(photo credit)

It hasn’t been easy but I’ve managed to crack the secret code. I never thought this day would come. The past three months have changed my opinion of goal-setting forever. After experimenting with my weekly schedule to accommodate both my fitness training and writing regimen, I have discovered that consistency, not necessarily “routine” in the traditional sense, is the key to creative productivity.

When, how, or where doesn’t matter. My point is that action, in any form, under any circumstances, is how you get from point A to B. For example, I used to be obsessed with establishing the perfect work environment. I was somehow convinced that beautiful sentences would magically appear on my computer screen when my surroundings looked like the pages of Martha Stewart Living. When my reality failed to match my vision, I threw my hands into the air and thought, “Oh, well, I can’t write today.”

Another hangup impeding my creative output was my need to over-edit. I would be paralyzed by my impossible expectations, nitpicking at the same phrase for an hour until it was just right. This habit simply had to go. I was getting nowhere fast.

But, no more! I have put all my effort, my energy, my new-age vibes – whatever floats your boat – into one important task: writing. I adjusted my life and schedule accordingly. To my never-ending surprise and great relief, my brain is slowly starting to absorb these changes. It’s no longer my worst enemy, but my greatest ally.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Wake up before the chickens

One of my biggest roadblocks was the energy/time conundrum. When I got home at the end of the day, my brain was fried. I would shrug my shoulders and assume that I was incapable of generating more energy. As a result, I’d often spend evenings zoned out on the couch in front of the television or doing cardio.

Instead of wallowing in despair, I decided to start experimenting with my alarm clock. First I set it for 6:30, then 6:00, now 5:30am. I have never been a morning person but, you know what? I am now waking up without the assistance of my alarm clock. I wake up naturally, when my body is expecting breakfast, and I’m unusually alert within five minutes of stepping out of bed. (If you had known me in high school, when you couldn’t pry me from my pillow before ten, then you’ll know how big of a step this has been.)

I use my mornings to beat the crowds at the gym, take my dog for a leisurely walk and write for 45 minutes while eating breakfast. It sets the mood for my day and allows me to feel more fulfilled while sitting for eight hours in my cubicle.

2. Prepare your work space

Don’t make my initial mistake and think it has to be perfect. However, there’s a difference between “perfection” and organization. I try to have my lap top or journal sitting at the kitchen table ready to go, so all I have to do is set my plate of eggs and oatmeal next to it.

Also, creativity flows best when you’re not surrounded by a mess. Again, perfection is not the issue. Simply washing your dishes or doing a load of laundry can make a huge impact on your concentration. (I’m not the greatest at keeping my kitchen spotless, but I still make the effort. Every little bit counts.)

3. Set a deadline

Imagine your professor at university said “hand in your paper whenever you want”, how would you handle that vague sense of non-urgency? It sounds great, but without a clear end-point, you won’t know how to prioritize your time from week to week. When I have a deadline, with clear expectations, I know that I’ll put in the effort to attack the task with measured gusto. For example, when I was in grad school, I was required to read long, intimidating texts in short periods of time. So, if I needed to complete 700 pages of reading in a week, I’d aim for 100 per day. Dividing the greater task into smaller, bite-sized pieces helps make the process appear less daunting. As a result, you’re more likely to start and finish each mini-goal. When the deadline approaches, fear turns into determination. You will do what is required to finish on time. Even if you’re a little late, it’s better to finish late than never start in the first place.

4. Hit your quota

Set yourself daily quotas. Start small, and gradually set higher expectations. A general rule of thumb is 1,000 words a day. If this sounds like too much, aim to produce one page of typed text, double-spaced, per day. It’s all about the numbers, really. When you’re in production mode, the idea is to get your words onto the page. Make it achievable, measurable, and challenging. Celebrate your accomplishments and be happy when you’ve hit or exceeded your quota. Don’t spend your time worrying about the perfect word; just think about the next word. Take worry out of the equation entirely. (Remember, quality control is covered during the editing stage.)

5. Stop watching television

I know this sounds harsh, but sorry. Tough luck. You can spend your time writing or you can spend your time watching television. Which one is likely to make you feel better about yourself? At the very least, schedule your viewing time around your writing. If you are absolutely in need of a Mad Men fix, set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to catch up on the adventures of Don Draper.

6. Pop a sugar rush

Never underestimate the power of candy. Remember that assumption I made about my finite source of energy? Well, in addition to sheer determination and will, a sweet treat is sometimes a great way to stay alert in the evening. If you want to hit your quota, a piece of cake or a few pieces of licorice could provide the extra fuel you need. It will give you a short burst of energy, but won’t keep you awake when it’s time to fall asleep.

A few healthy options: dates, honey or agave nectar, and orange juice. I love puréed dates rolled into truffles, covered with coconut. They taste like fudge, and are a great and nutritious way to infuse your writing sessions with some extra endurance. Think like a marathon runner if you have to: carbs, carbs, carbs!

7. Use lunch hour to catch up on life

When I’ve used every spare moment to hit my quota (or train at the gym), I am often left with little, incomplete errands. Trips to the bank or grocery store are easily forgotten. After I’ve eaten lunch, I usually pay a few bills, buy toiletries at the local drug store, get some banking done, or go for a quick run. Sometimes I’ll read or go for a walk. Either way, don’t zone out with your food! Savour life. Take a giant bite out of your dreams!

8. Just… do it

Nothing can happen without action. Our preoccupation with perfection is what keeps us from doing what we are more than capable of accomplishing. Just. Start. Writing. Now! Stop over-thinking and over-planning. Novels don’t write themselves. You can’t edit a document that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing to edit, nothing to fix, nothing to mold, without a foundation, right? Create that foundation, one day at a time, one word at a time, and you will be pleasantly surprised by your own capacity to create.

Let me know how you stay motivated!