How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken
This streak of mine has completely transformed my writing life. Prior to the streak, I didn't believe I had the time to write regularly. I produced one or two fiction stories a year and thought that was the best I could do.
But something didn’t sit right. So last year I decided to challenge all of my preconceived notions of what I required to write every day. I wanted to challenge the notion that I needed large uninterrupted blocks of quiet time in a crusty office somewhere. Real life gets in the way sometimes, like squeezing in my craft with a full-time day job, and two young children.
It turns out, with some willpower, I learned that if I had 20 minutes, I could write 500 words. I learned to write surrounded by the sounds of the kids playing, and the television blaring in the background. While I didn't set out to form a routine, I eventually established one which has led to my most prolific year as a writer yet.
Saying you’re going to write everyday is one thing. But to ensure the streak’s success I had to bulletproof it for when the routine was interrupted for one reason or another. How could I continue to write every day despite occasional disruptions, planned and unplanned? Over the course of more than 500 days, I’ve learned ways to hack my writing streak to cope with the disruptions and still write every day. Here are the three most common roadblocks I run into and how I deal with each of them.
1. When I know my day isn't going to follow the normal routine...
There are instances when I know ahead of time that my day will be off its normal routine. Travel days are one example, a day with evening plans is another.
In these instances, I try to plan ahead by getting my writing done as early in the day as possible. On travel days, I do the writing before the day gets started. If I'm flying, I can write on the plane, but usually we are driving somewhere and by the time we get to our destination, I'm too tired to do much writing. If I get the writing done early, I don't stress about it.
I also know that I'll likely have less time to write on these days, even early in the morning. In my normal routine, I can usually count on 40 minutes of writing time. On these off-days I may only be able to count on 10 or 20 minutes. So I prime the pump. I typically don't plan ahead for my fiction (I'm a pantser, not a plotter), but on days when I know time will be at a premium, I'll jot a short list of notes the night before so that I can get started right away the next day.
2. When my day goes unexpectedly sideways...
Sometimes, things happen that you can't plan ahead for. Life gets in the way. I'll go into a day thinking that it will be routine, and something comes up. Maybe I have to work late at the day job or maybe one of the kids is sick. Whatever it is, in these instances, I haven't planned ahead and so I can’t necessarily get my writing done early in the day. I have a few ways of ensuring that I can get it in, however.
First, I assume that I'll only have 10 minutes. I do this because in almost any situation, I can count on finding 10 minutes to squeeze in some writing. It might not sound like much, but on all cylinders, I can write about a page (250 words) in 10 minutes. One page is one page more than I had the day before.
Second, I keep multiple projects going. At any given time, I'm usually working on two pieces of fiction, and two or three nonfiction articles. I learned this trick from Isaac Asimov’s autobiography years ago. The value of multiple active projects is that it allows me to start on something right away to maximize the 10-minute window. If I sit down to write and just don't feel in the mood to work on the short story, I'll turn to an article. Or vice versa.
Third, I'll try to sneak in more than 10 minutes if I can, but I don't sweat it if I only get 10.
3. When weariness or writer's block rears its ugly head...
Sometimes, even on a routine day, I might be unusually tired by the end of the day. Or, I might sit down to write and find that nothing will come. My brain is locked. In these situations, it would be easy to give up and just take the night off. Instead, I pull out my “emergency scene.”
You know how you take a couple of $20 bills, fold them up, and slip them into that secret compartment in your wallet so that you have some emergency cash if you need it? Well, I do that with story scenes. While I am not a plotter, I know how I think my stories will end when I start them. Usually, I also have one scene in mind—often the climax—which I am particularly eager to write.
In the normal course of events, I write the story linearly. But, I tuck that special scene away, and store it for an emergency. This has saved me on several occasions when, whether out of weariness or writer's block, I just don't feel like writing. When nothing else will come, I whip out the emergency scene and write it, even if it means writing the scene out of order. This does three things for me:
- It ensures I get my writing done for the day.
- It gets me excited about the story again.
- It buys me a little time to work out why I was having a problem in the first place. Was I just tired, or was the story not working in some way?
Stephen King has said that to be writer, you need to do two things above all else: write a lot and read a lot. The more I practice, the better I get. There is no question that my sales of both fiction and nonfiction pieces have increased since I started writing every day. Indeed, since the streak began, I’ve sold 18 pieces of fiction or nonfiction, triple that of any previous year. And my income from freelance writing has shot up to nearly six times any previous year.
When I write at the end of the day, I feel more relaxed when I finish. I know I moved forward the most important parts of my creative career (not coincidentally, I also sleep better).
And what happens when the streak inevitably comes to an end? Well, I just start anew. It's happened once already. I previously had a 140-day streak, and then missed two days in the space of a week. But I got right back on the horse, and haven't missed a day for 373 days. In many ways the streak has become my companion, urging me on to keep at it. Hacking the streak has helped ensure that I can write every day, even when those days go off the rails.
How about you?
Have you ever had an impressive creative streak? How did you do it?