Increase Your Writing Productivity: the productivity pyramid

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.

Productivity_pyramid2

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?

           

30 Responses to Increase Your Writing Productivity: the productivity pyramid

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 3 2014 at 8:44 am #

    My biggest thing is writing first thing in the morning, before anyone else is up. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m in my freshest state of mind, just coming out of a dream state, or simply that there’s no one else around making noise. Probably all of the above. I tend to separate my creative process, coming up with the ideas while I drive or do something else that helps my thoughts flow, and doing the actual work of writing later, until I find the need for the next idea.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 3 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      Yeah, I definitely like writing first thing in the morning for the same reasons! No noise–literal or “internet noise” to distract me! 🙂

  2. Jessi Feb 3 2014 at 9:49 am #

    Great post! I am a big fan of regular routine, and honestly you’re experience feels like mine (wrapping up revisions on a short to get published, burned myself out on a whirlwind novel drafting and some editing in December-January).
    I’m an early morning person, get up at 6:30, start working by 7:30, 8 at the latest and keep working until lunch.
    But after the butt-kicking of drafting, I keep waking up at 8 and then it feels like I never get anything done (nothing meaningful beyond short story revising – some plotting/planning for novel, WIP idea brainstorming, some writing that gets trashed). Then I get upset with myself for not writing much of anything, and it feels like a vicious cycle.

    So, yeah, basically, I really needed this post a lot. I need to get back on my feet and back on track. Thanks for the kick in the butt! <3

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 3 2014 at 5:48 pm #

      You’re SO welcome, Jessi! And dude, I feel you on the “I get upset with myself”. That’s the story of my life…and also why “realistic goals” have been life-changing for me. 🙂

  3. Julie
    Julie Feb 3 2014 at 10:01 am #

    Susan, GREAT POST! I have been to that place where nothing is working, and it is a scary place. Thank you so much for sharing the fruits of all that great research! You have such a gift for distilling theory into method. Thanks for this!!! <3

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 3 2014 at 5:49 pm #

      <3 <3 Awww, I like that: "distilling theory into method". I'm basically a (you knew this was coming) a BOOK BREWER! ;)

  4. Peggy Eddleman Feb 3 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Ohmygosh, Susan. This was incredible. Not only is it SO relieving to hear that someone else has been in exactly the same stage as I am in right now, but your ideas for fixing it are downright brilliant. :’o) Thank you. I really needed this.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 3 2014 at 5:50 pm #

      Peggy, m’dear, I have been there and I can assure you that many other writers have too. Like, A LOT. I hope this stuff helps. <3

  5. Patrick Gabridge Feb 3 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Great post! Cultivating the write habits is one of the keys to continuing productivity for writers (and it’s easy to fall away from them accidentally, especially during the busy times). I was a big fan of The Power of Habit, too. After a long stretch where I wasn’t actively drafting new work, I’m finding it important, and difficult, to get those old, good habits going again.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 3 2014 at 5:51 pm #

      Yeah, it took me some time to reestablish my old “good habits”–and to also establish some new ones. I basically made it my mission to set up 2 new habits a month (any more than that at a time, and I’m afraid I’ll overwhelm my system).

      Also–>yay for a fellow THE POWER OF HABIT fan!!

  6. C.E. Darrell Feb 3 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Oh my God Susan, you have literally saved my bacon! I’m taking this year off to try out full-time writing (insert hysterical/manic laughter here) and I’ve been really struggling with just HOW to plan out my timetable so that it’s not only like a regular job, but also keeps me accountable for my own successes/failures. This pyramid is DEFINITELY going up on my wall to remind me how to kick my butt into gear – no time like the present!

    Also, I can’t wait for your posts – thanks so much for vicariously helping me out, haha! 😀

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 4 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      You’re SO welcome!! I am so glad it “saved your bacon”. 🙂 I have definitely struggled with the same requirements–accountability and a job-like scheduling–so I hope what I’ve done helps you too!

  7. Rochelle Feb 3 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    I love this. I’ve spent a week trying to do revisions on my work, and barely made it through three chapters. (Granted, I only have after “real work” time, and I’m pregnant and therefore tired all the time, but it was still MUCH slower than usual for me.)

    Now, for my own sake, I’ll figure out what I need to do:

    I’m still lacking a good ritual to trigger myself into thinking it’s time to work. I’ll have my “new” office set up by the end of the week (instead of working on the living room couch, like usual), so hopefully BICHOKing there will be more of a trigger since I won’t do anything else upstairs.

    I know my productive time is after dinner until bed time – so 8 to 11 or so. That should be my writing time. Forcing myself to try to write or edit right after work usually just leads to me taking a nap.

    For now, my goal should probably be two chapters of editing per day. That’s an hour per chapter, which is REALLY slow for 4,000 words and the easy parts of editing. So we’ll say that.

    My reset is coloring at the moment. I find it relaxing and mindless and also creative at the same time. Maybe stop every 30 minutes to color for 5 or 10? That should work.

    And I was planning on starting a writing journal today. 🙂

    Thanks for the fabulous post, as always! A cross between Lupin and Mrs. Weasley is well-earned. 😀

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 4 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      <3 <3

      Good triggers for writing can definitely be location-linked. I'm really all about having a spiral bound notebook, a pen, and preferably a cup of coffee. If I have those things, I can be ANYWHERE. Just seeing the lines on ruled paper makes my brain go, "Ah, it's THAT time." :)

      • Rochelle Feb 4 2014 at 2:36 pm #

        This worked so well for me! It will be even better when I sell my old computer so I can’t see my reflection behind my laptop. 🙂 I made it through editing THREE chapters instead of two, used two pages in my brand-new writing journal, and got excited about my story again. I’m not sure if it was waiting until after dinner and not forcing myself to write during my after-work slum, or the location change, or what, but it was fabulous. I edited nearly 13,000 words in 2 hours!!!

        I have about a million spiral bound notebooks for different purposes, so having one nearby doesn’t necessarily make me want to write. It’s a good thing the location and time changes worked.

        • Susan Dennard
          Susan Dennard Feb 5 2014 at 5:28 pm #

          YAY, ROCHELLE! That’s so exciting!! Everyone has a different trigger, so whatever works! Get that brain used to the new spot, and the more you’ll get done/easier it’ll be to get started!!

  8. Alexa S. Feb 3 2014 at 10:14 pm #

    This is one of the most FASCINATING posts I’ve read from you, Susan (and that’s saying a lot, considering that I love your posts in general). I’ve been following your FRAB series, and it’s really been slowing helping me get out of this really rough writing spot I’ve been in lately. I love your productivity pyramid! It seems like a sound set of principles to me, and I can’t wait to try them out.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 4 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Yay, Alexa!! Let me know if/how everything works (or doesn’t work)!! 😀

  9. Tasha Seegmiller Feb 4 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    I just found this blog, and this post is just perfect! I have been working toward this, but having the steps broken down helps me know where I need to go and how I need to get better at it. Such an amazing post! Thank you.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 4 2014 at 2:01 pm #

      Hi Tasha–welcome! And thank you so much for the comment. I’m so glad you find it helpful. 😀

  10. Brandon Alston Feb 4 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    Great post Susan! I think so much of writing is just putting yourself in front of the keyboard and doing it. I love what you say about routine, and especially about taking breaks. That was a big deal for me, I’d just charge along and feel like I was wasting time if I even thought pausing during my scheduled writing time. So glad to see these things I’ve picked reinforced by a published author. Now if only I could overcome those doubts I sometimes get…

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 5 2014 at 5:22 pm #

      I’m in a break now. I’m *almost* done with this project, but I can feel that if I don’t step away and recharge (by dabbling with something else) I’ll get burned out and hate the project. Which is never good. 😉 So definitely take the breaks and know you’re’ definitely not wasting time. 🙂

  11. Diyana Feb 4 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    Sooz, you are my fave. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. After those long coffee chats and walks on the beach with them FRABs, I said to myself: Now I’ll probably need to establish a schedule / new set of habits, because I felt like I could do so much more.
    And then BAM! You give us the Productivity Pyramid and show us exactly how to flex and strengthen those creative muscles! Thanks so much Sooz!
    Are you telepathic?
    I’d love to think we are twins on the astral plane, but it’s more likely you’re an omniscient fairy godmother <3

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 5 2014 at 5:23 pm #

      Aw, Diyana. <3 Thank you! I'm so glad this stuff is helpful. It really just completely transformed my life, so I suspect it'll do the same for you. 😉

      Also--> “omniscient fairy godmother” sounds amazing

  12. Stephanie Scott Feb 5 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    I like that you consulted books about forming habits… very interesting! Thanks for putting this all together.

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 5 2014 at 5:24 pm #

      Yeah, I’m afraid I tend to over-consult books. I blame the scientist in me. 🙂

  13. Cheyenne Feb 7 2014 at 10:33 am #

    Wise words, as always! I’m checking out that book recommendation of yours, and am curious if in your studies you’ve read Kelly McGonigal’s THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT? I just stumbled over her work through her TED talk and think I might check that one out, too.

    Thank you as always for sharing such insights!! 🙂

    • Susan Dennard
      Susan Dennard Feb 11 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Oh yesssss! I DID read that one!! And it was really good. The only thing that I didn’t like (or rather didn’t use it for) is that it’s laid out like her course. So you’re meant to apply a new principle each week and really hone it. I prefer to just read about stuff and figure out my own plan of attack. THAT SAID, all of her information was fascinating–I just didn’t apply it in the way she might have intended. 🙂

      You might try the 99U books (http://99u.com/book/maximize-your-potential). They are FABULOUS and give a great run-down on all the stuff I’ve been talking about.

      • Cheyenne Feb 12 2014 at 5:24 am #

        Good to know. Her book is on my list but I’ve got so many to get through! Thank you so much for that link. I’m having a look now 🙂 I’m the same… I don’t often stick to the schedules in these kinds of books/workbooks because I’m either impatient or I prefer to integrate it into my own schedule. Cheers!

  14. Dana Feb 28 2016 at 11:11 am #

    Great post!
    I’m kind of a hobby writer … actually I haven’t written for months and the reason for this is just reflecting your post.
    Because first I’ve had a real routine and it really worked. Writing every evening a few words helped me. But when I broke this routine for a few days all my inspiration was gone. Really gone.
    And since then I’m just like you described it at the beginning of your post: I don’t get a single word into my computer. First, I’ve had time but no inspiration. Now I somedays feel like I may start again but I’m having no time.
    However, I want to make a new try when I’ll have done a school project and I’m going to use the other tips you gave much more than I did. Your post really motivated me – thank you!

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