Now that I’m staring down the barrel of completing my doctorate/novel, I’ve developed several good habits that make me think: “Why, oh why, didn’t I do these years ago?” For the sake of other writers, and as a memo to my future lazy self, I thought I’d share them here.
Write every day, first thing in the morning
Last year I attended a workshop run by time management guru Hugh Kearns. At one point we split into small groups to discuss our approach to study and writing. Two women in my group were already academics, having completed their PhDs while working full-time and with several small children. I wanted to point out that I thought they were in the wrong workshop—the workshop for insanely driven high achievers was down the hall. The first woman said: “When I was finishing my PhD, I’d get up at 4 or 5am to do my writing, because with the kids it was the only time I had free.” The other woman nodded sagely: “Sometimes even 3am.” 3am?! Holy *#^@! While that’s taking it a bit far in my books (I’m someone who’ll happily sleep in till 10am), writers from different disciplines say the same thing: write every day, and write first thing in the morning. Why first thing? Because, not only will it mean you can’t put it off, the quality of your writing will be freer and more creative then. Your thoughts are less likely to be fettered by what Julia Cameron calls your “internal censor”. Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author Robert Olen Butler advises 1–2 hours of morning writing 6–7 days a week. “If you let two or three days go by [without writing], it’s as if you’ve never written a word in your entire life,” he writes in “From Where You Dream: The Process Of Writing Fiction”. He even advises against reading the newspaper, watching TV news—allowing any sort of conceptual language to enter your head—until you’ve done your morning writing. In “Turbocharge Your Writing”, Hugh Kearns and co-author Maria Gardener recommend setting aside “two golden hours” every morning. I take this approach. I get into uni (late, about 10.30am, but I’m working on that), and the first thing I’ll do is set my SelfControl timer (see below) for two hours. I won’t check emails, open an internet browser or eat lunch until I’ve done two hours of fresh writing. Sometimes, if I’m really itching to read my emails, I’ll say to myself: “Just one hour.” More often than not, I’m quite happy to extend that to two or even three.
I first heard about this anti-procrastination technique two years ago. It involves breaking down tasks into 25-minute blocks of time, or “Pomodoros”, with a mandatory five-minute break in between. A timer rings when the 25 minutes is up, and you have to stop what you’re doing and take a break. It’s supposed to help you focus on the task at hand, and the regular breaks keep your mind fresh. I heard about it, and thought: That wouldn’t work for creative writing, that wouldn’t work for me. A year or so later, I came upon it again in the context of psychologist Robert Boice’s research on effective writing habits. His research found that regular, planned writing sessions resulted in not only a greater output than “binge writing”, but regular writing also resulted in more creative ideas. That got me thinking, and feeling guilty, because I’m all about binge writing. I’d convinced myself that pulling all-nighters was the best way to come up with truly creative ideas. Seems I was wrong! Boice believes inspiration is the result of habitual writing, rather than the idea that precedes it. Since then I’ve been a total Pomodoro convert, and I’ve written 65,000 words in 9 months. Sure, a lot of that won’t end up in the final draft (and yes, I do occasionally write crap to fill the rest of the Pomodoro), but I still have a helluva lot more useful material than if I binge wrote. What I love about it most? It’s free. Download the 45-page booklet here, and read it cover-to-cover. It’ll teach you how to take charge of distractions, both internal (eg your urge to Google “tonsil stones”) and external (phone calls, colleagues bugging you, birthday cakes in the office, etc). It will help you break down big tasks into achievable goals, and to accurately estimate how long it will take to achieve them. I use this great (and free) Focus Booster electronic timer to time the 25-minute blocks. If you do only one of the things I mention on this page, do this one! (Well, do this in combination with the first point about writing every day.)
This is a simple app for Macs that doesn’t require much explanation. And boy, is it a godsend. Best of all, it’s free! To set it up, type in a “blacklist” of banned websites (my list includes every single Google-related page, eBay, Etsy, ShopStyle, news and social media websites). Then when you set the timer for anywhere between 15 minutes and 24 hours, you’ll still have internet access (eg for Dropbox and other research-related activity) but you won’t be able to access those tempting websites. Be careful, because once you set the timer, nothing—not even turning off the computer—will stop the block on those sites (that’s where smartphones and outdated search engines such as Yahoo! and MSN come in handy). Kris commented the app is actually the opposite of exercising self control, but as Paul Silvia points out in “How To Write A Lot“: “The best kind of self control is to avoid situations that require self control.”
This is a sophisticated program that’s perfect for working on longer pieces—novels, scripts and doctoral theses. It’s US$45 from Literature & Latte, which I think’s a bargain, given I use it every day. It’s also very stable. I’ve been using it for eight months and have still only scratched the surface in terms of its features, but my three favourite functions are: snapshots, composition mode and corkboard. Snapshots allows you to easily save different versions of the same document, instantly cutting out the fifteen different Word docs I have for a single scene. In composition mode, you enter a full screen in which other open programs are hidden so that you can concentrate on your writing. And corkboard gives you a macro view of your document, allowing you to move different scenes around.
Another great tool that needs little explanation. Working on both my computer at uni and my computer at home, I spent the first 2.5 years of my candidature emailing documents to myself and doing my head in in the process. I’ve found Dropbox especially useful to update reference entries on EndNote. I’m on a $100 per year storage plan, but it’s free for smaller sizes. (Sign up to Dropbox for free using this link, and we both get extra space: http://db.tt/KA1khwMY)
I don’t want to harp on about this too much for fear of sounding like the leader of a cult, but I started meditating earlier this year and it’s helped me enormously—and in ways I didn’t imagine. I became interested in vedic meditation (aka transcendental or mantra-based meditation) for the creative breakthrough it can provide. I heard about a friend’s friend who’s a musician and who often writes complete songs in one go after a vedic meditation session. Five months after doing a course, I’m not sure it’s had a huge impact on my creativity—I’m still stuck on several plot holes (but it has allowed me to step back and make drastic changes I wouldn’t have made as easily before). But there are two areas I have definitely reaped benefits: stress relief and maintaining focus. In regards to stress relief, I no longer sweat the small stuff—running 10 minutes late or forgetting someone’s birthday doesn’t bother me anymore. I have a slightly more positive outlook overall, too, which has in turn helped productivity. The second area it’s helped me with is maintaining focus. When my meditation teacher told me: “You’ll find that even though you’re spending 40 minutes a day meditating, you’ll have more free time than you did before,” I thought: “What a load of bollocks.” But, sure enough, in the first week of meditating I noticed I was finishing tasks quicker than usual, because I was less distracted overall.
There you go—hope that helps. And let me know what handy habits you’ve picked up to help your writing.