A Simple Trick to Increase Your Productivity

by James Scott Bell

When my father died in 1988, I found myself the head of a one-man publishing company. Dad, a highly regarded L.A. lawyer, had devoted twenty years to a pet project called Bell’s Compendium on Searches, Seizures & Bugging. It’s a digest of all California and U.S. Supreme Court opinions in this area of the law, updated several times a year, in a unique format that allows lawyers, judges, and law enforcement to find relevant decisions in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, I’d been working with Dad on his treatise for a couple of years after leaving a big law firm to open my own practice. He taught me everything about the book, which is a good thing, for he was the only one who knew how to do it. If I hadn’t been there, Bell’s Compendium would have died with my father.

Today, over thirty years since Dad’s death, I’m still carrying on his work.

But back in ’88 I had to teach myself—fast—how to operate and expand a business.

So I created a crash course on entrepreneurship—reading books, listening to tape programs, attending seminars, and putting into practice what I learned. One of the first areas I had to master was time management. Luckily I came across Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. This little classic is filled with practical techniques, and one great tip for dealing with the bugaboo that haunts all of us from time to time: procrastination.

We writers have developed many ways to procrastinate. The problem has only grown worse over the last two decades with the rise of the internet, social media, and 24/7 stimuli. When we’re writing and we hit a bad patch, it’s so easy (and dopamine-inducing) to hop onto the net and surf around. We scan our Twitter feed. We see what a favorite blogster has to say. It’s fast and non-threatening (unless you’ve unwisely engaged in a tweet storm with some unhinged mountebank).

But what causes procrastination in the first place? I think it’s simply the prospect of unpleasantness. When we have the ability to choose among tasks, we tend to favor those that are more enjoyable (relatively speaking). Or we simply choose to lollygag about until forced to give a knotty problem some time (which is why bosses and deadlines were invented).

Lakein has an answer for this tendency. He calls it The Swiss Cheese Method. Simply put, instead of looking at the entirety of the unpleasant task, take five minutes to “take a bite” out of it (creating a hole in the task, thus the name of the method).

For instance, when you sit down for a writing session and face the blank page (“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” Sidney Sheldon), it is sometimes pure joy and there’s no problem. Other times, though, you know you’ve hit a bump—or a wall—and it’s going to take some painstaking keyboard clacking to get you out of it.

Or maybe you’ve got several writing-related things to do in addition to your WIP. There’s editing another manuscript, marketing tasks, getting ready for an upcoming conference, queries to prepare, and so on.

Hmm, maybe I’ll just check my email first. Oh look! Marcie sent me a link to a cat video. Cute!

What’s that YouTube suggestion in the sidebar? A scene from Malcolm in the Middle. I love Bryan Cranston! I’ll just watch it and…


And before you know it, your time management has been turned upside down.

I usually have three projects going at any one time—a novel, a non-fiction, and a short story. So what I do when I first sit down to write is ask myself which project is giving me the most resistance—and then take a bite out of it. I usually aim for just a “Nifty 350” words, and then see where I am. What happens most of the time is I break through whatever barrier there is and keep going.

If for some reason I don’t move on after 350 or so, I’ll switch over to another project for awhile. When I come back to the first one, my “boys in the basement” have been working on it and I’m usually ready to write some more.

To sum up: Tackle your most unpleasant (or challenging) task when you are fresh (this works, BTW, for any enterprise you’re involved in). Take a five-minute bite out of it. If you feel some momentum (and usually, you will) keep going. If you encounter resistance, go to another task for awhile, then come back to the first one and take another “bite.”

All this talk about bites has me feeling peckish, so I’ll turn it over to you. What do you do to combat procrastination?

36 thoughts on “A Simple Trick to Increase Your Productivity

  1. My way works a lot like yours. I sit down and read and do a preliminary edit for content that might bar missing from the previous day’s writing, then challenge myself to write one new sentence, which leads to another and another. Pretty soon I’ve got a days worth started or even done if I’m really cooking. Then I work on a short story. This is different because I don’t outline in advance like I do with the bigger story. I want a more spontaneous feel to the short works. One of the things that is important to me is to write the next day’s first scene in my head the night before. I even rehearse the dialogue. Even if it slips out of my conscious mind it seems to come back at the keyboard. I don’t shoot for a number of words but rather finished scenes.

    • Good methodology, Brian. You reminded me of Hemingway’s trick of ending his day’s writing mid-sentence. That way he got right back into the flow the next day. I need to do that more often.

    • I alway start with reading and editing the day before’s work, but, if I have a full scene in my head at the end, I put lots of notes for it instead of depending on memory. Memory is a b*tch.

  2. Being more productive at work or in life isn’t rocket science, but it does require being more deliberate about how you manage your time. No one is born to be very good at time management, so that’s okay if you think you’re bad in it. But everyone can learn to boost their productivity and achieve more. No one is born to be very good at time management, so that’s okay if you think you’re bad in it. But everyone can learn to boost their productivity and achieve more!
    If you want to maximize your productivity, don’t resolve to put in long hours at work; and try these tried-and-tested tips instead:
    1.Take regular break
    2.Chart Your Progress
    3. Get a workout partner or goal buddy
    4. Reward yourself
    8. Give it time, be patient
    Moreover, I found an amazing site that helps me improve myself and gets me motivated by completing challenges.
    Really interesting site with a great challenges verity—https://makeBetter.me

  3. I have a white board in the living room, a la Big Bang Theory. It’s a big, ugly board, but it’s got my weekly goals written on it, so I CAN’T miss looking at my goals every time I walk past.

    • Back when I had traditional deadlines, I printed out a blank calendar and put taped it to my office door, so I’d have to see it each day and mark my progress. Now that I rely on SIDs (self-imposed deadlines) I really should do that again!

  4. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
    When my kids were little, and the toys all over the floor got out of hand, I’d write the numerals 1-10 on slips of paper and put them in a bowl. Each kid drew a number and that’s how many toys they had to put away. I was surprised that they kept wanting to draw another slip.

    I shoot for 500 words by lunchtime, and if I can make that, I know another 500 words by bedtime will be easy. I like to think of writing as the reward, rather than reward myself for writing. “As soon as I fold the laundry, I can get back to the wip.”

    I do have a writing friend on Hangouts, and we’ll update each other on progress, stumbling blocks, and knowing you’re not in the game alone can help with the rough patches.

    And, if I’m dodging housework by writing, the Hubster is going to want to see pages.

    • A good writing friend (not to mention a reliable “Hubster”) is a great idea for mutual accountability.

      Great story about your kids, Terry, wanting to draw another slip. Reminds me of Tom Sawyer convincing all the other kids that whitewashing the fence was a great privilege.

  5. Bob Dugoni reads a chapter of the Green Mile every day. So if my writing mind iIs hanging back, procrastinating for fresh material, I start reading Mohr’s All This Life (stirs emotions and vocabulary) or one of JSB’s writing books, like Writing From the Middle or The Last Fifty Pages. I can’t even get through a chapter before exciting writing ideas are bubbling up and I jump to my WiP.

    The best thing: if these books are on the night stand, you don’t even have to get out of bed to get motivated. Now if I could only fit a coffeemaker on my nightstand….then build my husband another bedroom… boy there’s a lot to do before I get started.

    • Nancy, the coffeemaker/nightstand idea is too good to pass up. Let your husband know I approve.

      Reading favorite material (and thanks for the kind words) each day is a great idea for motivation. Also audio. If I can listen to some Chandler or Connelly or Bradbury in the car, it’s a good use of travel time.

  6. I believe it was you who mentioned previously the idea of having different projects in various states to keep your productivity flowing, i.e. one you’re writing, one you’re brainstorming, one you’re editing, etc. I’m trying to work toward that model although right now I’m editing one and still in the brainstorming/researching phase of another so a bit frustrated that I don’t have one ready to write.

    But within that context, the five-minute-bite is absolutely essential. I have tried and failed numerous times to order myself to pick a certain time every day where I write an hour a day, but 1) the demands of the day job & responsibilities make a set time unrealistic and 2) I seem to have a natural rebellion to affixing it to a certain day and time 3) writing isn’t my only artistic interest so I’m always spread thin with what tiny amounts of free time I have.

    However, I’m finding two things that work for me: 1) frequently telling myself “Just sit down & work on the project for 10 minutes and see what happens.” Which usually leads to a 20-30 minute session. Painfully slow, but progress. 2) Though my best time of day is morning (which has a thousand demands) I’m taking the opposite approach. I write in the evening when I’m half dead & my resistance is down. This works better for me & I get 300-400 words down this way.

    Small chunks are better than no chunks.

    • BK, good on you. The “small chunks” method works. A book page is about 250 words. A page a day is a book a year. A book a year for 20 years is a prolific writer.

  7. Great post. Thanks for the link to Lakein’s book.

    My problem with productivity is that I am more creative in the mornings, and my life is filled with a multitude of “the cares of this world.” If I start working on anything other than writing (and these are the things I don’t want to do), I feel the need to get them done and out of the way, and I find it hard to get back into writing later in the day. (I’m reviewing all the things on my “to do” list.)

    Thus far, the only thing that has worked for me is to make three mornings a week reserved for writing. I guess I need to learn how to shift gears.

    • Reminds me of the old joke, Steve, about the rather dim politician who promised to work for his constituents “25 hours a day.” When reminded there’s only 24, he piped, “I will wake up an hour earlier!”

      Elmore Leonard used to do that, writing for an hour or two before heading off to his ad agency job. Every little bit (bite) helps!

  8. This is a wonderful article. I’m going to share it on The Litforum if you don’t mind.

    I used to do a lot of beadwork. My editor at the time when I wrote for a horse racing magazine had gifted me with all her beading supplies. Many of the beads were older and rare and tiny. It was the tiny ones I’d been working with to make earrings and had one of the trays sitting on a shelf above my desk. The shelving unit collapsed and beads went everywhere.

    I wept. Then meticulously swept them up into a cereal bowl. Every day I’d sit down and sort out a teaspoon of beads. One bite at a time as you say.

    It drove my husband crazy. He said, “Why don’t you just buy more beads?”

    “Because they won’t match these and I’ve already started work with these.”

    It would be like someone else finishing a story I had started.

    I always have more than one work, also. If I’m stuck on one thing, I work on another until the boys in the back work it out. Usually by the time I finish what I’m working on, the boys have the solution and on we sail.

    Thank you for this valuable article.

    • Share away, Julie, and thanks for the good word.

      The bead story is perfect. One teaspoon at a time. Anne Lamott has a section in Bird by Bird about writing in a “one-inch frame.” Don’t think about the “big picture” all the time. Write the “small picture” and see what happens.

  9. I need to be a bit contrarian. I find that the unpleasant tasks are the household tasks, whether it’s laundry or lawn or fixing something (“Honey,do”). If I work on my writing first thing, by 2pm or so I’m shot and have no oomph for the HH tasks. If I do them for an hour in the morning, I can reward myself by writing or editing for the rest of the day or till I decide it’s time to do some reading. I think Larry Brooks wrote something like this a while back.

    Whatever works.

    • Eric, just to be clear, I’m not comparing apples to oranges (e.g., house chores to writing). I’m talking about within the writing tasks choosing to take a bite out of the one giving most resistance.

      As for other “chores” around the house, I am adept at avoidance.

    • Boring household chores when you’ve hit a major roadblock in your novel is a great way to let your brain puzzle over the problem while your focus is elsewhere.

  10. There’s an app or several that some authors use and attach to their social media accounts. It shows the target goal for the book, what percentage they have written, and what they wrote today. It’s quite popular during NaNoWrite.

  11. I read the first chapter on line and immediately ordered the book. Thank you.

    I draw a chart in my bullet journal every week, check every box as I complete it and give myself a star as I finish each category. I hate seeing empty boxes.

    I always overschedule (something I hope this book will help with). But I always know exactly where I am regarding each project.

  12. This is great information, as always. Thank you.

    I’ve always felt I needed large blocks of time to write in order to make progress. I found myself making very slow progress on my WIP because I couldn’t find those multiple hours all stuck together. I was busy promoting my published novel which involved a lot of — you got it — social media.

    Then I read (perhaps here?) about writing sprints. It’s the same idea as taking a bite out of the cheese. If I had 20 minutes, I would lock myself in my office and concentrate on writing. The 20 minutes usually stretched out and I noticed I was making steady progress. I moved the blogs, social media, and advertising later in the day. If something had to give, it wasn’t my writing.

    Reminds me of running a marathon. You almost can’t do it if you think about how long it is. But if you just run the next mile, then the next one, you find yourself crossing the finish line.

  13. Yes, Kay, I like the idea of writing sprints as well. As far as the Marathon goes, I will have to take your word for it. I used to run the mile and they timed me with a calendar.

  14. Thanks for a terrific post (as always) Jim. I like the idea of “bites”. It’s like breaking a big goal into smaller goals, or thinking about scenes rather than a novel. I find free-writing at the start of the day really helps, because there’s nothing hard about it. I start writing about anything and often this morphs into ideas about whatever writing problem I’ve got. Usually I then feel ready to dive back into my WIP.

    • Linda, freewriting at the very start is a great way to get going. You get all of the good stuff bubbling up during the night onto the page. Bradbury used to do this. He said the first thing he did was step on a landmine. The landmine was him. Then he would spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together!

  15. This is exactly what I’ve been doing the last few months. I thought I was simply experiencing adult on-set ADD. Seriously, I found it difficult to sit and do any task I needed writing, family, home, church, or friend related. It seemed like I had too much to do and no time to do it all. What I ended up doing was setting a timer for a set number of minutes. I’d sit and work on one task for that time and then go do something else. For example: clean kitchen for 30 minutes, work on social media marketing 30 minutes, take a 15 minute walk around my block, write for 50 minutes, eat lunch, fold laundry for 20 minutes, write for 50… You get the picture. It worked because as you said, I was taking bites out of what had overwhelmed me and in the end I accomplished all I needed to.

  16. I’ve never been a procrastinator. If I have an unpleasant task ahead, I’d rather jump in and get done so I don’t have to worry about it. I apply that to everything, writing, housework, medical procedures and on and on. However, time management is a necessity no matter how determined you are to do what needs to be done. I do the same as what most others have mentioned, break up the tasks into small chunks. By the end of the day, lots of things can be accomplished. With my writing, I try to finish a scene with every session. If I see I am close to a nice rounded word count, I’ll expand the session. Regardless, if I get one scene a day, it doesn’t take too long to rack up the words.

    Another great post with good tips. Thanks, James!

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