There are all sorts of tricks people try to be more productive. When it comes to creative productivity, however, things are tougher.
In 2016, I decided to double down on being a writer (admittedly, an odd goal for someone who’s already a best-selling author). By using my mental energy wisely, I was able to quadruple my creative output in 2016.
Here is a graph of my creative output in 2016, versus 2015.
Yes, I agree, word count is a blunt metric for measuring creative output. But, these are words published, which means they at least passed my standards for publishable work.
I had my most successful year as a writer since debuting my first book in the top 20 on Amazon five years ago. In addition to publishing more than ever, my writing appeared in Observer, Quartz, Inc.com, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Upworthy. I did a Quora Session, and was listed as a top storyteller on Medium.
May was my most successful month on Medium, with over 130,000 views. I grew my Medium following from about 7,000 to over 18,000 over the course of the year.
Here’s that word count graph again, for the sake of some notes.
- Notice the low output in Q1 2016. I spent this entire time writing a 16,000-word book proposal, which was then rejected. This word count could very well be included—but it’s not.
- Notice the low output through summer 2016. That’s because I was in the US. I returned for several weeks to sell my stuff and move to Colombia.
- None of this includes comments, Quora answers (except those syndicated to other publications), emails to my lists, nor podcast show notes. I did include the email course I developed in 2015.
- I published a podcast episode weekly in 2016, with guests like James Altucher, Dan Ariely, and Ryan Holiday, so that’s a massive amount of creative output not accounted for.
So, how did I quadruple my creative output in 2016?
- Disconnecting from technology: My most valuable mindset shift for 2016 was the realization that everyone wants a piece of your attention. They don’t care whether it’s good for you, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it. I went as far as shocking myself to gain control of my Facebook habit. I then hijacked that habit with good habits. I also did lots of writing on a portable word processor, to avoid distractions, and strengthen my focus.
- Building the habit first: To keep myself unhooked from distracting technology, I had to build creative habits that were more appealing than being distracted. I started very small. For example, when working on my book proposal, I committed to the first hour of each day. I then built a habit of writing and publishing a short Medium article every day. Building a creative habit protected me when my brain was most vulnerable, and eliminated decision fatigue.
- Redesigning my world: I arranged my digital and physical life to maximize focus, and minimize distraction. I rearranged the icons on my phone (which I kept in silent mode, and rarely checked before noon). I started living in a furnished apartment. I went minimalist and moved to a foreign country where advertising and FOMO wouldn’t interfere with my focus. During my creative time, I faced a blank wall, with earplugs in my ears.
- Following a weekly routine, not a daily routine: I arranged my weekly schedule according to the mental demands of my work, and how those mental demands matched with my energy rhythms. Mornings were prime creative time, evenings were exploratory reading time. I published podcast episodes on Thursdays to keep my Mondays and Tuesdays open—which were my prime creative times. As the week wore on, I attended to the petty demands of running my business, without wasting my best creative energy.
Really, I was initially skeptical about the creative habits portion of this experiment. I worried it would reduce the quality of my thinking and writing, for the sake of vanity metrics.
I still think there’s a danger of this, if creative habits are overstressed. That’s why it’s important to give attention to the other components of creative work.
Part of what made this such a successful experiment for me was that I tend to be very cautious about publishing. I had a huge backlog of ideas and thoughts that I had never gotten around to writing. My vision of what they could be got in the way of getting started.
But now I’ve learned to face my fears, and publish. There’s something powerful about knowing that there’s always tomorrow to write more. It keeps you from treating your ideas like caged birds—so that they never learn to fly.
There will always be a portion of my work that is done slowly and meticulously, with long incubation periods in between. But, having a system for creative productivity helps me produce the raw materials for better-considered, more slowly-delivered work.
Contrary to my fears, my subjective view of the quality of my thinking and writing has improved. The views, recommends, highlights, and inclusion of my work in other publications support this. I can write better, more lucid prose, faster, because I’m practicing every day. Making a habit of shipping has increased my output, while lowering the cognitive overhead of making work happen.
So, this is something for you to consider as you enter 2017: Are you holding back on your creative output? Worse yet, is someone else hijacking your attention, preventing you from reaching your creative potential? Start small with healthy creative habits, keep distractions at bay, and work with the ebbs and flows of your energy. Maybe 2017 will be your best year yet.
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