Tag Archives: motivation

My #1 Productivity Tool for Getting More Done

There was a period in my life where I had a lot of things I wanted to do, but I never seemed to get anything done.

I would wake up in the morning, telling myself that today would be different. Today, I would be super-efficient. I would cross dozens of things off my to-do list.

I experimented with all sorts of productivity systems. Restructured my to-do list dozens of different ways, based on which self-help book I was reading at the time.

I had given up TV. I gave up reading for fun. I gave up everything that I thought was a distraction outside of my day job so that I could shut myself in the spare bedroom for a couple hours after dinner and make progress on my writing.

And yet, at the end of the day, I still felt like I had wasted my time.

I don’t remember who introduced me to the tool that saved me. It might have been yet another self-help book. Or it might have been my husband.  Or a blog post that I’ve since forgotten.

But here it is:

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I know. It’s not a cool piece of software with flashing icons and reminders that guide me through a carefully-crafted schedule. Or an elaborate chart that gives me an up-to-date dashboard for every aspect of my life.

It’s a time log. A piece of paper and a pen, which I use to note the start and stop time for each task I do during the day.

It takes a second to notice the time, and a few more seconds to jot it down with a short note each time I switch tasks. I probably spend less than five minutes each day updating it.

There are no rules about what I do–the only rule is: whatever I do, I must record it on the time log.

But it’s been the difference between me not getting anything worthwhile done and me making significant progress on my big projects every work day.

There are a number of proven psychological reasons why a time log can skyrocket your productivity.

#1: It increases mindfulness, helping you to make better decisions.

I was in serious denial about how I was spending my time. I thought I was spending two hours writing every evening, when in reality, I was spending most of my “writing time” looking things up on the internet, sending “quick” replies to emails, and fussing with my story notes.

I was doing almost everything BUT writing during my writing time.

#2: It gives you an accurate record of how you’re using your time (and shows you exactly where you’re wasting it).

After two days of keeping a time log for my writing hours, I realized that I was never going to make any progress as long as I had email open. (For some of your, that will be Facebook or Twitter or your favorite chat program.)

I decided that I would spend 15 minutes sending emails before I started my writing session, to get that urge out of my system.

I also realized that I needed to ask my husband to only talk to me if it was an emergency. I was stopping at least once or twice in that two-hour period to have a conversation with him that would often last 15 minutes. That was 1/8th of my writing time gone.

#3: It puts a stop to multi-tasking, which is another word for “distracting myself from getting things done.”

Studies on multi-tasking have shown that every time you switch to a new task, it takes your brain time to adjust to the new task. And that people who focus on a series of tasks one-at-a-time finish those tasks much more quickly than people who try to complete multiple tasks simultaneously.

We all complain about feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, and we are doing it to ourselves by asking our brains to constantly switch from email to Facebook to television to face-to-face conversation to Twitter every few seconds.

When I stopped trying to multitask, my stress levels went down by about half almost immediately.

Because I had stopped asking my brain to the unnecessary extra work of shifting focus repeatedly in a short period of time.

Once I realized that I was wasting most of my mental energy just on adapting to the constant switching, I embraced pomodoros (timed intervals where you only work on one task at a time). And my productivity went through the roof.

#4: It helps me get a better handle on how long things really take, which has allowed me to be more realistic about what I can really do.

I spent a lot of my life feeling overwhelmed because I used to be incredibly optimistic about how quickly I could get things done. And as I said “yes” to more and more things, I found myself pulling all-nighters to keep all the commitments I’d made. Or worse, asking people for multiple extensions to allow me to catch up on deadlines I missed.

Now, as I continue to track my time, I can look back through my log notebook and see how long different types of projects really take. How many words I can really write in an hour. How many pages I can really edit in a day.

I’m not perfect. I still sometimes I bite off more than I can chew, and I fall behind on one project or another–especially if it’s a new challenge, something I’ve never attempted before. (I had a little bit of that with the plotting webinars last month, and am working extra hours to catch up there.)

But I’m getting better as I continue to log my time.

#5: It increases my sense of satisfaction with my day.

Psychological studies have shown that crossing things off a list doesn’t make you feel happier about what you’ve done–the opposite, in fact. It makes you feel like you’re behind and you’ve got to work through your list just to get back to ground zero (i.e. a blank to-do list).

Those same studies have shown that making a list of the things you’ve accomplished, however, significantly boosts how happy you feel about your day.

Let me repeat that, because it’s really important. The simple act of writing down what you did each day makes you happier.

I’ve told so many people about the incredible increases of productivity I’ve gotten from this simple tool.

And everyone is excited about it until they realize it isn’t some cool piece of tech. Then they get that look on their faces that tells me they’re not going to try it.

Because it seems too simple.

You’d think they’d be delighted. Just write everything you do down and you’ll be more productive. Add a time stamp as you chronicle your daily achievements, and time management becomes a piece of cake.

But instead, their reaction is often somewhere between disdain and disbelief.

There’s a psychological reason for that too–we tend to want the complexity of our solutions to match the perceived complexity of the problem.

In other words, if I live with a problem for years, and then I discover that something incredibly simple fixes it…I feel like an idiot for not seeing that solution when the problem first started.

So instead, we rationalize. We come up with all sorts of reasons why that simple solution won’t work before we try it, and that saves us from having to feel dumb for not having seen the solution sooner.

But here’s the thing. We’re not dumb. We’re just overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, and we don’t often have the luxury of sitting down and really thinking about our lives. Or we get so much advice that we don’t have time to evaluate, so we ignore it all and keep on doing things the way we always have. We miss the simple fixes as we run from one task to the other, constantly trying to catch our deadlines.

I’m not saying that you should be anal-retentive and chronicle every last minute of each day for the rest of your life.

It’s a great exercise to do for a week, though, to get a clearer picture of how you manage your time.

It’s also a fantastic tool for keeping yourself focused during your scheduled work time or writing time.

Just knowing that you’re going to be writing down the next thing you do makes it easier to choose a worthwhile task over a waste-of-time activity.

I only log the hours that I’ve set aside for working–the rest of my time is my time, to spend with loved ones, to do fun things.

So if you’re wondering why you seem to work for hours and get nothing done, or if you feel like your schedule is completely out of your control, please consider logging your time for a few days. It’s an eye-opening experience.

And once you’ve done it, I’d love to hear what you learned!

How to Squeeze More Writing Into Your Day: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers

You’ve probably heard other writers talk about how they eked out writing time when they were first starting out. The new mom who wrote during her baby’s fifteen minute naps. The engineer who skipped coffee and cigarette breaks for the sake of getting a few more paragraphs written. The nurse who wrote an entire novel while waiting for the bus. Jane Austen is said to have written a sentence or two at a time as she paused between carrying out her other responsibilities.

It sounds like such a great idea, doesn’t it? Find all those little dead spaces in your schedule and use them to get more writing done.

That’s exactly what I thought the first time I heard one of those stories. I immediately booted up my computer, set the microwave timer to fifteen minutes, and…nothing.

I sat there for the entire fifteen minutes without adding a single word to my novel.

It wasn’t that I got distracted and started surfing the web or had a sudden, urgent need to reorganize my desk. Even though I had a plot outline, I simply didn’t know what to write next.

Maybe I’m the kind of writer that needs big blocks of time to write, I concluded. Maybe I need more warm-up time than other writers.

But in spite of that first failure, I still loved the idea of being able to turn all that wasted time into writing time. Again and again I attempted the fifteen minute writing exercise, and each time failed miserably.

Until a clever friend made a suggestion. “You’re a plotter,” she pointed out. “Maybe you need more structure to write in short bursts.”

Eureka! I discovered that I could start writing immediately if I gave myself very specific parameters. I decided I would spend ten minutes writing the part of the scene where the bus explodes.

During the next ten minute session, I wrote my protagonist’s reaction to the bus explosion.

In the next one, I wrote the part where the dazed bus driver tries to stop my protagonist from fleeing before the police arrived.

In other words, I broke the scene into beats (meaningful units of action) and focused on writing one beat at a time.

Writing in bursts throughout the day not only gave me an opportunity to make a bit of progress during my less-than-exciting workday, it also kept me in touch with my character’s world during the day.

In the evenings, when I did have a big block of time to write, I was eager to write more because I’d been thinking about my characters all day, and I didn’t need a half hour to get back into my heroine’s point of view. Once I trained myself to focus on a single beat of action rather than the whole scene, I found I could start writing within a couple minutes of opening my draft.

Another advantage of writing like this is that I no longer waste as much time getting stuck in the middle of a scene. I might not know everything that has to happen in a scene, but I can figure out the key events that have to happen at this point of the story, and I can write those in short bursts. Then later, I can go back and stitch those key events together by adding transitions and filling in the holes.

You don’t need a plot outline to do this, either. (Remember, my plot outline didn’t help me at all when it came to writing like this.) As long as you can figure out what the next beat in the story should be, you can set a timer and just write that beat of action.

I’m not suggesting that you stop setting aside big blocks of time to write. There’s nothing like the high that comes from having written an entire chapter and knowing that you’ve gotten significantly closer to finishing the story. Short bursts of timed writing are a way to boost your productivity outside of your regularly scheduled writing sessions.

Sometimes I use the timer technique even when I do have a big block of time, because it helps me build momentum. I make a list of all the beats in a scene, and then I go down the list, setting a timer for each one. As my momentum builds, the scene will take shape in my mind, and eventually I’ll realize that the timer went off forty minutes ago and I was so engrossed in writing that I didn’t notice. Focusing on one beat at a time can help you get more done during longer writing sessions as well.

Don’t write in beats? Do you think better in layers? No problem. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and write just the dialogue for a scene. Next time you have a fifteen minute block, add in all the physical action. Third fifteen minute block, add interior monologue. Fourth block, add setting descriptions. Fifth block, add body language. Keep layering scene elements in until the scene is fully fleshed out.

Again, take a moment before each writing session to identify specific parameters. Before you write the dialogue layer, ask yourself: “What is the main topic the characters will discuss?”

Before writing the physical action layer, ask yourself: “What will the characters be doing while they have this conversation?”

Before writing the setting layer, ask yourself, “Where are the characters and what objects will they interact with?”

Writing like this probably won’t feel natural to you immediately. It took me about three weeks of training myself to write by focusing on single beats of action, and for most of those three weeks I wondered if I was wasting my time. Like any new writing method, this takes practice to master.

Set aside a fifteen minute block every day, separate from your usual writing time, and if it helps take the pressure off, work on something other than your work-in-progress. Remind yourself that this is merely a new technique that you’re learning. Don’t expect your first attempt to yield 500 words of pure gold—look at this as a training exercise that will increase your productivity over the next few months.

But I don’t want to write in short bursts, you say. I’ll just be getting warmed up when the timer goes off, and when I hear that beep, I’ll feel frustrated.

That will happen. Let me suggest that it isn’t a bad thing.

What’s being frustrated here? Your desire to write. When you feel that little surge of frustration because you want to write more, recognize that what you’re feeling is your creative drive.

Embrace that drive! It’s the source of motivation. You know, that thing that keeps you from procrastinating? A couple fifteen-minute writing sessions during the day can keep your motivation stoked, so that by the time you’re finished with dinner, you’re chomping at the bit to write the scene that you started on your lunch break.

When you feel that frustration, promise yourself that you’re going to sit down and write more that evening (or whenever your next writing session falls), and keep that promise, even if all you can manage is another fifteen minutes before bed.

The more you practice, the easier it gets to write in short bursts. You’ll train your brain to enter the flow state more quickly and easily, so you’ll waste less time getting into the story even when you’ve got lots of time to write. Even better, you’ll start looking forward to those fifteen-minute breaks in your day because the next two or three paragraphs are practically boiling over in your brain and you can’t wait to get them down.

Time Management for Writers: The Kaizen Approach

Have you ever set aside time for writing–maybe even blocked that time off on your calendar in pen–but then skipped it anyway?

How often do you sit down at your desk at the appointed time, intending to start writing as soon as you send a quick email–then realize you’ve spent your allotted writing time surfing the web?

You might think that you need to learn time management skills. But if you already know how to block off time on a calendar and you understand how to prioritize your to-do list, you’ve got time management skills. What you really need are some self-management skills: tricks to help you stay motivated and focused, so that you’ll actually write during your scheduled sessions.

The kaizen approach is perfect for self-management. “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is the strategy of improving a process by making small, gradual changes that support your desired outcome. You make a single change, and when that new way of doing things has become a habit, you make another change.

Because small changes only require small amounts of willpower, you’re less likely to give up than if you were to make a bigger change. For example, rather than forcing yourself to get up an hour earlier to write before work, you could start by setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and you go to bed 15 minutes earlier. After a week or two, your body adjusts to the new time and you do it again, until you’ve shifted your schedule back an hour and are now used to the new wake-up time. Continue reading