Our culture glamorizes productivity. We believe that in order to be productive, we have to do it all. If we check all the boxes and cross all the tasks off our to-do list, then and only then will we succeed at being productive.
I used to buy into this idea myself. I thought saying no was like uttering a swear word, and I believed if I set boundaries around my time and my life, I would be destroying my career before it even started. It did not take long for me to get sucked into the vortex of stress, exhaustion, and burnout.
Then I had two children and I realized that expecting myself to do it all was not only unrealistic, but asinine. I was going to have to learn to set boundaries, not just around my personal and family life, but around my work as well. I no longer try to do everything, and instead I shift my focus to the essential tasks that only I can do.
Productivity is a misleading term because it implies that we should produce more, do more. But more isn’t always better; it can diffuse your energy and dilute your impact. It turns out that productivity is not about doing more, it’s about getting more out of what you do. Here are five techniques I use in my own writing and creative work.
1) Shut off distractions.
I am notorious for not answering my cellphone or responding to emails when I am doing focused work. I silence my cell phone, turn off my computer’s WiFi, and unplug my landline from the wall. If I think my office will be too distracting, I hide away in a nearby coffee shop.
Some people balk at the idea of turning off all communications. “What if the kids’ school calls? What if there’s an emergency at work?” The truth is, we humans are narcissistic creatures, and we often believe we are much more indispensible than is actually the case.
Suppose something did come up while I am in a writing session. The odds are slim that it would be a life-and-death emergency requiring my attention at that exact moment. Most likely it would be something important but not life-threatening, like my son’s teacher calling to say another kid bit him while at the playground, or a team member asking a question about a project.
Yes, these things might be important, but they are not life-threatening and they can wait an hour until I finish my writing session. It’s all about putting things in perspective.
2) Make deliberate choices… about what not to do.
When discussing productivity, experts often focus on sharing tactics or hacks. Use the Pomodoro technique. Log your word counts. There are endless tools and techniques that can be effective for different writers, but these tactics can also distract us from what is really important. Often it’s not the things we add to our repertoire but those we eliminate that give us the biggest results.
For example, I have made a deliberate choice not to worry about social media. I might have profile on all the major social networks, but posting regularly and being active on those platforms is not a high priority. Instead, I focus on engaging with my readers through my email newsletter and at live speaking events. For me, these connections are far more rewarding and personal.
For some writers, like myself, social media can also be emotionally draining. I am a fragile bird, and negative attitudes have a deep effect on me, so I have learned to avoid certain environments—both online and off—because I don’t want to waste my energy. Between producing great work and building a platform, writers face a lot of pressures. The last thing we need is to squander our time or energy. While each writer must set their own priorities, the key takeaway is that productivity is not just about adding new behaviors or forming new habits, it’s also about eliminating the things that don’t work.
3) Reprint, reuse, repurpose.
When I first started writing, I thought it was “cheating” to write a blog post or article on a topic I had written about before. Everything I wrote had to be 100% original, or it was not worth writing in the first place. This was hands-down the most inefficient way to build a writing career.
Now I know better. While I still strive to write fresh copy and give each piece its own unique voice and flair, I also don’t try to reinvent the wheel. I’ve also grown to know and love the content “food chain” with video at the top, audio in the middle, and written text at the bottom. It is much easier to extract material for a written article from a video presentation than it would be to create a video from a written article.
Be strategic in how you repurpose or reprint your writing. If you are crafting an article for a magazine, pitch deleted sections as a companion blog post for the magazine’s online edition or as a guest post for another online market. Of course, make sure you look carefully at your contracts so you don’t run into trouble with non-compete or option clauses.
When you develop a strategy around how you reprint, reuse, repurpose your writing, not only does it save you time, it also makes each piece you write all the more valuable. Plus, it establishes you as the niche expert writer on that specific topic, making you a go-to source for future assignments on that subject.
For example, I write almost exclusively on three topics: the craft of writing (i.e. DIY MFA), the storytelling as a superpower, and the link between mental health and creative careers. I could deviate from these topics and write about other nerdy obsessions I have, like theme park design and non-Euclidean geometry, but that would dilute the quality of the expertise I offer as a writer. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus relentlessly on these three topics and because of that, I have positioned myself as a go-to writer for publications that want essays or articles on one of these topics.
If I were to give one piece of advice to other writers, it would be to stop. Stop taking on projects that don’t resonate with you. Stop trying to be everywhere at once on social media. Stop doing it all. We might be word wizards, but we’re also human.
Working harder isn’t glamorous. Focus on working smarter.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. To learn more and download a free starter kit, go to: DIYMFA.com/join.
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