5 rules for getting stuff done: the lazy writer’s guide to productivity

Sad man holding pillow and the clock

I don’t think of myself as hard-working. In fact through most of my life I’ve been called lazy and yet somehow in the last few years I’ve written four novels, three plays, two text-books, a film script, held down a responsible job full-time and managed to study for a PhD. Written down in a list like that it looks exhausting and I wonder how I did it. And, after a bit of thought I’ve evolved some rules for getting stuff done. This knowledge has been hard won and I don’t always follow it even now, but to me, they seem like decent rules to follow.

1. Don’t be a pigeon

Somebody in some lab somewhere did an experiment once. First, they provided pigeon food behind little doors in some kind of pigeon house that would open at set times. Pretty soon the pigeons learned that 9.00am and 4.00pm were meal-times formed orderly queues at precisely those times.

Later the evil sadists\clever behavioural scientists who devise these things started leaving the food behind the doors at unpredictable times. The pigeons never knew when there might be food behind the door.

Well, you can guess what happened…

Those pigeons went mental. They never left the doors alone at all. They pecked and scratched and generally begged to get in just on the off chance there would be something interesting there.

You know where I’m going with this. This is how we are with emails. Because, theoretically, that life-changing message could arrive at any time we find ourselves checking our smartphones ALL the time.

“Most people are pigeons and you are not. This means you win and win big.”

There never is a life-changing message and even if there is, it can wait. We should treat our email inboxes as if it was a proper snail mail letterbox back in the good old days. The post arrives once in the late morning and then again in the late afternoon. If you check your messages at 4pm and well, blimey there actually IS something life changing there –  then you’ve still got an hour or two of the working day to respond. And you can guess the sender will be EAGER to get your reply, because they are checking their inbox every five seconds and responding to nonsense.

What they are not doing is writing their novel/film-script/working on their hit play. You, on the other hand, are doing these things between 9 and 4. This is because you are master of your phone rather than the other way round.

Most people are pigeons and you are not. This means you win and win big.

Want to write? Read on: Managing your muse, tools for gathering and organising your ideas.

2. Have a Facebook hour

Every day have a Facebook hour. Go crazy during that time. Fill your boots with all the Liking and Reacting and Sharing and Humble-bragging and Tagging and Commenting. Then leave it alone and go and do something more worthwhile.

I’m not pretending this is easy. Facebook can feel like chatting with your mates in a pub that never closes. It is warmly seductive, filled with noise and laughter and spirited debate. But so is the local Wetherspoon’s and you’re not in there 24/7 are you?

(Wetherspoon’s is actually better than Facebook despite all the people with missing teeth and dead eyes. At least in Wetherspoon’s no one shows you pictures of their kids’ World Book Day costume. And if they did they’d get punched. As is proper.)

Stronger Than Skin book cover3. If you have to tweet get a robot to do it for you

Spend an hour or so crafting some hilarious/wise/cutting comments on the days news in the morning and then get one of the many social media managers (Google them yourselves, what am I, your servant?) to drip-feed them to your carefully curated (farmed?) followers throughout the day

4. Get up early

God, this boring isn’t it? It’s like the kind of advice your parents gave you when you were back in High School. Go to bed at a reasonable hour, get up early, do your homework as soon as you get from school even though Wacky Races is on and then Scooby-Doo.

I’m here to tell you the inconvenient truth. Your parents were right. Sorry. I get up early. Really early. 5.00am.

I do this because I checked and re-checked my timetable and 5.00 – 7.00 was the only time I had to write my books (I can edit and tinker and tweak in the afternoons but the heavy lifting has to be done in the cold light of dawn.)

I gritted my teeth and got with it and now it feels natural. More or less. The early hours and me, we’re like a successful arranged marriage. We’ve learned to love one another. Keep showing
As Picasso said “Inspiration exists, but it has got to find you working.”

“Inspiration exists, but it has got to find you working.” Picasso

Want to write? Read on: Tips on getting things done so you can spend more time doing what you love.

5. Have someone to nag you (nicely)

That could be an editor, an agent, a local writing group, another writer friend. It could be the nice people at Prolifiko, but you need someone prepared to motivate and to push you.

“You need someone prepared to motivate and to push you.”

You need someone to yell ‘pain is only weakness leaving the body.’ whenever you look like flagging. They need to be smart though.

They need to be able to see that sometimes you need soft love and not tough love. Someone who can spot when an arm round the shoulder is more effective than a kick in the pants.

Our pocket writing coach has helped thousands of people to get into the writing habit. It can help you too.

Those people are hard to find. When you come across a candid, constructive friend like this, hang on to them. They’ll make the difference between a great book and one that is merely quite good. There are too many quite good books out there. We don’t need more of those. Great books, though. Always room for those.

But then again… Hey, sometimes Good Enough is good enough. Be better than Quite Good but don’t worry about being perfect. We don’t need to be perfect parents, perfect partners or perfect children and we certainly don’t need to be (can’t be) perfect writers. If your coach says it’s good enough, sometimes you should believe them.

Sometimes you shouldn’t of course, but that’s a whole other post.


Stephen May’s fourth novel Stronger Than Skin is published by Sandstone Press in March 2017. Find out about his latest projects at his website or on Twitter.