Writing productivity is about more than getting stuff done – it’s about doing your best work, living your best life, and defining success based on what matters most to you. So says productivity coach and bestselling author Grace Marshall. As a recovering perfectionist who’s not naturally organised Grace’s approach to writing productively is honest and grounded in everyday reality.
From the mouth of babes
Grace didn’t realise that her own busyness had come to define her until she overheard her daughter playacting mummy. Still a toddler, her daughter picked up the phone and, just like mummy had said so often, answered with: “Hello, no I haven’t got time. OK bye.”
This wake up call made Grace wonder what would happen if she stopped saying she didn’t have time? What if we were banned from saying we’re too busy? She sought out alternative ways of thinking, trying out different conversations on time management, for herself, and with her coaching clients. Her advice and experiments have been explored through her blog and books.
Becoming an writer: start blogging
Because writing is often considered a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must do’ activity it can get displaced by other more urgent and important tasks and fall off our priority list. Grace’s experience as a writer is a case study in finding time to write and developing skills progressively.
Grace’s first step was starting a blog in 2008 to market her business. Very quickly blogging became her comfort zone, a place to explore ideas and communicate with her audience. But it could be stressful coming up with ideas and finding the time to write them. To take the pressure off Grace removed the dates from blogs so she could write when she was able to. This gave her time to develop as a writer.
“there’s something about making a commitment and making yourself do it.”
As the blog’s audience grew Grace needed to step up. She set herself a bold goal: to send a weekly newsletter. And to give it a deadline she called it ‘Monday Momentum’. It helped being held to account, she said:
“Though some weeks I wished I didn’t have to do the newsletter, there’s something about making a commitment and making yourself do it.”
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Build up by adding structure
Writing her first book 21 Ways to Manage the Stuff that Sucks Up Your Time built on her experience as a blogger. It was, in many ways, like a series of blog posts:
“There was a set framework with 21 ways so each section was essentially a blog post. The process of writing was similar to blogging and the deadline helped it get done. I have to have some kind of milestone otherwise I don’t know whether I’m on track or if the deadline is going to creep up on me.
“Each week I would look to see where my writing windows were and work out what that means. If one week I was out four days and I only had one day to do it, I’d have to do all my writing then. Also if there was a week where it didn’t work, I knew how much I had to catch up on.”
Accountability structures to keep going
Grace describes herself as a people pleaser and she used this to her advantage to help her meet her writing milestones. Caring what other people thought of her became an effective accountability structure.
“Even though I had the same mindset, fears, doubts and struggles as everyone else”
“To hold myself accountable I ran a 40-days baby steps programme while I wrote my book and anyone else who had a 40-day project could join me and do it together. Even though I had the same mindset, fears, doubts and struggles as everyone else, I felt that leading that group made me step into a position of finding the solutions and leading by example. There were times when I had a really rough day and it felt terrible but when you are in that role model position you are more likely to step into it and do it.”
Persevere: wade through the treacle
The second book was bigger and required a deeper dive than the first one. Like many writers she’d get stuck and and have to fight doubt and indecision.
“The second book was harder because I had more room to play with. Being productive was a big topic. I found myself staring at the screen asking: What do I know? Wondering what to put in and what to decide to leave out. The first chapter was hard work and it was my treacle I had to wade through.”
Grace created a writing haven in a local café and racked up a big bill as she grappled with her subject.
Dealing with procrastination
“preparation enables work and procrastination replaces it.”
One solution to the problem of not knowing what to write is to do more research. This is a classic procrastination technique. Grace sums this up brilliantly in her second book How To Be Really Productive: “preparation enables work and procrastination replaces it.”
“I got really caught up feeling like I had to do extra research. I needed to say that I know enough; that I need to get started on it rather than do more research.”
Grace found that interviewing people had become a procrastination technique. When one interview fell through she was forced to stop obsessing about the perfect Plan A and come up with a Plan B herself.
“You tell yourself you need a particular thing, that the solution needs to look a certain way, and when it doesn’t, you have to come up with something anyway.”
Get perspective on your work and avoid overwhelm
It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the number of things we have to do and the opportunities and ideas we have. Grace has found through her coaching and workshops that many people blow things up out of all proportion. Her advice if you’re feeling overwhelmed is to do a brain dump.
“stop chasing that idea around – hold it still and then you can do something about it.”
“If we keep it all in our heads we can’t see where it starts and ends so it feels bigger and takes up all this head space. So it’s important to get it out of your head and get some perspective on it. Also stop chasing that idea around – hold it still and then you can do something about it.”
Her second piece of advice on overwhelm is to treat ideas like a menu. If you ate everything from a restaurant menu you’d make yourself sick and turn what was a treat into a chore. The same with ideas, don’t try to tackle everything at once, but instead pick and choose from what’s on offer.
“If you treat it like a menu you ask: What do I fancy today? What do I have an appetite for? Then you taste it and savour it. You might decide you don’t like it at all and decide to try something else. At least you’ve made that conscious decision rather than trying to take a bite out of everything and not being sure what’s best. It’s about knowing you can come back to the menu the next day and pick something else.”
Making the most of your time
Productivity isn’t about working longer hours but getting the best from the time available.
Learning what does and doesn’t work for you is vital. Grace advises reviewing what you’ve enjoyed doing and letting that inform the choices you make with your time. She has developed her internal sensor to pick up on her energy levels and help her decide which tasks are suitable to tackle.
“It not necessarily the same time of the day, but what kind of a day it’s been. My internal sensor will detect I’m in zombie mode so I need to park that piece of writing and go and do some LinkedIn connections instead. When you are working it out as you go along there’s an element of learning and taking that learning forward, but not beating yourself up too much about it.”
“My internal sensor will detect I’m in zombie mode so I need to park that piece of writing”
It’s important to know yourself and don’t compare yourself to others. For example, there’s the current obsession with getting up early, often called the 5am Club. Grace explains:
“The idea that the most productive hours are between 5-8am as they are uninterrupted. But some people say ‘I am not a lark I’m an owl. I’m a slow starter in the morning, it just makes me feel bad’. The lesson to learn is that uninterrupted time is golden. So yes you can get it – it might be at 5am it might be at 10am; other people just have to create it in the middle of the day.”
Have fun and reward yourself
Grace believes that productivity is about living your best life. However, there are things we have to do that aren’t much fun. When you’re facing a chore she suggests changing your attitude.
“Sometimes it’s about making the chore a challenge or a game”
“Sometimes it’s about making the chore a challenge or a game, putting the timer on, going to do 20 minutes of housework, a super quick blast, put some music on, change the environment – go go go. When it’s done that piece of cake is mine.”
Which brings us to rewards. We’re all short of time and fitting writing into a busy schedule deserves a treat. It doesn’t have to be big, as Grace says:
“It might be something as simple as a cup of tea. Sometimes it’s reading a book, going for a coffee with a friend. Sometimes it’s giving myself permission to take time off.”
Writing productivity the Grace Marshall way
- Start small – write a blog, keep a notebook or journal
- Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself
- Set goals to challenge yourself
- Use milestones to monitor your progress
- Get other people to hold you to account
- Keep going through the sticky bits
- Acknowledge when you’re procrastinating
- Avoid overwhelm – do a brain dump and treat ideas like a menu
- Know yourself by reflecting on what works for you
- Don’t compare yourself with others
- Turn chores into challenges or games
- Treat yourself for work done