Increasing Our Productivity: Why It’s Not Simple

by Jami Gold on September 22, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Planner, colored pens, and sticky notes, with text: What Will Help Our Productivity?

Most (probably all) writers I know want to increase their productivity. Whether we’re speaking of drafting more stories or building up our platform, we want to accomplish more in our writing life (and life in general) with our limited time.

As we discussed last time, many writers have day jobs, and that’s just normal—not a sign of failure. We might also have family obligations that take up our “free” time. Or maybe we’re struggling with health issues that cut into our alert time. (And maybe we’re dealing with all three!)

The point is that there could be many reasons why our time for writing is limited. Thus, we can have many motivations for wanting the make the most of the writing time we do have.

However, when it comes to our brains and our situations, advice won’t be equally helpful to everyone. We might need to dig deeper to figure out the right style of advice for us.

Good Advice Doesn’t Necessarily Apply to Us

I’ve pointed out before how we might need different types of motivational advice. Some of us might need pompon-waving “You can do it” messages, and others might need crack-the-whip messages. (And our needs might change with our moods.)

Similarly, there are different types of advice for increasing productivity, and not all will help our situation. For example, posts abound with advice for us to…:

  • Wake an hour earlier to get in writing time.
  • Use a timer to create focus.
  • Turn off the internet to eliminate distractions.
  • Write long-hand.
  • Use to-do lists to focus on priorities.
  • Create outlines and scene lists before drafting.
  • Use X program to make our writing more efficient.
  • Use Y tool to motivate our results.

None of those are wrong, but chances are many of them won’t help us. That gap isn’t necessarily our fault, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up about being lazy or whatever.

The truth is that we’re all different. Our thought processes are different (e.g., pantser vs. plotter). What motivates us is different (internal vs. external). The struggles affecting our available time are different (physical vs. mental).

Personally, my most productive time is at night, and I’m already waking up too *&%^ early every morning for my day job, so a morning writing schedule wouldn’t work. Similarly, neither would writing long-hand or creating outlines, etc.

But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that advice. It just means that it doesn’t work for me.

What’s Your Productivity Style?

So if we’re trying to be efficient about our writing, it only makes sense that we want to be efficient about figuring out which of this conflicting advice might work for us, right? *smile*

The answer might be in learning about our productivity style. (Here’s the official assessment quiz, but you need to provide your email to get your results, and it occasionally comes back with an error.) And yes, it’s possible to be a mix of these styles.

Prioritizer: Goal Oriented (Focusing on the What)

Do you like a logical approach to time management? (Maybe even figuring out how long different tasks take to create more accurate estimates?) Do you focus on the what of the end goal and don’t worry about the how?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • daily goals,
  • tracking activities,
  • organizing information and tasks,
  • timers, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • seem counter-productive (“Create a scene list before drafting”),
  • require communication or collaboration (“Find an accountability partner”),
  • encourage stopping work before a goal is met (“Switch between tasks to stay fresh”), etc.

Planner: Detail Oriented (Focusing on the How)

Do you like the logical and organized approach of the Prioritizer but also enjoy digging into the details for how to implement goals? Do you thrive on schedules and agendas? (Maybe even writing a completed task on a to-do list, just to check it off?)

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • project planning tools,
  • forming habits,
  • tracking tasks and to-do lists,
  • deadline calendars, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • skip the details (“Focus on your end goal, not the steps to get there”),
  • encourage spontaneous ideas or working on tasks out of order (“Work on each day’s passion”),
  • require ignoring errors (“Don’t edit typos as you draft”), etc.

Arranger: Team Oriented (Focusing on the Who)

Do you enjoy collaborating with others to get work done? Do you accomplish more with a favorite office supply (like a special pen or notebook) or when using lots of colors to highlight tasks? Do you make decisions intuitively?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • increasing focus,
  • using incentives, accountability, and community,
  • organizing collaboration,
  • visually appealing office supplies, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • focus only on facts and logic (“Figure out each task’s priority”),
  • don’t allow for social/community downtime or incentives (“When under deadline, ban yourself from all social media for the duration”),
  • require strict adherence to a plan (“Follow these steps to increase your word count each day”), etc.

Visualizer: Big-Picture Oriented (Focusing on the Why)

Do you enjoy working on multiple projects at once? Do you like thinking of possibilities and how to integrate different ideas? Do you struggle to keep a clean desk but know where to find things?

If so, helpful advice or tools might concentrate on:

  • turning dreams into reality,
  • mind-mapping,
  • eliminating distractions,
  • visually appealing organizational supplies, etc.

However, advice that might not help us increase productivity includes those that:

  • focus on single project at once (“Don’t multi-task”),
  • require lots of details and repetition (“Track where your time goes every 15 minutes”),
  • don’t explain the why behind the tips (“Don’t get creative; stick to this tried-and-true method”), etc.

(This article by the author of the book includes links to specifics tools for each style.)

Can Knowing Our Style Help Us?

I’m definitely a mix of styles:

  • Prioritizer: When it comes to drafting, don’t waste my time with plotter-outlining stuff. My writing-by-the-seat-of-pants drafting style gets me to the goal of a finished book, and that’s all that matters. *grin*
  • Planner: When it comes to specific projects, I’m a list-maker and detail oriented. I can plan logical and sequential projects and processes in my sleep with one arm tied behind my back and only a slow computer to use for organizing. *smile*
  • Visualizer: When it comes to everything else, I analyze the why and the big picture but get bored with the details. (There’s a reason I don’t offer copyediting services, even though I can do it.)

Before coming up with this list, however, I would have labeled myself as a Planner for “everything else.” Thinking about it deeper, I realized that’s not quite true.

I’m shockingly (disgustingly?) organized about a few select things (I use color-coded spreadsheets to schedule my time at conferences), but outside of that specific list, I’m kind of a Visualizer mess. Seriously, I have piles a foot high on my desk. *smile*

Editing-wise, this means that I’m gung-ho for any type of edits where I can see the evidence of improvement (proof makes it easy to understand why the editing time is worth it). But those self-editing programs that go through every sentence drive me up a wall because it takes up too much time for edits that might not make a difference. I can’t—don’t—use them. Instead, I rely on my editors to find the nitpicky stuff I’ve missed.

So what does my mix tell me about increasing my productivity?

  • My drafting process works. I’m a Prioritizer for drafting, and I love the daily goal aspect of NaNoWriMo. I’ve used timers to narrow my focus and enjoy word sprints because they make me stick to my goal of writing.
  • My editing process works. I have fantastic editors, and I trust their changes will improve my work. And I’ve narrowed my self-editing tools down to ones where I can see the evidence of improvement. (As mentioned here, I use a modified version of Jordan McCollum’s GrabbingCrutches macro to find weak actions and verbs and fix with the Weak Verb Converter Tool from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
  • Everything else? That needs help. *smile*

I think what my analysis tells me is that I have to find a way to make my Visualizer style more productive or I have to convert more aspects of my life into specific projects that get my Planner side going. I’ve never been one for mind-mapping or the like, so my best bests are eliminating distractions or engaging my Planner side. Either way, I now have specific strategies to try, and that’s always a good thing.

Whether we’re primarily one style or a mix of styles, by learning more about what helps us be productive, we can be more efficient with our time. Just as importantly, we can know what “never fail” advice we can safely ignore because it won’t work for us. *smile*

Do you struggle with productivity? What causes problems for you? Which of these productivity styles resonate most with you? Can you identify different circumstances in your life when different styles might apply? Did this post give you any ideas for how to increase productivity for your style(s)? If you’ve tried productivity advice, was it appropriate for your style and did it work?

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18 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Lara Gallin September 22, 2016 at 7:27 am

My productivity is lousy, in no small part because I’m so very easily distracted! My best effort by far was for NaNo 2014 where much to my surprise I actually passed the 50k mark. I think the camaraderie and the rush provided a lot of momentum as I’ve been struggling with it ever since. In the last couple of weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that part of my problem has been that deep down, I knew the direction I had planned to take things just wasn’t right. Perhaps my subconscious was keeping me in a rut until I saw the light (it’d explain having several dreams a week about being on the wrong bloody bus!)

I’m going to use this year’s NaNo to launch into it and get some momentum going again. Hopefully I’ll be able to sustain a respectable amount of productivity afterwards. I’m going to get myself a routine and stick to it, even if it’s only an hour a day!

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Jami Gold September 23, 2016 at 7:39 am

Hi Lara,

I understand. I love Twitter and can (and have) spent all day there, watching the conversations and clicking on links. It’s my “fear of missing out” nemesis. LOL!

Like you, NaNo is often my most productive time, word-count wise, maybe because, as you said, the pressure there forces me to focus and push through story blocks. Know that you’re not alone! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jaimi Sorrell September 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm

Great insights as always, Jami (and isn’t that just a great name? 😉 )

I came out almost even across the four types, and I realized it was because for most of the questions I clicked the “sometimes” radio button.

But that was the eye opener. Thinking on why that was, why the inconsistency, it dawned on me that I am awesomely organized and on time for projects that other people are waiting for (like editing projects)…and awesomely disorganized and constantly late on projects that are just for me (like my own writing projects).

Hmmm. Somethings gotta change there. Thank you for helping me figure this out! 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold September 23, 2016 at 7:43 am

Hi Jaimi,

LOL! Yep, the best name! 🙂 (I can’t imagine how often yours is misspelled though, as I already deal with the extraneous “e” at the end of mine by half the people I encounter.)

Yay! I’m glad this helped you have that realization. 🙂 And I’m often the same way–in fact, this year with my health issues is the first time that I’ve been falling down on projects for others, and it’s killing me to fail that way (far more than it bothers me to mess up for myself). Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios September 22, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Just what I needed to be thinking about right now – thanks for the tips! I’ve reserved the book from our local library system.
One point to note, though: it turns out that when you put in your email address and do the test, it automatically subscribes you to ongoing emails from Carson Tate (“welcome to our community,” “join me on Facebook,” “the next few days I’m going to be sending you…”).

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Jami Gold September 23, 2016 at 7:45 am

Hi Deborah,

Excellent! I haven’t reviewed the book–I just happened to see that this work was based on it–so I hope it’s helpful. 🙂 (And yes, I figured the test would sign people up for the newsletter, which is why I gave the warning. LOL!) Thanks for the comment!

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Glynis Jolly September 23, 2016 at 5:25 am

Sometimes my productivity dries up when I have a hurdle to get over. Instead of gearing up to make the climb over the obstacle, I’ll try to bulldoze my way through. Although bulldozing can be effective, there are times when I just get stuck. I’ve recently learned that climbing over the huddle can work better in many cases. I had learned to make lemonade out of lemons way far back [otherwise known as manipulating the situation so it serves instead of hinders], yet when writing, It wasn’t dawning on me that I could do this to keep forging ahead.

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Jami Gold September 23, 2016 at 7:46 am

Hi Glynis,

*raises hand* Bulldozer here too. 🙂

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the difference between bulldozing and climbing over. (I might need some of that insight for myself–LOL!) Thanks for the comment!

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Carolyn McBride September 23, 2016 at 6:22 am

My biggest problem is focus I think. The survey told me I’m an Arranger, Planner, Prioritizer and Visualizer, in that order.
Well, ok then.
So if I understood your piece correctly, I need to seek out tools that will help me focus and eliminate distractions. Yup, this makes perfect sense. But for me, as I’m sure with others, it’s about sitting in the chair and writing. But after an hour or so, I need to get up. Not just to work the kinks out of an aging body but also to clean house.
Honestly, if I write for an hour, then take a 1/2 hour to clean, and repeat throughout my day until dinner, I’m bound to get more words written.

Reply

Jami Gold September 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

Hi Carolyn,

LOL! Um, yay for insights? 😉

I understand. Last NaNo, I found a lot of success in 30 minute word sprints–more so than 60 minute, 1k1hr sprints. For me, I tend to put off big projects until I have big chunks of time, even if a single task could be done quickly. So the 30 minute sprint (or focusing on a single task) and then doing something else for a bit was easier for me to fit into my time here or there. 🙂 Good luck figuring out what works for you, and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 23, 2016 at 9:14 am

Even though I would like to be more prolific, I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing on the whole. During the holidays, yes, I can spend two hours writing or editing (not including the time to type them up), but during school time, this dwindles to just one hour of writing or editing a day. Occasionally I need to keep my factfile up to date on my story too. And since I’m short on time, my “one hour each day” may have to cover typing time as well–I write on a physical notebook now for the sake of being kinder to my eyes, so I have to transfer all of this to my laptop later.

During Nanowrimo, I plan to write by hand for two hours each day, but not do the factfiling or typing up of my story until the end of Nano…

Anyway, yeah, I would of course like to do more, but I’m understanding towards myself because I know I’m busy studying and participating in clubs. I care a lot about my academics and my extracurriculars too, so I just need to figure out a way to balance things! (It’s never an all-or-nothing, either-or kind of question!)

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Clare O'Beara September 24, 2016 at 4:32 am

I need a few hours at a time so I can work my way into my writing space, physically – the room – and mentally – the creation. This usually means the afternoon because I have housework, appointments, family stuff, shopping and so on to get through first; knowing that I have to finish by a certain time stops me dead. So a half hour is no use for anything but writing reviews or maybe editing. All this has to occur on a day when I’m not working.

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Julie Glover September 24, 2016 at 2:03 pm

I always — always, always, always — underestimate how long it will take me to complete a project. That’s my biggest issue. Also, too many projects open at once, when my productivity works best to focus on one thing at a time, maybe two.

But it helped to see my productivity type. I need to play into my strengths and arrange my schedule accordingly. Thanks!

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Reetta Raitanen September 25, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Really great post and topic, Jami. Knowing ourselves and how we work most effectively is useful in every area of life. I loved reading about your types and how they affect your writing style. Thanks for the book recommendation, I immediately bought it. Writers should learn from the best people in their field when it comes to universal topics like productivity and motivation.

I’d like to recommend you a few similar books 🙂 Lanna Nakone’s Organizing For Your Brain Type uses a similar four type category. This book really helped me to understand my husband better. He really hates distractions and is likely a Planner by Tate’s categories since they aren’t very spontaneous and don’t like sudden change of plans. In contrast I am very spontaneous and have a high tolerance for mess, disorder and derails to plans 😛 Very good traits when you have kids but not so good for productive life.

Another great book about productivity is Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. She is listing many different aspects of how we do things and I had so many light bulb moments while reading. I took notes of almost every page.

I got pretty much equal scores in all 4 categories but I am mostly a Planner and a Visualizer. I like creating to do lists and breaking the project down into smaller steps. Sometimes I even break those steps into very concrete baby steps (like google the phone number, call and make a reservation). Too undefined to do lists can paralyze me and make me rebel and decide it’s time to have some fun before work, or work on some other project which isn’t quite as urgent but is easier to start and/or complete. Very very bad habit.

With day job and 2 special needs kids, I need to get better at blocking out time for writing in my calendar (and stick to it). NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity for that and with so many others participating, it’s a good treat for my neglected Arranger side.

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Reetta Raitanen September 25, 2016 at 4:38 pm

Sorry to clutter your blog comments but I just came across Gretchen Rubin’s quiz for her new book The Four Tendecies. I think that her model for what motivates us is summed up in one very illustrative image: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2015/01/ta-da-the-launch-of-my-quiz-on-the-four-tendencies-learn-about-yourself/

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Andrea J. Wenger September 30, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Jami, this is amazing. Productivity tools have never worked for me, and now I understand why. I’m a visualizer, and anything that reins in my ability to follow my vision is an impediment.

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