I am a writer. I write slowly.
This is a problem, because I am a writer.
About a year ago, I tracked my productivity and learned that I write on average 500 words per hour. Most professional writers produce at least twice that amount.
So in order to make better progress on my books, my natural inclination was to “time manage” my writing. I could make a list of all the things I needed to write. I could prioritize them and make sure I was spending time writing a book each day. I minimized distractions and said “no” more often. I tried to “find” more hours in each day, each week, and each month. I even outsourced some of the research.
All of that helped to a degree.
But then I noticed that writing came easily around 8 in the morning. My three kids off to school, I’m feeling fresh, and coffee is kicking in. I checked, and my average words-per-hour in the morning was about 750 to 1,000. But then I checked my productivity in the afternoon—getting a little tired and already thinking about the nightly activities—I discovered that my productivity was about 250 words per hour. Yes, my overall average was 500 words, but the same chunk of time, 60 minutes, produced dramatically different results based on how I felt in the moment.
This led me to a bit of an epiphany: We like to use the term “time management.” But what we really mean is, how can we get more stuff done with less stress?
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Here are two tips I’ve picked up that have made a major difference in my productivity. Instead of time management, I prefer to call this “energy management.”
Everyone’s trying to find more energy. It’s one reason why caffeinated beverages are among the most popular in the world. But in reality, your temporary increase in energy is a trade-off; for example, a caffeine boost is followed by a period of slow and steady decline.
The key is to effectively use the energy you already have. Here are two simple tips to help you do that:
Identify your most productive time of the day
In the experience I related above, the answer to getting more done wasn’t to work more hours. I simply needed to identify which hours were the most productive, and then focus on my “most important thing” in this high-output window.
Johnny B. Truant feels the same. Truant’s a co-host of the top-rated Self-Publishing Podcast, coauthor of Write. Publish. Repeat: The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success, and the author of over 2.5 million words of popular fiction. In an interview for my book, he told me:
“I have to know when I’m at my best for my most important work (morning, for writing fiction), when I tend to slack off (after meetings or podcasts), and when I can get by with relatively mindless work (afternoons). It’s not about getting maximal amounts done; it’s about ideally matching my capacities versus my occasional need to screw around with what needs to be done at what time.”
Lesson: Identify when you work best, and focus on these high-level activities during your “maximum productivity window.” Save easier tasks–like checking and responding to email–for after lunch or during other times where your energy levels will be lower.
Work for short, focused bursts of time, followed by a break
Leonelle started using the Pomodoro method, developed by Francesco Cirillo. She would set a timer for 25 minutes, writing with her full focus. Then, she would take a 5-minute break to get up, stretch her legs, maybe have a drink of water. With these short bursts of focused writing, accompanied by recharging breaks, Leonelle was able to maintain a near state of flow for longer periods of time throughout the day.
Leonelle didn’t have more hours to give, so she figured out how to increase her energy instead, and her productivity gains were the same as if she had “found” six times more hours.
Lesson: Try working in medium length, focused bursts of about 25 minutes, followed by five-minute breaks. Of course, you can experiment with the length of time to find what works best for you.
Once you’ve found your optimal “work sprint” and break durations, repeat the cycle of focused sprint followed by a short break. After four such cycles, take a longer break (up to 30 minutes).
With these two tips, you won’t “create” any new energy. But it will feel like it—because you’ll be using the energy you have much more efficiently.