Writing productivity: 10 tips to balance a commercial-creative portfolio

1. Establish a routine and systems

One of the problems of writing – especially working from home – is that you can easily turn into a workaholic. Not many people realise that this is a far bigger danger than becoming a couch potato! Especially if you’re the sole breadwinner in your family, your writing output may be all that stands between you and the breadline. So it’s easy to feel ‘always on’. But with brainwork and creative work such as writing, this can lead to diminishing returns.

What to do

Keep regular starting times, much as you’d do in a regular job. Try to get started at a reasonable time in the morning, which will give you an early feeling of achievement and make sure you get something in the bag. Watch out for breaktimes extending too long, and beware of research rabbit holes (aka web surfing) which may feel like work, but often aren’t productive. Build freelance productivity systems so that when you’re tired and can think so effectively, you know what to do next.

2. Log your hours

It’s easy for non-writing work to expand to fill the available time. Bitty and never-ending jobs such as marketing can easily take up more time than they should. But to be productive, creative and financially, you need efficient work turnaround. And you need to be honest about how you’re really spending your time. Logging your writing hours can help, and often provide a wake-up call and sense of realism.

What to do

Use a phone app, fitbit or kitchen timer to get a good handle on your actual hours spent. I use Toggl and have also tried Productivity Challenge, an Android app which has built-in gamification. Many writers also use the Pomodoro system of 25’ sprints. Use your short breaks to stretch and get away from the screen. I sometimes log creative and commercial hours to check in with myself about how I’m doing.  

3. Switch off in the evenings

I usually get a second wind in the evening. For some reason, it’s a great burst of new energy, and I can get loads done. But you can pay the price later on with poor sleep, because you’ve amped-up your energy ready for the night! This is especially true if you’re working in front of a computer, which is basically most copywriting, editing and research work. The light levels stimulate your brain and can make it hard to switch off and fall asleep.

What to do

Switch off your computer, phone and other digital devices no later than mid evening. Allow yourself time to unwind. If you must do something writing-related, read a book! At least then, the light won’t play havoc with your brain and make you too wakeful. Try a milky drink or chamomile tea before bedtime, and avoid caffeine from early evening.

4. Take regular breaks and exercise

This is sometimes easier said than done. But if you’re writing or editing for long stretches, your shoulders, neck and hands can be under a lot of strain – and they’re your essential tools! Working from home also has the temptation of writing on different surfaces or chairs, such as at a dining table or on the sofa. Often, home writing setups are at the wrong height ergonomically. It’s now known, too, that short mini-breaks are better for keeping up your metabolism than a huge workout once every couple of days.

What to do

Build in regular breaks by using your app or timer as above. You’ll come back mentally as well as physically refreshed. Even if it’s just standing up, stretching your arms, hands, back and neck and running up the stairs, or doing some push-offs against the wall, it’ll jog your neurons a little and help to keep your energy up, and often refresh your thinking about the job you’re on. Step away!

5. Beware the biscuit tin

For writers, the biscuit tin or cookie jar isn’t your friend. Lots of writers struggle with their weight, which is one of the occupational hazards of the job. you need to work that bit harder to mitigate the effects of a lot of sitting around. Carbohydrates in the form of sugary snacks and also sandwiches are my biggest downfall. They don’t feel like a proper meal, and yet have at least as many calories.

What to do

Ban biscuits. Simply don’t buy anything that is likely to tempt you towards binge-munching. If you can, stick to meal times and eat protein-rich snacks such as almonds (just a few!) to keep you going in between times. I really struggled to keep the weight down till I switched to high protein, low-to-no carbs and did away with pasta in the evenings. Weight loss is highly personal, but my key breakthrough was understanding that no amount of exercise was going to burn the calories I was consuming by munching snacks. So it had to be about portion control and saying no!

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6. Be kind to yourself

On days when the words don’t come, cut yourself some slack. I usually find it easier to edit than to write new material, which calls for a demanding amount of brain power. When things aren’t happening creatively, it’s often a sign that I need to step back and do something different to jolt my neurons into fresh thinking. Some writers find it best to push through, but I’m not one of them.

What to do

Keep at least two projects on the go at different stages – drafting, editing and proofing. That way, you’ve always got something to give you a change of pace. Full-on new drafting is heavy brainwork, so don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t happening on a particular day. Keep a list of routine jobs that need to be progressed, and tick off some of those.

7. Little and often is better than work binges

We all know the adrenaline of a writing deadline and what amazing amounts of work can be achieved in a short space of time when we’re under the cosh. It’s tempting to think this level of writing output is do-able all the time. But it isn’t. Often, when I have a high-octane writing deadline and overdo it, burning the midnight oil, I need a day or so to recover. So I don’t actually gain all that much. It’s better to pace yourself and take proper breaks if you can.

What to do

Develop a realistic sense of how long jobs take, and add at least a 10% contingency. When you’re a freelance, time really is money, so you need to keep a watchful eye on time-wasting such as overlong meetings and fun but non-productive research. Think of writing more like music or sports practice, where routine and consistency are key.

8. Work out best times for creative and commercial writing

It can be tricky to balance a combined creative-commercial writing portfolio. If your creative writing is speculative, long-form (such as a novel) or unpaid, then it’s tempting to let it take a back seat. This is particularly true when you have a big paid writing deadline. Usually, this will take precedence. But don’t fall into the trap of seeing your creative, non-commercial writing projects as second-class citizens. Time can pass and you may find you’ve made great inroads with your commercial work and very little on creative and personal projects. Which defeats the purpose of having the freedom in the first place!

What to do

Try putting your creative writing first in the day. Even if it’s only half an hour or an hour, a little time spent will get keep the project simmering in your subconscious and the momentum up. You may find, as I did, that early evening is your best creative time, and mornings are better for commercial work. But I also find morning pages first thing a great habit for tapping into that fuzzy mental state when your brain’s defences are down. Some wild and wonderful writing ideas can come from the place between sleeping and dreaming.

9. Choose your writing projects wisely

You can’t do everything. And as you get more successful and in demand, you get more and more offers. It’s tempting to fall into the classic freelance trap of taking on far too much work. The freelance writing life can often feel like feast or famine. But you need to develop cast-iron instincts for self-protection, or you’ll fill all your waking hours.

What to do

Learn to say ‘no’ to unrewarding jobs. Usually, the gap will fill with something else, and if your timetable is too packed, you may have no space for interesting new writing opportunities. Which may well be better paid, too! A job needs to be productive for you either financially, or in terms of your creative or career development. Three out of three is ideal, but don’t settle for less.

10. Just start writing

The best writing tip I know, whether for commercial or creative writing, is just to dive in and start. It may seem obvious, but some jobs are simply more appealing than others. So you occasionally need to trick yourself, otherwise you’ll end up doing all the fun writing and avoiding some of the more routine work.

What to do

If you find yourself running rings round a job, start small – really small. Set yourself 15’ just to make some notes, get your files out, compile your list of research or contacts. The act of taking that first small step is a great trick just to get you going. When it comes to writing, you can use the same tactic. I often start a big website job just by writing the contact page. With that in the bag, I’ve pulled focus and can try something knottier. When you get stuck, breaking it into the tiniest steps can really help.

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