An award-winning journalist with 1,000+ bylines in top newspapers and magazines talks about the habits most productive writers have in common.
I’m one of the most productive writers I know and therefore, I’m frequently asked how it is that I’m so prolific.
To be honest, I keep wondering how much more I’d manage to get done if I wasn’t always distracted by Twitter and Facebook and all the other writing groups I belong to or the countless industry blogs I read.
I do, however, have an obnoxious number of deadlines each month, I realize, and I know I’d never be able to get them all done and still have a bit of sanity left if I didn’t have a system in place. Not that my system is entirely efficient, mind you, but most of the time, it works.
In the decade I’ve been writing and interacting with writers, I’ve found that the most prolific and productive writers have a few traits in common.
1. When they’re at work, they’re exclusively at work
They don’t worry about the kids, they don’t get distracted by the pile of dishes or the laundry and they don’t schedule errands for the days on which they’ve got big deadlines. More importantly, when they’re working, they don’t log on to Twitter, Facebook or other Internet distractions. (Read this post for 61 ways to remain productive when you work from home.)
I do, routinely, log on to all my social media networks, but I don’t have them open all hours of the day, nor do I log on when I’m trying to focus or concentrate. I don’t use FB chat, I’m not on IM during my work hours, and while I may log on to any number of websites for five to ten minutes now and again when I need a break, most of these websites remain shut for the time that I’m working. I simply can’t multitask in that way.
2. They set out blocks of time
I think the illusion is that writers who’re productive and prolific usually sit down at their desks at 9 in the morning and don’t move their butts out the chair until it’s 5 p.m. and time for a break. I mean, that’s the only way someone can write 5,000 words a day, right?
In my book Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S Guide to Getting Words on the Page, I talk about my trick, which is to block out chunks of dedicated time for each of my tasks and then just do them for that limited period of time. These days, even when I feel like I’ve got 4,000 words of the novel in me, I might just stop at 3,000 so that I’ve got enough energy and reserve left over for the next day. Otherwise I find that I’m writing 4,000 words one day and absolutely none for the remainder of the week, which makes coming back to the project that much harder.
So set checks and balances, and work on different projects in different slots of time. Enough that you keep things moving but not so much that a project starts boring you to death.
3. They plan and organize
I know, I know, the dreaded O word. I have a step-by-step absolutely anal organization system, but I swear it saves me so much time because I know exactly what the steps involved are in a certain project and what I need to do next.
It’s so easy to look at a big project, for instance, “write piece for New York Times” and get so intimidated by the work that will go into it that all you do is sit around dillying dallying on it.
In a seminar on “Getting Things Done” by David Allen that I have on tape, Allen says that you have to know the NEXT STEP for everything that you need to do. Let’s say you need to buy insurance for your car. You keep putting it off because “buying insurance” just seems like such a mammoth task that you keep procrastinating on it. Instead, he suggests that you further divide into sub-tasks and know exactly what you need to do next on it, which in this case would be: call insurance companies and ask for their rates. Be specific. Put things on your to-do list that you can actually DO.
“Call insurance companies” is something you can do immediately. “Buy insurance” isn’t.
4. They get it done
Yes, there’s a lot of thinking and staring into space involved in our work, but there’s thinking and there’s obsessing over all you need to do and never really getting around to doing it. Between thinking and just tackling it bit by bit, I’ll let you decide which is, by far, the saner option.
5. They do the important tasks first
The most important tasks, as it happens, are also usually the most boring or nerve-wracking. Do them first!
I don’t always follow this advice, which is possibly why I’m not half as productive as I’d like to be, but if each day you’re coming to your do-list and seeing tasks that make you want to take a hike, just do them and get them over with. Then you can spend the rest of the day enjoying the work you have left over, instead of dreading what’s to come.
6. They create schedules and stick to them
Try this for yourself– work haphazardly one day and with a fixed schedule the next. Which one was the more productive day?
I’d say that for 95% of people, the scheduled time is a much better use of their time and energy than a day when anything goes. I used to be very skeptical of schedules, but I’ve found that the more I set out a time for things, the more likely it is that they’ll get done.
7. They ask for help
No one can do it alone, no, not even you. And despite what your mother says, you are certainly not the best at everything. I’m sure you could be, but do you really want to be?
There are things you can and should ask for help with. This may mean hiring childcare for certain times in the day when you need a couple of uninterrupted hours of work, or hiring people to do a bit of research or transcription for you. Sure, you could spend three hours transcribing that interview, but wouldn’t you rather source that bit of work out to someone else and focus on what you really enjoy and are good at?
Do what you excel at and what you enjoy, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, leave the rest to someone else.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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