Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.
Lack of sleep
This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.
There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.
The internet, email and social media
This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!
I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.
Not knowing what needs to be done next
This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.
If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.
When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.
This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.
Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.
You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.
In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.
These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!
(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).