My daily writing quotient

I think of myself as a writer, so I am always amazed how much of being a writer involves things other than writing. I generally prefer the writing; I was feeling out of sorts Tuesday, and I blame it on doing very little writing. In the interest of batching, I had shoved most of my writing to Wednesday. I did a lot of writing today. But days like today also remind me that I have mental limits. I have techniques to stretch these limits. But I can only write so much.

The limit is definitely under 8 hours. Today I wrote from 9 a.m. to noon, and then took a break (for lunch, and calling the pediatrician about the baby and his wretched, pathetic-sounding cough). I wrote from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., did a quick phone call, then wrote from 2:15 – 3. In these 4.75 hours I wrote 3 articles (about 750-1000 words a pop) plus my newsletter. After that I was pretty much shot. I mustered my energy to go run on the treadmill. I ran a very fast (for me) 2 miles, including one 8 minute mile. There were various kid things to deal with after that. These breaks gave me a bit more energy, and I am writing this now, but it is short. Any other work time will be devoted to light edits, email, and reading a book I need to read for Friday.

So I am probably at 5 hours of writing on a good, focused day. I have done more. While cranking out the drafts of my books I have often just tried to get everything down. But 5-ish hours is probably the limit for a normal day.

What is your work limit for the core production tasks of your job? Do you have techniques to stretch this?

In other news: Live in Philly? I will be on a panel at the downtown library on Wednesday, March 9th in the evening. We will be talking about disrupting the patriarchy.

If you are going to SXSW, you can see me there too! I will be speaking at the Marriott on Monday March 14th at 9:30 a.m. on What Successful People Do Before Breakfast. I will be signing books after at the convention center (the conference book store).


18 thoughts on “My daily writing quotient

  1. I feel out of sorts when I haven’t done enough writing too, yet can rarely spend a “full day” writing either–and find that when I do, whether because I’m on a roll or on a deadline, it usually leaves me with that much less writing stamina the next day, so I wonder whether the human brain can only sustain a finite amount of highly concentrated focus per day (as is the case with decision-making)? Lately I’ve been finding a book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (a collection of descriptions of all different kinds of creative artists’ and thinkers’ work habits) to be a sanity-saving reminder that there’s no one right solution to this perpetual dilemma!

  2. I am an English commercial property and agricultural land Solicitor (real estate lawyer I suppose in America). I therefore have to write a lot although very little of it is what you would call creative. I find speech recognition software is absolutely invaluable and saves a huge amount of time. I would strongly recommend this to anyone who is not a brilliant typist but is a quick and logical thinker and talker. In my experience almost everyone can talk faster than they can type and once you get trained into dictating your ideas it really is a system that works well. I’m not sure how well it would work for proper creative writing but I find it works well even if I just want to get a rough draft down and then play around with editing it once I can see something actually on the paper. I would be interested to know if anybody thinks that it actually works for creative writing as opposed to the kind of business writing I’m talking about or basic things like emails, articles and straightforward letters. I work with an assistant and I even use it to dictate instructions and things like that so she can work through these and tick them off when she has done them or they act as a reminder for her to be able to come back to them later if she is not able to do everything all at once. We find it a brilliant system and I would thoroughly recommend it to anybody to try it. This post was dictated, a few minor errors to be corrected, but far quicker than I could have typed it and much more accurate too.

    1. @Katherine – I’ve not tried dictation, though I do know a number of people who’ve used it well. Sometimes people are compelled to try it after developing injuries, but I agree I can speak faster than I write. I’m just not sure I talk like I sound, if that makes any sense…

  3. I would love to extend our visit an extra day and hear what you have to say about disrupting the patriarchy. However, I am sure your dad will want to be heading home. Hmm. How shall I disrupt the patriarchy in our family? 🙂

    1. This is such a terrific response!

      LV – have been thinking about my morning routine again, and it occurs to me that a lot of the problem is that I am very slow to get moving/fully awake. I am not one who pops up after X.Y hours of sleep. Any ideas how to better use the morning given my slow start – It’s tough for me to tackle harder tasks at that hour (physical or mental).

      1. @June – you may just not be a morning person. And that’s fine! You can do some clearing the decks stuff in the AM, but set a time when focused work must begin. Maybe there can be some ritual for telling yourself it is time for the tougher tasks. You can start slow but then over time a good ritual can put you in a different frame of mind…

        1. Thanks I appreciate these suggestions. I have spent a lot of time trying to turn myself into a morning person.

  4. If writing is the “deep work” of your job I believe that I read in Cal Newport’s book that most people top out at 4-5 hours of deep work per day. So it sounds like your number was really good.

  5. I really need to have another go at tracking this and try to work it out! I think I’m improving at my time and task management – things like setting realistic goals for what I can get done in a day; planning my weeks/days/work sessions out; and generally getting more strategic about the chess pieces of life. But energy management is where it can all fall apart. Yesterday was a pretty good day – met friends for a quick breakfast, had a focused session at work, then walked to my weekly volunteer shift while listening to an audiobook, volunteered (writing an email to my mother in the few gaps when I was waiting around) and walked home. Friends! Work! Exercise! Volunteering! Making good use of little pieces of time! And then I decided to sit on the bed and listen til the end of my audiobook chapter before cooking dinner. Well, I woke up from my unexpected nap 2 1/2 hours later… So much for the planned healthy dinner and study session that would have made it an great day… I was groggy and exhausted, so had a quick snack, watched some tv and had an early night. Still I’ve been sneezing all morning so I suspect I’m coming down with something and shouldn’t be too hard on myself. But for me, unpredictable low energy levels are where it all falls apart…knowing when I’ve hit a ‘work limit’ might be part of making that more predictable.

  6. I have given up on trying to explain mental fatigue to my husband. He is a laborer. If a wall needs to be painted, he pushes through and gets it done. He has never been able to understand that sometimes I just need a break. My brain gets tired and I can’t just “push through” like he does.

    I hope to attend one of your events someday, when you venure a little closer to my neck of the woods 😉

  7. There is a common theme in my most productive stretches: work hard in short bursts of up to three hours, take a break to refresh, and do it all over again. I have noticed that my energy level and productivity declines after three hours. The breaks help refresh me and get focused for powering through challenging tasks. My favorite breaks include playing with the kids, exercising or sitting down for a meal with the family. Even just a ten minute walk can get me back on track. I have been able to put in some long hours when needed and have some quality time.

    1. @Jerald – I agree that the right sorts of breaks can do wonders. That’s why I often run in the afternoon. I like the idea of morning exercise, but I would probably still walk in the afternoon even if I ran in the morning. Fresh air wakes me up!

  8. This is such a timely question for me — I have been feeling painfully behind at work for the past couple of weeks. I am prepping two classes this semester, and there is a limit on how much content creation I can manage in a week. (I don’t have a number of hours for that limit, but I can say with confidence that it is lower than I would like it to be in these circumstances.) I have known for a long time that I max out on the amt. of grading I can do in a day — it’s as if my inner judger just runs out of gas, and attempting to push past that limit turns me into Crabby Mom.

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