The best thing about being your own boss, which accurately describes most writers, is that you’re the one in charge of when you write and how much you write. Your success and failure are entirely up to you.
The worst thing about being your own boss, which includes being a writer, is that you’re the one to blame if you don’t write frequently enough or put enough words on the page. Your success and failure are entirely up to you.
Which can be scary, especially if you’re not the best at putting your own nose to the grindstone.
Being your own boss means there’s nobody there to kick your butt when you don’t want to get to work. Here are a few workable solutions for the days, weeks, or years you find yourself in that situation.
1. Bribe Yourself
You know this one. You’ve seen a version of it in every diet blog, every self-help book, and half the life hack articles you’ve encountered. But it’s popular for a reason.
Half of writing more quickly is staying focused on your writing when it’s time to write. That means no hitting the Facebook feeder bar. No checking in on netflix. No cleaning the house or going to get yourself a snack. When it’s time to write, you write.
If that’s ever a problem for you, it can help to promise yourself a reward after you’ve finished your writing for the day. That might be a slice of cake, some quality time with Netflix, heading to a brewpub with your friends, or whatever else best motivates you. Just find the rewards that motivate you, and the discipline to reward yourself after you’ve completed your task.
2. Ground Yourself
Having computers to help us write is so much better than using a typewriter, pen and pencil, or quill and ink. We effortlessly delete and replace mistakes in ways that would have made Shakespeare and Hemingway weep with envy. But it also carries with it a challenge.
That computer is connected to the internet, with all the social media, streaming video, and opportunities for procrastination-masquerading-as-research that entails. If your writing computer is the same one you keep your video games on, that temptation’s a mouse click away too.
If that call to distraction is bigger than you some days, take a page from your favorite parenting book. Install nanny programs like LeechBlock or Pocket to disable things other than writing. You can set them on a timer, or set them to be unlocked manually. Either way, it can keep you on track.
A similar method is to get a laptop or tablet you use exclusively for writing. Turn off its wifi and put only your productivity software on it.
3. Sequester Yourself
Some people get distracted by the opportunities in the virtual world. Others get distracted by the call of the physical world around them. Do any of these feel frustratingly familiar?
- Kids needing your attention right now
- A spouse who keeps interrupting during your writing time
- Family and friends who ask you to come help when you’re writing
- Phone calls interrupting your flow
- Wanting to go play with your kids instead of sitting down to write
Those are just a few examples. Even if you resist the temptation to stop writing, the interruption in your work flow slows your progress to a crawl.
Sequester yourself during your writing time. Get behind a closed door. Lock it if you have to. Go to a coffee shop or library far enough away people won’t look for you there. Take your laptop to a park. Rent space in a work share office.
In the pre-911 world, I used to take my laptop or a notebook to the airport. They have comfortable seating, bars, and people leave you alone. That doesn’t really work anymore, but the point still stands. If people won’t leave you alone to write, set yourself up to be alone.
4. List Yourself
Productivity experts Michael Gerber and Stephen Covey both agree that there’s immense power and satisfaction in crossing a completed item off a list, or in checking off the little box next to it, or to erase it off a whiteboard. If you’ve never done it, you might be surprised how motivating this can be.
If you begin your writing time with a list of what you want to accomplish, then work your way down the list in order, you will end your writing time having gotten more done and feeling better about what you did.
Making a list doesn’t just keep you on track. It helps you organize your time in ways that make you write better and faster. Bonus points if you make the list the night before, so you can sleep on it and arrive at your writing time ready to rock and roll.
5. Move Yourself
There are days when you sit down and nothing’s coming, no matter what you try. When that day comes, there are three ways you can move that might get the words flowing again.
Move locations, from one room to another, or from your home to a park, or from the office to the house. Where you end up doesn’t matter. What matters is you change your context enough that you jump start your creativity with the new milieu.
Move modalities. If you’re typing, write longhand. If you’re writing, start proofreading. If you’re brainstorming, focus on a scene. They say “a change is as good as a rest”, and it’s often true in this situation. That’s why it’s often good to be working on multiple projects, or have parts of the same work in different stages. It lets you shift modalities when you need to.
Move your body. A brisk 20-minute walk changes the neurochemicals and hormones in your body. That alone can make you more productive. Whatever your version of light exercise is, now’s the time to get it. You’ll come back ready to write.
6. Pomodoro Yourself
The Pomodoro method is a way of cycling your focus to build the muscle of concentration. It works like this:
- Step One: Promise yourself how long you will write, for example two hours
- Step Two: Break that writing time into manageable chunks, for example fifteen minute sprints
- Step Three: Set a timer for that chunk, and keep your hands on the keyboard until the timer goes off
- Step Four: Take a five minute break
- Step Six: Repeat steps three and four
Under the canonical Pomodoro method, you give yourself a 15-minute break at the end of every fourth cycle. It also says you should work exactly 25 minutes for each sprint, but I disagree with that.
Instead, start at a writing sprint length you’re comfortable with. Write for a week using that system, then add five minutes. Do that for a couple minutes, then add five more. Keep it up until you’re writing uninterrupted for just short of an hour.
But always take a break once per hour. Your hands and eyes will thank you.
7. Forgive Yourself
Hemingway once complained that he was exhausted after spending the morning putting in a comma, and the afternoon taking it out again. Although he is one of our literary treasures, he was dead wrong about that being a good idea.
When you write your first draft, don’t worry about mistakes. Don’t worry about art. Just get the basic ideas on the page. Any time you feel stuck, but put in notes about what you want to happen. Something like “Here, there’s a big fight”, and move on. It’s almost always easier to go back and rewrite something you put down very rough than to make yourself write it perfectly the first time.
If you have trouble with this, spend some time where you don’t allow yourself to use the backspace or delete keys. If that’s really hard, combine the exercise with the Pomodoro method.
Remember: every rough draft needs improvement. Your job is to finish it as quickly as possible, so you can move on to the work of editing.
8. Cut Yourself
I don’t mean cut yourself. That’s a serious mental health issue and I would never encourage it. What I mean is to cut your work into pieces.
Consider cleaning your garage. If you look at the task as a whole, it’s overwhelming and feels impossible. But if you cut it into steps like move old tools to the car, pick up obvious trash, clear off the tool bench, and sweep the spiderwebs, suddenly it’s a doable task.
You can do the same thing with your writing. Don’t sit down to write a book. Sit down to write a chapter. If a chapter’s too much, focus on a single scene. Only you know how granular you have to make your writing, and that factor changes pretty much every day.
Pro tip: combine this with making lists for some serious writing speed mojo.
9. Schedule Yourself
Most of the tips I’ve mentioned so far are about how to write more quickly after you’ve sat down at your desk, but what about those times when it’s hard to even get in the chair? Every writer has these days, weeks, or even months.
It’s tempting to call it “writer’s block” and let yourself off the hook, but you want to be a professional writer. Has your doctor ever called and canceled an appointment because he had “doctor’s block?” How about your mechanic not fixing your car because she just couldn’t get over her “mechanic’s block?”
Nope. Those aren’t things. And neither is writer’s block. What’s really going on is you’re not making yourself sit down to write.
One of the best ways to get over that is to schedule blocks of writing time into your week. Literally, physically write them on your calendar and into your daily agenda. Put that promise you make yourself in ink, where everybody can see it.
Then keep that appointment the way you would any other appointment in your calendar. Make it happen. When you’re done, put a sticker next to it as a reward. You’ll be amazed how good that feels.
10. Hold Yourself Accountable
This last piece is short and simple, but important.
When you set a goal, like writing in a certain way, or a certain amount, or for a certain time, that’s a promise you’ve made to yourself. I’ll say that again.
Setting a goal is a promise you made to yourself.
Think about the promises you make to the people you love most in your life: your parents, your romantic partner, your children, your closest friends. Think about how hard you’re willing to work, what lengths you’re willing to go to, to keep that promise. There’s not much that would stop you.
It’s time to put the same amount of love and respect into the promises you make to yourself.
It’s Okay to Call in the Cavalry
Although writing is a famously lonely profession, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Accountability buddies work for CEOs, small business owners, students, athletes, and a long list of other professionals. It’s not cheating to ask a friend to check in with you on your progress…just so long as that check-in doesn’t turn into another form of procrastination.
Other writers you know can be excellent resources for this, as can workout buddies, co-workers, and other people with whom you’ve had some practice with holding each other accountable. Romantic partners rarely make good accountability buddies. Those dynamics are complex enough without adding this kind of thing.