Non-toxic Productivity for Writers
Meet your most efficient Substack-writer self
Productivity gets a bad rap these days. America’s supposed “toxic culture of productivity” must be spurned at all costs. The anti-productivity coalition equates producing and achieving with overwork and exploitation. It’s capitalist and classist. Books, websites, bloggers, self-help gurus, and morning talk shows implore us to rest (rest!), do nothing, be lazy.
I see how all of this may be true, but the creative writers I know are building their Substacks and want to feel inspired and driven. Productivity is exciting, not something to rebel against and avoid. They want to know how to be more productive, not less.
Plus, there’s an art to productivity that can avoid many of the critiques against it. Being productive isn’t the same as overworking, being exploited, or exploiting yourself. (Exploitation does occur, but we’re building newsletters here, folks.) Productivity might involve some hustle but never “grinding.” It shouldn’t make you feel like you’re spinning
I’ve spent many years figuring out how to make writing easy and joyful.
You do this by
measuring results, not time spent;
writing every day (it really is easier and you can literally “write” for three minutes and it “counts);
tapping into the power of muscle memory;
curbing the desire to “research.”
Do these, and you will produce more exemplary writing than you ever thought possible and with more joy. (Notice I didn’t say “write more” in the hourly sense because that’s about time spent, which is a mindset I suggest changing as soon as possible.)
Measure Results, Not Time Spent
The main reason people view productivity as negative, even unjust, is because they think in terms of time spent working instead of results produced. The American labor system is based on hours worked per week. That’s extremely inefficient. It’s also why so much time is wasted in offices, and workers suffer from burnout.
All that matters is what you produce. As a business coach once told me, No one cares how long Apple spent creating the new iPhone; we only care about the iPhone we just bought. Similarly, you don’t get points for spending ten years on a novel. No one cares. We only care about the novel you’ve written. That same goes for your posts.
*More on this in part 2 of The Art of Productivity.
Write Every Day
You get to decide when and how often you write. There’s no “right” way. I spent ten years at the Paris Review and have read every exquisite, edifying writers-at-work interview in their archive and can tell you that the master writers all worked in a way that worked for them. Any advice anyone one gives is only useful if it works for you.
I love’s work and Substack (subscribe to it here!), but I respectfully disagree that suggesting you write every day is “classist.” You don’t have to write for ten hours. Even if you can’t put in an hour or half hour or even fifteen minutes, just open the document you’re working on, scan it, look at it, reflect on it, change a comma, add a sentence. Sometimes, that’s enough. (I call this touching it.) It’s about staying in the zone, keeping your head in the game—or book or post or whatever you’re writing.
For me, it’s actually easier to write every day. It’s much harder to get out of the habit and get back into it two days later. Not writing can easily slip into avoidance, which can bring on an acute case of procrastinationitis. (See how to prevent, treat, and cure this writer’s malady here.)
And if you want to be prolific, you need to write three to eight hours a day five to seven days a week. That’s the truth. Before you object, here’s the thing: You don’t have to be prolific. At all. Only if you want to be. No one minds if you take twenty years to write a book or post or poem or whatever you’re writing. Really.
Some writers must write whenever they can, wherever they can. If you have a choice, don’t spin about where to write (I know many writers who do this): the cafe? the library? the park? the kitchen table? the desk? the couch? Just pick a place, eliminate the drama, and write there all or most of the time. People have produced incredible work in prison cells (see Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis); inspiration and motivation come from within.
Curb the Desire to “Research”
Research is a pleasantly disguised way to make you think you’re writing when you’re not. Remember, your writing time is sacred. Try not to research during that time. You can keep a document on which you make notes for later research. Often you’ll find you wouldn’t have used it or would have cut it anyway. Schedule another time to research or do it in your free time.
For other posts that touch on how to explore aspects of the art of productivity, see these posts:
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