Of Ruts and Routines

I have to confess something. Something that's very hard for me to admit.

I've been in a rut.

The past couple of weeks, I've struggled to put pen to paper or fingers to keys. I felt trapped in this vicious cycle of not writing, then feeling bad for not writing, and then not writing because I feel bad. Days would pass where I didn't even look at my manuscript, even though it called out to me in a spooky ghost voice, "Revise me... Revise me and you'll feel better..." But did I listen? Nope. I hid in front of the TV, falling ever deeper into a well of self-pity and just general funk-i-tude. Everything just felt "off" and "wrong."

I knew I'd feel better once I started writing again, but I just couldn't drag myself out of my procrastination gloom. Until, that is, I remembered Susan Dennard (who I not-so-secretly consider my own personal Writing Guru) had started a series of blog posts about productivity. I hopped over to her blog, reread the initial post, and then worked my way through her posts on the Productivity Pyramid: Ritual, Routine, Rhythm, and Realism, Reset, and Record. I read them all once, then circled back around to read them again, this time taking note of how to apply each technique to my own life (and fit it around the Day Job).

As I pondered each piece of her productivity puzzle, I found that I could fit them into my life more easily than I thought I would. Oftentimes, I get hung up on the fact that most of my favorite authors write full-time, whereas I work a Day Job. But as it turned out, I could still better plan my days to fit in the much needed, consistent, writing time. If you're struggling to find time for your creative pursuits, I highly recommend you read the Dennard's posts. I'm not going to rehash her ideas in this post (she did such a great job explaining things, there's no reason for me to muddy it up), but I will share how I'm incorporating those concepts in my own life.

First, a quick note: I went through all the planning of the routine, rituals, etc., last night, blocked out my day in my calendar, and started following my new routine this morning, so I can't say with any certainty how well this is all going to work, other than to say I'm very optimistic about it. I'll check back in a few weeks to report how well it worked.

When looking at all the different "R" words, I found that Ritual, Rhythm, and Reset all really informed how I should set up my Routine. Realism and Record functioned as a secondary set of "fail safes" that would work together to help keep me motivated while using this new routine.

From Susan's post on Rhythm, I learned that creative sessions should include breaks whenever a session is more than 90 minutes long, and Reset explained that those breaks should be true brain breaks, so no Facebook, email, or twitter while I'm breaking between writing sprints. Those posts also advised doing the harder tasks first, while your brain is fresh and energized. Meaning I should do big revisions before line edits, for example. With all that in mind, I set up my Routine to look something like this:

7AM - Wake up and start pre-writing ritual (get a glass of water, settle into writing space, turn on music, etc.)
7:30 - Start writing/revising
9:00 - Shower and get ready for work
10:00 - Work
5PM - Get home from work, cook, and eat dinner
6PM - Repeat pre-writing ritual, write for 60 mins, 10 min break, write until 8-ish
8PM - Hit the gym, relax with a book or movie, clean up apartment, whatever I want
11 PM - Bed

There are some variations to this schedule (such as staff meetings Monday nights and my critique group meetings on Wednesdays) and the weekends are obviously a bit different since I don't have work, but also wanted to give myself plenty of flexibility to hang out with friends, etc., but this is more-or-less my schedule, seven days a week. Another key to this schedule is the writing block first thing in the morning. That way, if something comes up, and I want to go out with friends after work, I will have already written that day, and won't feel guilty about missing my second session.

Normally, I'm horrible about hitting the snooze button (sometimes for as long as an hour or two...), but this morning I hopped right out of bed, excited to work on my novel. And you know what? That chapter I'd been avoiding for the past five or six days? It's done! It felt so amazing to make real progress on my writing, before even getting to work! And knowing I have a nice two-hour block to work again tonight is both exciting (yay for more writing!) and freeing, since I'm not expecting myself to write all night.

Where the last two pieces of the productivity puzzle come into play, is in how I frame my goals for each writing day and how I track that progress. According to Susan's post, Realism is key to goal setting. By setting easily achievable goals, goals that you can easily hit every single day, you build momentum. And that momentum? It ultimately pushes you to reach your goals faster than if you set lofty daily goals that you couldn't always meet. So while I can writing 6,000+ words in one day (as evidenced by some of my daily totals during NaNo), I can't do that every day. But I can write 1,000 words every day (or revise one scene - if I'm in revision rather than drafting mode).

Still not sure how setting realistic goals helps? Consider this:

One day, you sit down to work, and write 3,000 words.

Imagine you set your goal too high, at 6,000 words. In that case, those 3,000 words feel like failure! You feel like you didn't do enough. You're frustrated and perhaps you lose your writing confidence and don't feel like writing for a few days.

Now this time, imagine you set a realistic goal: 1,000 words. Now those same 3,000 words you wrote feel AMAZING! You tripled your goal! You exceeded your own expectations! Those same 3,000 words that destroyed your confidence in the first scenario now make you feel awesome and inspire you to write again.

See the difference?

To take it to that final level of productivity bliss, we have Record. You'll remember from my NaNo series back in November that I kept track of my daily word count while I was drafting, but I haven't been so great about doing that when I revise.

According to Susan's post, recording your progress helps you to see how far you've already gone, instead of just how far you have left to go.

That's something I've struggled with during my current revision. I kept looking at the thick stack of unrevised manuscript pages, stressing about how much more I had to do. So now, I'm keeping track of what I accomplish in the back of the spiral notebook I used for brainstorming and scene sketching A STOLEN THRONE. So now, everything from brainstorming to revision is in that notebook, which in and of itself is pretty cool. Plus, I'll be able to see how much I'm accomplishing all in one place, instead of just seeing the huge stack of untouched papers.

I'm really excited to give this new routine a try. I have a good feeling that my productivity is going to skyrocket while also allowing me to feel less stressed and more balanced. I'm feeling hopeful that having a "writing session" in the evening instead of trying to write all night will help me do things like, oh I don't know, get to the gym and actually cook dinner. Here's hoping!

You tell me: do you have a regular routine to fit in writing time? Or do you sneak time where ever you find it? Let me know in the comments!

-Isabel