What makes your writing life productive? Maybe you’re following the advice to “write every day,” and you’re hitting a daily word count, but you’re not sure if it’s your best work. Or you eschew that advice and only write when you feel inspired, and then a great story pours out of you—but you wish you felt inspired more often. Most likely, you lie somewhere in between, trying to figure out how to be a productive writer while balancing the needs of non-writing work and family.
I’m one of those “write every day” writers. I believe that inspiration comes if I give it time and space to enter. I used to think that I could only call myself a Writer if I logged a certain number of hours every week, waking up early every day to make it happen. I prioritized time over energy.
But I recently realized that I’ve been ignoring something incredibly obvious and also incredibly important: putting a lot of time into writing doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m producing my best work.
So I reevaluated. I asked myself how I felt during each of my writing sessions in a week. Was I fully focused on the work, or did my mind start to wander? Did I get into a state of creative flow, or was I watching the clock? I noticed that my midweek morning sessions tended to be the most difficult. The obvious explanation was that I was tired. By midweek, I’d gone through at least two full days of teaching, plus the daily morning and evening chores and routines with my young children. I started to wonder if I might need a midweek break.
Internally, I rebelled against the very idea of a break. If writing was important to me, I should be doing it every single day, I told myself. My schedule was already so tight. How could I sacrifice even twenty minutes a week? It would just push my novel deadline further and my word count would sink.
But that midweek writing session continued to be my lowest earner. What would happen if I (gasp) slept in that morning instead of writing? According to Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, it would be more productive for me to prioritize my energy over the total amount of hours I wrote in the week.
“If you want to become more productive, managing your time should take a backseat to how you manage your energy and attention.” — Chris Bailey, The Productivity Project
Bailey’s book convinced me to give a break a try, and it turned out to be an experiment that taught me a vital lesson about my writing process. But before I get to that story, I want to share with you the full extent of the debate going on in my head over time vs. energy, in hopes that it will prompt a similar examination of your own productivity.
Viewpoint #1: Time Is More Important Than Energy
Simple math is on the side of time. Time adds up, so the more time you put into something, the more valuable it is. Most important things in life take time, such as building relationships and growing a career. It makes sense that time should be the number one ingredient in writing a story, finding an audience and getting published.
Making time for something automatically flags it as important. We also each have a finite amount of time—there’s no getting around that 24/7, 168 hours a week rule—and that makes it more precious. The way we spend our daily and weekly hours adds up to the way we spend our lives.
Viewpoint #2: Energy Is More Important Than Time
If your brain is tired and you can’t focus, all the time in the world can’t help you create something beautiful. Conversely, if you have plenty of energy, cranking out thousands of words can feel almost effortless. Every writer has experienced both sides of that coin, and we all know which one we like better.
You can’t make more time. You can, however, foster your energy. You can invest in sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. You can meditate, practice mindfulness, and work to develop your focus. Energy makes the time you have more valuable.
After wrestling between these viewpoints, I decided it was worth giving Chris Bailey’s advice a try. The next week, I set my alarm later on Wednesday morning, so that I only had enough time for half of my normal writing routine. I admit, part of me felt disappointed in myself, as though I was being lazy. But when I saw the results, I felt better. Getting a little extra sleep when I needed it most turned out to be the best decision I could make both for myself and for my writing. My writing session that morning, though brief, was fast-paced and exciting. I also felt happier and more focused throughout the rest of the day. The benefits even spilled over to Thursday and Friday; it felt as though I’d given myself a mid-week reboot, which made Thursday and Friday seem more like Monday and Tuesday, typically my most productive days.
I went back to my energy vs. time face-off and came to a conclusion: energy has an edge over time. Time is important, but energy is vital to productivity. There is a tradeoff, however. Focusing on energy does take time. If you’re going to prioritize energy, you’ll have to put time into sleep, exercise, meditation, and seeking out healthier food. Ultimately, I found that all of those time investments were worth it to keep me writing productively and living happily.
DIY MFA readers, where do you land on energy vs. time? Do you think one is more important than the other? Here’s the litmus test: if you were given the choice to sleep in on a low-energy day, but it would mean missing a writing session, would you take it?
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and personal essay, for which she won the Scott Meyer Award in 2017; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, at Facebook.com/sowulwords, or on Twitter @sowulwords.