Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 3): the power of routine

RoutineAh, routine. The second step on the Productivity Pyramid. In case you’re new to the series, you can learn more here:

Now back to routine. I almost made this the base of the Productivity Pyramid because it can be so powerful for productivity–and not just creative productivity, but for all aspects of your life.

Ultimately, though, I settled on ritual as the base because I realize not everyone can routinize their everyday life. Also, rituals can allow you to reach creative flow at any point in the day–something a routine is not able to do.

Plus, a routine can eventually become a ritual–and it’s no surprise. The definitions are very similar. As I mentioned last Monday, a ritual is “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.” (from Merriam-Webster)

Meanwhile, a routine is “habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure.” (from Merriam-Webster) Notice how routine has habit built into it! That’s important–and ultimately why rituals and habits had to come first on the Productivity Pyramid.

So for example, my morning routine has become a habit. I go through the exact same actions in the exact same order every freakin’ morning.

When my light alarm blinks on at 5 AM (best gift from my husband ever!), I roll out of bed and let my dogs out. While they’re out, I eat an apple and make a cup of coffee. Then I straggle into my office, pull out my notebook and pen, push in my headphones, and get to work.

I do that every single morning. Even weekends. That is the first part of my daily routine. It is also the ritual that leads up to my most productive creative time of the day.

Basically, if you practice your routine long enough–if you build your rituals and cues into your day–then ultimately everything about your schedule can become second nature.

But ugh! Routines!

Sooz, are you mad? Why would I want to have every day be the same? Yuck! That sounds awful! I want adventure, I want change, I want to experience the day–not just plod through the same way for the rest of my life!

Well, I hear your complaints, and all I can say is that I used to be the same. And while my day to day life on a macro scale is most certainly the same, the small pieces of the day are wonderfully different.

And my creative flow sessions? Those are never the same! Those are always exciting, new, and incredibly empowering for me.

But what makes routine incredibly powerful–possibly even more so than ritual–is that it can bust the FRABs better than any other productivity technique.

Why? Because if creative time is a routine part of your day, then it’s not scary. It’s like making dinner or driving to work–and unless you make dinner in the Hunger Games or drive to work through the Walking Dead, then those shouldn’t be scary parts of your day. They’re just a matter of daily course. Period.

And so too can your writing be a matter of daily course. Or any creative time, for that matter.

So our goal this week is twofold:

1. We want to make writing a routine,

2. And we want to routinize other parts of our day so our brains don’t have to waste precious brain power.

Writing as Routine

As I said above, when writing is part of your daily routine, it’s not scary. It’s just what you do at X time everyday. In two weeks (sorry! I’l be  traveling next week and plan to give away a copy of Strange & Ever After to compensate!), I’ll talk about rhythym, which will allow you to pick the best time of the day for creative work. But for now, you can go ahead and start looking at your daily schedule and pick a time to pencil in “Creativity!”

Once that time is blocked out on your schedule–and blocked out regularly (preferably everyday)–you must commit to it. The only way to transform your writing routine into second nature is to do it consistently. Just like a ritual, you must go through your routine often enough for your brain to internalize it.

So for example, my brain has completely internalized my morning routine. There is absolutely no thinking required. When my alarm turns on at 5, I might yawn and scowl a few times, but I always get up. Then the rest of the routine just falls into place–including the writing.

And because I do this every single day, I’m not scared of the creative time. My FRABs are miles away for those morning sessions because my 5 AM creative time is simply what happens everyday between waking up and breakfast.

Do you maybe see how liberating that can be? Even though the rest of my day might get disrupted and my routine might fall apart, I ALWAYS have that 5 AM session of productive time.

And like I said in the first week, working a little bit every single day will carry you to “The End” way faster than you might think.

Here are some other fun (and productive) author routines:

On most days, [P.G. Wodehouse] would get up at half past seven, go out onto the porch at the back door, and do the “daily dozen” sequence of calisthenic exercises he had performed every day since 1920. While Ethel, always a late riser, was still upstairs in bed, Wodehouse would prepare his regular breakfast — toast and honey or marmalade, a slice of coffee cake and a mug of tea — and, as part of the early morning routine, he would read a “breakfast book,” for example a Rex Stout or Ngaio Marsh mystery. Then he would light the first pipe of the day, crumbling the cigars Peter Schwed sent him into the bowl in preference to pipe tobacco. At nine o’clock, after a short walk with some of the dogs, he would retire to his study, a spacious, pine-clad room overlooking the garden, for the morning’s work. His writing methods had not changed in years. He would sit and brood in a favourite armchair, draft a paragraph or two in pencil, then move to the typewriter, sitting under a Victorian oil painting of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Lombard Street offices. — from Wodehouse: A Life, via Daily Routines

Well, that is quite a specific daily routine if I ever heard one! And of course, it was also quite a productive one. P.G. Wodehouse wrote almost 100 novels in his lifetime!

Then there was Roald Dahl, who–despite having his strict routine–could still take up to 6 months for a single short story. (So imagine how long it might’ve taken him to draft without his routine!)

Settled into a writing career, [Roald Dahl] lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10 A.M. until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4 to 6 P.M. — from The New York Times, November 24, 1990, via Daily Routines

And, of course, there’s the SUPER strict, SUPER impressive schedule of Haruki Murakami:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity. — The Paris Review, Summer 2004, via Daily Routines

I am more than a little envious of Murakami’s routine. Just imagine being able to fall so completely into your writing–and to also eliminate outside noise by adhering to a bare-bones routine…Yeah, it sounds like heaven to me. 😉

Routinize the “Small” Stuff

I swear part of what makes my morning sessions so productive is the fact that I don’t have to think at all before sitting down with my notebook. I’m wearing pajamas, I have an apple, I go to the same spot on the same couch, and my notebook/printed scene + pen + headphones are already waiting for me.

Removing the “think” factor is critical to really opening up your creative channels.

Remember how I said in the first week that your daily willpower is limited? It’s like a muscle, and it can quickly burn out.

Roy Baumeister did the first experiments on this phenomenon, known as “ego depletion,” showing that the exertion of willpower in one area makes it harder to exert it on another task later.

–from the essay “Pogromming your Daily Habits” by Scott Young in Maximize Your Potential

Making decisions, answering emails, checking your Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr–ALL of that can deplete your self-control. So if you start your day with that stuff,  you’re just subtracting from the focus you can use later in the day.

This willpower depletion is actually why President Obama always wears the same suits.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” — from Vanity Fair

Essentially, Obama saves his willpower for the stuff that actually matters. So why can’t we do the same? If we routinize as much of our day as we can, we’ll clear away headspace for the stuff we care about–from creative work to projects at your day job to even committing to a new diet/exercise regimen.

fewer decisions = more productive flow

I block out my day in hourly chunks and specify exactly what I'll do when. At the bottom, I have space for extra To Do stuff that pops up.
I block out my day in hourly chunks and specify exactly what I’ll do when (all the way down to what WIP, what scene). At the bottom, I have space for extra To Do stuff that pops up.

So for example, in my attempt to routinize my day, I started big. I time blocked my day like the brilliant Cal Newport suggests (he’s awesome; read his blog; learn how to time block here). This took me weeks of daily commitment, but I made myself do the same things at the same times everyday.

(Obviously, I’m in the lucky position of writing full-time, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t routinize your day even if you also have a day job.)

Once I felt like I had a really good handle on the macro pieces of my day*, I moved to the small stuff. I wanted to eliminate even the smaller decisions.

As an example, I walk my dogs everyday at the same time, and to make that as mindless as possible, I walk the same route every single day. No phone, no distractions, no decisions. (I doubt it’s a coincidence, either, that those walks are when I have the most aha! moments. My brain is completely free to do what it wants.)

Here are other examples from my own life as well as ideas for how YOU can reduce your daily decision pool:

    • Get your work ready the night before. I always lay out my spiral-bound notebook and/or printed scenes (if I’m revising) at my workstation (i.e. retro 60s couch) before I go to bed.
    • Figure out what you’ll wear the night before. This is easy for me since I can literally spend most of my life in pajamas. BUT, I do occasionally wear Real Attire, and when I do, I plan my outfit the night before.
    • Eat the same thing for breakfast everyday. I wake up with an apple, then 2 hours later, I have a full breakfast of eggs and sausage. (Yes, I do eat eggs and sausage–or bacon–every single morning.)
    • Get your lunch ready the night before–or else know exactly what you’re going to eat. My husband and I always have leftovers. It’s part of our routine to make enough dinner every night for lunch the next day.
    • On a similar note, plan a weekly menu. (I do this every Saturday morning. It was something I started for budgeting purposes, but it has had the added benefit of allowing me to never think, “What’s for lunch/dinner?”)
    • Drive/walk/travel the same route everyday. While this would serve you ill in the wild (those crocodiles are smart, man! They learn their prey’s habits and then waaaaiiiit accordingly), it can serve you well in modern society. I imagine you already go the same way every time if you commute to work, but just in case you don’t, I thought I’d mention it.

I’m sure you guys can think of other aspects you can routinize, so feel free to share them in the comments!

 The Power of Routine

I realize that routine and ritual overlap a lot, so hopefully you don’t feel like I’ve just rehashed what I talked about this week. As I said above, I think of routines as feeding off of rituals and habits. They’re almost a macro ritual that you do day-in and day-out.

What I think makes routines SO powerful, though, is how easily they can remove the FRABs from creative work. As mentioned (and as I will keep mentioning because I think it’s so incredible!), when you make writing a part of your daily routine, you stop fearing it. My morning creative sessions are no more frightening to me than having breakfast–writing is just what I do at 5 AM every morning. End of story.

Best of all, writing empowers me now! When I finish a writing session, I feel GOOD. It encourages me to do it again the next day…and the next day (the reward to my habit, remember?). So now, not only do I not fear writing, but I can’t WAIT for the creative part of my day! Every night is like Christmas Eve for me because I’m so excited for the next day’s creative session. (I am not even exaggerating.)

Quite simply, routine has been one of my major strategies for clearing away my FRABs and achieving my goal of “reaching creative freefall easily.”

In the next post of this series, I move onto the middle step of the Productivity Pyramid: rhythm, so be sure to check that out as well.

Now you tell me: Do you have a daily routine? Do you schedule in regular, routinized writing? And can you routinize other aspects of your life to give your brain more willpower for other projects?

*I knew my routine had become second nature for me because it had also become a routine for my dogs! They would wake up, yawning and ready to move, at the exact times I had scheduled in my breaks, meals, and dog-walks. Pretty cool, huh? They’ve basically become alarm clocks now. 😉