NaNoWriMo Case study: How I used RescueTime to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days

If you’re an aspiring novelist, you’re no doubt familiar with National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo)—the event held every November where hundreds of thousands of writers attempt to put down 50,000 words of their novel in just 30 days.

It’s a Herculean effort—one that takes focus, discipline, creativity, and time management to get through (it’s no wonder only 15% of participants hit that goal!) And while the creativity part is up to you, tools like RescueTime can help you with everything else.

We spoke with two NaNoWriMo winners—graphic designer and nine-time participant Tracy Durnell—and Indiana State University professor Dr. James “Jim” Speer—to find out what it took to hit their goals, how taking on NaNoWriMo impacted their lives, and how RescueTime helped them stay on track all month long.

How to use RescueTime to build a better writing habit

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Finding the motivation to take on NaNoWriMo

Like any major project, you need the right motivation to get through NaNoWriMo. But as we’ve written before, willpower alone isn’t enough to stick with your goals. Both writers we spoke with had specific motivations for taking on NaNoWriMo.

For Tracy, her motivation comes from years of experience. The 2018 edition was her 9th time taking on NaNoWriMo and her 8th time hitting the 50,000-word goal.

“I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time during my freshman year in 2003. Although I squeaked by with 50k, it was such a horrible experience that I took a many-year break. Last year was my 9th time participating and I passed 50k during all but my second one,” explains Tracy.

For Jim, his motivation to write was inspired by his day job. As a Professor, Jim wanted a way to present his climate change work in a new light:

“I decided in the summer of 2016 that I needed to write an action-adventure novel that told the behind-the-scenes story of climate change researchers. We put our lives in danger when we go into the wilderness to study nature and I thought that would make an exciting story.

“On top of it, I was able to add a lot of information about what the oil companies knew about climate change back in 1980.”

Since 2016, he’s tackled a new section of his climate fiction trilogy each year—Exposé on Climate ChangeExposé on Sustainability, and Exposé on Agriculture—clocking in close to 200,000 words total.

Building writing into your daily schedule

Motivation and inspiration can help you get started writing, but anyone who’s tried to write a novel in 30 days (or at all) knows it comes down to consistency. When we looked at the data from hundreds of NaNoWriMo participants we found winners were more likely to write every day, have higher daily writing times, and take advantage of weekends.

For Tracy and Jim, the most important aspect was being deliberate in when and where they write.

“I’ve tried many different approaches over the years,” explains Tracy.

“Currently, my practice is to designate specific times and places for writing. I meet up with other writers once a week and have two sessions at a nearby coffee shop by myself. Choosing specific days and times to work on my project has helped me make more consistent progress.

During those sessions, she uses the Pomodoro technique—a simple time management strategy of working for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break—to help her stay focused.

The 25-minute span of a Pomodoro session works for me because I often want to take a break after 15 minutes but have to push myself to finish it.

For Jim, his work responsibilities plus his family and two young children mean his window for writing time is especially small:

“I come home and make dinner for the family and then have some time in the evening. My wife and I alternate taking our two boys to bed so I basically work all of my creative writing into the evening hours. Instead of watching TV, I get to make up my own stories.”

How to use RescueTime to build better writing habits and hit your goals

With limited time to write and lofty goals, there’s only one answer: Make the most of the time you do have. Simply working more doesn’t make you more productive. And even worse, long hours and overwork can have serious negative consequences on our health and well-being.

Both writers use RescueTime to track their writing time, get a baseline of their productivity, and build better habits during and after NaNoWriMo. Here are a few ways they made the most of their writing time:

Track writing time by program across the month/year

“I love stats and trying out different ways to become more efficient, so RescueTime’s time tracking feature was what first drew me,” says Tracy.

“It’s convenient that RescueTime tracks time by program because I use a special writing program (Scrivener) for my fiction writing.”

Looking at her RescueTime data, Tracy was able to see a clear uptick in time spent in her writing app during NaNoWriMo.

RescueTime Scrivener time

However, that uptick only tells part of the story.

Using RescueTime over an entire year helped Tracy understand the importance of consistency and staying focused on progress:

What surprised me most is just how much progress you can make by putting in medium-sized chunks of time consistently. And that the amount of time needed is (in my opinion) completely reasonable.

“During 2018, I wrote about 120,000 words, just over 50,000 of them during NaNoWriMo, and that averaged out to about 35 minutes a day over the year.

RescueTime Premium gives you document-level insights, meaning you can see exactly how long you spend on your outline, draft 1, edits, etc… Find out more and try it for free.

Use the Productivity Pulse to get a baseline of your productivity

For Jim, one of his main concerns going into NaNoWriMo was how effective he could be with the little time he had. With RescueTime, he was able to get a baseline of his activities and see what was getting in the way of focusing on writing.

“I have always been concerned about not effectively using my time at work,” he explains.

But after monitoring my time on the computer for a week, I actually saw that I was being very efficient. I rarely had distracted time on the computer and what RescueTime was calling distracted was often my research of reading news articles that supported my writing in the evenings.”

One of Jim’s major concerns was the time he was spending on email. However, after checking his RescueTime he found that while he does spend a significant amount of time on his inbox, he gets through it much more efficiently than he had imagined: “That made me more comfortable and feel better about my time use.”

Block distracting websites during writing sessions

It’s easy to distract yourself when you’re struggling to get through a scene or finish off a chapter. But with RescueTime’s FocusTime feature, you can block distracting websites during your writing sessions.

How to write a novel - RescueTime block screen

For Tracy, website blocking was a huge benefit when she first started getting serious about her writing:

“When I first started using RescueTime all the time, I used the website blocking functionality, but I’ve since developed a writing system where I don’t really need that feature as much anymore.”

Track outlines and revisions with Offline time

Research shows that seeing progress on your work is one of the best ways to stay motivated and improve your mood. And while RescueTime automatically tracks your writing time on your computer, it also helps you track the time you spend editing or working offline to give you the full picture of how you’re spending your time.

The Offline Time feature prompts you to enter what you’ve been working on when you step away from your computer. Here’s how Tracy uses it:

“While I was revising my last project, I used the offline time to track how much time I spent marking up hardcopy edits. I also prefer to outline on paper versus on the computer, so I track that offline time as well.”

Log writing milestones with Highlights and Daily Goals

Another great RescueTime feature for writers is using the daily Highlights feature or Goals to track your progress and note what you’ve been working on. Highlights are notes at the end of the day or when you hit a time goal that let you log what you’ve been working on.

Here’s how Tracy uses the feature:

“Recently I’ve been using the highlights feature to log daily milestones as a way to help myself visually see the progress I’m making.

“I also like having the daily time goals (I treat them as weekly goals since I don’t write every day) even though I often don’t meet them.”

Build a better writing habit with regular reflection

NaNoWriMo isn’t just about writing hard for a month. It’s a great way to kickstart and refine your writing routine. With regular reflection, accurate time tracking, and customizable goals, RescueTime can help you develop your writing practice and become better at your craft.

“The other key to using RescueTime to build my writing habit is that I can use it to track my time year-round. NaNoWriMo only lasts 30 days of a 365 day year, but I was interested in building a sustainable, ongoing writing habit,” says Tracy.

“I find that making time to check in on my practice each week keeps me honest. I review how much time I spent writing, the number of Pomodoros I completed, and the number of words I wrote, then set goals for the following week.”

Building off the success of NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a sprint. But being a successful writer is an ultra-marathon. And the habits and workflows you develop over a month of intense writing will flow into the rest of your life.

“When I first participated, 50k was an unthinkable number and reaching that finish line was probably one of the hardest things I had ever done, scraped by through sheer force of will,” says Tracy.

“Now, I have no doubt in my ability to write 50k words in a month. Tracking my time with RescueTime has made clear exactly what the time commitment is.”

For Tracy, her post-NaNo writing life is focused on editing, cleaning, and reworking her novel.

“Right now I’m reading through the draft on my Kindle, trying to focus on pacing and characterization. Once I resolve the issues I find during my read-through, I’m planning to follow a revision process that pulls from “The 10% Solution” by Ken Rand and “Novel Metamorphosis” by Darcy Pattison.”

For Jim, he’s been expanding on his novel and looking into self-publishing his latest climate fiction adventure.

“I won my first NaNoWriMo in 2016 with 50k words then read that 75k is more of the norm. Since then, I’ve worked hard on editing and increasing my word counts. Luckily, I’ve had some new experiences that have allowed me to write material I wasn’t prepared to during NaNoWriMo. Now, I am starting the adventure of going to self publish by April.”

Ready to build better writing habits with RescueTime?

Whatever your writing goals, RescueTime can help you understand where you’re spending your time, build better habits, and stay focused.

Ready to give it a shot? Try a 14-day free trial of RescueTime Premium and see what a difference it will make.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


  1. Hi!
    Thank you very much for sharing this. I have planned 2 NaNiWos already but failed even to start with them even though I already use RescueTime for my work.
    By the way, there is a typo in one of the subheaders were it should be “Productivity Pulse”



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