Some new thoughts on productivity

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and productivity, mostly because I seem to be struggling a lot with it lately. With nanowrimo just starting, this is a pretty topical thing to blog about, but I also want to look at it from a long-term career perspective, since that’s what I’m personally more interested in.

As writers, when we spend all our time procrastinating or fail to meet our word count goals, we tend to beat ourselves up and frame the problem in terms of a lack of self-discipline. If only we had greater will power, we could buckle down and pound out five or ten thousand words a day like those super-prolific authors.

While there’s definitely something to say for raw self-discipline, though, I think there’s another dimension to writing productivity that we tend to miss. Not all writing-related activities are productive–and not all non-writing related activities are totally unproductive. In order to make the most efficient use of our writing time, I think it’s more important to understand and respect our individual creative process than it is to merely force ourselves to produce more words.

To better understand my own creative process, I took a little time to group every writing-related thing I do into four different categories:

  • Writing activities
  • Fill-the-well activities
  • Publishing chores
  • Procrastinating


This should be pretty self-explanatory. It’s basically all the stuff that leads directly to a finished manuscript. It requires the highest amount of energy and produces the most important content.

Activities in this category include:

  • Writing new material
  • Making substantial revisions (putting in and taking out)
  • Updating chapter and scene outlines


This is the non-writing stuff I do that helps me to be more productive when I switch back to the writing activities. Basically, it’s the stuff I do before and after I write that helps me to maintain a creative momentum.

Activities in this category include:

  • Reading
  • Blogging
  • Catching up on blogs
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Doing mindles chores
  • Going on walks
  • Exploring new places
  • Watching movies
  • Playing RPGs
  • Talking with friends
  • Reviewing first reader feedback
  • Writing character outlines
  • Making book soundtracks


This is all the professional stuff that I have to do, which may feel productive while I’m doing it, but actually takes time away from the stuff I should be doing. I still have to do it, but I should waste as little time doing it as possible.

Activities in this cateogry include:

  • Ebook formatting
  • Producing cover art
  • Writing blurbs and book descriptions
  • Writing author’s notes
  • POD typesetting
  • Handing financial stuff (royalties, invoices, etc)
  • Researching the publishing industry
  • Processing copy edits
  • Sending out email newsletter


Again, pretty self-explanatory. This is the stuff I shouldn’t do, but end up doing anyway in order to avoid stuff that feels like work. It’s all the stuff that I need to cut out entirely if I want to maximize my productivity.

Activities in this category include:

  • Minecraft
  • Alpha Centauri
  • Any other game that I can’t stop thinking about
  • Checking ebook sales numbers
  • Dicking around on Facebook and Twitter
  • Browsing the Kindle Boards
  • Watching TV and Youtube
  • Minecraft

So now that that’s done, what next?

I’m still figuring this part out, but I think the best thing to do would be to put as much distance as possible between the stuff that boosts productivity (writing and filling the well) and the stuff that doesn’t (publishing chores and procrastination).

The way I see it, there are basically two ways to do this:

  • Physically separate the activities. Do all your writing on a machine that’s disconnected from the internet and doesn’t have any games installed, and do everything else on a separate computer.
  • Set aside blocks of time specifically for writing. Organize your schedule so that writing is a priority, while acknowledging the need to take breaks and refill the creative well.

I can’t really do the first one while I’m here in Georgia, but I definitely can do the second. So far, I’ve found that waking up early to start the day with an hour of writing helps me a ton to build and keep momentum. However, I need to do a better job setting time aside in the afternoon, both for writing and for refilling the well. If I don’t, I usually end up procrastinating by default without realizing it until it’s too late.

So anyhow, those are some of my latest thoughts on writing and productivity. What are yours? Does this square with your experience, or is there a better way to think about it that I’ve missed?

Author: Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek is the author of more than twenty science fiction books, including the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He claims Utah as his home.

3 thoughts on “Some new thoughts on productivity”

  1. I agree. Wordcount produced definitely isn’t the only measuring stick (or even the most important one vis-à-vis novel creation). That’s why I’ve switched to measuring ‘time spent rather than words writ’. Even now that I’m doing NaNo, I shut down all distractions and I clock an hour’s worth of solid time on Timestamp. Right now with NaNo that concentrated-time is spent almost purely writing, but previous to that and alongside that, I also clock my time developing, plotting, idea-generation, researching–basically anything that goes into the story-construction process.

    It keeps me focused, which I think is the main part of self-discipline that needs encouraging. Time set aside to be focused, where nothing else interferes.

  2. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing in the last five years, it’s that everyone’s creative process is different. What may work for someone may be horrible for someone else. The only way you can get around this is to know your own process really well, and that means (among other things) not beating up on yourself when you fail to meet your goals.

    Good luck with Nanowrimo!

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