Writers must be disciplined. The world begs for our attention and—let’s face it—at any given moment, anything can be more compelling than the manuscript in front of us.
I’d like to blame this on the digital age, on the Internet but I’ve read Walden and even Thoreau was distracted by more than one squirrel during his days of solitude.
“It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau
The hard truth is that writing isn’t easy. Even after you’ve published a book, or twenty, each new book is an exercise in starting over again from scratch. Each experience brings its own challenges, the least not being how to get the work done.
Of course, we’ve invented creative ways of motivating ourselves. One of the most popular is the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer for 50 minutes, work without distraction for that period, then when the timer expires, set another timer for 10 minutes to take a break before you repeat the process. I’ve found this technique effective for getting a lot of focused work done in a short period, but even Pomodoro has its limits.
We live in an ADD world where the demon of distraction is only a click away and it’s whispering in our ear with every notification. So we load up on coffee and Oreos—anything with caffeine—in an attempt to keep our energy levels high so we can fight the demon at our doorstep…only to eventually give in because—dang it—#FreeBritney is trending again and it’s our duty to stand behind the movement.
In the end, we’re left where we started, feeling defeated because we gave into distraction when we should have been writing, could have been writing, but weren’t, again, writing.
But there is a solution.
Isn’t that a nasty word? No one wants to be accountable. It feels judge-y, and means you’re no longer working in introverted, isolation bliss. It means someone’s looking over your shoulder and providing feedback, even if unspoken, into not the quality of your writing, but the practice of it.
Accountability comes in two flavors. The first is probably the greatest motivator to getting things done: Deadlines.
Having a deadline means you have no excuse. The person or organization issuing a deadline doesn’t care about Britney’s issues and the carrot they often hold is your financial well-being. There’s something uncanny about how motivated you feel when a deadline that pays is over your head.
Back when I received my first contract for a four-book middle-grader series, I was ecstatic…until my editor revealed that she needed a book completed every 60 days. That’s a 120-140-page book plotted and written while holding a full-time day job and doing other freelance work. It was difficult. It was unreasonable. And to my surprise, it was something I finished on time, every time.
As writers, we’re often capable of far more than we demand of ourselves. Ironically, I’ve noticed my writing stamina fluctuates greatly. Give me two months to write a book? OK, I’ll do it. Give me four? Sure, I’ll do that, too, and it’ll take me right up until the final moment before I turn it in. This is clearly a subconscious, psychological game I play with myself, but it’s one I can’t seem to control. That’s just how it works. Regardless, I use it to my advantage with all my freelance work, helping me get things done.
But what about when you don’t have a deadline? What about when you’re on your own to finish something you know is important, but you just can’t find the time to complete? That’s when you must find accountability in other ways.
Join the Club
One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a writer is accountability to other writers, or to other people also working toward their goals. For this reason, even if you have a heavy schedule, I recommend creating time to become accountable to others. It’ll pay back in spades.
First, join a mastermind. I’ve joined three, all held over zoom. Each one helps me get things done in different ways.
One is a mastermind for authors, where we discuss the writing biz and sympathize with each other over deadlines and the difficultly of sentence construction, and generally feel like “we’re in this writing thing together.” We give each other bi-weekly goals for our writing and/or marketing. Once you join a mastermind like this, you have positive peer pressure to always arrive with progress to report.
The second mastermind I joined is for small business owners. As a freelance writer, I’m also an entrepreneur and the business of writing is just as important as the craft. Together, we bounce creative ideas off one another about branding and marketing and how to squeeze extra hours out of each day.
Finally, my third mastermind is with my wife and a business coach, where we’re asked hard questions about our business based on the coach’s expertise, spurring us to think outside the box about what we do, who we’re doing it for, and—most critically—why.
Second, jump on Focusmate. Of all the writing and productivity apps I’ve purchased or subscribed to, this is by far the most beneficial. It’s nothing special, and the mere $5/month “unlimited Pro version” reflects that. Focusmate’s job is to connect you with other writers and doers around the world in 45-minute increments by video . Together, you get things done. It’s a wacky thought—that connecting with a stranger on the other side of the world for 45 minutes in silence does anything for your productivity, but I’ve found it the best tool in my arsenal. Even now, Jason from England, who I only exchanged pleasantries with 32 minutes ago, is silently working on his novel while I’m pounding out this article. And don’t even think for a second either of us are going to be distracted by Britney while we’ve got this joint Pomodoro timer looming between us. Bottom line is, it just works.
Accountability by Hashtag
Finally, find your tribe. For many people who can’t find someone locally, their tribe is the #5amwritingclub on Twitter. This “club” is a group of self-elected individuals who wake up early to spend the first hour (at least) of their day checking in with their hashtag and spurring each other on to a strong word count, which they then post before logging off to other activities. Knowing you’ve got support from others is the appeal.
A Communal Experience
An argument could be made that our most disciplined writing is done as a communal activity. By being accountable to others, whether by deadline, club interaction or both, our practice takes a magnificent leap forward.
After all, isn’t writing meant to be shared? We don’t expect to our published work to be read in a vacuum, so maybe it’s time to stop writing that way.