A few years ago, I took a leave of absence from work to write a book. The best part about that period of my life is I was my own boss. There was a deadline, but how I spent my days working toward it was up to me.
That was also the most stressful thing about writing a book.
I woke up every morning knowing exactly how many words I’d written, and about how many more I had to go.
Fortunately, I figured out a daily work schedule that helped me write quickly and keep my stress in check.
(Some stress is good, if it’s the kind that keeps you moving toward a goal.)
Here’s how I structured my morning:
During that hour — until the timer went off — I allowed myself to do one of two things: write or stare. That meant no looking at my phone, checking email, reading news, or anything else.
If I had to go the bathroom, I allowed myself to pause the timer and go. Then when I sat back down at my desk, I’d start the timer again. Same thing for getting a cup of coffee or a handful of almonds.
After the hour was up, I’d stand up and go on a 15 minute walk around a nearby block. Then I’d come back and do another hour of writing or staring.
(If I ever felt writer’s block, by the way, I had another trick: Scroll up a few pages and revise what I’d previously written. This almost always got me going again.)
I did three hour units like this every morning. Then I would go to lunch. I’d walk somewhere nearby and eat lazily, reading and relaxing over my food. Then I would go on another walk to the park and walk home. Lunches usually lasted about 1.5 hours.
Then I’d head back to my desk, and start two more hour units to finish the day — unless I hadn’t reached 2,000 words written for the day. If I hadn’t, I would then do one more hour unit. Even if I didn’t reach 2,000 words after that, I would call it quits. I was usually done right around 5pm.
At night I would totally relax. I was trying to write a sharp narrative, so I watched a lot of movies and TV shows with good plots. I quit drinking all alcohol as my deadline approached and found my thinking sharper and daily word counts higher. (I have since returned to drinking some!)
It turns out this work-hard-in-chunks strategy wasn’t unique to me. It’s similar to the popular Pomodoro Technique, where you write or perform a task for 25 minutes and take a 5 minute break.
I thought the reason this hack worked so well for me was that, even in the midst of a tough working stretch, I always felt like a short break was near — and that a really long break wasn’t far away at all. Later though, I read about a couple of studies that show interrupting work with some exercises, like a quick walk, makes you more productive and creative.
Georgia Tech organizational psychologist Howard Weiss calls these intense work periods “performance episodes,” or a distinct period of time where you intensely focus on the task at hand. And the the default mode of the brain is actually to wander, so it can be healthy to carve out times to let it (and also, to restrain it).
My book-writing routine might not work for everyone!
Paul Graham, founder of start-up accelerator program Y Combinator, talks about how most bosses are on “manager schedules,” with their days broken up constantly by back-to-back meetings. Then there are “maker schedules” for creators like writers or engineers, who often require full, uninterrupted half days to get anything done. Many Insider Inc. writers operate like this.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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