On Productivity


READ TIME: 7m 45s


My friend Maddie Flynn (not her real name-she prefers to be anonymous for now-she is however, very real!) is a brilliant writer. She has always been a brilliant writer, but only relatively recently started to write with a view to publishing. Around four years ago her short stories started to be published and she has won several short story competitions.  That enthusiasm and recognition for her work built her confidence enough to start really working (in her time outside her full time job) on the novel she had been thinking about and repeatedly starting for many years.

Whenever we met I asked about the novel and invariably Maddie hadn’t made any progress on it. She had however, read the first three chapters of about thirteen different ‘how to write a novel’ books, squeezed her sketchy story ideas into various free plot-structure spreadsheets she found on the internet and  indeed found time to do for others what she wasn’t doing for herself in the form of reading and editing the finished manuscripts of several of her peers on her Masters course. Oh, and she has a beautifully curated Pinterest mood board for the future home she plans to own as a result of the success of the novel. But no actual words for the novel down on a page.   

Fast forward to another lunch a couple of weeks ago (three months after our last lunch which had been the usual no progress on the novel) to which Maddie brought her beautiful (and time consuming) baby boy, and blew me away when she casually answered my standard, ‘How’s the novel coming on?’ question with this; “It’s going really well – I’ve written fifty nine thousand words.”

Jaw picked up from the table, I was fascinated to hear how she had done it, and she has been kind enough to share her story. It’s one I have found both inspiring and useful, and she and I share it in the spirit of some inspiration for you too.

How would you apply and adapt the tools and principles Maddie’s used to either be a little more productive in your day, or get that big thing you keep putting off done, or whatever more productive means to you?

These 4 key principles could help you to get more of what you want to do done in the time you want to do it.

1. Don’t Go It Alone.

A learning partner is key.

Maddie’s learning partner happens to also be her partner in life too. Charlie is a world class musician, in high demand, and constantly juggling the demands of playing in a West end show eight times a week, a range of other high profile gigs and the teaching commitment of being a professor at the Guildhall School of Music, and the small matter of being Dad to the aforementioned beautiful baby boy. Charlie has studied the art and science of practising over many years, in order to optimise the time he has available to practise. In sharing both the tools that have helped him make the most of his time, and importantly, the review of the impact of those tools, he helped Maddie find a way that worked for her. He also introduced her, and in turn me, to the podcast and books of Tim Ferris which we would recommend in relation to this work.

You might not have a practise and productivity expert at home. Fear not, they don’t have to be!

Ask someone to be a thinking partner with you. Someone to help you talk this through, work out your best practise, and review it. Of course I would say a coach would be a great person to do this with – because they would! And you could agree a partnership with a friend or colleague.

The point is to have someone that helps you get out of your own head. In particular, to get away from the judgement that keeps you still and stuck. That saying ‘talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend’ can be really hard to do. Especially in relation to something you’ve been putting off for a long time. So get someone involved who will encourage you, believe in you, listen to you, and support you to be curious about what you are doing rather than judgemental about it. Someone who will celebrate the progress with you and help you recognise that you are making progress, and remind you of how far you have come, especially if you slow down or encounter the inevitable obstacles.

A learning partner is also someone to be accountable to. It’s also hard to be accountable to ourselves. I know I’m the person most likely to let myself off the hook of doing something, whilst simultaneously giving myself the hardest time for not having done it. It’s not a pleasant place to be and whilst that voice saying ‘Why didn’t you do it – come on – you need to get this done – you’ll be so much happier and more successful when you do.’ should be motivating, the impact it actually has is for me to dig my heels in further and stay well and truly stuck.

2. Watch the way you talk to yourself.

“My attitude was I wouldn’t write unless I had a huge stretch of time and the potential to write two thousand words because anything less was pointless. So I wrote nothing.”

The way we talk to ourselves is key.

That well used Henry Ford quote, well used because it’s true:
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.

What are the internal conversations you are having about the things you want to get done that aren’t getting done? Some of what you say to yourself will probably be useful, though it may well be getting lost in the less useful stuff.  Write it all down - the positive and the negative – get the words out on paper so that you can step back from them and work out what’s helpful and what isn’t. make the most useful, supportive and compassionate choices about what you to say to yourself.

Note what you say to yourself, including the impact of specific words and the tone you use about:

  • What you want to get done and by when.

  • Why you want to do it – what will you have when you’ve done it.

  • Note all the other voices too – who else has something to say about this and what are they saying.

Now you have some information to look through with your thinking partner; a platform from where you can choose something more helpful.

It takes effort to shift thinking. You will need to purposefully say to yourself the things you want to say. A way of reminding yourself can be really helpful too. A sticky dot somewhere, A post it note (you know how much I love those!) a photo – there are all sorts of possibilities here.

Maddie supported herself to shift her thinking by having the following header at the top of her paper – every time she sat down to write she had this reminder:

Write fast. Move the story forward. Don’t judge.

Maddie will explain the significance of these headers:

productivity for writing.png

Write fast: because my tendency was to be an absolute perfectionist, not moving on from each sentence until I had it word-perfect. But I realised that this was just a form of procrastination and that it was far better to just let the words flow out in the knowledge that you can’t edit a blank page. Also, I kept in mind what Hemingway said – ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ to remind me not to expect anything resembling perfection from a first draft. And what Virginia Woolf said about finding ‘the diamonds in the dust heap’ – hoping that somewhere amongst the crap there would be something worth keeping.

Move the story forward: because I was fannying about setting the scene and obsessively editing what I’d already written, and needed to remind myself to stop avoiding actually getting down and furthering the story. Probably just another procrastination technique.

Don’t judge: because as you say in this section, the biggest thing that was holding me back was my fear that it wasn’t good enough. I’d write half a sentence, stop and think, ‘this is boring and unoriginal and probably clichéd. Nobody is going to want to read this. Nobody is going to want to publish it. Why am I even bothering.’ And the self-doubt would take over and have me closing down the document and avoiding it for a fortnight or so, only to have the same thing happen again. So I remind myself not to judge it as I write because that’s not the stage I’m at yet. I’m just getting words on the page. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad yet.”

The reminder was encouraging, motivating, and reminded Maddie of the most useful mindset she could adopt as she began to write. It was also helpfully there, doing all those things, if she got distracted.

3. Tracking what you are doing is as important (if not more so) as doing it

You need to work on how you’ll work, not just the work itself. Be willing to experiment, analyse, and get it ‘wrong’ in order to find the way that works for you.

Maddie’s learning partner made a suggestion – 100 words a day.

“I worked out that would take me 800 days to do 80000 words, so I thought I’m not doing that and still wrote nothing.  Then I thought I’ll try it for a month. Over next 3 months I wrote over 59000 words. It had previously taken me three years to write that much in short stories.”

It wasn’t just trying it for a month that made it work though. Maddie had a spreadsheet on which she tracked the number of words she wrote, and the conditions in which she wrote them. The discipline wasn’t so much in the writing (although of course she had to sit and do it0 but in the fact that no matter what, every day she noted how much she had written and also kept a note of:

  • What time of day it was.

  • Who else was or wasn’t in the house.

  • Which room she was writing in.

It didn’t take long for Maddie to work out that the best time to write was for one hour, during her son’s morning nap, when (if he was also at home) her husband was in a different room. It might sound obvious, but it hadn’t been. She had previously been trying to find the energy and will to write either very early in the morning or at night. Something about knowing that this was her most productive time of day increased her motivation to do it even further, as did the growing word count on the tracking document. The unpredictable nature of the morning nap added a useful urgency too. Maddie says the fact that his morning naps are unpredictable, so I never know how long I’m going to get, which forces me to get down to it as soon as he’s asleep, rather than thinking I’ll shower first, and tidy up a bit, or maybe even sort out the bathroom cabinet. I just sit amongst the chaos and write as fast as I can, knowing that at any moment I could be interrupted. Whereas if I left it to the evening, I have hours stretching ahead of me, so there’s no pressure to get going. 

4. Don’t assume you’ve got it when you’ve got it.

Maddie continued to track and experiment. By further tweaking her routine she kept if interesting and was able to keep up the momentum.

My initial goal was 100 words a day, which was a good goal to have because it’s very achievable, but I found this was still quite hard to get started on because mentally there was still a bit of ‘what’s the point of a page’ voice.  It also doesn’t give you much chance to get into that flow state where you really get into the material and before you know it you’ve accidentally written 1000 words. So I shifted the goal as I sat down to write to 350 words. I found this gave me more chance to get into a flow state and invariably wrote more on those days. I was back at work part time by now, and the 350 words goal helped so much that in that month I did that I wrote on fewer days but wrote more over the month.”

 “The thing I always do is track it-so it’s always a process and an exploration and a trying something, doesn’t have to be perfect. Then once you’re clear transfer that time back to the activity and review.” 

I have found it inspiring and really useful to listen to Maddie, because whilst elements of her story (from a productivity techniques point of view) is familiar, there is something about the way it has all come together that is different. For me, as someone who wants to incorporate my writing more seamlessly into my week so that I’m a step ahead from a blog point of view, I’m particularly intrigued to emphasise the tracking – I think that’s the key.

How might this work for you in your world to get your stuff done?

A comment from Tim Ferris  (books recommended by Charlie) is one I find a particularly effective challenge to the stories I tell myself about how much I need to get done, that involves putting off the things I really want to get done, that in turn, deep down, have some fear attached to them – things like writing these blog posts in fact. He says:

“Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Being busy is often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”

A Reminder of Our 4 Principles of Productivity:

  1. Don’t go it alone.

  2. Watch the way you talk to yourself.

  3. Tracking what you are doing is as important (if not more so) as doing it.

  4. Don’t assume you’ve got it when you’ve got it.

Wishing you well in your adventures in productivity as I sign off on word 2288!