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

What does it take to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days? Every single November thousands of people attempt to find out as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). This year, that included hundreds of RescueTime users.

With this trove of data, we tackled some of the biggest questions around the trends, routines, and habits of prolific wordsmiths:

If you’re already planning for next year’s NaNoWriMo, or just want your writing time to be more effective, here’s what the data says about how to be a more productive writer.

Before we dive inRescueTime 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.

NaNoWriMo Success Guide: The habits and routines of the most productive writers

What makes NaNoWriMo so special is that no matter what level of writer you are—amateur or professional—everyone has the same 30 days to write a staggering 50,000-word novel.

And while the time constraint makes NaNoWriMo a massive undertaking, it’s also an opportunity to see how those who hit their goal effectively spend that time.

With 58% of RescueTime users reporting that they hit their NaNoWriMo goal in 2018 we dug into how they spent their time, built routines, and stayed motivated through the entire month.


Key findings: Winners wrote more, missed fewer days, had more and longer writing sessions, and took advantage of weekends

Let’s start with a high-level look at how NaNoWriMo winners spent their month.

As you can probably imagine, people who hit their 50,000-word goal wrote more on average than those who didn’t. In fact, NaNoWriMo winners spent 27% of all their time in writing apps and wrote an average of 1 hour and 19 minutes per day (compared to 16% and 1 hour a day for non-winners).

NaNoWriMo quote 1

That might not sound like much of a difference. However, when you add that 20 minutes extra a day up across the entire month winners had an average of 10 extra hours spent on writing during NaNoWriMo.

But, not all writing hours are the same. Let’s take a look at the writing routines and habits of productive writers to see where they made different choices about how to spend their time:

Winners were more consistent and wrote more in the first days

One of the key pieces of writing advice you hear from NaNoWriMo veterans is to hit the ground running. 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

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

In fact, NaNoWriMo 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.

NaNoWriMo evenings and weekends

Looking at the month as a whole, winners also kept their weekend writing time consistently high, while non-winners started to steadily spend less time writing from the 3rd week of November onwards.

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

While everyone we looked at missed at least one day of writing during the month, winners missed significantly less.

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

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).

NaNoWriMo hit the gas

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.

Want to build better habits and become a more productive writer? Sign up for RescueTime for free and take back control over your time.

The most popular writing tools used by NaNoWriMoers

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.

What got in the way of completing NaNoWriMo?

Even professional writers struggle with trying to write every single day. So you can only imagine how difficult it is to attempt NaNoWriMo on top of a day job, raising a family, or keeping up with a social life.

But, as we wrote before, it’s still possible with the right plan and routine.

So what got in the way of peoples’ writing time? And how can you use that information to help you be more productive, stay motivated, and write more? Here’s what our data told us:

Losing steam: The mid-month and post-holiday dip

Keeping up with your writing routine gets harder as the month passes you by. Not only are you faced with holidays and social obligations, but that initial excitement that kept you motivated has more than likely worn off.

In fact, one of the major differences between NaNoWriMo winners and non-winners was their ability to bounce back after a few bad days.

Overall writing time dropped 20% during the week of November 18th. While November 22nd was the worst day with an average of just 32.5 minutes of writing time.

Digital distractions took their toll

Digital distractions also took their toll on NaNoWriMo participants. In fact, during the month of November, our writers recorded 3298 hours on entertainment (including 2158 hours on YouTube!), 2986 hours on social media, 1476 hours on games, and 1268 hours on email.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Find out more

Life > Writing

These weren’t the only issues that got in the way of writing. When we surveyed our users about their biggest distractions and interruptions during NaNoWriMo, the top offenders included:

  • Job obligations
  • Taking on too much at once
  • Not having a routine
  • Not planning enough beforehand

In other words, life got in the way.

The best NaNoWriMo advice from past winners

While it’s insightful to look at how people actually spent their time, data only tells half the story. That’s why we reached out to NaNoWriMo winners to ask their best advice for staying motivated and productive throughout the month.

Here’s what they told us:

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.”

Take control over 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.”

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.

Love your stories and remember it’s your wild imagination that got you into this writing thing in the first place. Embrace yourself during NaNo and you win every time, 50k or not.”

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.

Want to build better habits and become a more productive writer? Sign up for RescueTime for free and take back control over your time.

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Jory MacKay

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