At one time you couldn’t wait to get working on your writing project? But now you approach it with dread. Social media’s become cat nip. Writing sessions feel tortuous. You question EVERYTHING. Are you going backwards, forwards or around in circles – who knows? Over-editing, over-thinking, blaming yourself. Then there’s that shiny new idea you’ve just had…
Welcome. You’ve reached the sticky, swampy middle of your writing project and yep, it’s tough. It can send you down a negative mind-spiral of procrastination, self-doubt and guilt. But there is a way out. Here’s how.
In our research examining the writing processes and habits of 600 writers we found one thing and one thing only to be decisively linked to high levels of productivity and low levels of stress and that was the presence of some kind of personal writing ‘system’. Whilst older or experienced writers tend to have developed a few coping mechanisms, they still got blocked, they still felt overwhelmed, they still procrastinated – but in lower numbers.
A writing ‘system’ sounds complicated but it isn’t – or at least, it doesn’t need to be. It’s just the personal combination of tactics, routines and habits an individual writer uses to make time, prioritise, keep focused and persist. Finding one can take years of trial and error – but it doesn’t need to if you follow our advice.
10 productivity techniques to try
Productivity is deeply personal. There’s no single method that everyone should use to keep writing and there’s no simple solution that will last a lifetime – your needs and circumstances will change as you grow and develop as a writer. However, there are tried and tested techniques to use in different combinations. Here’s a starter of ten ten tips (there’s more than this) – try them out to find a system that works for you and make the sticky middle, a little less sticky.
1. Book in writing time in advance
Look at the next few weeks in your diary and find the times you can’t write. Next, find some other, less ideal, chunks that you might be able to do something. Lastly, look for the times you can write (however small) and commit to those times. When you plan in a specific time for writing in advance you’re readying yourself for the action to come and it stops you from having to ‘try to find the time’ and relying on willpower – which can be damaging and depleting.
2. Understand your procrastination triggers
Create a list of the things that typically distract you when you procrastinate such as your phone, an untidy house or email. Once you understand your triggers, think about how you could better organise your work space so you don’t procrastinate. Also, think about how you can use those triggers as incentives. For example, if you know that Instagram’s your social media drug, make a 20 minute Instagram binge the thing you use to reward yourself after completing a writing session.
3. Get yourself a ‘when-then’ plan
A ‘when-then’ plan associates your wish to do something – like write – with an everyday action so the thing you want to do becomes more habitual.
- WHEN the alarm clock goes, THEN I’ll spend 45 minutes on my article.
- WHEN I get back from weekly meeting, THEN I’ll write 500 words.
- WHEN I get home, THEN I’ll spend 30 minutes on my report.
One action becomes the trigger for the next and soon the two events become fused.
4. Set a goal, make it specific
A good writing goal can make the difference between success and failure. Having a goal that’s as specific and measurable as you can make it gives you something solid to aim for. It means you can monitor your progress towards it and know when you’ve reached it. Psychologists tell us that the physical act of writing down your goal makes you more likely to achieve it as it increases accountability. Make sure you can see your goal every day. Go old school, write it out and pin above your desk.
5. Associate writing with positivity
Writing can feel like a slog and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s something you ‘really should’ do – but that just further associates writing with negativity. Instead, create a long list of 30 to 40 positive things that will happen when you’ve reached your writing goal. How will you feel? What opportunities might it open up? Research from neuroscience tells us that creating positive visions of the future releases brain chemicals that improve our mood so think big and start to feel excited about your goal!
6. Keep accountable to others
It’s far harder to make excuses to someone else than it is to yourself and that’s why accountability works. Some people agree mutual deadlines with other writers and favour formal accountability partnerships whilst others prefer to keep more relaxed and informal. Whatever accountability method you choose, the important thing is to have one. Just telling one other person about your writing can really help to keep you focused so don’t write in secret!
7. Give yourself rewards and incentives
Giving yourself something to look forward to can really help you through the dark days of a long, exhausting writing project. You’ll know best what rewards will keep you feeling positive – but remember to choose one that’s proportionate to the energy you invest. Also, always reward the effort not outcomes such as the number of pages you write or your word count. Researching, editing, refining and polishing all still count and are just as important as churning out the words.
8. Go slowly in small steps
It’s human nature to get stuck when you’re facing a daunting writing project. Approaching your large goal incrementally – not thinking about the whole project but instead focussing on the next small action you need to take is based in neuroscience. Going one step at a time works for a reason. It’s a proven way of sneaking past the alarm bells that ring in your brain’s fear centre (the Amygdala) when you think about the big scary thing you have to do.
9. Keep focused by quitting
Our brains are hard-wired to seek closure. That’s why many writers quit writing in the middle of a writing session – because it increases their desire to return to the work the following day. This motivational technique for dealing with procrastination harnesses a psychological condition called the Zeigarnik Effect. However, it only works if you quit when you really don’t want to and when you’re most impatient to continue.
10. Monitor and improve using our EDITOR method
The more evidence you collect about what works and what doesn’t will mean that you’ll find a system that works for you and be better able to hit your deadlines. Use our EDITOR formulation to adapt your practice:
- E is for Experiment: Play around with techniques, see what works and what doesn’t.
- D is for Discard: Never hang on to any methods that aren’t working for you.
- I is for Iterate: Combine techniques in a way that makes sense.
- T is for track: Always keep a log of your progress.
- O is for Optimise: Tweak your process and improve it along the way.
- R is for Reflect: What went well? What didn’t go so well? What can you improve on?