NaNoWriMo success guide: How the most productive writers create routines, block distractions, and write more

Every November, thousands of people join Nation Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and attempt to complete a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. But here’s a sad reality: only 15% actually hit that goal. 

It’s no small feat to write 50,000-words in a year, let alone a single month. To finish your novel, you can’t just rely on the initial burst of motivation. You need a plan and a solid daily routine. 

Writing a novel takes dedication, motivation, and above all else, time

As best-selling author Jessica Brody (who consistently writes 4+ books a year!) told us:

“One of the most common questions I get from fellow writers is: How do you find the time? But the truth is, it’s not about finding extra time in your day. It’s about how you use and prioritize the time you already have.”

Whether you’re tackling your first NaNoWriMo this year or a veteran “Wrimo”, we’ve put together this guide of the best NaNoWriMo tips, strategies, and tactics for managing your time and hitting your word count.

The 2020 NaNoWriMo success guide

RescueTime users are 4X as likely to finish their NaNoWriMo novel RescueTime is a tool used by writers of all levels to help them be more productive, block distractions, and build better writing habits. Shanna Peeples, National Teacher of the Year and author of Think like Socrates, called us “The Weight Watchers of time” helping her see where her minutes go and managing them better. 

Find out more about how RescueTime can help you be a more productive writer and sign up for your free account here.

What is NaNoWriMo? (and what are the NaNoWriMo rules?)

NaNoWriMo was started back in 1999 as a commitment device for a small group of writer friends who were tired of staring at their unfinished drafts. Instead, they decided to set a time-bound challenge to overcome procrastination and stay focused.

The NaNoWriMo rules are intentionally simple: 

  1. Writing time start at 12 AM on November 1st and ends at 11:59:59 PM on November 30th local time
  2. To win, “Wrimos” must complete 50,000 words. This can either be a complete novel or part of a larger piece that will be finished later.
  3. You can plan extensively and write notes, but only words written during the month can be included in your final word count
  4. To officially “win” novels need to be submitted to the NaNoWriMo website to have the word count validated

If you’re already struggling with writing, why would you want to add the pressure of only having 30 days to finish a novel?

Turns out there are some powerful psychological factors at play. 

Creativity can be fickle. And without a hard deadline, outside pressure, and a specific goal in mind, it’s easy to get stuck, procrastinate, or even put off writing indefinitely.

Instead, the short timeline for NaNoWriMo is why you should do it. It forces you to quiet your inner critic and just get it done with the time you have.

The daily routines of the most successful writers

Simply committing to NaNoWriMo isn’t enough to get you through it. While the initial burst of motivation will help you start your novel, a daily routine 

Throughout the ages, great writers have relied on routines to stay motivated. As Haruki Murakami explains, your routine is what pushes you to greatness:

“I keep to my routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

So what should a good writing routine look like? While it will depend on your other obligations and personal working style, here are 3 pieces of advice to guide your NaNoWriMo routine: 

1. Hack your morning routine to put you in “writer mode”

For the majority of people, the first hours of their day are the most productive. Yet, we often spend that time on unproductive tasks like mindlessly scrolling social media, checking email, or worse. 

Unproductive time - distractions
RescueTime can tell you exactly how much time you’re spending on distractions (and when!)

But this isn’t just a waste of time. Starting your day off with distractions makes it harder to write all day. As author Jessica Brody told us: 

“What you prioritize—what you put first in your morning—is what you declare to yourself and the universe as the most important thing to you.”

Think about how you can quickly put your mind into “writer mode” for the day. This could mean jumping straight into your draft or just reading your last few pages and letting them marinate in your head before your set writing time later on. 

2. Stick to a writing schedule every single day

You won’t write 50,000-words in a day. Instead, focus on consistency over creativity. 

The most successful “Wrimos” averaged around 1 hour and 19 minutes of writing per day. That means you should be trying to set aside around 90 minutes each day to hit your goal. But instead of just trying to fit in your writing time whenever, schedule it in your calendar.

A time blocked schedule makes sure you’ll always focus on your writing at the right time.

This works for a number of reasons. First, it gives you a visual reminder of what’s important to you. But more importantly, it pushes you to get through writer’s block. 

As best-selling author Jodi Picoult explains, you can’t edit a blank page:

“Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

If you can’t find a large block of time, try completing several shorter “writing sprints”

Many writers say it’s easier for them to focus on several 15–30-minute writing blocks throughout the day. This means taking advantage of lunch breaks, early morning time, and the evenings when you have fewer demands. 

However, whatever strategy you choose, make sure you commit to it and track your progress each day. A tool like RescueTime lets you set daily goals and then gives you real-time Alerts when you hit them. 

RescueTime goals are flexible to how you work. Set a goal for total writing time or even track your productive hours online.

You can set goals around activities you want to do more of like writing and total productive time. We’ll let you know as soon as you hit them!

3. Block distractions in your writing environment

You struggle with distractions every single day. But for some reason, they gain superpowers the second you try to put words down. 

From the pull of social media feeds to unfolded laundry, dirty dishes, or bored partners/children/pets, there’s always something that wants your attention. But to hit your NaNoWriMo goal, you need to manage those distractions. 

In your digital space:

  • Use a distraction blocker like RescueTime to “turn off” social media, news, videos, and games when you’re writing. 
  • Stay organized with your files. Have notes and outlines readily available and keep your writing areas free. 
  • Close browser tabs you’re not using and clean up your desktop and downloads folder.
RescueTime automatically blocks distracting websites like social media, news, or YouTube when you want to write. Learn more here!

In your physical space:

  • Remove clutter that distracts from writing. This includes notebooks, phones, scrap paper, and anything else that competes for your attention.
  • Use lyric-free music to block out sound distractions.  
  • Try to find a space with natural light and plants. Even just seeing nature from your workspace has been found to help people focus and stay productive.

Getting specific: How many words a day do you need to write to complete NaNoWriMo?

While winning “Wrimos” averaged 1 hour and 19 minutes of writing time a day, sometimes it’s easier to set a word count goal instead.

Getting specific, to hit your 50,000 words, you’ll need to write approximately 1,667 words per day if you write every single day, or 2381 words per day if you write 5-days a week. 

Mapping out the month: What the data says about how to tackle NaNoWriMo

A daily writing routine will get you through the daily grind of NaNoWriMo. But to make it easier on yourself, you need a larger strategy. 

November isn’t just for writing. Along with life and work, it’s also the start of the holiday season. Instead of letting the unexpected knock you off course, here’s what the writing data from past NaNoWriMo winners say about how you should plan your month. 

Before NaNoWriMo: Plan, prep, and write notes

While you can only count words you write during the month towards your final goal, you can use the time leading up to NaNoWriMo to prepare and even create a detailed outline of your novel. 

If the thought of outlining stresses you out, try what’s called the Snowflake Method where you start with a 1-2 line summary and expand from there. Here’s an example: 

  1. A man named Neo battles robots to save humanity.
  2. A disillusioned hacker named Neo discovers he’s been living in a fake reality created by robots and joins a band of rebels fighting to save humanity. 
  3. A disillusioned hacker named Neo discovers that he’s living in a fake reality created by robots after humans lost a futuristic war. After meeting a band of rebels who have found a way to “escape” their AI prison, Neo learns how to control the environment and fights the robot “agents” to save humanity. 

Lastly, you should prepare yourself to write “ugly”. NaNoWriMo is all about creating a first draft–not a polished novel. And the best writers understand that it’s ok to write

During NaNoWriMo: Utilize weekends and evenings, stay consistent, and try for a couple big days

When it comes to what you do during NaNoWriMo, you need to switch gears a bit. Here’s how previous winners spent their time during the month of November:

Winners were more consistent and wrote more in the first days.

NaNoWriMo quote 1

The first few days are an important chance to get ahead on your daily word count and set the tone for the rest of the month.

Every NaNoWriMo winner we looked at wrote consistently for the first four days and hit an average of 1 hour and 30 minutes per day.

On the other hand, only 74% of non-winners wrote during the first four days of the month and for an average time of 1 hour and 12 minutes.

NaNoWriMo winners wrote nearly 2X as much during the weekends and evenings

NaNoWriMo evenings and weekends

Not only did NaNoWriMo winners get off to a good start, but they took better advantage of their time off to write.

Winners spent 1.5–2X as much time writing on the weekends compared to non-winners.

They also concentrated their work in the evenings, doing the majority of their writing after 8pm.

Consistency is key: Winners missed nearly 50% fewer days (and almost never missed two in a row)

Our data showed that NaNoWriMo winners only missed an average of 2.7 days of writing over the entire month. Non-winners, on the other hand, missed 4 or more days.

Again, it wasn’t just raw missed days that counted. Winners seemed more likely to bounce back after missing a day of writing. In fact, only 30% of winners missed two or more days or writing in a row compared to 73% of non-winners.

Every single winner had at least one 3-hour+ writing day

NaNoWriMo hit the gas

Not only were NaNoWriMo winners more consistent in their writing habit, more likely to write on weekends, and better at bouncing back after missing a day of writing, but they also were more likely to put in long hours during writing sessions.

Without fail, every NaNoWriMo winner had at least one day where they wrote for 3 or more hours (while only 80% of non-winners had at least one 3-hour day).

In fact, on average, winners had 2.7 days where they wrote for over 3 hours. That’s twice as many long writing days as non-winners.

What to do when you fall behind: 3 Timeless NaNoWriMo tips from past winners

Even professional writers struggle with writing every single day. So you can only imagine how hard it is for the rest of us with day jobs, families, and social lives to juggle.  

You can plan as much as you’d like for NaNoWriMo, but life is bound to get in the way. So how do the most productive writers commit to keeping up with their routines and daily goals? 

Here’s what past NaNoWriMo winners told us:

1. Keep up with your routine. No matter what.

“Write every day even if only a few words. Don’t be afraid to jump in even if you feel hopelessly behind. The most important opportunity out of NaNo is to form the habit of writing.”

“Don’t fret if you can’t dedicate large chunks of time to writing. A 10-minute writing session is still better than no session at all.”

“Small strides lead to big success.”

2. Do whatever you can to take control of distractions

“Do the writing first thing in the day, before other distractions. You may be able to come back to it again later. But if not, at least you will have done some and the momentum will keep you going”

“Block out everything distracting and just write, whether it’s good or bad. Work it out later, just write.”

3. Focus on the process, not just the results

“50k is an arbitrary benchmark! Getting knee-deep, or even toe-deep into your novel is the biggest accomplishment. Attempting to write every day is an accomplishment. Getting started is an accomplishment. Focus on those things and ignore the 50k.”

Bonus: The favorite tools used by the most productive writers

So that’s when the most productive writers work. But what about how they work?

While spending time choosing (and learning to use) a new tool is just another form of procrastination, it’s always interesting to see what other writers are using.

From our data, the most common writing tools used by NaNoWriMo participants were:

  • Microsoft Word (1522 hours): Despite plenty of competition, the majority still used good ol’ Microsoft Word.
  • Scrivener (1519 hours): Narrowly coming in second place was  Scrivener, a powerful word processor and planning tool that keeps all your notes, outlines, and drafts in one place.
  • Google Docs (540 hours): For those who prefer to keep their writing in the cloud, we saw a significant number of writers using Google Docs.
  • Dabble (112 hours): Lastly, we saw people using Dabble–a web and desktop writing app with a focus on novel writing, plotting, and editing.

On top of word processors, there were a few other sites and resources top writers used:

  • 4thewords.com for motivation (385 hours): This site lets you turn your writing into an RPG—battle evil creatures by hitting your daily word count and complete journeys with your writing streak.
  • NaNoWriMo.org for support (340 hours): The NaNoWriMo site and forums are an invaluable resource for support, inspiration, and advice.
  • Wikipedia for research (117 hours): For all those historical dramas, fantasy novels, and sci-fi epics that need fact-checking.

Writing is all about the process

Whether you hit your 50,000-word goal or not, taking on something like NaNoWriMo is an accomplishment in itself. Congratulations!

Remember, writing is all about consistency. The more you can use this advice to string together days of good writing, the closer you’ll be to finishing your next great novel, short story, or screenplay.

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Jory MacKay

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

2 comments

  1. As a marketing analyst and wannabe blogger this is exactly the sort of post I needed to see, great piece. I will be implementing a lot of tips I have learned from here.

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