I’m a productivity nerd – nothing delights me more than a how-to guide on getting organised and getting things done. Over the years I’ve gathered a collection of titles that have inspired me to start writing, helped me deal with distraction, and offered advice on building a regular writing habit. Here’s my selection of those that made a difference.
This classic productivity book was written in 2001 and has organised a generation of business people. Affectionately called GTD it has spawned many imitators and new systems like ’43 folders’.
Although the book is primarily about managing an overwhelming workload there are tactics that writers can use in their writing.
Get it all out of your head
This approach to collection can help writers get into the habit of gathering new ideas, edits and rewrite notes. By putting ideas into a ‘tickler’ file writers can get organised and – more importantly – stop getting distracted by shiny new thoughts when there’s work in progress that needs finishing.
Function often follows form
Allen has a section on thinking tools and writing instruments with advice for keeping notepads around the house. He says: “Give yourself a context for capturing thoughts and thoughts will occur that you don’t yet know you have.” Also having a cool looking pen does wonders for inspiration.
Creating the option of doing
This basically means get started. Allen uses a quote by Mark Twain to illustrate this: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Rather than focus on the complexity of plotting a complete novel, ask yourself what’s the next action I have to do to contribute to that task.
In short: Getting organised frees your mind to create.
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Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind edited by Jocelyn K. Glei with a Foreword by Scott Belsky, founder of creative community Behance and brought to you by the inspiring types at 99U who provide insights on making ideas happen.
These next two were written with the academic writer in mind but are crammed full of practical advice that bloggers, creative and non-fiction writers can benefit from. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J Silva and The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books by Eviatar Zerubavel.
The founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) distils years of running the annual writing sprint into a 50,000 word book (hitting the NaNoWriMo word count target). He outlines four lessons that we should all take notice of:
1. Enlightenment is overrated.
2. Being busy is good for your writing.
3. Plot happens.
4. Writing for its own sake has surprising rewards.
Divided into two halves the first section deals with planning and preparation – Baty highlights the importance of coffee, scheduling, not over planning and tips to get your loved ones onside. Section two is a week by week overview to ‘bashing out your book’.
Basically, Baty believes that all you need to write a book is a deadline, he says a deadline is “optimism in its most ass-kicking form”. Successful writing is presented as an attitude and his energetic good humour provides a snappy can-do riposte to procrastination.
In short: Write the damn thing and have a jolly good time to boot.
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If a month is too short, why not take it easy and stretch your novel writing over 12 months? Read A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist by Louise Doughty. Once you’ve mastered novels it’s time to branch out to other writing with the expert How to Write Everything by David Quantick.
In comparison to Baty’s short-term tactic to writing Cameron’s 12-week course takes a holistic approach to integrating creativity into your everyday life – for the rest of your life. She outlines ten basic principles such as, “Creativity is the natural order of life,” and “The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature.”
Cameron’s spiritual slant to engaging the ‘Great Creator’ to free latent creativity might not be to everyone’s taste. Regardless of whether you agree with her style, she offers tools that have helped artists and writers for over twenty years. The two pivotal ones being:
The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. They are simply three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done immediately on waking, every day.
The artist’s date is a weekly block of time set aside to nurture creative consciousness. It has to be time alone, such as a solitary walk to watch the sun rise, listening to music or even going bowling.
The workbook outlines a week by week set of activities, tasks and reflections. To commit to these practices Cameron suggests signing a creativity contract.
In short: Get in touch with your inner artist to realise your creative dreams.
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The original morning pages habit came from the 1934 classic Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. If you’d prefer a kick in the pants to a spiritual awakening read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win your Inner Creative Battles by straight talking Steven Pressfield.
Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors by Celia Blue Johnson
Johnson takes us on a tour – and detour – through the literary landscape visiting writers’ homes where we find Agatha Christie munching apples in her bath while she considers plot, watch Colette pick fleas from her pets, and avert our gaze from Victor Hugo who hid all his clothes until he finished writing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Johnson’s guide to the superstitions, habits and quirks of famous writers balances the tendency for self-mythologizing with rigorous research from multiple sources. Johnson puts details like the description of Maya Angelou’s workspace – “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible” – within the full scope of a writer’s career elevating it from writerly tittle-tattle.
The practical details of schedules, word count goals, and productive habits such as John Le Carre’s writing commute are fascinating. You may be tempted to adopt some of the practices but Johnson warns us the “chances are you still won’t invoke genius”. So sit back and enjoy the gems and boost your literary gossip.
In short: Writers’ quirks are as fantastical as their writing.
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Published before Odd Type Writers Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a Who’s Who of creative habits and includes artists, composers, filmmakers alongside writers, poets and playwrights.
If biography is your thing there’s no substitute for the Paris Review Interviews. Started in 1953 this canonical series allows writers to discuss their writing life in their own terms and contains unparalleled insights into the greatest literary minds.
After conquering happiness in her last book Rubin turns her attention to self-improvement by exploring how we change our habits. Rather than share the habits of productive creative people she urges us to get to know ourselves and choose strategies that work for us as individuals.
Rubin develops a framework called the ‘Four Tendencies’ that categorises people by how they respond to expectations – outer ones like deadlines or inner ones like New Year’s resolutions.
- Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
- Questioners question all expectations; will meet an expectation only if they believe it is justified.
- Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
- Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner.
Tens of thousands of people have taken the Four tendencies survey and I urge you to do so. If you hadn’t guessed already from my own quest for productive habits and this glance at my bookshelf that I’m an upholder.
Rubin, a fellow upholder, offers advice on foundation habits, namely:
- Eat and drink right
She explains the principles of good habits by sharing research and homespun wisdom on tactics like scheduling, monitoring, accountability and reward. She wears her intelligence lightly and the book is a delight to read, peppered with quotes and anecdotes. In this guide to getting to know yourself you come to care about Rubin’s family and friends and their struggles with habits.
In short: Self-knowledge is the first step to becoming a better version of yourself.
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Get in the habit of habits with theses accessible academics: The Power of Habit: Why we do what do and how to change by Charles Duhigg; Making Habits – Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes that Stick by Jeremy Dean; and Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney.
What productivity delights have I missed?
My bookshelves are heaving with books on the psychology of habits, self-help productivity guides, and writers’ biographies. I tried hard to keep the list short and only recommend those I’ve read and which had an impact on my life and writing. What delights have I missed? What are your top productivity books? What inspires you to start and keep writing? Comment below or tweet us at @beprolifiko @eva_bec
Bec Evans is a co-founder of Prolifiko a digital productivity coach which uses a research-backed productivity system to encourage writers to start and stick at their writing projects. She writes, works in publishing innovation, and was highly commended digital achiever in the Bookseller’s Futurebook 2016 awards.