In this strange new reality, while I’m self-isolating in my studio apartment with loads of WFH time, finding time to work on my next book has been one of the few challenges I haven’t faced. But as I wrote my most recent thriller, out today, I implemented a new productivity strategy that helped me find my stride—and it’s one everyone can apply to their own to-do list and projects, big and small.
Before I get to it, please allow a bit of bragging (I promise there’s a payoff!): THE HERD is about a glamorous all-female coworking space that’s upended when its founder goes missing the night of a glitzy news conference, and until a few weeks ago, it was having the best little journey a new book could have: It was featured (in print!) in Marie Claire, Real Simple, Newsweek, and even Glamour UK; it scored stellar write-ups from the publishing industry’s most prestigious trade publications, like Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. It’s 318 pages long, all of them dark and twisty and dripping with complex female friendships and subtle commentary on consumerist feminism. It’s thick and real and, as of today, out in the world.
Now, here’s why I led with that: I wrote the first draft of THE HERD in less than three months. (For context, my debut mystery, THE LOST NIGHT, took two years to write.) I got a book contract based on the idea in late September, and the first draft was due January 15. I wanted a month to futz with the complete draft before I showed it to my editor, so I put the deadline on my calendar for December 15…and started writing. I’m pleased with the results, and reviewers seem to be liking it, too, so I can safely say the novel doesn’t feel thrown-together. I hit my goal not by heroically cranking out huge blocks of texts every day, but by sneaking a few minutes of writing into every pocket of time I could.
Instead of telling myself I had to turn in 100,000 words in a few short months, I did the math and broke it down: My goal was 1,100 words a day (that’s a little over four pages, double-spaced). But breaking it down one step further was the real game-changer. I stopped thinking of writing time as precious and began opening the Googledoc on my computer or phone and cranking out a few lines whenever I had a spare moment.
I’d write 120 words while my coffee brewed. Another 100 or so while waiting for a friend to call me back. 75 as I stood on the subway platform—minutes I’d normally spend refreshing Twitter. Those miniature writing sessions were just a drop in the ocean of the entire manuscript (for context, this paragraph is 78 words long), but hey, without breaking a sweat, I was almost a third of the way toward hitting my daily goal.
My friend Kara Cutruzzula, who runs the productivity and creativity newsletter Brass Ring, calls them “micro actions”—knocking out something from your to-do list whenever you have a sec instead of waiting for dedicated time. The strategy is hugely useful for chipping away at a larger project, but it could certainly work for, say, a parent at home trying to balance emails and Slack and Zoom meetings while homeschooling kids. You’ve got ten minutes until the pasta water boils or even just two or three until your boss messages you back—what action could you take, one that Future You will thank you for?
That beautiful block of time to reorganize your desk or finish the project that’s been hanging over you for months may never come, or if it does, you might feel too overwhelmed or intimidated to dive in. (Our current era of sky-high anxiety is not exactly conducive to dropping into a flow state and completing “deep work,” even for those who find themselves with loads of quarantined alone time [raises hand].) But if you can favor persistence over perfection, you just might be amazed by how much you can accomplish and how quickly you can work. Like writing 100,000 words in 90 days—and feeling proud of every one of them.
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