10 productivity lessons I learned writing an 80,000-word book in 6 months

by | Jun 18, 2015 | General Productivity

Takeaway: Writing a book is a monster of a project, but projects like it become easier once you make a plan for how to tackle them. When you liberally disconnect from the internet when working on big projects, anticipate obstacles ahead of time, carve out space around them, and stay curious while working on them, they become much easier. And when you nurture your happiness and energy along the way—by scheduling time to let your brain wander, surrounding yourself with smart, supportive people, reflecting on your accomplishments, setting sub-goals, and working slower—you’ll level up that much more. Big projects can have costs, but they’re often worth it.

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes, 15s. But it’s pretty skimmable if you’re pressed for time.

About two weeks ago I sent an 81,302-word book manuscript to my publisher. Even though I had to spend the last six months holed up in my office—writing hardly anything on this blog, and working on only a few other things—the project is finished, and I feel damn proud of what I made. (Though I am, in a pretty big way, excited to have time for writing articles on this site again.)

TPPStats_resizedMaybe the most curious part about writing the book—which is about the most helpful productivity tactics I experimented with during my productivity project—was how the book, in a way, created itself. While writing the book, I followed every single tactic I wrote about in it.  This let me create something I’m insanely proud of. But not only that, following the tactics in the book allowed me to complete the project a full six weeks ahead of schedule. I finished the book in six months instead of seven. It’s probably also worth noting that I wrote the book from scratch; I didn’t get lazy and pull any words from this  blog. Because I submitted it to my publisher early, we  may even move up the publication date from next March to January—but I’ll post more details once the dust  settles!

Now that the process is over, I’m setting some time aside for some much needed R&R before I dive back into  writing more articles for this blog. And I have a few dozen ideas that I’ve collected that I can’t wait to write about. Before I disconnect, though, I wanted to put together a post for you on some of the biggest productivity lessons that I learned from the process of writing a book

Here are the top 10 things I learned about productivity by cranking out my book over the last six months!

10. Disconnect from the internet

If I didn’t disconnect from the internet while writing the book, I’m pretty sure I’d still be writing it.

One of my favorite productivity studies was conducted by Tim Pychyl, who has been researching motivation and procrastination for 20 years. In the study, Tim looked at how much time the average person spends procrastinating when they’re connected to the internet, and discovered something fascinating: the average person spends 47 percent of their time online procrastinating. And he conducted this study before the explosion of social media.

Since coming across this study about a year ago, I’ve disconnected from the internet as much as possible. Obviously the internet is important and essential for most people’s work, including my own. It would be unrealistic to stay disconnected all of the time. But whenever I’ve wanted to hunker down on something important, I’ve disconnected. This lets me gain back about half of the  time I would have wasted, and work more intelligently.

Since writing this book was the most important task in my work, I wrote 90 percent of it while disconnected—even though the writing process involved a ton of research.

Try disconnecting from the internet the next time you want to hunker down on something important. You might be be surprised by how much more efficiently you work.


9. Anticipate obstacles

Whenever you tackle a large project, or try to make a big change to your work or life, you’re going to face obstacles. Productivity is often a process of understanding your constraints—and anticipating obstacles will help you understand and maneuver around the hurdles you face before they happen.

For example, let’s say you try to form a new habit to meditate every day. That’s a pretty tough habit to form, but when you plan ahead, and anticipate any obstacles that will come up, you’ll be able to work around them and stick with the habit when conditions inevitably change. It’s relatively easy to plan how you’ll meditate while traveling for a business trip or when your family is in town, but almost impossible to adapt when you don’t plan for either. When you don’t plan for changes, they may get the better of you.

Writing a book was the same way. Toward the end, when I decided to have some fun and try to complete the project early, I wrote an average of 1,000 words a day for two months. During that ultra-productive time, anticipating obstacles—like trips, family commitments, upcoming meetings, and other work commitments—became essential, so I could write around them. Every week, I would look at the week ahead to see what hurdles I would have to jump over I made a plan to work around them so they didn’t get the better of me.

Obstacles are pretty much impossible to steer around when you don’t anticipate them, but pretty easy to deal with ahead of time. Whether you’re working on a big project, or making changes to your habits, anticipating obstacles is crucial.

8. Carve out space around your most important tasks and projects

TrafficAccording to urban planners, what allows traffic to flow  on the highway isn’t how fast the cars are moving—it’s how much space is between the cars. The tasks in your work and life are the same way. It’s one thing to know which tasks and projects are the most important, but it’s   a whole other thing to create space around those tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed. This way, you can carve out more time, attention, and energy to work on them. That’s what the most productive people do, and this is one of the biggest reasons I was able to quickly dive deeply into writing the book.

Out of the dozens of things you’re responsible for in your work, there are only a few of them that make the biggest impact in your work, and contribute the most value to who you work for—even if you work for yourself.

When I was in the middle of writing The Productivity Project, I figured there were just three commitments in my work that made the biggest impact. In order, they were:

  1. Writing the book
  2. Conducting speaking engagements
  3. Writing articles for this site

Every single other task in my work—meetings, email, social media, and so on—supported my work and so I made a plan to spend less time on these tasks, eliminate them from my work, or delegate them so I could level up and spend more time on my three most important tasks.

The most productive people don’t only step back to figure out where they make the biggest impact, they also make an effort to delegate, eliminate, and shrink everything else.

7. Schedule ample brain-wandering time

Every day your brain has two modes that it see-saws between: a daydreaming mode, where it wanders around to whatever it pleases, and a “central executive” mode, where it focuses intently on something. For example, when you take a shower, your mind is usually in daydreaming mode, bouncing around between disparate thoughts, and while you’re reading this article, your mind is probably focused, and in central executive mode.

Here’s the thing, though: we are spending less and less time in daydreaming mode, mostly because of how busy we are, and how we like to try and focus on a million things at once. That’s a shame, because numerous studies have shown that spending time in this mode boosts your creativity, helps you solve complex problems, helps you come up with new ideas, and even reduces your stress levels. Chances are while you’ve come up with a brilliant insight once or twice in the shower, you haven’t had one while using your smartphone.

Letting your mind wander lets you come up with more insights, connections, and ideas than any other tactic out there, and I experienced this first-hand while writing my book. If you spend too much time multitasking or in central executive mode, let your mind wander. Whether you visit an art gallery, go for a nature walk, or take an extra-long shower tomorrow morning, carve out time to let your mind daydream. It’s worth the time investment.

6. Take more time to reflect on your accomplishments

One of the bigger ways longer-term projects like writing a book differs from other projects is that you receive a lot less feedback from them. This can make larger, long-term projects less motivating and more difficult—even though they’re definitely worth the effort.

The productivity ritual that helped me through this more than anything else was reviewing my Accomplishments List every week. Productivity isn’t about how much you produce—it’s about how much you accomplish—and keeping a list of all of the accomplishments your productivity investments lead to will propel you forward, especially when you review it every week.

It also works well because the more productive you become, the less time you often have to step back and pat yourself on the back. The more you accomplish, the busier you typically get, and the less time you have to celebrate the accomplishments your productivity leads to.

Taking some time to reflect on your accomplishments lets you take that step back, even if just for a few minutes.

5. Surround yourself with people you can lean on

It’s insanely difficult to crank out a book—or an equally-taxing project—without the support of a lot of people around you. The process is mentally taxing, and to do it right, you have to dedicate more time, attention, and energy to the project than with any other tasks in your work.

Luckily, I had that support. I’d be lying if I said that I was the perfect friend/brother/boyfriend/blogger/etc. while writing, especially since the book required more time, attention, and energy than anything I’ve worked on in a while. But every single minute I invested into my friendships and relationships during the process gave me that much more support and happiness in return. This made the process of writing the book that much easier.

Throughout the project, I had the support of a ton of people who I could lean on for support—both on a personal and professional level. This was essential, because I have the natural tendency to try to do things by myself. I usually trust myself to do a better job more than I do other people—but the more I’ve fought that tendency, the more fun and rewarding the project became.

Regardless of what you do, surrounding yourself with people you can lean on, and who can lean on you, is crucial for not only staying productive, but also staying sane.

4. For big projects, set a ton of sub-goals

Going from posting frequently on this blog to writing a big book was a weird transition. When it comes to writing, I find I only have so many words in me every day, and so in order to meet my book deadline I wrote words for the book instead of this blog. In the long-run, I figured that was a more fruitful place to invest my time, attention, and energy.

Of course, writing a book is completely different than writing a blog. It requires juggling and organizing a ton of research, facts, and stories if you want to do it right; more people are involved in the whole process, especially when you work with a larger publisher; and you need to devote more attention to it if you want to make more connections between the ideas you’re writing about.

But there was one other big difference that I discovered: writing a book was also less stimulating, because you receive a lot less feedback throughout the process. For me, one of the most exciting parts about writing an article for ALOP is reading all of the feedback that comes in after I hit ‘Publish’. I receive feedback on what people just like you found helpful, entertaining, and even occasionally what I can improve on.

With writing the book, while I had feedback from my editor throughout the process, the feedback paled in comparison to the scale of the feedback I was used to on this site. That’s when I not only brought a couple of people in to read over what I was writing, but it was also when I stepped back to create more structure around the task of writing.

The less structured a project is, the less stimulating it will be for you, and the more likely you are to put off doing it. When I stepped back to create sub-goals and milestones for the project, I had a predetermined framework that I would work inside of, which let me plan, work smarter and head in the right direction. Most importantly, it also let me see the bigger picture of the project when I hunkered down on it every day.

For your biggest projects, in order to stay motivated and engaged, make sure you set a ton of sub-goals.


3. Big projects have costs—but they’re often worth it

When I got the deal to write the book, I knew I would have my work cut out for me, especially toward the end of the project—leading up to when the book was due. The more important a project is to me, the more time, attention, and energy I try to dedicate to it. Of course, while there are ways to get more focus and energy, there isn’t a way to get more time, and so this time had to come from the other commitments I have in my life.

Every day we invest our time, attention, and energy into seven areas of our life: our mind, body, emotions, career, finances, relationships, and having fun.

Writing an 80,000 book from scratch—especially in seven months—was a big commitment; one that, if things go well, will make a positive impact in most of the areas of my life. But in the short term, to write the best book I possibly could, I had to swallow the costs of having less time and attention for other commitments that are meaningful to me.

The trick is to recognize the costs that tasks, projects, and commitments will have ahead of time. A lot of the time the costs are worth it, but it’s also worth stepping back to think hard about whether you’re spending your time, attention, and energy how you want—especially before taking on a new commitment, project, promotion, or responsibility.

2. Curiosity makes the world go ’round

Curiosity is one of the most underrated ideas out there. When we have more demands placed on us than ever before, curiosity may seem like more of a luxury than a necessity in our work—but I think the opposite is true.

I’m not a “success expert” by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, but whenever I dig into the lives of the most productive people throughout history, I invariably notice the same thing: the most successful people are the ones who connect the most dots. And to connect dots, you have to acquire as many new dots as possible—in the form of new ideas, experiences, conversations, mistakes, and perspectives.

That takes curiosity.

While writing The Productivity Project, I gave myself permission to continue learning about, exploring, and experimenting with productivity. I also gave myself permission to dive even deeper into all of the lessons I learned during my project, and geek out about productivity even more. At the end of the day, this let me write a better book because this gave me more dots to connect to the ideas I was already planning on writing about. It also made me a better writer, because I made a constant effort to get curious about how to become a better writer, too. (I’d be a fool not to learn from the talented editors I got to work with throughout the publishing process.)

Curiosity makes the world go around, and if history is any indication, it will make you more successful, and more productive, too. My least favorite saying is ‘curiosity killed the cat’. It’s total bullshit, and everything I have learned about productivity—both in my research and experience—contradicts it.

1. Work slower

Perhaps the most curious thing I discovered during the writing process was that the slower I wrote throughout the day, the more words I would invariably write by the end of the day.

When I first started writing the book, I struggled to write even a few hundred words a day; every day I would dive head-first into writing The Productivity Project, try to crank out chapters as efficiently as possible, and lose my grip on the process.

But then I slowed down—and found that the amount of words I was able to write by the end of the day went through the roof.

Slowing down is no doubt an odd and counterintuitive productivity tactic, but it’s number one on my list of lessons for a good reason. Slowing down lets you work more deliberately and with intention, gives you space and awareness to step back and cultivate your productivity, makes it easier to work mindfully, and it even lets you think deeper about everything on your plate.

The slower I wrote my book, and the slower I worked on my other commitments (like the speaking and consulting gigs I had at the same time), the more I was able to accomplish by the end of the day, because I could work that much more intentionally.

The most productive people aren’t the ones who work hardest and fastest—they’re the ones who work deliberately and with intention.

I didn’t talk about it much in the post, mostly because I don’t think you’d be all that interested, but I’d be happy to answer any questions about my book, the publishing process, etc, in the comments if you’ve got ’em!

If you’re not a fan of email newsletters but you want to receive updates as I send them out about The Productivity Project (preorders, launch date, tour, etc.), click here to sign up for news about the book. I won’t email you about anything else. If you’re registered for my regular mailing list, don’t worry: you’ll get the updates, too. I’ll try to not too send too many book updates out, or be too annoying about it.

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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