I did not give this post a more obvious name, because then I would have to list an eighth habit of highly productive writers: avoiding C&D letters from people who have successfully trademarked the phrase “7 Habits.” (No, really.)

This is a long post, but it’s also a complex topic. I thought about splitting it into other posts, but I figured that keeping it in one place was better for you than padding my post-count.

Being a professional creator is a different job from, well, pretty much every other job. There are no set hours, no set workspace, not even a single set of rules that works for everyone. It’s a job that requires dedication and persistence, and the development of particular habits that may, in Aristotelian splendor, grow into virtues.

It’s a job where success is not measured in time spent, but rather your output; so if you’re trying to get paid for your work, then you know that every moment you don’t spend working is a moment you won’t get paid for later. Taking a sick day doesn’t mean your coworkers have to pull your slack — it means you don’t get anything done. Period. It’s not just a good idea to maximize your productivity. It’s vital.

I’ve collected some habits below that may work for you. I guarantee that not all of them will. It’s an easy guarantee because some of them are contradictory — but that’s the nature of being a professional creator. Some things that work for you won’t work for anyone else.

Because of that, I have another guarantee: there is something you can do to maximize your productivity that is not on this list. Finding it is up to you. I’m just giving you some suggestions to try.

Dress For Success

Have you ever wondered why some businesses enforce a dress code even if you’re not going to be seen by anyone other than your coworkers, the manager, and maybe the janitor? Why dress up and look businesslike if no customer or client is going to see you?

The answer is that for the vast majority of us, putting on clothing means getting into a particular mindset. You want to look nice for a date. You buy special workout clothes (and hopefully use them). Dressing casual means something different depending on whether it’s for the beach, the backyard, or getting coffee.

Putting on work clothing even when you’re just working from home means a different mindset: you’re going to work now. You’ve ditched the bathrobe, you’ve put on pants, you’ve shaved (if you’re the type to shave) — and suddenly you find you’re confronting life differently than you did before. If you want to be a professional writer, it helps to act — and look — professional, even if the only person who sees you is yourself.

Now, what that means is different for other people. For some people, it means a suit and tie, or a professional-looking skirt, or the right kind of shoes. For others, it’s a polo shirt and sneakers. And for some people, it’s necessary to get out of the work clothes, put on some slippers, and relax before letting your creativity pour out. You won’t know which one you are until you try.

Go to the Office

Clothing isn’t the only thing that can put you in a professional mindset — your surroundings matter as well. It’s not just being free of distractions — and some people can tune out distractions better than others. It’s simply a matter of having a space you can go to that lets you think “I’m working now.”

If you already have a desk job, this might be simple: just ask your boss if you can stay late at your desk and work on your novel. That might not fly, though — even if your boss would be fine with it, your company might have people coming in at different shifts and need the space, and many have restrictions on employees being there after hours for insurance purposes.

Having a space in your home works as well, but for many people it needs to be a space separate from the hustle-and-bustle of family life. You live alone? Great! But watch out for that TV staring at you from across the room. It wants to play.

Many people seek the middle ground by going to a cafe, and many cafes enjoy this because they know you’ll get a cup of coffee (or tea, hot chocolate, soda, etc.) and maybe some other snacks while you’re there.

For a quieter place (with fewer calories and more cost-efficiency), you might try your local library. Grabbing a study carrel helps; and if it’s a college or research library, it might be even better (fewer kids who haven’t yet learned that “library voice” is not the same as their normal “inside voice” — assuming they’ve learned the latter at all).

Both libraries and cafes are best in the mornings during the week, if you are able to take advantage of that. I did a lot of my thesis work in the morning, after a first-period MWF class which was my only class on those three days. I would simply go upstairs, hog a small study room all to myself, and work until lunch. Almost no one else would be there until around 10:30, and except on rare occasions no one else needed the room until at least mid-afternoon. Similarly, when I work in a cafe, I find that the mid-morning, post-commute/pre-lunch period is excellent — the staff is less stressed, wait times are less of a hassle, and it’s easier to find a chair next to an outlet.

Seek Professional Help

No, not that kind of professional help. I mean hang out with other writers. If you’re going to cafes, you can sit with someone else who’s also working and gain a kind of psychological imperative: my friend is working, therefore if I don’t work I’m being lazy. Surprisingly, it works even when you know exactly what’s going on — actually, most people find they work better when each writer is frank about how they would  otherwise be playing Freecell or Candy Crush. In fact, my friends and I take it a step further and have “word wars,” where we’re silent for a given period and then compare word counts written during that time. It can get pretty competitive — and that means we’re focused on our writing.

Can’t get to a cafe? Try an instant-messenger service and add extra people to the “conversation.” When you get to the end of the time, you can relax and chat for a bit before diving back in. If you’re on Google Plus, you might already have been participating in writing hangouts, where you fire up a webcam (or at least a microphone), making it as close as you can get to an in-person version of this mutual check-and-balance as you can get. Assuming you can work from home, all you’re missing is the coffee — and you can make that yourself, can’t you?

Writing groups are also helpful for other purposes, such as getting advice, critiques, moral support, or just asking if you used “ironic” correctly. You can also use them to help set goals (more on that in a moment); if you know you’ve got to have something to show your friends and peers on Monday night, then that deadline will help focus you.


Most of us are not full-time, work-from-home writers, however professional we might be. Even if you are, though, you’re still spending a good chunk of time doing things other than writing, such as going to the store to buy groceries, dropping off the kids at school/sport practice/a friend’s house, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters . . . well, you get the idea.

Enter the smart phone. You can get a lot done with that thing. You can type quick notes to yourself, you can open up a voice-recorder and dictate that idea that just popped into your head, and you can do a quick spot of research to see if that idea is even valid. I’ve used the voice-record feature a lot while driving.

You can also listen to podcasts or lectures about writing, history, literature, science, or other things you might find helpful in your writing. I already mentioned Writing Excuses yesterday; in addition to other writing podcasts, you’ll find a lot of handy lectures via TED or (and I highly recommend them) The Great Courses, which usually has something interesting on sale every single day. They say “write what you know”; in that case, I say the more you know, the better your writing.

Sounds and Silence

I can be fairly inconsistent with my auditory environment — sometimes I need white noise, sometimes I can write with other people talking, sometimes I need complete silence, and sometimes I need music. What I can’t have, however, is someone talking directly to me, or music with English lyrics. I’m using that part of my brain, thank you.

Some people don’t have that problem. Regina Doman can ignore three small children tugging on her arm, and yet respond immediately if there’s an actual emergency (it’s quite impressive to watch); because of that, her work desk is in her living room while several kids run and play and argue with each other. (She’s less practiced at tuning out her three now-teens, though, who all need their mother to help them through the trials and tribulations of that angsty age group.) John Ringo is at his most effective when engaging with others, and so his fans have come to dread any period where he’s off Facebook for more than three days; he also sets up playlists that match the mood of the story, many of which are pretty heavy, loud, and wordy.

Experiment with what you find most comfortable. Most people prefer instrumentals of some kind, so try soundtracks. I personally find Halo 2, Halo: ODST, Tron: Legacy, Midnight Syndicate’s Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Soundtrack, and selections from Riverdance, Firefly, Serenity, and Game of Thrones season one comprise nearly all of what I use for background music when I need it. The rest are Irish pieces I’ve picked up over the years, ranging from traditional (despite a desire to, I’ve never learned Irish so the Irish lyrics don’t bother me while I’m writing) to New-Agey “Celtic.” My brother, on the other hand, sticks to Metallica and Jimmy Buffet. Many of my friends enjoy The Lord of the Rings, but almost all of those tracks are so tied up with the story in my mind that I can’t help but think about that instead of what I’m writing. Your own tastes will no doubt differ.

Watch the Sands of Time

Giving yourself certain time-limits will help, whether it’s just “I will work from X to Y o’clock” or “I will have five thousand words before lunch.” Goals are important; you already have the goal of “write a book,” but that goal is a long way off. Setting smaller goals in the meantime not only helps you manage the load, but also lets you see your own rate of progress.

For me, this is literal (or it was, until my hourglass broke). My sister Christina gave me a novelty gift a while back, a large, great-looking hourglass. (For you Numb3rs fans out there, the exact same model shows up in Charlie’s office all the time.) It turned out to be the best productivity tool I’ve ever had. I would see my time running out — and I could never treat it as “I have ten minutes left until my break.” There’s something about watching sand grains flow like that which gives a definite sense of finality, that there’s only a limited amount of time you can do your work in.

It also had a benefit that no digital version could provide. I frequently have to pause to do research, particularly when I’m editing. Being a knowledge junkie, I find research can suck me in even when it has nothing to do with the task at hand. I quickly got into the habit of flipping my hourglass over — which meant that any time I spent doing something other than writing was actually adding to the total time I was supposed to be writing. I would find myself able to focus, both on whether or not I really need this research and also on hurrying up with whatever I was looking at when I had to read something. I started using this for any non-writing task: bio breaks, grabbing a sandwich, exercising to get the blood flowing again, or taking a break to check email or answer the phone.

And then, of course, I had to go and break my hourglass. Maybe I’ll replace it on my next paycheck.

Since then, I’ve fallen back on other techniques. Setting goals by way of “rewards” work better. For example, right now I’ve been telling myself that once I finish this blog post, I can go back to preparing my display for BrickFair and get some pizza for lunch.

To set rewards for yourself, though, it’s often necessary to rephrase things. For example, saying “I can’t go out with my friends tonight unless I hit my quota for the day” isn’t as good a thought as “If I hit my quota, I can go out with friends.” Phrase it as a reward to yourself for a job well-done rather than an obligation necessary to unlock it in the first place. Your writing is a job, but the moment you start seeing it as something keeping you from fun, rather than being fun itself, is the moment your writing starts to lose its vigor and meaning. This also means you need to set realistic goals for yourself. Know your limits and push them, but don’t push past them before you’re ready.

It’s Just Routine

Scheduling may be a no-brainer, particularly after all the stuff I’ve already talked about, but I’ve found — both in my self and nearly everyone I talk to — it seems to be such a no-brainer that we don’t think about it at all. Either we wind up having to change our schedules around family, rotating work schedules, or other events, or we have so much trouble sticking to a schedule just on our own that we keep “cheating” or saying “I’ll schedule tomorrow.”

I’m the latter. Mind you, I have an excuse of sorts: I have a sleeping disorder that makes it very difficult for me to keep to a set schedule. I’ve found I can work a nine-to-five job, but due to my naturally-rotating schedule I have to sacrifice a lot of time half the month in order to make certain I get to work on time. Right now, I work entirely from home — which means less stress on my health, but still less scheduling benefits.

But even counting that, I know what it’s like to not want a set schedule. And anyway, how can we really schedule the creative process? That’s up to the muse! Live the lifestyle! Wake up when you want, and write when it flows!

Not really. For most people, creative work is just like any work: you need to sit down and do it. Quality comes with practice, training, and some measure of talent; quantity is entirely a matter of making yourself sit down and do it. Howard Tayler, in an early Writing Excuses podcast, called it “BIC HOK”: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. Sit down and put yourself in the right headspace and you can write.

So you’ve got the right clothes, the right workspace, the right music, all that other stuff: now you just need to have a routine. That doesn’t necessarily mean being a slave to the clock, though many writers find a 9-to-5 job exactly what they need. All that your routine has to be is what makes it work for you. Get your coffee, discuss with your friends, read the paper, get your exercise . . . whatever you need to get done first, get it done.

Of course, we all know that feeling of getting distracted by things when faced with something we don’t want to do. If you find yourself suddenly feeling a desire to scrub your toilet when you should be writing, it’s time to step back and figure out what’s wrong. Is your toilet really that crummy? Or are you just faced with a mental block?

Writer’s block is a topic for later — not that it can be compressed into just one post — but you’ll find the routine will help you figure it out. If you’ve done all you need and you still can’t write, then you know something’s wrong with the writing.

The routine has other benefits too: you can let family and friends know that during this block of time, you’re working and you shouldn’t be bothered. You can sit back and concentrate. You can clear your inbox ahead of time, if that helps you work. You can do your research, organize your notes, and keep a running tally of your progress.

If nothing else, think of it this way: just like your book requires structure, so too does your writing time. Don’t worry about matching the routine of others — just worry if you yourself don’t have a routine.


And that’s that! I’m out of productivity suggestions. If you have some yourself, feel free to leave them in the comments. In fact, if any of this works for you, let me know.