Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 3): the power of routine
Ah, 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
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. 😉
February 17, 2014 @ 1:21 pm
As always, fantastic advice! (and 5 AM? EVERY DAY?!? You are my hero!) My question is what to do when you’re not at home. Most of the time I am, but I seem to travel more and more each year, sometimes travelling abroad up to 5 times a year. This means a lot of time in airports, hotels, and at my family’s homes, so my routine is disrupted. What do you do when you’re away from home? Do you stick to your notebook and headphones ritual, even if you won’t have much time to write? I always bring at least a notebook, if not my Macbook or iPad to write on, with the best intentions, but I find nearly every time I travel, I slip out of any good habits I might be cultivating. I’d love your thoughts on this 🙂
February 17, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
Usually, I accept that travel time is no-write time. It really depends on the trip, though. I always have my notebook just in case I have the time or inclination to write (which definitely happens on more relaxed trips), but on busy business trips, I don’t even try to make myself work (because then I’ll just feel guilty when I don’t).
If you’re really determined to work while traveling, then by all means do! Use your rituals to reach creative flow no matter the situation. 🙂 I just find I’m too mentally depleted for that when I travel (for business, at least). My routines are for at-home, “normal” life.
February 18, 2014 @ 10:30 pm
I actually love routine (not like Groundhog Day type routine, but just familiarity of knowing what I’m going to be doing.) I think I’m way more productive that way and feel better about what I’ll be accomplishing if I know ahead of time what I should be doing.
I, too, wake up around the same time everyday (much like you, the furry-ones are taken care of first! HAHA!!) Same breakfast? Check! (But in my defense, I’m a very picky eater and have some food allergies…so that leaves me limited…)
I really loved this post, Sooz! Now, I need to get more of a routinized schedule around my writing, not just sometimes, but like all the time, and I think I’ll get WAY more done than I’m doing now. Routine wins!! <3
I'd gladly take a copy of Strange and Ever After off your hands. Just sayin' 😉 <3
February 21, 2014 @ 5:32 pm
Yay! I’m glad you already have a pretty set routine–I think it makes adding writing to the routine easier. 🙂 GOOD LUCK!! I’d love to hear if you manage to make it work. 🙂
February 19, 2014 @ 4:41 am
You are my hero. I’ve been getting more and more discouraged about having energy to write lately and it turns out, I’ve probably been wasting my energy on the wrong things! I’m going to try very hard to warm myself into more of a routine and I’m going to start with making the morning more mindless.
You’re the best, Sooz!
February 21, 2014 @ 5:33 pm
Yayyyy, Leigh!! I am so glad to hear this helped you!! It took me some time to get my routine in stone, but man–the difference it made once i t was!
Best of luck with it!! <3
February 19, 2014 @ 8:20 pm
“When you make writing a part of your daily routine, you stop fearing it.” I LOVE this thought. I’m working on editing my first book, and I think fear has played a big part in slowing me down. Mostly fear of the HUGE amount of work I have to do before I’m done. This series has been so helpful to me! I feel like it’s helped me to just take a deep breath and start tackling the beast of revision. I’m so lucky because I’ve been given the chance to write full time and I want to utilize my time well. I was actually doing some research on productivity when I stumbled across your series, and as I begin to put some of these and other techniques into practice, I am seeing progress!
Establishing a daily routine is something I’ve been working on for the past two weeks. It really is like trial and error. I love your point about the small stuff subtracting from your focus. I find that I need to get up and get to work first thing. If I don’t, all of those “small things” distract me, and before I know it the day is over and I’ve accomplished nothing!
Okay I’m gonna stop gushing. Thanks again for this series, can’t wait to read the rest of it!
February 21, 2014 @ 5:35 pm
Oh, I know THAT fear well. Every time I start a new book or finish a draft and see ALLLLLLL that still ahead….yeah, I usually want to cry in the corner. 😉 But that’s where routine and small daily goals can make such a vast difference. I’ll talk about this more later, but making your goals daily and also keeping track of how much you accomplish each day can help so much in keeping motivation high. Plus, if you have this routine of writing/working everyday, then it gets done without you having to STRESS about whether or not it will get done. (Does that make sense? I think I might be rambling now.)
Anyway, I’m glad you like this post, Poppy. <3
C. A. Mitchell
April 30, 2014 @ 11:25 am
Love this! And 5am? That’s hardcore! I thought I was being all goody-two-shoes getting up at 6, but I bow to your superior ninja-style discipline. Good grief, I’d be in my bed by tea-time if I had to get up at 5… I’m a routine-fiend, but sometimes find I can over-routinise or change my routines too often (which totally defeats the purpose – I know!) What’s been working for me lately is routine in the morning to get my writing and yoga done, then later on in the day I try to be a bit freer and play around with drawing/music etc. Have you read Julia Cameron’s Artist Way? Definitely worth a read, and the morning pages are a great tool for ironing out any kinks or blocks. Thanks for the great article 🙂
May 1, 2014 @ 6:30 pm
Yes!! That was actually one of the very first books I ever read about writing. 😀
February 18, 2016 @ 2:48 am
What advice would you give to a student at university and finding routine to write? I’m currently in my 2nd year of uni studying English Lit & Creative Writing. However, at the moment i have this strong gut feeling and passion to focus on writing. I usually have a couple frees in between lessons, and i have every Wednesday, and Friday off as well as weekend. So how would you balance studying/writing and finding a set routine every day? 😀 would love your advice Susan!
Thank you so much for your articles and blog posts! I’m trying to make my way through each of them and take notes every day at the moment! So insightful and helpful. Makes me want to strive for it even more! Your amazing!