January 8, 2016

It’s that time of year to look toward the promise of 12 months to come, to envision shedding of pounds, bulking up muscle, stamping out that last cigarette and, for journalists and other writers, producing work they can be proud of. Well intentioned they may be, most New Year’s resolutions fail because it’s easier to stick with old habits rather than forge new ones.

To counter that tendency, here are five tools, some tangible, others metaphorical, to increase your productivity and chances to fulfill those dreams of greater things in the coming year.

  1. To-morrow list. The to-do list is the go-to-method for getting things done. All too often, however, they are so clogged that the day ends with most jobs pending. More effective, I believe, is a slimmed down “to-morrow list” created the night before. Limit it to three to five of your most important goals for the next day. Leave the list waiting on your desk or computer, and let it be your guide for the day ahead.
  2. Blue skies. If you could wish for anything this year, what would it be? An investigative series? A gripping narrative? A novel or screenplay? Productivity guru David Allen recommends envisioning “wild success” as a dream come true tactic. This year, think big. Draw a sketch of the wildest possible outcome: posing with your Pulitzer, crowds lined up for a book signing, Hollywood calling. Look at it regularly for an inspiration boost. For a recovering procrastinator like myself, aiming high has paid off many times as I achieved writing dreams that seemed out of reach.
  3. Ladder. To reach the sky, of course, you’ll need transportation. Keep it simple. Arrange of list of actions from the bottom up. For instance: propose project to editor, brainstorm list of sources, use social media to extend reach of reporting, conduct interviews and so on until you reach the top rung—publication across multiple platforms. If you find yourself bogged down, ask “What’s the very next action I can take to keep this writing project moving?” Do it.
  4. Accelerator pedal. “There are some kinds of writing,” William Faulkner said, “that you have to do very fast. Like riding a bicycle on a tightrope.” To do so, most of us have to race past a mental censor, that inner voice that whispers, “You suck.” Novelist Gail Godwin called it “the watcher at the gate” and speed is the way to silence it. As Roy Peter Clark put it, “Write like hell.” It doesn’t eliminate revision from the process, but it does guarantee that you’ll have prose to polish. (This item belongs to a toolbox of writing props I created many years ago.)
  5. Timer. When psychologist and educator Robert Boice studied productive writers, from the prolific English novelist Anthony Trollope to mega-published academics, he discovered that their output was not the product of marathon binges favored by procrastinators but rather “brief, daily sessions,” ranging from 30 minutes to two hours a day. Embracing the BDS approach over the last decade helped me write a textbook, a play, fiction and nonfiction without resorting to the bingeing that invariably left me wiped out and depressed, the literary equivalent of a hangover. Use a timer on your smartphone or computer to keep your writing sessions brief and productive. If you’re on a roll, keep at it for a bit, but stop before you burn out.

With these tools at hand, I hope 2016 will be the year your dreams become a reality.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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