January – Productivity Experiment


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This month has been a series of upswings and downswings in terms of productivity. At the beginning of the month, I still felt burned out from the holidays and National Novel Writing Month. I had done the editing prep work for the novel I finished in November, and for the most part, I knew what I needed to do next. But I was having a hard time doing it.


Luckily, I have a lot of friends that I can talk about writing with. They’re not just writing friends, but real friends, people that I can talk deeply with. One such friend came over to my apartment, and we talked about our writing projects. We got real about the resistance we were feeling, and wouldn’t let each other shy away from examining it. Then we sat down side-by-side on my big sofa, set a timer, put on some music without lyrics, and got to work. In talking through my resistance, I was able to jumpstart my productivity again. But I was still falling victim to my own bad habits.


When I’m not writing, chances are I’m watching a lot of TV. I crochet while I watch TV, and I have a lot of pregnant friends right now, so I started a series of baby blankets. I told myself I was still being productive. Meanwhile, my novel sat waiting for me. Nearly done, but in need of attention.


One night, after participating in a Twitter chat for romance writers, I checked in with some writing buddies and said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to feel stressed out by self-imposed deadlines right now.” That night, I recalled a conversation with another friend who has published multiple books. It was about planners. Old-fashioned school planners, the kind where you keep track of all of your homework assignments and big projects. I tried to remember the last time I was on top of all of my assignments and got things done in a (mostly) timely fashion. When I’m working on a novel, I go through phases of working on it nonstop, but sometimes those phases have a lot of time in between. It was time to work smarter, not harder. I needed a homework planner. I needed to treat my writing tasks as assignments with deadlines.


The first thing I did was go on Amazon and look up the types of planners I used in the past. (Mead was my go-to.) I like planners that have a month at a glance followed by each week, with lines to outline due dates and step-by-step tasks for completing assignments. It wasn’t working for me to set a final goal and end date, without breaking it down into smaller chunks that I could check off and that would tell me exactly what I had to do next. For example, I couldn’t just say, “finish editing by the end of the month.” I had to break down exactly what I had to do, step-by-step. Still, I wasn’t sure this would work, and I didn’t want to spend money on a planner if all it was going to do was clutter up my desk and sit empty.


A few days earlier, I saw someone on Twitter (I think it was Courtney Milan) talking about Passion Planner. Their site offers free downloads of weekly sheets. Each week is spread over two pages, with the day broken up by half hour increments. I also did a Google image search for monthly and weekly planner sheets. I printed out January’s calendar on one page, a weekly homework planner-style sheet on another page, and the two-page Passion Planner weekly spread.


Now I had my sheets, and I was ready to get organized. But what was I organizing? I journaled (in an actual notebook with an actual pen) about my WIPs, deciding which one I wanted to focus on for the rest of the month. That was on a Monday, and after looking at my week, I came to the conclusion that I might, maybe, just possibly be able to finish the second draft of my novel and send it out to beta readers that weekend. The prospect terrified me. It would require focus and discipline, and I had never reached that point with the manuscript before. I filled in my planner sheets, and the next day I got to work.


The task took one day longer than I had allotted, but by Monday night I was done. (It helped that Monday was a holiday.) I had a little party by myself at my desk (by which I mean I tweeted about it) and the next morning I sent the draft to a few friends who agreed to beta read for me.


Since the planner sheets worked, I printed out enough for another week and planned out my time. Most of the time the Passion Planner sheets are a recording of how I’ve spent the time, and not how I plan to spend the time. But they worked very well for showing me where my time was going. I received feedback from two beta readers immediately, and got to work making small changes. I also researched literary agents and how to write a query and synopsis.


At the end of the second week of my productivity experiment, New York City was hit with a blizzard. I spent the blizzard working. But the day after, I had agreed to babysit three children for the entire day. I brought my laptop and attempted to work on the synopsis while watching a Monster High movie, but I got very little done. By the end of the day I was completely exhausted.


I should also mention that during the second week, I started waking up by 6:30 AM every day for no reason. I go to bed late. Usually sometime around midnight. If I’m lucky, I’m in bed by 11. If not, it’s more like 2 AM or 3 AM. After more than a week of averaging five hours of sleep each night, I found my productivity slowing down. Tasks took two (or three, or four) times as long to complete, and I spent a lot of time staring at my manuscript document on the screen, unable to make sense of what I was supposed to be doing and what I was looking at. I was cranky, and felt resentful about giving my energy to other obligations. I was forced to admit to myself that as nice as it was to start working at 6 AM every day, it wasn’t helping me. I would stay up late at night trying to get more work done, to make up for not having accomplished enough during the day. And even though my schedule allowed time for me to sleep in, I couldn’t. I took short naps when I could, but overall, the whole thing wasn’t working. I needed sleep. In the meantime, other things weren’t getting done. Laundry, dishes, etc. Since I didn’t have the energy or focus to write or edit, I fell into the rabbit hole of research and education. Combing over twitter hashtags, reading blog posts and interviews, scouring literary agency websites. When really, what I needed to do was tackle the last few things left on my editing to-do list. But in order to do that, I needed to sleep.


If we’re not taking care of ourselves, nothing works. We might seem like we’re awake and functional, and we might even get things done. But at what cost? During the first week of my productivity experiment, I slept the normal amount (for me anyway). During the second week and into the third week, I slept very little. Halfway through the third week, I decided I would start going to bed earlier. No naps, and no “if I just stay up long enough, surely I’ll get more work done.”


In the meantime, I still had to figure out how to make the most of my time. I had just purchased a laser printer, because it helps for me to be able to print out scenes and write all over them with colorful pens. The whole experience was reminiscent of the time I spent writing as a teenager: on looseleaf paper with a pen, or marking up printouts (from my Hotmail account), lying on my bed, leaning on a clipboard. I’m still using the same clipboard. (But I’m not writing fanfic anymore.)


I try to make use of new technology for writers. I love Scrivener, I’ve dictated this whole blog post using Dragon Dictate, and I’m going to try out Aeon Timeline soon. So far, the printer and Dragon have been well worth the money, but sometimes a paper and pen help me make more sense of the story.


When in doubt, print it out. When I’m tired, I can’t always make sense of the words on the screen. I just can’t focus on them. But if I print out that scene, or even just an excerpt, and go at it with a colored pen, I can usually finesse it into shape.


I need sleep to work efficiently. Sometimes that means calling it a night early, and admitting that I’m not going to accomplish much good quality work after a certain time. But if I haven’t done that, at least I know other ways to still make progress when I’m tired, like printing a few pages at a time or even reading out loud to myself to catch repetitive words or awkward phrasing. Sometimes it means I work on another part of the process, like research or brainstorming for the next project.
The most important thing for me right now is that I keep going.

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