I have a love-hate relationship with productivity, like most writers. As a full-time author, I struggle with getting enough writing done during the day, especially when I’m also expected to publish books, market books, talk to fans, stay active on social media, maintain my website(s), keep my descriptions and metadata up-to-date, strategize, network with other authors, and put together a promotions schedule.
In all of this, it is hard to create on a regular basis.
I’ve tried a number of systems over the years, but the to-do list that has worked best for me is insanely simple.
Oddly enough, I have no idea if I invented it or if it’s someone else’s. But I do know that whenever I’m struggling with productivity, I come back to it—and it just works!
Here’s what you do:
Step 1: Get a small sheet of paper
The size I use is 4 inches by 6 inches.
Step 2: Create my “grid”
The grid is incredibly easy to draw. First, draw a horizontal line through the middle so there are two equal parts, a top and bottom. Second, divide the bottom rectangle into four equal parts by drawing a cross. Third, go to the box in the bottom right-hand corner and divide it into five sections by drawing four horizontal lines across.
The end result looks like this:
Step 3: Fill your to-do list in at the beginning of the day.
The large box: something very important that you estimate will take 2 hours or less to complete. (I put a writing or editing task in this box, typically.)
The medium boxes: three things that you must do, that you estimate will take 25 minutes or less to complete.
The small rectangles in the corner: five necessary admin tasks that you estimate will take 5 minutes or less to complete. (These could be things like posting a snippet on Google+, or responding to a nagging email.)
Now, you have four hours of work on your to-do list, which is the reasonable amount that you can expect to get done in a day working full time.
You can also visualize how important a task is by the size of the box. If you notice, the boxes are perfectly proportioned to each other (with a 5 minute break every 25 minutes, of course, per the pomodoro method).
Feel free to leave some of these boxes blank at the start of the day. In my experience, I’ve always filled them in by the end.
Why This Works
- It forces you to prioritize only 9 items to get done in a day
- It forces you to schedule loosely, yet still *finish* something
- It forces you to do a mix of work so you aren’t neglecting certain areas of your career/business
- It forces you to work in pomodoros
- It forces you to visualize your tasks, so getting five little things done is less satisfying then getting the big one at the top done
Some More To-Do Rules I Follow
- I force myself to stop working when the list is done
- I don’t allow myself to double up on any of the boxes
- I force myself to finish the list that day (after all, it’s only half the work I could have done, right?)
- I don’t put any daily or weekly to-dos on my grid—those are habits. After all, I wouldn’t put brushing my teeth on there! Habits require a different management system.
- I don’t add things that don’t sound fun to any place but the 5-minute task area.
What If I Have a Job?
If you have a full-time job or other obligations, you can switch the time lengths or (probably the better option) create one grid to get done for the entire week. After all, four hours a week to move your writing career forward is nothing!
If you have a productivity system that works for you, please leave a comment and share it with everyone!
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I’ve got so much to do, from a part-time job to help pay the bills to being the ONLY one taking care of house stuff (because my husband works 90 hours/week) … I’m learning that if I don’t get my chunk of words for the day written by ~8:30 or 9am (when I am expected to answer emails) it probably won’t get done.
So I wake up at 6a, start the coffee, and get to work.
Yeah, I feel like we have similar situations, Amy 🙂 I agree that writing early in the morning (or for me, sometimes in the dead of night) is a great way to be able to focus on JUST the writing portion. My struggle is often between marketing tasks and the actual writing, so this to-do list helps remind me of my priorities.
I think it’s really nice that you take care of your home for your husband, though. It’s important work and I’m sure he appreciates it!
Got any tips for actually getting started? That seems to be my biggest struggle right now. My current project at work is a glorified babysitting job and I have 6-8 hours (broken up into chunks largely of my choosing) that I can spend on writing, but each day, I don’t seem to manage to actually open the manuscript and start typing until nearly the end of the day.
My best tip is to make space for it. I’m not talking about hours, like setting time on your calendar. I’m talking, clear space in your head and on your plate (in terms of energy, not time). Then, let the writing fill in the space.
Do you do anything for yourself? On your time off, do you fill it with meaningless and non-re-energizing activities like television, video games, or internet surfing? Or do you do stuff you love, that actually relaxes and fulfills you? Spending time with loved ones and friends, going outside, working out, enjoying a hobby, reading, taking a class, learning something new, and so on.
Most people with full-time jobs that they don’t particularly love are running on empty in terms of energy. Well, the writing will never happen in that case. You have to refill your creative tank with inspiration before you actually feel like sitting down and writing (before it stops being a huge chore or nagging task).
I don’t know if this is your situation, but if so, it might make sense to take one of those 6-8 hours every day and do something creative and fulfilling energetically. Then you’ll have something to put toward your writing.
I don’t have any good tips to share because the best ones I’ve picked up have come from you, so I just wanted to say thanks! I’m a single parent and support two kids & a dog on my own, so my life is very tightly scheduled and your advice has helped. I’ll be publishing my 5th book later this year.
That’s fantastic! So happy it helped. Good luck with your 5th book!
I made a to do list that looks like this for today. I really like the idea of expressing visually that tasks that take longer are worth more. Genius! Also, question for you. Do you ever break that one large task up into smaller chunks during the day? I know I’m in a different stage of life, but with 4 little ones, it is hard to get a solid 2 hour chunk of time. Thanks for all that you write Monica!
Hi Bibi, that’s awesome!
I usually break up my 2 hours into 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks. But you can customize the to do list to your needs. I would just make a little cross in the middle of that big box (maybe with dotted lines or something) and come up with 4 smaller but closely related tasks (or just use 4 time chunks on the big task and get to them throughout the day, at naptimes or inbetween periods, whatever you can manage).
What a cool idea! Must try this ASAP. I love that the 4×6 space is so limiting. No matter how much I complete, I never feel like I’m done and deserve a break—have carried that feeling around since grad school—so this feels like a wonderful way to manage that thought and replenish the well.
Definitely! It tames my crazy, for sure 🙂 I’m a recovering overachiever from years of being rewarded for that sort of thing in school. I think I can be a superhero, when all that’s required is steady, daily progress.
I love that it is limiting, too, Cate! And yet you can get a lot on there. Genius!
Just discovered you a couple weeks ago, and I feel totally on track with everything you’re going through. It’s like, every time I pose a question to myself about how I’m going to manage this or that, your email delivers an answer. (Not only are you a writer–you’re also a mind reader!!!) Thank you!!
Just wanted to say, I love your suggestion for converting this chart into a guide for those weekday warriors among us, who go to full-time jobs. Because, between Monday and Friday, 4 hours is about all I manage to squeeze in!!
Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!
I’ve learned so much from your books & emails. This is a great way to make a to-do list, and hopefully it works for me (I’ve tried to-do lists and they’ve failed me terribly). I’m one of those writers running on empty, with no creative energy left at the end of the day for writing. I used to blame it on my full-time job, on my personality, on the way my mind can only focus on a single task at a time, etc. You introduced me to the concept of creative energy (not entirely new) but what was new was that you classified video games and Internet as meaningless, non-re-energising tasks. I always knew TV was exactly that, as well as random Internet surfing, but I’ve always thought purposeful surfing and gaming were not, because it’s actively engaging my mind, instead of just being a passive act. In fact, I’ve always considered the Internet the ULTIMATE source of inspiration! Now I learn it’s probably having the opposite effect from what I always assumed… You’ve given me much to think about. I’d love if you could expand more on what “re-energising creative activities” are—it feels like I might just have a breakthrough if I can understand that and find a way to implement it. Thanks for your transparency and thorough reporting on your process and findings, you’ve been a tremendous inspiration and has given me new hope that I can live my passion now instead of waiting for “one day”.
I’ve been thinking about your nifty chart since I saw it yesterday. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Thank you for sharing it. I also appreciate the idea of using one for the week for those of us who have outside jobs.
I work full time but usually can make–“can make” is not the same as “have” of course–some time in the evening for writing and usually can make a fair amount of time on the weekend. To-do lists don’t work well for me because they get overwhelming and I end up choosing whatever is easy. Traditional goal setting makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something even though I just keep revising the goals or drop them completely.
Right now I’m working on major revision, but that will take me a long time without getting any actual writing done. I have a generally neglected website and still need to do further research for the novel I’m revising. Your method would be a good way to make a quick balanced plan to include these items. It would also help me remember to take breaks. I’m considering using one chart for the work week and a new one on the weekend.
I love this! I just finished The 8-Minute Writing Habit and am reading Write Better, Faster tomorrow. Just came to explore your blog some and this is just brilliant. Thank you!
Hi Monica. Glad I stumbled across your blog and how-to-write books! I would like to work 6-8 hours a day since I’m unemployed and childless, but the very disability that keeps me from employment would keep me from working more than 4 hours a day. Still, 24 hours a week sounds good to me. Better than I’ve been doing. I take Sundays off, but they say you should write every day, so I may scribble a few paragraphs in my journal in the evening!
Thanks for the advice. Maybe I will take another piece of advice from you and invest in the dictating device, only I will need a new computer with a mic as well.
Fantastic tip Monica! Can’t wait to try it. Thanks so much for sharing this. Like other writers on this thread, I’m a mom of two young children. Being productive on a consistent basis is a big challenge.
I bought your book, Prosperous Creation, and it has some great stuff in it. Since I’m on tier 3 of the pyramid, I was looking for the word count tracker you said you had on proseonfire.com/tracker. Unfortunately the site is no longer valid. The book was published only a year ago. Where can I get the word tracker???