Don’t B.S. Yourself: You Know Exactly How to Produce Your Best Work
You know yourself better than anybody else. Stop searching for some magical insight that will finally make everything ‘crystal clear’. Your self-understanding and a will to execute are all you need to succeed.
To avoid any confusion: I’m writing these words as much for myself — in response to my own aspirations as a writer — as I am for any other writer or other type of freelancer who might happen to read them.
My goal for this article is to convey the following idea:
Each one of us is our own best judge of what helps versus what hurts our ability to produce our best work. If we cut the B.S. by being fully honest with ourselves and by acting on that insight, we’ll start seeing the success we claim to want so bad.
No shaming, no bashing specific workflows or habits, and no preaching about ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ when it comes to writing — just a challenge to finally accept and embrace what you already know to be true and to start doing what needs to be done in order to succeed.
(Although I wrote this piece with writers in mind, the ideas I explore below apply to virtually every kind of freelancer.)
The Fruitless Search for the ‘Secret’ to Success
If you’re a writer on Medium, you likely spend a fair amount of time reading content that, in one way or another, offers advice on how to refine and become more successful in your craft by utilizing this or that specific technique or strategy.
I have nothing against the publishing or reading of this type of content.
After all, I’ve put out many thousands of words on writing tips myself, and I’ll continue to do so — not only because I want to help other writers improve their skills to the extent that I can but also because writing and editing are a major part of my professional life.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that for a variety of reasons, including:
- The plethora of ‘how to’ content accessible today;
- The ‘I am a writer, damn it!’ syndrome from which many of us suffer; and
- The tendency to look outward rather than inward when we doubt ourselves…
…it’s all too easy to become convinced that the secret to achieving success as a writer is ‘just around the corner’:
If only we were to read one more blog post or receive advice from one more accomplished writer, we’d finally discover what we’re doing wrong in our writing, why we aren’t satisfied with our work, why others don’t show us the recognition we believe we deserve, and why we struggle to ‘make the next move’ in our careers. Here’s the thing: there’s no piece of magical advice — no technique, no ‘hack’ — that will finally make everything ‘click’ for you. Why? Because you already know what you need to do. You just have to embrace it and start putting it into practice.
I’m not talking about the technical expertise you lack or the business connections you haven’t formed or the professional experience you have yet to acquire.
I’m talking about the day-to-day decisions you make that either support or interrupt your capacity to produce your best work.
Let’s get specific.
No More B.S.: You Know How to Perform at Your Best
Whether or not you’re the introspective type, you know when you’re at your best and when you’re not.
Whether it’s physical—well rested versus tired, energetic versus achey, relaxed versus ‘tight’ — or intellectual and emotional — clear-headed versus ‘foggy’, focused versus distracted, inspired versus hopeless — you don’t need anybody else to tell you if you’re currently in your optimal state of thinking, feeling, or working.
Medical conditions and other such issues aside, you also don’t need any help figuring out what sets you on a path of productivity and efficiency.
If you’re honest with yourself, you can easily list half a dozen or more decisions you make in a given 24-hour period that positively or negatively affect the quality and efficiency of your work.
For example, the following four dynamics reliably shape the character and ‘flow’ of my own writing experiences and the quality of my writing output.
1. The amount of sleep I get
By far, this is the number one thing that impacts whether, and if so then how well, I write on a given day.
In short, I’m a different person when I don’t get enough sleep than when I do.
Some folks are able to survive and thrive on four of five hours of sleep per night—though likely not as well as they’d do if they were to get more sleep — but this absolutely isn’t the case for me.
Personally, the difference between five or six hours of sleep and seven or eight hours is that between experiences of depression, anger, hopelessness, selfishness, and rash choices on the one hand and of inspiration, kindness, methodical thinking, optimism, and patience on the other.
When I’m sleep deprived I either don’t write at all or, if I do, the quality of my writing noticeably suffers: I struggle to concentrate, to form coherent sentences, to carefully think through and form arguments, and to stay motivated.
If there’s one decision I can make on a daily basis to improve my chances of feeling well and thinking clearly, it’s getting to bed early and ensuring that I get a solid eight to eight-and-a-half hours of sleep.
Is this always possible? No, of course not: life happens.
My responsibility, though, is to make the right choice when I do have control over my sleep, which is far more often than not.
2. The kind of food I eat
I have a rather sensitive stomach: I know what I should eat and what I should avoid.
Essentially, heavy carbs like pastas and breads as well as nuts tend not to agree with my system.
If I eat these sorts of food today, it’s likely I won’t feel physically optimal tomorrow.
I’ll feel sluggish, ‘heavy’, ‘run down’, and lethargic as opposed to ‘light’, agile, and settled.
If I eat a massive sandwich, pizza, or the like as I’m trying to write, it’s game over, so to speak: 30 to 60 minutes after eating I’ll fall asleep at my desk and then have little desire to work once I wake up.
I work better when I eat healthy food than when I eat crappy food — it’s as simple as that.
3. The environment in which I work
This is a ‘no-brainer’ for me.
Given all the time I’ve spent studying in/for school, I know exactly the kinds of environments in which I can and cannot read and write effectively.
I excel — i.e., find it easy to focus and to work long hours — in:
- Quiet places;
- Environments with as few distractions as possible;
- Loosely populated areas (preferably, completely empty areas); and
- Places where others, if they’re present, are also quietly engaged in work-related activities.
This makes my home office, silent libraries, study rooms where I can be alone, and relatives’ or friends’ houses/apartments that are empty during the days ideal locations in which to work.
I struggle — i.e., find it very difficult to concentrate and to work for more than a few minutes at a time — in:
- Loud spots;
- Unpredictable environments that are prone to distractions;
- Densely populated places; and
- Areas where people are noisily engaged in non-work-related activities.
This makes coffee shops, restaurants, malls, rowdy libraries, shared workspaces, and houses/apartments that are full of people unattractive spots at which to work — at least for me.
I need distraction-free calm and silence in order to think clearly, write coherently, and feel at ease whilst working.
Others seem to thrive in fast-paced environments where the chatter and movement of nearby people function as ‘background noise’ helping to promote deep focus and efficiency — honestly, I have no clue how people manage to work in such spaces.
Fortunately, where I work is a factor over which I can usually exercise direct influence and so I’m able — most of the time at least — to set myself up in quiet environments that are conducive to my writing.
4. The things on which I focus during the first few hours of the day
After many years of working from home, I’ve developed a rather keen understanding of just how powerful my mindset upon waking and during the first few hours of my day is to my attitude and my productivity over the next 12–16 hours.
I believe that exposure to certain kinds of experiences, ideas, and/or images shortly after waking can either ‘poison’ or ‘protect’ a person’s emotional and intellectual state for the rest of the day.
If, for example, I wake up and proceed to engage in one or more of the following activities, I find that I’m much more likely to feel a range of negative emotions — from anxiety and depression to fear and anger — throughout the day than if I avoid such practices:
- Checking, and especially engaging with, social media (Instagram, Twitter);
- Using the computer (e.g., checking stock prices, watching YouTube videos, etc.);
- Watching/Listening to the news; and
- Listening to controversial or emotionally ‘heavy’ podcast episodes.
Participating in these activities makes me prone to feeling ‘on edge’, pessimistic, and/or worried about the future.
I then bring all these negative emotions and thought patterns to my writing and, expectedly, I have trouble concentrating, maintaining a positive attitude, and writing with passion and optimism.
Conversely, if I avoid the above mentioned activities and instead participate in the following sorts of practices early in the morning, I tend to experience many more positive emotional and psychological states — such as appreciation, compassion, confidence, hope, and inspiration:
- Stretching, yoga, and deep-breathing meditation;
- Reading a book;
- Listening to a light-hearted podcast programme;
- Patiently (mindfully) cooking and eating breakfast; and
- Taking a moment to look at the sunrise.
Engaging in these activities helps me to feel a sense of calm, gratefulness, and optimism for the future.
When I bring these sensations to my writing, I find that I am more productive, more ‘open’ to alternative ideas and possibilities, less rushed, less tense, and more ‘centred’.
In this state, the act of writing is a much more enjoyable experience; I feel less ‘weighed down’ by the pressures of the world that exist beyond my keyboard and computer screen.
These four dynamics — sleep, food, environment, and morning routine — significantly impact how I think, feel, experience the world, and approach my own writing.
I know that if I consistently make the right decisions concerning these four aspects of my life, I can create the circumstances within which to produce my best writing and to be proud of my accomplishments once I’ve finished tapping away on the keyboard.
Yes, unexpected occurrences can and often do derail my intentions and routines, undoing much of this hard work.
However, when such situations arise and I’m forced to put my writing on hold, I’m able to take comfort in the fact that my creativity was interrupted because ‘life got in the way’ — not because I was lazy, undisciplined, or unfocused.
You, too, know exactly what you must do in order to create the circumstances within which to produce your best writing.
Make a List of Your Own Destructive Choices — Do It Now
If you’re feeling self-conscious about your writing abilities and/or the level of success you’ve achieved thus far, I can nearly guarantee you that you’re not going to find the answer to your doubts in some yet-to-be-discovered blog post.
Or, if you do somehow manage to find the Holy Grail of writing secrets, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the knowledge you come across if you don’t first cut the B.S. by honestly asking yourself the following question:
What decisions am I making on a daily basis that are preventing me from being physically, emotionally, and intellectually prepared to produce my best work?
Make a list of these decisions right now.
Don’t risk forgetting about it by telling yourself you’ll do it later; take a few minutes now to compile the list.
Jot down everything that interferes with your ability to be productive in your writing and over which you can exercise some degree of control.
There are some things, many things probably, that hamper your writing but that you can’t influence — such as whether you have to take care of your children, work long hours at your day job(s), manage one or more chronic health issues, share a flat with one or more people, eat less-than-nutritious food because of budgetary constraints, etc.
These are not the kinds of factors to which I’m referring here.
Yes, they are crucial dynamics that need to be addressed or ameliorated in some way, but that’s not the purpose of this exercise.
Instead, I want you to be ruthlessly honest with yourself by taking responsibility for the things that you can influence but have been neglecting up to this point.
What habits are you engaging in that are preventing you from being as a productive, clear headed, dedicated, and efficient as you can be?
What choices are you making that are interfering with your capacity to write as much and as well as you can?
Make a list and then come up with a plan for how you will start capitalizing on your own self-understanding, i.e., on the personal knowledge you have of how you can set yourself up for success.
Going to bed too late? Force yourself to get to sleep an hour or two earlier each day.
Letting your friends ‘pressure’ you into ‘working’ with them at the library? Figure out how to politely tell them you’ll be working on your own next time.
Struggling to get work done because you ‘can’t stop’ using the Internet? Install and use a program like this, this, this, this, or this. Or physically place your modem in a different room than your office, and unplug the modem from the wall whilst you work.
You get the picture, right?
- Identify the bad decisions;
- Create concrete plans to stop making such decisions;
- Execute the plans.
Remind yourself that more of your life is under your control than you might be allowing yourself to believe, and take action.
Here’s the takeaway point:
No matter how sincerely you want to succeed, I can almost guarantee that you’re making one or more decisions on a daily basis that, one, are needlessly interfering with your productivity and, two, you have the power to change. Every one of us, myself included, makes destructive choices that we owe it to ourselves to confront. I challenge you to identify as many of these choices as you can and to begin taking immediate action to undo the harm they cause. Start today — don’t wait any longer.