With an extra 24 hours this month, Simon Whaley chats to three productive writers about making the most of our writing time.
When you’re an employee you get paid at the end of the month. Unfortunately, most employees get paid the same amount of money whether there are 28 days in February, or 29. For self-employed people, things are a little different. A leap year gives us a whole extra day in which to write something and, hopefully, earn more money. But it doesn’t matter whether you write full time, or in your spare time, this February we have all been allocated an extra 24 hours. So how are you going to make the most of yours?
When it comes to the business of writing, it’s important that we make the most efficient use of our time. Every time we sit down at our writing space we should know exactly what we’re going to do next, even more so if your writing time is limited. Sitting at a computer screen and staring at a blank page is not only unproductive but demoralising.
Getting Things Done
David Allen is recognised around the world as a leading expert on productivity. His Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology has been adopted by individuals and huge corporations, and it’s now his business. He’s also written several books on the subject, including his New York Times bestseller Getting Things Done: How To Achieve Stress-free Productivity.
One of his biggest tips is to have an inbox, which can be something physical sitting on the corner of your desk. Or it could be virtual, perhaps in your email programme, or in some To Do software on your computer, tablet or smartphone. This inbox becomes the one and only receptacle for everything you need do at some point in the future. Then, every few days, you sit down and go through your inbox and start actioning it. That action might be to deal with it now, to schedule it for later, or it might be to file it somewhere for future reference. For writers, the classic inbox is a notebook. We’re forever being told to carry a notebook around with us at all times and write down our ideas as they occur. ‘The GTD approach,’ says David, ‘is to capture any potentially meaningful data. I’ve used that for every writing project.’
David’s philosophy is that our brains are designed to think. They’re creative. It’s where our characters and plots come to life, and where our non-fiction ideas are developed. Our brain is not designed to be a filing cabinet. It quickly becomes cluttered and then confusion sets in. Our memories can no longer cope, and we waste time trying to recall information. Clear the brain of the clutter and you give it the space in which to be creative, and therefore more productive. That’s where the inbox comes in, especially the writer’s notebook. Inboxes boost creativity.
‘The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,’ David suggests. When your brain is clear of clutter it has the space to breathe and generate ideas. He used his methodology when updating his Getting Things Done book, which was released again in 2015. ’For many months I captured random ideas as they occurred to me about the potential project. Later I curated them for the best things to do.’
Curating is Allen’s process of deciding which ideas to develop and when. It’s another fundamental principle of his methodology. Always know what your next step will be. Allen calls it the next action. It’s a process I’ve adopted with my writing. It’s important to break projects down into achievable steps. Sitting down to write a novel is daunting, but sitting down to write 500 words feels more achievable. When I come to the end of my writing session I write down what the next action, or next step, is for that project. It might be to do more research, or to review the first draft of an article.
This next action step ensures that whenever I sit down to write something, on any of my projects, I know exactly what I have to do. I’m not faffing around looking at a blank screen. Instead, I’m getting on with things or, as David prefers calling it, getting things done.
Productivity is also about being organised. Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers and non-fiction. She is also a professional speaker and entrepreneur, and was voted as one of The Guardian’s UK Top 100 creative professionals in 2013. Her website, www.TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers. She’s achieved all of this by being a detailed planner. ‘I plan my diary months in advance,’ she says, ‘and block out time for writing new books as well as business activities like professional speaking events and conventions.’
As well as making the big overview plans like this, she also drills this down to a weekly plan. ‘I detail each week so I know I have everything prepared, e.g. questions done for podcast interviews or tasks I know need completing. I have a physical Filofax diary on my desk and use it to schedule by writing in events. I don’t use an online diary but I do use the Things app [www.cultredcode.com/things/] as my To Do list and scheduled tasks. It is brilliant!’
This means that her mind is clear for the times she has for writing. And she takes steps to ensure that her writing time is not disrupted. ‘I go to a local cafe with my laptop and get a coffee. I plug in my headphones and listen to rain and thunderstorms on repeat to shut out ambient noise. I write for about two hours and then go for a walk.’
By organising her workload in this way, Joanna knows what she has to do every time she sits down. There is no opportunity for confusion or distractions.
Ditch the Ironing
These principles of being organised, planning your time and identifying what your next action needs to be works for writers with day jobs too. Kath McGurl has written short stories for women’s magazines in the UK and Australia, and is the author of two novels, the latest of which is The Pearl Locket, published by Carina. She’s achieved all of this despite also having a day job in IT for a large retail organisation.
For her, the thought of having a whole day for writing seems daunting. ‘Oh, I would probably struggle with the luxury of a whole day and spend half of it faffing on Facebook. What I would try to do is wake up that day with the idea that I’m going to write, first and foremost. I’d prioritise it over everything else. When a decent amount has been written, that’s the time to relax and do something else for a while, feeling good that you’ve achieved your goal.’
Many writers find they have a more productive time of day, when the words seem to flow easier. If your writing is restricted to outside of your working hours, experiment to discover whether evenings or early mornings work better for your creativity. Make Monday February 29th part of that experiment. Once you’ve identified the time slot that works best for you try to stick with it, because it then becomes a habit. Your brain accepts that this is the time when you write and the words flow better. Kath has found a two hour time slot works best for her. ’Early evening, 6pm-8pm,’ she says. ‘Why? Because that’s when I am most used to writing. If I didn’t have a day job I’d probably be more productive in the middle of the day, say 10am – 3pm, but at the moment those hours belong to the day job.’
Business leaders understand that time is a resource that has to be managed. Spending time on one activity means other activities have to be sacrificed, and as writers we are faced with similar decisions. It’s all about determining what’s more important to you. ‘I’ve thought a lot about time management for writers,’ says Kath, ‘as it has always been a struggle fitting in everything I want to do. I ended up writing a little book, Give Up Ironing, A Writer’s Guide to Time Management, to try to pass on some tips. So I suppose the other thing I’d like to say is … give up ironing, no one will ever notice!’
It’s a valid point. What do you want to be remembered for? Is it the writing you achieved or the crease-free clothes you wore? So what are you going to do on February 29th? It doesn’t matter whether you take a day’s annual leave and spend the whole day writing, or decide to give yourself two hours writing time in the morning or evening. Don’t treat it as just another day. Make it special. Think of it as a bonus day. It’s already in your diary. Make an appointment with your writing, and then on February 28th sit down and plan what you’re going to write. Be specific: an opening paragraph, five hundred words on your novel, or the climatic scene in a short story. That way, when your writing time arrives, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to do. Hopefully, it’ll be the productivity leap you’ve been looking for.
Business Directory – Productivity Tips For Writers
David Allen: ‘Capture any and all potentially relevant ideas at the moment you have them. Curate them within the next 24-48 hours, and don’t let old agreements with yourself get in the way of the new work you’re here to do.’
Joanna Penn: ‘Plan the hours you write, as you would any other appointment. Then for that time, sit and write words. Don’t wait for the Muse. Sit down and start typing and something will happen. Trust emergence – but it will only happen if you make the time for it regularly.’
Kath McGurl: ‘Set yourself small achievable targets for every writing session. This evening I’m going to add 500 words to my WIP [work in progress], for example.’
Looking for more productivity tips? Download a free sample of my The Positively Productive Writer here: https://www.simonwhaley.co.uk/free-sample-the-positively-productive-writer/
© Simon Whaley