She says her home life actually helps her stay productive. She only has child care during certain hours, so “my creativity needs to strike during those hours,” she said.
For writing projects specifically, her advice was to “write fast, edit slow.” She aims to write a chapter every week, and within that week, to write the bulk of the chapter on Monday and Tuesday. That means she’s often pumping out as many as 4,000 words a day. Then, Wednesday and Thursday are for editing, and Friday is a “catch-up” day, a net in case you fall off your productivity high wire earlier. The key is to write a really crappy first draft, then take extra care in rewriting it.
Why writers are the worst procrastinators
“When you write a lot … you know that the first thing you write is not going to be perfect,” she said. “You’re going to be writing all sorts of stuff that won’t be in the final draft, including writing ‘insert this thing here’ in brackets. You will make it better, but it’s so much easier to turn something into something better than to turn nothing into something.”
Phew, that’s reassuring. The ugly sentences I see on my screen aren’t really my writing, they’re my little book embryos, with flipper hands and a tail. My beautiful word baby won’t emerge till months from now.
What not to do? Wait till the last minute, Vanderkam says. Besides, if you get done early, you can take a break from your work and come back to it with fresh(er) eyes.
Not that you would ever put things off, anyway. Joseph R. Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University, told me that most people are just occasional dawdlers. “Chronic procrastinators,” Ferrari said, make up only about 20 percent of the population, and the only way to help them is therapy. I don’t know if I’m in that 20 percent, but getting special anti-procrastination therapy seems like exactly the kind of thing I would do to procrastinate. I might also clean up my desk—which, it turns out, might actually work. In one study Ferrari recently did with colleagues, people’s level of clutter predicted their tendency to procrastinate.
Sometimes, though, I clean because I feel like I’m not in the right “mood” to write. But mood is meaningless when it comes to getting things done, as Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Washington Post in 2016. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it,” he said. It’s also a myth that you need a “good chunk of time” to really get going on something. The famously productive business writer and Wharton professor Adam Grant says he’ll even use the eight minutes between meetings to get started on a project.
Getting started—and other small victories—might be all it takes. Linda Houser-Marko, a research psychologist at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, once did a study in which she found that it’s better to measure your progress toward large projects in terms of smaller, incremental “subgoals”—whether it be a chapter of the book or a small portion of your dissertation—rather than the larger objective. This is especially helpful when you struggle, she found. “The higher-level goal might give you more meaning, but the lower-level goal is better when you have setbacks or when you’re not making as much progress,” she told me.