I’ve been asked repeatedly about how I stay so productive, about how I changed my process and my work habits, usually on Twitter. It’s an impossible subject to cover in 140 characters, so I decided to do that here. Since lots of people are writing like busy bees this month, it seems like the perfect time to articulate my thoughts.
First, let me dispel one myth. Process is not a permanent, indelible thing. People say, “I can’t do that. My process dictates that I…” Well, no. You control your work habits and your brain. Maybe it turns out that you did most of your “good” writing on the hood of a car. Does that mean you can only write that way? No. You’ve trained yourself into a dysfunctional style, and it’s possible to rewrite the way you work, just as you can revise a novel.
My process used to be this:
1) Come up with shiny new idea.
2) Write furiously.
3) Lose faith.
4) Spend 9 months rewriting the first half of the book.
5) Lose heart.
6) Come up with shiny new idea.
That was my process. And I hated it. Some people can finish books while tinkering with them. I’m not one of them. I find it to be a really inefficient way to work. HOW can you perfect the first chapters until you finish the draft and you’ve seen the big picture? It seems to me that it makes sense to hold all your revisions until the end. It can be hard to keep that internal editor in check; that jerk wants you to be perfect out of the gate and won’t shut up until you address the issues. I’ve found that making a list as I write of things I know I need to address in the first revision or the second keeps me focused enough to continue writing. And then at the end, I have a checklist of issues to tackle.
At this point, you might be saying, I can’t do that. I’ve always written this way. Well, that’s just wrong. You can do anything you want to, anything you set your mind to. If you don’t really want to change your process, then stop reading.
The rest of you? You can do this. But you have to believe you can, just like a person has to believe he can stick to a fitness regimen or a healthier style of living. Read this if you have any doubts. Back now? See? Roxanne St. Clair wrote 30 books my old way, the slow, tinkering way. And now she’s a convert. This really works.
Now here’s the thing. I don’t say you can immediately jump from writing 500 words a day to 5000. There’s mental training involved; and there are physical issues, too. If you’re not used to typing and suddenly that’s all you do all day, your hands, wrists and arms will hurt. I don’t want anyone getting injured trying to be more productive. That’s why you train up. Whatever pace you’re currently writing at, make sure it’s comfortable. Then, over a long period of time, months, not weeks, train up. For me, 1K used to be a good day, and it would take hours. Once I had that so I could do 1K in a few hours, not 8, I raised the bar to 1500. You can raise your daily goal by less words if 500 is too many. Here’s the next key: STOP EXPECTING TO CHANGE YOUR HABIT IN 21 DAYS.
According to a recent study, a daily action like eating fruit at lunch or running for fifteen minutes took an average of sixty-six days to become as much of a habit as it would ever become.
To be honest, for me, it’s more like three months. I don’t adapt quickly to change. So if you tried a write-more, write-faster program and you didn’t give it 3-4 months at each stage? I’m not convinced your brain could’ve fully settled into the new pattern, new work habit. And when I say train up, I mean 3-4 months on each level. So going from 1k to 1500 (or whatever your new goal is) should take 3-4 months. Then you need that long writing at your new pace to let it sink in. Then you up the ante again. Obviously rewriting your process and your work habits is a commitment that will take years if you don’t want to relapse into old methods that are easier because they’re more familiar.
To make it easier to write more daily, you need to get to know your productivity patterns. Some people work best in bursts; others want to get the words done, so they can tick them off the to-do list. (I’m that way.) Others think best in the morning. Some people can only focus once the house is quiet and it’s dark. Once you identify the sweet spot, you need to claim it for your writing. You also must figure out what motivates you and offer yourself little rewards for getting your work done. I can’t work that out for you. As people are always telling me, everyone is different. But people are all capable of change, if they want it bad enough.
It used to be super hard for me to write 5K in a day. But deadlines recently have kept me writing at that pace for about six months. And you know what? It’s not hard anymore. I can do it in about four hours. My sweet spot used to be 3K. But I’ve rewritten my brain again. There are physical limitations, however. If you have weak wrists or carpal, you may want to look into a voice dictation software package, like Dragon. Know your own capabilities and then work to your fullest extent. It’s possible, I promise.
But you have to want it and you have to believe your process isn’t magical, handed down by the divine muse. It can be changed. For a full breakdown on how to maximize your productivity, I recommend reading 2k to 10K by Rachel Aaron. I didn’t use her system when I was training up, but her methods are similar to mine and she’s got it all down in a concise guide. You can also take a course from Candace Havens, if you need more hands-on coaching.
If you have specific questions, I’m happy to answer them in comments.
Photo by Darcy McCarthy.