Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Cynthia Morris.
Writing is an odd art form. Putting our thoughts into words on the page can take a long time. And if we’re working on a long-term project like a book or course curricula, we may become impatient. It’s hard to know when — or if — we’re making progress. We may not feel productive every single day.
Writing also can be a non-linear process. We may circle around our ideas, following a thread here, a ramble there. We often have to write a lot of words to get to the heart of what we want to say. This process doesn’t feel as productive as we may like. Especially in the early phases of writing, we can feel anxious about not being productive or worse, wasting time.
We all want to be and feel productive when we’re working on our writing projects. Yet rarely do we know what that actually means for us. When we don’t know what we mean, precisely, by “productive,” our writing experience can be like running on an endless treadmill. Often, we say we wish we had done more. In a world where there’s always more to do, it’s easy to fall into this “never enough” trap.
It might seem harmless to be in this “always behind” state, but I’ve seen this sense of lack degrade our satisfaction and joy in the writing process. Not experiencing any sense of productivity can erode our confidence and make writing feel like a slog instead of something empowering. Writing is challenging enough. Pinning down our thoughts in coherent sentences and paragraphs is good, hard work. We don’t want to add extra drag with gloomy dissatisfaction.
What Does Writing Productivity Look Like?
When we have a clear idea of what “productive” means for us, we have a target to shoot toward. At the end of a week, we can easily assess how productive we’ve been. Sometimes we discover we’ve not only met but exceeded our expectations. This sense of achievement empowers us to be and do more.
When you think about being productive as a writer, what matters for you? For some, they target a certain word count per day. Others track hours clocked at the writing desk. Maybe you feel productive only when you’ve finished something. Others give themselves credit for showing up and giving a piece some keyboard time. Perhaps “productive” is a reward you give yourself only if you feel the writing is of high quality.
There are as many ways to identify “productive” as there are ways to write. Fortunately, we can design our writing practice around our sense of what counts as productive. (Tweet this.) I’ll share some ways to identify your idea of “productive,” i.e., some personal metrics. With those in mind, you can diminish some of the discomfort of wading into the ink without knowing if you are going to end up with anything good or useful.
Survey the Emotional Landscape
Think about that feeling of “never enough.” Get a sense of it in your body. What do you notice? Make notes about this feeling and any thoughts associated with it.
Now think about a time when you accomplished a goal. It could be as simple as getting a draft of an article done or as big as finishing writing a book. Jot down the feelings and thoughts that arise when you savor that accomplishment.
Notice the difference between the two. You might have said something like stressed, anxious, or revved up when considering the first scenario. In the second scenario, you might have jotted down impressions like good, calm, strong, or powerful.
Seek to work with your emotions rather than letting them diminish your satisfaction. Often our feelings can betray us when gauging our actual productivity. Often we don’t “feel” productive, but if we make a list of what we got done, the list tells a different story. Get used to noticing how much you get done. Pay attention to how good it feels to accomplish something with your writing, even if it’s a small victory. See how this affects your sense of satisfaction and progress. Notice that the negative emotions that accompany the “behind the curve” sense can limit your sense of competency.
Be Reasonable with Weekly Goals
Everyone has their own ways of marking progress and productivity. When I have urged my clients to be specific with their wishes for progress, it has made a significant difference in how they experience their writing life. Instead of having high, unattainable goals for each week, work with your calendar to set reasonable and reachable goals.
Start with a sense of your week and how much space and time you have to write. Also consider your other obligations. What else is on your calendar that week? If it’s full of extra things like special activities or visiting friends or family, ratchet down your expectations of what you can write.
Remember to take into account that travel can also hijack our sense of productivity. We often pack our writing materials and extra books, and then never crack them open. Have a sense of what a trip is about, and then see if writing has a place on that trip.
Then assess your writing projects. With your available time in mind, make notes about what would be satisfying to achieve by the end of the week. Set your expectations according to what you can actually do. Over-burdening our schedule and piling more on the To-Do list contributes to the “never enough” feeling. This makes for a life of lack rather than fulfillment.
Identify Your Definition of Productive
When I work with clients to help them right-size their sense of productivity, I offer a couple of coaching questions. Take a few minutes to write your answers to the questions to discover your right size.
- What defines “productive” for you?
- How do you know when you are productive?
- What gets in the way of letting yourself feel satisfied with your progress?
- What will help you design your week so that you have reasonable expectations of what can be done?
Take time to be specific about your ideal outcomes. It will add to your satisfaction and your ability to write more. Identifying your version of productive will also allow you to close each day and week feeling like a champ and not a chump.
It may take some time to adjust to giving yourself credit for milestones along the way toward your bigger goals. You (or your inner critic) may resist letting yourself feel good about what you’ve done. But try it. See if ending your writing week feeling on track instead of off target makes a difference for you.
How do you know when you are being a productive writer? What are your metrics and standards for productivity?