This is my write-up of the notes I took during a session on Productivity & Balance given by Nalini Singh at the Romance Writers of New Zealand 2021 conference in Wellington. As such, her actual words have been paraphrased and filtered through the chaos labyrinth of my own brain, so you should attribute all the useful bits to Nalini and any bits that don’t make sense to me.
I’ve been a fan of Nalini’s work ever since I picked up Angel’s Blood back when I was at uni in 2009, and every time I meet her, I try and utterly fail not to crazily fangirl at her. (She, however, is always kind and professional.)
The overall thrust of Nalini’s talk was that you can’t be creative if you’re burned out, and that you need to build a work schedule that is sustainable over the long term. These were her tips, although she added the caveat that she is not the productivity police.
I found this such an inspiring session, although also somewhat daunting thinking about the long term in so serious a fashion. There’s an imposter in my brain that whispers “who are you to think you deserve to take this seriously?”. Shush, imposter. Shush.
You need to build a schedule that doesn’t exhaust you. You can’t keep up a relentless punishing schedule in the long term. It’s easy to build a ‘fantasy schedule’ that maximises productivity on paper but that will never work in reality, because there’s no room in it for anything unexpected or for all the non-writing tasks that surround writing, especially if you’re indie.
Instead of a fantasy schedule, build in buffer time for unexpected things to happen. If nothing unexpected comes up, you’ll be ahead of schedule, but if your mum rings or the dog is sick or you need to spend two hours talking to Amazon customer service because your book page has mysteriously disappeared, you’ll already have the buffer in your schedule to cope with it.
Write down your schedule for the day before you start but adjust it as you go on your writing days according to what comes up i.e. keep track of what you did, even if it’s not writing related. Then even if you were only able to write for 15 minutes, you’ll still be able to see it as an achievement within that day’s context.
Don’t schedule every day / writing day you have (e.g. if you can only write on Mondays, don’t schedule writing every Monday between now and deadline). Build in unscheduled buffer days. Nalini doesn’t write on weekends.
Set a knock-off time (especially applies if you write full-time). This creates ‘time scarcity’ for your brain and helps you to be motivated on getting things done. Otherwise it’s tempting to stretch tasks out to fill all the time there is.
Set yourself up to start more easily tomorrow before you finish for the day e.g. leave a chapter slightly undone or leave yourself a note of what you were planning to do next. Put this ‘setting up for tomorrow’ time in your schedule for the end of the day!
Relax consciously. Choose to watch TV or garden or chat on the internet; don’t default to e.g. scrolling through FB without making an active choice about how you are going to spend your leisure time.
Writing cues can help switch your brain into ‘writing mode’ e.g. a certain playlist you listen to when you start your writing session. Nalini uses a selection of rain sounds. I’ve also used this before and can recommend ‘rainy day cafe’ sounds and gaming music.
Quality rather than quantity time. You can write a whole book in short bursts if that’s the only time you have and you focus. Each time you interrupt your brain it derails your focus for a much longer period of time than just the 30 seconds it took to check Twitter.
Batch email and social media – set aside a block of time(s) throughout your working day. Don’t check them consistently throughout the day.
Create new norms and set boundaries – people don’t need to expect an immediate response. You can train them to understand your schedule e.g. not checking emails on weekends.
Turn off notifications.
Does the WiFi need to be on constantly? Maybe you could turn it off for 45 minutes while you do a writing session! (oh, it sounds so simple, but so hard!!!)
Set goals that are realistic and can be achieved through your own efforts. That way you get the satisfaction of achieving them, which is an emotional boost that gives you the motivation to aim for bigger goals. E.g. “I am going to apply for a Bookbub every month this year” (achievable) vs “I am going to get two Bookbubs this year” (not within your power to control)
It is OK to take the longer road!
Nalini likes to do two different projects at a time: a main project and secondary project. The main project gets the bulk of the writing time, but being able to switch between two different things at a time helps her stay motivated and interested. Nalini recommends a secondary project that is either:
- A completely different type of project
- At a completely different stage in the process than the main project
Her advice is to not commit publicly to the secondary project or put it in your release schedule – this should be your stress-free exploratory time without pressure. No one’s going to be mad when you tell people hooray there’s a surprise unexpected book! Nalini reckons it’s especially helpful if your main project is very written to market.
You’re trying to run a one-person small publishing company. The work involved in this gets bigger the bigger you get. If you can delegate, delegate; only you can do the writing!
You became a writer because you love reading. Make space for it.
Look after your body
You can only work from a laptop on the couch for so long before it catches up with you.
I’m expanding out from Nalini’s session to include the tips from multiple people here. The whole panel of guests were asked how they looked after their wrists, and they all gave really intense, thoughtful answers, which goes to show this is a topic of great interest to writers! Things that they found helpful:
- Mechanical keyboard
- Gaming chair
- Standing desk
- Compression gloves
- Software that blanks their screen for e.g. 3 minutes every 1 hour and locks them out so they have no choice but to swear at it and then go stretch
- Scheduling excercise into the middle of the writing day