This article provides proven strategies to improve your writing productivity.
As a productivity nerd, I've spent hours reading books, testing apps and obsessing over what the perfect to-do list looks like.
(Pro tip: It's perfect if you use it).
Although much advice about productivity relates to the workplace, freelance writers can use some strategies to accomplish more. These productivity strategies will also help writers who're balancing the creative life by paying the bills.
- 1. Start With The End In Mind
- 2. Create an Effective Morning Routine
- 3. Prepare Your Writing Work In Advance
- 4. Keep A To-Do List
- 5. Pick One Productivity App, Stick With It
- 5. Plan With Your Calendar
- 6. Do It Right Away If It Takes Less Than Two Minutes
- 7. Track Your Progress Like an Accountant
- 8. Eliminate Distractions
- 9. Harness The Power Of Small Daily Wins
- 10. Hold A Weekly Review
- 11. Think In Terms of Systems
- Writing Productivity: The Final Word
- Interview: Simple Steps to Becoming a More Productive Writer With Arthur Worsley
1. Start With The End In Mind
It's easy to spend the day on busywork: long meetings, lengthy email chains, an endless stream of notifications, and more. Instead, clarify what you want to have accomplished by the end of each week.
Then work toward that. Depending on your priorities, these steps might include a set number of interviews, a blog post, or a book chapter.
Then, make room for smaller activities that sap your time and energy. As a writer, for example, my output includes one to three finished articles per week.
I can make time for Twitter and Instagram after I've finished writing those articles.
2. Create an Effective Morning Routine
Should you get up at 5:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m.? Is it better to meditate or exercise first thing? And just how much caffeine is enough before breakfast?
Although it's nice to wake up early, your rising time is less important than having an hour or two to write without interruption before the demands of the day take over. You can use that time to write a book or on freelance projects for high-paying clients.
3. Prepare Your Writing Work In Advance
Have you ever sat down at your desk first thing, read the news, checked your email, and thought about doing everything but work? Then, when you finally feel guilty enough to start, you spend another thirty minutes opening up your writing project and looking for a place to begin.
Instead, prepare your work the night before. Arrange your notes and research in one place.
Leave a note to yourself about exactly where to start. You might, for example, record the phone number of a customer next to a list of questions to ask.
The trick is to make it as easy as possible to start writing when you sit down the following day. You don't want to have to spend any time looking for your notes.
4. Keep A To-Do List
In Getting Things Done, the business productivity author David Allen famously wrote,
Writers have creative ideas, lots of them. If you struggle to keep track, a to-do-list is your friend. It'll foster creativity by liberating you from worrying about updating your website or filing a tax return.
All of these mundane ideas belong in a single productivity tool. The reassuring ding or swoosh of completing an item in Things, Trello, or Asana should fill you with an alarming sense of satisfaction.
Like an artful gardener, take special pride in weeding out items from your to-do list that you've no intention of completing.
- Getting Things Done The Art of Stress Free Productivity
- Allen, David (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 352 Pages - 03/17/2015 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)
5. Pick One Productivity App, Stick With It
What's this? Trello released a new desktop app. Now, you can use your fingerprint to log into 1Password. Evernote has redesigned its user experience for iOS.
Writers can choose from a plethora of productivity tools. Far better to pick one and stick to it. It might not be perfect, but your time is best spent writing.
Get into the habit of recording tasks throughout the day in on a spreadsheet, the notes app on your computer, or in a dedicated productivity app like Trello or ToDoist.
5. Plan With Your Calendar
A calendar is your shield and sword in the trenches of modern life. Use it to block book 30 or 60-minutes each day to work on your most important creative projects.
Then, fill the rest of that white space up with admin and meetings. Planning ahead means you can protect your writing time.
Ideally, review your calendar once a week, looking forwards and backwards to gauge if the items align with your writing goals.
6. Do It Right Away If It Takes Less Than Two Minutes
This strategy also comes from David Allen.
The psychological burden that comes with postponing tasks and logging them on your to-do list takes more time than if you'd attended to the item immediately.
You'll be surprised by what you can accomplish in 120 seconds, but if the activity takes longer, write it on your to-do list.
In Getting Things Done, Allen wrote,
“The rationale for the two-minute rule is that that's more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it's in your hands-in other words, it's the efficiency cutoff.”
7. Track Your Progress Like an Accountant
The old maxim “What gets measured gets done” is attributed to Peter Drucker among others. Record how long you spend on writing tasks for a week and record your word-count if applicable.
You don't need to do this in the long-term, but if you know how you're spending your time, you can decide what activities to purge and do more. An app like Harvest is useful for tracking how you're spending your hours.
Or you could track your day for a week in a spreadsheet. On Friday, review what's taking longer or less time than you imagined.
You can also see if you're spending enough time on key projects and too much on less valuable activities. This knowledge will enable you to plan for the week ahead.
8. Eliminate Distractions
If you want to cultivate a consistent writing habit, distractions are the enemy. They come in many forms.
When I was a young writer, I thought I need to go on a writing retreat to create. In reality, a retreat is expensive and impractical. Then, I discovered the power of white noise.
If you live in a house or apartment with other people, consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and use them as part of your writing practice. Similarly, Freedom App is useful for turning off social media sites like Twitter and Facebook when you've got work to do.
If you struggle with procrastination, you can even use this app to disable internet access entirely for a pre-determined period.
9. Harness The Power Of Small Daily Wins
Isaac Newton's first law of motion states:
This law applies to accomplishing more each week too. In other words, if you gain a little momentum on a writing project by working on it for just 30-minutes, you're far more likely to sustain this momentum for the working week.
Alternatively, if you attempt to power through a writing project during a single three- or four-hour blocks, it will take a lot more of your energy and time.
10. Hold A Weekly Review
The weekly review is an effective productivity tip for the overwhelmed. I also learned about the weekly review several years ago from Allen, and it's helped me avoid feeling stressed about balancing the writing process with a day job.
Once a week, spend 30-60 minutes reviewing what you worked on, what lessons you learned and what you want to accomplish next week.
11. Think In Terms of Systems
Stephen King writes 1,000 words per day, every day, so he doesn't have to worry about writer's block or having nothing to publish come deadline time.
Former U.S. Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink gets up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to train, so he doesn't have to worry about becoming unfit. (Visit his Instagram feed for motivational images that will get you out of bed!)
Warren Buffet reads every day for almost the entire day, so he recognises smart investments before his competitors.
Whatever your most important work looks like, create a system, so you focus on it, almost exclusively, in the same time or place. You'll know you've succeeded when it's become a habit you follow without question.
Use software if you must. For example, say you spend thirty minutes every day trying to arrange important calls with clients.
The calls are important, but the logistics are less so. You could put a time-saving system that automatically helps clients book times in your calendar using a tool like Calendly or Booklikeaboss.
Writing Productivity: The Final Word
Mastering writing productivity means knowing what to work on and when. Whether you're a freelancer, academic, or blogger, taking charge of your competing priorities will help you get more done and focus on becoming a better writer.
Productivity is something that's fascinated me over the years, in fact, it's how I started Become a Writer Today. It also led me to stay in touch with my guest Arthur Worsley, who I first met at a mastermind a couple of years ago.
He's an expert when it comes to productivity. His blog, the Art of Living (formerly Faster to Master), was created to show people how easy it is to stop working harder and accomplish more.
One of the big arguments against productivity is, you never get to the bottom of your to-do list, and this is one of the questions I put to Arthur. You'll find his reply helpful and insightful as you continue on your journey to becoming a more productive writer.
Interview: Simple Steps to Becoming a More Productive Writer With Arthur Worsley
Productivity is something that’s fascinated me over the years, in fact, it’s how I started Become a Writer Today.
It also led me to stay in touch with my guest Arthur Worsley, who I first met at a mastermind a couple of years ago.
He’s an expert when it comes to productivity. His blog, the Art of Living (formerly Faster to Master), was created to show people how easy it is to stop working harder and accomplish more.
One of the big arguments against productivity is, you never get to the bottom of your to-do list, and this is one of the questions I put to Arthur.
You’ll find his reply helpful and insightful as you continue on your journey to becoming a more productive writer.
In this episode I talk to Arthur about:
- What causes procrastination and how to overcome it
- Arthur's writing process for turning ideas into articles
- Tools and resources that he uses to structure his day
- His morning routine and how he prepares to write each day
- The importance of putting life, not work, first
Arthur: A lot of people, when they try and beat procrastination, they kind of go straight to the medicine without doing any of the diagnosis. They turn up at the doctor's and they just say, hey, give me these tips on how to cure myself. Without asking, okay, well, what is it that's actually causing you to procrastinate? And most importantly, I think people don't realize is the most important thing you can do when you procrastinate is learn when you procrastinate, because most people don't spot procrastinating until it's way too late.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become A Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What does it take to become a more productive writer? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become A Writer today podcast. And that's a question we're going to answer in this week's podcast interview, where I catch up with Arthur Worsley of Faster To Master. But before we get into this week's interview, productivity is actually something that I've been fascinated with over the years.
Bryan: And it's how I started my site, Become a Writer Today. Let me take you back to 2012. Back then, I spent a lot of time reading technology on productivity blogs like Lifehacker, which of course is still around today and bigger than ever. But I was fascinated with it about eight years ago. I was fascinated with it because I loved hearing about books like Getting Things Done and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Bryan: But I also love or loved learning little technical hacks that I could use to speed up my computer and fancy keyboard shortcuts that I could master to get things done a little bit quicker in Excel or Word for work. And I was so inspired by all of this that I set up a technology blog at the time, which was called Work, Read, Play. And this was around 2013.
Bryan: On that blog, I started sharing productivity and tech tips that I come across about keyboard shortcuts for Excel, quotes from books getting things done and so on. The site actually started getting a little bit of traffic and a bit of engagement, but then I realized that it was impossible for one Irish person in Ireland in a spare bedroom to keep up with a big news and technology website like Lifehacker.
Bryan: Because they have many journalists that they employ and professional writers, whereas I had a budget of zero. So I realized it's probably a mistake to set up a technology blog about productivity and I ended up shutting that site down and that led me to start Become a Writer Today.
Bryan: But I'm still always interested in productivity because I like learning about how I can accomplish more with software or tools or with the help of other people in my business and how I can apply insights from the world of productivity to write faster. And that's actually led me to things like dictation. So I still follow the space.
Bryan: I still read the books in the area. One of the big upcoming blogs in the productivity area is Faster to Master, which is Arthur's blog. But he doesn't necessarily talk about technology. He's more focused on how you can learn, how he can master topics and also how you can stop working harder and accomplish more.
Bryan: And in fact, his new book is actually called Stop Working Harder, 10 simple steps to take back control, do more with less and make big things happen. And I've known Arthur for about two years because we were in a mastermind together with John Morrow, where we got together with a group of other people with similar businesses and talked or explored about different ways we could grow our business and help more people.
Bryan: And I've still kept in touch with Arthur since we were in that mastermind and I've been really impressed by what he's doing on his site. For example, he has a fantastic resource if you're looking for something to read. I think he's cultivated books from a range of different disciplines, which can help you with everything from learning a language to how to succeed at work or in business or in self-help.
Bryan: Anyway, I recently had the chance to catch up with Arthur, and in the interview I put one of the big arguments against productivity, which is you can never get to the bottom of your to do list. In fact, productivity is just a way of forcing yourself to work harder and harder and harder to get more done. And eventually you'll just burn out because we're not meant to become productive like robots.
Bryan: And I really wanted to see what somebody who's an expert in the area would think of an argument against productivity like this. And I think you'll find Arthur's reply quite helpful and insightful whatever stage you're at, whether you're feeling burnt out, or you just want to accomplish a little bit more with your writing or your creative work.
Bryan: And of course, there's lots of other topics we cover in this week's interview. But before we get over to Arthur, I do have an ask. If you enjoy to Become a Writer Today podcast, and you're listening on iTunes or another store, please, can you go there now and leave a short rating or review?
Bryan: Because those ratings and reviews help more people find Become a Writer Today podcast. And I really want to grow the podcast and help more writers out there. So it would mean a lot to me if you could do it. And of course, if you've got feedback about the show, you can just send me an email, Bryan, B-R-Y-A-N@becomeawriter today.com or you can reach out to me on Twitter.
Bryan: That's @bryanjcollins, Bryan with a Y. Now with that said, let's go over to this week's interview. And I started by asking Arthur to give a bit of information about why he decided to set up Faster to Master and how got into the productivity niche in the first place.
Arthur: I guess, it really starts we all ... Like most people, I turned up on my first day at work and actually I started out when I was at university and I was entrepreneur, and I was trying to do my degree at the same time. And I was struggling. I was trying to take on as many, many things as I could. I was excited. I was trying to do all these things.
Arthur: And then I was just feeling so overwhelmed and I started reading productivity books. And I thought to myself, the first time I read a productivity book, I was actually more angry than I was excited because I thought to myself, how has no one in the last 20 years ever stopped and showed me this super basic stuff that I'm learning from these books?
Arthur: And that was a really big moment for me, like a learning experience. And then after that, I went and worked in finance and then I worked as a consultant for McKinsey. Before that, I'd been studying psychology at Oxford, so I went to McKinsey and the same thing happened.
Arthur: And I was with these people who are amazing at what they did, but there was no one had ever shown them this is how you organize your emails. Well, this is how you set your days up for success. Or this is how you plan your week in advance or even this is how you use a calendar and is how you not do it.
Arthur: Everyone turns up to work on the first day and they're just handed this toolkit and people are like, okay, go, get on with it.
Bryan: Yeah, I think I had a similar experience.
Arthur: And it's crazy, right? And so what I wanted to capture with this book was all of that productivity advice that you wish you'd been taught in school, all of the things. Because sometimes the productivity metrics can focus too much on big things like 90 day goal setting or mindset or things like that.
Arthur: But there's actually this such low hanging fruit, and if you capture, it's like how do you get rid of distractions? How do you really beat procrastination? How do you set your calendar up? How do you name your files and folders so you can actually find stuff so it's not a mess? These tiny little things, if you get them all lined up, can easily help you double your productivity for life.
Arthur: And it takes about 48 hours to learn all of them. So I just wanted to get all of those lessons that I'd learned from my reading, from being a productivity coach, from the people, the amazing people and CEO's and other consultants and things like that, that I worked with and just put it all in one place. So that's the synopsis, the snapshot of the book.
Bryan: When you were writing and researching the book, what were the productivity books that inspired you?
Arthur: So many. I mean the huge one everyone knows Getting Things Done, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The ONE Thing, The Slight Edge, The Compound Effect. I've actually got a whole reading list of productivity books on my blog and I've summarized a huge number of them. And so I was taking from all of those different books everything that I ... Everything from deep work.
Arthur: For example, Cal Newport talking about eliminating the distractions to Atomic Habit, from James Clear talking about how to build habits and to habit tracking effectively. It's the power of the one thing in terms of prioritizing. One of my favorite authors is Brian Tracy, his books Goals and Eat That Frog.
Arthur: Those are all books that inspired what I wrote here, but it's also comes from a lot of practical experience. So a lot of it didn't just come from books. It came from working with people who are incredibly productive and seeing what they did, and then just testing and experimenting with their different approaches.
Bryan: So there's 10 different chapters in the book that cover everything from dominating your day to eliminating distractions. But if you could think of one productivity strategy or one tip that really changed how you work, what would it be?
Arthur: My actual favorite one and one that ... Oh, there's so many it's hard So it's not that people don't understand it. Psychologically we're unable to see it, is that compound effect works when you do one thing over time and you just stick to it. But there's something called the Lollapalooza effect, which is something I learned from Charlie Munger.
Arthur: Which is where you do lots of little things and they all create a compound effect straight away. So the hard thing is that all of the things in the book are actually incredibly powerful. If there's one thing that really, really helped me, it's actually a free chapter that people can download.
Arthur: It's my section on beating procrastination because a lot of people, when they try and beat procrastination, they kind of go straight to the medicine without doing any of the diagnosis. They turn up at the doctor's and they just say, hey, give me these tips on how to cure myself without asking, okay, well, what is it that's actually causing you to procrastinate?
Arthur: And most importantly, I think people don't realize is the most important thing you can do when you procrastinate is learn when you procrastinate. Because most people don't spot that they're procrastinating until it's way too late, right? So the thing that I always get people to do is make a ... Get really clear on when you procrastinate, then understand why you're procrastinating, then work out what the right intervention is to stop you from procrastinating.
Arthur: I talk about that in my free chapter. And that's probably one of the most powerful secrets to just constantly getting stuff done, because it helps you stop getting in your own way, basically.
Bryan: So you've worked with a number of students and clients over the years, what are the reasons that they give you for why they procrastinate or when do they procrastinate? What are the common issues you come across?
Arthur: For sure. So I think there are four basic reasons that we procrastinate, right? There's lack of clarity, which is not knowing what to do next. So it can either be not knowing what to do at all. Having no idea about what the right thing is, or it can be simply about knowing what to do, but not knowing what to do next.
Arthur: You don't know what the next action is. You haven't really thought it through and there's lack of courage, which is what you know what to do, but you're actually a little bit afraid of what's going to happen if you do it. It could be afraid of failure or it could be afraid of sometimes people are afraid to actually get what they want. So it's working through that fear.
Arthur: The third one is lack of motive, which is where you don't really know why you're doing something. And this is a huge one for a lot of people. A lot of us, we think we're working towards things that we care about. In our grandparents' day it was making sure we have roofs over our head, making sure that we had health care, making sure we had food on the table.
Arthur: And these were important things because if you didn't work for those things, then it was game over. But we live in a society where there's diminishing returns on what people are working for in terms of income. And so people suffer from lack of motive because they're working towards old gods that they no longer believe in.
Arthur: They're working for reasons that were important to people who were living 100 years ago, but not important to us, that have just been handed down to us. So working out what your lack of motive, why are you really doing what you're doing is super important. And the last one, which is also incredibly important is lack of energy.
Arthur: So sometimes you know what to do, you feel courageous, you know it's the right thing to do, but another thing which I love is the idea that the size of a problem is relative to the energy that you have. So if you're absolutely full ... Imagine you're going for a run, right? If you've slept well and you're rested and you're feeling good, then a two kilometer run is going to feel like nothing.
Arthur: It's a walk, and assuming that you can do a run at a certain distance, but a short run will feel like nothing. If however, you haven't slept at all, you're dehydrated, you're feeling crappy. Then you wake up and a two kilometer run might feel like a billion miles, right? So it's this idea of making sure that you're rested. And when I talk about energy, we talk about three different kinds.
Arthur: There's saturation. Saturation is kind of like if all you did was eat pasta, it's this idea of constantly feeling like you've had enough to eat and that you've eaten too much. The second one is tiredness, which is where you just feel fatigued because you're dehydrated or you haven't slept well.
Arthur: And the last one, which a lot of people don't realize they're suffering from is fatigue, right? Which is this chronic, I've been working for too hard for too long, and I haven't had a break in a long time. So those are the four reasons that most people procrastinate. They are a lack of clarity, lack of courage, lack of energy and lack of motive or lack of motivation, lack of energy.
Bryan: So if I was to start a big creative project like a book, what would you recommend I do or what should be my first steps to avoid encountering those problems?
Arthur: So, I mean, if you work through each one, lack of clarity there are two reasons that I got stuck when I was writing my book. The first is I wasn't sure about the topic. And the second was that I wasn't sure about what the next steps in the process were.
Arthur: So in terms of the topic, I think something that's really helpful is to have written and spoken a lot about your topic before you sit down and write about it, if it's nonfiction. So when I sat down and wrote my chapter on procrastination, I'd already written scores of articles on procrastination and talked to clients about it.
Arthur: Then after that it came out naturally, right? I wasn't having to invent it as I went along. So having an idea about what you're going to speak about in terms of understanding the process, reading blogs like yours, Bryan is super, super helpful. So understanding, oh, this is what I need to do.
Arthur: I need to do a brief and then I need to work out, okay, this is the chapter structure. And then I need to dot dash the whole thing with bullets. And then this is where it's going in terms of publishing. So having that whole thing in mind is helpful. Lack of a motive, I think a lot of people ... It's just helpful to write down why you even want to write a book.
Arthur: Is it for money? Is it because you want to build credibility with clients? Is it because ... To really get clear on what it is you want out of, it can be helpful on those days where you just get up and you don't want to write to be like, oh yeah, that's fine.
Bryan: It sounds like there's a bit of thinking that a creative would need to do before they actually put a few words on the page.
Arthur: So yes. If you ask me upfront what's the main thing you need to do, it can sound quite overwhelming. You think, oh, I need to do all of these things before I can even get started. But I would also say when I give advice, one of the other things I write about on my blog, the first thing I write about is productivity.
Arthur: And the second thing I write about is accelerated learning, so skill learning. And a lot of people go, oh, it's so important to have goals before you even start still. The one thing I would say is that sometimes you just have to get up and start doing something. And this process I'm talking about in terms of iteration is something that you do as you go along.
Arthur: If you wake up and you're full of energy and you're inspired to write a book, you should just sit down and start writing, let all of that stuff out. Don't let worrying about all this stuff. When you should start worrying about procrastination is the first day you wake up and you go, I don't want to write today.
Arthur: And that can be super scary when you've woken up and had five days in a row where you just say, it's flying out of you. That's when it's helpful to go, okay, well, what's holding me back? Is it because I'm not sure what the next step is? Is it because I'm afraid that actually I've bitten off more than I can chew?
Arthur: Is it because I've actually lost touch with why I'm writing this book? I'm just not motivated. Or is it because I'm just exhausted? I've been writing like eight hours a day for five days and I just need a break. So that's when you start thinking about this stuff, rather than front loading it too much.
Bryan: I typically write down five to seven reasons why I would want to write a book in the first place. And from other authors I've spoken to they normally want to write a book to earn money, to make an impact or to express themselves. So normally their reasons fall into one of those three categories.
Bryan: So you talked there about sitting down and just getting the words out on the page, which is important too. When we talked previously, you told me that you write almost all of the articles on your site and you write for an hour or two every morning. So would you be able to describe what your writing process is like, and how you find ideas and how you work through them and turn them into published articles?
Arthur: Yeah, for sure. So when I'm writing, because I'm writing ... The way that I write is I write for SEO partly, but I also write for my audience and I also write for myself, right? So SEO is Search Engine Optimization. So I'm writing things that Google is going to find and that I can actually rank for.
Arthur: And so when I'm thinking about topics, the first thing I'll do is I just always have too many topics that I want to write about. So I just published an article, for example, on ... It's got 100 ... Something like 140 productivity hacks, right? Where I just list every productivity hack I've ever found.
Arthur: So that in itself, I've already got 140 possible articles I could write about and I'm slowly working through them. I write book summaries. So I've got hundreds of books I want to read and summarize. So once I've got the full list, and I kind of have this repository of ideas that I'd like to write about, and whenever I come up with one, I add it to this list of someday, maybe topics.
Arthur: Then it's a question of finding what are the ones that I want to write about right now? Which ones when I look down that list am I inspired by? Which ones do I think are going to be easy for people to find out about from Google, for example, when they search? And also what are people going to be interested in?
Arthur: And what you find is that that wipes out a huge number of things that you could write about. Because at any one time, I won't want to write about a third of my list. And a third of them will be too hard for my website to rank for, and a third of them probably aren't that interesting.
Arthur: So it narrows it down to a really small little bubble and that's where I get started. And then I think the most important thing for me if I'm just thinking about writing an article is the first thing that I'll do is I'll do some reading around the article. So I'll just Google whatever the topic is and I'll often read the top 10 things.
Arthur: Often, I've read a few books around the topic or the best things that I read about are things that I've done for myself. So for example, I have a post on language learning. I spent three years learning five languages, so that's something I can easily write about because it comes from direct experience.
Arthur: And then what I do is I sit down and I just try and spend the first two hours of my day. So I use two hour blocks. Everyone's different, some people ... They're called pomodoros, these ideas of doing 25 minutes of work and a five minute break. But what it does instead of thinking I have to finish this article today, what I think is, I'm going to write for the next two hours.
Arthur: And if I finish, I finish. If I don't finish, I don't finish because some days as I'm sure you know, you wake up and you sit down and 3000 words come off the keyboard. I wish those happened more often, but some days you wake up and you sit down and 300 words come off the keyboard.
Arthur: And so taking the pressure off the output, instead of everyday saying, I have to write a thousand words, being like every day, I'm going to wake up and write for two hours or I'm going to write for three hours. What you find is on average over time, you tend to hit the work counts.
Bryan: Do you have an outline that you're using, or do you just write what's in your head from your research?
Arthur: So when I was at McKinsey, one of the most important thinking techniques that I learned was called the pyramid principle. So I do two things. I always build a point out my article. If it's an article that's strictly some kind of how to or something like that, I'll often use the pyramid principle.
Arthur: Which is just an idea if you have one governing thought at the top, and then you imagine there are two or three thoughts underneath it that support that governing thought. And then there are two or three thoughts underneath that, which support those thoughts. And so what you do is you start with the governing thought and you communicate it top down, right?
Arthur: So my headline will be the top governing thought, and then the three main sections will be the three points that all point into it, right? More often as something I'm working a lot more on and I haven't really understood for a long time, is the importance of storytelling in writing.
Arthur: And for that, I use a combination of a framework that I learned from Russell Brunson in his Expert Dotcom Secrets, in his book Dotcom Secrets, and also Donald Miller in the Expert StoryBrand, which I'm sure you've read. And they talk about the idea of having a problem, and then feeling a certain way, and then hitting it. It's the hero's journey effectively, but they've taken it for their own copywriting.
Bryan: Yeah, Robert McKee outlines that quite well in his book.
Arthur: Yeah, Robert McKee is [inaudible 00:18:50]
Bryan: Yeah, and that story principle, a pyramid principle, you talked about kind of reminded me of the controlling idea for a book where you have one single idea that explains what the book is about and all the chapters feed into that idea.
Bryan: It's an interesting way to describe it. I must remember that one. And then when you finish your article, do you let it sit for a while and come back and edit it that afternoon or the following week?
Arthur: Yeah. So I've heard a long time ... I read On Writing Well by Williams Zinsser, which blew me away as one of the best books on writing I personally have ever read. And he goes, it's all in the editing. It's edit, edit, edit. And I was like, I don't need to edit. But what I found is that two things are really helpful.
Arthur: Once I've written an article, I try and give it space. So the first thing I do is I let it sit for a day and I sleep on it, and then I come back to it and I'm often like, oh, things which I thought were great even if I'd reviewed them later the same day, I'm now like, okay, I can change that.
Arthur: The second thing which I really love to do is change the format of reviewing. So if I've written the article on my screen, let's say I'm typing it into WordPress or into my notes, whatever it is, I'll actually print a PDF. I'll send it to my iPad Pro and then I'll edit it using my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.
Bryan: Okay, that's a good idea.
Arthur: Yeah, there's something magical about changing the format of rereading that helps me see the article in a whole new way and avoid getting stuck in that trap of rehashing the first three paragraphs a thousand times and not getting to the rest of the article.
Bryan: Yeah, well, I print it out and use a red pen, but what's the app you use on your iPad Pro to do that?
Arthur: I've been using Notability for two years now and it's an absolute lifesaver.
Bryan: Okay, I must try it out.
Arthur: I was a huge paper user. I was a rainforest burner and since the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, I have never used a piece of paper again. I do everything from learning languages, I use my ... I have a productivity planner and I use ... I fill that out on my iPad Pro, I fill everything out with Apple Pencil. And for editing, it's wonderful.
Bryan: Okay, I'll try that because sometimes it can get a bit messy when you are printing out a long manuscript. There can be paper everywhere. So just to switch track for a moment, you're quite analytically driven. You use numbers to make a lot of decisions for your business or what to work on, or even what to write.
Bryan: Whereas a lot of creative people, a lot of writers would say that they're more comfortable with words rather than numbers. So what would you say to somebody who is maybe not that comfortable with numbers? How can they use numbers to inform what they should write or maybe to build a creative business?
Arthur: I think the important thing to realize is that the quality of your decision making is based on the quality of information that's available to you. And for some people, they like that information in numbers and numbers are a great way to get information because they're an easy way to see things. Some people are very visual. Some people like to read things.
Arthur: The important thing though, is not to mistake not being a numbers person with not being an information person. Does that make sense? So I think you can still ... I use numbers to think through things because I love to see the full picture. There's something about numbers that gives you a big picture that I personally can't fit in my mind. When I'm looking ... When I'm trying to decide between which of 40 articles I should work on next, having numbers helps me triage it down to five.
Arthur: And that's a number that my brain can work on, right? Some people are much more intuitive than I am, in which case I would say journaling is a huge tool for people who are not numbers focused. Which is this idea of still getting stuff down on paper, right? Getting it out of your head, going back to my day, studying psychology at Oxford. The working memory has a limitation.
Arthur: There's only so much that can fit in our working memory at one time. It's like, I don't know, I won't use RAM as an analogy on a computer because I'm not sure people will necessarily get it. But it's like a very small cup of water, right? And the problem is that every time you want to put something else in the cup of water, you have to empty the cup of water back into the big bucket, which is the rest of your brain.
Arthur: So what writing on paper really helps you put through, and I'll often do this. I'll be like, what do I want to work on next? I'll just write those words at the top of the piece of paper, and then I'll just write for five or 10 minutes. And what I'm doing is I'm getting all of that information out of my head.
Arthur: It's almost like I'm allowing all the little different parts of my subconscious that want to have a say, get themselves out on paper. And once I've done that, the information is in front of me and I usually make a much, much better decision. So if you are a creative person and you don't love numbers, that's totally cool.
Arthur: I mean, I would definitely recommend all people who hate numbers to get to know numbers and all people who hate making intuitive decisions who love numbers should do the opposite. It's important to be a bit more balanced, but I would say don't mistake not liking numbers with not liking information.
Arthur: Journal, if you need to journal your way to a problem on getting clarity, then use journaling and get out of your head instead.
Bryan: What are the key numbers that you look at regularly?
Arthur: What are we talking? About in terms of...
Bryan: Well, I guess for writing or for your business, do you have a couple of numbers that you would look at on a weekly basis?
Arthur: Yeah, for sure. So, if I'm writing ... So for example, when was writing my book, I was tracking the number. I was tracking word count, the number of words. So in my planner, you can track habits and you can track metrics. So my habit was, am I writing for four hours every day? And my metric was how many words do I produce?
Arthur: And there was no target on how many words I produced. I was just looking at it. I just wanted to know at the end of every day where I was roughly in my book, right? And sometimes that would make me realize that I needed to make more progress. Sometimes it made me realize that actually I was making great progress and I could chill out of it.
Arthur: But I think for me, what I'm really tracking is the habit that did I put four hours everyday. So that's what I look at when I'm writing something big as a big project. When I'm running my business, the three things that I look at actually still come from John Morrow, who that's how you and I know each other.
Arthur: And I look at the number of readers, the number of users who are on my site. I look at the conversion rate of those users onto my mailing list. And I look at the dollars per subscriber in revenue that I'm making from the business. And those are the three things that give me an idea of which areas of the business do I need to focus on, so I can give myself permission not to think about the other two areas.
Bryan: Give yourself that permission.
Arthur: So I think a lot of the time people ... Overwhelm is not about picking what the most important thing is. It's about picking what the least important things are. So when I'm running my business, every area always feels like it's important. I'm like, oh, I want to work on increasing views.
Arthur: And I want to increase conversion rates, and I want to make more revenue. And so when people go, oh, pick your one thing. I'm like, but all of them are my one thing. How could I possibly pick one, one thing? But when I think of, okay, which two are less important?
Arthur: Then it gives me permission to stop thinking about those things because it's kind of reaching the one thing by subtraction rather than by trying to find one thing to focus on.
Bryan: So you've read a lot of productivity literature over the last few years based on the books that you share on your site. One kind of criticism of productivity is that it doesn't get due to the bottom of your to do list. It just forces you to work more and more and more until you eventually will burn out because you can never finish work or tick it off and say, it's done.
Bryan: So productivity is just a way of forcing yourself to work harder and harder. What would you say to those people who would criticize productivity that way?
Arthur: I would 100% agree with them. I think that the big problem with modern day productivity is that it's not holistic. Modern day productivity is too much about how to crank out more widgets and not about whether you should be cranking out widgets in the first place.
Arthur: So if I step back from the book, the idea of ... So I think of productivity is having three layers, right? On the first layer is competence. Competence is where you can get up and get stuff done. You can have a time for the day. You can get to the end of your day, and not always, but seven times out of 10, you can pretty much take a lot of the things that you said you were going to do off today.
Arthur: And those things, you've got task and time management job, but that's where most people get stuck, right? The next level after that is balance. So layer two is balance. That's making sure that you can apply that level of competence to, I have eight different areas of life that I focus on which roughly sort of sum up into health, relationships, growth, and wealth, but they break down into two areas each.
Arthur: So once you do that, you go, okay, well now I've got that. Let's step back and let's start thinking about why I'm actually being productive at all. And you start applying those same principles. Most people get caught in thinking about work or life. And that's not a fair way of looking at it because it assumes that work has 50% of what you do.
Arthur: Life is actually much more variable and there's many more different areas of life that are important to make you feel holistic and whole. So balance is the next layer. And then the top layer is meaning and purpose. Its mission, its meaning. And so what I say to people who get stuck when they talk about productivity being just about cranking out more widgets is I say that, absolutely right.
Arthur: Most productivity gurus just focus on that firs layer. Or the second thing they do is they just focus on the top layer. They go, hey, what you need is more meaning and mission and values. And then you go, well, that's all great, but how do I get that stuff on my to do this, right?
Arthur: What they're missing is this holistic end to end system of competence, balance, and meaning. I have five layers to my system. I have daily priorities, which feed into weekly goals, which feed into projects that you're working on, which feed into visions for each area of your life, which feed into your mission.
Arthur: And once you have ... When you have a good productivity system, a holistic productivity system, each of those things feed each other. So your missions feed your visions, feed your outcomes, feed your weekly goals, feed your daily priorities, and vice versa. So you know that everything you work on is working towards something that's important and balanced.
Bryan: And are you reviewing or resetting any of those every quarter or every six months or every year?
Arthur: You're effective, you review everything. The whole system gets reviewed on a day ... Sorry, on a weekly basis, right? So on a daily basis, you're looking at your daily goals and your weekly goals because you basically, what I find is that if you think any larger than a week, it's too big.
Arthur: It's too overwhelming to think about that stuff on a daily basis. So what I do is every week I set weekly goals and then each day I'm like, okay, how can I move towards my weekly goals? Because not a lot changes in a week, right? But then at the end of every week, what I'm looking at is I'm going, okay, well, what outcomes am I working on that I want to achieve in the next 12 months?
Arthur: So that's where I'm going. Okay, well how ... My weekly goals the next week, are they feeding what I'm working on in the next 12 months? And at the same time I review the visions and the mission on a weekly basis just to make sure that they're fresh in my mind. One of the big reasons people don't hit their goal is because they stop looking at them.
Arthur: Not because they haven't got clear goals, they simply ... It's like New Year's resolutions, you wrote them down, put them in a drawer and forget about them. So you have to keep them current in your head. But then to actually sit down and go, okay, are the outcomes I'm working on feeding into my missions? That I think of as more of an ad hoc thing.
Arthur: People go, oh, you have to do it every three months or six months. If a big part of your life is changing, let's say you're expecting a baby or you're changing your jobs and things like that, maybe you need to review that every week for a month, right?
Arthur: Sometimes things are going smoothly and you only need to double back into it every six months or a year or two years, right? So, it comes down to much more of a field thing for the higher levels.
Bryan: Kind of like the pyramid that you described earlier on.
Arthur: 100%. I'm all about end to end. I'm all about pyramid principle. It's beautiful when things lock into each other, because then when you wake up each morning, you're not doing a whole load of stuff that's meaningless. And also it helps to ... It works both ways.
Arthur: It means that when you know what you want, you become very clear on what you don't want. And so you can start to eliminate the stuff that's not important as you go down the list. So I say to people, once you're clear on your visions, then you can go, okay, you can look at your outcomes.
Arthur: This is the list of projects you're working on and you can start to go ... I get people to take their list of projects and then put a minus five or score from minus five to plus five and how much this project is moving them away from one of their visions or towards one of their visions.
Arthur: Only once you have the visions, can you start to go, oh wow. I've got like three minus two projects in here. The hardest thing for people is a lot of people have a few plus ones, but they actually realize that those things are getting in the way of projects, which are plus fours or plus five, things which are strongly moving them towards the person they want to be.
Arthur: And so they end up realizing that they can get rid of some of these things which are holding them back, which are distracting them. And it all feeds into itself, so every layer feeds the next one
Bryan: On mornings, what's your morning routine like at the moment?
Arthur: Right now, very specifically, I wake up, I record my heart rate variability, which is a great score. Your heart is kind of like your body's engine room. And so what your heart rate variability does, it tells you that the gap in time between each of your heart rates. And as you get more and more run down and tired, that becomes less and less flexible.
Arthur: Your body becomes less and less good at adapting. Your homeostasis, your ability to adapt to your surroundings gets less. So HRV is a really good way of giving myself an early warning sign of whether I'm getting rundown. I never get sick anymore.
Bryan: What are you recording that with?
Arthur: I use an excellent app called HRV4Training. That's what I was using on my iPhone. I'm now using my Apple Watch which has the ability to record that as well. I use Auto Sleep, which is an app that lets me record that using my breathe function. But there's a free one as well called Welltory.
Arthur: And you can actually just record it with the light at the back of your phone. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get good at it, it's pretty good.
Bryan: Yeah, I know. The reason I ask is I use a fitness tracker called WHOOP, W-H-O-O-P, which reports heart rate regularly. So it basically gives you your score early in the morning, but yes, I was just curious because I use that for deciding if I should go to the gym or go for a run, or maybe just catch up on sleep in the afternoon.But anyway, so once you've recorded your heart rate variability, but you want to [inaudible 00:31:55]
Arthur: No, I think that's awesome that you're doing that by the way, because not many people know about that. And it's one of these little game changing things that honestly it makes you realize, okay, today, I'm going to take on that big project or today maybe I'm [inaudible 00:32:06].
Arthur: So once I've recorded my HRV, I get up. And the first thing I do is make myself a cup of matcha tea. My fiance, her first business was a matcha tea business and she got me into matcha. It kind of has the same effects as coffee, but has a ... It's much less caffeine and the effects are much longer lasting. So it lasts me the whole seven hours of the morning on one cup basically.
Arthur: I just full of antioxidants, it's great for your health. So I drink matcha tea and then I meditate for 20 minutes. And then I do, what's called my AM review, my morning review. And that's a super quick process. I spend seven minutes journaling. I write at the top of the page what I am feeling right now is, and then I just get present with the sensations in my body, the emotions that are going through me and the thoughts going through my head.
Arthur: That helps me to just recalibrate, where am I right now? And then what I do once I've got back to zero is I just review my mission and my visions. What are the weekly goals that I'm working towards? I just quickly read through those and that just helps set the tone for first thing that I get into the rest of the day.
Bryan: Okay. And then do you write your articles or work on just whatever your number one priority is?
Arthur: Something that I love saying to people is that your morning routine actually starts the night before, right? The most important of the morning routine is what you do the night before. It's A, are you getting a good night of sleep? But it's B, there are two things I do. First I've timed my day.
Arthur: So I know what it is I'm working on, what my priorities are, even roughly where my time's going to go. I time block the day out in my planner. And the second thing that I love doing is I love, I've done this when I was still at university, I love to work out all the little ... The barriers that are going to be in the morning they're not going to get in my way and I try and knock them over the night before.
Arthur: So I lay my clothes out so I know where they are and it's already picked. I put my alarm clock under my clothes, so I have my clothes in my hand by the time I get out of bed to turn off my alarm. I have my matcha already laid out in the kitchen. And so when I sit down at my desk, if actually what I want to do is minimize the amount of wastage of thinking that I'm doing before my first activity.
Arthur: It's like a runway that's totally clear. And then I sit down and I just get straight to my first thing. So, that's within the 45 minutes of morning routine. By the time that's all done and then I'm straight in.
Bryan: You finish your working day around 12 or one?
Arthur: Yes. So I wake up at five and I finish at 12 o'clock. I stop when I do what's called an end of work shutdown, which is where I just close all my loops, update my plans, make sure there aren't any urgent emails outstanding, clear all my inboxes, that kind of thing. And then yeah, I'm done for the day.
Bryan: Okay. And do you avoid checking in on email or notifications or is that possible?
Arthur: Yeah, so I think the secret is to ... I don't have email installed on my phone, for example. I only have it on my computer and my computer is upstairs. So especially with COVID, a lot of people have struggled. A lot of my friends who were anyway working 80, 90 hour weeks have found that bleed between work and home has got even harder to separate, are usually in the favor of work, right?
Arthur: They end up working 40 nowadays. The secret I found is to create two totally separate spaces. So I have a room upstairs which we basically turned into an office and in order to check my emails or do any of those things, I basically have to go to work.
Arthur: And when I'm out of that room, I don't have any of those cues which are triggering me to check emails. I don't have any email on, I have no notifications on my phone. I have nothing. So there's nothing that's triggering that sense of loop that I then feel impelled to close.
Bryan: I like that too. I used to do that. I should really remember some of those habits. I think I let them slip during the lockdown because I'm back checking email on my phone. So Arthur, it was great to talk to you today. Where can people find your book, Stop Working Harder?
Arthur: Yeah, so if you just go to my website, fastertomaster.com and then on the homepage, if you scroll down, you'll see it straightaway on the front page. Otherwise, there's store. If you want to go straight to the URL, I don't know if you'll add it on the show notes, but it's fastertomaster.com/primer.
Arthur: And if you go to the free tools section of the site, which you'll see in the navigation at the top, you can find a link to download the big procrastination chapter, which is the free chapter.
Bryan: You also have the information about your habit tracker on gratitude journal?
Arthur: I have the information about the habit tracker and gratitude journal. I also have a community and the six week master class. So going back to the competence balance and meaning, the primer is really about competence. It's like, how do I get these basic productivity things down so that I'm starting every day off a success, and every week after a win?
Arthur: And that I'm destroying distractions and beating procrastination and managing my calendar properly, that kind of thing. Then the planer is the pointy end of the stick, so it helps with the daily priorities and the daily planning, but it also encourages ... It starts you moving in towards balance. So it forces you to set weekly goals in each of the areas of life.
Arthur: It's a wheel of life to help you work out which area of life is holding you back, so it moves you more towards balance. And then the community in masterclass is really upgrading that competence that you've built. Some of you feel like you're already pretty productive, but you're frustrated that you still seem to be constantly overwhelmed.
Arthur: That's where you get the most benefit out of my community in masterclass, because there we talk about how can you upgrade your system so that it's super holistic, so that it's focused on ... So, that it's life first rather than work first.
Bryan: That of course sounds good and I encourage people to check it out, fastertomaster.com. And I'll put the link in the show notes book. Thank you for your time Arthur.
Bryan: Thanks Bryan.
Arthur: I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store and if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join and I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.
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How do I become a productive writer?
Pick a single objective for your writing each week and focus on that. For example, if you want to write a book chapter, work on this book chapter early in the morning each day. Eliminate any distractions and track your progress in terms of a word-count .. Review how you got on at the end of the week.
How can productivity be improved in writing?
Gather your notes, materials and research in advance. Find a quiet place to work without interruption. While writing, disable internet access to distracting websites or turn off your Wi-Fi. Avoid multi-tasking. Work for a predetermined period with interruption. Take regular breaks. Repeat.
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