Twelve Ways to Better Discipline and Accountability
When I left my day job, I had a plan. Before I signed my resignation letter, I made sure all the bills were paid, and I made a deal with my husband. In three years, I would be earning a substantial salary again. I was a businesswoman. I was smart. I had a friend who earned $30,000 a year as a writer; I could too. I was ready, motivated, starry-eyed, and dumb.
Here’s what happened. I bought a book called This Business of Writing, read it and set up my office. I planned to keep regular office hours, and told everyone I was still working, only now I was working from home. I gave myself a lunch hour, and probably more breaks than I needed. But they were short breaks; the bathroom was just steps down the hall. The first year was a learning year. What am I going to write? became what am I going to write to earn money? I soon discovered most fiction earned contributors’ copies while nonfiction was more likely to pay my salary. So I called myself a freelancer, focused on selling nonfiction, and hired out as a research editor for a couple of the Chicken Soup books. I was in charge. But I wasn’t any happier than I had been as a banker, and I was making a lot less money. I didn’t want to write nonfiction. I wanted to write novels. I had used my first year to learn the business and what I didn’t want to write. I had two more years to become a successful writer. So the second year, I explored other forms of writing. I wrote poems. I wrote essays. I wrote short stories. I wrote a novel. I won some awards and got totally lost in the process.
Here’s what I discovered. Writing for pleasure is a lot different than writing for profit. Pleasure writing can be dreamy, lackadaisical, experimental, fun. Profit writing requires discipline and holding myself accountable. I could say I was working while I ran errands to buy paper and ink, but I couldn’t write words while driving the car. I might be sitting in front of my computer six hours a day, but without goals or a deadline, I wasn’t using my time efficiently. Playing spider solitaire for three hours didn’t count as productive writing time. What I learned was that keeping regular working hours didn’t increase my word count. Holding myself accountable did. So I got real and quit being lazy. Here are twelve ways I discovered to increase my productivity.
1) Set goals and write them down. Once a year, I write a memo listing my goals and post it near my computer to gauge my progress. I also set monthly and weekly goals and write them on my calendar. This makes it easier to face the blank page. This gives me a tangible agenda. I know what I need to do. I may not know how I’m going to do it, but I have a project to work on to get my fingers moving.
2) Set deadlines. On my calendar, I pick a date and write in red letters, I will finish the first draft of XXX by June 30. If I extend the deadlines, I am cheating myself and sabotaging my progress.
3) Schedule my writing like I do any other business appointment. I have a desk calendar and I use it. Daily. I record the number of words I write each day, writing-related appointments, and books I’ve read. At the end of the week, I tally the words, and try to increase my word count regularly. Other things I note on my calendar are query letters I’ve sent out, etc. At the end of the month, the only blank days I want to see on my calendar are on the weekends. This calendar serves two purposes, one to keep me organized and productive, the other to have something to show the IRS agent that I am working at a writing career instead of a hobby.
4) Reward myself when I attain a goal. I cannot play spider solitaire until I finish my daily pages. I cannot answer email or check Facebook until I meet my daily word count. It’s important to have small daily rewards as well as the big ones. I cannot go to lunch with my friend until I finish the next chapter of my book.
5) Join on-line challenges to hold myself accountable, even if it means posting on Facebook, “I will write five pages today.” There are many writing challenges in cyberspace. There is 100 x 100, writing 100 words a day for 100 days, which is a good way to make writing a daily habit. GIAM (www.writinggiam.com is a great resource writers can subscribe to at no cost where writers post their writing goals, and then report on their progress. It works like Weight Watchers. If I cheat, everyone knows. It forces me to change Wannabewriter into Productive Writer.
6) Join a critique group. Meet regularly and always have something new written to contribute at each meeting.
7) Take myself seriously. I do not have an agent or an editor to prod me along. I am the boss. I am the only one who can ensure that the work gets finished.
8) Sign a contract with myself. I will finish this book by September 15. Then honor the contract. Plan a bonus reward to make it real and fun.
9) Keep regular writing hours, just like I would if I were working for another person. Show up on time, limit my phone conversations to business, and do the work.
10) Ban negative thoughts in the office. Negative thoughts rob me of the energy I need to produce quality work. If I have a problem, personal or professional, I give myself five minutes to worry and stew. If I can’t resolve the issue in five minutes, I move on to something else, a new book, a new scene, or a new story. For the writer, time really is money, and often so much of what we worry about never happens.
11) Reading doesn’t count as writing pages, even when it’s done for research. Philippa Gregory’s novels may be interesting, but they don’t increase my daily word count.
12) Exercise and stay healthy. I am the boss, secretary, and employee. If I take a sick day, nothing gets done. And emails multiply like rabbits.
I believe I have a dream job. There is the dream where I get to write every day, and then there is the job, where I have to have something substantial to show for the hours I spend in my office. Following these guidelines helps me stay focused and productive. And, no, I’m not earning $30,000 a year. Yet. But I’m still writing.
How do you hold yourself accountable? I’d love to hear what you do to meet your writing goals.