Prolific writing habits for work-from-home parents

I’ve been a professional freelance writer for 14 years. I say professional to indicate that I get paid for writing. I say freelance to indicate that I work independently: I find my own clients (or they find me).

In my professional capacity as a writer, I do a lot of blogging, executive ghostwriting, and content strategy & creation (for app devs, usually). I also write about writing (as you can see from this post).

Along with that stuff, I always have a side project or two trucking along: a novel, short stories, a topical blog on something I’m interested in, a short nonfiction ebook, whatever.

I’m a writer because I like writing; it’s both my profession and my hobby. Not my only hobby. I also like reading. See how well-rounded and diverse I am? Yep. That’s me.

While being a writer, I’ve always worked from home, while also raising our four kids. I didn’t have four all at once, fortunately. They came one by one. So in the last fourteen years, I’ve been pregnant four times, and given birth (four times!) and breastfed (four years!) and potty trained (five times; the first time didn’t take for one of my children, who shall remain nameless. No worries, it’s all good now).

And now you’ll think, “Ah, but she had those hours when they were off at school!”

But no, I did not. We’ve home educated our kids for all but 1 1/2 years. And in those 1 1/2 years — when they were not homeschooled — I was working a full-time job as VP of Content for a tech start-up. And also writing.

I share my background to tell you that a strict daily routine, with a steady, consistent, BIG block of time, is not a necessity for writing. It’s a luxury.


You can write a significant amount, an actual body of work, in the edges of your time. It can be frustrating and, at times, discouraging. But if you learn a few tricks, you can minimize the frustration and keep making progress. And if you make progress, even just a little bit a day, you’ll keep discouragement away.

Bonus: you’ll be thousands of words ahead of 99% of those wanna-be writers, who prefer talking about writing to actual writing.

Maybe that’s a low-class form of motivation, but hey. I’m a bit competitive.

Run the Numbers

If you write 250 words a day for 365 days, you’ve got over 90,000 words written. That’s a novel.

How much is 250 words? About a page. A few paragraphs. This post is almost to 250 words right now.

Many writers, especially new writers, think they have to write some huge amount in order to finish something. No, you don’t.

The key to finishing something is to keep writing it.

The trick is consistency. If you find 30 minutes, or maybe 1 hour, you can write 250 words or more every day. If you do that consistently, you’ll also get faster at writing. So your rate will improve. For the first few months, maybe you’ll write 250 words in that hour. But then you’ll increase. Soon you might be writing 500 or 1000 words in an hour.

But if not, that’s okay, too.

Aim for Consistency

Consistency is the big secret for writing a big thing. A little bit every day, or almost every day, adds up to a big thing over time.

Maybe you want to write shorter things, like poems or blog posts. Consistency is the key for those, as well. A blog post of about 500 words? You can write that in two days, if you aim for 250 words a day. If 250 is too much (and it might be, at first), then go for 100 words a day. In five days, you’ve written a blog post.

Aim for Progress

You want to keep forward movement. Writers are prone to harsh self-criticism, which leads to discouragement. You might get a good writing streak going, and then miss one day. You might be tempted to beat yourself up about it, which makes you feel worse.

When you feel bad about writing, guess what?

You don’t want to write.

Make progress your goal in writing. Forward movement. That’s what you want. You miss a day, or a week, or a weekend? Okay! Whatever. None of that can undo the writing you’ve already done. And none of that can stop the writing you’ll do in the future. Perfectionism — either in the quality of your work, or in the way you stick to your writing aspirations — will discourage you, because it’s impossible to be perfect. Progress is a better goal.

Have a Plan

When you’re writing in a limited amount of time, you don’t want to spend half the time deciding what to write. So take an hour or so to make a list of things you want to write.

If it’s a novel, you might list a few chapters, or scenes. You don’t have to be detailed.

Give yourself enough to go on. When you start writing, you want to be able to glance at your list and then jump in.

Writing Time is for Writing

You don’t have to do your writing at the same time every day, but it’s a good idea to follow one rule: When you say it’s time for writing, only write.

Writing time is for writing: nothing else.

This tip alone is enough to get you pretty far as a writer.

Separate Editing from Writing

Writing is a process, and when you try to do all the parts of the process at once, you’ll slow yourself down.

When you’re writing, only write. Do not proofread. Do not edit. Do not research. Do not email a friend for their opinion. Do not read similar stuff to get some ideas. Only write.

If you have ideas or notes that come up in writing, jot them down in a notebook or Notes app. You can come back to them later.

Find an Easy Method of Writing

Another thing writers often do to procrastinate on writing is to spend time tweaking how they write. I personally love doing this. What writing app will I use? What workflow is best? How should I organize my drafts?

It’s endless, and it can be a lot of fun. But it is not writing.

To squeeze writing into a full life, find the easiest, simplest method you can. Maybe that’s a notebook. Maybe it’s a laptop. Maybe it’s your phone. Whatever it is, if it’s portable, that’s even better.

If you want to try out new methods and tools for writing, don’t use your writing time for it.

Look for Pockets of Time

Do you have a commute?
Do you watch television? 
Do you have a lunch hour?
Can you stay up half an hour later? 
Get up half an hour earlier?

You could leave your full-time job and sit in your car and write for an hour before you head home. 
You could use your lunch hour for writing. If you commute on the train or bus, you can write then. You can turn the tv off an hour earlier and write. You can get up a little sooner and write. You can go to the local library on weekends and write for an hour or two.

You do not need a vast swatch of time. You need pockets. Find a few and use them for writing. You will be amazed at how they add up.

Let Go of Ideal

If your idea of writing is a pristine desk in a quiet room, and you working at full concentration, free from distraction, well….

Sorry.

Let that picture go. It will slow you down. It will keep you from writing when you can actually write.

An ideal picture of what writing looks like, and feels like, can be a huge block for writers. It will cause you to reject perfectly good opportunities when you could be writing, because they don’t match your ideal.

Let Go of Limits

This is going to sound hokey, but your only limits are the ones you believe. If you think, “I can’t write more than 500 words in an hour,” you’re right. You can’t. If you think, “I can’t be a novelist until my kids are in school,” then that’s also true.

Or, you can think, “If I can write 500 words in an hour, I bet I can write 750 words in an hour.” And now you can.

You can keep raising the bar.

I mean, obviously there’s a limit up there somewhere. Why not try to find it? The real limit, not the one you’re hiding behind.

You don’t need eight hours a day to write.

You can do the same things established writers do, as far as writing consistently and producing steadily. You can write a novel, or even multiple novels, in a year. You can write hundreds of blog posts. You can write poems and short stories and articles and essays. You can submit your work to contests and win and get paid. You can send your work to editors and get hired for more. You can win readers. You can publish your own work.

Here is a secret: the established writers who make a living from their writing didn’t start that way. They became established writers by writing. That’s what you can do, too.

Embrace the Hack Identity

Some people like to be writing snobs.

“Don’t write it unless you feel it,” they say. “Don’t sell out. Don’t write to a word count. Write pure. Write from the heart. Write one good work, if it takes you a lifetime.”

Then they sip their wine, and ask you about an obscure 17th century Scandinavian playwright, Oh my god you haven’t heard of their work?

I hate to have to say it, it’s so obvious, but here we go:
Writing more helps you become a better writer. Not writing makes writing more difficult.

Harper Lee wrote one amazing novel that was published in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Then she helped Truman Capote with his work. She worked on a novel and never finished it. She worked on a non-fiction book but never released it.

55 years after her one amazing novel, Harper Lee published a sequel, which received very mixed reviews. And, it turns out, the sequel isn’t a sequel but was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

55 years of writing. One book. Or two, I guess.

I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.

Harper Lee

Success can be as terrifying as being ignored and rejected.

And if you’ve gained success — you wrote one great piece! You got some recognition! You got a book deal! You won an award! — it can be very frightening to follow it up.

Not everything you write will be a hit. That’s why you should write a lot. You raise your chances of success. You embrace the unavoidable truth that there is a ratio of bad writing to good writing.

The more you write, the more likely you are to write something good.

Don’t let writing intimidate you.

Writing is not for the elite. It is real and it is visceral and it has always belonged to the people. Writing snobs try to make it something it’s not. People who believe the writing snobs find themselves paralyzed as writers and alienated as readers.


Write as much as you want, in the pockets of time you find, and without listening to your inner critic. Do this consistently for a week or so. Then take time to look back at what you’ve written. Choose what you like best and send it out into the world. Repeat that process.

Now you’re a writer.

Writing in quantity is what enables you to write quality. If you want to be a better writer, write more. It’s practice. The more you do it, the better you get. The easier it becomes. The faster the words flow. The more you write, the more you tune into the language, the rhythm. The more you know your own voice.

Embrace the copious flow of messy, unadorned, real, raw, everyday words.

Let ’em out!

Now you’re a prolific writer.

5 ways to do more of the work that matters most to you

1. Shorten transitions

Go straight to the next thing. Keep your momentum.

Transitions get hairy.

There’s nothing settled; everything is up in the air.

It’s wide open, and there are all sorts of options, and no direction, and chaos can erupt pretty fast.

We may know what we’re supposed to do next, or what would be best to do next, but in a transition… things get hairy.

We’re cleaning up, or putting away, or commuting to the next thing, or shifting gears, or whatever. In that space, we can lose all focus, all direction, and we see all sorts of options.

Not all the options are good, right?

We’ve all dealt with extended transitions: the month-before-you-move transition, when you’re packing and decluttering and just surviving until you move so you can have Real Life again. Pregnancy is just nine months of transition. How about the two weeks after you put in your notice at your old job, or the time until your divorce gets finalized, or until you graduate from school.

Little transitions cause all sorts of trouble when they’re extended beyond the what’s needed. It’s worse when you have kids. Once we get them ready to go out the door, we gotta go! before somebody tips over the box of toys, somebody else spills the cup of milk, somebody else plays in the toilet, somebody else loses a shoe. Transitions extended too long become chaos. This is true with or without kids involved. (But if you ever want to see a clear example, hang out in some sort of extended transition – waiting room, waiting to leave, waiting to board, waiting for food – with a toddler or two.)

Yes, sometimes you need a Break. But a Break is not the same as a transition.

A Break is a pause from working, a rest period when you are not actively moving from one thing to another thing, but are engaging in a restful period. A transition might move you to a Break but it is not a Break.

Good transitions move you as efficiently as possible from Point 1 to Point 2.

Lingering in the middle, without a plan, aimlessly, because you’re tired or procrastinating or unsure or indecisive about how to start… that’s an energy-draining, time-wasting swamp you can get lost in for a long time. Mentally/psychically, it’s wandering, and that’s when negative thoughts surface: fears, doubts, worries you can’t do anything about.

  • Extended transitions tend to become chaos.
  • A transition is not a break. If you need a break, take one.
  • A transition is not the same as percolation.
  • Don’t rush through transitions (that will backfire) but don’t linger in them, either.
  • If you’re stuck in transition because, for some reason, you can’t get to Point 2, take control: change Point 2 into Point 3 and invent a new Point 2, one you can reach. (This is a good way to handle those long transitions.)

2. Define points of completion

What will you produce with your next action?

A moment of connection, a song, a concept, a new product, a moment of silence, a bigger perspective, a blog post, a drawing?

If you can’t figure out what you’re producing, what are you doing?

Even relaxing has a production value, if you think about it: taking a nap, taking a walk, taking a significant break… all of these produce a worker (you) who is refreshed, rested, relaxed, and able to focus on the next task.

Pseudo-breaks (social media, busy work, procrastination) don’t have the same effect as real breaks. They don’t produce a relaxed, refreshed you; in fact, all that digital input or procrastinating detail work tires your brain and leaves you emotionally drained. You get less refreshed, less relaxed, less energized, less able to focus.

When you need a break, take a real break that will have a real and positive effect on you.

When you are doing something, working, think about what you’re trying to produce. This helps you to define your task and avoid getting distracted by all the other needs that will scream at you. Define your goal so you can define your task.

Then ignore other tasks until you get through the one you’re focused on and reach your production goal.

The point isn’t to be a productive robot, but to give yourself a way to finish the things you start. We’ve all had those days when we look around and see 25 tasks we started, left in various points of completion, with nothing we can call done. Those are discouraging days.

There are always going to be some projects in progress. Look within those projects; think about each task or time block spent on a project terms of the production you want to get from it. Now you’ve defined smaller, reachable points of completion. Now you can reach a point of completion even if the project, in its entire scope, is still ongoing.

  • A point of completion can be big or small.
  • Defining a point of completion forces you to be clear about how you’re using your energy and time.
  • A point of completion helps you stay focused on the actions that will help you reach that point.
  • The human mind wants completion and feels frustrated without it. Give yourself small points of completion within longer projects to avoid that frustration.

3. Go straight to what scares you

Freedom and growth mean pushing toward the thing that scares you. What scares you is what has the power to hold you, to trap you, to keep you locked down.

Maybe it’s failure or maybe it’s success.

Maybe what scares you most is taking a risk. Or maybe what scares you, what shakes you to your core, is the idea of structure. Predictability. “A normal life.”

Maybe being alone is what scares you. Maybe being vulnerable with someone scares you. Maybe it’s being controlled, or maybe it’s losing your ability to control someone else.

Whatever it is, it’s the thing that makes you feel that gasp, that “aaaah,” that sharp, intake of breath. It’s the thing that makes your heart pound, that sends an internal reverberation through you.

That’s the thing you need to do. The work that matters most is always related to the thing that scares you most.

But listen. Calm down for a second. To face your fear does not mean, necessarily, to run headlong into it. You don’t need extremes.

Maybe your fear is being alone. Pretend with me.

So you read this and you think, “I have to face my fear, I have to overcome, I have to be alone, I have to be all by myself, now!” And you break up with your significant other and drop your friends and move to a cabin in the woods. Or something drastic like that.

Stop. You don’t have to do that. Listen to this:

All the laws are the same — inner laws and outer laws. The same principles drive everything in this world. If you pull a pendulum out one way, it will swing back just that far the other way. If you’ve been starving for days, and somebody puts food in front of you, you won’t be polite while you’re eating. You will shove the food into your mouth like an animal. The degree to which you will act like an animal is the exact degree to which you were starved enough to bring up your animal instincts.

…When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is. You carve a groove and you get stuck in it. Then there’s no energy moving you in the Tao; it’s all being spent serving the extremes.”

from The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

The goal is not to move from one extreme (doing everything you can to avoid being alone because you fear it so much) to another extreme (isolating and disconnecting yourself from healthy relationships in order to experience being alone).

You don’t need extremes in order to grow.

Small steps will do. Small versions are powerful. Small movements have big energy. The pebble, the water, the ripple. Drop in the tiniest pebble. Watch the ripples expand.

You don’t need to transplant a tree; plant a tiny seed, instead, and watch it grow.

Face your fear of being alone by doing one thing by yourself that you’d normally be afraid to do alone. One step. One movement. One pebble.

The cage that fear creates is not strong. It seems strong. It seems impenetrable. But if you look at it, really look, you notice something strange. The cage isn’t solid. The bars are made of illusions, images, whispers, secrets, and lies. Nothings. None of it is real. When you drop the pebble in the pond, the ripple pushes out and pushes against the fear, and you see it waver. The next ripple pushes and the fear shakes. The next ripple hits, and the fear folds in on itself, falls apart.

When enough bars fall, the whole cage collapses.

  • What scares you most is related to the work that matters most to you. (Because desire and fear are two sides of the same coin.)
  • Facing your fear will remove its power and free you to do the work.
  • Facing your fear does not require extremes.
  • Find a small way to face your fear, a small action. Do it, then again, and again. Watch the fear shrink into nothing.

4. Optimize one thing at a time

Optimize only what you’re focused on improving (building, achieving, succeeding at) right now.

If you try to optimize everything, you will fail at everything.

Optimizing is good. Optimizing is what you do when you set up your systems to be more efficient. When you look for sustainable solutions. When you forego the short-term, quick relief for a long-term, permanent change.

But optimizing everything all the time is ridiculous. It’s demanding perfection of yourself. It’s a trap.

There’s a balance of improving and accepting. Optimizing and maintaining.

Think of all the stuff of your life as a big lake of clear, cool water. You’re in a boat, floating on the water. In your hand is a bucket. You dip the bucket into the lake, and what you pull out: that’s your focus. That’s what you’re going to improve, optimize, spend your energy on. The rest – all the water still in the lake – is there supporting you, flowing with you. It’s not going anywhere. But if you try to get it all in the boat with you, you’ll sink.

One bucket at a time.

For everything else – everything not in the bucket – set a level of acceptability and quit worrying about it. Flow with the routines of your life, as they exist. Set the minimums – the baselines – then get yourself on auto-pilot so you achieve the minimums with the least possible fuss and effort.

Now you can focus on the one or two things you are optimizing.

  • You can only optimize a little at a time.
  • Trying to optimize (improve, fix) everything at once will exhaust and trap you.
  • Work with the balance of optimizing and maintaining.
  • Optimize one bucket at a time.
  • Accept whatever’s not in the bucket as is; no guilt, no worry. Let it support you.

5. Accept the obstacles

The only way to avoid obstacles is to have no aim, to simply go wherever you are pushed.

You know people like this. We call them victims. They are needy, hurting, unfulfilled people. We can pity them, but we should not become them.

The world is full of obstacles. We spend too much time avoiding them. Challenges make us alive. Challenges open our eyes to what we can handle.

When you set your sights on something, you’re going to have to deal with whatever is between you and your goal.

It’s not about the universe being against you, or your bad luck.

It has nothing to do with you, in fact.

It’s simply that where you are is not the same as where you’re aiming to be, and there is stuff in between Point A and Point B. To get to Point B, you’re going to have to strike out and encounter that stuff. Deal with it.

You can take it personally, get offended, feel cheated, feel victimized, and give up. Retreat back to Point A. Decide it’s too much work. Reason that ‘if it was meant to be’ you wouldn’t have encountered all those obstacles.

But that’s a load of crap. Obstacles don’t exist to stop you from reaching your goal. They exist because the world exists. Because there is stuff in the world. Because between you (today) and you (tomorrow) are 24 hours of anything-can-happen. Anything can happen! It’s a game. It’s a challenge. How are you going to make it to tomorrow? What will you be like when you arrive?

Practice builds skill. Persistence builds consistency. Achievement builds confidence.

Dealing with obstacles gives you practice, persistence, and the ability to achieve in small ways as you move forward. All of that – the skill and consistency and confidence you gain, as a result – enables you to do the work you really want to do.

Overcoming the obstacles isn’t a hindrance. It’s an essential part of doing your work and reaching your goal.

So don’t be surprised by obstacles. Anticipate them. Look forward to them as things that help you become that much better, that much stronger. See them, learn from them, and deal with them, one at a time.

  • The only way to avoid obstacles is to be aimless and victimized.
  • Obstacles aren’t there to stop you or warn you or work against you, personally.
  • Obstacles serve you. They help you develop your skills, build consistency in effort, and earn real confidence.
  • Obstacles are a necessary part of the work.
  • Resisting the obstacles is running away from them. Don’t do that. Ignoring the obstacles is pretending they don’t exist. Don’t do that. Dealing with the obstacles is the way to go forward. Do that.

 

Sitting on the beach working on laptop while kids play.

What work really is, or 17 things I learned about productivity in 2017

1.  Workflow (as a defined process of tools and methods and routines) is different than work-flow or working in flow or flowing (as a state of mind in which work is focused, fluid, absorbing and fulfilling).

Workflow depends on a lot of things, like apps and your playlist and your tools and updates and wifi speed and battery life and deadlines and email dings and so on. Working in flow depends on one thing only, and that’s your ability to force yourself to tune out the distractions, the discomforts, and self-doubts and mental denials until you push far enough inward to reach that place where you are working, really working, flowing in your work and at that point nothing matters: the tools, the timing, the whatever. You’re going to do the work regardless of what’s available in terms of your workflow.

2. Flow is fun, a lot more fun than the (usually) procrastinatory, overly detailed nature of tweaking your workflow.

I love thinking about systems and efficiency and setting up tools and tweaking methods and so on. But it’s one thing, and work is another.

When you finish up a session of working/flowing, you’ve gotten something done, whereas when you finish up a few hours or tweaking your tools and processes you have, generally, a) no tangible results to show for it and b) a higher accumulated level of self-loathing/self-doubt as a result of “working” without producing any tangible result. I’m not saying you should have increased self-loathing/self-doubt as a result of spending time on your process and tools (Why should you? What good does it do?), I’m just saying that’s often the result.

It’s a compensatory relationship that doesn’t make any sense when you pull it into the cold hard light of logic.

Punishing yourself with an increased amount of self-loathing to make up for “wasting time” on tweaking your workflow without any tangible production to show for your effort doesn’t cancel out or validate anything, but we tend to get wrapped up in these emotional/psychological cycles without asking why or what they’re all about.

3. What’s happening on the inside matters more than what’s happening on the outside.

This one is true about everything in life, and it’s true about working and productivity.

Where’s your head at? That’s what matters.

Are you clear on what you want to do? Do you know for sure you want to do it? Is the next step forward sizzling in your mind, or are you fighting your way through a gray fog of uncertainty?

If you’ve got a clear next-step vision, you can push your way through any number of exterior distractions or obstacles. But if you’re not clear, if the sizzle is rained out by chronic stress or discouragement or exhaustion or disappointment or whatever, the best environmental conditions won’t make up for it. The moments/hours you spend getting your Self (the inner mental real you) straightened out will always pay you back in clarity which leads to energy which leads to focus which leads to getting shit done and (oh yeah) having fun doing it (see “flow”).

4. There are a lot of ways to do things.

You can learn from the way other people do things but ultimately you have to find your own way, the way that is good for you, and do it. Maybe it is just like some other (successful) person’s way of doing the thing or maybe it is different, brand-new, some weird hybrid, who cares, it doesn’t matter, if it works for you then it works for you and that’s the only test it needs to pass.

5. Most of what you do in a day is not important.

Details fill up your time and that’s okay, you don’t have to be doing Something Important all the time (really, what’s more important than, say, Breathing, which you ARE doing all the time, so keep that up, good job). Knowing that you’re not often/usually doing Something Important is good, however, because if what you’re doing is Not So Important then you don’t have to stress or argue or freak out about it. You can relax. Isn’t that nice.

6. Almost nothing is truly urgent.

Yet urgency will always rule you if you let it.

7. We all need to practice the pause.

The more rushed you are, the more you need the pause. I shared a little more about this concept in the mammoth post 32 ways to Increase Your Productivity by Vlad Khvatov.

Don’t rush into your day, don’t rush into a meeting, don’t hurry into an agreement, don’t follow a trail of urgency from one action to the next reaction. Urgency-fueled action hardly ever leads to productivity. Implement the pause. Pause before you begin. Think about what you want to do. Pause before you attend. Do you really need to be there? Pause before you agree. [Read more in Vlad’s post (along with a lot of other tips & insights).]

8. Focus matters, but creativity benefits from cross-breeding.

For example, I work better and enjoy my work more if I have multiple projects going on. I also like reading multiple books at the same time. There’s a creativity cross-breeding effect for me that helps me get through the boring sloggy parts, when they occur, and also keeps me from putting too much weight/worry on any particular project.

Of course, too many projects at one time can backfire. Too many projects means you can’t make much progress on any one, and that becomes discouraging really fast and then slows down your momentum. So there’s a balance.

9. Good tools make work more pleasant and easier (and often faster) but they’re not required.

So they’re a good investment but not an absolute necessity.

The only absolutely necessary tool for working is your brain, I guess, because even if you don’t have a notebook handy or a guitar to play on, you can mentally think about plot and character and play with a paragraph’s wording or a blog post’s outline, or you can mentally cycle through the chords to that song or tap out the fingering.

You can do a surprising amount of work this way and then – the fun part – when you get back to your tool(s), you’re ready to go, zipping into the work with the mental part (the most difficult part) already partially or mostly completed.

10. Routines and rituals keep you grounded and give you a structure to lean on.

That’s especially good when you’re emotionally overwhelmed or physically exhausted or mentally undone or whatever.

11. There’s a rhythm to the routines and rituals that work best for you and it’s good to find and follow the rhythms that are energizing and joyful for you.

The rhythms create those balances of work/rest, focused work/percolating, effort/play, socializing/solitude, physical/mental, so on, that make up your days and your life. As much as possible, find and follow the rhythms that work for you.

As much as possible, don’t impose your rhythms on other people; just stick to them for yourself and let others find their own way.

As much as possible, do not let yourself/time be owned by other people’s rhythms (or lack thereof).

12. The things that contribute most to your productivity may not seem important at all or work-related at all or like an official anything that you can justify spending time on.

But they do matter, don’t they? For me, these are things like taking a walk, getting time alone, meditating, reading… What? That’s not work. Right. But these actions feed me, boost my energy, help bring clarity which leads to focus, and so on. Worth the time, every time.

13. Making a long list of whatever’s in my brain is still one of the best things I know to do.

When I feel overwhelmed or excited but not sure where to start or worried but not sure why, a list helps me get it out and sort it out. Sometimes all I do is write it down and throw it away. Whenever you want to work or feel like you should work, but don’t know how to start/encounter resistance, making a list can help.

14. Everything can change in an instant.

You can feel like you’re stuck, or you can feel like you’re working so hard with no progress, or you can feel like nothing you do matters, or you can feel bored with everything about your life/work. You can feel bored, depressed, lethargic, hopeless, and stuck.

And everything can change in an instant.

Everything.

15. Intention and control are different beasties.

Intention is being deliberate and conscious of what you think, feel, speak, do, focus on. Where you send your energy. What you create in your mind and how you use your skills to bring it forth into the world. Control, on the other hand, is the inversion, the negative of intention. It’s you reaching, grasping, attempting to exert force on the consciousness and choices of others. That’s none of your business. Stay out of it.

Release control and settle into your intentions, and let your intentions set your focus for your actions and see that pronoun that keeps recurring? Your, you, yours. You can’t have intention for what someone else will feel, think, speak, do, choose. You can only have intention for yourself, and, from that intention, begin the next logical action. Take the next step.

And the next step forward for you will always be better, smoother, and easier if you’re not tied down and wrapped up trying to control others and what their next steps are going to be.

16. When it comes to what you really want to do in life, your true work, your heart-work, the real work that is in you and waiting for you: fear and desire are the same thing.

As long as the fear is bigger than the desire, you’ll be stuck. You’ll procrastinate, your circumstances won’t allow it, you’ll always find new skills or tools or other requirements that you need first, you’ll commit yourself to shadow-work that is close but not quite what you want to do.

When the fear and the desire equalize, you’ll start moving forward only to feel like you lose all your progress. You’re in stasis. You’ll take some risks and do some of the real work, only to give up, pull it back in, downplay it, let your self-doubt eat it up, hide it, disbelieve it, take it back. You’ll ignore the open door to stand there pounding on the closed one.

It’s okay; it’s all part of the process.

When your desire (which has been growing and clarifying) outweighs your fear, things will start to happen. Little things that are actually big things. Pay attention, friend. Pay attention. Nurture the desire. Starve the fear, ignore it, put your fingers in your ears and sing la la la la la as you move forward.

17. Let what you learn from others help you but do not let it limit you.

Feedback is great. Learning from others is great. Reading about your heroes is great. Researching methods and tools, work practices and success strategies is great. Finding out what your target market wants is great. Reading the data and doing the polls and looking at the statistics, great.

But eventually it’s you and the work and you have to let all of that information fade into kind of a background hum. It can inform you but if you let it direct you, you will fail to do the work that you really want to do.

The work you really want to do and are uniquely equipped to do must come from you.

Be informed, be knowledgeable, be humble and learn, learn, learn. Then be audaciously confident and do what you want to do anyway, even if it doesn’t fit the market research, even if it isn’t how your heroes work, even if no one approves or understands.

This is a dance. Some of the steps you can learn from watching others, but it’s not until you let go of the instructions and lose yourself in the rhythm and flow of it that it begins to zing and snap and flower out into something bigger than you even imagined. Keep at it.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about using a 6-box to-do list

Here it is: the ultimate guide to boxing your to-do list for fun! and! profit!

I wrote a short post about using a 6-box to-do list a couple of years ago, not thinking much of it. It seemed too specific to be interesting to many people.

However, it continues to get consistent visits. There’s a mob of us 6-box to-do listers out there, and we’re searching Google. Every day, apparently!

Since that post, I’ve continued to use a boxed-up to-do list in various forms and iterations, and I have more to say about it. Since there seems to be continuing interest, let’s discuss.

(When I say discuss I really mean I’ll write and you read… Sorry. Blogs are one-sided like that, especially when you disable comments. Have something to say? Tweet me about it! Have nothing to say? Tweet me about that, too! Not on Twitter? Go away. Just kidding. I love you too. Email me.)

My 6 box to-do list background

Here’s what I said about the 6-box to-do list in my original post:

So I’ve used Bregman’s 6-box to do list off and on since 2012, which is when I read the 18 Minutes book. (I just checked my Kindle highlights. 58 highlighted passages. Finished reading on December 7, 2012. That’s useless information, but it’s cool to be able to find it so easily.)

I recently came back to the 6-box method because I found myself getting having day after day when I couldn’t finish my day’s list.

That means, of course, that I’m putting too much stuff on it.

The 6-box to-do list is the brainchild of Peter Bregman, who wrote a great productivity book called 18 Minutes (well worth the read).

In it, he explains this to-do list method. He also describes it in this HBR article:

I’ve created a to-do list that’s made of six boxes — one for each of my five areas of focus and the 6th labeled “the other 5%”. That other 5% box is like sugar — a little might be OK but your day should never contain more than 5% of the activities that don’t fit into your five areas of annual focus.

I’ve used this to-do list format, almost exactly as Bregman describes it, regularly in my bullet journal:

What’s so great about a to-do list with boxes?

Well, it starts with what’s wrong with the traditional, linear to-do list.

Here’s how Scott at Life-Long Learner describes the main issue with linear task management:

“I want to simultaneously be a good human-being, son, brother, friend, and employee amongst other things. All of these aspirations require effort. Yet it’s nearly impossible to make sure I allocate enough energy towards all of these ambitions using a linear To-Do-List.”

Scott, brother, I hear ya. My goals are more about being an okay-but-judgy person, furthering the ginger mission, speaking Spanish at a higher-than-kindergarten level, using hyphens whenever possible, always having a cup of coffee at hand, and producing written works at a wildly prolific rate, but still, same problem: so many ambitions, so little time.

A linear to-do list, which is what a lot of people use by default, (side note: whenever you’re using a tool or method by default, you’re probably being inefficient) does not help me sort and prioritize my tasks according to my real values and goals (which as you can see are vast and deep and very important).

A boxed to-do list helps with that prioritization. I hate that word. I’m going to say it again. Prioritization. Ugh. It’s so awful. It’s like picking at a hangnail. It hurts but I can’t help it. Prioritization. Pri or i ti za ti on. 

How a boxed to-do list helps

Okay, so, stupid question: Why do you use a to-do list?

The basic purpose of a to-do list is to help you identify and complete your tasks. The 6-box to-do list takes the functionality of a linear to-do list further (so much further!) by helping you to

  • Be conscious about your tasks and their context in your life: You have to choose 5 main areas, which forces you to, uh, choose 5 main areas. You can’t work on all the projects and do all the things with this to-do list. Nope. You have to decide on your most-important projects or focus areas and think about your tasks in context. No more making a big, uncategorized list of everything you can think of that you might need to do, and then weeping and eating chocolate in bed because there’s no way you’ll ever do it all. Stop that. That’s no good. (I mean, eat the chocolate, that’s fine.)
  • Prioritize your tasks according to your long-term goals and big projects: You can’t put a random task on the list; you have to assign it to an area. You have to. There’s nowhere else to put it. No fair using the margin of the paper. That doesn’t count.
  • Keep your daily task list realistic: Even if you use a full sheet of paper for your to-do list, dividing it into 6 sections automatically limits the number of tasks you can put on it for each day.
  • Be aware of and limit intrusions and obligations: I don’t know about you, but other people’s stuff is always creeping onto my task list. Sure, yeah, I made these children and feeding them lunch may seem like a parental duty, but I am an independent woman! An autonomous being! I have priorities! If my 5% box is already full, well, sorry kids: no lunch today. (I’m just kidding, don’t call the DFS. Family gets its VERY OWN BOX.)

If you keep these important benefits in mind, you can use the concept of a boxed to-do list beyond the original template. Almost to infinity. Not quite. But close.

Features that provide the benefits

Time for a little copywriting talk!

In copywriting, you don’t focus on the features of a product; instead, you focus on the benefits. Benefits sell. Benefits make people happy. Benefits are better for conversion. That’s because all of us are basically self-interested assholes wrapped up so tight in our own needs and interests that we don’t care about anything that doesn’t directly benefit us.

“Oh, your little widget has 29 technologically advanced features and is made of diamond-dusted steel bathed in the waters of the hyporheic zone of the River Styx? I don’t care.” 

“Oh, your little widget will help me lose 5 pounds in a week so I look better than my cousin Stacy at the next family reunion? I’ll take two.” 

The benefits are the advantages that customers gain (hypothetically) by using the product (and its features).

Let’s reverse engineer this boxed to-do list, by flipping the copywriting methodology. We’ve got the benefits listed, above: let’s figure out which features bring us each benefit, and then we can play around with other ways or creating those features, so they fit in with our preferences or tools or limits or whatever.

  • Benefit: Be conscious about our tasks and their context in our lives.
  • Feature: A limited number of focus areas or categories. You can use categories on any kind of to-do list, but the problem is that those can be unlimited. Really. And what are you going to do with unlimited categories? Forget some of them, neglect others, get overwhelmed, and focus disproportionately on a few while feeling guilty about the rest.

  • Benefit: Prioritize our tasks according to our long-term goals and big projects
  • Feature: Limited number of main areas, each designated by a box, so there are no place for random tasks, so each task must belong to a focus area. It either belongs to a focus area or it goes in the 5%.

  • Benefit: Keep your daily task list realistic.
  • Feature: Boxes. Only 6. And limited in size by whatever tool you’re using. (And after a while you learn realistically how many items/box you can get done in a day.)

  • Benefit: Be aware of and limit intrusions and obligations.
  • Feature: Only 6 boxes. Anything that doesn’t belong to a focus area gets shoved into the 5% box. It gets full fast, which means you have to filter what goes in there. You get better at saying No.

TWO MAIN FEATURES, friends!

  1. Boxes
  2. Only six of them

So many benefits!

The boxes are visual cues. They remind you that you have a few areas or projects that matter more than everything else that could possibly be out there.

Visual cues are helpful in learning, because we are slow to change. We are often slow to understand. Pictures (a.k.a visual cues) help. Know why I started drawing little pictures to go with blog posts? To help myself understand what I was trying to say. Really. I didn’t do it for you guys, ha!

After you use a boxed to-do list for a while, you start to think of your life as a set of focus areas. You think of your tasks as part of these areas. You see how your tasks belong (and thus, help progress) a certain area or how they don’t belong. And you start to reject, delegate, or delay tasks that don’t belong in those focus areas.

The visual, boxed aspect also helps you see the proportions between your focus areas. If you have 10 tasks in Box 1, and only 2 tasks in another, and that ratio continues, you tend to notice. You see the disproportionate energy and time going to one focus area. That may be okay; it may not be. Seeing it, however, helps you to be aware of these ratios and proportional issues, so you can fix them if needed.

How to use this type of list

In the past, I’ve used a boxed to-do list in various formats, but mostly in notebooks (bullet journal is my note booking methodology of choice) or using index cards. I prefer paper for planning.

Sometimes I don’t need 6 categories, honestly. Sometimes one focus area of my life is the overwhelming one, sucking in about 95% of my energy and time, and having 5 other boxes staring at me is not helpful. In those times, if I’m smart, I’ll cut down the number of boxes.

Right now I’m using a digital version of the 6-box to-do list: digital sticky notes on my laptop. Looks like this:

As you can see, I’ve got three boxes. But I’m cheating, because you can see the minimized stickies: 7 of them. Which means I’m using a total of 10 boxes! WHAT! Such innovation. Such blatant disregard of the 6-box tradition!

Yes, that’s me, raising a ruckus wherever I go.

Anyway, I have three boxes that are my Today Boxes. One for Family, one for Work, and one for Completed because I like to keep track of what I’ve managed to do (or not do) in a day. Not much for today, so far, other than take the screenshot for this post so I can actually publish it.

The stack of 5 minimized notes below my Work box is how I sort out my writing. Generally I pick a focus for the day (Today’s is BLOG.) But each morning I skim through those stickies and copy-paste what I want to do today into my Work box.

The sticky notes disappear behind any other application I’m using (unless I change them to “floating” view) but I can click on the sticky icon at any time and pull them back into view. Since 85% of my work is done on my laptop, this is working for me…

I’m use the digital version of this 6-box to-do list in conjunction with my bullet journal.

The bujo combination

Bullet journaling is my consistent and favorite and most effective method of keeping my life and shit organized. I like playing around with other tools and methods (read: procrastinating), but I always return to a notebook and a bujo method of using said notebook.

These days, I crack open my bujo every morning to – get this – journal! Whoa. Three pages is my goal, a la Julia Cameron’s morning pages.

I also use my bujo for brain dumps (why does that sound so disgusting, can we come up with a better term?) and for running task lists and for sorting through the various stages and actions and milestones and need-to-dos of the projects or focus areas that I’m into right now.

Some focus areas don’t change: family, for example. Others do. I recently wrapped up a gig as VP of Content for a tech startup and returned to freelancing full-time. My focus areas have changed accordingly.

The bujo is the place for all the information: the ideas, the obligations, the hopes, the fears, the goals and plans, the reference notes, the tiny to-do items needed to keep a family and household running, grocery lists, menu plans, notes for the kids, ideas I’m not yet pursuing, etc.

The daily, boxed to-do list is where I take the most important stuff of my life, right now, and decide how I want to put energy into it today.

Future use: growth framework

I have a little idea I’ve been playing around with, which I’m calling a “growth framework” for now. It’s nothing solid yet, just some ideas and methods for keeping my life on a growth trajectory, by consciously choosing to focus on areas and tasks that help me grow.

I think it can work well with the 6-box concept.

I’ll share more on that as I develop it, unless it turns out to be dumb, which is always possible…

What could you do?

You, of course, can do lots of things with the 6-box concept. If you are a productivity person like me (and you must be, if you’re read this far), play around with the number of boxes and ways you use them.

For example, instead of setting focus areas, you could assign each box a time of day, or a context (I see you, GTDers!), or a type of work (deep work vs quick tasks).

Bregman’s method is based on annual focus areas, but yours doesn’t have to be. YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITH YOUR TO-DO LIST, YOU WILD INDEPENDENT BEAST OF POWER.

You could use a box for each major project you’re working on, and update them as the projects are completed or moved out of your loop. (This is a great idea for people who, like me, might have a tendency to start too many projects at the same time.)

In conclusion, I would like to say

The main benefit of the 6 box to-do list is that it forces you to make conscious choices about where your time and attention goes. That’s scary, because once you decide — these are my focus areas, and these are the tasks that belong to them – you know what you have to do and have only yourself to blame if a) you choose wrong or b) you don’t actually do the tasks you’ve chosen.

But seriously? Isn’t it better to mess up or fail at the stuff that matters to you than let your to-do list be overrun by other people’s ideas of what you should do? Yes, of course it is! And I believe in you. I think you’ll make great decisions. And I think you’ll do what you set out to do. Try it!

I’d love to hear from you if you use the 6-box to-do list, if you tweak it (or not), and how it works for you.

Focus on having a good day

It happens.
 
Every single time.
 
Right about now, I run into trouble.
 
I start doing something I care about (in this case, blogging). I’m enjoying the rhythm. The feeling. The action.
 
Then I start thinking about the potential.
The possibilities.
The direction.
The results.
 
I start planning. I start scheming. I start making it all much to complex. I start crafting vision statements. I start using the word “crafting.” I start asking myself why.
 
I run into trouble when I ask myself why I’m doing things.
 
I know that’s an issue with the personal growth crowd, which is a crowd I like and am part of (hi, friends!).
 
A personal growth practice is full of Asking Big Questions and Finding Your Why and Knowing Your Purpose and Having A Vision and Being IntentionalThere are good reasons to ask yourself why. Some of the thinking I’ve done about Why has split me wide open.
 
Some of it has not.
 
When I start doing a thing I love, and am loving the doing of it, and I stop to ask myself why, it does not help me.
 
I’m not going to ask myself that anymore. Not about this. Not about blogging, not about writing anything. Asking myself why in this scenario is a trap.
It’s the “follow your passion” trap. It is a trap. Passion has limits.
 
You don’t feel passionate about something all the time. Or you don’t feel passionate about all aspects of a something.
 
You’re trundling along, merrily following your passion. You’re sure of eventual success. You feel that some ongoing measure of happiness is guaranteed. Then you hit a block. An obstacle. Negative feedback. Undeveloped skill. One of those non-passionate-feeling times or aspects. You are in big trouble.
 
Big trouble, pal.

What happens when your passion takes a nap? What happens when your passion shifts?
 
Do you take a nap until your passion reawakens? (Counter-productive! Waste of time!)
 
Do you shift with your passion? (Loss of all your previous effort! Inefficient!)
 
Passion is not consistent enough to follow.
 
If passion doesn’t work, then goals? How ‘bout them goals? Well. Goals, outcomes, my definition of success: most are future-dependent and imaginary.
 
Desired outcomes are not guarantees.
 
Success is an experience you imagine but, by definition, is not something you already have.
 
How can you know if you will enjoy it as you think you will? You don’t know. You can’t. You have to work to achieve it and then, once you achieve it, you will know what it is to you.
 
There’s a good chance it won’t be what you expect.

The better thing than going for some sort of success is so stupid-easy it’s stupid. Easy.
 
Instead of focusing on eventual success, focus on having a good day. Today. This day.
 
You know how you feel right now. And if you pay attention to your choices, you can learn what helps you feel joyful, valuable, loved, cared for, caring, helpful, needed, free, accepted, accepting, so on.
 
You focus on the things that help you feel more of the good stuff. Not lazy, instant-gratification kind of things, by the way. You know the difference. If you don’t, let’s talk about it; there is a big difference between doing what makes you feel good and doing what gives you instant gratification.
 
I know that writing is a thing that makes me feel good. Good in that heart-deep, brain-stirring, energizing, beautifully exhausting kind of way. The feeling good of writing is with me while I’m writing and stays with me as satisfaction long after I’ve written.
 
Instant gratification stuff, on the other hand, is surface-level, mind-numbing, and draining. The gratification is instant but dissipates almost as instantly. The satisfaction is short-lived.
 
I know how I feel when I create something with words and publish it.
 
That’s the magic combination, for me.
 
I enjoy creating something with words, at any time. But publishing it is magic. Magic! Someone can read this now. That’s crazy. I love that so much.
 
I don’t want to stop and ask myself a million questions about why I love it so much. I don’t want to plan and plot and scheme about how I can manage to keep doing this thing I love so much. Instead, I’ll keep doing it. That’s all.
 
The rest is all a form of worry.
 
What a negative, self-annihilating worry it is, too! My brain has such difficulty accepting the feeling good that it freaks out.
 
“Ahhhh! I am doing a thing that I love! It feels good! I like feeling good! But what if it goes away! Then how will I feel! I must protect the feeling good! I must guarantee more of this thing! I must figure out why it feels good! I must understand the mystery! I must have a plan!”
 
My brain. Silly, silly brain. It can’t accept the feeling good as a gift. It can’t imagine that more could come, beautifully, simply, freely, as a gift. It can’t relax into the feeling good.
 
Such self-judgment and such self-protection. So telling, isn’t it?
 
My brain can learn. I can learn. I can sink into writing, sink into doing what is good for me, relax into it, enjoy it.
 
I can do it without asking why. I can write without having a plan for how I will get to continue writing.
 
It is here, now. Thank you. I accept it.
 
Thank you, Internet. Thank you, WordPress. Thank you, self-publishing. Thank you, ebooks. Thank you, job that reminded me what I don’t want to be so I could remember who I am. Thank you, typing software that my Mom bought in 1996. Thank you, hundreds of blog posts and articles that have given me the confidence for this moment. Thank you, hours of client work that have given me the skill. Thank you to every friend who has ever encouraged me. Thank you to the 17 people who visited my blog yesterday. Thank you, white desk and white chair and white window frame and tall white tree outside of window and all the green of vines and leaves and growing things behind the tall white tree and the sun behind white clouds and the coffee in my mug.

Clutter

a. Things you have no use for; things which are just there. Mental or physical, psychic or tangible: unnecessary, unhelpful, often harmful though in a slow, creeping, insidious way that you might not notice.

b. Different than mess. Mess is produced by making, creating, exploring, discovering, playing, working, learning… You know, living. Mess is a natural byproduct of life. Mess is the stack of books you’ve read or want to read or are reading. Clutter is the stack of books you haven’t read, don’t want to read, and never will get around to reading. Mess is created by what you’re doing. Clutter is created by what you’re avoiding.

c. The natural enemy of simplicity. Clutter creates a state of disorder which, in turn, creates a feeling of unrest and unfinished business, of urgency, of stress and anxiety and an overwhelming desire to just chuck it all and flee to the Bahamas. Few of us actually do chuck it all and flee to the Bahamas. If we did, we might find that simplicity after all, thanks to clutter.

d. A state of being that can spread throughout one’s mental or physical environment. It affects your energy, your clarity, your sense of self, your sense of space, your whole experience.

e. A thief of both motivation and calm. Clutter forces you to spend time and energy on the mundane, the unimportant, the things you really don’t care about. As long as you have to slog through a morass of clutter every day, you’ll feel alternately frustrated, dissatisfied, exhausted, guilty, ashamed, and resentful of how you’re living your life. A way out? Be brave. Be honest. Use these phrases: “I don’t want that. I don’t need that. I don’t actually care about that.” Letting go is good. Give yourself more space for the important messes of life by clearing out the pointless clutter.

Simple rules, again

There is a pattern in many of my failures, my unsuccessful attempts at… whatever: I got too complicated. I created too many rules. I overwhelmed myself because the mental effort of remembering and following and tinkering with and optimizing and applying the rules was too much. The complication depleted my energy and intellectual capacity. I used up my power managing a complex system rather than doing the thing I wanted to do.

Simple rules. Simple rules help you avoid complexity. Well, they help me. Maybe they will help you, too.

Writing, for example.
I’ve tried so many systems to get myself to achieve my writing goals. I’ve used spreadsheets and apps, kept lists and notes and records, tracked word counts, and established project milestones. I’ve devised and followed a writing process. I’ve sorted writing projects into different categories, and assigned blocks of time or days of the week to each category. I’ve set daily minimums and implemented accountability systems.

Some of those things have been helpful (particularly a writing process and daily minimums).

Most of those things have been more of a burden than a help.

What’s worked best for me in writing is one simple rule: write every day.

A simple rule works because I can have one of those completely mindless days and still stick to it. And let’s be real: I have as many mindless days as I have mindful days. Complicated systems ruin both, actually. On mindless days, when it’s a struggle to focus and my head feels like its on backward, following a complicated system requires more concentration and willpower than I can muster.

On mindful days, when I am in the zone and know what I am about and feel inspired, complicated systems waste that energy and focus and interrupt the flow demanding complex hoop-jumping instead of me just doing the work.

Some systems need to be complicated to work. Complexity is not the problem. Needless complexity is a problem. Complexity should have a purpose. Complexity beyond the needed purpose is over-complication. On good days, it slows the work. On bad days, it prevents the work altogether. When used consistently, over-complication can destroy the work.

A simple rule or two will give you a baseline.
Sticking to a baseline will build your skills and your confidence.
Growing your skills and confidence will help you deepen your commitment and increase your production.

Small version first

Build a small version first.

Whatever it is.

The thing you want to do. That big thing you want to do.

There’s a small version of it, and you can build it right now.

You don’t have to be an expert to build a small version. Think of it as a model. A prototype. It’s just an experiment. Play around with it.

Tinker.

The small version of a novel is a short story.
The small version of a maker space is a workshop in your garage that you invite your friends to come use.
The small version of a workshop in your garage is a table in the corner with a few tools on it.
The small version of a nonfiction book is a blog post, an article, a research paper.
The small version of building a supportive community is having one person over for dinner.
The small version of owning a business is making one sale.
The small version of being an artist is making one piece of art.
The small version of making a living from your art is selling one piece of art.
The small version of being financially secure is paying a bill.
The small version of getting out of debt is reducing or eliminating one bill.
The small version of running a marathon is running one lap at the track.
The small version of changing the world is changing one thing about your own life.

Give up the fallacy of building up a lofty goal or vision and “waiting until you’re ready” to complete it.

Instead look at how you can do a small version of what you want to do.

Do it.

Do you love it? Does it bring you joy? Does it create value? Do you want to do more of it?

Scale up.