We’ve come to revere busyness, and to see it as being an indicator of high status. But busyness is harmful to our productivity and our health. It’s not something to aim for or be proud of.
If you’re struggling with busyness and need to carve out more opportunities to do meaningful work, here are some tips for protecting your time from distractions and busywork.
Schedule focused work sessions in advance
Cal Newport knows the importance of setting aside time for his most important, and demanding, work. In fact, he’s written a whole book about it.
Newport is known for being prolific, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that he deliberately prioritizes his most important work over email, spontaneous opportunities, or meetings with colleagues.
To do so, Newport relies heavily on his calendar. He schedules blocks of time for his most demanding projects in advance, and protects those time blocks as he would any other calendar appointment. When the most important work is scheduled well in advance, Newport’s colleagues and fans fit their demands on his time around those appointments and Newport never has to de-prioritize his most important projects in order to find time for busyness.
The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.
This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.
Automate your focus time
It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?
One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started. Here are a few options to get you thinking:
- Use RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to stop you visiting distracting websites
- Automatically set your Slack status to “away” during a Focustime session
- Automatically post a message to Slack at the start of your FocusTime session, letting your colleagues know you’re unavailable
- Automatically start a RescueTime FocusTime session based on time you’ve blocked off on your calendar or as soon as you arrive at the office
Think about what interrupts you during focused work periods and stops you getting your most important work done. Find ways to automate starting your session, staying away from distractions, and keeping others informed of your status to ease the transition away from busywork and into a deep, focused work period.
Turn meetings into gatherings
If your time is often taken up by 1:1 meetings, or you’re constantly turning these down due to time constraints, try this trick. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests turning 1:1 requests into 1:many situations, so you can get more out of the time you spend helping others:
I’ll ask the student to email me his question, I’ll respond back electronically, and will later turn it into a blog post. Similarly, instead of one-on-one coffees, I’ll often organize dinners to bring together interesting groups of people who could also benefit from knowing one another.
If you spend a lot of time answering questions via email or contact forms, try writing a blog post you can point people to in future. This way, you only spend the time needed to answer the question once, but many people can benefit. Tech writer Robert Scoble answers questions on Quora, rather than via email, so many people can benefit from the time he spends answering a question.
If it’s face-to-face meetings you’re struggling with, try setting up a group coffee meeting or dinner party for people with lots in common. Rather than only one person benefitting from your experience and ideas, you can facilitate a group of people to share with each other, so you spend the same amount of time but help many people at once.
Choose something to be bad at
No matter how much we try, we’re never going to have time for every single thing.
The trick, according to Dorie Clark, is to decide consciously what you’re going to be bad at. If you decide to be good at email, replying quickly and thoroughly to every message that hits your inbox, you’re subconsciously deciding to be bad at something else. And that could be your most important work.
I’ve chosen to be bad at email response time because it’s less important to me than serving clients or creating new content like this article. But I’ll never let it get to the point where there’s no response.
Decide upfront which activities you can afford to put less time and effort into. Maybe that’s email, maybe it’s networking, maybe it’s filing your paperwork on time. The point is, something has to suffer if you’re going to prioritize your most important work, so you should decide ahead of time what you’re going to be bad at.
If you’re not getting enough meaningful work done, take a look at how you spend your time. You probably need to work harder to protect your time from the busyness and distractions that are so common for us all.
What are your best tips for protecting your time? Let us know in the comments.
I once worked at a company that held positivity as a core value. Employees were so encouraged to remain positive all the time that I was once reprimanded by my boss at this company for posting a personal tweet about wanting to stay in bed one cold weekend morning. Apparently, positivity extends so far as always being happy to get out of bed, even when it’s cold outside, it’s not a workday, and your bed is toasty warm.
I thought I was a fairly positive person in general before I joined that company. But that experience made me think I’m more of a cynic. Being positive about everything all day long just didn’t come naturally to me.
In fact, it turns out few of us can be positive every minute of every day—even if it’s just while we’re at work. And the side effects of a workplace that enforces positivity (and, as a result, the suppressing of any negative emotions) can be downright dangerous.
Why suppressing negative emotions is worse than venting them
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of a workplace culture focused on positive emotions is that none of us are positive all the time. Which means to fit in at work we end up suppressing our negative emotions.
Much worse than venting, suppressing negative emotions is bad for our health. One study found people who suppressed anger had a three times higher risk of heart attack than those who let their anger out.
Studies of people in rehab and addiction treatment facilities have also found suppressing negative thoughts can be harmful. Those who suppressed thoughts relating to their addiction and cravings tended to harbor more of those thoughts overall. Suppressing addiction-related thoughts also made study participants have stronger stress reactions to cues relating to their addictions.
Other research has found suppressing negative emotions can lead to emotional overeating, and emotional exhaustion. And suppressing thoughts tends to lead to an effect called dream rebound, where the more those thoughts are suppressed, the more likely they are to show up in dreams later.
The downsides of positivity
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about the downsides of being positive, but there are two main ways positivity can lead to negative effects: when we’re overly positive, or when we’re trying to be positive always. And though studies have shown benefits to a positive attitude, experts say the link between positivity and better health or wealth is generally undemonstrated, and we’re lacking any proof of positive emotions causing any related benefits.
On the other hand, research has shown too much positivity can lead people to be less motivated, pay less attention to detail, be more selfish, and indulge more in risky behaviors like binge drinking and overeating.
One reason positive emotions lead to risky behavior is because we tend to equate happiness and safety. When we feel happy and connected to others, we’re also likely to have higher oxytocin levels—often called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin makes us feel safe, and tends to peak when we’re feeling close to others emotionally and physically. With higher levels of oxytocin in our bodies, we feel more safe, and thus pay less attention to danger. While that might have meant being vulnerable to predators for our ancestors, today it’s more likely to mean indulging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex or binge drinking.
Other studies have found we’re more gullible when we’re in a good mood. Researchers used films to put people in good or bad moods before surveying them on their thoughts about common urban myths. Those in positive moods tended to be more likely to believe urban myths, rather than questioning their validity.
This shows there could be negative effects on employees’ critical thinking skills if they’re always suppressing negative emotions.
It’s not just feeling positive that has downsides, either. Forcing people to feel happy when they don’t can also have bad side effects.
Research has shown positive affirmations (e.g. saying “I am loved” or “I am strong” to yourself) actually backfire when used by people with low self-esteem. Rather than buying into the affirmations, these people tend to believe the opposite even more strongly than they did before.
So if being positive all the time is a bad idea, what benefits can we get from negative emotions?
The benefits of negativity
While negative emotions can obviously hinder our performance and communication in some cases, they exist for a reason. Negative emotions alert us to danger, whether physical, emotional, or social, and help us solve problems.
Anger, in particular, has also been shown to improve creativity. When researchers put subjects into an angry or sad mood before testing their creativity, they found angry participants came up with more creative solutions (and more solutions overall) when given problems to solve.
When we’re feeling a little down, researchers have also shown we pay more attention to social cues, helping us get along better with others. We also tend to treat others more fairly when we’re not feeling at our best.
And pessimists have the upper hand when things go badly, too. One study showed pessimists are less prone to depression when dealing with a negative life event, such as the death of a friend.
Finally, negative people have been shown to have better negotiation and decision-making skills, more stable marriages, lower risk of heart attack, longer lives overall, and even more wealth.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with positive emotions. We all love to feel happy, excited, and motivated.
The issue is the growing tendency for workplaces to force constant positivity on employees. To be human is to have negative emotions, and if we try to suppress them, nature has a way of making sure they get out somehow—even if they have to pop up in our dreams.
From the lighting in your office to the style of desk you work at, your environment can help or hinder your productivity. Let’s take a look at some ways you can adjust your workspace to suit your needs and improve your efficiency at work.
1. Add natural light
Studies have found a strong link between the amount of natural daylight employees are exposed to throughout the day and the quality of their sleep. Lack of natural light in the office can increase sleep disturbances, reduce sleep quality and duration, and even affect our overall quality of life.
Other research has found increasing the amount of natural light employees are exposed to can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and decrease headaches and eyestrain—two of the most common health-related office worker complaints.
If you already work in an office with windows, try rearranging so all employees can see out a window from their desks.
2. Bring nature into the office
Various studies have proven the benefits of natural surroundings on mood, memory, and focus. One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.
One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.
Spending time in nature has also been linked to improved mental health.
Another study showed accuracy and focus can be improved simply by looking at photos of greenery.
You don’t need to build entire treehouses for your meeting rooms, but adding potted plants and photos of nature throughout the office could boost your team’s happiness and productivity.
3. Switch to a standing desk—sometimes
Though we love to rely on the extreme idea that “sitting is the new smoking,” using a standing desk for hours on end isn’t necessarily the answer, either, as we’ve said before:
Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.
Though standing desks have been shown to improve focus and engagement, there are also situations when standing desks make tasks more difficult, resulting in frustration. Some fine motor skill tasks, for instance, can be more difficult to complete while standing.
The best solution, then, may be a combination of sitting and standing, with plenty of breaks to move around in-between work periods.
4. Improve your desk ergonomics
Whether you use a standing or sitting desk, getting the ergonomics right can improve your comfort and productivity.
For instance, keeping your screen clean and free of glare can make it easier to read so your eyes don’t have to work too hard. Your computer screen should be about an arm’s length away from you when working, and the center of your screen should be a few inches below your eye level so you’re looking down slightly.
When you’re using a mobile device, remember your ergonomics as well. Most of us hold our mobile devices too close, making our eyes work harder to focus.
What are your best tips for improving your work environment? Let us know in the comments.
Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?
Right now, I split my time between building products and freelancing. My typical work day is usually spent about half writing code at my desk (or in a coffeeshop) and half doing marketing, sales, copy, and all other sorts of tasks that are not quite as interesting to me as software.
Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?
My morning routine varies, but on an ideal day, I wake up around 7:30am, eat breakfast, go to the gym for an hour, shower, and then get ready to work. In reality, I often am too tired to go to the gym and just waste time on my phone in my bed, but I’m trying to cut back on that.
What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?
The first thing I do when I go to my desk is check my email and Slack, browse HackerNews and ProductHunt for anything interesting to check out, and look at traffic or revenue analytics. Then, I create a daily to-do list of what I believe I can/should accomplish today.
What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?
My favorite thing about my workspace is my monitor – I absolutely love having a big screen.
What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?
A successful workday for me involves pushing features to production, making product sales or landing clients, and having some time for myself to go to the gym, read, or watch a movie. I measure success by evaluating 3 things – how many of the tasks I said I would complete that I actually completed, how many sales/clients I landed, and how happy/fulfilled I am (this is the most important one).
What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?
My biggest productivity struggle is probably procrastination – I often have the urge to just zone out and watch Netflix or order food when I should be doing something productive that I don’t want to do.
How does RescueTime fit into your workday?
RescueTime is something that I don’t use every day, because obsessing over time too much stresses me out. I use it more retrospectively to look back on a week or a month. From that viewpoint, I can see if I was productive or not, and make adjustments for next month accordingly.
How do you plan for mid-term and long-term work? Do you set goals, conduct regular reviews, or do other planning for big projects?
For mid and long term work, I use project planning boards like Trello or Waffle and Google Docs.
What are the most important tools, apps, tricks, or techniques that help you stay focused and productive during the workday?
One of the most important tricks for me that keeps me productive is to use the Pomorodo timer technique, where I spend 25 minutes working and then take a 5 minute break. I often have the urge to work through the break, especially when I feel like I’m being very productive, but I almost always am better off if I just take the break.
What are you working on right now (or coming up) that you’re most excited about?
Right now, I’m working on launching Everydev, a job board that features inclusive companies. I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to see what people think. You can check it out here, at everydev.io.
The to-do list is one of the most classic productivity tools we have. And a lot of us rely on one. But that doesn’t mean we know how to use them well.
If you tend to lose your to-do list, avoid it when it becomes overwhelmingly long, or you simply forget to use one, these tips are for you.
1. Share your to-do list
To-do lists are traditionally private, or at least personal. We make individual lists to suit our individual needs and responsibilities.
But what if our to-do lists were public?
It turns out, sharing with others the goals and tasks you want to accomplish can boost your productivity.
According to software developer Joe Reddington, making his to-do list public helped him see it with fresh eyes. He suddenly noticed all the duplicate tasks he’d listed, all the badly-worded or misspelled tasks, and all the confusing or badly planned tasks.
… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.
When you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen
Making his to-do list public made Reddington notice what was wrong with it—and fix it. After a big clean-up of his list, Reddington found he was much more productive. And when he added new tasks to the list, the knowledge that the list was public and might be viewed by others made sure he was more thoughtful in how he wrote out tasks for his future self.
I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.
You don’t have to make your to-do list completely public, but try sharing it with a colleague or your boss to add a little accountability and help you see your list with fresh eyes.
2. Draw your to-do list
If you struggle to remember what’s on your to-do list, this tip is for you. Studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing.
A series of studies gave participants words that are easy to draw, such as “apple”, and pitted drawing the words against a variety of other approaches such as writing the word, describing its characteristics, or looking at a picture of the item.
In every case, those who drew the items remembered more of them.
Researchers suggest this may be because more skills are involved in drawing. We have to use our physical motor skills to make the drawing, as well as visualizing the item itself and thinking about its characteristics to help us draw it accurately. The combination of skills used may help to make more connections than simply writing down a word, which in turn helps us remember the item more easily later.
So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost.
3. Write a list of what you think you will do
Mark Forster has a blog chock-full of to-do list systems, methods, and ideas. One idea he used with great success himself was to swap his to-do list for a list of things he thought he would do.
Forster initially tried writing a standard to-do list and putting it away in a drawer, curious about whether he could complete the list without checking it all day. This experiment failed miserably, with not a single thing from the list completed at the end of the day:
On Friday I managed to spend the whole day without doing a single item on the list. I did plenty of other things but the “hidden list” seemed to repel me rather than attract me to its contents.
But when Forster wrote a list of things he thought he would do that day and left it in a drawer, he found the entire list got done:
I found myself doing the things that I had predicted. At the end of the day I had done every single item on the list without referring to it once.
Again, this may be memory-related, as imagining yourself doing various things throughout the day may make them stick better in your memory than simply writing a list of tasks you’d like to do.
Or perhaps it’s something more complicated. Perhaps by telling yourself you think you will do something, you’re actually increasing the chances that you will.
4. Keep a done list
If you never seem to get through your to-do list but you know you’re still being productive, the done list might be for you.
This idea flips the to-do list on its head. Instead of writing down things to do before you start work, you write down what you got done after you’ve done it.
So you spend your day working as you normally would, and as you finish each task or project, take a phone call or come out of a meeting, you note down on your done list what you spent your time doing.
Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, uses this approach, though he calls it an “anti-to-do list”. Gascoigne found the done list helped him overcome the tug-of-war between his planned to-do list and the inevitable tasks that popped up throughout his work day:
I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”
Gascoigne also says the done list helped him see more clearly how he was spending his time:
It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done.
(If you get this feeling a lot, you can use RescueTime’s daily highlights to keep an anti-to-do list alongside your productivity data.)
At the end of a day using a done list, you’ll have a long list of completed tasks, showing everything you spent time on throughout the day. Despite working in the same way you normally would, you’ll go home satisfied with your efforts rather than disappointed that your to-do list remains incomplete.
What improvements have you made to your to-do list? Let us know in the comments.
Not all work is meaningful. Not all work is even useful. We’ve all felt the frustration of getting caught up doing busywork that seems necessary but takes our time and attention away from more important activities.
At RescueTime, we’re working to ensure more meaningful work happens in the world. As part of that mission, we’re diving deeper into understanding what makes work meaningful, and how that differs from person to person.
If you’re not sure what kind of work is most important to you, or how you can spend more time doing those activities and avoiding busywork, this post is for you.
Why doing amazing work is important
Doing your best work isn’t easy. It takes effort, and it will probably stretch your abilities to their limits.
But it’s worth it, because doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
A great example of this is how doing your best work can help you build up your network. For Mikael Cho, founder and CEO of Crew, networking was almost impossible when he started his entrepreneurial journey.
Cho had plenty of people in mind that he wanted to network with, but he struggled to get any of them to agree to a meeting. Fair enough, says Cho, since he hadn’t proved he was interesting by doing any great work. He was trying to meet people before he’d proved he was worth meeting.
Giving up on that approach, Cho took to focusing on building Crew instead:
… instead of focusing my energy fighting for their attention, I focused on making something interesting. I started our company and I wrote about our experience along the way.
I went to almost no events, took hardly any meetings, and didn’t pay attention to LinkedIn.
A few years later, Crew is doing well, and those same people who turned down meetings with Cho are reaching out to him. “Once you’re interesting,” says Cho, “people want to talk to you. Your work is the ice-breaker.”
While networking events can put you in touch with lots of people, you can often reach a wider audience through your work. And when people get to know you through your work first, there’s no need to spend time pitching them during meetings or networking events—your work will speak for itself.
Cho realized networking first wouldn’t lead to a successful product or company. Networking needed to come after the work:
By focusing on your work, a good network of people naturally follows.
So whether you’re after a job offer, a network to tap for investment in your company, or simply getting to know more people in your industry, doing great work can get you noticed and give you an “in” to meeting people you admire.
How to do unique, creative work
It’s easy to say you should focus on doing interesting, creative work, but how do you actually go about that?
Writer James Clear says the answer is evident in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, shared by Arno Rafael Minkkinen at a commencement speech for the New England School of Photography.
The theory is based on the Helsinki bus system, which has a station in the centre of the city that all buses leave from. For the first 1km or so, most of the buses share their route with several others, but after that first short period they split off into separate directions.
Minkkinen likened this bus system to the career of the photographers he was speaking to. Each bus route, he said, was like a direction they could choose in their careers. But after three years of working in one direction, they would still be in that first 1km where lots of other bus routes aligned with their own. They’d look around and see other photographers doing the same thing as them, and, frustrated at their struggle to find originality in their work, start over with a new bus route.
But the same thing would keep happening, since it would take more than three years to get past that first 1km to the point where the buses split off into separate directions.
You could repeat this process for your whole career, said Minkkinen, and never get to the point where your work takes on its own originality.
The answer? Stay on the bus.
In repeating this story, Clear points out that while showing up and spending time to hone your craft is important if you want to do great work, spending time on a huge variety of skills won’t ever get you to the point of mastery.
Focus is the way to mastery, says Clear, which is only achieved by staying on the bus. Eventually, you’ll see other people in your industry peel off into their own directions, and your work will start to shine in its originality.
What if you’re not sure what your best work is?
Staying on the bus sounds simple. But for many of us, committing to a single direction for our entire careers is daunting.
As writer Jeff Goins says, the more experience you have, the more confident you can be about committing to one direction. But when you’re starting out and lacking experience, it’s common to worry about making a commitment in case you want to change your mind later:
A little hesitation is natural. I’m wary of people who can name their dream immediately without having had any real experience with it.
But this hesitation can lead to switching buses often, as discussed in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, or not getting on any buses at all, because you’re paralyzed by indecision.
Goins’s answer is to commit fully to one direction for just a season.
Don’t pressure yourself into a lifelong commitment before you’re ready. But don’t let that stop you from doing anything at all, either. You’ll never create great work or find the direction you want to commit to without trying something.
“Choose something that strikes your fancy,” says Goins, “based on the possibility that it could be your dream.”
Author and founder of ConvertKit, Nathan Barry, agrees that working in seasons is a productive way to try out different directions.
Committing to one direction indefinitely can be taxing, says Barry. Whereas choosing one direction for a seasonal period is more manageable, and can even help you produce better work, by giving you a set timeframe to plan your work around.
Committing seasonally gives you an opportunity to go deep, says Barry, while also having a chance to change directions and try new things until you settle on a direction you want to stick with long-term.
So commit to your goal with everything you have—for a season.
It can be frustrating to want to do amazing work while feeling paralyzed by indecision about what that work should be.
Whether your seasons are weeks, months, or years long, the approach of working in seasons means you can fully commit to something you want to try, without the pressure of saying no to everything else forever. After the season is over you can re-evaluate and try something new.
Ultimately, this seems like a winning compromise between committing enough to develop your skills and produce your best work, while not forcing yourself to choose a lifelong direction before you have the experience to know what you really want to do.
Start the journey towards doing your best work by choosing one direction. Choose your bus, and choose a season-length that feels best to you. Then there’s nothing more to do but stay on the bus for the entire season.
Weekly roundup: tips to help you write more
Whether it’s writer’s block, a simple lack of motivation, or finding the time to write, these tips can help you get more words on the page.
1. Look for inspiration in others
Motivation can be contagious. Writer Jeff Goins explains with an analogy about finding the motivation to workout and eat well:
I wasn’t feeling motivated to eat right until I was at the gym and saw an overweight man giving it his all, staying late after the class was over, and then telling the instructor, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
That motivated me to take my health a little more seriously — not because he was obese, but because he was motivated. As Donald Miller wrote, “Sometimes, you have to watch someone else love something before you can love it yourself.”
Look for writers who love what they do. Listen to them. Read their writing. Watch them give interviews. Soak up their motivation and use it to fuel your own writing.
2. Set a writing schedule
Psychologists are still debating whether writer’s block exists, but either way, telling yourself you’re creatively blocked could harm your efforts to get going again.
Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, says you might be better off never telling yourself you have writer’s block:
Naming something gives it object power. People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example of that.
Research has found that writers who commit words to paper regularly, rather than spontaneously or at the last minute whenever a deadline looms, tend to produce more work overall. It’s also possible that writing regularly reduces the demand writing makes on your working memory, allowing you to write better.
If you need help getting started, try a tool like 750 Words, which rewards you with badges for sticking to a regular streak of writing 750 words (roughly three pages) every day. Or try Daily Page, which will email you every day with a writing prompt to get you thinking and keep stats on how often you get your daily writing done.
3. Take out your first and last paragraphs
Writer and entrepreneur James Altucher suggests getting past the hurdle of writing by writing anything you want—then taking out the first and last paragraphs. By giving yourself permission to write anything, even if it’s terrible, you take off the pressure that comes with a blank page.
And later, you get something much better out of what you first came up with simply by taking out the first and last paragraphs.
Even better, Altucher says this works even if you’re thinking about this rule as you write:
Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.
Whether you’re writing a personal story, a research-based article, or even a friendly letter, you’ll probably find you say a whole lot of nothing in your first and last paragraphs. Cut those paragraphs and get to your point faster to pull your readers in.
4. Keep emergency scenes handy
Writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a handy trick for getting over writer’s block. For those times when he sits down to write and the words just won’t come, Rubin always has an emergency scene at the ready:
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.
While Rubin generally writes his stories linearly, he saves these scenes he’s especially looking forward to. In a writing emergency, he can pull out one of these scenes and get past his writer’s block:
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?
This can work well even if you’re not a fiction writer. I write almost exclusively non-fiction, but I do tend to have a couple of blog post ideas in my to-do list at all times that I’m looking forward to writing. It’s helpful to always have an idea handy that I’m so interested in, I can rush out a draft in half an hour. That speed and vigor is helpful to get the creative juices flowing and makes it easier to return to any other writing work I’m stuck on.
5. Write what you want to read
Writer and artist Austin Kleon says the old adage “write what you know” is terrible advice.
Rather than writing what you know, he says writers should write what they want to read:
Not write what you know. Write what you like.
You may or may not be excited to write about things you’ve learned and experienced. But making the kind of work you wish existed in the world can be the motivation you need to keep going.
The manifesto is this: draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.
I’ve often found myself stuck, staring at a blank page, struggling to get started on an article. But there are also times when I can dash off three articles in a couple of hours if I let myself go.
The difference? Writing what’s interesting to me.
When I write something I think I should or that I’ve been told to write, it’s always much harder than when I write something I’d like to read. I also feel more purpose in my work when I’m writing something I’d read myself, because I feel a duty to get those words out into the world for other people like me.
Remember this when you’re stuck on a topic: ask yourself if you’re writing what you think you should, or what you’d like to read.
Ask yourself if you’re writing what you think you should, or what you’d like to read.
6. Stop when you know what comes next
If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about writing, it’s got to be Ernest Hemingway. One of his famous tricks was to stop in the middle of his writing, leaving himself an easy place to pick up from the next day.
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.
Leaving off mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence may feel strange, but it help enormously with the friction of getting started again the next day. As Hemingway mentions, it’s getting through until you pick up the writing again that’s most difficult:
Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
When asked if there are times when he lacks inspiration, Hemingway says this trick of stopping when you know what comes next is the key to overcoming those moments:
Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right.
What are your best tips for writing more? Let us know in the comments.
Related posts you might like:
- Why you should start a journal today
- Weekly roundup: tips for reading more
- How to take more effective notes