The Easiest, Most Powerful Thing I Do For My Productivity

The easiest, most powerful thing I do to boost my productivity is a nightly ritual that takes about ten seconds. Before I tell you what it is, I need to explain two things: 

(1) I use two computers: 

  • A desktop with a great screen and ergonomic keyboard for my writing. This desktop is “vanilla,” meaning all the internet connectivity, games, and other distractions have been stripped away from it. It’s basically just a word processor. And,
  • A laptop for social media, emails, and games.

Using two computers may sound like an indulgence, but it’s not, especially given the productivity boost it provides. Also, for many tasks—e.g., writing—you don’t need the latest tech, and can easily repurpose an old computer. 

(2) I get much more writing done on days when, shortly after waking up, I glide straight over to my writing computer and start working, compared with days when I get distracted by my phone or laptop. On distracted days, it can take me hours to start writing. (The distraction problem is particularly bad right now because I’m in the early stages of a difficult and somewhat scary project—a novel—so I have more fear and perfectionism than usual.)

Now, you know the meaning of the old expression, “she who hesitates is lost.”

Okay, so here is the tip: every night, right before I go to bed, I shut my laptop and phone off. That way they’re not “alive” and tempting me, first thing in the morning, but my writing computer is.

If I feel in need of a little extra “willpower,” I’ll even put a sticky note on the laptop and phone saying, “Nope!” 

This trivial-seeming act actually works brilliantly in helping me glide straight over to my computer and start my most important daily work. It also helps ensure that I get my quota of at least four hours of daily writing time in. (I time my writing intervals using a kitchen timer to make sure I’m not cheating on that.)

Of course, to do all this, you have to be willing to stay disconnected for a while. Many people find that simply inconceivable—as Vizzini would say—but fortunately the idea of digital detox is gaining traction. Productivity guru Cal Newport is a strong voice for disconnecting, and novelists Jonathan Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Isabel Allende have all been outspoken on the need to do your creative work in a disconnected space.

Similarly, many creative residencies, including Yaddoo and MacDowell, now offer WiFi only in a library or a lobby, and not in their artists’ living or work spaces, thus helping those artists maintain their productivity.

Of course, we all have situations where we need to stay connected, but make sure you minimize those. Back when I was writing articles for what we used to call “work-at-home moms,” the mantra for when your kids could interrupt your work was: “fire, flood, blood, and broken bones.” Everything else could wait. 

What about when you wake up with a great “laptop” idea, such as an email or a strategy for your research or gaming? Easy peasy: just write it all out on your disconnected computer and later on copy it over to your connected one. Along with preserving your productivity, this also gives you an opportunity to give your email or strategy one last check.

If you need to check your schedule before starting your day, print it out the night before.

One of the worst aspects of perfectionism is that it convinces us that we’re the problem. “If only I were less lazy,” the perfectionist bemoans. “If only I had more willpower.” But joyfully productive nonperfectionists know that it’s not about fixing yourself: it’s about adapting your context and conditions so that they support your productivity and success.

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