day they have the most mental energy, and they block those parts out for important work (they schedule their routine around those rhythms!). So, if morning is when your brain is “on”, you would use mornings for your most intensive creative work. Obviously, if work or school overlap with your best times, this might be tricky. But you can still figure out what your most energetic hours are outside of school/work.
If you want to find your most product times, I suggest Productivity Heat Mapping. Throughout my life, I had always thought I was an afternoon writer, but after keeping track of my productivity for a week, I learned I actually get the most accomplished per hour in the morning.
You can learn more about the power of rhythm in this portion of the blog series.
4. As the pyramid reaches its point, we have some other helpful tactics that I don’t think are as critical to increasing creative output, but which can still make vast differences in your productivity (they did for me).
- Set REALISTIC goals. Don’t think that your best day should be everyday. Yes, I can write 10,000 words in a day, but it isn’t easy for me. It takes a helluva lot of effort and pretty much the entire day. Which means I should not be aiming to hit 10,000 words every day. Particularly because, if I don’t meet a goal I set for myself, I get pretty darn miserable. As such, I should set a realistic goal that I know I can comfortably meet every single day—even on the bad days. (In case you’re wondering, my goal is 1000 words per day. I write at least 1000 words as soon as I wake up every morning, weekends included. It may not sound like much, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can reach “The End” with it.)
- Plan in daily breaks that allow your brain to RESET. Just as you have a time of day during which you’re rhythmically more inclined to produce (see #2 above), you also have a natural ebb and flow to your brain power on a smaller scale. Everyone’s cycle is different, but the average time a person seems to be able to intensely focus on something is between 30-90 minutes. After that burst of creative flow, your brain needs a break. It needn’t be a long break, but stepping away from your work for a bit can work wonders. (This doesn’t mean going and checking email/social media, which drains brain capacity rather than refueling it. It means taking a walk around the block, doing the dishes, or basically engaging in anything that requires zero thinking.) You’ll be amazed at how many AHA! moments you’ll have during those pauses.
- RECORD your daily progress so you can see how far you’ve come. Creative endeavors are often HUGE . “Write a book” is such a big undertaking (and so vague a goal) that progress can be hard to keep track of—especially when you’re in later phases, such as revising. Sure, you can see in your Word doc how far you’ve come, but it’s not very concrete. “Oh, I wrote another 14 pages today” isn’t the same as glancing at a spreadsheet of EVERY DAY’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS and saying, “Oh, I wrote 3,766 words today, and that’s 1K more than yesterday! And holy crap, I’ve written almost 40,000 words in 3 weeks!” Seeing how far you’ve come can be fabulous motivation for pushing onward. It also gives you a great way to establish realistic goals (see above) and know approximately when you’ll finish a project.
So there you have it guys. That’s my Productivity Pyramid (that’s not really a pyramid but has a lot of R-words in it), and I hope it gives you some food for thought. If you want to know more about each technique, I’ll be going into them much more deeply on my personal blog (you can read about power of rituals and how to incorporate them into your life here).
Now, you tell me: Do you use any of the techniques in your creative/work/home life? Do you have any other techniques that I missed?