Increase Your Writing Productivity: the power of realism, reset, and record

Realism the Truthwitch deal and the Misfits & Daydreamers newsletter!

Anyway, we’re back to our regularly scheduled program today: the last post in the Increase Your Writing Productivity blog series. If you’re just joining the series, then make sure you read the earlier posts so that today’s makes sense:

This week, I’m talking about the final three steps on the Productivity Pyramid: realismreset, and record.

When I say realism, I mean setting realistic goals that you can actually reach.

When I refer to reset, I mean scheduling in valuable rest time so your muse/creative energy can recharge.

And when I say record, I mean keeping track of your daily accomplishments and progress. Each tactic can vastly improve your productivity and emotional energy during a creative project, but–unlike the previous stuff on the Productivity Pyramid–these steps aren’t vital. They can improve productivity, but without ritual, routine, or rhythm, they won’t completely transform your daily output.

So for today’s lesson, I’m assuming you’ve worked on understanding and honing your creative rituals, on establishing daily creative routines, and on finding your best energetic rhythms. Now moving on to…

The Power of Realism

If I may offer you a quick anecdote: This past weekend I made the mistake of setting myself a very UNrealistic goal. I somehow convinced myself on Friday that I could revise almost an entire book by Sunday night.

Basically, I am gutting the emotional arcs of 3 (out of my 4) POV characters in Truthwitch. Even though the first 300 of 460 pages were polished and ready for my editor, I decided that–in order to make my third act really sing–I would need to go allllll the way back to the beginning and rip apart these characters’ emotions.

I am, basically, starting over. Yikes. That sounds like a huge undertaking as I type this, so why the heck I thought I could do it all in 2 days (and write a blog post too) is beyond me. BUT, up until Saturday night, I was still shooting for that totally unrealistic goal…Then, at around 11 PM on Saturday, it dawned on me: I’d broken one of my own cardinal rules–I was aiming for something completely unobtainable, no matter how many hours I worked.

So I let go of the goal. Right then and there, I set a new goal: to revise these POVs by the end of Wednesday. That is a realistic goal, and it allows for the inevitable distraction time…as well as meals. And sleep. And the occasional shower. 😛

As soon as I had this new self-imposed deadline, a tension in my shoulders (that I hadn’t even realized was there) unwound. I found myself sinking that even more deeply into my 3 POVs. On top of that, my hourly productivity skyrocketed. It’s Sunday night as I write this, and I have almost reached my original goal–I’m only 2 scenes away. Pretty cool, huh? And maybe you see why I shared this story…

Unrealistic goals are stressful. Stress turns your work into crap. Crap means you work more slowly and end up only missing your deadline. Worse, because you wrote crap, you have to work longer and harder than you ever originally needed to.

Long story short: Set realistic goals. How do I do that? I set low goals and I make sure they’re daily. These are goals that I know I can hit, even on a bad day. Remember: Don’t think that your best day should be everyday. Yes, I can write 10,000 words in a day, but it isn’t easy for me. Which means I should not be aiming to hit 10,000 words every day. 1,000 is comfortable for me, so I write (at least) 1000 words per day as soon as I wake up every morning, weekends included.

That may not sound like much, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can reach “The End” with small, easily reached goals. Plus, because there’s no stress placed on the goal, you’ll often catch yourself burning past your goals. Overachieving. Careening past the finish liner sooner than you ever dared hope.

The Power of Reset

Last week, I taught you about the natural ebb and flow to your creative energy–both on a daily, circadian scale and also on a smaller, ultradian scale. You may recall that the average time a person can intensely focus on something is between 30-90 minutes. After that burst of creative flow, your brain needs a break. It needn’t be a long break, but stepping away from your work can do wonders for your muse.

Take a walk with your dogs (this is my method, as you all know), cook a meal (this is an author friend’s method), swim laps, work in your garden, do the dishes, stare out a window with your headphones on. Basically, you need to engage in something that requires zero thinking–and zero distraction. In other words, taking a break does NOT mean getting on the internet or checking your phone.

I’m sorry, but I am going to be FIRM ON THIS POINT: the internet and social media are never relaxing. Ever. (Read about email apnea and you’ll agree.) Plus, the internet doesn’t give your brain the mental freedom for ideas to bump against each other–which is a critical part of any creative’s process (just ask any author when/where they have the most brilliant ideas. It won’t be while they’re tweeting).

You’d be amazed at how many AHA! moments  you have during real breaks. Especially if you–as John Cleese put it–let your mind “rest against” your creative project:

You’ll daydream, of course, but you just keep bringing your mind back, just like with meditation. Because, and this is the extraordinary thing about creativity, if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious, probably in the shower later. Or at breakfast the next morning, but suddenly you are rewarded, out of the blue a new thought mysteriously appears.

– John Cleese, in his talk on creativity

Eureka moments are SO real. My friends and I are constantly sharing our jaw-dropping instances in which everything just clicked. But if we didn’t schedule in rest time to nurture our subconsciouses, then we wouldn’t get those eurekas.

Also, reset doesn’t only mean on a small, ultradian/circadian scale. It also means longer breaks away from a project. Away from any work at all! There’s a reason we have these things called WEEKENDS and HOLIDAYS and VACATIONS. It’s because our brains need time away in order to maintain a high level of productivity capacity.

Breaks = brain food. Remember that. 😉

The Power of Record

And now, we’ve reached the final piece of the productivity pyramid: record. Recently, an author friend and I were emailing back and forth about our particular processes, and we realized we are both mad recorders. Every ounce of progress is scribbled down somewhere. My friend uses a super advanced spreadsheet that calculates deadlines and rest days and when she’ll hit the end of her book…It’s pretty cool.

I, on the other hand, am not so organized. I just use a basic table that’s in my project’s Scrivener file (may I direct your attention to the image below?), and when I’m in drafting mode, I record how much I write in the morning and how much I write in the afternoon.  I like the morning/afternoon combo, but that’s mostly because I’m too lazy (and never remember) to record every hour. (You’ll notice I’m a morning creator, just like I said two weeks ago!)

word count records

Also notice that I take note of when I PLANNED scenes, since sometimes my scene screenplays can take a long time to craft. Yet planning is STILL progress, right?

Remember: creative endeavors are often huge and vaguely defined. So keeping track of even the “small steps” is important. Write a book is such a big undertaking that it can quickly terrify even the most experienced writer, but when I look at my word counts and see how far I’ve come in a week–in a month–I’m instantly heartened and ready to move on.

The same problem happens when my goal is revise a novel. It’s such a BIG and VAGUE undertaking, and seeing progress can be pretty hard. Oh, I’ll think, I revised another 14 pages today! But oh…I’ve still got so far to go. (I am in this phase right now–as mentioned above–and I want to curl in the fetal position at least once an hour.)

So enter stage left: my writer’s journal. You guys remember the journal? I’ve talked about it here and more recently, here. This thing is my lifeline–both emotionally and as a way of recording. I note my word count OR the number of scenes I revised, plus I jot down how I feel about it all. Just getting the worries (and triumphs!) onto the page empowers me to keep going.

Plus, seeing how much I can produce in a day gives me a great starting point for establishing realistic goals (remember those from above?).

The Productivity Pyramid Concludes

Well, that’s the end of this series, guys. I hope you’ve found it as helpful as I found it when I was discovering all the piences. My creative productivity has exploded since I applied ritual, routine, rhythm, realism, reset, and record to my life. It has allowed me to finally start the Misfits & Daydreamers, to write more in-depth blog posts/series like this one, and to also tackle a bunch of other creative projects in my life (sewing! homemade bath and body products!).

Best of all, increasing my writing productivity has had the magical effect of making me very, very, very happy. The FRABs still pop up from time to time, but goodness, it’s nothing like it was this time last year. There’s something incredibly empowering about understanding how your muse operates and taking charge of your creativity.

At the end of the day, it’s my choice whether I succeed or fail, whether I work or stay in bed, whether I write those 1000 words or wait around for inspiration to strike. Personally, I choose option A from allll of those scenarios.

What about you?

You tell me: Do you set realistic goals or ever catch yourself aiming higher than is really possible? Do you schedule in breaks and reset time for your creative mind? Do you record your progress–and if so, how?