Tips for Greater Productivity, part 1

geared towards people who work at home, especially writers

I have been called plenty of things in my life, but I don’t think “lazy” has ever been one of them. Workaholic, anal-retentive, perfectionist, slave-driver, and bossy? Sure. Lazy? Not so much. Say what you will about that—and I’m sure you could pin this personality trait on plenty of unhealthy things—but in the end it serves one purpose splendidly: I get shit done.

So I thought I would share some of my principals and tricks with you guys. Turns out, I have a lot! So this will be in two parts for a total of 12 tips that make me a busy and productive bee.

1. Make goals.

Omg. Seriously? This tip isn’t new. I’m not saying it is, but here’s the thing: it works. Especially for people who work for themselves, like most writers. Every single time I find myself floundering for a week, drifting from project to project, or wasting entire days doing nothing but rechecking Twitter, it’s because I’ve forgotten to set new goals.

I’m not going to talk about what type of goals to make or how (well, not much anyway), because, dude… google it. Besides, most of us have had at least one teacher along the line make us fill out a worksheet about short-term and long-term goals. We get it. And most of us believe it, but that doesn’t mean we remember to make like Nike and just do it. This is especially crucial when you come to the end of a goal. So you actually finished your first draft when you said you were going to—awesome! But now what? Time to set the next goal.

2. Prioritize those goals.

This is actually something I learned from my husband. One night I asked him to help me set up a schedule for the next day, and the first things he asked me to do? Make a list and number them in order of importance. Factors that affect importance are 1) deadlines 2) productivity and 3) desirability. In other words, editing a certain short story might not be a priority this week, but if it’s due next week it will become one then.

After I did this, I gave Hub-a-dub the list and he made me a schedule. Did I like the schedule? Hell no! He made me do all the hard boring stuff first. (I had been instinctively checking off the more fun or repetitive tasks first as a way of procrastinating. More on that later.) Turns out that was one of the most productive days I’d had in weeks, and now I try to schedule every day this way. Which brings me to…

3. Make a plan (schedule) to reach those goals.

Making goals is all fine and dandy, but in and of itself just isn’t enough. You have to take steps toward achieving them. Which means… *dum dum DUM* a schedule.

Scheduling is one of those things that you just have to DO. *There’s isn’t really a shortcut, as far as I know. You sit down with your goals prioritized in a list + the hours available in your day, and punch them into timeslots. Remember to schedule food breaks and stretching breaks between long, tedious tasks.

4. Make a contingency plan.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes our goals are overzealous. Sometimes incredible and unexpected opportunities pop up. That’s okay. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t hit your goal on your projected date… unless you have no contingency plan and therefor beat yourself up and have an emotional breakdown.

Instead, make a back-up plan. Shift things around. Take a look at your prioritized list and push back the bottom items. Think of this like a long-term diet or health plan. If you fall off the wagon, don’t go crazy with it. Don’t start all over to punish yourself or give up entirely and go on a binge. Just continue on the next day as if it never happened. You’ll feel better about yourself and waste less time.

5. Procrastinate like a boss.

(The kind that’s slang for awesome, not the kind that means employer.)

My mom called a couple of weeks ago and asked what I was doing. I said, “Procrastinating.” She said, “I’ve never known you to,” and I tagged on, “Well I’m procrastinating productively.” My answer was misleading, but only on the surface. Explaining this long-time practice of the “right way to procrastinate” to her helped clarify it to me.

Fact: It is in human nature to procrastinate. Lesser-known fact: You can use this to your advantage.

Sometimes there are tasks that loom above us like mountains so tall the peak is engulfed in storm clouds. The best thing to do, when you can manage it, is tackle that bitch. Get started, small steps, and you’ll feel less overwhelmed in no time.

But let’s get real; sometimes that just isn’t going to happen. So when you feel that siren call to put off your MegaTask, do what I do: procrastinate by doing something else that’s still productive.

Example: Suzy set herself a goal of rewriting a highly emotional scene in her novel today, and she’s dreading it. She knows she won’t be able to make herself do it today, so instead of giving up and watching TV until she can’t feel her eyeballs, she edits an old short story and sends it out on submission. Or she catches up on her website’s much-needed updates. Or she reads. (That’s part of writer’s job too, you know.) Or if all else fails, she does chores. Hey, who hates a clean house?

If the MegaTask is daunting enough, you’d be amazed by the number of menial, odd-end jobs you can get done in the meantime. I do it all the time: use the fear of one task to spur the productivity of a bunch of others. Eventually, you’ll either have your whole life so in order that there’s nothing left to do but MegaTask, you’ll hit the deadline that forces you to face MegaTask, or you’ll realize MegaTask is something you don’t actually have to do and rearrange your priorities.


*Is there an interest for a daily schedule template for writers? It would be a free document at The Organized Writer. If yes, let me know in the comments below.

Part 2 is coming next week! Hope to see you back then. Don’t want to miss it? You can subscribe by email or RSS at the top of my sidebar, or follow these instructions to specify which types of posts you’re interested in.

So, which of these 5 tricks work for you? Have you tried them? What are the areas that you most need to improve on?

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  • I love #5. Passing along the wisdom of others here: 1) The songwriter I interviewed in Memphis said you can’t force your muse, and if the creativity isn’t there, you do that “busy work” to clear the way for her return. 2) At last winter’s MFA residency, two instructors gave a lecture on how important “wasting time” is, that it allows your subconscious to develop creative ideas and then push them toward you. Think about how likely you are to come up with a breakthrough in the shower, for example.

    Fun post, Annie!

  • I’m generally pretty good at being productive, though I must admit I do have a streak of laziness. Mostly, though, I procrastinate on “real life” tasks (like cleaning) with writing or reading, or even just lying on the couch with the kitten and some music, so I can daydream before dozing off… I mean, naptime is productive, right?

    • Interesting. I think I’m the opposite, most of the time. I use housework type things to procrastinate work. Maybe because I’m such a neat freak. And yes, kitten/nap time is TOTALLY productive. Sort of. (I actually talk about that in part 2!)

  • Richardsfive

    These five are fabulous. I do #1-3 consistently.  #4 I need to start doing that one as well because it makes terrific sense. And while I do #5, I admit I do it in my domestic life rather than my writing life. For example, if I can’t make a scene work instead of moving on to another scene, I go clean the bathroom or do the grocery shopping. You really have me thinking, Annie. Thanks!

    I can’t wait for Part 2.

    • Thanks Regina! I do that with writing projects as well. If I’m really stuck (or really pouty about it), I’ll go run an errand. I try to stay within work/writing things when possible, but sometimes it’s good to just get out of the office.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Your point no. 2 about “checking off the more fun or repetitive tasks first as a way of procrastinating” totally reminds me of a point made in Ann Patchett’s GETAWAY CAR. She makes sure she puts the thing she LEAST wants to do at the very top of her daily list — usually, she says, this is writing (she addresses the love/hate relationship with it, as well as the procrastination).

    I’d love to see your daily schedule template and see how far off I am (I know I am faltering a bit with the actual time-frame slots. Used to do it, yet never seemed to honor it/stick to it)….

    • I haven’t read Getaway Car, but I can definitely agree with that!! That’s why it worked so well when my husband first made my schedule for me; he put the “dread” items first (probably because HE wasn’t the one who had to do them, haha!), which I never would have done on my own.

      I will put a schedule template on my list. It might be tricky to put together vague enough for anyone to use, but I’m willing to try!

  • jclementwall

    “If the MegaTask is daunting enough, you’d be amazed by the number of menial, odd-end jobs you can get done in the meantime”

    I love that… and recognize myself completely. I am kind of good at productive procrastination. I like that name for it. I don’t feel quite so yucky as when I’m totally focused on the mountain that I Am. Not. Climbing.

    LOVE this list, Annie. Off to tweet you!

    • Yes! Productive procrastination is a great way to alleviate some of that guilt. Much better than watching TV, hehe. Thanks so much J! And I’m going to RT you, because you said it much better than I did. Why is that? =)

  • Hey Annie – great post.  The very thought of giving my hubs control of my schedule is terrifying!  And probably exactly what I need to get more done.  Yowza and running the other way, while vacuuming so I can at least procrastinate w class.  =)

    • Thanks Lori! I guess that would depend on the hubs (lol!). =)~ Good luck with your classy procrastination.

  • Okay, so one of my first problems here is actually making goals. Do I want to focus on fiction? Non fiction? In terms of non fiction do I want to get serious about freelance writing? (aka, getting paid for some writing. Wouldn’t that be a neat thing. Ugh.)

    • Well, that’s a whole other story. I’ve struggled with similar things (balancing goals in poetry and fiction, for example), and what works for me is a combination of focusing on each in waves of intensity + doing a little of each regularly. For example, I might make myself do some minor poetry stuff several times a week even when I’m focusing on a novel. But then, when whatever step of the novel is finished, I switch. I’ll make myself do minor fiction things (like subbing short stories) several times a week while I do serious work on a book of poetry.

      That way I never completely forget about either of my general goals, but do allow myself a sort of natural ebb and flow of concentration. It’s worked pretty well for me. Maybe you could try something similar with fiction and non fiction?

  • Hehe, I did that too, until I had to explain it. I feel like now that I know it I can use it even more to my advantage! Scheduling is rough. Is there anyone you can ask to do it for you once or twice, to get you started? That was such an enormous help to me.

    • Weeeell, part of the issue is that I have a ten-week-old baby who… well, she sleeps about 2-3 hours during the day, and that’s about the time I have to do anything that requires much focus. I’m fortunate in that she tends to do all her sleeping at once – she sleeps very well at night and takes long naps during the day – but that doesn’t mean I can count on being able to do specific things at specific times. So scheduling these days is doubly difficult.

      But that doesn’t mean I can’t get things done during naptime. Speaking of which…

      • Oh man. Honestly, Amanda, I’m pretty sure new moms just get a free pass. I can’t even imagine trying to be productive with such an unpredictable schedule.

  • Yeah! schedule template for writers! That would be awesome.

    I totally want to schedule a time to make a schedule:-)  

    • How meta of you. 😉 Yes, I will work on a schedule template soon! Your wish is my command.

  • So we know why I’M here… baking cookies may not always work as a procrastination technique so I need to learn more. NO. I need to be more organized. Thanks for some very good tips, and most of the time I do pretty well, but sometimes I need a little more and you gave me some good ideas!

    • =)~ I think baking cookies counts as “fun time” (in the part 2 list). Sometimes procrastinating and fun time overlap, and that’s okay too. Glad you got some new ideas. Thanks Julia!

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