Discover the best writing productivity systems for writers. Use these to manage your writing and creative projects.
Years ago, an editor nearly fired me because I kept missing my deadlines. I was hopelessly ineffective as a writer. Since then I’ve spent years reading about and trying different productivity systems.
Today, you can pick from dozens of established writing productivity systems. Each one offers various ways workers can manage their day or projects. Many of these systems borrow elements from each other, and some are more popular than others.
These systems come with a range of apps, software programs, and various supporting materials and books. But what types are best for creatives and writers? And will they help you overcome procrastination and start writing faster?
First the bad news. I’ve spent years reading the best productivity books. The perfect productivity system doesn’t exist. Now the good news. You can still accomplish a lot if you pick one and stick with it. Below, I profile some of the more popular productivity systems for writing.
1. Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of the more popular personal productivity techniques. Also known as GTD, it’s an American system that’s been around for 20 years, although Allen describes the methodology as “old as dirt.”
GTD breaks goals and projects into a series of Next Actions and Outcomes, which the user must track and put in a place that they regularly review. They also review all of their various inboxes or buckets regularly, e.g., Evernote, email, social media messages, loose notes, etc.
You can browse several productivity books, a host of websites, podcasts and other online resources about this system. Adoptees affectionately described themselves as GTD-ers. Time magazine even described the first book about the system as “the self-help business book of its time.”
I use the concept of a weekly review from this system to evaluate the status of my writing projects (blog posts, articles, and other websites).
Every Friday, I review my calendar for the proceeding and preceding week. I ask myself what commitments do I want to keep and what ones do I want to cancel. I also examine how much time I spent writing. This weekly review helps me progress on my writing goals.
I’ve used this writing productivity system for years. It’s ideal for busy freelance writers who must manage other parts of their business with the act of writing.
Listen to my interview with David Allen
2. The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It essentially involves breaking work down into manageable chunks of timed 25-minute sessions.
These blocks of work are separated by short breaks of three to five minutes. After four Pomodoro sessions, the user takes a longer 15-30 minute break. The user also records and tracks all their work using special tracking sheets. All you really need is a laptop, a timer and somewhere to work, i.e., your office, or a coffee shop.
I regularly use this technique as part of my writing productivity system. It helps me find time for single-tasking, for example, writing a first draft that I’m procrastinating about. It’s easy to apply and helps with getting into a state of deep focus.
Listen to my interview with Francesco Cirillo
3. Streaks AKA Don’t Break The Chain
Streaks is a simple productivity technique developed by the comedy writer Jerry Seinfeld. He came up with this technique after deciding that he needed to do one thing every day: write a joke. Each day he wrote a joke, he marked a large X on a yearly wall calendar. His idea was to build up a chain of Xs or streaks he felt reluctant to break. I’ve used this method extensively and blogged about it here.
I use it as part of my writing productivity system when faced with a blank page or a target word-count for the week. Basically, I must achieve a certain word-count to claim my X as part of my daily writing session. You can use a simple wall calendar or download a dedicated app like Streaks.
4. The Action Method
Action Method is a task management system for people and teams. It has a lot in common with Getting Things Done, but it’s more geared towards creative professionals who need to put their ideas into reality. It’s also designed with teams in mind.
This method asks adoptees to consider the verb of each task e.g. “write a blog post” and not “blog post”.
It also provides users with a way to track and delegate tasks, accept and reject projects. The Action Method comes with various purpose-built software offerings, which should ease the transition for new adoptees.
In summary, it focuses on the rather self-explanatory Action Steps, Backburner Items, and Reference Items. I don’t use this system as part of my current writing productivity system.
5. Personal Kanban
Kanban is a Japanese productivity technique developed by Taiichi Ohno. It has influenced everything from manufacturing processes to IT development. You can easily adapt this system to manage your writing time too.
Personal Kanban is a derivative of Kanban developed by Jim Benson. It asks adoptees to visualize their work and limit their work in progress. Adoptees use a Personal Kanban board that breaks down a person’s projects into “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”.
This lets them see work they’ve yet to get to, as well as work in progress and work accomplished. Personal Kanban is simple to use, and adoptees can rely on electronic versions like Trello or simply use a whiteboard with sticky notes.
This is minimalism at its finest. I use this system to manage multiple writing projects, for example, blog posts by other writers. Personal Kanban is also a good system if you’re engaged in the discipline of content marketing. It will help you track complicated projects and metrics.
Read my guide to personal kanban with Trello
6. Franklin Planner
Developed by Stephen Covey, this methodology forms part of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The planner has been around for over twenty years and has evolved into a popular productivity system trusted by many business people.
This type of planner is similar to a Filofax. It consolidates tasks, appointments, and personal notes in one place. It asks users to set goals and organize their time by considering the entire week and not just each day.
This planner comes with a weekly schedule sheet, including space for an individual’s roles, goals, daily and weekly priorities, and appointments. Users should review their schedule at the start of each day to effectively plan and prioritize.
Writing Productivity Systems: The Final Word
I currently use Personal Kanban the most, but I also apply elements from GTD and The Pomodoro Technique: specifically the weekly review and timed blocks of focused work.
It’s possible to spend hours avoiding writing because you’re searching for the perfect tools, methods and apps. The perfect productivity system doesn’t exist, and it’s more effective to pick one method that supports your writing process. Remember, analysis can become a form of paralysis. Stick with one system and start writing. If you like this article, check out my list of productivity tips for writers.
How can I be productive in personal projects?
Pick one project and break it down into smaller tasks that you can easily accomplish. Keep track of each of these tasks in one place and commit to ticking them off one by one. Work on a specific task without stopping until it’s done. When you complete a project, review what worked. Then, move on to the next one.