When I’m not writing for clients or publishing books, I spend a lot of time in my basement.
No, I’m not a recluse. And no, I don’t live with my parents. I’m a woodworker.
The bookcase analogy
I run a little wood shop out of my basement, which was never something I dreamed of doing. In my younger years, I was a reader and a writer – traits that carried over to my professional career. But thanks to a number of different factors I won’t get into here, I sat down in my garage in the summer of 2014 and built a bookcase for my son, who was not born yet.
I bought a few tools and a pile of wood. Then I printed off instructions, stapled them together, and took them into the garage with me.
By the end of that week, I had a beautiful oak cubby bookcase that still stands in my son’s bedroom, now shared with his little brother. How did I, not a woodworker at all, build and assemble a bookcase from scratch?
The same way, as the old saying goes, you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.
I didn’t sit down with a picture of a finished bookcase and then try to build it. I didn’t stare down the list of instructions and wonder how to get it all accomplished.
There were pages of instructions, with diagrams of what I had to do. I simply opened the instructions to the next step and worked that step until I was done with it. Then I moved onto the next one.
On its own, the bookcase anecdote is not a riveting or unusual story. This is what we do when we’re building something, right? Yet, when we try to get some writing done, we stare at the page expecting to have a finished book as quickly as possible.
Any time that happens, you’ve already lost the war.
Overwhelm is a real problem in any line of work. The key to overcoming it and hitting a stride of productivity is to focus on the task at hand.
As writers, this means you can’t just look at the idea of a finished product and measure your success or failure against it. Rather, you have to find ways to break it down into milestones that will add up to the finished product when you’re all done.
Let’s look at how you can take this approach to a book – and remember, you can apply this knowledge to any type of writing.
First, you can’t multitask – narrow your focus
Multitasking is a myth. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that you can only work on one thing at a time.
“So what?” you might think to yourself. “We’re not talking about multitasking! We’re talking about writing!”
But you might still be trying to multitask.
If your brain is concerned with an entire book, for example, then it’s trying to multitask. A book isn’t one thing. It’s a collection of individual chapters that add up to a book.
Taking that further, a chapter is a collection of individual paragraphs.
A paragraph is a collection of individual sentences.
If a book is too overwhelming for you, then just focus on writing the next chapter. If the chapter is too much, think of writing the next paragraph. Or the next sentence. Keep breaking down the work until it’s easier for you to digest – and spur yourself into action.
When I built that bookcase, I didn’t start the project concerning myself with getting the shelves assembled and square. I didn’t think about the best way to apply stain or what protective coating to use.
I focused on Step 1 of the “cut list”. I took the eight-foot 1x12s and cut them one at a time. Then I grabbed the 1x2s and cut those up. I couldn’t do any of the other steps without having the wood cut up first.
Then, I attached one side to the bottom shelf, because that was the next step. I didn’t pay any attention to the steps ahead because I had to finish the one in front of me first.
Why aren’t we taking this approach with writing?
When you stare down the barrel of a big project, you run into a lot of resistance. Turning the job into smaller steps allows you to build momentum as you check each one off – and momentum beats resistance.
Take the judgment out of the equation. This isn’t the time for pride. You might feel lame putting, “Write a paragraph for Chapter 7” on your to-do list. Who cares? Better to be lame and productive than cool and unproductive, right?
Next, arm yourself
Sure, I had a pile of wood to build a bookcase. But if I didn’t have the right tools, there would be no building one.
I had to invest a little bit in the project. I bought a circular saw, a long metal straight-edge, and a better drill. I even bought a small workbench so that I could build at waist-height instead of crawling around on the garage floor.
The right tools can make any job seem easier. And it doesn’t take much to make a huge difference. I could have spent hundreds of dollars on tools. But I spent less than $100 on a saw and drill. I think the workbench cost me fifty bucks.
That was all I needed to build a really great bookcase. To write a really great book, you need the right tools, and it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot.
You don’t need a fancy computer, but you do need something to write with. Many people write in Google Docs (yours truly included), so a cheap Chromebook could be plenty.
Since you have your writing tools, now you just have to take care of the rest of the things holding you back. You can plan your work in a Google Doc, or you can get a nice paper notebook to organize your game plan.
Finally, productive writers don’t deal with distractions – they eliminate them entirely.
You can make distraction-busting automatic with a good app. Some are free and very effective. Personally, I bought a lifetime subscription to Freedom so that I could block distractions on any device.
Heck, it might be as simple (and free!) as turning off the Wi-Fi on your computer.
Still feeling resistance? Add a simple Pomodoro timer to the equation. You already have your tiny bite-sized tasks in front of you. Set a timer for 25 minutes and get after the first one. When you’re done with 25 minutes, take a break.
This is a great way to break up your day. You don’t need to write for 4 hours – you only have to write for 25 minutes. Then do it again. And again. One at a time, these little “bites” of productivity add up.
There’s no right or wrong way to arm yourself with the tools needed to get the job done. But you do have to make sure you are equipping yourself with the tools that work for you.
I could build a bookcase with a hacksaw, some wood glue, and nails, but it was easier and better with a circular saw and a drill. Today, I would use my table saw and cordless drill with countersink drill bits. What tools would make your job easier?
Finally, have faith in “compound productivity”
Let’s say I want to write two books this year.
To many writers, two books in one year is amazing! Unbelievable! I must be insanely focused and productive, right?
While any writing is impressive and should be celebrated, two books a year is actually pretty easy when you break it down into tiny chunks.
If, say, I’m aiming to write novels that are 80,000 words in length, that would mean I have to write 160,000 words in one year. That’s just 439 words per day.
Suppose I aim to write 1,000 words per day. That’s not impossible at all, and it would result in 365,000 words written in one year. I would have four novels completed, and half of a fifth one done!
Small tasks add up over time. It’s that simple. Stack them on top of each other, and you’ll make huge gains.
As long as you put one foot in front of the other, you’ll keep moving forward. That’s why focusing on just the next step is the key to knocking out larger works. You don’t need to write 160,000 words. You just need to lock down around 500 words today. That’s a goal you can manage.
Trust the process, and the end result will be what you’re looking for after all.
Stop letting yourself get overwhelmed
We writers are prone to bouts of overwhelm and panic. We talk ourselves out of productivity all the time.
And we need to stop.
Rather than let your emotions get the better of you, break down your goals and build days of productivity centered around achievable results that you can repeat over and over again.
Before you know it, you’ll have a backlog of books completed, and momentum you can build a career around.
You can’t do that until you take your eyes off the forest and focus on chopping down that next tree. Go get your ax and start swinging.