One of the things authors always ask is “How can I find more time for my writing?” But what they mean is, “How can I just write all the time, write what I want, and not do any marketing?”
The question usually comes up from either a long-term inability to finish their book; insecurity about which project they should be working on; uncertainty whether what they write will actually earn any money; and the idea that they need a “life-work balance.”
Before I get started with a list of things that will make you write better books, faster, with less procrastination, let me say this:
-Writing is really, really hard work: you’ll need to commit and focus like you’ve never done before, EVEN when it isn’t fun and easy.
Plotting a full novel, making sense of what has to happen, when, how much the characters know, when they find out what, why they are doing or thinking what they are doing or thinking… these are very important and very difficult things, you can rarely hold a whole novel in your head and see how all the pieces fit together, and usually it’s a process of unlocking each piece one by one, like tumblers, until everything clicks.
-Writing can be financially successful, IF you’re writing books in popular markets that readers love (do a few of those first, as practice, to learn how to write for a market… once you start earning money you’ll have so much more time to write whatever you want.)
This post is prompted by a book I’m reading called Deep Work by Cal Newport, more than improve my productivity, it’s inspired me to redesign my life around my writing. If you haven’t read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by the same author, you should.
It’s a pretty heavy book, so I’m going to summarize and add some comments of my own.
Ok, ready? Let’s begin.
1. Deep work is not easy (but it is more meaningful)
Deep work is the difficult, but valuable work that takes the most concentration (as opposed to shallow work like checking email, which often doesn’t produce anything). Your earnings as an author (or in any other kind of business) will depend on how much quality work you can get done in the least amount of time.
The difficulty in writing is that, it’s hard, it takes a long time, and you need a lot of focus. Also, in the beginning it’s unlikely to pay very well – but that can change depending on how productive you are.
According to Cam Newport, you need two abilities to thrive in the new economy,
1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
This is true for writers as well, and pay attention to that last part… you need to produce faster AND better books (some authors think good writing is necessarily slow, and that taking your time produces better quality work…this isn’t true.)
But also, that first part: if you want to be a successful author, you can’t just KEEP writing, you need to learn hard things quickly (like book design, formatting, marketing, etc.) You can’t just avoid the hard stuff.
The trick is, orchestrating your life to do more of the high value work (writing) in a way that rewards your effort (with earnings) while also getting the bare minimum done to build your author platform and keep the books selling.
A lot of authors are cranking out “novels” that they pantsed, that might be 100K words but don’t have a well crafted story. You must learn how to tell amazing, life-changing stories. Become an expert writer through education and practice, not just doing what’s fun and easy for you.
(I hear writers say they just write for fun, so they expect and want all writing to be breezy and easy, and avoid the really hard stuff like revising or editing).
However, in terms of life enjoyment, studies have shown that your life-satisfaction level will be greater when you’re focused on accomplishing difficult and worthwhile things.
2. Do the thing that excites you most
Since it is hard to stay motivated for doing the deep work, you should focus on the wildly important.
“Try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
This is true, and you need to do things with terrible longing if you expect to finish them. BUT… on the other hand, your terrifying longing to finish the book you’re excited about will change after you publish enough books without selling any.
If you’re putting out products that nobody wants and earning no money, you’re doing something wrong. I know authors who pride themselves on how productive they are, but they have 20 books that sell zero copies a month.
Every book you publish should make money.
It takes some time to figure out how to present and market your book, and the first few books you might barely break even (but you should be building a platform of fans and an email list). If, after publishing several books, you still have no platform, no sales, no email list… you’re doing it wrong. Don’t focus on WRITING more, focus on education and figure out what you’re screwing up.
A lot of your time is probably being wasted trying to do book marketing that doesn’t work, but a lot more of your time is being wasted writing books nobody wants.
“Follow your passion” is terrible business advice.
But don’t worry, it’s easy to shift the direction of your burning passion.
Just ask yourself, what’s you really excited about?
-Writing books readers love
-Writing books that earn a living so you can write books full-time
Most authors stubbornly think they can only write for passion and would never write to market… but the 2nd and 3rd item are not only more meangful, selfless and noble than writing for yourself, they’re also the most likely to share your gift with the world while earning you the rewards. Create a life goal for yourself that’s big enough to create terrible longing. If it doesn’t, your goals aren’t big enough.
That’s the problem with saying “I don’t care about the money” or “I’ll be happy if I sell a hundred copies.” Those are humble, conservative, boring goals. If you’re going to spend hundreds of hours of your life writing a novel, raise your expectations.
For me, I (now) plan to live exclusively in castles and write full-time, which means I need a stable income of about $2500 a month. It’s hard to get excited about numbers… making $10,000 a month doesn’t excite me. Living in castles and writing full-time, not needing to wake up and check my email or respond to clients… that’s a lifestyle I can approach with terrible longing.
3. Commit more time
Deep Work requires time: usually at least 90 minutes of focus, surrounded by periods of break – however, sometimes the entire day needs to be free just to get those 90 minutes of peak productivity. If you’re running around, busy with trifles and small annoyances, it’ll be hard for you to focus your time well. Newport identifies a few different “rhythms” of deep working.
Monastic style of deep work: turn everything off, remove distractions, do the work. Not “try to avoid” for awhile… you need a complete break, to break the habit of checking in with email or social media. This is the Thoreau method – go live in the wilderness.
Bimodal philosphy of deep work: spend some months in a cabin in the woods, and some months being social in the city. For example, find a job with summers off and use your time diligently to finish your book goals. (Newport is mostly talking about academics who have several months off a year, or can take semesters off… most people don’t have that luxury, but you can be protective of your free time until you finish some books that earn enough money to quit your job… or save up and take a year off.)
Rythmic philosophy of deep work: don’t break the chain. Do it first. Do it everyday. Find a way to fit your work into your schedule, and every day mark whether you’ve worked on it. When doesn’t matter as much as if you’ve done it, or tried to do it, every day. Establish a habit.
Journalistic Philosophy of deep work: do as much as you can, whenever you can. This is probably the route most beginning authors take. It’s difficult to get into the right frame of mind, so it takes MORE effort than some of the other methods, and is unlikely to produce as much as quickly (though, a lot of authors can sit down and crank out 5K or 10K an hour, picking up where they left off the day before). The hard part is establishing the habit, and getting through the first book, and getting it out there…. but it can work if you work at it.
If you don’t have any time, you need to make more.
You’ll have to give something up. You might need to sacrifice something. I’m not a fan of work/life balance (I’ll have some once my books are earning consistent money… in the meantime, I treat writing as a career and I work at it). Greatly productive people are often socially inept, prefer solitude, and live isolated, eccentric lives. If you can do both, awesome. Otherwise you might have to choose… do you want to have friends and enjoy yourself, or do you want to finish more books?
Ritualize your work habits.
“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.”
4. Accountability/Hard deadline
Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
Use a calendar to mark of the days you wrote, don’t break the chain. But also, set a hard release date. Tell people it’s coming.
“Identify a deep task that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline – for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. Or/And, set up a timeline counter.”
Scary, yes…. but deadlines are incredible motivators. If you miss one, set another one. Don’t give up, but you’ll learn how long it takes you to do things and be able to predict better.
5. Stop answering emails
You may not get as much email as I do, but when you build a platform, you’ll get more. I still feel bad if I don’t reply to every email. I think “it just takes 2 minutes…” but then you become their source of free knowledge. I waste a couple hours a day checking email, and worse, it drains me emotionally for the rest of the day – I dread checking my inbox. You don’t have to make yourself so available.
For example, on my “contact page” I should write, “I no longer have time to reply to all messages, if you need help with publishing or book design, check out these free resources. If you’d like to hire me to design your book, please read my pricing and FAQ first. If you still have questions, you can use the following form (or, if you’re ready to get started, just order through this page.)”
Checking your email makes your brain focus on meaningless little exchanges, it can alter your mood negatively for the whole day.
The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.
“You have to be willing to let some small bad things happen, so you can focus o the big stuff.”
I feel bad I can’t respond or help everyone who emails me… on the other hand, my time and my life are my own – why would I freely give up my time (that I need to produce my greatest work) on others? I have no obligation; I already spend a ton of time making resources, videos, tutorial and templates to help authors.
I wish I could do it all, but really, you need to just make choices and quit whatever A) doesn’t make you happy B) isn’t producing value that gets you to the lifestyle you dream of.
6. Quit the internet/social media
Some of you might be rejoicing at this suggestion, but I’ll qualify it doesn below. Firstly, will power gets weakened with use, like a muscle. It’s not unlimited. So if you are used to checking Facebook or Twitter, but decided to write, every time you want to check but don’t check, you’re weakening your will power, until finally, you give up and just lose yourself on Facebook.
The only way to break the addiction is to structure use.
Distraction should be the exception (a digital detox isn’t enough, you need a detoxed life, with very little checking email/social media, to break the distraction addiction.)
Embrace boredom. If you have to wait in line, wait for a bus, don’t pull out your phone to distract yourself. Learn to accept it.
Newport raises the objection that some writers need social media to market their books, but he miscalculates:
“What about a less famous writer? In this case, book marketing might play a more primary role in his or her goals. But when forced to identify the two or three most important activities supporting this goal, it’s unlikely that the type of lightweight one-on-one contact enabled by Twitter would make the list. This is the result of simple math. Imagine that our hypothetical author diligently sends ten individualized tweets a day, five days a week – each of which connects one-on-one with a new potential reader. Now imagine that 50% of the people contacted in this manner become loyal fans who will definitely buy the author’s next book. Over the two-year period it might take to write this book, this yields 2000 sales – a modest boost at best in a marketplace where bestseller status requires two or three times more sales per week. The question once again is not whether Twitter offers some benefits, but instead whether it offers enough benefits to offset its drag on your time and attention (two resources that are especially valuable as a writer).”
Yeah, um, except….
- 2000 sales is an avalanche for indie authors; if you can launch a book with 2000 sales, you’ll get up very high on the amazon bestseller list. And it’s far better than most authors do.
- Authors shouldn’t be individually reaching out to readers, they should be building relationships with influencers and other authors in their field, who have matching audiences… they can shoot for 200 friends, by reaching out to just 1 a day, and get those people to share their book with their audience.
- You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) do one a day, you can do 10 in 10 minutes, every Saturday, and be done with it.
- Also, what’s the alternative? Give up book marketing altogether, focus on the writing, and not get ANY sales at all when you launch?
Authors feel overwhelmed with social media because they’re doing it wrong and it’s not selling any books; that doesn’t mean it’s useless, and it doesn’t have to suck up time and energy.
7. Have a marketing plan
Authors complain that they don’t have time to both market their books and write their books; I counter that marketing shouldn’t be a long term, constant thing. I thin the secret behind this frustration is that, the anxiety over the book’s reception often detracts from the writing journey. If you aren’t marketing, have no idea how to start and no idea whether this book will make any more, then you’ll always feel like there’s something you should probably be doing.
To fix that, build a strong author platform and figure out your marketing strategy, so you can set it up and start reaching readers, and growing your platform WHILE you’re writing your book. It doesn’t have to be either/or. But the sooner you figure it out, the more peace of mind you’ll have to focus on writing.
Before you do anything, ask,
“How long, in months, would it take to train a recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”
Most of the things that count as book marketing wouldn’t take long to teach; in fact I’m making a big list/to-do plan you can give to a virtual assistant. They can just read through it and do everything.
Things you don’t want to waste time on:
-Your book cover (you’ll spend dozens of hours and it will still look homemade).
-Your website (make something simple that works).
-Marketing (set up your platform the right way, do a great launch, and leave it alone). An author assistant can help do research, stay organized or take on other tasks you need to do but want to avoid. If that’s a choice you’re interested in, check out this post on working with an author assistant.
9. Learn to relax /Take a walk
For deep concentration, you need to completely shut your brain off sometimes; no nagging worries, checking email , or even watching TV (which is less restful than sleeping).
Also, for complex tasks, your unconscious mind is usually better at solving problems. So every time you’re stuck on “what happens next” in your story, take a break, the answers will often come to you when you stop trying to find them (gardening, taking a shower, etc). An aimless walk in nature works wonders on the brain’s ability to concentrate, but it has to be in nature, not in a city where you have to pay attention to your surroundings in a critical way (seriously, they’ve done studies).
Nietzsche says, “It is only ideas gained by walking that have any worth.”
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…. it is, paradoxically necessary to getting any work done.”
Also, shut down at night, turn OFF, don’t check email one last time before you go to bed. Don’t let incomplete tasks dominate attention.
10. the Grand gesture
JK Rowling checked into a suite at the 5-star Balmoral Hotel, down the street from the Edinburgh Castle – one of her inspirations for Hogwarts – to finish the 7th Harry Potter book; she didn’t plan to stay there, but got so much done she returned every day. (Paying $1000+ a day for the suite!).
Jung built a tower in the woods; many writers have a writing space they can go, which is isolated and inspiring. But more than that, it’s the expense and difficulty, the extravagance of it, that makes it work.
“The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change in your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.”
Some writers build a small cabin on their property. Peter Shankman, after procrastinating for a year and coming up against a hard deadline, bought a round trip business class trip to Tokyo, and wrote his book on the journey (locked in a seat with no internet for 10 hours each way). “The trip cost $4000 and was worth every penny.”
Grand gestures only work for writers who KNOW their books will earn more income… but, they also work if you’ve been “working” on that manuscript for 20 years and never actually progress. You might need a grand gesture to help you finish your first book, so you can finally start the next.
My grand gesture
Since I’m about done with my PhD and my life and I are location independent, I’ve been thinking through these steps with an aim to drastically boost my productivity. For the past 5 years I’ve helped other people with their goals, I’m going to take the next few years and focus on my own, which means, finishing a lot of content (books, courses, design templates, etc). I need to work on the things that build the lifestyle I want; the lifestyle that lets me focus on ever more meaningful work. Here’s my checklist:
-Nature, quiet, no distractions, total focus.
-Social life: other cool people who enjoy working online, have financial and location freedom, enjoy traveling and learning new things… possibly other writers who get the struggle, but not necessarily.
-Convenience of great, cheap, fresh food (that I don’t have to prepare).
-A river, pool or sea nearby for swimming.
-Not too hot, not too cold
-Monthly rent under $1000 a month.
-Devastatingly beautiful and inspiring surroundings.
So I actually made a huge list of amazing AirBnB rentals to stay in: many of them are castles or luxury cabins with mountain or ocean views. I also found out I can get a month stay at a four-star hotel for under $1000 a month in many countries.
Being a digital nomad is not about “running away” from regular life or responsibilities, and it’s not about chasing frivolous adventure. It’s about having the opportunity and the ability to craft your ideal set of productivity and life-enhancing circumstances. People talk about “life-hacks” or “brain-hacks”, but the things really corrupting your productivity are the BIG things: environment, the people surrounding you and their attitudes, the lack of nature, fresh and easy food, the job you have to go to….
To do your greatest work, you may need a grand gesture; but what if you didn’t need to stop at just one, why not roll your grand gestures together into a full-time, grand adventure?
This isn’t extravagant: boosted productivity = more income. Living somewhere beautiful makes earning money worth it. The work is more enjoyable because you get the immediate benefits (living somewhere amazing) instead of planning a future vacation and hating your current surroundings. Plus by picking one amazing place each month and booking in advance, I don’t need to waste time looking at travel or hotels. We can just go somewhere new and get to work.
I believe, that by making a super grand gesture of living in amazing places for a few years, I’ll get a lot more writing done and significantly boost my income. I also hope our adventures are inspiring – I’d like to begin inviting authors to join me (for example, this November I’m splitting a castle with a bunch of writers and it’s going to be amazing… I’d like to start doing several events like that a year).
What writing productivity tips have you picked up that helps you get the writing done? Have you ever orchestrated a grand gesture on behalf of your writing? Would you like to?
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.
Related to your Point 4 – I found out that setting up targets and awarding myself small prizes for reaching them works just fine.
The targets have to be reasonable (for instance, hit 2000 words per daily session for a week), and the awards are small things – a serving of ice cream, a cheap ebook, etc. – but the system works. With me, at least.
Also, I learned to “write the scene in my mind” before I put it on paper/disk – and here taking a walk helps a lot: I can play the scene again and again in my brain as I walk (driving worked too, back when I had a car), trying different approaches and getting a taste of what the words would sound like. Then I get back to the keyboard, take a deep breath, and type as fast as I can what my mind’s eye and ear are seeing/hearing.
I agree with the ‘find the optimum writing environment’ vibe. I love writing in coffee shops – it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I find I can totally zone out and rattle out 2k to 3k words in a single sitting. The steady supply of coffee helps! I also like the sense of it being close to ‘going to work’, just with a much more pleasant environment than the day job.
You said coffee shops aren’t every one’s cup of tea. Punny! Actually, I agree with you. I often leave the house to go write in one. Keeps me more focused. And the caffeine definitely helps.
I haven’t found many that I like, and coffee actually doesn’t work for me (espresso seems OK, coffee gives me tension headaches… after loads of experimenting, I do better with green tea, marijuana and a nicotine patch). But I think the environment is really important, especially if you’re developing a habit. I should move back to Prague and only drink coffee in the glamorous cafes.
Try warm chocolate [50 degrees celsius]
JK Rowling was a coffee shop freak. So who knows where it will take u
Probably to Costa!
This part rang the truest for me “Deep Work requires time: usually at least 90 minutes of focus, surrounded by periods of break – however, sometimes the entire day needs to be free just to get those 90 minutes of peak productivity.” I was so glad to see it, because I often berate myself for needed an entire day just to get a couple of hours of good, solid writing in. And knowing that I won’t have the day, often sets me off on the wrong foot.
Yeah I’m dealing with that now – also the deeper the work, the more down time you need. I’m lucky if I get a good 30 minutes trying to work on my thesis, then my brain is fried for the rest of the day.
Good luck with that thesis, btw. I wrote my Masters thesis when i was staying in friend’s houses in Italy and France. It definitely helped me focus. Having friends bring me wine and cappuccino also helped.