Learn how the best writers increase their productivity using science
Writing is simultaneously a science and an art. No matter which type of text is your specialty, a certain degree of creativity is required to make words properly portray your perspective, describe events accurately, or help others envision a new world you've invented.
Unfortunately, creativity and productivity are better known as being conflicting than very compatible. But it doesn't have to be that way.
In her 2009 TED Talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert recalls a conversation she had with poet Ruth Stone. According to Stone, she would be out in the fields and hear a poem approaching.
"And then she would run like hell to the house, chased by this poem; she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it, and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running but she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it. It would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it 'for another poet.'"
You can tell, even from that small monologue, Stone is skilled at creating images with her words. She eloquently describes how it feels when inspiration strikes a writer. However, inspiration is only part of the puzzle of how to create great texts.
The most well-written works go through countless rounds of edits and, if the author only worked on these when it felt like creativity were bursting through her veins, the work would never be completed. Many people write just for themselves for the benefits of introspection or as a creative outlet. There is nothing wrong with personal writing.
However, those who want to share their work, quickly learn that a B+ completed piece is superior to an A+ piece that sits unseen in a Google doc. And it's tough to finish a novel, or even long article, if the only time you write is when you feel inspiration thundering through you. That brings us to the question that has perplexed writers since the concept of the written word began:
"How can writers be more productive?"
Don't wait for this scenario in order to start writing.
The art of timing
As the night wears on, early bird writers decide to wait until the morning to begin composing new sentences. The night owls procrastinate during the day with expectations to write deep into the night. Little do they know they are becoming prey to the "Inspiration Paradox."
It's true that we're best able to solve analytical problems when our natural circadian rhythms have us at our most alert. However, when it comes to creative tasks, being a bit distracted can actually be useful. In a less focused state, our minds explore more options and generate more insights.
Mareike B. Wieth and Rose T. Zacks conducted a study on how different times of day affect people's abilities to solve insight and analytical problems. Insight problems are those that require you to think outside the box.
According to the results, participants "showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times." In other words, your favorite time of day is not necessarily your most creative time. Try writing during your "non-optimal" time of day and you may create some of your best work.
Another writing tip? Use sleepiness to your advantage. At the edge of falling asleep, I often come up with some of my best ideas for a piece or lines for a story. I either let sleep take me and regret it later, or grab the phone by my bed and groggily type the words in my head. Only recently did I learn there is a term for this sleepy creativity—hypnagogia.
Painter Salvador Dali called this state of semi-wakefulness "the slumber with a key" and strategically used it to inspire many of his works of art. During this time, both alpha brain waves (most active when we're meditating or daydreaming) and theta brain waves (connected to restorative sleep) are operating.
We get the best of both worlds as these two types of brain waves are active and this leads to surprising visualizations we can use as inspiration. For this reason, it's always smart to have a notepad or digital note-taking app nearby. Personally, I like Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks if I'm able to take notes by hand. If you prefer to take notes digitally, Evernote is one of the most popular applications for this.
I can't count the number of times I've been glad to have written a quick note about a study or an interesting quote. Mark Twain, George Lucas, and Richard Branson are just a few noteworthy people who always have a notebook. Next time you sleepily come up with an idea for your newest written piece, don't brush it off. It might be the idea that makes you as successful as Salvador Dali.
The science of a creative brain
Besides activating different types of brain waves, there are other ways to prep your brain to be more creative. When you're feeling full of ideas, it's much easier to increase your writing productivity.
Hypergraphia is a condition where you have an insatiable urge to write or draw. As appealing as that may sound to your writing productivity, most of the time the writing produced from this state isn't of much quality. Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty's works are an exception. In her studies of creativity, she determined,
"People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system."
In other words, more dopamine equals more creativity. Dopamine helps manage the reward and pleasure centers in your brain. In addition to giving us pleasure, it makes us feel more creative and ready to write. Luckily, there are ways we can naturally increase our dopamine production.
Exercise, massages, and warm showers are all ways to encourage dopamine. That's why people say they come up with great ideas in the shower. You don't need Hypergraphia to be a more productive writer—you just need to learn how to get yourself in a similar state of mind.
But what if the ideas are flowing and you're still struggling to be productive? Do you ever have an amazing story all planned in your head, but struggle to get it written down? You're not alone. The good news is visualizing what will happen in your piece is a useful first step.
Next time the story is floating in your head, but refusing her land on your computer screen, try author Robert Butler's "dreamstorming" strategy. With this approach, go ahead and relaxingly think about your characters, potential scenes, and whatever else comes to mind related to your story.
Make a list of possible scenes. Each item on the list should only be about eight to ten words, but be distinct and visual. You may choose to put each section on a notecard. Only now do you choose a "point of attack" to begin whichever part of the story you're most inspired to work on. You don't need to write a piece in order, but you do need to start some part of it, and this strategy can help you do that.
The importance of specific goals
As writers, it's essential to have both short-term and more extended goals for what we plan to accomplish. "Write more" is too general of a target. A small goal may be a minimum word count to meet for the day. When author Stephen Guise created his book Mini Habits, he set himself a goal to write 50 words per day.
If you're thinking 50 words a day sounds easy and unambitious, that's the point. A manageable goal you can accomplish is far better than an ambitious one that goes unaccomplished. Plus, once you get started, you often surpass your original goal. As Guise explains,
"It feels far better to aim for 50 words and overachieve with 3,000 than it does to aim for 5,000 words and 'only' write 3,000. This explains how small goals offer such a high reward-to-effort ratio, and why they're so effective."
As you get in the habit, you can adjust your short-term goals as necessary to increase the level of challenge. Other writers choose to set goals based off of time spent, rather than word counts. Find which method makes you personally more productive. In terms of larger goals, consider trying to keep a streak of consistent writing. So your daily goal may be 50 words and your larger goal is to write every day for a month.
Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld has always been committed to creating new jokes each day. He uses a big wall calendar as a visual sign of his progress. Each day he completes his joke writing goal, he puts a red X over that day in the calendar. As he explains,
"After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."
A few years ago, I made a goal for myself to publish an article every Thursday for at least a year. I accomplished my goal and became a much better writer for having done so. While I didn't know about Seinfeld's strategy at the time, a similar method was in play. Once I had been consistently publishing weekly articles, I was motivated not to break the streak.
If this looks motivating to you, try Seinfeld's strategy of not breaking the writing chain.
Still stuck on the question of how much you should be writing? Consider this productivity trick Ernest Hemingway wrote about. In his "Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter" the question is posed "How much should you write in a day?" The answer,
"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it."
Best-selling author James Patterson and Goosebumps author R.L. Stine are known for ending their book chapters in cliffhangers. It keeps readers going in the book as they are impatient to find out what happens next. But this trick isn't just for readers -it can be for writers too. Leave your piece off at an exciting part so you can't wait to continue writing the next day.
The piece goes on to explain how when you pause your physical writing, your subconscious is still going over it. To keep working is tiring, but to subconsciously work on it is not. You're working on your book far more than just when you're sitting at your computer.
How to take breaks
While this may seem counterproductive, sometimes the key to accomplishing a lot of work is knowing when to take a break. It's crucial to clear and refresh your mind. It gives you renewed energy and a clear perspective. If you run yourself down too much in one writing session, it may prevent you from having another one later in the day.
Plus, you'll be more intimidated to start writing the next day if you associate writing with exhaustion. Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, suggests five different kinds of restorative breaks to try:
- Micro-breaks of a minute or less. When you can't do a more substantial break, use a micro break to hydrate, stand up, and wiggle your body.
- Movement break. If possible, try to take a five-minute walk or do a few yoga poses.
- Nature break. Studies show looking at nature can improve your focus, so bonus points if your movement break is outside.
- Social break. Talking to others, or even texting a friend, can be a way to rejuvenate. Just avoid talking about work to actually have it count as a break.
- Mental gear-shifting break. Try to change your thoughts away from work completely. Meditation is known to be a great way to do this.
If you're writing on a computer, it's also important to give your eyes a screen break before they get irritated. Vision Specialist Dr. Jeff Anshell popularized the 20/20/20 rule for preventing eye strain. He suggests that every 20 minutes, you look at an item 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. Your eyes will thank you for these mini breaks.
Not sure when you should take a more significant break? If you struggle to balance a substantial amount of work with an appropriate amount of breaks, there are several tools to help increase productivity. Sometimes, I use the app BreakTime to tell me when to write and when to relax. You set how long you want your work chunks to be and how long you want to rest between them.
There are also applications, like Focus, that will temporarily block websites you mindlessly find yourself checking. Sometimes it feels like my fingers are on autopilot taking me to recreational sites when I should be writing. Breaks are meant to be purposeful and not something you're surprised to find yourself taking.
"Green roofs" such as these not only have environmental benefits, but a study shows they also strengthen your attention skills if you look at them during a micro-break.
Avoid self-handicapping and actively seek inspiration
You can write that book, or article, or website copy. I promise. Don't let yourself be what's stopping you. Often writers procrastinate on pieces because they worry the result won't be as good as they hoped. If you don't try, you can't fail, right? Wrong. Completing a piece of writing is always a win.
There will be time for editing later. A couple of my favorite books that will motivate you to turn excuses into action are Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take you from Ordinary to Extraordinary and The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph. If you're truly worried the problem isn't your motivation, but rather a lack of talent, a great book for improving writing skills is On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I recommend it even if you primarily write fiction.
Now, as much as I've been talking about not using a lack of inspiration as an excuse to be unproductive, there is something to be said for how being inspired propels us into work. The key is not to wait for a creative spark to wander into our brains, but to actively seek out activities that motivate us. This is key in how to become a more creative writer.
Nothing gives me more writing ideas than a good book or taking a walk and listening to a podcast. I'm also very inspired by conversations with interesting people. There is a stereotype of writers being introverted and loners. For me, and many other writers, this couldn't be less true. Bounce lines off of friends and take time to listen to their stories. Something they say might give you an idea for your next piece.
Other good inspiration options are online articles, traveling somewhere new, or listening to music. You can even be inspired by yourself. Dig out some of your older pieces and read them over. According to neuroscientist Mark Beeman, who has studied what happens to our brains during "Aha!" moments,
"Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales."
Inspiration is like a jaguar. It feels like it pounces on you out of nowhere, but in reality, it's been slowly stalking towards you. Don't wait until a big deadline is looming to look for something to boost your creativity -be on the lookout for new ideas well before you need them. Your next step is to find books, podcasts, or other sources of inspiration. Then set aside time in your schedule to become inspired. This is a priority, not a luxury.
Adjusting your environment
This isn't another article that's going to talk about the pros and cons of different work environments and whether or not you should write in a coffee shop. But I am going to tell you how to adjust your setting for optimal creativity and productivity.
Lighting can have a massive impact on your performance levels and how drowsy you feel by the end of the day. One study compared how participants performed on days where they were mostly under artificial lights to days where they were exposed primarily to natural sunlight. They found daylight both made participants more alert and increased their cognitive performance.
If you have some seating options for your writing, try to snag a window seat. Better yet, see if you can get some work done outside. At the very least, it gives you another reason to consider taking your breaks outdoors in nature.
Temperature is another environmental factor that impacts your productivity. Turning the thermostat up a few degrees can make you more productive and focused. A Cornell study found raising the temperature from 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) to 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) decreased errors by 44%. It also increased keying output by 150%.
This charts shows the exact numbers from the study. Higher temperatures increase keying output while simultaneously lowering errors. Source.
It isn't just that being cold might make people feel uncomfortable. Rather, when your body is cold, it's using a significant amount of energy to try and keep you warm. Warmth has also been shown to increase positivity.
If you work at home, feel free to bring the heat to your writing. If you're anywhere with flexible seating, snag a spot by the heater, or dress a bit warmer. At an office, you could even make an argument to your boss that a temperature increase ends up saving them money from higher worker productivity. A little bit of sunshine and warmth can go a long way to accomplishing more.
So now what?
Get writing! As Author Mark Manson has said, "Action isn't just the effect of motivation; it's also the cause of it." The order of action isn't always to first get motivation and then to start writing. Sometimes it needs to happen in reverse order.
There is nothing scarier to a writer than a blank page. Start putting words on it -any words. Even if the first few paragraphs you write are terrible, they may inspire you to keep going, and when you keep going, you may create something fantastic.
Yes, writing is a form of art. But that doesn't mean you can use a need for creativity as an excuse to be unproductive. You can be inventive any time of the day, even when you're sleepy. Get your dopamine flowing and then accomplish a mini writing goal. Take a break and then do it again. Repeat this pattern until you've achieved a larger goal. Hopefully reading this has been a source of inspiration for you. Now get some writing done!
"If I waited until I felt like writing, I'd never write at all." -novelist Anne Tyler
About the author
Hannah Kowalczyk-Harper is a freelance writer and social media manager that travels the world by working remotely. A social person, she loves to discuss writing, business, and travels.
Hannah is always open to learning about new, interesting opportunities. You can read some of her writing at https://medium.com/@MsHannahTweets and contact her directly at [email protected].
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