Kay: Get Productive; Write and Sell More Books

For greater productivity, avoid distractions!

I’m winding down on a big freelance project that has occupied about 110% of my time for the last few months. I got a lot done in fairly short amount of time, and now that it’s tapering off and I’m just cleaning up loose ends, I’m wondering why I’m not as productive in my fiction-writing life as I am in my real-world, money-earning life. When I’m on a project, I’m practical, efficient, and speedy. When I’m not on a project, I’m more or less a slug. I work on my writing, but not as hard as I work on a project, and I don’t necessarily get the yard work finished, the house cleaned, or the errands run.

One year at an author panel at the RWA national conference, someone asked Bella Andre, the self-published author who’s sold millions of books, how she achieves life-work balance. “Life-work balance is overrated,” she said, adding that she works from six in the morning to nine at night.

That kind of productivity is not something I have the strength to emulate, but it’s clear that success in part depends on work—on productivity, in fact. So how to get more productive? As I often do to answer many of life’s larger questions, I turned to Google. And I found a blog by Eric Barker, who “brings you science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life.”

Awesome is probably not something I have strength for, either, but he posts regularly about productivity. One post in particular caught my eye, and I thought maybe I could benefit from some of the ideas. Barker based his tips on the work of Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek), and he augments those tips with research. The ideas are based in business assumptions, so they don’t map 1-to-1 to my life, but maybe I could adapt them and make them work for me. (For the full blog post, go here.)

These are the “6 things the most productive people do every day.”

1) Manage your mood

Barker says that research shows that how you start the day has an enormous effect on productivity, and people procrastinate more when they’re in a bad mood. Starting the day calm helps you focus, and happiness increases productivity and makes you more successful. What can you do to manage your mood? Get enough sleep. Eat regularly. Take breaks. Do the things that keep you positive. And the first step to managing your mood after you wake up?

2) Don’t check email in the morning

Checking email in the morning sets you up to react—you give your best hours to someone else’s goals, not yours. But if you don’t check your email first thing, what should you do?

3) Ask yourself whether a task should be done at all

Don’t do too many things. Do what’s important—and not much else. Barker points to research that shows that CEOs don’t get more done by working more hours, they get more done when they follow careful plans. But after you develop the plan, how can you focus on it?

4) Eliminate distractions

Modern life constantly offers tantalizing, easily accessible, shiny things. How to focus? Reduce distractions. Limit options. To do that effectively, you need a system.

5) Develop a routine

To improve productivity, routine is more effective than relying on self-discipline. Don’t give yourself the option to do something you didn’t decide to do. To develop an effective routine, assess what activities are responsible for most of your successes. Then look at what activities destroy your productivity. Then rearrange your schedule to do more of the first and eliminate the second as much as possible. How can you make that routine stick?

6) Define your goals the night before

End each work day the same way. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.

Can I apply these tips to my writing life?

  1. Mood management. Sometimes after a big gig, I “reward” myself with binge TV watching, or otherwise gorging on fun stuff. Perhaps moderation would be better for my fiction goals: Watch TV, but make sure I go to bed at the same time, get right into the fiction-writing routine at the same time in the morning that I started my business project.
  2. Don’t check email in the morning. I can do that. I won’t check email until I’ve written for two hours
  3. Ask whether it should be done at all. The dishes in the sink are screaming to be washed right now. This I must do some time today. But I don’t have to sweep the back stairs today, even though they need it.
  4. Eliminate distractions. Don’t even turn ON email until I’ve written for two hours
  5. Develop a routine. Write first, always.
  6. Define your goals the night before. Maybe not so much “define my goals,” but think about what the next scene must accomplish. Review my notes, if any. Let the girls in the basement do their work overnight!

Will any of these ideas make me more productive in fiction? We’ll see!



12 thoughts on “Kay: Get Productive; Write and Sell More Books

  1. I think I’m seeing a little trend here — don’t turn on the e-mail!

    E-mail is another one of those tricksy things. It seems like productivity. Oh, I get to work, I’ve got 15 minutes before I can move on to the next task — I’ll just check the e-mail! Ten minutes! Productivity! I will have done something!

    Twenty minutes (two hours?) later, I emerge from the e-mail hole, sated and exhausted.

    Today, I actually controlled myself. I wrote first, then did some translation work, and saved the e-mail for last. And it worked! I hope I can keep controlling myself everyday, but I have to say, that chemical hit of achievement is very addicting. (Just like the blog post says!) It’s hard to stay away.

    It’s very helpful that I was able to work from the library today. I can’t chat, and I have already made the computer nook in the library a Place I Associate With Work. (-: The good walk over here also probably helped the brain waves rock and roll.

    • I also tend to get lost in Google. I love the internet. I go someplace to find something out, and then there’s another interesting link, and another and another. It takes real concentration on my part to look up what I want and get back to work. Maybe I should not turn on email or the internet at all before I have two hours of writing in. Now that I’m doing revisions, I shouldn’t have to look anything up (she said, crossing her fingers).

      • Oh, yeah, surfing! Although, I have a feeling if my subconscious is saying “Moar!! More, please!”, I should probably listen to it. I tend to know when I’m just goofing off. (-: If it’s been a long day and I’m tired, I just don’t care, and keep goofing off.

        (-: Revisions tend to send me down rabbit holes. The stuff I need to look up is the stuff that wasn’t two googles away in the first draft . . . .

  2. For me, it’s developing the habit, as much as routine that’s the key. So, I need to write (or at least make notes) 6 days out of 7, so that it is part of my daily routine. In an ideal world, I would write for two hours before I do anything else (and sometimes I do) but that just isn’t always possible. But the important thing is that the day doesn’t feel complete unless I have done at least an hour’s work on my WIP. If I lose this routine/habit and skip a few days, then I can suddenly find a couple of weeks have gone by.

    My not-very-good equation: The more I write = the better I get = the more I enjoy it (mostly) = the more I write

  3. Routine definitely helps me to get some momentum going. I’m good at managing distractions – I write on my laptop and set it for one hour sessions with fifteen minute breaks. I check email and internet on my ipad in the breaks. My challenge is to become more consistently productive during the one-hour blocks. Sometimes it flows so beautifully every minute is a joy; sometimes I grind it out; and sometimes I try,and the wheels spin, and the smell of burning rubber is enough to choke you. I have yet to figure out the answer. Wish I could!

    • Probably it will always be like that. I think that developing the habit means that we’ll have greater possibilities of good days and lessens the chances of the rubber-burning days. Here’s hoping!

  4. To be quite honest, I have to laugh at this guy’s suggestions. He either doesn’t have small kids or lets the wife take care of them. And he clearly doesn’t have a spouse who travels a lot.

    Here’s my (somewhat sarcastic, but not really) take on #s 1-6:

    1. Mood management: I’d love to wake up in a good mood, but when I’ve had a sick kid the night before or one waking every few hours for a breathing treatment because his asthma is off the charts, or one who just decides that 5:30 is a fine time to come in and start asking questions, it just ain’t gonna happen. On those days, I have to accept it’s going to be a crappy day and I won’t get a lot done, because if I try to set high expectations, I’m always let down.

    2. Don’t check email in the morning: This one I might be able to do, except I check it on my phone, plus email is how I communicate with my carpool partner and it’s how I find out who’s posted comments on my blog day. Given that I’m already 8 hours behind everyone else who’s read my blog (and potentially left comments), I figure it’s a good use of time to think about responses as I spend an hour in the car driving the kids to/from school.

    3. Ask whether it should be done at all: I disagree with this one. Sometimes having a task hanging over my head is more distracting than getting it done and off my mind. Like dishes. And clean clothes. And a dog that, if not walked, goes bonkers while I’m trying to write.

    4. Eliminate distractions. This only works if I go to Starbucks. Seriously. They know me by name there. 🙂

    5. Develop a routine: I kinda have one, but writing definitely isn’t the first thing I do. And when a kid is sick or not at school, forget it. It all goes out the window. I’m lucky to get the dishes done.

    6. Define your goals the night before: My basic goal is to get the kids to school. If I can do that, I’ll probably find time to write. I usually have to pick one or two other household-type things to tackle, in addition to writing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Having children, particularly small children (mine are 6 and 7) makes it hard to do anything on a schedule or with regularity. I used to think I could cram in an hour of editing after the kids got home, while they’re at tae kwon do, or playing outside. I’ve come to find it just doesn’t happen. So if I don’t get any writing/editing in during the day, it ain’t happening that day at all.

    Then I thought I could do the household stuff after they got home (instead of during the day when I could be writing)…it’s a lot easier to get pulled away and back into doing laundry than writing. But with me shuttling the kids here and there, to this and that practice, that doesn’t happen either.

    At night, it’s hubby time (if he’s there) or crash time if he’s not, because I’m so exhausted from wrangling kids, driving all over town, rushing from one thing to the next, I have no energy left to write.

    I feel so pathetic saying this. Like I’m giving up on trying to put writing front and center, but I tried that and for where I am in life, it just doesn’t work. I’ve been told by my writerly friend who have older kids that when they’re in the tweens/teens, it gets a lot better because they don’t need you as much (or want to spend time with you, for that matter). Until then, I’ll have to fit writing in where I can.

    • I understand this very well, and I may be quite retro, but I think when you’ve got small kids, they ARE your first and most important job. The house comes second (and since it’s a support role to the kids, it’s super-important, too). And then writing. That’s the way it was for me.

      This is such a short period in their life, and at 6 and 7, they are almost out into the next stage, where your time with them is less — more intense in a lot of ways as their brains mature and their activities increase.

      Perhaps, maybe, you can think of your Mother job as a split shift. The challenge then is to divide your “downtime” (when they are in school, daycare or kindergarten) into two or three sections: your Writing job, your Housekeeping job, and possibly 15 to 30 minutes for Planning for the Mother Job again.

      My kids are on the brink of yet another stage. My eldest is out of the house, getting ready for college, and my youngest is getting ready for the high school entrance exam this year. So, I’ll probably be ferrying my youngest to cram school come August. But here’s the thing: when she’s studying, I can be writing/studying too. When she’s doing sports, in theory I could be getting exercise in. (In practice, it usually devolves to housework, or if I’m honest, sprawling on the couch feeding my brain happy-making stuff. I need more exercise.) When she’s in school, I’m at my dayjob (I’m in school, too).

      This might be the answer to my problems — echo her schedule. I just have to figure out how to work the housekeeping in . . . .

      The problem with scheduling is that there must be a million ways to make a schedule, and I bet at least 100,000 ways to do it “right.” Trying to get a perfect schedule may result in a little easing, but it does take a lot of work. A “good enough” schedule might actually result in more productivity in the long run.

      Oh, and I had one thought, Justine — not sure if it’d work — but what if you funnelled the carpool mails to a dedicated account? Then you could check, and not get sucked into everything else. (LOL, in theory — as soon as I get on the computer, it’s so easy to click from site to site. In fact, it’s 7:59 here, and I just meant to check the mail, not comment on blogs!) Maybe load the phone with research articles so you have another “oh, five minutes, what can I do that’s productive?” outlet to go to.

      The email is just terrible for my productivity. It feels so good to get mail! And I love communicating with others.

      (-: And now, my LINE account says I have a message . . . so the digital trap begins. I should be making pancakes!

      Happy Easter/springtide y’all!

      • That all sounds good except the email part — I already have four different accounts to check. I don’t need another. 🙂 I could ask her to text more. That’s not as time-sucking as email.

        I’m trying to get the family to step in and help with the housework because they need to learn how to scrub a toilet and keep their room clean or they’ll never have a girlfriend when they’re older *grin*. They’re good sports about it, just not very good at it yet. That’ll come I suppose.

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