Six tips for keeping productive as a creative

Keeping productive: the constant battle

It may come as a shock to the thousands who dream of freedom from the tyranny of working for someone else that being only accountable to yourself is often even harder. It definitely is for me. The one thing I’ve struggled with particularly in my move into ‘indie authorship’ is staying productive. Who knows (unless I tell them) that I watched South Park rather than writing those 1,000 words I meant to write? What concern is it of anyone but me if I spent the time I meant to use to update my author Facebook page clicking on links to funny animal videos instead? You would think that being accountable to yourself should of itself mean you are more intrinsically motivated and likely to achieve your goals. After all, surely you don’t want to let yourself down, of all people? Sadly, I’ve not found that to be the case and so I have put into place a few approaches to keep me on the straight and narrow.

My top six productivity tips

1. Set deadlines

time-481444_960_720This is perhaps the most obvious and the most important tip. No matter how artificial it is, a deadline creates accountability and urgency, even if you are the only person who knows it and no one else is impacted if you miss it. When you have a big task like writing and self-publishing a book it is necessary to break this down into further deadlines and milestones (e.g. complete outline; complete first draft; submit to editor; commission cover designer, etc.). Not only does this create further urgency, it also creates a sense of progress and achievement, which is often one of the things you most lack and most need when working for yourself.

2. Batch similar activities into blocks of time

How many of us check email, Twitter and Facebook whenever we see a notification (and stop doing what we were meant to be doing to do so)? This switching back-and-forth from one activity type (e.g. writing) to another (e.g. scanning your Facebook feed)is not highly effective multi-tasking (though I used to tell myself it was), but a massive productivity killer.So, I try to group similar activities together into blocks of time. For example, I have three email and social media check-in points per day (early morning, lunchtime and mid afternoon). I do all my checking and responding then. This reduces massively the dreaded social media time-drain.

3. Treat writing like any other job

conference-room-768441__180This goes for any project where you are only accountable to yourself and not only writing. Scheduling my writing and related activities in the same way I would a meeting in ‘normal’ work and respecting the timings significantly increase the chances I will do it. In fact, I rarely fail to do what I’ve scheduled and where I do fail it is normally that I’ve not worked on whatever it was for as long as I wanted rather than I haven’t done it at all.

4. Tell other people what you are doing (whether they want to hear it or not!)

As I said, being accountable only to yourself is actually harder than being accountable to someone else, so create ‘false’ accountability to other people. If you’ve told your spouse, best friend, mum or Aunt Tabitha’s dog that you’re writing a book (or starting a business, or finally going to clear out the attic) you’ll feel more like you have to follow through than if only you know it. Some people often go further and set up formal accountability with other people and have regular check-ins. This is sometimes called an ‘accountabilibuddy’, which is a truly appalling term which I believe was coined by the creators of South Park (or at least that is where I first heard it). I haven’t got an ‘accountabilibuddy’ as yet, but, in spite of the silly name, it seems a very promising idea. 

5. Write things down as soon as they occur to you

study-1231393_960_720Do you get distracted from what you’re meant to be doing now by what you’re meant or want to be doing later or what you’ve already failed to do? My brain used to swirl with ‘to do’ lists and reminders of what I’d forgotten to do. Then I read the ‘Getting things done’ methodology (by David Allen) which proposes the premise that your brain is not meant as a store of things you need to do or haven’t done. In fact, it is absolutely rubbish at that (whenever I say to myself “I must remember to do…”, I can categorically guarantee that I will not remember to do whatever it was). Writing things down allows your brain to focus on higher order activities, like idea generation and critical thinking.I find a product called Evernote great for this as it’s on my phone, tablet and computer, so I will always have access to what I’ve written.

6. Identify the essential, biggest impact activities for the day

When I was a management consultant one of the almost daily mantras was a quote from the management expert Peter Drucker – “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. Putting in place the approaches above is pointless if you aren’t using them to do the right things. Something I’ve recently started doing each evening is asking myself “What must I do tomorrow if I do nothing else?” This has been really effective as it has helped me hone in on the important activities and means I have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

What would you add?

So, there you have it: my top six productivity tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have found these approaches the most helpful in keeping me motivated and productive. What tips would you add to the list? Please let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Six tips for keeping productive as a creative

  1. Good stuff, Barford.

    The business of making yourself accountable is a key factor for me. Once you have a small group of folks who are actively interested in what you’re doing – and it need only be small – then making promises to them is a great help with maintaining focus and getting your priorities in order.

    Since my first novel was published, I now have a small group of folk who follow what I’m up to, have written to tell me they enjoyed the book and are waiting for the next. I’ve made it pretty public that the next book will be published this summer. If it it doesn’t appear in a timely fashion, I won’t only have let those first readers down, but I’ll have put out a message to the world that I’m unreliable. So it just can’t happen.

    Because those folk are real and the promise is honest, I’m not sure I agree with your use of the term “false accountability.” The accountability to your readers is very, very real. In fact, it should be the writer’s first priority.

    One other thing I’d add is to create a definite definition of your goal. Define your success in concrete terms and refer to it daily. It might be to “break even at the end of the first year of trading,” or “hit the #1 spot in Amazon for my main category,” or “Earn $100,000 per annum from publishing alone,” or anything more humble or more ambitious that is true for you. Write it out and stick it up where you can see it. Choosing a visual representation – a photo or artwork perhaps – helps, too. Every time you see it, ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing now the most helpful and productive next step to reach this goal?” If it is, crack on. If it isn’t, change tack.

    1. Thank you for the comments, Austin. My ‘false accountability’ is more a reference to a perceived sense of accountability to friends and family whom I’ve told what I’m doing. I don’t want to embarrass myself by not doing what I’ve said, but they would not be upset with me nor are they actively holding me to account. I agree with you that the accountability to readers is very real. Hopefully this is something I will experience once I’ve published.

      As for your last point, I think this is fundamental to any creative endeavour of this type. If you haven’t set a goal, then you don’t know when you’re done or whether you’re doing the right thing. In that situation you then might start judging yourself by other people’s standards, which probably won’t lead you where you really want to be anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *