I used to be a time management enthusiast. I say “used to be,” because time management eventually stopped working for me.
How I became an accidental author
It all started with an email. It was the kind of email that would trip up most spam filters. I wasn’t being offered millions of dollars from an offshore bank account, true love, nor improved performance in bed. I was being offered a book deal.
I had never thought of myself as a writer. In fact, I downright hated writing as a kid. I remember reading about how Stephen King said that when he was a kid, he was “on fire” to write. I remember saying to myself, That makes no sense! Who on Earth would enjoy writing?
I had never thought of myself as a writer, but I had fantasized about being an author. I guess that means I didn’t think so much about writing, but I liked the idea of having written.
As I considered taking this book deal, I talked to everyone I knew who had written a book. They all warned me that writing a book is extremely hard work, with little chance of success. One author simply said, You’ll want to die!
But, I figured, how hard can it be? So, I signed my first literary contract.
How I tried to write a book, when I didn’t know how to write a book
I didn’t have any idea how to write a book, so I did it the only way I could think of: through brute force time management. I simply needed to find enough time to write this book.
So, I used every time management technique I could think of. I put writing sessions on my calendar. I developed a morning routine that would get me writing first thing in the morning. I “time boxed” to try to limit the time I would spend on parts of the project. I fired my clients, I outsourced my meal preparation, I cancelled dates and turned down party invitations. I did everything I could to focus all of my time on writing my book.
But it still wasn’t enough. I spent most of my day hunched over a keyboard. I felt actual physical pain in my stomach. It felt as if rigor mortis had taken over my fingers, as I struggled to write even a single sentence.
Sure, I had the time to write my book, but I wasn’t getting anything done.
“Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.” —Constantin Brancusi
My case of writers’ block was so bad that, a few weeks after signing my book deal, I accepted a last-minute invitation to go on a retreat to Costa Rica. With a signed contract in my file drawer and a deadline breathing down my neck, it wasn’t the most logical thing to do with my time. But I desperately hoped that a change of scenery would work some kind of magic on my writer’s block.
But a few days into the trip, I still had nothing. Zero! Zilch! My contract said that if I didn’t have my manuscript twenty-five percent done within a few weeks, the deal was off. So, unless a miracle happened, I would write a check to the publisher to return my advance, and I would humiliatingly face my friends, family, and readers to tell them I had failed.
Does that sound like a lot of pressure? It was.
The chance encounter that changed the way I thought about writing productivity
I wanted to feel sorry for myself, by myself, so I went for a walk. I was dragging my feet down the gravel road in Costa Rica, with my head hung down. How could I be so foolish?, I asked myself.
Not only had I signed a contract to write a 50,000-word book, with little writing experience under my belt, I had wasted time and money going on this retreat.
Just then, I heard someone call out. I looked up, and saw a man on the next road over waving big in my direction, with his entire arm, ¡¿Como estááááás?!
I had noticed this man earlier in my walk. He was gripping onto the simple wires of a fence, leaning back in ecstasy, singing to himself. I had felt vaguely embarrassed for him, assuming he didn’t know someone else was around.
I looked behind me, trying to figure out who he was waving at. But there was no one. He was waving at me.
I hesitated. What could he possibly want? I had just passed a fork in the road, and the man was on the other side of the fork. I didn’t want to backtrack. I wanted to get back to the house and make one more attempt at writing. But, I was beginning to feel rude for ignoring the man’s friendly invitation. So, I reluctantly walked over to the man, trying my best to fake enthusiasm.
What followed was the first conversation I ever had entirely in Spanish. Though, I’m using the word “conversation” loosely. The man, Diego was his name, taught me the words for the beach, the rain, the sea and the sun. Mostly, we pointed at things, and he would say the word in Spanish.
My conversation with Diego was refreshing. I was used to everyone ignoring one another on the streets of Chicago, yet here was a guy who wanted to talk to someone on another road entirely, about nothing in particular.
My first breakthrough in writing my book
I was in such a relaxed state that, after bidding Diego farewell, a few minutes passed before I realized I was going the wrong way. I had continued down Diego’s side of the fork in the road. At first, I panicked at the prospect of getting lost in a foreign land. But then I shrugged it off and continued down the road. It turned out I got back to the house just fine anyway.
Between my conversation with Diego, and the pep talk Noah Kagan gave me the day before — as described in my book, The Heart to Start — I felt as if I had turned over a new leaf.
I set up my laptop on a desk on the interior balcony of the house. There, overlooking the sapphire blue Pacific Ocean, I had my first breakthrough writing session. By the end of an hour, I had most of a chapter drafted. It seemed as if I might make my deadline after all.
Throughout writing that first book, I still got stuck all of the time. But, I had discovered a different way of getting things done.
Writing a book is not about time management
It was clear that creative work wasn’t so much a matter of time. After all, I was still spending most of my day banging my head against a wall. But, every once in awhile, writing would come easily. The pain in my stomach would subside, the rigor mortis in my fingers would dissolve, and, suddenly, I’d be writing. Sometimes I did an entire day’s writing in only fifteen minutes.
Why can’t I do that fifteen minutes of writing, then get on with my day?, I asked myself.
That random conversation on that Costa Rican road became the seed of an idea that would eventually drive me to sell everything I owned, and move to South America.
Throughout writing my first book, patterns started to emerge. At first, when writing came easily, it seemed to be a random occurrence. Over time, I realized it wasn’t random at all.
There were certain conditions that had to be met for writing to come easily. Most of all, I realized that, in order to write easily, I had to be in the right mental state.
As the great sculptor Constantin Brancusi said, “Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.”
Writing a book is about mind management
Creative productivity isn’t about having enough time to do the work. It’s not about typing faster, so you can type more words in less time. It’s not about shoehorning as much work as possible into every sliver of time available.
Like planting a seed in nutrient-rich soil, and feeding it the water and sunlight it needs in order to grow, creative productivity is about creating the conditions within your mind to have valuable thoughts. Creative productivity isn’t about time management, it’s about mind management.
I share the lesson I learned writing my first book in my latest book, Mind Management, Not Time Management.
This article first appeared on kadavy.net.