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.
Small Steps for Improving Motivation
Stay connected with your core idea. What thrills you about this story? What fascinates you about these characters? What are you dying to say to your readers? If you stay focused on the elements of the story that you find most inspiring, you’re more likely to feel excited about writing it.
Take Action: Make a list of the things that are cool about this story and review them daily as part of your pre-writing ritual. Or write your three-sentence blurb on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen.
Tap into your dominant motivation. According to Stephen P. Kelner Jr., author of Motivate Your Writing: Using Motivational Psychology to Energize Your Writing Life, people tend to have one dominant motivation that drives their creative work: achievement, affiliation, or influence.
An achievement-oriented writer gets excited about improving their craft and meeting challenges; if that’s you, comparing your early writing to your current writing or setting and meeting interesting challenges might get you going again when you’re stuck.
An affiliation-oriented writer is moved to action by the knowledge that they are helping others or by the desire not to disappoint; if that’s you, promising to deliver your rough draft to a critique partner by a certain date may help you through the rough patches.
An influence-oriented writer is motivated at the thought of how other people are going to react to their work; if that’s you, showing a reliable beta reader an early draft or reading reviews of your already-published work may snap you out of the doldrums.
You have all three motivations, of course; the goal is to figure out which one is the strongest for you and use it to drive your writing.
Take Action: Think about experiences you’ve had in the past that made you want to write more. What motivation(s) did those experiences tap into? How can you harness that motivation to drive your daily writing sessions?
Set milestones. If you set a goal of writing 1500 words each day and you meet it, you’re giving yourself a series of achievable short-term goals that allow you to experience success over and over again. If you focus on the goal of writing 90,000 words in three months, you’re limiting yourself to one success for the entire manuscript, and postponing gratification for so long that you might subconsciously have trouble believing that you’re ever going to reach it.
Take Action: Make a list of the milestones for your current project and celebrate each one that you meet.
Track your progress and share it with a critique partner or friend. Psychological studies have shown repeatedly that when you know someone else is watching, you’re more likely to do what you’re supposed to. Reporting in with progress reports on a regular basis harnesses this inherent quirk of the human psyche.
Take Action: Decide what you’re going to track (hours, pages, words, scenes) and start writing down your daily progress. Buddy up with a critique partner to report in to, or post your daily progress on your blog.
Visualize the right way. You’ve probably already heard that visualization can help you achieve your goals. But what should you be visualizing? A 1999 study examined two groups of students: one visualized the outcome they wanted (a good score on an exam) and the other group visualized the process needed to get that outcome (studying for the exam). The group who visualized process spent more time studying and received higher grades than the group who only visualized their desired outcome.
Take Action: Set aside three minutes in the morning (maybe right after you hit that snooze button?) and visualize yourself in your workspace, writing your novel.
Take care of your body. It’s hard to sustain a healthy mind in an unhealthy body, and harder to keep the creativity flowing when you’re exhausted or deficient in the nutrients your brain needs to function properly. Because writers spend so much time sitting, exercise is probably our most neglected physical need. But don’t forget sleep, good nutrition, and periodic relaxation/stress release, which are also crucial for a healthy lifestyle.
Take Action: What small changes could you make to your lifestyle that would improve your health? Take a multivitamin? Take a ten minute walk? Go to bed earlier? Spend a few minutes making a list, and choose four to add to your routine (one per week) over the next month.
Small Steps for Improving Focus
Set a well-defined goal for each writing session. “Write” is not as good a goal as “write the scene where my heroine gets kidnapped.” The second one suggests an image, doesn’t it? And it’s got a built-in beginning and end: at the beginning of the scene, your heroine is free; at the end of the scene, she’s somebody’s prisoner. Now you can focus on filling in the middle.
Take Action: When you end a writing session, take a minute to write down the next step for your story in concrete form, so when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll have a clearer idea where to start.
Set the timer and sit with your manuscript open for ten minutes. You don’t have to write any new words, but you have to have your eyes on the manuscript for the entire ten minutes. If you’re moved to edit, that’s fine. If you’d like to just stare at the words you’ve already written, go ahead. Making this a daily habit is a great way to stay connected to your story when you’re feeling uninspired, and it ensures that when the muse returns, you’ll already have time set aside to write down whatever she whispers in your ear.
Take Action: As soon as you turn on your computer in the morning, or as soon as you’re free in the evening to start writing, open the file containing your WIP. Get those ten minutes in before you do anything else.
Set up your environment to help you focus. Maybe you’re one of those lucky few who can write while the TV is on, the dog is chewing on the sofa, and small children are screaming in your ear. (If so, give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve got amazing focus.) For the rest of us, it helps to minimize distractions in the area where we’re going to write. This includes visual distractions (clutter, or materials for projects you’re not actively working on at the moment), aural distractions (people talking, phone ringing, loud music, email program pinging every time you get a new message), or kinesthetic distractions (uncomfortable chair, room temperature too hot or cold, area feels crowded).
Take Action: Go sit in your workspace at the time you usually write and pay attention to how being there makes you feel. Stay there for at least five minutes. What changes would make it more comfortable? Earplugs? A desk fan? Moving everything off your desk except your laptop and the file containing the notes for your WIP? Make a list and remove one distraction per week until you’re happy with the space.
Delegate some of the work to your subconscious. There are lots of different ways you can keep your subconscious working on a story while you’re doing other things.
- While you’re falling asleep, think about the scene you’re going to write tomorrow.
- If something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself a question about it before you go to sleep. (You might want to put a journal and pen on your nightstand in case you wake up in the middle of the night with the answer.) Also ask the question out loud several times during the day, to remind your subconscious that it’s supposed to be working on it.
- Read your plot outline, story notes, or a section of your draft before bed. If you’re having a day where you know you won’t have even fifteen minutes to write, try to find five minutes to do this during the day as well.
Take Action: Choose one of the above techniques for subconscious delegation and try them for a couple of weeks.
It’s easy to assume that because a problem feels big or complex, the solution has to be just as big or complex. But sometimes the devil really is in the details, and a quick tweak is all you need to send him back where he belongs.
Lynn Johnston blogs about how to take control of your life 10 minutes at a time using the kaizen approach: http://www.smallstepstobigchange.com
Each week, readers of her blog receive a small, simple step they can use to improve some area of their lives.
She’s also the author of several books on the kaizen approach, including The Kaizen Plan for Organized Authors: Take Control of Your Writing Career 10 Minutes at a Time (Open Clearing Press, October 2011).
Connect with Lynn: