How to Increase Your Productivity When You Don’t Feel Productive

by James Scott Bell

Sometimes it’s just plain hard to write. Like when you’re sick. Or feeling drained from a job. I recently went through a season of this, a mix of some medical stuff and general lethargy. For the first time in 25 years, I found myself missing my weekly quota disturbingly often.

It made me mad. I’ve always tried to stay in the tradition of the great pulp writers, who had to produce or they wouldn’t eat.

Erle Stanley Garner routinely wrote a million words a year.

John D. MacDonald was known as the writer with the red-hot typewriter.

My keyboard was getting cold. So I had to go back and re-establish some disciplines. Here they are:

  1. Plan the next day’s writing the night before

At night, when I’m always too spent to produce more, I take just a few minutes to think about what I’ll write tomorrow. Hemingway famously said he’d leave off writing midsentence, so he could take off running the next day.

So I think about the scene I’m going to write next. I give it some structure brainstorming: Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.

Then I’ll write one sentence. Just one. And that’s where I start when morning comes. Which brings me to tip #2:

  1. Sleep

We all know that good, restorative sleep makes a big difference in our daily lives. We also know sleep problems are rife, especially in the anxiety-inducing world we live in.

That’s why there’s a boom in sleep products. The most common ingredient is melatonin. I like to manage my melatonin naturally. I try to get ten to fifteen minutes of sunlight between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. (good for Vitamin D, too). I also try to keep off the blue light of phone and computer and TV screens before bed. If I do some computer or watch some TV, I wear yellow-tint glasses. This renders color movies or shows a bit, well, yellowish. But I can live—and sleep—with that.

Now here’s JSB’s secret tip for a good night’s sleep: Quercetin. I pop an 800mg tab half an hour before I hit the pillow. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night.

And here is an added benefit: Quercetin is an ionophore. That means it’s a molecule that helps your cells absorb good things, like zinc. Another ionophore is hydroxychloroquine. Remember the suppression of HCQ at the beginning of Covid? Don’t get me started on the political and medical malpractice of that. HCQ, like quercetien, helps the cells absorb zinc which, along with D, is the Praetorian Guard of the immune system.

Thus the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples are a great source of quercetin. That’s why all those apple-egg-meat eating farmers never got sick.

  1. Write first thing in the morning

Well, second thing. First thing is make the coffee. Mrs. B and I spend devotional time together, so I get up earlier and knock out a Nifty 250 (or 350 if I’m going good) before she joins me in the living room. I sometimes do this on my laptop. I used to do it on my beloved AlphaSmart. But Alphie is showing his age lately, so I invested in a very cool Macally wireless keyboard that has a slot for your phone or tablet. I write my words in Google Docs.

Getting a 250 or 350 jump on the day makes hitting the quota so much easier.

I’ll sometimes do some morning pages to get the engine started. This often results in a new idea for a story. [Note: I don’t count morning pages in my quota, unless I end up using some of them in a project.]

  1. Sprint

I look at 250 word chunks as “writing sprints.” Go fast. Catch my breath. Then sprint some more.

Periodically, I stand and move around, so I’m not on my butt for more than a half hour at a time.

  1. Lightly edit the previous day’s writing

I emphasize the word lightly. I’m not going to labor over things, but just go over the pages to make obvious changes. More often than not, I add new words (which counts toward my quota).

  1. More than one project

I usually have at least two projects going. My novel is primary, and if I’m going good I push through to the quota. But, like Asimov, if I get to a cul-de-sac I jump over to another project—usually a short story or a piece of nonfiction—and work on that for awhile.

Following this plan, I find myself more easily hitting my daily quota of 1k. I finished typing this at 11:07 a.m. Friday, and my word count is 1754. Now I can look forward to lunch. Hawaiian pizza, anyone? Ha!

What about you? What do you do to stay productive, even if you’re not feeling like it?

53 thoughts on “How to Increase Your Productivity When You Don’t Feel Productive

  1. What do you do to stay productive, even if you’re not feeling like it?

    I just started using Freedom again. It’s a little app that blocks the internet (or whatever you choose it to) for as long as you choose it to – and, for someone as distractible as me (ye olde damagèd brain), it is essential to my writing progress.

    I missed it so much! It got me through the first two books in my mainstream trilogy, but health problems and pandemic and such these last two years made me forget.

    I had switched computers, and was finally planning to buy it again, when I checked, they told me I have a permanent legacy one-computer plan – and it cost me $0.

    If I set it up properly, I can get out if I need to, but I trained myself so well writing the previous books that I don’t even think about it.

    If I need some information RIGHT NOW, I ask Siri on the phone – and since I’m not a scroller, I get what I need and am not tempted to look for more (very tiny print and I don’t really get along).

    It’s hard to show, but I had a three-hour working session today that I didn’t even feel – just got the work done. I am so HAPPY!

    PS First or Second Diet Coke will now be the reward for starting a Freedom session – worked like a fairy godmother this morning. I resist starting – but the feeling of being home and working comfortably again was stardust and roses.

  2. Thank you! I find that planning or thinking about a scene before I write it also helps me become eager to write the scene which helps a lot if you’re not feeling productive, but I usually do that directly before writing – I’m now going to try it the night before. Great tips!

    • Plus, Linda, some planning the nght before gets the Boys in the Basement working while you sleep. First thing in the morning Bradbury always tried to capture what was going on in his head…he’d “step on a landmine; the landmine is me.” Then spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.

  3. For the readers out there…. I sit down at the keyboard, drop a character with a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story, that will reveal later) into a setting, and write whatever comes.

    I plan nothing in advance, any more than I would try to plan writing an account of what happens to my neighbor and what he says and does in response. For me that’s worked for over 230 short stories and 76 novels (and counting).

        • Nope, I have to clarify that. Sorry for the length. And I’m not trying to argue anyone into anything. Not my department. As I wrote at the outset, I’m only offering a different path:

          Yes, probably some neighbors seem crashing bores from our outsider, superficial perpective. But how well do we know our neighbors? Do some of them possibly lead secret lives we know nothing about? Actually, all of them do.

          The truth is, we know our neighbors about as well as we know our characters from that same surface perspective. But that’s before we dive into their lives and follow them around for awhile, running through their story with them.

          And that’s my whole point. If the characters (or neighbors) never notice my presence, then I don’t affect how their story unfolds. I’m simply their Recorder, or as Stephen King refers to himself, “my characters’ stenographer.”

          When I approach fiction writing from that perspective — not having donned glowing Authorial Robes and not controlling every action and every word of dialogue in their story — the story unfolds as it should, naturally and in the characters’ own voices, unencumbered by my own.

          Even the stories of the most seemingly boring characters (and neighbors) are actually far more interesting than if I had forced my perception and expectations on them.

          I never experience the fear of a story not being “perfect” because every reader’s perception of perfection is different. I only convey the story truthfully as it unfolds and let the readers decide.

          And while others are planning and plotting and outlining and revising and receiving input from critique groups and rewriting, I’m putting new words on the page at a rate of about 3000 clean, publishable words per day.

          Best of all, for me writing fiction isn’t laborious in the slightest. It isn’t a set of steps to follow and fears to obey. To the contrary, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

          But to the presentation of the characters’ story — Should we learn more about structure and hooks and cliffhangers and pacing and all the rest?

          Of course. Despite what some would have you believe, I have never advocated not learning the craft and building on what you know.

          But we’ve also been absorbing Story all our lives from television (and some of us, radio) and music and films and short stories and novels.

          Of course we should augment all that with more knowledge.

          But we should also trust what we know. And most importanly, we should practice. And practice in writing doesn’t mean standing still or hovering. It means putting new words on the page.

  4. Oh, productivity. I don’t get up (other than short breaks) until I’ve hit or surpassed my daily goal of 3000 words. And I show up to work every day, just as I would in any other job.

  5. Thanks for the tip about Quercetin, Jim. I have no problem falling asleep, it’s staying asleep that’s the problem. Or worse, waking at 3 a.m. for the day. Oof, that’s rough.

    How do I stay productive? First, I end my writing day mid-scene, so it’s easy to jump back into it in the morning. Second, when my husband is the shower at night, I write on my phone. Sometimes, it’s a future scene. Other times, I continue from where I left off and keep going, then stop mid-scene again. And the most important thing I do is slide on my headphones. The music transports me back into my story world.

    • You and I both like those headphones, Sue. I sometimes use a soundtrack, other times Coffitivity, and still other times a New York street sound from YouTube, as it takes me back and I can imagine I’m a pulp writer living in Greenwich Village in the 40s, pounding out stories.

  6. I’m fortunate enough not to be putting food on the table or a roof over my head with my writing, so if I have periods of non-productivity, I’ve stopped worrying about it. I’ve set more travel as a goal, and since I can set my own deadlines, I don’t race to my hotel room or ship stateroom to get my word count in. I do TRY to take sufficient notes to incorporate into a future story. Not always successful.

      • Giving it my best shot, JSB. Enjoying what I can while I can. Doing a trip in December, and am toying with how I can turn it into a book. Getting to write off the trip becomes a major motivator.

      • I believe you are the one (at least I always attribute it to you) that said writers must be meticulous harvesters of detail. It has led me to create a sensory detail folder of pictures I’ve taken and notes I’ve made about things I’ve seen and places I’ve been. This has been a helpful source of inspiration to me when I’m struggling with productivity. Something about reawakening the senses that might have grown a bit dull from looking at nothing but a black and white computer screen covered in nothing but words.

  7. Coincidentally, I’m halfway through reading my first Spenser novel, Paper Dolls. Nice tight prose. I have a feeling I’ll read all the rest.

    My new daily word quota is at least 2,000 but if I ho over, then I can’t stop writing until I’ve finished the scene. I do one scene per chapter Patterson style so it’s not overwhelming.

    • Good output, Philip.

      Yes, Parker was certainly productive, right up to the end. He was once asked why he kept on writing so much. His answer: “I have children in the arts.”

  8. My best writing time is morning and there’s just something about that Nifty 350 that makes the day go better. Only with a deadline looming, it’s 500 for me before breakfast and my Bible time.

    I’ll have to add thinking specifically about what I’m going to write the next day to my routine. I think about it generally, like the character has to do some particular thing to accomplish, but not always about the obstacles. I’ve found that when I don’t want to write, I make a deal with myself to write for 5 minutes, reasoning anyone can write for 5 minutes. Usually when the timer goes off, I ignore it and keep writing.

  9. I’ve seen numerous warnings that writers should not edit until the first draft is finished. But I think you’re right that light editing of your wip can get you back into the fictional world and characters you’re creating. It works for me.

  10. Thanks for the Quercetin tip, Jim. Like Sue, I fall asleep easily but at 2-3 a.m., the hamster wheel starts spinning madly. Unfortunately it doesn’t generate brilliant solutions for the WIP.

    Exercise is my go-to for productivity. Can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten stuck in the middle of a scene. I go for a walk and come back with the answer 100% of the time.

    Deadlines are always a great antidote to writing malaise.

    I’ve come to recognize periods when writing just ain’t gonna happen–health problems, family and friends crises, when traveling, etc. During those times, I try to collect ancillary material from whatever is going on. For instance, I’ve spent many hours in hospitals with loved ones, absorbing the processes, sights, sounds, smells, tucking them away for later. Next time I need an ER scene, the background is ready.

    It always feels strange to detach from the immediate serious problem and look at it as future fodder from an outside researcher’s perspective. Maybe that’s also a safety valve during stress.

    Anyway, like Terry, I no longer sweat writing down times. But I also don’t depend on writing to eat. Thank goodness.

  11. I don’t usually have any problems with sleep, but every now and then … 🥺
    I need to pick up a bottle of Quercetin tablets.

    You convinced me a long time ago to set my word quota and get the writing done in the morning when my mind is fresh. That works well for me, although I’ve been in “book launch” mode for the last few weeks and it’s affected my morning words. I am putting some mental time into planning the next books, though.

    Thanks for getting Sunday off to a great start.

    • Whew! When you wrote pick up a bottle I thought you were going toward Jack Daniels. Not a recommendation, though my sainted grandmother insisted that a nip of “medicinal sherry” in the evening was just what the doctor ordered. She lived to 95.

  12. I’ve been struggling with productivity for a while. In my case, working on my second mystery novel, I reached the 11K mark and had to return to outlining because the mystery elements needed more work—both the shadow story and the web of suspicion and the game of “who knew what when.”

    I realized yesterday that the other issue is, and this may sound odd to non-outliners, but that I’m too controlling in my writing, and have slipped back to into fear of making mistakes, which is prolonging this latest session of outlining.

    I have a looming deadline which may or may not be met, so I need to return to drafting, today.

    Word quotas, sprints, and first thing writing will all help. Music to set the mood, as well as alpha-wave and synth wave music to stay in flow. Drawing in my stoic training to focus on the task at hand

    A couple of months ago I bought a Mac Mini which stays off the internet except for adding new music or updates, and that’s helped a lot with keeping me focused on the outlining, as well as finishing my last project, a prequel novella. Now, I just need to get back into the flow.

    Thanks for a terrific post that came at precisely the right time. Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Ah Dale, yes, the ol’ fear of mistakes demon. We have to exorcise that incubus by constantly reminding ourselves that we will fix things later and not think about that now.

      Write like there’s no tomorrow!
      Edit tomorrow.

  13. Nice post, JSB. Setting a daily goal stresses me too much so I set a monthly word goal. You know, because . . . life. And on the days we’re traveling, it’s too difficult to write. When I’m feeling unproductive, I set my timer for 20 minute sprints. That seems to work for me.

    • I said a weekly quota, for precisely the reason that some days I don’t manage to get much done for one reason or another. Life happens. But I would think a monthly quota would work just as well for some writers and some situations. Godspeed.

  14. I live in the world of deadlines, and I know at least a year in advance when that deadline will drop. Between novel deadlines, there’s typically a deadline or two for a short story project. My method is to laze for a month or two after submission, write a few days a week for the next couple of months–call it 1,500 words per session. Then I run face-on-fire 2,500 words a day for the final 30-45 days. It works for me.

    On non-deadline days, more mornings than not are spent at the radio station. That takes me till 10 am. Then there’s the off-the-air gossip session that’ll take me till 10:30 or so. I’m home by 11, and then it’s time to play with the dog. This time of year, chainsaw playtime runs till about 1pm. I’ll settle into my lonely writer’s garret by 2 and take care of emails/marketing/administrivia. I usually start writing for real around 3 and by 5:30, it’s time for cocktails and dinner. In those writing hours–driven by the clock, not by a word quota–I may only produce a few hundred words, and sometimes I’ll surprise myself with a couple thousand.

    On deadline days, take out everything between 11 and 3. Those are full-on writing days.

    Writing is my job, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But as the old adage goes, I don’t live to work. I work to live.

    • I come from the world of deadlines, and know how important it is for me to have a SID–a self-imposed deadline. Otherwise it’s too easy to skate.

      Funny how creativity zones work. I am a zombie after 2 p.m., and forget about writing. If I really need to add something, I might be able to squeeze out a couple hundred words after 4 or so. But most often, I’m in the watch a movie or TV series mode.

  15. “I am a zombie after 2 p.m.…”


    I’ve been in an output slump for a few weeks now. But, I just released a new novel, so I’m trying to be kind to Deb.

    I have 2 WIPs in the hopper, which I’ll start hitting soon.

    Today’s Takeaway: I really like the idea of stopping for the day mid-scene or mid-sentence. Plan to give that a whirl.

    Great day all! 🤓

  16. No amount of willpower in the world can push a writer past the death of a parent or a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes, it’s okay to take a break. I know this is easier said than done for those under contract, but writers are humans and most editors understand this.

  17. I came across this column years ago, smugly filed all the emails in a folder called TKZ, ostensibly to be read later, and then never touched it. I suppose I knew if I read it, I would have to get back on the horse (writing), because all of you have awakened something that’s been stirring for a long time. I do play music, so that outlet has been occupying a lot of my brain matter, but that is no excuse. I did some of my happiest writing right alongside rehearsals and performance.

    Without turning this into a novel – thanks for the tip on Quentin …it’s in my Amazon order list, but I hadn’t pushed the button, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted it. Also thanks to everyone for talking about life, sleep, health and family issues, experiences for fodder, deadlines, progress, word goals…all stuff I had pretty much been avoiding thinking about, because – excuses – well…creatives probably have the best ones for obvious reasons.

    Call me getting back in the game! Thanks!!!

  18. “Quentin” (aka Quercetin)…freudian slip. LOL. Thank you very much Mr. B. You’re an angel!

  19. I can’t imagine writing a million words a year. I’d be burned out. WOW.

    Thanks for the tip on Quercetin–I didn’t know it helped with zinc absorption. Good to know since I try to take that regularly. I’ve suffered from horrible fatigue the last 1.5 yrs & have ruled out other medical issues. Who knows. Maybe something like Quercetin could help. I’ll talk to my naturalpath about that.

    And to add to the plug for apples–they are also great for keeping you regular. Just sayin’.

    While I’m totally sold on writing in the morning, except on weekends, that’s just not possible, despite the fact that I rise early in the morning. But that will be the plan once I’m no longer tied to a day job schedule. And I do need to adopt sprints so that my writing isn’t just on weekends.

    The one thing I’m wary about is switching to working on another project. I totally see the benefit, but I’ve spent a lifetime not getting projects done because I hop like a bunny between projects but never finishing any. So I’d try that one as a last resort. (Kind of like an alcoholic wisely staying away from the bars).

    • BK, good caution. I’d say don’t move to another project willy-nilly. Keep hacking away at project number one, and if you get tired take a little break and do some work on the other. I’ll also add that much of the time my other project is nonfiction or a short story, so it’s not like working on another novel.

      • Alternating with a non-fiction project is a good idea. I’ve got a couple in mind to develop. That wouldn’t be as distracting as working on 2 fic projects.

  20. It saddens me the alphasmart is being phased out. There is the Freewrite devices, but they don’t seem as enticing. I’ve moved to dictating when I’m alone.

    • I loved my AlphaSmart, good for going to a coffeehouse and having a distraction-free typer. The devices you mention seem overly pricey to me. The Macally keyboard is under a hundred bucks.

  21. Great advice (especially thankful for the Quercetin suggestion!). Another thing I’ve found that helps me is to read through some of my favorite lines written by someone else, either in a book that I’ve marked up or from a list I keep. There is something about rereading beautifully crafted words that opens the flow of my own (not implying that mine reach the same level, but only that they start to flow). Thanks for tips, advice, and overall encouragement!

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