This was originally going to be ten tips. But I realized: the uber-tip, the baseline of how to amp up your productivity and your sanity, is to cut unrealistic expectations of yourself in HALF.
I will be modeling this for you now: you don’t actually need ten tips. You only need five.
Because if you think you’re “lazy,” you probably are either actually a) overworking or b) in resistance. These are my top five potions to get at either one:
1. Give up the “get up at 4:30am every day before work to write then sell my novel & be famous” fantasy.
This is delusional. Unless you are one of the four people actually functioning this way, i.e., were in the military or have very dissimilar DNA from mine, it definitely helps to give up the fantasy expectation that if you were a real writer you would be able to wake up at some ungodly hour to begin your writing (followed by a Pilates regimen?) before you go work eight or nine hours at your day job.
The near-impossibility for most of us to keep up a schedule like this amps up our adrenaline & gives us a little “schedule anarchy” drama. (Meaning, clamping down really hard like restrictive overprotective parents inevitably leads you—or your body—to teenage rebellion with a vengeance).
I myself love a little schedule anarchy—I used to have such a strong taste for it that I overworked myself into so many crashes I got quite physically ill.
The point is: very, very few people can actually keep such a boot-campy schedule—it just isn’t practical for the long run, and it’s not loving to your writing or to your body. Setting yourself up for schedule anarchy puts all kinds of heavy expectations on your writing. (Which your writing hates, btw).
Crazy 4am writing plans involve severe denial about the amount of rest, sleep, meandering, and transition time every human needs in order to function on a basic level. Quick burnout is 99% guaranteed.
The boring, adrenaline-free truth is that it is so much more effective to consistently show up for a little bit of writing time (see #5) that fits into what your body needs than to try to amp it up and coerce your body into a panicky, forced vision of your life.
2. (Re)-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones
This book always makes me feel like I am going back in time, to the nineties or the seventies. When there was a little more space to explore. When the imagination wasn’t penned in by facebook quizzes.
Natalie Goldberg’s writing exercises are like time and dimension travel. You can just dip into one or two of them and somehow be transported to the depths of your imagination—or someone’s, i.e., it really feels like being taken into the collective imagination.
All these details start pouring out, and you get really plugged in to the writing, out of love, curiosity, enthusiasm rather than feeling like you really need to get back to the desk to push your career and master your email.
3. Indulge in the story-orgy that is HBO
Though it is true we live in a time that can feel boxed-in and depleted of wonder, there is an amazing story-revolution going on on television. While a few of the seasonal catalogs from our big publishers make me want to kill myself, HBO makes me gooey with happiness at the huge scope and intense quality of its writing.
I am especially talking about “The Wire,” here, but any of the other big novelistic series are rich in story in ways that we are desperate for. “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” even campy Vampire Bill of “True Blood”—irresistible.
It is hard to find the big expansive novels of our time. Many of them are sitting in drawers, heartbroken.
HBO is the antidote to this. And by HBO I also mean “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad” on AMC.
The basic fact of the matter is that we need to replenish story in ourselves. We need to drown in story as a receiver to be able to keep giving as a writer.
The cutting edge of juicy juicy story is not in the bookstore at the moment. It is in your Netflix queue.
The added benefit here is that it is a guilty pleasure to watch television—it can have that edgy feeling of an illicit affair that makes “procrastination” extra-thrilling. Like, “You’re wasting your time watching television!”
For me, the downtime is sometimes more reenergizing when it feels like I am getting away with something. Although these days I know enough about rejuvenation to understand that any form of rest and inactivity isn’t “getting away” with anything but is in fact basically the same thing as eating kale.
Rest and receiving are the ultimate nutrient.
To unplug and devote a morning or afternoon to a little spree of juicy television story is pretty much free, though it can feel as indulgent as being spoon-fed gold-flecked caviar by muscular, loin-clothed man servants.
It proves to your subconscious that you value story, not just achievement, which makes your subconscious/right brain feel very happy and generous with the story stuff.
Which makes the next writing day a lot easier.
4. If you are exhausted, practice radical downtime. Remember that rest is magic.
Sometimes writing is like those “Chinese handcuffs” childhood party favor thingees. Remember those? A little woven tube where you stick a finger in each end, and the more you pull, the more you get stuck? Where the trick is to relax first—NOT PULL—which gives your fingers enough space that you can then—slowly, gently, without force—get one finger out, then the other.
Sort of like simply putting one foot after the other—rather than trying to do it all at once.
(I love trying to do it all at once and, yes, this almost killed me).
I sometimes wonder if my writing angels are shocked and dismayed that it has taken me the entire time I’ve been writing seriously, that is for almost twenty years now, to get that it is simply stupid to force my way through exhaustion and depletion.
After doing a number on myself again and again, after really taking my steely determination as low as it could go, I finally know that it is just pointless to keep pushing if I’m spaced out, miserable, and my body & spirit are on strike, just wanting to goof around.
It still seems so weird to me that if I just goof around or rest, the actual desire to write comes back the next day. It’s so weird! I feel like it must be what the cavemen felt like when they invented the wheel. Like—“Oh my lord, how did it take us this long to figure this one out!?” as they rolled the harvest up the hill (I don’t know what the cavemen did with the wheel their first go around! Was it the cavemen? Did the Sumerians invent the wheel? Oh lord, another section of my brain (the history class wing) that the email deluge of 2006 seems to have eaten. . . . )
Anyway: whatever expression the cavemen’s angels had on their faces at wheel-invention time, this is the expression mine have now that I have learned that rest is as magic as the wheel.
5. For two weeks, write five minutes a day no matter what.
Making writing a daily practice, like playing the scales on the piano or meditating, is the best way to clear out the resistance/doubt/self-hate drama that keeps you from the page and keeps you exhausted and panicked.
Like, say, a running practice, it hurts at first. The first two weeks can be a little painful—you might need to figure out how to tie the laces of your new sneakers so you don’t get blisters, or where to run that doesn’t give you the feeling you’re about to get mugged.
But these are all reasonable things, practical things, that you can handle, just like you can handle finding five to ten minutes a day where it’s quiet, where you have a decent pen. Yes: the five minutes of writing practice needs to be by hand. And if you get five minutes for a full week straight without a lot of drama, then you can go up to ten.
But if you go up to ten and start freaking out, resisting, avoiding, then you must go back down to five for a full week.
Lower the expectations and get the smaller task done. Your writing-self-esteem gets to grow and grow this way, instead of being constantly exploded by those pesky unconscious sabotage setups involving big plans that you can’t actually accomplish.
Trust me: hundreds of students over the years in my workshops have proven that there is something about this rhythm that just works. They resist but they do their five minutes a day, then right about the two week mark an amazement sets in: there is momentum. Ease, flow and productivity just somehow happen.
An utter beauty to witness.
Please consider giving yourself this gift, instead of abusing yourself with alarm clock fantasies.
PS: if you need specific writing exercises, the book recommended in #2 will keep you going for the first year, at least.