I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna is an accomplished novelist and a publishing mentor for writers. She also happens to be the most frequent guest on the Novel Marketing Podcast.
Her most recent book is Productivity for Authors: Find Time to Write, Organize Your Author Life and Decide What Really Matters (affiliate link), so we began by talking about priorities and productivity.
Just yesterday I was working in the office, and my daughter was standing on the other side of the baby gate in my doorway. She shot her hands straight up in the air which is her clear signal that she wants me to pick her up. She was staring at me with big beautiful eyes and beckoning me to pick her up, and I thought, “This email can wait!” We all have many wonderful demands on our time, and Joanna gives us wisdom for managing our time in a productive way.
Thomas: Joanna, why is productivity important for authors?
Joanna: I’ve really struggled with productivity for a long time. I have been writing since 2006, and I’ve been publishing for over a decade. I’ve achieved a lot of stuff, but I have always struggled with this idea of productivity.
It finally clicked for me when I realized the question is “What do you want to achieve?” Productivity is actually achieving that thing. So I wrote this book about it.
I always got confused thinking productivity was ticking off things from my to-do list. But so often my to-do list was around things I didn’t necessarily want to achieve.
As writers, productivity is about writing, but more than that, it’s about finishing books. You can be as creative as you like and write lots of stuff, but productivity is what will help you get those words into the world. You only have this finite amount of time in your life. What do you want to achieve with that time, and what productive tasks are you going to do to achieve those goals rather than just running around like a headless chicken ticking things off your to-do list?
Thomas: That’s right, you can’t do everything. In the States, we had a series of commercials from this beer brand called Dos Equis. They had a character they called “the most interesting man in the world” who’d give advice through these little pithy sayings. In one of them, he looks at the camera and gives this advice on careers: “Find the one thing in the world you do not do well, and then don’t do that thing.”
It’s funny, but it’s really good advice because so often, we want to do everything and we end up spending the largest amount of time on the thing we don’t do well because we don’t do it well.
Joanna: Yes. This is really important for indie and traditional authors in the present climate of publishing, because authors are expected to do marketing. There are literally thousands of things you can do for book marketing. You could spend all your time doing book marketing. And of course, marketing is super important, and it’s something we all have to do.
Productivity is really considering what you want to achieve with your time and then doing that and ruthlessly cutting out those other things. You mentioned that email and your daughter. To be fair, the email can wait. But my daughter is right there now. Maybe she’ll be asleep in a couple hours, and you can do the email then.
So that actually is productive in that you are spending your time on what you wanted to spend your time on. As busy people we need to ask ourselves, “Did I get the best out of my time today?”
Thomas: I’m going to take an audio clip of you saying that, and any time somebody complains that I didn’t email them back fast enough, I’m just going to play it and say, I was holding my daughter!
Joanna: That’ll work until she’s a bit older!
Thomas: Productivity is important. In a lot of ways, it’s about saying no or not being able to say no. But what are some other things that keep authors from being productive?
Joanna: The first thing everyone says is, “I don’t have the time.” Obviously, we all have to make the time.
The second one is, “I don’t know what to do when I do have the time,” and this is very much a problem for new writers. They’ll say, “I sat down for three hours and nothing happened.”
There are processes you have to put in place so that you can use your time effectively to achieve your goal.
Other people say, “I know that I have to do this thing. And I did sit down, but I ended up on Twitter or making some Pinterest images because that’s really important.” Or, maybe they ended up going down a YouTube hole. They think, “This video is super important.” They’re spending too much time on the peripheral matters of writing and publishing.
One of the most common questions I get after I’ve spoken at a conference is, “What, if I did this and that and the other marketing thing?”
I always say, “Hold up. Where are you in terms of your books?” I always like to know where people are on their journey.
And so often they’ll say, “Oh, I haven’t finished the first draft yet. I just need to know what I have to do with publishing.”
And I’m like, okay, you need to just stop. Your time right now should be spent on finishing that first draft. Don’t even worry about publishing or marketing or making money with your writing until you finish the first draft. Your priority should be finishing your book.
I’ll take it one step further. When people say, “I don’t have the time to write,” or “I do the wrong thing,” sometimes there’s an underlying reason for those statements.
For example, it’s not that you don’t have the time, it’s that you are afraid of what’s going to happen if you do make the time, or you’re just avoiding having a finished book.
This is why some people take years and years to write a book because they just cannot get past this fear of being seen, being read, and being judged. It’s fear of failure. All these mindset issues that you have to face will come into play regarding productivity.
We have to get honest and answer the question, “What is stopping me from being productive?” What is the reason? And then go deeper and ask yourself, “Why do I feel like that? Why is that the reason?” There can be some quite different meaningful things here.
Thomas: That’s right, because productivity is kind of the outlay of where we are psychologically. If you’re telling yourself, “I can’t fail if I don’t finish,” or “I won’t release it until it’s perfect,” those internal messages are going to sabotage you from shipping anything. It will prevent you from sharing what you write with the world.
In some ways it makes you feel comfortable because you can say, “I just need to do one more draft, and then I’ll think about sending it to an agent or self-publishing it.”
But, it’s the difference between people who are thinking about being self-employed or thinking about being an indie writer and people who already are. When you think about being your own boss it’s great. But once you get there, you realize you are your own employee too.
You’ll realize you’re a terrible employee when you just goofed off for 30 minutes on YouTube. You wouldn’t put up with that from your employee. But what do you do when your employee is you?
How do you navigate that? How do you stay disciplined to make sure that those two hours you set aside for writing actually are spent in Scrivener or Microsoft Word and not somewhere else?
Joanna: This has to do with making the most of your writing time.
First of all, I never do first-draft writing at the same place where I do podcast interviews. The brain likes patterns. It recognizes things, and it likes routines. I’m a morning writer. Normally, I go to a particular desk in a in a café, and I’ll write my first draft after I get my black coffee. I put my noise-canceling headphones on. I have the Bose Quiet Comfort. They’re excellent. I listen to rain and thunderstorms, and I write.
There’s a myth that you must wait for the muse to arrive. But you don’t. You just start writing. If even if that sentence is, “Joe walks to the park. What does the park look like?” That’s your warmup. So one thing is a location. It might be a library. It might just be another chair in your house. It might be the car. John Grisham famously wrote A Time to Kill on a yellow legal pad in his car during his lunchtimes.
The second thing is, no multi-tasking. No other thing. You could turn off the Internet on your laptop or just go analog and take a notebook. But you’re always going to have your phone. So, you do have to commit to the process.
The other really important thing is timed writing. There are various methods like the Pomodoro Technique, which is like 20 minutes of writing then five minutes rest
I tend to do the length of a black coffee while it’s still hot which is maybe 40 minutes. I will write for 40 minutes, and then I will go to the toilet, get another coffee, and sit down again begin writing again. I’ll be at the cafe for a couple of hours. I’m a time-block kind of writer. I’m at the cafe between 7 and 9 a.m. That’s my writing block time.
Other people like to do different blocks throughout the day. Maybe you can manage 20 minutes before your little girl gets up, or the baby cries, or whatever. Then you can do another 20 minutes when they’re having a nap.
You can find these times whenever you like. But the important thing is during that time block, all you do is write. You just go for it, and then you allow yourself the rest time or the five minutes of break. That’s key. Whether it’s a toilet break or coffee break or a break to check social media or news, the break is important.
The timing can work in two ways. You can time your writing, but also time your break. If you’re going to have five minutes break, set your timer so you don’t go down that YouTube rabbit hole or end up scrolling on Instagram forever. In five minutes, you get your coffee, and if you have one more minute left you can check another Instagram feed Then you have to start again.
That kind of lets the valve open a little bit so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.
But you’re likely to find you didn’t miss anything.
A lot of people tell me they need to be available by phone at all times, so their kids are able to reach them. Or they tell me they can’t shut the door to their office or go somewhere else.
I tell them, you just have to say, “Look kids, for 20 minutes the door is shut. If you are actually dying or bleeding, then fair enough, open the door.”
Obviously, you can’t leave the baby, but a lot of people’s kids are at different ages, and they’re coming home and they’re able to do things on their own.
I think that’s what the whole productivity thing is. You’re living your life, and you’re doing all the stuff you have to do. But if you value your writing, and if you value what you are producing as part of the importance of your life, then you have to make time for it.
You have to stop saying it’s always somebody else’s fault. It’s always something else. You have to say, “No. This is important to me. I want to achieve this goal.” In order to do that you need to make half an hour a day for writing. If you write half an hour a day at 500 words per half hour, it’s going to take something like four to eight months to write a full-length novel.
If you do that, you will achieve your goal. So many people don’t seem to grasp the importance of this. Regular small amounts of regular time writing will make a book. You don’t need to leave your job and go sit in a forest.
Thomas: In fact, you may find that leaving your job and sitting in a forest just doesn’t work. You’ll probably find it’s hard to write because you take all those psychological issues with you into the forest.
I like what you’re saying about taking responsibility and not blaming others. When you’re blaming others, you are powerless. But when you take responsibility, suddenly there are things you can do. And just being in that position is to know you can affect the situation. It’s is so empowering. It’s a little bit of a worldview shift, but it’s a very empowering
Joanna: Yes it is. One other thing I want to say is that you’re going to have to say no to things you actually want to do. Sometimes people think that they’re going to find time to write by giving up something they hate. But probably they’ve already given up something they hate.
Maybe you love Netflix and watch three hours in the evening. Well. Sorry. You can only watch Netflix for one hour, and with those other two hours you need to sort out your writing.
Maybe you volunteer at your church. Everyone would say that’s a great thing. You’re a valuable member of the church community because you volunteer. But maybe you have to say, “Look, I’ve been volunteering the last couple of years. I just need six months off of volunteering, but in six months, I will come back and carry on again.”
I have a friend who’s got three kids and she does everything for the school all the time, but she doesn’t have time for her own work. I’ve asked her, “Can you just give up one after-school activity and say that you will do it again in six months?”
It is so hard. I think this is a very important mindset shift, because all of these things you’ll feel you need to do because you’re a good person, a good member of your community, a good father, a good husband, or a good friend. But that’s what you have to sacrifice if you want to finish your book. And this is tough love, really.
Thomas: This is straight, real talk here with Joanna Penn.
Joanna: It is! Because so often people need to give up what they really enjoy if they want to finish their work. But you don’t have to give it up forever. This is the important thing. It’s like time blocking your year to write your book, and then you come back to your other responsibilities. I know you have a lot of responsibilities, Thomas. How do you think about that?
Thomas: Well, this is something I’ve been going through recently. My former co-host Jim and I went through a season of pruning. We cut a bunch of things. That’s why Jim’s not doing the podcast anymore. He was looking at his day, and he had more things in the day than he had time to do. He had to cut something that he loved. He had to cut his role in Novel Marketing. He still comes back from time to time, but he’s not here on a weekly basis.
I had to cut my plug-ins business. That was my baby! When we came out with My Book Table it was the only bookstore plugin available for WordPress. When I gave it away, it was the number one plug-in. That was difficult to do. But the plugins represented a psychological weight on me.
Thousands of people’s websites used our plugins, and if those people have questions and issues, I am responsible to answer and address. If there was some major flaw in the plugin that caused thousands of author websites to suddenly crash, they’d all be reaching out to us at the same time. Just the possibility of that happening was a weight on my mind that I don’t have any more.
It was very hard to do. In fact, the pruning was painful because it was a lot of work to hand it over to somebody else or sell it to somebody else. I did this in a lot of areas in my life, and it was painful. It was saddening. I guess “grieving” is probably the better term. I was grieving over the loss of these things.
But now, having gone through at least the first wave of pruning, I have so much more creative energy. So much more energy, period. I have more mental energy to do the things that I’m trying to do. While it was hard, it was worth it.
If you would take a six-month break from volunteering, you may find that when you do come back after having written that novel, you come back more full. You’re recharged.
There is a season for everything. There’s a season to sow and a season to refrain from sowing and let the land rest.
Some people think they just have to keep hitting the tree with their dull axe harder and harder and that they’ve just got to work harder. But sometimes you’ve got to rest and sharpen the axe. When you go at it again the next morning, you have that rejuvenated strength.
I want to go back to something you said earlier, Joanna. You talked about having a separate place for writing your rough drafts.
There was a season of my life when I lived in an apartment that I shared with my sister.
My bedroom was also my office. Everything I wrote was in this tiny, tiny bedroom. I learned how unhealthy that is and also how unproductive that is.
Office designers have researched it. They say the best office designs function more like a kindergarten classroom where different activities happen in different areas. Being in a certain place can put your mind in a certain place that makes that task easier.
Now, when I’m creating something from scratch—outlining a course or a new speech—I’ll do it on the couch on paper. It’s the only analog thing in my life that I do. It’s the only time I’ll touch a pen and paper. It’s really the only work that I’ll do on the couch. And I have a separate space for it.
So when I heard you talking about how you have a special coffee shop that you go to for rough drafts, and how you don’t do your writing at the same desk that you do your marketing, I think that’s a really powerful principle.
Joanna: Yes. Even if you have a tiny apartment, there is always another place. I mean, for example, a library is free. Or if you are in a one-room apartment, and you sit at a desk to do your marketing work, sit on the floor and face the other direction. Do something to shift out of the groove that you are in.
Sometimes people get too precious about this. Maybe they light a certain candle or have to have this particular thing going on. But that’s not the way it’s going to go.
The point is that it is different from your other things. If you’re doing your accounting or your tax return, that’s not where you do your writing.
Thomas: We’re almost out of time and I want to get to a couple practical things, so this will be like a lightning round.
Let’s talk about tools. What are some specific tools that authors can use to become more productive this week?
Joanna: My tools chapter in the book is quite long, because I have learned a lot of tools over the years.
I still write in Scrivener. I think it’s brilliant. But very importantly, I export out of Scrivener every day, and I email it to myself, and I save the file on Dropbox. I never want to hear again that people have lost their work, but I hear it all the time. So please back up your work.
The other two things I live with and look at all the time every day is my calendar.
I use Google calendar and people can book time with me using Calendly. Both are free, so it is brilliant for scheduling podcast interviews and anything else across different time zones.
The other thing is my to-do list. I use the Things app, which is Mac only. It doesn’t matter what you use, but you need to use something. If you think of something you have to do, put it on your list.
And what I love is to move things into other folders in my to do list. They are things I thought were really important at the time. But later I say, “Why did I want to do that?” and I just put it in my “later” list, which I never look at again.
Thomas: Yes, some people call that the “Someday Maybe” list. Just because it’s on your to-do list doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Thomas: The easiest way to get something off your to-do list is to decide it’s no longer important.
Joanna: Those are some technological tools, but another one I have right in front of me is a Post-it note that lists the books I’m working on.
Every day I have to have creative time. So, for example, the Post-it note says “narrate audiobook”—that’s this productivity book. The other item on the Post-it is writing chapters for my new book Audio for Authors.
So, I have a few big projects that sit on a Post-it note. Instead of drowning in tiny little to-dos, I can always look up and see what my productive work is. It’s working towards creating those products and creating that intellectual property. These are my books.
Thomas: That’s excellent. Any final tips on productivity?
Joanna: If you’re a little further on in your writing life another thing is outsourcing. This would be the other big thing for me. Once you hit a certain stage in your creative life, paying people to do other things is really important.
For example, I used to do my podcasts myself. I used to do all the audio stuff, all the transcripts, all the notes, and all the images. So, a podcast might take me eight hours in total. But then I got to a point where I was making better money, and I decided I needed some of that time back. I hired people to do that for me so I can have that time.
Obviously there are some things I’ll never outsource. I’m not going to outsource this interview with you because it’s me and you.
I’m not going to outsource the writing of my books. I know some people hire ghostwriters, but that’s not me because I’m a writer.
It’s important to ask, “What is the thing that only I can do?” and “What are the things that I can outsource?” Once you do that, you free up so much time. At the moment, as we talk at the end of 2019, I work with about 11 different freelancers and pay lots of different people to do different things in order to free myself for the creative work I love doing.
Thomas: That’s awesome. We barely scratched the surface of your book. If readers are looking for something to help with a New Year’s resolution of doing more writing, I recommend they check out the book Productivity for Authors: Find Time to Write, Organize Your Life, and Decide What Really Matters. Joanna, where can people find out more about you?
Joanna: If you want the podcast. Come on over to The Creative Penn Podcast, which is all about writing, publishing, book marketing, and making a living with your writing. Of course, all my books are available everywhere.
And if you like audiobooks, I have narrated Productivity for Authors, and it’s available in all the usual places. If anyone has any questions, you can always tweet me @thecreativepenn.
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