Long ago while working in marketing at Kodak I heard the phrase, “Tasks will expand to fill the time allotted.” Then we were typically talking about meetings, but the notion applies to nearly all business-related activities.
Shorten your deadlines. I was skeptical of the adage at first but have seen it hold true consistently. Give yourself a week to write a blog post and it will take a full week. Give yourself an hour and it will take an hour. So one key to getting more writing done is to give yourself less time to complete it. Not more time, less time.
I’m not saying you should scrimp on research or generally scale back on preparation – those tasks are important – but set a deadline for the writing part of your work in order to be more productive. Sometimes I have real deadlines I need to adhere to, such as finishing the first draft of a chapter before the weekend, or completing some source research before my lunch appointment. These are deadlines that involve other people or activities, which means that I’m likely to take them very seriously.
Make a public commitment. Knowing that I have a hard time breaking commitments to others, I sometimes promise delivery of certain projects by a certain date so as to create a deadline for myself. The client may not have cared much when the draft outline was delivered or when I finished my interview of one of their sources, but by telling him or her that I will have the task completed by such-and-such a date, I push myself to get it done. Let’s be honest, I waste less time.
Create deadlines. Other times, however, the week stretches out before me with few interruptions. That can be deadly to my productivity. Why? Because there are no natural deadlines. No interviews, no meetings, no conference calls. That means I can use the entire week to write one Facebook update if I wanted. That’s neither productive nor efficient for me. So another strategy I use is to schedule an appointment in order to create a deadline. Maybe I’ll reach out to a source and ask for some time on their calendar, or schedule a client discussion to help me clarify what I’m working on. It doesn’t matter what the deadline consists of as long as it’s a stopping point in your week that you need to do something to prepare for.
Get right to the research. Besides shrinking the amount of time available to complete tasks, another strategy I use to write more in less time is to do a lot of my research right away, as soon as I get an assignment. A blog post on the most popular marketing tools of 2012 may take a couple hours of tracking down surveys and checking in with marketing professors, so I do that first. Getting a good handle on the topic and how I should approach it makes the actual writing so much faster and easier because I know where I’m headed. I know which facts are important and which are not.
Nail down your lead. Another way I mentally map out assignments is by writing the perfect lead, or lede, depending on your spelling preference. I find that spending an hour or more drafting the perfect first sentence, and then first paragraph, helps the rest of whatever I’m writing just flow. To some people this sounds like time wasted, but for me, it helps crystallize the main points I want to make and helps me get clear about the key message of the chapter or article or blog post I’m writing.
I’ve heard colleagues say that they are able to write 400-500 words an hour when they are on a roll. I think that’s low. I think we all have the capacity to write faster than that, once we have all our research done, the topic clearly outlined (in our head or on paper), and have a deadline looming.
What’s the most you’ve ever written in an hour?