Prolificity: Long levers.

1 February 2006

The estimable life-hacking site 43Folders has been running a series on “modest changes.” The goal is to identify small, doable things that will help you run your life more enjoyably and productively.

Thinking from the perspective of prolific creative output, I want to adapt this slightly to talk about “long levers,” the things you can do that have a disproportionate impact on your ability to produce. In my experience, prolific creators set up their world, consciously or unconsciously, to feed their creative processes. If they need silence to create, they will find a place in the woods; if they need hubbub, they will find a desk in the middle of a huge office or a huge city. But they find those conditions, and if they don’t find them, they make them.

The best place to start looking for “long levers” is in the most basic parts of the creative equation. You write or paint or compose or code or choreograph or sculpt under some set of conditions: early or late, indoors or out, alone or with others, in silence or not. Think of your physical setting: Do you write better lounged on the bed, or sprawled on the couch? Or sitting upright with notebook in your lap? Or with your laptop at the kitchen table? Or at a desk with a lavish two-monitor setup? (This isn’t a rhetorical question: go ahead and answer it for yourself.) You can repeat the process for tools, times of day, and so on.

Two notes: 1. If you want to be prolific, you ought to be able to produce anywhere, or at least under a variety of conditions. My own goal is to be a real “all-weather writer” who can produce regardless of external circumstances. 2. There is no one right answer, so spare yourself the grief of trying to conform to someone else’s version of it. True, Trollope did his writing in long doses early in the morning–but John O’Hara started late and worked through midnight. John Updike uses legal pads; William Buckley used a typewriter until he became an early adopter of word processing. The way you produce is the way you produce: observe yourself, and figure out what works best.

For me, early rising is key–that’s when I’m freshest. I get more done sitting in a straight chair at the kitchen table than I do sitting on the couch; I think it helps me to sit up straight and to have my papers in front of me where I can see them, rather than scattered along the cushions. I use a laptop relentlessly, but I’m at my best when I also use scraps of paper (the backs of envelopes, more or less) for jotting miniature outlines and to-do lists. I don’t know why that is, but I know that it is–and so I use it to my advantage. In my case, the killer app for early-morning productivity is to unplug the DSL router ahead of time. The router is in the bedroom, so if I want to go back in to plug it in, I risk waking my wife, who is very much not a morning person. So I leave it unplugged, I stick to my knitting-of-sentences, and much more gets finished. I work in silence most of the time, though I have discovered the trick of wearing headphones some of the time at the office to discourage interruptions.

Prolific writers don’t get that way because their typing speed is high, but because they spend a lot of highly productive time writing. If you’re like me and have many competing obligations (work, family, school . . .) that constrain the hours in the day you can give to creation, it’s the “highly productive” part that is crucial. Observe your performance under different conditions, and then choose the conditions that most conduce to “highly productive.” These conditions are the long levers for a creator’s daily productivity.

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