Productivity Tips Make You An Unproductive Writer

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Productivity is a cultural obsession. You can’t toss a virtual rock without hitting an article or App that “helps improve productivity.” Indeed, we want to maximize our efficiency, and we’d all love to get more done, but for creative endeavors, such as writing, much of the productivity advice works against you. That is, trying to be more productive can result in less productivity and often lower quality work.

The Virtues of Production

Productivity has a unique place in American culture. There is a long-standing belief that productivity’s opposite is laziness or sloth. Sloth is one of the original deadly sins, and early Puritan settlers warned that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Although the “sinfulness” of idleness faded, works such as those by Benjamin Franklin continued to focus on the productivities grand rewards.

“plough deep while sluggards sleep and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.”

Two hundred years later, we still believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and we teach our children the terrible things that happened to the lazy grasshopper who played all summer while the industrious ant worked.

Such stories fail to mention that the ant died a few years later from a stress-related heart attack.

The Real Root of Our Obsession

A heightened focus on productivity was a result of changing labor laws and began with the efficiency studies from the 1920’s.

As we moved from farming to factory, the connection between “production” and “survival” loosened. A farmer’s desire to avoid starvation motivated him to tend crops, to maintain precise schedules, and to beat the harvest deadlines.

Unlike the farmer, factory workers exchanged their time for money. Whereas a farmer’s output was directly beneficial to his well-being, the factory worker’s output was secondary because it was a means to a paycheck, and the paycheck ultimately purchased things beneficial to his welfare.

Companies recognized the productivity implications created by a pay-for-the-hour system. The possibility of misaligned goals between owner and worker. Whereas the owner wanted maximum hourly output and the worker desired minimum hourly effort.

The Hawthorne Studies, commissioned in the 1920’s marked the beginning of the corporate effort to understand how to improve productivity. And over the past century, companies continue to study everything from lighting to workstation layouts, to the motivational impact of free food on worker’s output.

Productivity and Big Brother

These early studies reached two conclusions. First, output decreased after forty hours of work. Each additional hour returned less of a return on investment.

Our traditional forty-hour work week isn’t a humanitarian effort; it’s based on a financial calculation.

The second conclusion suggested productivity was related to motivation. The Hawthorne Studies found that increased production was not as simple as systems, processes, and environment. Worker motivation played an equal role in production levels. Most importantly, the research discovered that the simple act of “paying attention” to employees and letting them know “you were paying attention,” increased production.

This phenomenon was called the Hawthorne Effect, and the psychological implications were far reaching. In medicine, clinical trials include control groups and placebo groups to ensure the outcomes aren’t just the results of either the Placebo or Hawthorne Effects.

Theoretically, We’re Still Punching the Clock

Interestingly, most people no longer work in a factory, but we still adhere to the forty-hour work week.

Our productivity system doesn’t consider output differences between physical and intellectual labor. It doesn’t contemplate the possibility that spending 36% of our waking hours “at a desk” may not create the most efficient output ratios.

Recent studies demonstrate that “intellectual” productivity does have different ratios. Office productivity decreases after six hours and creative work, like writing and designing, decreases after just four hours.

Failure to consider the basis for a forty-hour work week, companies instead focus on motivation. They search for new ways to keep workers engaged longer and to produce at higher levels. Paying an office worker for thirty efficient hours instead of forty seems, well, anti-productive.

Because Productivity is Happiness

Productivity obsession is not reserved for companies. Individuals share a desire to “do more in less time.” People believe happiness is a matter of success and success is the result of greater productivity. And this belief is hard to shake.

Although studies prove multi-tasking is the least effective strategy, people pridefully announce their alleged skill at it.

For many, quality is important, but only insomuch as the output meets a prescribed deadline. Most people appreciate that “there are only so many hours in a day,” but continue to work diligently to maximize those hours as if there is some magical way to stretch time.

Search “how to be more productive, ” and it returns over 40 million results. The idea persists that if one improves efficiency (getting more down in the same time), they’ll increase productivity (more output) and, in doing so, will find greater personal and financial rewards (money) and discover greater satisfaction (happiness).

Individuals have become both the worker and  factory owner, driving themselves to maximize their time to create more time for higher productivity.

The task is counterintuitive since higher production through increased efficiency does not decrease the mandated forty hours work-for-pay system.

But it’s a good addiction

Addictions are “bad things, ” and yet, we dismiss the potentially damaging effects of a productivity addiction. Our belief is that we all should want to do more, do it better, and do it in less time.


6 Signs You’re A Productivity Addict
  1. Are you acutely aware of when you are “wasting” time? Do you beat yourself up for it?
  2. Are you reliant on technology to optimize your time management?
  3. Is your #1 topic of conversation how “crazy busy” you are? Do you think “hustling” sounds impressive, while “doing less” sounds lazy?
  4. Are you a slave to your email inbox? Compulsively checking it or feeling like your phone is an extension of your arm?
  5. Do you feel guilty when you only cross one item off your to-do list or find you’re kept awake at night by work stress?
  6. Have you ever rolled your eyes when your friend says she’ll finally get started on that side project she’s been talking about for months, yet you do exactly the same and rationalize it by thinking you’re too swamped?

Today, Henry David Thoreau would be shamed for such laziness, and Buddha’s ideas would be shunned as indulgences of the very young and very wealthy. We can’t see productivity as anything less than a virtue.

Productivity addiction is as virtuous as “multi-tasking.”

In fact, a Google search for “productivity addiction” returns millions of articles on. . . Fixing your problem with procrastination.

Writers and Productivity

Tolkien took sixteen years to write The Lord of the Rings, Harper Lee spent two and half writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and William Faulkner fired off As I Lay Dying in six weeks.

Writing a book is a product of time, effort, and inspiration. Being a “productive” writer is important, but not as important as being a “quality” writer.

Creative writing is, after all, a little different than answering emails, finishing chores, sticking with a fitness resolution, or making wagon wheels.

Writers, however, beat themselves up for not writing more or writing quicker. They often approach writing as if there are standards of production time.

Feelings of inadequacy derived from cultural production who’s foundations are unrelated to writing.

Consequently, most productivity advice is harmful to the creative process and results in less writing and greater frustration.

Don’t Eat the Frog

Brian Tracy’s bestseller, Eat that Frog, aims to kill productivity’s arch enemy procrastination. Mr. Tracy’s first remedy is to “eat that frog.” He suggests you do the thing first that you most don’t want to do.

An excellent idea for work projects, but not helpful for a writer.

Writing tends to fall behind other responsibilities.  In other words,  things like work, kids, spouses, and chores. There are endless numbers of frogs to eat. Eating them first, will not help us get to our writing and by the time we do, we’ll be too darn tired to be creative.

In Stephen Covey’s, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” he notes that improper focus is the cause of most efficiency problems. That is, we spend so much time on the “urgent” stuff that we seldom get to the “important, but not urgent” stuff.

Writing is an excellent example of this “important but not urgent” stuff.” An independent, part-time writer, doesn’t prioritize their writing. In other words, the reason most books don’t get completed is writers are too busy eating all the frogs and considering their books as not urgent and not that important.

Organizing Works Against You

Productivity advice always states that the key is a strong system of organization. Make lists, make schedules, clean up your desk, label things, and put stuff all neat and tidy and where it belongs. This way when you are ready to “write” you have an efficient work area.

Evidence, however, suggests that a messy desk is better for the creative mind. Besides being a time suck, a messy desk appears far more inspirational. Many of the most creative minds (such as Einstein) worked in what looked like complete chaos.

Consequently, reading organization books and buying organization Apps doesn’t help, it hurts the completion and potentially, the quality of your book.

Fast isn’t Better

Productivity and speed go “hand in hand.” We measure productivity as output over time, so you’d think the answer to “more” is “faster.” Valid for spinning widgets off the assembly line, but not for creativity.

New studies reveal that handwriting has a positive impact on our cognition and our creativity. The neural connections between the hand and brain and the hand tactic connection between hand and paper create a powerful dynamic of greater cognition.

Based on these links, you’d be better off hand writing your first draft. Most writers rely on the speed of the keyboard. Its use, however, is far more complicated and its layout the design is intended to slow you down.

When the first typewriters were manufactured, they discovered a design flaw. The original keyboard layout was such that the typist could hit the keys faster than the metal bars could get out of their own way. The result were continuous jams. Rather than improve the machine’s physical design, they changed the keyboard arrangement to slow down the typist. A design change would have required a costly production change.

Although today, keyboards don’t have metal arms, we still use the awkward Qwerty layout, and our brains still struggle with the key locations.

Clocks Don’t Flow

Focus is another tenet of productivity. There is no shortage of Apps and tricks to improve focus. One of the most popular is the Pomodoro Method.

The system involves working in twenty-five minute increments, followed by five minutes of “rest.” Each segment is called a Pomodoro. The goal is to track one’s output for each Pomodoro and use the information to improve focus and productivity.

Counter to this idea is the theory of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology or the study of happiness contends that our best, happiest moments are derived from actions or activities that create Flow. Flow is a state of mind where time becomes timeless. A period when the individual becomes so absorbed they lose awareness of time’s passing.

Writers understand this flow. It is that point where we fall into our story. When we can see it and when we are right there in it. Writing flow may take only a few moments on some days, hours on others and some, it eludes us completely. When Flows arrive, however, the last thing we want is tick tick tick DING—Times Up!

Considering the implications, one might wonder about the benefits of NaNoWriMo, which is just a very long Pomodoro. And leads to, however unconfirmed, some fudging on “when” much of those stories were actually wrote.

Being Rational a Terrible Story Makes

Productivity is not a bad thing. As a writer, you certainly want to produce books and stories. But creativity is a fickle mistress, she comes and goes as she pleases with no regards for deadlines or determinations.

A writer’s primary goal is not to produce, it is to create. For the fiction author, a rational process has only small places in the world of make believe.

It’s not to suggest a writer should not have a system if a system is what is required. But we don’t measure a story’s value by the number of pages; we measure it by the quality of work on each page.

4 comments

  1. This is so true and timely – – I knew the pomodoro style doesn’t work for me as a writer, because I need that flow. Once I’m in it, breaking it is the opposite of helpful. It may be a good way to get started on something you don’t really want to do (grading student papers comes to mind), because it’s less difficult to commit to a 20 or 25 minute span of those, but for drafting a novel? Not so much…

    Really interesting article, thank you!

    1. Grading papers lol. I really wish I could send apologies to all my teachers for some of the work I forced them to read and endure. Creative writing is such a different species, and I hate to consider two rules, but it does seem writers need “productivity” advice right up until the point where they begin writing lol. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Love this post, and wish I’d had it before I ate frogs and attempted to organize my desk.

    Though I’ve been writing since my early school days, I published for the first time six months ago. I took the NaNoWriMo challenge in 2015 and wanted to see my project through to completion – publishing – and I did.

    YAAY, me!

    By opening up a new world for myself to explore, I also opened several cans of worms.

    I don’t like worms.

    I knew I needed help with my writing and that whole branding/promoting/marketing headache. However, the last thing I should have done was gone to Google. The search returns were ri-damn-diculous! It seemed anyone who had ever held a book was ready to tell me how to write and sell one. I tried to follow ALL the rules on structure, systems, time management, and leveraging the twenty-four hours in a day. (What?)

    The only thing I accomplished was making myself crazy. So, I’ve “thrown out” everything…all the bells, whistles and buzzwords, and gone back to writing simply because I want to – with an ear and eye open for practical articles like this one.

    Common sense wins again. Thanks!

    1. Yep, a writer could make a career out of investigating the multiple levels of “how to.” My personal addiction is note taking apps lol. It may seem an oversimplification to say “all you need is pen and paper” and “all you need to do it write,” but in the end, those are the two best pieces of advice you’ll find. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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