If you ever feel like you could be getting more out of your writing time, you’re not alone. It’s not easy. Distraction and procrastination are sneaky little monsters and they’re exceptionally good at what at they do. On top of that, writers are often time-poor and idea-rich. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. If this is you and, like me, you’re obsessed with (or at least open to) the idea of life-hacks, here are 10 that might be just what you need to boost your productivity:
1) Goal, targets, and finding your WHY
An obvious one but it has to be said. Goals and targets give you a sense of direction. When you think about goals, break them down into micro-steps - a process called ‘chunking’. Big hairy goals = scary. Chunks = doable actions. Pour everything from your head onto paper (or into something like Evernote, Notes, Todoist, Scrivener, Word, or Excel for the spreadsheet-lovers). Now group or regroup your chunks.
For each group of goals/actions, make sure you’re very clear about your WHY. Your WHY is everything. It makes the difference between a heart-sinkingly boring To Do list and something that gets you out of bed in the morning. Write it down if you have to. Put it up on a noticeboard if you have one. WHY do you want this? What’s the bigger game plan here? You can find a WHY even for the seemingly mundane stuff. If you can’t find your WHY for a specific action, it’s something to cross off your list.
Look at your (WHY-powered) groups and build in measurable targets and deadlines - reasonable ones with an element of stretch. On a deadline, build in BUFFERS. Stuff happens. You feel unwell. People around you are unwell. It snows and the country grinds to a halt. Be prepared. And track progress against your targets and deadlines on a regular basis (figure out what regular looks like for you). Review them every now and again. I like to do this at the beginning of the month/week, more often if I have lots going on. Note: if you MISS your targets, it is OKAY. My biggest productivity hack is actually number 10, deceptively placed at the very end: SELF-CARE.
2) Project Management with Trello
I LOVE Trello. It’s my brain outside of my brain (and outside of my brand new bullet journal obsession). It’s used a lot by startups and computer programmers to plan and track workflow.
You can go really macro here if you have multiple manuscripts on the go. If you’re a picture book writer, you might have some early drafts, some in with an editor, agent or critique buddy, some going through a rewrite and some submission-ready. FOR EXAMPLE. You can tailor this. Here’s a simple setup I use for the big picture overview:
Each ‘card’ is like a post-it note and you can add due dates, checklists and even attach documents and notes. I brain dump in the ‘IDEAS’ list and move things over to the ‘To Write’ list when I’m sure I want to work on them in the next 6 months. Things I’m working on TODAY get pulled over into the ‘TODAY’ list. That’s the list I zone in on. The rest can wait. See? Brain outside of my brain.
For illustrated non-fiction, I might break items down into spreads or chapters. Now that’s macro but you can go very micro too. You can put in tiny things you need to do in your manuscript - changing the POV, adding in events and threading them through the story, or global checks for words and phrases you overuse. You might have some critique group comments that you’d like to implement. The Trello board gives you a process. With a satisfying drag-and-drop action, you can move your items from ‘IDEAS’ to ‘TO DO’ to ‘DOING’ to ‘DONE’, personal-Kanban-style. Or you can lock them in a WAITING list if you’re waiting on feedback.
The more you do this, the easier it’ll be to work out which system works best for you. The answer might be multiple systems - one macro, one for each big project, one for your blogging schedule, and maybe one to track submissions. Play with it and see how you feel. Maybe you’ll find you’re a tactile person and you really need to stick to physical post-its/notecards and noticeboards. I love those too but the space-saving and time-saving nature of Trello (and the therapeutic aspects of bashing things out on a keyboard) is a huge plus for me.
Time-blocking is about building blocks of time into your week to do certain things. It’s about thinking about ALL the things you want to spend time on, how much you’d like to (or need to) spend on them, and when. You might just use this to build in a block of time for your writing (maybe even one or two specific high priority projects) but you can extend this to cover other things like time with family/friends, me-time, a workout slot, anything. If you want to take it that far, I highly recommend an exercise I learnt from startup mentor Alexis Kingsbury: designing your perfect week. It’s about setting your intention. It might look like a stretch to begin with but the idea is to gradually work towards it. If you have a job and/or little-people-related commitments, factor that in. If your dream is to set up a business so you have more flexibility, factor in time to work towards that.
Also, build in BREAKS. Build in do-nothing time or do-whatever time. Build in things like cooking or vegetable prep. When I’m on a deadline, if I don’t prep meals, I risk reaching for unhealthy alternatives that send me into a proper downward spiral. Yes, I plan meals too. Can’t be wasting time thinking about what to cook. If this seems a little extreme, tone it down. Do what works for you.
4) Writing Sprints
These are very popular. You might have heard of the Pomodoro Technique. The way it works is that you pick a task you want to get done (a chunk!), you set a timer for 25 minutes, get your head down and work on it until the timer rings. Then you take a break (maybe 5 minutes). That’s one ‘Pomodoro’ (in our case, a writing sprint). You can repeat the cycle and take a longer break every 4 Pomodoros or so (the Pomodoro people recommend 20-30 mins). I might be attacked by Pomodoro purists here but you can customise the length of your personal Pomodoros if you find 25 minutes isn’t the right amount of time for you. Maybe 25 minute sprints are what you need to stop you falling down rabbit holes when researching but maybe you prefer longer sprints when editing. Also, the more you do this, the easier it gets to judge how many Pomodoros you might need for a specific activity. Whatever your approach, it helps to have a really specific goal for your writing sprint. Research X. Map out these particular scenes. Write a ‘dirty draft’ of chapter 1 or a new picture book manuscript. Could be anything. Use your chunks from section 1!
There are apps to help you incorporate this into your writing routine. Here are two I find really useful:
Forest App - you set the timer and off you go, planting saplings in a virtual forest as you write. If you keep your head down and stay away from your phone, you grow a tree. If you mess about on your phone, your tree dies. You can attach notes to each tree so you know what you were working on. Over time, you’ll grow whole forests and be able to track progress in a big picture overview.
Be Focused Pro - I love this one because it has a start-stop timer and makes it really easy to track work on multiple projects. If you get the desktop version, it can live on your desktop for easy access. Former litigation lawyers might want to stay away from this one to avoid work-related (specifically, time-sheet-related) flashbacks.
If you want a screen-free solution, any timer will do the job. Or you can be super-authentic and find yourself a tomato-shaped one.
5) Distraction minimisation strategies
The first step towards minimising distractions is to let go of the MYTH of multitasking. It’s not how we’re wired. Yes, we can multitask when it comes to automated processes like breathing or our heart pumping blood around the body but doing two actual To Do list tasks at once? No. We’re not multitasking, we’re switching between tasks. That constant stopping and starting costs us time (and energy). The key here is reducing switching. Do one thing at a time. One chunk of work.
I KNOWWW it is tempting to jump onto the internet to look stuff up while you’re writing but RESIST. Write it down in a good old-fashioned notebook and schedule it in for your research sprint. Random idea for a completely different story pops into your head? GREAT. Note it down and move on. Random idea totally unconnected to writing pops into your head? GREAT. See above. I often hear people say they can’t meditate because their heads are so full of thoughts. Of course your head is full of thoughts. That sense of stillness doesn’t come from an empty head - it comes from being able to let those thoughts in and out without getting too involved with them. I think the same applies with internal distractions when you write - you can’t force your brain to stop but you can watch, accept, and let it go. Or write it down to get it out of your system.
If the internet is your biggest distraction, it’s okay - there are some tech solutions to help with this:
Forest App (again!) or the Forest browser extension for your desktop
‘Composition mode’ if you’re a Scrivener user - lets you work in full screen view with nothing but your manuscript in front of you. Ulysses has a similar full-screen feature for distraction-free writing.
Alternatively, you could knock out your internet and put your phone away. Maybe hide somewhere with really rubbish wifi. Or ditch the screen entirely and write longhand in your notebook. Lots of people find this really freeing. Writing longhand makes it even easier to stop and chuck any random distracting thoughts or To-Do-type brainwaves into another notebook as you go along.
Also, enlist the help of friends and family. Ask them to hold you accountable. If you have a writing block scheduled in, make sure they know so they don’t tempt you away with juicy gossipy phonecalls or invitations for coffee.
If your main distraction challenge involves little people, I HEAR YOU. In that case, it’s going to be about working around them. Can you keep them happy with busy boxes and/or safe zones for a Pomodoro or two? Realistically though, you’ll probably be getting your best work done when they’re asleep. THEY SLEEP, RIGHT? I HOPE THEY SLEEP! If not, just know that I am sending you the biggest virtual hug you can imagine.
6) Understand your real reason for procrastinating and bring yourself back to your WHY
Procrastination is a defence mechanism (there was a great discussion around this on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group). Helps you avoid doing THE SCARY THING. Saves you from all the stress and all the consequences of that stress. Sometimes just knowing this and bringing your attention back to your work can make a huge difference. The moment you’re aware that you’re procrastinating - that moment is magic. In that moment, you have a choice. Bringing your attention back is something you can practise. I’m not saying I always make the right choice. My weakness is Twitter. The tougher a deadline, the more often I reach for Twitter. Don’t ask why. It’s soothing. It’s…an addiction. I’m working on it. See above :)
One thing that really helps bring me back to the writing is reminding myself of my WHY. My WHY drives me. It gives me a sense of urgency. It reminds me of something bigger than myself. I don’t know if I’m making sense here but this is my experience: when I go that wide, that big, it’s somehow so much easier to get back to that laser focus. My debut picture book, HOW TO BE EXTRAORDINARY (shameless plug - out this August and illustrated by Annabel Tempest!) was a labour of love. The delivery schedule was intense. What got me through it was my WHY.
7) Writing rituals
The idea behind writing rituals is to introduce some consistency, to prime the mind and body to focus. If you eat lunch or meditate at the same time every single day for a good stretch of time, you’ll find that your mind and body are primed to feel hungry or to relax at that specific time. It just helps you get into the zone faster. Timing isn’t something everyone can be consistent with but there are plenty of other things you can do:
A writing space - something practical, wonder-inspiring, and filled with things you love if that works for you or clean and crisp if that’s what you need to focus. For some people, it’s a type of space - like noisy cafes or trains (WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOUR SECRETS?!!).
Writing stationery - my FAVOURITE. Apologies if this sounds a bit woo but something that inspires reverence. A notebook and pen that make you feel something.
Music - I write this with some hesitation because I like silence and use music during my breaks (during which I blast bhangra and dance around the room…) but APPARENTLY, some writers have writing playlists.
A fragrance - this isn’t for everyone but you could have a fragrance in play when you sit down to write (perfume/cologne, essential oils, or even candles unless you’re clumsy like me in which case I really recommend reed diffusers). Sounds a bit out there, again, but there’s evidence to suggest a primal connection between smell and memory. PRIMING.
Actual RITUALS - something you say or do at the start of every session. A breathing technique or meditation or affirmation. 10 push-ups. I don’t know.
A writing uniform - if you’re writing at home, this might mean PJs. Or what I like to think of as LOUNGEWEAR (essentially a change of PJs for after your morning shower).
SNACKS or a CUP OF SOMETHING - if you’re like me, you’ll like this one. Mental associations are really powerful. Maybe you can build one between a specific snack and a writing project? Be careful what you choose though. For me, HOW TO BE EXTRAORDINARY will forever be connected to Lindt milk chocolate and yerba mate tea. I might try celery for Book 2. Will see how I get on.
8) Setting yourself up for tomorrow
A mini-tip but really rather good. Picked this one up from Louise Dean who runs The Novelry. She often talks about Hemingway’s productivity hack: ‘Stop when you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day’. Let your subconscious do the work. The next day, you’ll pull up at your desk all excited. Much better than starting your session with a mental roadblock.
9) Accountability buddies and peer mentoring
Whoever said writing is a solitary activity? It doesn’t have to be. Lots of writers use critique groups to swap manuscripts. Have you tried swapping game plans? Critique (or SUPPORT) groups can help keep you on track. They’re a sounding board for ideas, a shoulder to cry on, a warm hug and whoop and cheer for every stage of your writing career. Find them at places like SCBWI, the Golden Egg Academy, or The Novelry. Or on Twitter via writing hashtags like #ukpbchat, #ukmgchat, and #funnybookchat. The important thing with this kind of group is fit. It’s like love. Once you find it, you’ll just know.
PEER MENTORING is amazing. Nikesh Shukla did an incredible session on this at our PRH WriteNow reunion. It’s not about dishing out advice - it’s about actively listening and asking the right questions, helping another writer figure things out for themselves. Helping them get unstuck when they feel stuck. Helping them organise their thoughts and put together a plan of attack when they’re in a state of overwhelm. My peer mentoring buddy from WriteNow is incredible - I feel so fired up after talking to her and I learn as much from her session as I do from my own. I come out with a concrete strategy then I get to work putting down those goals and targets, setting up my Trello boards, and time-blocking. It all fits together.
Find a peer mentor and a close peer group to act as your accountability buddies. Publishing is a long road and it doesn’t end with your debut. Accountability buddies keep you focused.
This is hands down my biggest productivity hack. I am at my writerly best when I’m rested and when I’m happy. For me, personally, my health is my lead domino. When I’m taking care of that (to the extent I can given the body I have), everything else falls into place. I’m a better mother, a better daughter, a better writer. If I sacrifice that to try and race through my Trello board, everything starts to fall apart. I get sick, I get short-tempered, and small tasks start to feel completely overwhelming. You might recognise this spiral.
Self-care is so individual. Find out what that means for you. Might be:
A hot bath
A long walk
A writing break to refuel
Exercise (I love yoga but I actually find lifting weights just as calming - again, it’s personal)
Eating well (and taking time to eat as opposed to wolfing down your lunch al desko!)
Putting away your phone or stepping away from social media to take a break from the book deal announcements, the politics, or just the mindless scrolling
Treating yourself to nice things, whatever they may be!
Not comparing yourself to others - everyone is on their own journey and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff we don’t see
Surrounding yourself with other writers who get it
Laughing with people who love you
Curling up with a hot chocolate and a good book
Forgiving yourself for days where your well runs dry
This post has been very GO GO GO but the truth is this: you can use all the productivity hacks in the world but if you’re not gentle with yourself, you’ll burn out. And burnt out people are notoriously unproductive.
Be hungry, be ambitious.
But take care of yourself.