How to improve your writing — and your life

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A simple strategy like time-blocking can make a huge difference to your writing productivity — and to your ongoing happiness…

Did my headline get your attention? If so, you may be wondering about the connection between better writing and better living. 

I’m also sure you’ve already guessed that my writing suggestion is not going to focus on anything so mundane as where to place your commas or how to avoid split infinitives.

So here is my angle, my central argument, my big thesis statement about writing and life: 

To be able to write, and to improve your life, you need to manage your expectations. Yup, it’s that simple. Why? Because managing your expectations will make you happier.

Happiness expert Shawn Achor makes this case convincingly in his bestselling book The Happiness Advantage. (And if you don’t have time to read his book, take 12 minutes to watch his exceptionally funny TED talk on the subject.) 

Managing your expectations better will allow you to become happier and that, in turn, will improve both your writing and your life. Here’s how to make that magic happen:

Start by blocking your time, every day

I had heard advice about time blocking for more than a decade and always discounted it, figuring that my crazy schedule — filled with meetings and phone calls — would never allow me to be so organized. Silly me. Time blocking works like a charm. 

First thing each morning, I schedule my day, 6 am to 6 pm, in pomodoros — 25-minute units of working time, divided by five-minute breaks.  (No, I don’t work a 12-hour day. Some of my time is scheduled for meals, personal email, exercise and other non-work tasks.) 

What makes time blocking so effective? A couple of points, I think. First, if I’ve bitten off more than I’m going to be able to chew, I’ll understand that fact early in the morning. This gives me the chance to decide what I am going to do and what I’m going to postpone. As a result, I’ve never worked in the evening ever since I started my time-blocked schedule several years ago. (Before that, I had to work in the evening all the time.) 

Second, the five-minute break between tasks allows me some important wiggle room. If I’m a few minutes late starting, I still have time to do my 25 minutes of work without having to rewrite the entire schedule.

Third, I schedule several 25-minute blocks each day to accomplish the myriad small tasks that could otherwise eat up my time. I don’t list all the tasks on my schedule — that would take way too long. Instead, the chunk of time is a generic one, aimed at knocking off as many small tasks as possible. 

Fourth, time blocking allows me to be hyper-aware of my most productive times. This type of tracking made me realize the importance of doing as much writing in the morning as possible, while also scheduling any tasks I’m inclined to procrastinate about for before 12 noon. 

Five, time blocking gives me a sense of (manageable) urgency that makes me far more productive every day.

I’ve created a Word document for time-blocking that I complete every morning. If you’d like to download it, go here. The second column in the form is where you type (or hand write) your tasks. The third column is deliberately blank, leaving you the chance to make last-minute changes later in the day.

Look at trendlines rather than one particular day

We all have days where everything goes wrong. A broken dishwasher. A car accident. A COVID test (even if it’s negative). It’s not possible to be a top performer every day of the week. Our lives are an entire series of events and we cannot understand everything that’s important to us by looking at just one of those events. 

Considering the forest rather than the individual trees will help you add more nuance to your understanding of how you’re doing with your writing — and with everything else. This is not about making excuses; it’s about understanding reality. And once you have that understanding, you can often make positive changes.

For example, I usually suggest that writers spend at least five minutes writing first thing every morning? Why? Because it’s easier to protect first morning time. And it will give you a strong feeling of accomplishment early in the day. That said, you may be able to come up with your own even more creative solutions for protecting your writing time.

Don’t hold yourself to unreasonable standards

Writing — or doing anything else — is not about using super-human willpower or having ironclad discipline. What you want to do is create a sustainable habit that will support you. Don’t use “should” language with yourself — i.e. I should be writing/editing this faster; I should be able to do this better; I should finish this dissertation/book by November. Instead, accept what you can do and just try to do it a little bit better every day.

And forgive yourself when things go wrong, because they inevitably will. That’s just part of life. 

Understand that change requires time and effort

You will improve over time. That fact is inevitable if you have enough practice. Focus on getting the practice. 

But if you want to supercharge your improvement efforts, here’s another trick I’ve been using for the last several years, and it’s had an enormous payback for me. At the end of each working day, I review my time-blocked day and note how I did on every task I’d planned. Then I take two minutes to write down the major lesson I learned about my writing/working habits that day. I save this list and review it every week. I review it again every month. And I review it again every year.

That repetition is invaluable, especially if you’re stubborn and thick-headed like me!

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Consider joining my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed whether research diaries should be assessedOr, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever tried a trick like time-blocking? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!