This post contains my productivity lessons from National Novel Writing Month but the insights on procrastination and focus are applicable to many of the larger projects we often hesitate to throw ourselves into.
So far I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo just once and I achieved 50,808 words in 25 days, with a working title of Ten Things My Husband Hated. That was a pretty fierce pace, but I also noticed some important learning along the way:
Productivity lessons from NaNoWriMo
No ideal time
There is probably never an ideal time to embark on a major project, especially one which is likely to demolish every moment of your free time, and plenty more moments beside. But if you decide to stop waiting for ideal conditions and just jump in, at least Hugh Laurie is in your corner:
Focus is intensely powerful
You can achieve incredible results if you focus on just one thing for thirty days. During my writing marathon I also showed up for my day job, did some laundry and the odd bit of running, but most days I was zealous about a single mission: write 1667 words. The cumulative effect of this short term, high intensity approach amazed me.
If you identify something that you’re willing to make your primary goal for just thirty days, I think you’ll be really surprised also at how far you can get.
Other people are understanding
People are surprisingly understanding if you explain you’re doing something that will gobble all your bandwidth for just one month. As long as you can state the end point, most requests can be postponed. My husband, in particular, was a saint at picking up extra domestic duties.
If you’re desperate to carve out room for a big project, just tell friends and family you’ll be out of normal circulation for thirty days. Decline or defer as necessary, and you’ll be rewarded with space.
Magic does come at a price*
Your stunning productivity will, however, have a price tag. (*I’m borrowing a mantra from Once Upon a Time). I hit my word target early and, thanks to not getting sick, there was no day where I didn’t write at least 1,500 words. But – I’ll be honest here – by November 21st, I was a mental wreck. The pressure of writing every single day, of coming home from work and having absolutely no choice how to use the evening, really got to me. By that third weekend, frankly, all I did was cry and sleep and write. (You’ll notice that even in the middle of my mini breakdown, I was still churning out words.)
So, watch for this: you can push yourself to achieve incredible results in short sprints, but for the good of your overall wellbeing, you’d better recognize when to ease up. As I assert in my book Indie With Ease, you’re not a productivity machine.
Productivity is addictive
My NaNoWriMo output is a short first draft of a novel which still needs a massive amount of work. I’m not saying I can write a novel every month and unleash the results upon the world. But I confess I’m now wondering, what else could I do, if I go “all in” in this way? NaNoWriMo hones skills like focus, avoiding distractions, self-belief and the ability to use slithers of time; these translate well to almost anything else in our lives we might want to make progress on. It’s intoxicating to see how thirty days can create such tangible results.
Would I do it again? Absolutely, in much the same way that marathon runners cross the line, collapse to their knees, drink a gallon of chocolate milk, and then inexplicably sign up for another. My sincere thanks to a) Mr. Wiles and b) the staff and volunteers at NaNoWriMo for an amazing experience.
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