On Writing: Life Hacks to Help You Write

What if a pill could make you rich and powerful?

This is the tagline attached to 2011’s Limitless, a film about struggling writer Eddie Morra, who is able to access 100% of his mental abilities with the help of a mysterious, experimental pill. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the miracle drug turns out to be more than the writer bargained for.

While Morra’s use (or rather, abuse) of the fictional NZT48 enables him to write like a fiend, attract women like Casanova, and speak new languages effortlessly, there is unfortunately no miracle drug in real life that can make us all better, smarter, more productive versions of ourselves.*

So this is where life hacks come in.

Life hacking “refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency” (from Wikipedia), and in the writing context, life hacks can be used by authors to provide motivation, increase output, and improve the quality of that output.

Here, I discuss four major obstacles that commonly prevent authors from meeting their goals, and what to do about them:

1. Manage Your Time

Something that many authors, myself included, struggle with is finding time to just sit down and write. It always seems like there’s some other writing-related task that needs to be done, and sometimes we end up putting our blog updates, social media, and critique partners ahead of our own WIPs (work in progress).

So how do we keep all these demands on our time from interfering with our actual writing?

  • Schedule writing time into your life – and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but many people write when the spirit moves them, rather than as a matter of routine. I’m guilty of this all the time, but it really is an ineffective way to pursue and achieve your writing goals. If you allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by your day job, family obligations, and to-do list, you will end up trying to “sneak in” writing time around everything else. Instead, try scheduling blocks of time into your day or week, and then stick to them. Let your family and friends know that this time is off-limits, but that you will make yourself available to them once your scheduled time is up.
  • The Pomodoro technique. This method of time management was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, and takes its name from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro being the Italian word for tomato). In this technique, you work in set intervals of time, with short breaks between each. Traditionally, intervals of work are 25 minutes long and are used to tackle a specific task. When your timer goes off, you put your work down and take a 3-5 minute break. Every four intervals, you take a longer break (say 15-30 minutes). If you complete a task before an interval is up, you devote the rest of the interval to overlearning – practicing your newly learned skill beyond the point of initial mastery so it becomes automatic. (So if your goal was to finish a chapter, and you’re done early, you might find a writing prompt online and practice writing dialogue, or showing instead of telling).
  • Use technology to hold yourself accountable. With countless time management apps and programs available, keeping track of where your time goes has never been so easy. I particularly like this Lifehack.org roundup of the Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools. Just a few of the apps listed include:

focus booster, based on the pomodoro technique;

Toggl, which lets you know how much time you spend on projects and tasks via graphs, charts, and timers; and

focus@will, which claims to combine neuroscience and music to boost    your productivity.

2. Minimize Distractions

One of the biggest obstacles to my writing is a tendency to ignore certain distractions. If the phone rings? I answer it instead of letting it go to voicemail. A new email comes in? I have to check it right away.

So how do I ever get anything done? Here are two things that work for me:

  • Set yourself up for success. Pick a spot that you find comfortable enough to hang out in for a solid block of time, and gather up all the writing accessories you need. This way, you’re not constantly jumping up for a cup of tea, your power cord, or a snack. Figure out whether you work best facing the window or a wall. Ask yourself if you feel more productive when you get dressed and sit at a desk, or if you’re able to settle in better in your pajamas on the couch. Whatever your ideal routine is, figure it out and then give yourself permission to follow it. Just for fun, here are a few routines used by famous authors, from brainpickings.org:

John Steinbeck kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk and used them so heavily, his editor had to send him round pencils to combat the calluses he developed from the traditional hexagonal shape;

Anthony Trollope began every day promptly at 5:30 A.M., and wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch; and

when Victor Hugo was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he put himself under house arrest and locked away all of his clothing, save a large grey shawl, to avoid the temptation to go outside.

  • Avoid the internet. Or better yet, just turn it off. Even critically-acclaimed, bestselling authors like Zadie Smith have had to resort to internet applications to – ironically – turn off the internet in order to get anything done. In fact, the UK Daily Mail notes that Smith relied on such apps so heavily in writing her latest novel, she thanked them in the acknowledgements.

3. Increase Your Output

One of the most well known stories on the internet of how to increase your output is that of author Rachel Aron. On her blog, she describes how she went from writing 2,000 words per day to 10,000 without increasing the time spent writing. Instead of writing longer, Aron advises, write smarter.

Her number one tip is to know what you’re writing before you write it. This will minimize the time spent – or wasted – trying to think your way out of plot holes and seemingly un-resolvable cliffhangers. For those of us who are natural “pantsers” (authors who write from the “seat of our pants”, rather than planning things out), this advice can be hard to follow. However, I do find that I’m able to write much faster when I have an outline.

Secondly, Aron advocates paying attention to the time – how long it takes to write a certain number of words, and what factors affect that time. You should also pay attention to when you reach peak efficiency, and when it drops off. Aron, for example, found that the longer she wrote, the faster she wrote, up to a point when she would become too “brain fried” to continue.

Finally, Aron points to enthusiasm. While the advice to write every day, no matter what, is often touted online, her practice is only to write on days when she is able to muster enough knowledge, time, and enthusiasm to do justice to what must be written next. To get excited about the day’s work, Aron plays a scene through in her head, looking forward to the parts that work, and getting rid of the ones that don’t. This way, she is always eager to start, and enjoys the added bonus that her work improves from the visualization.

*I include often-abused “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall in this statement, as I firmly believe that non-prescribed use of medications will eventually catch up to you in a negative way. (And of course, I am not suggesting that those medications shouldn’t be used by people with legitimate medical concerns who can be helped by them).

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