Recently, several readers have asked me how I keep my productivity so high.
How do I get my writing done, build my author platform, and continue to fulfill all the other responsibilities I have as a husband, dad, business owner (and person)?
In this article, I’m going to explain in exact terms how I get a ton of work done each week in a very small amount of time.
Because despite a high level of output, I usually only work about 30 hours a week.
I’m going to give you specific advice on how you can accomplish a huge amount, even if you have limited time each week to work on your writing.
For a while now, I’ve had a full-time business to run that keeps me very busy.
When I first started writing, I knew that even though I didn’t have the constraints of a full-time job, I still had to figure out how to get my writing done while meeting the demands of the rest of my life.
Here’s the framework I created. You can use it to build your own productivity plan.
It’s a three-part system that’s simple and easy to use:
- The Mindset – You must get your thinking straight first.
- The Schedule – You have to figure out the when before the what.
- The Plan – You must decide what you’re going to get done, before you start working.
Each part is built upon the one before it, so read all of this information straight through to the end.
As with everything, we have to establish the right mindset before we can start talking about strategy and tactics.
Don’t skip this part. If you think you don’t need to read this section, then you should skip this entire article.
I have some basic productivity beliefs and habits that help me make decisions quickly — and stay sane in the face of a never-ending deluge of To-Do tasks:
1. Ruthlessly cut out all distractions and unproductive actions.
I can get more done in one 30-hour work week than most people get done in a month, because of how I work:
During my writing time, I’m hyper-focused and avoid distractions like the plague.
No social media. No emails. All chat programs turned off. I put on earphones, and put my phone in my bag.
I am ruthless on this point. You need to be too.
2. It’s more about what you don’t do.
There are lots of ways to be active and busy, but very few ways to be active and effective.
It’s extremely important that you learn the difference between busy and effective, and are honest with yourself about it.
Learn what actions are actually moving you toward your goals, and then only work on those items.
3. Figure out your values and goals ahead of time.
A good productivity system organizes only those actions that are built upon your values and goals.
If you don’t know why you’re doing something — finishing your manuscript, building your email list, landing guest posting opportunities, etc. — then you’ll constantly feel frustrated about your life as an author.
I’m going to ask you to do some hard work in this article, and unless you have a solid Why motivating you, you won’t be able to follow through.
4. Your productivity system should be simple.
While I can appreciate productivity systems such as Getting Things Done (GTD), most of them are too complicated to apply to real life.
All the successful people I know and work with have very simple systems for tracking their actions and getting things done.
5. I don’t try to be perfect, track everything, or keep everybody happy.
I receive anywhere from 100 to 150 emails a day.
Though I try respond to all of them, it’s inevitable that I’m going to miss an important email every now and again.
I’m also going to forget to do some things, not finish my To Do list for the day, and a commit a few other errors and losses.
I deal with my lack of perfection by accepting it ahead of time, giving myself grace and forgiveness, and moving on.
6. Don’t make excuses.
Some of the things I do, you might not be able to do, but don’t use that as an excuse.
Use your imagination, embrace the principles you can use, and apply them to your situation.
If you find yourself thinking:
“Yeah that’s great for him, but I can’t do that because __________________.”
STOP, capture that thought and turn it into:
“I can’t do that, but I could try _________________ instead.”
7. Ambiguity is the enemy of productivity.
My most unproductive times are when I sit down to work and don’t know what I should be working on.
This is when my time gets filled with checking email or reading blogs.
I do everything I can to ensure that every time I sit down to work, I know what I should be working on next, so I don’t waste time, frittering away my precious few hours of work time.
Once you have your mindset properly in place, you can move on to Part 2:
Your work schedule is the second most important thing to establish.
You must know exactly when you are going to work and what type of work you’ll be able to get done during those hours.
If you start each week “hoping” you’ll get some time to write, you’ll end each week having written far less than you could have.
Here’s a look at my weekly schedule:
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday
- 4:15 am: Awake and making coffee.
- 4:15 – 5:00 am: Reading/Prayer/Meditation
- 5:15 am: Get to my office (3.1 miles from my house).
- 5:15 – 8:45 am: Do creative work for the day such as writing, planning and online course content (more on that below). Other people don’t usually arrive at my office until 8:30 am, which leaves me with more than three hours of quiet, uninterrupted creative time.
- 8:45 am: Go back home.
- 9:00 – 11:30 am: Do homeschool with my two sons, Conner (9) and Max (6).
- 11:30 – 11:45 am: Pack up, get my workout clothes, kiss the family goodbye, and head back to the office.
- 12:00 – 4:15 pm: Back at my office. Focus on non-creative work: answering emails, making phone calls, and other “running a business” chores. If it’s not too busy and I can concentrate, I’ll try to get more creative work done, but it’s usually a stretch to manage that.
- 4:15 pm: Pack up, change into workout clothes, and leave for the gym (.5 miles from my office).
- 4:30 – 5:30 pm: Do CrossFit at my gym.
- 5:30 – 9:30 pm: Go home, shower, have dinner, have family time, go to bed.
This year my family joined a homeschool group, which threw a monkey wrench into my Tuesdays.
However, I re-worked my schedule to ensure it accommodated the homeschooling first (#3 in my Mindset principles: My kids are more important than my work) and still covered all the work bases.
- 4:15 am: Awake and making coffee.
- 4:15 – 5:00 am: Reading/Prayer/Meditation
- 5:00 – 7:00 am: Creative work at home.
- 7:00 – 8:30 am: Get the kids up and ready for homeschool group. Get myself ready.
- 8:30 am: Go to the office.
- 8:45 am – 12:30 pm: Focus on non-creative work: emails, phone calls, run-my-business tasks, creative work if possible.
- 12:30 pm: Pack up and drive to homeschool group for afternoon session with Conner.
- 1:00 – 3:00 pm: Homeschool group.
- 3:15pm: Leave for the gym. (Conner’s swim practice starts at 4:00 pm and, conveniently, is at the same gym as my CrossFit workout.)
- 3:30 – 4:15 pm: Get a bit of work done (usually email) while waiting for my 4:30 CrossFit class to start.
- 4:30 – 5:30 pm: Do CrossFit at my gym.
- 5:30 – 9:30 pm: Home, shower, dinner, family time, bed.
Friday – Sunday
No official work schedule.
I usually sleep in on Fridays to recover from lack of sleep Monday through Thursday. I hang out with the family and get house projects done.
I usually also get some work done (I’m writing the draft of this post on a Saturday afternoon while the boys play Wii), but Friday through Sunday is very fluid.
I never officially plan on getting anything done, so I won’t be disappointed if that happens.
The point of sharing all this? To demonstrate that as a writer, I live a very regimented life.
For the most part, every week looks exactly the same as the last.
This does a couple things for me:
- It makes it easier to plan. I know exactly how much creative time I have each week, which helps me know how much work I can get done in a week. If you don’t have your writing/creative time set in stone, it’s impossible to be consistent with it.
- It deletes on-the-spot decision-making. Decision fatigue is real. Having a set schedule, and a basic idea of what you’re working on for each hour of that schedule, keeps you from having to make a lot of decisions every day.
“What if I can’t follow a set schedule?”
I realize that not everyone can have such a regimented schedule. You might be a new parent, or at the whim of a very busy day job.
Not too long ago, that was me too.
So what can you do?
1. Get up early.
It’s amazing how few distractions there are at 4:30 am. No co-workers. No phone calls. No new emails.
Just you, a cup of coffee and the blank page.
For those of you moaning about getting up early in the morning: See #3 under Mindset.
If you have a vision for what you are trying to accomplish, you can get up to accomplish it.
I do not naturally wake up at 4:00 am. Every single morning, it’s a struggle.
But when that alarm goes off, I focus on my Why and force my feet to the floor.
2. Put a Writing Meeting on the calendar.
When I was trying to write Your First 1000 Copies, I struggled to find time to write.
I had a very busy client business and was averaging five hours a day on the phone. There seemed to be no time to write—until I started scheduling it into my calendar.
I would create a meeting on my calendar called “Writing.” This would block off that time so that nothing else could get in the way.
If someone asked to meet with me during that time, I would say I was busy, and would offer an alternate time.
That kept me from putting the writing off indefinitely.
3. Cut down your consumption. Think about how much time you spend consuming other people’s creativity (television, reading, music, movies), versus how much time you spend doing your own creating.
Scott Berkun talked about this at a conference I attended last year.
This topic is strongly related to productivity, and the talk is well worth watching:
Stop watching so much TV and go to bed (see Point #1).
Install the News Feed Eradicator so you’ll stop checking Facebook. Even better, delete the social media apps from your phone.
Stop consuming other people’s creativity (or social media drivel) and order your life around your creativity.
4. Create a “Do Not Do” list.
People are often surprised by the number of things I don’t do.
Here’s a short list of what I don’t spend time on:
- Facebook (except for a couple of groups I’m a member of)
- Twitter (except for responding to people who reach out to me)
- Instagram (except for posting pictures of my kids)
- Printing business cards. I don’t have any.
- Printing any other materials other than my book. No stationery, no bookmarks, etc. I’ve just never seen the ROI on these for what I do.
- Blogging more than once or twice a month
- Commenting on other people’s blogs
- Reading that many blogs in the first place
- Reading/watching any news outside of the particular industry news that’s relevant to my business goals
Your writing and creativity time is priceless. Don’t waste it on non-impactful work.
This part of the system is vital, whether or not you’re a full-time writer:
Plan out your work schedule ahead of time.
If you already have a full-time job that requires you to get up at 6:00 am, start turning off the television at 9:00 pm, so you can get up at 4:45 am and write the next morning.
And take your laptop to work so you can put your ear buds in and get another 750 words written at lunchtime.
If I called you on a Sunday night, you should be able to list out the days and hours each week when, barring a catastrophe, you butt will be on your writing chair.
The Plan is the third component in this system.
Now that you know when you are going to get work done, you have to figure out what work you will be filling that time with.
As I’ve stated above, it’s best to never sit down to work without first knowing what you are going to work on.
However, you have to start with the long view first.
Planning the next 3 to 6 months
This is my calendar: three calendar months, laid out right in front of me where I can see it every day.
I pre-plan every single blog post, email list send, and webinar, three months ahead of time.
What do you want to have written three to six months from now? How many words?
How many people do you want to add to your email list by then?
What are you going to do to make that happen?
Setting out my expectations for the next few months keeps me consistently moving on to the next step.
Planning the next week
Before I plan a week’s activities, I ask: What needs to get done this week so that I stay on my three-to-six-month schedule?
This is where I plan when to do my “big rocks” — so I can fulfill my greatest priorities.
Watch this video:
For example, this week I need to:
- Write two blog posts
- Outline a new course I’m building
- Put together a slide presentation I’m giving at a conference on Friday
Planning the next day
Now that I know the big things that have to be done this week — and I know when I’ll have creative time available to work on them — I can schedule each day.
Tomorrow, I’ll write the blog post and get started on my slideshow for my conference presentation on Friday.
I chose those two things because they have to be done so that I can keep to my three-to-six-month schedule.
I’ll save the product planning until later in the week, because if something happens and I can’t get to it, it won’t mean failure for my long-term plan.
I do this every single day.
Before I go to bed at night, I know what I’m going to work on first thing the next day (see #7 of Mindset).
By following this three-part system, you’ll make sure you’re using your precious creative time to get the most important work done.
When it all goes down in flames
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
– Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Even though I’ve laid out a solid, rigid plan above, of course it doesn’t always survive real life.
Your plan will not stay 100 percent intact.
Your kid is going to get sick. You’ll oversleep.
Your boss will make you stay late. Your editor will run two weeks late.
Or you will just plain feel unmotivated or discouraged and procrastinate your day away.
Here’s what I do when my plan starts unraveling:
- Give myself grace. It really is OK. It doesn’t make me a disgrace or failure. It doesn’t mean I’ll never succeed. It just means that, for today, my plan didn’t work out.
- Realize I’m still getting more done. While today may be a wreck, on a week-by-week, month-by-month basis, I’m still getting way more done with this system then I did in the past.
- Stop, readjust and start again. If I just lose an hour by oversleeping, I can usually catch up. But if I get the flu and am out for two days, I need to take a few minutes to pause, rework my plan, and then get back on my schedule.
Now is the time
You can do this.
If you’ve struggled in the past to get your writing done and move toward your goals, give this system a try.
As an added bonus, I’ve put together a free workbook along with a list of my favorite tools, apps and products I use to stay organized. You can download that here:
January 25, 2015