One of the greatest challenges of entrepreneurship is self-management. Whether you’re an independently published author or a narrator completing projects in your home studio, you likely don’t have a boss telling you how and when to manage your working hours. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to productivity when working from home, but the indie creator community has a wealth of collected knowledge on the topic. So, we’ll be checking in with a few productive ACX creators to see how they manage working for themselves.
First up: Sarina Bowen is the author of more than 30 audiobooks and co-host of the Story Bites podcast with producer Tanya Eby. She writes a blog, maintains an avid fan community, and manages a great-looking website and killer marketing strategy to boot. So how does she get it all done? She starts by keeping her creative time separate from her business and family time. Read on to find out how Sarina made consistency the cornerstone of her productivity.
Like so many other independent authors, my life is a juggling act between writing and business. I actually enjoy the business tasks, so when the writing is hard, I sometimes find myself poking at spreadsheets instead of adding words to my manuscript. But that’s not the most productive way for me to work, and I would often end up feeling bad about giving in to distractions.
Then I listened to Deep Work by Cal Newport (totally worth a credit!) and he touched on something that really resonated with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that attention span and willpower are finite resources. As the day goes on, you’re less able to focus and control your impulses. I loved this advice, because it took away my self-judgment during those moments when I feel brain-bombed. Hey, I’m not a failure! I’m just fresh out of attention-span fuel.
Certainly, there are authors who will argue this point. If you always do your best creative work at 2 a.m., that’s groovy, too. But the concept still holds, because it forces you to observe your capacity for focus like a happy little scientist, and then make adjustments where necessary. One author who goes into copious detail about this is Rachel Aaron in her book 2k to 10k. She actually kept a log of the hours she spent writing and how effective they were. The results allowed her to fine-tune her process and schedule.
My personal writing pattern is more tortoise than hare. I average a mere 1200 words a day. That’s four books a year. Not a day goes by that I don’t open up Facebook and see one of my friends reporting that she wrote 4,000, 6,000, 11,000 words that day. You have my sacred promise that I will never ever write eleven thousand words in a day. My brain just doesn’t move at that speed, and that’s okay.
I often tell people that novel-writing is the only kind of marathon that I will ever run. And I run a lot of them. So many, in fact, that my life can feel like a long stint on the treadmill. Even when I’ve finished a book, there’s another one waiting for me. If you want to keep up this kind of pace, you have to find ways to be kind to yourself. My friend Sarah throws herself a party each time she makes it to page 100 on her new manuscript.
My approach is a little different. I have a sticker chart, just like your average third grader. If I write 1200 words on my work-in-progress, I get a sticker in my planner. It’s hard to admit that I’m a sucker for bits of printed paper with adhesive. Yet it’s shocking how motivating it can be to chase that day’s sticker. Admittedly, I have really great taste in stickers—it’s nice to see an entire month’s worth of chickens or multicolored pencils covering the page. Jerry Seinfeld used the same approach with—gasp—red Xs on a wall calendar. Every day that he wrote a good joke, he’d make an X on that calendar. “Don’t break the chain,” he says of this method. It’s motivating to keep up your own good work, and it’s harder to look at a streak that’s broken.
Consistency is therefore my single biggest secret. If I get that sticker by noon, I feel invincible. The key to this magic is avoiding my email inbox and social media. I’ve lost more work hours to email and Facebook than I care to admit. There are two ways that my inbox harms me: 1) FOMO. Is someone having fun on the internet without me? and 2) the lure of the easier items on the to-do list. It’s simpler to answer an email than to craft beautiful sentences or solve plot problems. But, when I avoid engaging with the world early in the day, I’m much more likely to stay in the zone and focused on my work.
And that early success is powerful. By hitting my goal, I feel relaxed and confident while I move onto other tasks, like looking after my house, my kids, my health. I can turn my attention to tidying up Quickbooks, searching for cover art, or listening to narrator’s samples. I feel good about my life on these days.
On the other hand, if I’m crawling across the word-count finish line at 10 p.m., it’s a little demoralizing. This usually happens because I fail to follow my own system. Maybe I checked my messages when I should have been writing. A single email can blow up whole my day. And by the time I put out the fires, it’s time to cook dinner and the daylight is shot.
Publishing your own work means you’ll have more of those days than an author who lets other people handle all the business challenges. Ultimately, that’s okay with me. This career is a choice, and I embrace the chaos when it comes to my door. But if I embrace it after I hit my word count goal, I’ll feel calm and in control anyway.
That’s how I get it done. With stickers. And science. And a little advice from smart people who have walked the same path.
Give Sarina’s audiobooks a listen on Audible, and take to the comments below to share your own productivity pointers.