Build a Routine To Be More Productive

This post is a repost from my personal website from October 2018, expanded and rewritten. I thought it was an important topic to discuss here, not only between writers, but all kinds of artists.

Why Building a Routine?

I used to be a slow writer. It took me weeks to finish a single chapter. My longest story to date, a French fanfiction named Eternal Snow, took me 8 years to complete. I didn’t have a daily routine, I only wrote whenever I felt like it.

Fanfiction is a very competitive environment. If you don’t post a new chapter regularly, you risk losing your followers. My non-productivity was a problem, and it cost me a lot of readers before I understood that I needed to up my game.

There were other authors who published chapters every week. They had many more fans than I did, and it made me jealous. Why them, and not me? The obvious answer was that I was not prolific enough and that I needed to be more productive. Except that at the time, I thought that producing more meant that my writing would be less good. It was the eternal debate of quality vs quantity. These other authors were probably rushing, not correcting their typos or taking the time to build a great story.

Then I met some of these authors in real life, and I revised my judgment. They were not the kind of authors to rush or sell off the quality of their work. They were as dedicated as me to give a good result. The difference? Unlike me, they were writing every day.

So I tried. I wrote half an hour everyday, for a month. It didn’t feel like it was much. 500 words per day at the maximum. It was a bit frustrating because I didn’t move very fast in the story at that rate. However at the end of the month I had written 15000 words. Not bad! And these words were not rushed. They were good, at least by my standards at the time. This proved to me that it was possible to write fast, regularly and well.

Routine and Self-Doubt

I am a self-doubter and a terribly anxious writer. The longer I stay away from my current project, the more I doubt it. I have spent weeks paralysed by a project simply because I didn’t dare to go back to it. It was completely soul crushing! It feels like every day I have to convince my brain, or more accurately my “saboteur”, that this project is worth it, that it is good enough. When I don’t write, my brain takes it as a clue that I’m never going to make it. It might sound silly from the outside, but I know a lot of people in the same situation.

Building a habit of going back to the creativity every day helped in a sense that I didn’t let all these doubts accumulate for days or weeks, and made it much easier to fight them. To me, anxiety and doubts pile up like soil. One or two days, it’s just a mole hill, easy to climb. Leave it for weeks and it suddenly turns into a mountain, and I’m so overwhelmed that I don’t even start climbing it. Creating every day helps me never let this hill grow to the point where I can’t climb it.

It also helps when the outside world is depressing. When I used to have issues at my day job. I often said “today was horrible but at least I wrote XXX words”. That’s the balance I have found as a writer and it has helped me with my mental health.

How to Build a Routine Around Your Art

1. Schedule Your Sessions

Buy or print a planner, preferably one where you have enough space to write down all your activities. You can also use a blank sheet of paper and draw it yourself if that works for you.

Start by adding to the planner the activities that are fixed in your schedule: work, commute, sleep, appointments,… Then add the chores: cleaning, washing, cooking,… Next, add the “pleasure” things: time with friends and family, relaxing time, shopping,… Finally, look at what’s left blank on the planner. If there’s nothing left, shuffle things around and reduce the time spent on some activities. Try to free at least half an hour every other day. If you can do more, it’s even better!

The next step is to see if it feels natural for you to create during this free time. I think this is the most important step. Let’s say, for example: you are a morning person. You will probably not be able to write in the evening, no matter how much time you free then.

Next, test this system for several weeks. Refine it once you know exactly how much time some activities take you. Group the chores to be more efficient, and allow yourself to be more relaxed when you have a busy day.

What you focus on expands! With this system, I managed to expand my writing time for several days in a week, with all the chores and family time still there. Just probably less procrastination!

A note on this: I am very lucky that I don’t have any other obligations than my job and my family/friends. It might not be the case for you, and you might not be able to free a hour or two every day. Don’t put yourself down because of it! Even fifteen minutes can help (I certainly have weeks where it’s all I can free!). The important part is to find some time, and stick to it.

2. Make It a Habit

People think falsely that motivation is the key to creating a lot. From my own experience, I don’t think it is. Motivation helps you start a project, that’s true, but once the muddy middle is in sight, motivation usually scarpers away. Motivation alone cannot help you finish a book, a composition or a painting, and it can’t help you go back to it every day. No matter how much you love your current project, there will be days where Netflix is more appealing than your art.

So instead of trying to stay motivated for a project all along (which didn’t work), I built the writing into a habit. You need a cue that will put you in the mindset of your routine. For some it’s a time of the day, for others it’s a ritual like listening to a certain music or having a cup of coffee. Then you need a reward. Something that will prove to your brain that your routine is worth repeating.

Then you need to do this again and again and again until your brain  automatically repeat the routine without you having to choose it. You don’t “choose” to create that day at that time, you just “do” it because that’s what you do every day at the same time. I’m not going to lie, it took several trial and weeks of practice, but now it has become so automatic that I don’t question it. It takes more efforts NOT to write. It feels “wrong” to not do it.

If you are interested in this, there are several excellent books on building a habit. I recommend The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. It explains clearly how our brains build good and bad habits, the concept of willpower and how we can rewire ourselves to get things done. I found it useful because I like to understand how things work (I guess that’s the ex-Physicist in me!). 

In Conclusion

This is not the easiest thing to achieve, but creating almost every day has been a way for me to take my writing to the next level. I would not have finished The Part-Time Artist otherwise, and I would certainly not be brave enough to write this blog. It takes a little bit of time to establish a working routine,

Give it a try, even if you can only do it for a very short period of time at first. And let me know how you get on!