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The Lonely Novelist’s Five-Point Productivity Plan

spectacles_books_pshrink.JPGI work entirely from home, and unless I make a concerted effort, I can go weeks without seeing other human beings face-to-face, save my wife (and soon my child). But because this weird lifestyle helps me remain prolific, I thought I’d share a few small habits that keep me keeping on.

I believe each of the following points may be applicable to the lifestyle and/or profession of anybody seeking to increase and maintain productivity, whether in the workplace or in some as-yet uncultivated personal or creative aspect of life. So even if you don’t stay at home alone everyday dreaming up characters and writing novels and short stories, take a look.

1. Wake Up Early (Engage the Process)

I get up every weekday at 6:45am. I make my wife’s lunch and see her off to work, then settle into my daily rhythm at the desk, amidst my books and papers. Now, most people have to rise and shine and be at the workplace by 7:30, 8:00, 9:00am, so this may not seem like news. But I include it because for me, waking up early is about more than the literal act of rising from bed in order to arrive at my desk “on time.” It’s about consciously putting my day before me, giving myself the time to envision its many possibilities, then easing into all that possibility with a sense of purpose and an awareness of each day as an incremental accomplishment on the way to a larger goal. The process is more important than the result; without the former there can be no latter.

2. Get Dressed & Put On Your Shoes (Establish a Ritual Act)

I never sit down at the desk without first changing out of my pajamas and slippers. For me, this outer preparation facilitates an inner one. I guess you could call it a ritual act. It helps me feel more focused or centered. Somehow it also validates or elevates my sense of the work I’m going to do. I arrive at the desk feeling put-together, more equal to the challenge, the seriousness, of what’s before me. “Look the part,” they say in the business world, meaning if you seek a high-powered executive job, you’d better arrive at the interview dressed like a high-powered executive. That’s one element of my meaning here, sure. But more importantly, I’m talking about establishing some active personal ritual, however simple, by which you prepare yourself, body and mind, for immersion into your work.

3. Use an “Isolation Booth” (Nurture Concentration)

There is no greater danger to productivity than distraction. I suspect this is true in many professions. And silence (sometimes soft music) is to the writer what a steady hand is to the surgeon. Concentration and productivity are symbiotic. I believe that the buzzword “multitasking” is merely a benign-sounding synonym for distraction. I’m a big proponent of mono-tasking, and for that very purpose I’ve set up a detached writing studio in my backyard. This studio is unprofaned by the telephone or Internet. It’s my sacrosanct creative space. All one really needs is a designated area, preferably shut off from everything about, where one may focus exclusively on a particular task.

4. Write Longhand (Go Analog)

The advantages of an analog working method are nearly countless. I usually write my first drafts on paper (I filled nine notebooks whilehandwriting_close_pshrink.JPG working on my last novel). Word processing programs are invaluable later in the writing process, but early on, the backspace key imperils productivity. I produce far more by opening a notebook than by switching on my laptop. Surrendering to the imperfection of the first draft, I escape writerly paralysis. On paper, there’s no “highlight and delete” function, hence no compulsive scrapping of text. Sentences, paragraphs, pages are allowed to accumulate in all their lovely inadequacy. A book takes shape this way, flawed at first, and later sculpted and refined. And I suspect that for all those insufficiencies of the early draft, I am a better writer on paper, because my thoughts move more slowly and each of my imaginings is allowed to deepen in that process. Nuances come to light that I might have missed altogether in the hurried tapping of a keyboard. As a bonus, paper productivity allows me to retain a visible record of all my deletions, in case I should later rethink my first impulses; i.e. ‘This sentence didn’t work in this particular place, but it will go nicely over there!’ Check out Tim’s preachments of the value of avoiding e-mail and turning off your computer.

5. Think Progress, Not Completion (Stay in the Rhythm)

Avoid overwhelming yourself with the magnitude of the task before you. Trust your process. Novelist E.L. Doctorow said:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

All one can do is orient oneself to the daily act. By putting one’s focus into each moment at hand rather than far out ahead at some hazy eventual destination, one does better and more meaningful work–or, to amend Doctorow’s analogy, one avoids crashing the car.

The Lonely Novelist’s Five Point Productivity Plan is simple, but it works for me. Allow me to cap it off with a favorite quote (which you may have seen in a previous post):

Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action. Avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction.

Here at Soul Shelter this Thursday, Tim will present a method for dealing with daunting tasks.

See also:

The Four-Letter Question for 2008: WIRU

Understanding the World Through the Thomas Theorem

Redefining Rejection

6 Comments to The Lonely Novelist’s Five-Point Productivity Plan

On Mar 10, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

Great post. I also work from home and find it important to establish ritual. I use much the same process that you outline, although I’m not a mono-tasker by any means.

The greatest thing about being self-employed is freedom, but that freedom can also be a serious drain on productivity. In the long run, though, I certainly wouldn’t trade it for a job I had to go to every day.

On Mar 10, 2008, NJR commented:

Thanks for the needed reminder. Point five really speaks to me.

On Mar 11, 2008, Mark commented:

Chris — Thanks for the comment. Good to hear from another stay-at-homer. I see from your website that you’re a serious traveler. You might find some relevance in a piece I posted a few weeks back: “The Value of Travel.” I wish you continued success in making the most of your freedom.

NJR — Ah yes, point five. It’s something I have to remind myself of every single day. Thanks for reading.


On Mar 11, 2008, Porter Hall commented:

This is a great post. I am especially taking to heart the advice about writing in longhand. I have always resisted that because I can write faster and more comfortably through typing. The problem I have is that, that you also mention, is that when I’m at the keyboard I can’t help but edit while I’m composing. I often try to get around this by typing with my eyes closed, but even then my fingers know where the backspace key is.

On Mar 11, 2008, Mark commented:

Porter Hall — Best wishes for many handwritten pages! ~Mark

On Mar 12, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

Hey Mark,

Thanks for the kind words about my new site. I should note that your own site has been a real inspiration for me. I really enjoy your perspective and look forward to some more great writing from you and Tim.

Take care,


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