“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” as Annie Dillard so aptly once said. Yet with our days now busier than ever, and demands placed upon us as equally extensive, being able to squeeze as much writing from the limited time we have becomes all the more paramount. Everyone knows that we feel far finer after a productive day, it feels good to be productive and complete tasks, no matter how tiny.
Yet feeling overwhelmed with never-ending to-do lists can only serve to make you feel frustrated and fatigued, which weakens both your ability to be creative and produce quality work, as well as your vital energy or chi (qi) but regardless of whether you swing with that ‘energy business’ kind of thing, as my friend so cutely calls it, unproductive days weaken your immunity and emotional wellbeing, not to mention the passion for your projects, and no one likes to leave things left undone. Here are eight ways to guarantee a productive day.
Lose the Distractions
“The world we work in today is not the world of Michelangelo, of Marie Curie, of Ernest Hemingway, or even of Paul Rand,” says author of ‘Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind’, Jocelyn K. Glei. “It is a new world, empowered and entranced by the rapid-fire introduction of new technologies—a world where anyone can whisper in our ear, where a “room of one’s own” no longer means you’re all alone. Creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around them, and we now have to contend with a constant stream of chirps, pings, and alerts at all hours of the day.”
These seemingly urgent demands on our time are distracting and subconsciously draining, which makes reaching inside ourselves to find our creative flow all the more elusive. Additionally, silent energy drainers such as a messy desk or inability to guarantee undisturbed time while you create, can all disrupt your equilibrium and consequently your ability to complete your novel or work in progress, whether grand or tiny. “Like it or not, we are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions—to truly set ourselves apart, we must learn to be creative amidst chaos,” says Jocelyn.
There’s an App for That
To be productive and reach your potential, you have to stay focused on your work. Yet the very nature of our on-call, non-stop society is at odds with being able to focus freely. The internet can send you down research rabbit holes if you’re not mindful of the time you spend on it. Segregate browsing time with creating time, and research time with writing time to avoid finding yourself stuck on a research loop. With so many apps now available to keep you focused, you can minimize distractions from that wonderful web.
Here are three add-ons for popular browsers: “Stay Focused” for Chrome,“Block Site” for Firefox, and “Website Block” for Explorer. “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet,” says author Zadie Smith. Aside from helping us maintain our focus, the sheer wealth of apps now on offer to help you optimize your working day, ensures that even the most uninspired can achieve far more than before. There may be more distractions but with them, more ways to deal with being forever on-call. From Evernote to Scrivener, it is now far easier to plan out and complete complex projects. Read 61 Productivity Experts Reveal Their 3 Favorite Productivity Tools and also see: Valuable Productivity Apps That Help Freelancers Get Way More Done – The Write Life.
Use a Timer to Focus on a Single Task
When you set a timer and focus exclusively on one task, whether it’s a scene, piece of flash fiction, article or blog post, you are using your brain in a way that guarantees optimum efficiency. Multi-tasking by its very nature splits the attention we have for each task, though however great the illusion, in effect what is actually happening is you are flipping between the tasks, diluting both productivity and creativity. Although the brain may be better at multitasking than previously thought, Multitasking Splits the Brain.
Do not weaken your creativity by multitasking. Close all other browsers and programs if working on a computer, and turn-off any social media notifications so you can create without interruption. Only by having a specific parameters in which you know you are able to work undisturbed can you truly slip into the place where you are freely expressing. Set a timer for each task, focusing exclusively on that task until completion.
Time-blocking is a masterful way to focus without distractions and get things done. Research has shown that working in blocks of ninety minutes is optimal for an engaged brain. After that, you will usually find a dip in concentration. You can of course block ninety-minutes, take a break and block again. Because it takes time for you to slip into the ‘open state’ in which you are more creative, 90 minute blocks that focus on one task have been shown to be especially effective.
Ultradian rhythms refer to our natural cycles, the cycles within us and in nature too, which in turn affect the ebb and flow of our creativity. They include everything from blood circulation, blinking, pulse, heart rate, bathroom breaks, and appetite, and in turn our mental capacity to work. For optimal productivity and creativity too, you can focus on a task for 90 minutes. After this, a 20- to 30-minute break will offer an increase in productive brainpower.
Allowing yourself a window, a frame if you will, in which you do not concern yourself with anything but the single task you are working on enables you to write unfettered by life’s interference because it’s just you and your work, here, in the moment, freely expressing. This useful acupressure point can instantly enhance your creativity, concentration and bring fresh insight to your writing and creative work. It doesn’t matter if you are expressing through writing, painting or making the best shapes in the sand, when you slip into that sphere of the mystical, that’s where the magic happens, undistracted and present.
Plan and Prioritise
Planning and goal-setting is key in being consistently productive but do not make your goals too grand or nebulous. Instead break down your projects into smaller goals that can be completed each day. A goal of writing a novel is often far too huge and intimidating to complete but breaking that project into manageable chunks makes it achievable. Creating and keeping specific and measurable goals is a far more effective strategy.
It’s also vital to prioritize. “Each morning I pick the one most important thing I want to accomplish today,” says Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. Goals need to be challenging enough to keep you interested but attainable too so you do not lose your motivation. Making them specific, time-limited and attainable will help you stick to your plan. Read The Golden Rules of Goal-Setting and The Most Effective Goal-Setting Plan You’ll Ever Find.
Prepare for Your Day the Night Before
Preparing a plan of your day the night before seems to remove a lot of subconscious weight or worries about the day ahead. Also, because you have a plan, you are free to allow your creative or story ideas to incubate. Create a to-do list, including all the important tasks and also set targets. I love using Todoist as you can break-up your to-do list into projects, with sub-categories and prioritise, set deadlines for each task, and even have alarms set to help you attain your goals. You’ll find you are far more productive when prompted with your most urgent tasks, it’s also available as an app so you can add to it whenever inspiration strikes via your mobile (cell) phone.
Just as your body needs to rest, your brain will work at its best if you take regular breaks, no matter how small. Work in time capsules and take breaks in between for optimum productivity, though not for checking Facebook or Twitter but to allow your mind to rejuvenate. Meditate for five minutes, do some gentle yoga, Tai Chi or Chi Kung. If you are able to, go for a quick walk to stir your inspiration and creative flow. Listen to music, read something inspirational or simply stretch. In the long-term, ensure that you are not overloading your life. Nothing can be more immobilising than feeling overwhelmed.
Quick Tips for Productivity & Creativity
Aside from the above productivity tricks and tips:
- Ensure that your body is fuelled, see What to Eat Before a Creative Project.
- Always factor a little physical exercise into your day, which has also been shown to increase creativity. Our bodies are not designed to sit for long hours at a desk but to move. If you are blessed with the use of your legs, use them. A lethargic body leads to a lethargic mind. If the very idea of exercise irks you, a gentle walk can be rejuvenating for both body and mind.
- Alternatively, try these 7 Useful Yoga Asanas to wake up your creativity and guarantee a more productive day.
- A meditation practice can enliven your creativity and keep you calm in the chaos too, helping with both concentration and your ability to produce creative work.
- If feeling uninspired, use this acupressure point to wake-up your muse, concentration and creativity.
Regardless of how lovely our office environments may be (or not be), it’s our unique and individual practices that determine our ability to be productive. Having a good working routine is pivotal in being able to maximise the time you have, minimise distractions, complete tasks and create.
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What productivity techniques do you swear by? Add your comments below…
Watch What You Need to Know About Productivity from Sparring Mind:
- 10 Quick Tips for Writing Fiction By Andrew Motion - 7 September 2023
- Rainer Maria Rilke on Trusting in Nature, Loving Small Things & Living Questions - 23 October 2017
- Anne Enright’s Finest 10 Tips for Writing Fiction - 23 September 2017