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Focusing

How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken

When trying to build a rock-solid routine, it is a question of "when" and not "if" you will face an unexpected obstacle.


As I sit down to write this, I am in the midst of a streak. I have written every day for the last 373 consecutive days. That consecutive day streak is part of a larger streak that began in late February 2013. Since then, I have written 516 out of the last 518 days. The last day on which I managed no writing was July 21, 2013 (the day I traveled home from the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, in case you’re wondering).

This streak of mine has completely transformed my writing life. Prior to the streak, I didn’t believe I had the time to write regularly. I produced one or two fiction stories a year and thought that was the best I could do.

But something didn’t sit right. So last year I decided to challenge all of my preconceived notions of what I required to write every day. I wanted to challenge the notion that I needed large uninterrupted blocks of quiet time in a crusty office somewhere. Real life gets in the way sometimes, like squeezing in my craft with a full-time day job, and two young children.

It turns out, with some willpower, I learned that if I had 20 minutes, I could write 500 words. I learned to write surrounded by the sounds of the kids playing, and the television blaring in the background. While I didn’t set out to form a routine, I eventually established one which has led to my most prolific year as a writer yet.

I learned that if I had 20 minutes, I could write 500 words.

Saying you’re going to write everyday is one thing. But to ensure the streak’s success I had to bulletproof it for when the routine was interrupted for one reason or another. How could I continue to write every day despite occasional disruptions, planned and unplanned? Over the course of more than 500 days, I’ve learned ways to hack my writing streak to cope with the disruptions and still write every day. Here are the three most common roadblocks I run into and how I deal with each of them.

1. When I know my day isn’t going to follow the normal routine…

There are instances when I know ahead of time that my day will be off its normal routine. Travel days are one example, a day with evening plans is another.

In these instances, I try to plan ahead by getting my writing done as early in the day as possible. On travel days, I do the writing before the day gets started. If I’m flying, I can write on the plane, but usually we are driving somewhere and by the time we get to our destination, I’m too tired to do much writing. If I get the writing done early, I don’t stress about it.

I also know that I’ll likely have less time to write on these days, even early in the morning. In my normal routine, I can usually count on 40 minutes of writing time. On these off-days I may only be able to count on 10 or 20 minutes. So I prime the pump. I typically don’t plan ahead for my fiction (I’m a pantser, not a plotter), but on days when I know time will be at a premium, I’ll jot a short list of notes the night before so that I can get started right away the next day.

2. When my day goes unexpectedly sideways…

Sometimes, things happen that you can’t plan ahead for. Life gets in the way. I’ll go into a day thinking that it will be routine, and something comes up. Maybe I have to work late at the day job or maybe one of the kids is sick. Whatever it is, in these instances, I haven’t planned ahead and so I can’t necessarily get my writing done early in the day. I have a few ways of ensuring that I can get it in, however. 

First, I assume that I’ll only have 10 minutes. I do this because in almost any situation, I can count on finding 10 minutes to squeeze in some writing. It might not sound like much, but on all cylinders, I can write about a page (250 words) in 10 minutes. One page is one page more than I had the day before.

Second, I keep multiple projects going. At any given time, I’m usually working on two pieces of fiction, and two or three nonfiction articles. I learned this trick from Isaac Asimov’s autobiography years ago. The value of multiple active projects is that it allows me to start on something right away to maximize the 10-minute window. If I sit down to write and just don’t feel in the mood to work on the short story, I’ll turn to an article. Or vice versa. 

Third, I’ll try to sneak in more than 10 minutes if I can, but I don’t sweat it if I only get 10.

3. When weariness or writer’s block rears its ugly head…

Sometimes, even on a routine day, I might be unusually tired by the end of the day. Or, I might sit down to write and find that nothing will come. My brain is locked. In these situations, it would be easy to give up and just take the night off. Instead, I pull out my “emergency scene.”

You know how you take a couple of $20 bills, fold them up, and slip them into that secret compartment in your wallet so that you have some emergency cash if you need it? Well, I do that with story scenes. While I am not a plotter, I know how I think my stories will end when I start them. Usually, I also have one scene in mind—often the climax—which I am particularly eager to write.

You know how you take a couple of $20 bills and slip them into that secret compartment in your wallet? Well, I do that with story scenes. 

In the normal course of events, I write the story linearly. But, I tuck that special scene away, and store it for an emergency. This has saved me on several occasions when, whether out of weariness or writer’s block, I just don’t feel like writing. When nothing else will come, I whip out the emergency scene and write it, even if it means writing the scene out of order. This does three things for me:

  1. It ensures I get my writing done for the day.
  2. It gets me excited about the story again.
  3. It buys me a little time to work out why I was having a problem in the first place. Was I just tired, or was the story not working in some way?

***

Stephen King has said that to be writer, you need to do two things above all else: write a lot and read a lot. The more I practice, the better I get. There is no question that my sales of both fiction and nonfiction pieces have increased since I started writing every day. Indeed, since the streak began, I’ve sold 18 pieces of fiction or nonfiction, triple that of any previous year. And my income from freelance writing has shot up to nearly six times any previous year.

When I write at the end of the day, I feel more relaxed when I finish. I know I moved forward the most important parts of my creative career (not coincidentally, I also sleep better). 

And what happens when the streak inevitably comes to an end? Well, I just start anew. It’s happened once already. I previously had a 140-day streak, and then missed two days in the space of a week. But I got right back on the horse, and haven’t missed a day for 373 days. In many ways the streak has become my companion, urging me on to keep at it. Hacking the streak has helped ensure that I can write every day, even when those days go off the rails.

How about you?

Have you ever had an impressive creative streak? How did you do it?

Comments (53)
  • Kathy Holzapfel

    No, I haven’t. But now I want to beat your streak. (Inspired!) I like that you set parameters/minimums like 10 minutes/1 page. Thanks!

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      Good luck! And, P.S.: As of today, the streak stands at 393 days.🙂

  • Immyfly

    This really helped me, it made me realise life doesn’t always work to timetable and to be creative in hacking things in,

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      The biggest lesson I’ve taken from my experience so far is that being flexible and adaptable makes a huge difference in how much I can get done. I used to think I needed hours of silent, uninterrupted time to write. Part of my goal with the streak was to see for myself if I could work in small intervals (10 or 20 minutes) and surrounded by distractions (kids playing, TV blaring, etc.). Turns out, with some practice, I can, and do just fine. The biggest challenge has been learning to adapt on the fly when life gets in the way. But I’ve started to figure that out as well.

      • Immyfly

        Thats so true, i’ve had some health challenges think we all have in that context i cant just live to a perfect timetable

  • Michele Berger

    Dear Jamie,
    This is a terrific post. Wondering if you know about ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ which was popularized on writer Mur Lafferty’s podcast. I just wrote a post on the results for doing 250 words a day and entering them into the public spreadsheet. Seems like you have figured out another great system. I especially love the tip on ‘keeping an emergency scene’ in reserve!
    http://micheleberger.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/motivation-momentum-more-my-results-with-the-magic-spreadsheet-why-you-should-try-it/

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      Yes, Mur’s spreadsheet is a great tool, and basically the same idea. I’ve just automated my process so that I don’t have to take the extra time to fill out the spreadsheet each day; my scripts do it for me. (Also, that means I don’t forget to do it.) When I started the streak, I was really just trying to see if it was possible to write every day. I was actually surprised by how much 20-40 minutes/day of writing adds up over the course of more than year!

  • JJ

    Jamie, it would be really interesting to know if you’re noticing a huge difference or improvement at all since you started day 1.

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      JJ, like with any practice, do enough of it, and there is improvement. It’s hard to provide concrete measurements, but I can say that I’ve sold stories and articles faster and more frequently since the streak began, especially since beginning around December 2013. That’s when things really seemed to take off.

  • Ann Jie

    I love this post. Thank you for inspiring me to bash away at my keyboard and whip out an article.

  • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

    Melissa, I have friends that do morning pages and swear by it. It’s a creative endeavor and everyone’s approach varies. I tried lots of different things before settling on this one.

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  • http://khmerbird.com/ Santel Phin

    Wow … such a great accomplishment! I wanted to write a book too. I told myself and everybody 2 years ago.

    Until these days, I didn’t write a word of it yet. I didn’t find the time to write. I do have some time to write, but I focus it on my blog.

    I think after reading your story, I will commit to myself to write 1 hour a day. Now I challenge myself to finish an e-book by the end of this month.

    Let’s see if this habit can stick, it would be great.

    Thank for your inspiration!

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      Santel, best of luck to you! I’d just mention that one thing I deliberately *didn’t* do was set a minimum word count or time to write each day. Initially, the goal was to write every day. Even if I had only 5 or 10 minutes to do it. If I had needed a minimum of 1 hour, there would have been plenty of days where I would not have done any writing, simply because a full hour was not available.

      • http://khmerbird.com/ Santel Phin

        Thank Jamie, I am figuring out what is the best time for me to write. I am not sure I will write in the morning. I want to keep my morning as a self-reflection moment to define what need to be done for the day. I will try 1 hour in the afternoon. Let’s see if it sticks!

  • Sharon Richardson

    I found that writing daily notes in a book, then Evernote, was needed after brain surgery that put some of life on hold. Anywhere from a short page filled at short moments during the day, or pages of writing for an online class, writing has been good. It’s assisted to work on my creativity for various tasks and to provide good notes on any other historic personal events.

  • http://angelawilsononline.com Angela Wilson

    What an inspirational post! Just what I needed to kick my own writing in gear. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.janellefila.com Janelle

    I agree writing in the morning is the best way to experience a stress-free day. No matter what other life emergencies come up, you don’t have to sweat it because you already wrote today! Excellent post, thanks! Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

  • Emily

    This is awesome and incredibly inspirational! Thank you for writing. I have a question for you (and other writers): where do you work in submitting your pieces? I like the creating and feel like I can create eternally… but I need schedule or something, some type of routine, to submit work. How do others do this?

    I tend to think I need a big block of time-at least an hour to write. Your idea of writing for only ten minutes might help me get through this block. Thanks again for sharing.

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      Speaking for myself, I submit when the story is ready. When I was a less experienced writer, the manuscript seemed to burn a hole in my pocket, and on several occasions, I submitted before it was ready. I’ve learned to identify when a story is ready and I don’t submit until then. The results have been much better.

      For commissioned work, I generally have a deadline to work toward, so I structure my writing each day to focus on the shorter deadline work first, and then, if there’s time, work on other stuff. This has been something I’ve struggled with lately because it means that my fiction has often taken a back seat to my nonfiction. But I’ll figure it out at some point. For me, the main thing is that I am writing every day, and every day I’m writing, I’m practicing, and getting a little bit better at the craft.

  • http://the-writingonthe-wall.blogspot.com Jen C. Flynn

    Thank you for your post; it’s incredibly inspiring to read that you’re doing something I strive to do every day (but usually fail miserably at). My saviour, when it comes to writing, is, Evernote. I have it synced to my phone, my tablet, my laptop, and my netbook. It allows me to write almost anywhere (as long as I have wi-fi or a signal) and at any time. Evernote allows me to write any time my inspiration strikes me.

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      I love hearing that Evernote helps with your writing!🙂

  • http://stancebranding.com/ Justine Espersen

    This is ridiculously cool and inspiring! Dedication/perservance is hard for anyone, but you have definitely showed that it’s possible. Thank you for sharing your insight🙂

  • Joseph Allen

    While I’m not a writer, I completely endorse this methodology. I learned about this productivity tool from lifehacker.com – http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret. Since then I’ve kept a study chain of 1497 days (and counting). Some days have been just a few minutes of studying (like when I’m sick), but most days are a few hours a night, or most of a Saturday. I also have an exercise chain going.

    Using http://www.dontbreakthechain.com has been perfect for tracking my chains.

    The best part of this method is the extra motivation it brings because you don’t want the chain to break. There are days when I don’t want to study, but just the thought of that chain breaking gets me back to studying.

    Thank you for a great post! I’m glad to see that there are others using this method with success!

  • Jessica Stanley

    I used to live on a remote farm, where there was nothing to do, but write. I lived there for almost 4 yrs, and every day, without fail, I would write. it didn’t matter if it was for only 10-15 minutes after driving 200 kms (there and back) to do shopping, or a whole day… I wrote. I look back at that stuff I wrote now, and know it was not great, because I was very new at it, but I have started to go back through and redo a lot of it because the story line was good.
    Now, I have one book sold, and it has spurred me onto writing more and getting those first, rough-as-guts stories into shape and off to the right people.

  • http://www.thesalesblog.com S. Anthony Iannarino

    Awesome, Jamie!

    I started writing every day on December 28th, 2009. I missed two weeks in 2010 when I went to Tibet. I have written and published every day since September 1st, 2010. As of this writing that’s 1,453 days in a row (at http://www.thesalesblog.com).

    Totally transformational, isn’t it?

    Anthony

  • http://www.thepatrickmullin.com Patrick Mullin

    I’m making it a goal to write 2 blog posts a week at http://www.thepatrickmullin.com. I started last week! I’ll get back to you in two weeks to see if I started a streak! Great blog post! Very inspirational!

  • http://repossible.com/ Bradley

    Thanks for posting this, Jamie! I’m always inspired to hear of others banging it out every day–no matter what.

    I’m at day 696 (http://passthesourcream.com/?p=361) of Writing Every Day and it has also transformed my writing life, my work life, and well, if you add those two together, that’s pretty close to my entire life. I started on a 30-day writing challenge back in Nov. 2012 and I just kept going. After 100 days, I thought, “Hmm, this isn’t so hard!” It’s much harder to think about starting than to “be started.”

    It’s mostly for me and I thoroughly (usually) enjoy it. I very much enjoy taking experiences of my kids and “burning” them into my memory by writing about them. I hope my kids appreciate it someday (I already do … which is what keeps me going).

    But it’s also awoken the former writer that I used to be and although I’m writing every day, I’m not sending to editors or even trying to get work published. I’m ready to get started with that. I’ve been buried in my day job, but I’m trying to balance it out: less day job, more (published) writing.

    Great to hear you’ve published more work and that writing every day has helped. Thanks again for posting this, it’s a reminder that there are others out there doing similar things and having great successes. Congratulations!

  • Johanna

    A truly inspiring post! I’ve been deep down in a writer’s block for what feels like forever now. But I’ve been trying to push through it. I’ll definitely try out your system, it sounds brilliant! Just a little question, though: you mentioned you learned the trick of keeping multiple writing porjects going when reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. Which autobiography did you read?

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      Johanna, Isaac Asimov wrote a massive 2-volume autobiography published in 1979 and 1980. The first volume is called IN MEMORY YET GREEN and the second IN JOY STILL FELT. Just before he died in 1992, a retrospective volume appeared called I. ASIMOV. The latter volume is still in print, but the first, alas, are not. I’ve read all three about 15 times. It used to be a spring ritual for me, but I haven’t read them in several years now. That said, there is a lot of good practical writing advice in those books. Part of Asimov’s reasoning for writing such detailed volumes was to “show how he did it” for writers who followed him.

  • MrStone

    Great article, Jamie. Really enjoyed it. I would be interested to know how long it took you to get to writing 500 words in 20 minutes. Did this start off easy for you or did it ramp up? I’m assuming you also use some of your 10 minutes slots as editing time as well? Thanks!

    • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

      MrStone, while the (now) 400-day streak includes only my fiction/nonfiction writing and *not* my blogging, I have been posting on my blog regularly for 10 years now, and I think that regularity has been a big part of what got me to the 500 words in 20 minutes. Like anything, with a lot of practice, I’ve learned to start pretty quickly and type fast. In first drafts especially, I willingly trade accuracy for speed, so there are a ton of typos in the first draft, but then again, I’m the only one who ever sees those drafts. And I have a good system of checklists for eliminate the typos before submission.

      Regarding editing, first and second drafts are complete rewrites for me. If you are talking about line editing, fixing typos, changing words here and there, I usually do that in the submission (3rd) draft, and often when I do that work, I also doing first draft work on another project that same day. So while overall, the time counts, when I say 500 words in 20 minutes, I’m usually talking about first drafts.

      • MrStone

        This is great – thanks so much for answering my question – really appreciate you taking the time.

  • Srikalogy Kerel Roach

    I love this!

  • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

    iangarlic, first, I love the picture of your son.

    Regarding editing hell, everyone is different, of course. My first drafts are for me, and my second drafts, for an audience are complete rewrites so I sneak around the editing by doing that, but it also means I write more than I would if I simply edited my first draft. That just never worked well for me.

    After my second draft is done, it goes through light editing before I send it off to my beta readers. My third draft incorporates their feedback and then goes through more or less a traditional editing process, tightening prose, fixing typos, etc. On the days that I do this work, I’m also usually working on the first or second draft of another project. Sometimes I’ll bribe myself: if I do 10 minutes of editing, I’ll do 20 minutes of first draft work.

    But beyond little tricks like that, I’ve got nothing.

    • http://yourauthenticweb.com iangarlic

      Thank you for the response! I really appreciate it. I really like the two audience idea. I have yet to look at it that way. My writing flows out for others, usually one specific person. Then I never want to see it again. I think the audience idea along with writing “more” instead of editing might help trick my brain. It’s either that or back to drugs and alcohol.😉

      • http://www.jamietoddrubin.com Jamie Todd Rubin

        I can’t take full credit for that method. It’s how Stephen King describes his own process in his book ON WRITING, and it just happened to work very well for me, too.

  • http://blog.terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

    I have written 15,000 words in the past 34 days. This is part of Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ prescription for unblocking creativity. For the 8 weeks of the book’s course you write wildly for 3 pages, which averages about 1,000 words typed, double-spaced. Now, this is pure stream of consciousness writing, and Cameron recommends that you don’t ever re-read it at all, but it is not wasted writing in the least. I’m loving the process again – thank goodness!

    • Polly Anna Watson

      I love Julia Cameron’s books! I tried Morning Pages, but I just don’t get up early enough to be consistent with them. I ended up having lots of luck with “Night Notes” instead. I’m more of a night owl, so writing at night about my day has been quite successful. I’ve written just about every night for almost a whole year now!!! What makes it even better is that I’m inspired to write even more!

      • http://blog.terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

        Haha I actually call them ‘Daily Pages’ because I do them before dinner, after I’m home from work. I’m aiming to keep up with them daily for the rest of the year. It’s so fun!

  • http://brian-hermelijn.deviantart.com/ Brian Hermelijn

    This is definitely a great practical advice, and article. Definitely will be trying this in my daily drawing routine. Thanks for sharing your insight, Jamie Todd.

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