Time seems to be a Goliath that many of us David writers wrestle with. This is evidenced by your response to my last article, “Time is NOT on Your Side.”
I have a confession. I regularly struggle with my time—especially when writing white papers.
I look at my “to do” list and freak out. I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Despite the challenges we face, there are proven tactics that can really help us sit down and write.
What follows are my top tips to tackling time:
#1 – Identify Your Productivity Zone
Figure out when you are most able to write. For me, it’s between 9am and 11am. You know you’re in the zone when you can crank out writing. When in the zone, I can easily write a few well-written pages of copy. When I’m out of the zone, I’m lucky to write a single paragraph all day. Find the zone and you’re on your way to more productive writing.
#2 – When in the Zone, ONLY Write
If you’re like me, you would rather respond to email or make phone calls when in the zone. Get in the habit of only writing when in your zone. I tell my clients that I write in the morning and take calls in the afternoon. They know not to call when I’m writing. Controlling the zone is a key to success.
#3 – How to Stay Focused on Writing
Despite your best efforts, you’ll get dragged out of the writing zone—often. To prevent this, you need a defensive plan. Here are some tactics:
- Shut down your email. I often don’t read my email until the afternoon. Email is disruptive technology. By its very nature, email takes you off track.
- Turn off your phones. If you sit at a desk with a business phone, press the “Do not disturb button.” Unplug the phone from the wall. Turn off your mobile phone while you’re at it.
- Shut down the Internet. Quit your instant messenger application and your web browser. Better yet, do what I do. Go to the hub in your office and unplug your network connection. By eliminating the temptation to surf the web, you will be forced to write.
- Shut the door. If you can, shut the door to your office and hang out a “Do not disturb” sign. If you work in a cubicle, have a neighbor deflect visitors to your space.
- Use music. Put some classical or ambient music on. Not only does this help you focus, it also drowns out background noise. I have heard that some classical music actually stimulates creative brainwaves. I like Bach on my iPod.
#4 – How to Accomplish More Writing
I have two tips to share here:
- Write free flow. This means just get the words down and worry about how they sound later. A great trick for me is to write with a pen and clipboard. You cannot erase ink. The result is you don’t worry about spelling and grammar, you just write.
- Set easy to accomplish writing tasks. Make a goal of writing one page while in your productivity zone, or some other easy objective. If you’re writing a white paper, you could have it done in slightly more than a week by simply writing a page a day. It is much easier to write when you have a clear daily deliverable.
#5 – Reward Yourself for Getting Writing Done
When you meet your goals, reward yourself. A movie from Blockbuster, a new song from iTunes, a Starbucks drink or some other indulgence can help you feel good about getting writing done. Give yourself an incentive to write and you will write more.
Now go forward and write!
What other tactics have you used to gain writing time?
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Reader Comments (105)
Excellent tips, especially regarding the zone. One writing book I swear by warns that if you miss your zone you may well end up losing the whole day, or even the next day. Clearly finding your “zone” is essential to regular productive writing.
Justin Chen says
Awesome tips. Even though I know I need to just shut out distractions it’s just so hard to do. It’s also why writing on the plane is the most productive for me since I really have no other choice but to work. Thanks for the reminders.
Sometimes I get my best ideas while driving. For such cases it’s useful to have a voice recorder or a phone handy.
Great tips. It’s so hard to find time to write, but we have to realize that we need to MAKE time to write and not wait until we “find” time…because we all know that’s never going to happen!
Steven Bradley says
Thanks Michael. You are certainly not alone in wanting to find more time. I do most of the above suggestions and they all help.
Identifying the productivity zone is important and not just for writing. Some days I just have to muddle through based on what’s in front of me, but in general I’ve learned when I do certain tasks best.
For example the late afternoon is about the least productive time of my day. I’ve taken to using this part of the day for busy work that doesn’t require much thought to get done. That way I can still be productive.
With writing I think the free flow idea is great. Many of us struggle to write because we want to make every word perfect before moving on to the next. Just write and edit later.
Andrew Leigh says
Great posting – some superb tips. I sometimes use the white noise of my air purifier to really separate me from the rest of the world.
The classical music you are talking about is Baroque and I think Bach falls under that category. Like you though, I find ambient works really well.
Jeremy Steele says
“Stay Focused on Writing”
Like turning off Desktop Tower Defense. Stupid game.
Amy Palko says
I’m currently in the throes of writing my phd thesis, and throughout my writing up, I’ve discovered that I am a born procrastinator! I have to take myself away from the internet/phone/kids(!) and force myself to start. I also used to have the problem of not being able to get any considerably amount of work done, which, when you have 80,000 words to write, was a little worrying! I’ve now resolved not to read over any of my writing until I’m finished for the day. Sure, I find inelegant sentences, word repetitions and poorly constructed paragraphs, but these things can be fixed. At least I have something down! My tip would be, push past the need to be perfect, and allow your first draft to be awful. Believe me, your second draft will be so much better. Great tips, Michael; thank you so much for the post!
Thank you for these tips… I just started following your blog and the things you write about really come in handy professionally and personally. Sometimes my best ideas come in the middle of the night, this is why I keep a pen and clipboard next to my bed. What I think I’m getting next is that “do not disturb sign”. TX.
Graham Lutz, The Young Capitalist says
#3 is my favorite. I’m forever getting distracted from writing. NO MORE!
Mason Hipp says
It’s interesting how each of us prefers different tips, and has different methodology. Just goes to show you that what works for one person may not for the next.
Personally, most of my writing is secondary to most of my phone calls. If I get a phone call in the middle of writing, it’s an easy choice which to stick with.
That being said, I try to write during times when I won’t be receiving to many calls.
Thanks for the tips on a tough topic,
Matt Keegan says
When in the midst of a writing project, I will reward myself by sneaking a peek at my email or visiting a social media site. If I discipline myself it is only a quick visit, otherwise I defeat the purpose of the reward and fall behind on my work.
Actually separating yourself from your normal work environment helps too. Take your iPod, clipboard and a pen to Starbucks and write there. You don’t have to turn your music on but keeping the earbuds in will at least prevent people from interrupting you.
Then your coffee reward is right there waiting for you when you reach your goal.
Zach Everson says
To add to number three, I need to be in a place where not only are all of those devices off, but I’m not close enough to them to turn them on.
Mark Goodyear says
I’ve heard people talk about finding flow, too.
I get rid of a lot of distractions by using a laptop that isn’t connected to the net, and that doesn’t have any games on it.
I like the idea of using music. I’ve used ambiant music by Harold Budd and the likes before. I should start doing that again.
ming | artmakr.com says
I do love writing, and I carry my moleskine everywhere, so I’m always writing.
Recently I wrote “7 ways to squeeze painting time into your life” ,
I guess most of those tips can be applied to writing. The trick I use now, is to carry one book around for drafts, and when I have a bigger chunk of time, polist the drafts into an article.
Reading Copyblogger also helps;p
lawton chiles says
I think you make a huge point with mentioning the distractions that e-mail brings into our daily lives. It seems like work is tethered to our email accounts, and it should be the other way around- or none at all.
I won’t check my email early in the morning. No sir. Someone, hold me accountable!
I’m a big procrastinator, but I’m also a person of habit. So for me, you Number 1 tips is how I stay productive. If I can write at the same time each day, I get a lot more done. And since I’m a night owl, I usually write late at night while the rest of the world is sleeping – less distractions! 🙂
Great post! Good tips!
Michael A. Stelzner says
Thanks for the feedback everyone!
I glad you like these tips, they really work for me (except today I spent too much time chatting with Brian Clark!!).
I would love to get recommendations on Ambient Noise artists/albums.
Ankesh Kothari says
Never underestimate the power of deadlines. Before starting on a writing project, I usually call up an old client and let him know if he could review a report that I’ll send him on Friday.
Knowing that some one is waiting for the report or newsletter draft etc – helps me make sure that the writing is done before Friday comes along.
Ankesh Kothari says
For music, if you like guitar – go for Oscar Lopez. I like Paul Finley too.
Richard Clayderman is good for piano.
DJ Tiesto is good for trance. But quite a few of his songs have words in them too.
I also like some Indian tunes. Especially Rahul Sharma – he plays santoor. His music is fast paced that helps you set your rhythm well.
Another idea is: to find fast rhythmic music in other foreign languages.
I’m not a big fan of classical music. But I’ve heard Bach is good to create writing moods.
i don’t think i’ve still been able to detect my ‘time zone’…an idea can strike me anytime and i feel like writing it…sometimes, distractions like the internet, games, etc. help me refresh and get back to my work with better ideas..but unfortunately, these things take up a lot of time and the deadlines can suffer ‘cos of that…this is a great post and i’ll surely produce a page a day now…thanks
Ronna Porter says
I’m pouring over lots of academic and popular research at the moment that supports that, with certain qualifications, music can improve mood and therefore efficiency, productivity and communication in the workplace. It can help reduce stress and conflict, help teambuilding and bring employees closer (it’s hard to argue while ‘Air on the G String’ – think Hamlet – plays in the background!).
It can aid concentration, return your attention to the job in hand, and reduce distractions, in particular our arguably hot-wired, survival instinct to listen to ‘other people’s voices’ which takes precedence over almost any other. That’s probably also why classical and ambient music without lyrics is most appropriate at work. As you say, apart from being pleasurable (and inspiring!) in its own right it can be a useful tool for the easily-distracted writer.
I’m another Baroque fan while writing. I spend most of my concentrated work listening to Classical.com which has the added bonus that I can set up a long playlist of constantly new, but always right-for-me classical, jazz or world music and not get distracted by the need to chose a new track!
Matt Ambrose says
According to science – being in ‘the zone’ is all to do with brainwaves. When you’re relaxed you generate alpha waves which allow you to concentrate at your peak and think most creatively. Sports stars such as Tiger Woods are believed to generate alpha waves before their finest performances. A burst of alpha waves enables them to concentrate at their peak without getting anxious or agitated.
For writers, the key is to create a relaxing environment , and sometimes even stepping away from the keyboard so you can collect your thoughts and think up new ideas.
Mark Harrison says
Good solid advice indeed, just need to find the willpower now to make sure I can switch of the distractions..
Brad Shorr says
Really great tips from you and the commenters. I’ve never had a predictable zone time, so I always carry my trusty Moleskine notebook around. For some reason it’s often easier for me to get in the zone when I’m out of the office, probably because I’m away from all the distractions you talk about.
lawton chiles says
Thanks for the music recommendations everyone. Try some jazz guitar, maybe some Chris Botti as well…
Eugene Morgan says
One of my favorites for background music is The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack. I find it helps me not only to focus but also to be more creative. I also like Enya.
Mike Fields says
Thanks, these are great tips. The best ideas come when you least expect
Great resource for me here.. Thanx
Michael, your posts have been tearing it up over here. And for good reason. All of those pointers are excellent. I would also add that sometimes we don’t always get big chunks of time. On busy days, if you can snag little 10-minute pockets of time throughout the day, you can still be productive. If nothing else, you can get ideas started that are ready to roll with when you have more time later.
Great post, but a little counterproductive.
I’m supposed to be writing now, but instead I’m reading an article about how not to be distracted while writing. A little ironic, I think.
Great post though!
Mary Emma Allen says
I just told Lillie I needed to find time to participate in some of those group writing projects she listed. Now I come across your post! I don’t have any excuses, do I?
Millionaire Mommy Next Door says
My favorite writing tool is a digital timer. I set it for 45 minute increments:
First 45 minutes: research, gather notes and ideas, create an outline.
Second 45: write my article.
Third 45: Polish and proofread.
I find that if I set myself a time limit, I push to finish the task before the beep. It keeps me focused and steers me away from distractions, like web surfing.
Right now, I have 5 minutes left on my timer for reading and commenting on other web sites. Then I’ll set another 15 minutes for responding to email…
Re ambient music, I swear by a CD I purchased from HemiSynch called “Indigo for Quantum Focus”. I also like the Awakened Mind System” set of CDs. These are electronic musical compositions that are supposed to help move brainwaves into a productive state. All I know is they really help me concentrate.
Also, I find my mind is clearest for writing in the dead of night, so I like to get up around 2:30 am or so and get in a burst of writing until about 7 am. The only trick is being able to go to bed early enough.
John Richardson says
I find that I can work in a consistent writing time by getting up early and setting aside a 48 minute focused work period. I set a timer and tune everything else out. Having a large cup of coffee and some background music helps. If I’m not done at the end of 48 minutes, I’ll take a 12 minute break and start the process all over again.
Singletasking is the way to go!
Since reading this, I’ve been trying to follow the advice not for my blog, but for other projects I’ve been working on, and have found the tips incredibly useful – although in the process I’ve neglected my blog as it was one of the distractions! 🙂
Ronna Porter says
For anyone who wants to try out a bit of background Bach, have a listen to the latest piece of music added at http://www.classical.com/
Simple & to the point!
Thanks for reminding me that to get anything done, you must put yourself in the zone.
As an aspiring copywriter for an autodealership, it is hard finding quiet & an undisturbed moment to write.
I have about 30 form letters that I’ve written, various sales pages and a number of new marketing pieces and I literally have to tune everyone out in order to get something accomplished.
I like the idea of getting someone to run interference for me for about an hour so I can get in the zone & really concentrate.
Thanks again for your valuable insights!
This is first rate write-up. Especially, the tips on how to focus on writing.
I agree with your tips. In fact I got so enthusiastic about them I wrote another 5 tips on my own blog. See what you think!
Post at http://business-powerpack.com/5-tips-for-writing-faster
Sanjay Nair says
Fantastic post! I was always struggling to write oustide my zone and had almost assumed that maybe I needed to get my grey matter inspected.
Now I know that I aint the only one.
Thanks! This will surely help me with my work in the days to come.
Fiona Fell - websitePROFITS says
I never thought of rewarding myself ‘after’ I finish a writing task.
Will have to start doing that.
I’m off to make a list of all the wonderful things I enjoy doing instead of writing, and use them as rewards instead of distractions.
websitePROFITS: Profit Boosting Tips in 37 words or less!
Excellent points, many of which I’ve espoused with my own clients and students. Another of my favorites is to write first thing in the morning. By doing this, you get your mind when it is fresh and unencumbered and you are also accomplishing the most important goal first.
All AWESOME suggestions. Finding your best time to write without distraction varies from writer to writer.
I find that the wee morning hours are great for me. I feel more creative and my writing just seems to flow better.
I also find that free writing works a lot better for me than a structured approach
Thanks for the great tips.
One post I read here helped me realize something I already really knew about myself — that I’m not very productive with creative things in the afternoon.
I’ve been working on a guide for weeks and I find that if I am distracted it can take me quite a while to get back on track (maybe even a day!).
Along with those distractions can come feelings of guilt and procrastination.
I recently read that a distraction takes at least 45 minutes to regain focus for creative people. (Anyone else feel this way?)
Thanks for the tips. I needed to read this today.
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