As Camp NaNoWriMo begins and Spring Break ends, I’ve been thinking about how to be more productive and write a little more once school is back in session. You might be in the same situation, or you might be out of school holding down a job; you might have other things on your hands. No matter! Everyone is busy with something. The struggle of being a writer is balancing a non-writer’s schedule with writerly habits and productivity.
So how does one get productive and write, even while they’re up to their eyes in other work?
Here are my top 5 tips for staying productive even when there’s lots to do and so little time. For those of you struggling to be productive in other areas (schoolwork, job, etc.) simply replace writing with whatever you’re trying to get done. These tips can be universally applied to just about anything.
1. Actually block off some time for writing and writing only. It’s the most cliche line in the book, but it’s also the most important. You can’t write well if you’re jotting down a sentence or two between classes–thoughts get disjointed, and you’re certainly not being very productive if by the end of the day you look back at the three sentences you scribbled and have to scrap all of them because they don’t really flow.
Get up earlier or stay up later. If you truly can’t cram a 30 minute (or longer) block of free time in somewhere, make your schedule work for you. Personally, I wake up about an hour earlier than I really need to so that I can work out and shower before school. Go check out CollegeInfoGeek (Thomas Frank)’s article about creating a productive morning routine. Honestly, even if you’re not writing in the mornings, waking up a little earlier can help you get stuff out of the way that you’d normally be doing later (walking the dog, filing papers, editing a thesis, etc.)
2. Find a place for writing and writing only. A little psychology here–when you find a spot to write in, and writing is the only thing you do in that spot, your brain will automatically begin to get into “writing mode” faster and easier. “But I only have one desk!” you say. That’s alright. Find a local library. Use the kitchen table. Find a cheap table on Craigslist and relocate to your garage. Anything that gets you away from where you’re normally procrastinating or doing other non-writing work.
Personally, I try to use a “library” at my apartment complex. It’s little more than a room painted blue with about two shelves on the wall holding a handful of books, but it’s got free wifi and a really, really big table so I can spread out everything I need to get done. I go there to do homework, study, and write, since my desk at home (where I’m slowly typing this right now) provides all sorts of distractions and ideas that have nothing to do with what I should be doing. It’s really all in the mind–certain places promote studying and productivity while others nudge you in the wrong direction.
3. Divide up the work. Are you working on editing a draft, rewriting some chapters, and creating scene note cards? Take those tasks and do them separately. Now, that doesn’t mean doing them all at a time–one can certainly burn out after about 100 note cards. By all means, don’t do all that at one time. Instead, do a little of each task and then move onto the next when you feel you’ve got a good amount done. Rewrite a chapter or two, then make scene note cards for them. Then edit a little. Rinse and repeat.
A great method for doing this is the Pomodoro method. It’s a method discovered by researchers trying to find the most productive study habits. It’s pretty simple: work for a full 25 minutes, break for 5, then work for another 25 minutes. Every 4 “pomodoros” or 25 minute work sessions, take a break for 10 minutes instead. The whole thing will look something like 25, 5, 25, 5, 25, 5, 25, 10, 25…. You’ll maintain your sanity and get a lot more work done. Here’s an online timer specifically set up for the Pomodoro method.
4. Add some fun. This is a little cliche and easier said than done, but make what you’re doing fun.
Find something you love to do and add it into the mix. You really like pretzels? (Who doesn’t, right?) Eat a pretzel for every note card you make. You love to draw? Draw your characters while trying to develop them. Resident computer geek? Make blogs or webpages for different locations and settings to develop them. (A bonus to this is if you’re ever published you can link to these pages on your author’s website and make your world seem more interactive and fun to your readers!) This tip is a little lame, but trust me–if you’re dreading your slot of writing time, doing something to spice it up a little will feed your muse and creativity. You might feel like you’ve wasted your time taking personality tests for all your characters, but it will leave you a little more excited to sit down and write next time–and that’s going to boost your productivity in the long run. Don’t be afraid to include some fun and a break in the schedule every once in a while!
5. Find what works for you. The fact is, everyone is different. I might be more productive with some background music, and you might need to block out all noise. My ideal study environment might be a library and yours might be with friends at Starbucks. The Pomodoro method might not work for you (honestly, I don’t find it all that productivity-increasing–I only mentioned it because others have used it and really found it helpful.) None of these tips might work for you! And the most important piece of advice I can give you is to take time to find what works best for you. Don’t take advice just because you trust the person giving it to you. Experiment and discover the habits and ideas that work best for you. None of these other tips are proof of productivity–knowing how to make yourself do your best is the mark of a productive writer.
Currently, I’m procrastinating a lot of things. I need to finish up my work out that I stopped in the middle of to go take care of a friend’s dog while she’s away. I need to work on a few projects for school due on Monday. I need to write a few thousand words of character development for Camp NaNoWriMo. My plan of action involves a number of the tips I’ve listed above–I’m heading down to the library in a bit to study, I’ll probably draw the character I’m developing and make his blog (which is DnD themed and is how he makes his living), and I may need to use the Pomodoro method to stay focused.
What sorts of stuff do you need to get done today? And how are you going to get it done?
For some extra accountability and motivation, leave your list of tasks in the comments. Make sure to follow up with whether or not you finished them and what you did to increase your productivity!