Before I begin, let me be very clear: I have not mastered this. Over the last year, I have however worked very hard to try and increase my productivity by figuring out what works best for me. I’ve not worked out the key to applying them all at the same time (wow – could you imagine that?!) but across a period of time, in any number of combinations, these different practices / approaches have helped me to increase my productivity.
I started really thinking about this following the publication of ‘Dancing Through Fire.’ As I threw myself into writing book 2, I quickly discovered that when you’re working full time in a busy job with a fair amount of day-to-day stresses, time and energy for writing soon disappears. I was hitting the mid-afternoon slump, just as the school day finished (for the kids anyway) and so my productivity was crashing. As a result I’d get home, be too exhausted to think about the book, let alone write it, and by the time I’d perked up I’d have to pick up on whatever was left over from the school day. Something had to shift, in fact many things did.
I’m sharing the following changes in thinking and lifestyle I’ve made so that if you’re in the same place, struggling to get the best out of yourself and to make the most of the hours you have in each day, you can maybe find something here to help.
1. Diet and exercise
I quit sugar over eight months ago. A month after quitting sugar I quit carbs, adopting a keto diet approach to eating. This has been the single most significant change in my lifestyle to increase my productivity – it has balanced my hunger, my sugar levels, my mood and my energy, meaning I no longer get the mid-afternoon slump and I have the mental and physical energy to be significantly more productive in all areas of my life. It can be a controversial diet but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. As a lifestyle it promotes sensible exercise too – long walks in the fresh air, occasional bursts of high energy activity, cycling and so on. If it doesn’t suit your body type, find the diet and exercise regime which does. It’s basic self-care and it can make all the difference to how well we function.
Seems straight forward enough but how much do you really get? I’m up at 6 am every day so I aim to be asleep by 11 pm each night to give me optimum performance the next day. Anything less and I start to suffer, particularly if it goes on for a few nights. That extra episode of Criminal Minds just isn’t worth 50 minutes less sleep…
Easy said, I know. I struggle with this too. What I’ve learned is this – if your idea of relaxing is sitting on the couch for a couple of hours watching back to back Criminal Minds then do it. If you relax by walking your dog and listening to music, or going for a run then do it. It’s not what other people tell you to do that matters, it’s what physically and mentally relaxes you. We all need to do it, especially the people who tell you they don’t.
Mmhh… I think it’s fair to say we all have our highs and lows on this front. I’m more self-disciplined when I compartmentalise my time and chunk my tasks – it makes things more achievable. I’ve discovered that being self-disciplined means having clear boundaries, particularly around self-care. Eat your lunch, no skipping. Take five minutes, behind a closed door if need be, just to breathe and bring your shoulders down from your ears so you can get on with what you have to do. Self-discipline = self-care in many ways. Be firm with yourself so you can create the conditions for getting things done.
5. Know yourself
I’m not talking about a conceited kind of self-interest, I’m talking about knowing when you’re at your best for certain things. I’m at my best first thing in the day for writing. I know this and so I work round this when I can. I’m getting better at knowing when I’m going off track and what I need to do to fix it: have a 10 minute nap, make a cup of tea, eat something etc . It’s not about working in a prescriptive way, following generic guidelines – what works best for you will be very different from the person next to you. You know you best.
Linked to the next point about mindfulness, hobbies are essential for switching the brain off and focusing on something altogether different from the day to day thoughts which occupy your mind. What do you love to do? What activities make you forget time? For me, reading, gardening, photography, cooking / baking can all do these things. Doing something creative, tapping into that bit of ourselves, also has a wonderful way of spilling over into other areas of our lives and enriching them, for example our day to day work. Here’s a link to an old post I wrote about why writers need hobbies: https://calexandrabooks.com/2018/03/12/why-writers-need-hobbies/
When I’ve mastered point 4 myself, I’ll be making time for this every day. I’d thoroughly recommend the Headspace app if you’re a beginner – it offers 3 minute sessions which anyone can do. The best thing about meditation? You clear your mind, slow your thoughts down, and create space for your head to get to work. I can’t tell you how many times, post-meditation, the answer I’ve been looking for pops into my head.
8. Motivational quotes
Not cheesy at all. The right quote can find you at the right time, powering you on to finish a difficult task or stay focused on what matters. I personally look for quotes from writers who I admire and who talk good sense about their craft. It inspires me.
9. Spend time with the people who matter
Let’s be blunt. The people who can be the biggest drain on our energies and therefore our productivity levels generally aren’t the people who matter most to us. I need time with the people I love to re-charge me, to ground me and to remind me what really matters. My family is everything to me. Time spent with them does more to energise and motivate me than anything else. Love matters.
10. How much do you want it?
This is the question I ask myself every day. I have it typed out on a piece of paper and blu-tac’d to my computer to remind me. If I don’t want it that much, enough to sacrifice other things and prioritise my life around it, then I’m wasting my time. If I really, really want it, then I know what I need to do…