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Thursday, 28 July 2016

How to be Productive as a Writer

When we decide to be writers, I'm sure we all have some imagined idea of what that's going to look like. For me, I have visions of myself seated in front of a computer, alternating between the agony of composition and the triumph of completion, all pasted together into a work montage, with Eye of the Tiger playing in the background.

Reality, however, is never so kind, and I've found that without careful management, 'being a writer' can easily devolve into 'wasting time on the internet' and 'lying about your accomplishments to yourself and others'. The work montage is replaced by the failure montage, and despair, angst and self-loathing stalk the darknesses of the mind. 

This fate worse than death is actually quite easy to avoid. Here's five of the strategies which have worked best for me.


How to be a productive writer
Nobody likes an arsehole, so why be one?
Writing is a self directed activity. This means that, for the period during which you're writing, you're your own boss. It's important, therefore, to be a good one. Think back to all the best bosses you've had and you'll realise that they weren't the ones who let you slack off all the time, and nor were they psychotic martinets. A good boss assesses and monitors their workers' capabilities, their capacity to absorb workload, and manages accordingly. Avoid both the setting of impossible standards, and failing to set any standards at all. Create a set of achievable goals which you know you have a good probability of achieving, and remember to praise, reward and otherwise manage yourself for better results. 


It's best not to go 'Full Rimmer'.
A to-do list is nothing more than an aspirational wishlist which you are guaranteed not to complete. Tasks need to be linked to time. I block out all my time on an electronic calendar. This way, Google becomes my personal assistant, gently reminding me that now is the time to do this, that or the other. It's important, however, to take some time over this. I'm not saying you should go the full Arnold J Rimmer on your schedule, but basic things should be taken into account. When are you most creative? Block out this time for creation. When are other people awake and receptive? This is the time to do your calls and emails. And so on. But most importantly (and this is the thing which most people forget) you must also rationalise the time you intend to 'waste'. Everyone needs a break - time to poke around on social media, to eat, watch television and so on. Set and allocate times for this as well, otherwise your breaks will end up swallowing your whole day.


It's health, Jim, but not as we know it...
This is neither the time nor the place for health advice, but that's not really the point. What I mean by this is that you should do whatever it is you think constitutes leading a 'healthy lifestyle'. It doesn't matter if you've fallen for some detox fad or think that your addiction to aerobic activity constitutes a healthy attitude to exercise. For the purposes of being more productive, it is vitally important that you consistently make and stick to decisions about your diet and exercise which make you feel virtuous. It's very, very hard to be productive if you're not happy with who you are or the way you live. 


The less stuff you need to carry in your head, the more space you have for creative endeavour. If your goal is to artfully construct a towering edifice of existential thought and deep human pathos, the last thing you need is the additional burden of remembering every trivial detail of the travails of what we call daily life. Routine is the great saviour in this case. As much as possible, the business of daily life should be 'routinised', to borrow an ugly military term, so that minor but important things which must be done can be done on autopilot. There is simply no need to re-invent the wheel every day. If there's stuff that needs to be done at regular intervals, make those intervals as regular as possible and they will eventually require no management, and therefore no mental energy, whatsoever.


Einstein's desk.
I am emphatically not one of the 'tidy desk, tidy mind' brigade. While I like to have a neat workspace, I'm well aware that many do not. But whether your ideal desk is uber-achiever minimalist or mad scientist chaotic, it's important that it be optimal for you. If you want things messy, have them messy. Just make sure you don't waste any time on self-recrimination and that you can put your hand on whatever you need, whenever you need it. I guess what I'm saying here is that it's foolish to try and force yourself to conform to some external standard for what your workspace should be like. My advice is to aggressively ignore everyone else and construct a space that works perfectly for you.

This list isn't comprehensive, of course, but I chose these five things because they were the base changes which needed to be made before any other strategies could be employed - the fundamentals, if you like. It's worth remembering, too, that everyone has their own strategies for optimal productivity. It's very useful to talk to other people about their process - you never know what you'll pick up. As Montaigne, or some other Frenchman, says: "We polish our minds through contact with the minds of others".

How wrong did I get that quote and attribution? Very wrong, but you get the idea...

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