More than a year ago, I joined a different kind of writing group than I usually participate in: instead of emphasizing craft and critiques, this group focuses on building a writing habit.
I joined because I was hoping that peer pressure would motivate me to write more.
It worked even better than I expected. I had to check in daily to report my progress, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed.
As I got into the rhythm of daily writing sessions, I started to experience an odd sense of relief when I sat down to write each day. In the past I’d always felt conflicted about writing–as soon as my butt hit the chair, I’d be slammed with a wave of guilt about all the other things I should be doing.
But knowing that other people expected me to write made the writing feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like a priority.
Not too surprising, right?
That isn’t the best part.
In addition to reporting my progress, I was also required to answer a series of questions about each day’s writing session, including:
How creative did I feel that day?
What negative thoughts did I experience as I was writing?
What obstacles did I have to overcome to write?
At first, I thought these questions were a waste of time. But it was part of the group’s process, so I answered them anyway.
When I started seeing the patterns in my answers, I was shocked.
I thought I knew what factors were influencing how much I wrote: what mood I was in, how healthy I was, and whether or not I was feeling inspired.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It turns out that my mood didn’t correlate with how much I wrote on a given day. I didn’t write more on days where I was happy, and I didn’t write less on days when I was annoyed or had the blahs.
I discovered that if I wrote at my scheduled time, I wrote about the same amount whether I felt great or had a cold. Hayfever and other everyday physical complaints didn’t decrease my output at all.
While I’m not the type to wait for inspiration–I know that it often strikes when you’re already working–I did assume that I need inspiration to have a really productive day.
Not so, it turns out. In fact, I often wrote more on the days that I felt less inspired. It’s possible that I was pushing myself in the hopes that inspiration would come. Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction I felt on the days when my muse was generous made it easier to quit early.
In other words, how I feel–physically, emotionally, creatively–is not an accurate predictor of how much I’ll be able to write.
Seeing the cold, hard data made it impossible to ignore the patterns. For years, I’ve been allowing myself to skip writing sessions when my mood was bad or when hayfever had my sinuses in an uproar. And I’d been blaming my uninspired days for my slow progress.
My faulty assumptions about how my creative process works were keeping me from reaching my full potential as a writer.
So what factors did affect how much I wrote each day?
Only two: sleep and how active my inner critic was.
Days where I got eight hours of sleep or more were days where I exceeded my word count goal.
Days where I got less than eight hours of sleep were days with lower word/page counts.
Days where I got less than seven hours of sleep were days where I struggled to write anything.
And as for my inner critic–recording the negative thoughts I experienced as I sat down to write was enlightening. There was an almost perfect correlation between how many negative thoughts I experienced and how little I wrote.
And the thing that really stinks: my inner critic doesn’t know what it’s talking about!
When I went back to look at the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was throwing a tantrum, I discovered that they weren’t any worse than the things I wrote on days when my inner critic was silent. They both required about the same amount of editing.
That’s right. My inner critic wasn’t helping me improve the quality of my writing. At all.
Now that I’ve seen the real factors that affect my productivity as a writer, I’m doing things a little differently.
1. I don’t let how I feel on a given day determine whether or not I write.
2. I go to bed at a reasonable time, knowing that I’m increasing my capacity to write tomorrow.
3. I’m exploring ways of taming my inner critic.
Just knowing that my inner critic isn’t giving good advice makes it easier for me let those negative comments go. When the voice in my head tells me I’m writing crap, I now shrug and reply, “That’s your opinion.”
The group has also taught me that positively reframing my inner critic’s negative comments helps take the sting out of them.
When I find myself thinking that I’ll never finish this novel, for example, I remind myself that I don’t have to finish it today. I just have to write the next scene.
Challenging my assumptions about what factors affect my creative process has allowed me to more than double my writing productivity in a mere two months. I encourage you to do same.
Make a list of the things you think are affecting your productivity. Time of day you’re writing, noise levels, diet, sleep, inspiration, mood, exercise. If you’re not sure what to track, start with your usual excuses. What are the things you usually blame on the days you decide not to write?
For the next month, commit to writing for at least five minutes each day, and track each productivity factor at the end of your writing session. You might track hours of sleep, or rate your energy levels on a scale of 1-10, or simply note your mood at the time you started your writing session. You might start a list of negative thoughts and put a checklist by the ones that show up as you write each day. Whatever you think is important, track it.
At the end of the month, look for patterns. Did you write more on days when you felt blah and less on days when you felt angry? Did your output go down on the days when all you ate was pizza and milk duds? Did you discover that you write best after a brief nap or a snuggle session with your cat?
Once you see the patterns, you’ll know exactly what you need to change to become a more prolific author.