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How to use high-intensity spurts to write productively

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An experiment_ use spurts to write more(3)
My life’s mantra is, “Progress comes a little at a time.” Every aspect of my life is marked by tiny, incremental successes, and I generally don’t mind that a project might take months to complete. I take a strange sort of pride in my routines that allow me to make steps regularly toward the next milestone. After all, as a writer, how often have you heard the advice to write every day, even just 500 words a day? There’s a pervasive tendency to glorify routines, and I’m completely on that boat. Often, though, we have to move outside of our comfort zone in order to write productively.

Is there a way to combine the power of routines with spurts of intense productivity?

I look back at my life and marvel at some of things that I’ve accomplished in surprisingly short amounts of time – those 10-page papers in college (or 25-page papers in grad school) that I wrote in less than a week, a move from Colorado to Tennessee that happened in less than three days, prepping for a course as a brand-new faculty member in less than five days, getting a professional-looking platform together in less than a month. How is it that sometimes I’m outrageously productive, yet other times, I move at a snail’s pace over the course of months and months?

First, let’s recognize the different seasons of life.

It’s true that life’s rhythms change over time, and it’s good to reflect on the different sorts of rhythms that you tend to experience. Here are some of mine, which also probably resonate with you:

Busy seasons (slow progress)
These are the seasons of upheaval and general overwhelm. Moving, having a baby, starting school, holidays, etc. During these times, I’m quick to give myself a pass and say, “Well, this season of life is just very busy, so it’s okay that I’m just making a little progress at a time is sufficient.”

While there certainly are legitimately busy seasons, if I’m honest with myself, I’d bet that I categorize 85% of my life as a “busy season.” During such self-proclaimed busy seasons, I get all the bare minimum done in my business and personal life. I meet all of the obligations to which I’m committed, and I feel pretty good about that. But I then give myself permission to slack anything that’s not a top priority – personal writing projects, business plans, housework, keeping in touch with people, de-cluttering my office, organizing family photos, etc.

Treading water seasons (progress on mini projects)
These are the seasons when things are somewhat under control. You’re in something of a predictable routine, and you can make extra exertions toward particular goals. These are the seasons in which you might be eating healthier, going to the gym, writing more regularly, keeping in touch with family and friends, that sort of thing.

Maybe 10-12% of my life I tend to categorize as a “treading water season.” During these brief interludes, I find the time to make progress on mini projects – I lose 5-10 pounds, I finish the family photo album, I make some marked progress on writing project – that sort of thing. Before I know it, though, I’m thrown unexpectedly back into a “busy season.”

Goal-oriented seasons (massive progress in one area)
These are the rare seasons when you feel like you have a fire lit under you, whether or not the sparking of that fire was your idea. A job requires you move immediately or a major project needs to be finished by tomorrow morning, and you suddenly find yourself intensely focused on just getting it done. Everything else goes by the wayside, and you harness all of your physical and mental energy at making massive progress on this one area.

3% or less of my life is a “goal-oriented season,” and usually I don’t like it. Yet, I can’t deny that during these times, I get shit done, you know? (I don’t usually cuss, but, damn, there’s just no better way to explain it!)

Experiment: Combine routines with high-intensity spurts

Is there a way to harness some of the intensity of those “goal-oriented seasons” on your own schedule and with sights set on your highest priority goals?

The idea
I’m pretty good at routines. Actually, I revel in routines. I would be terrified to live life without my routines. But, perhaps, I can combine my routines with high-intensity spurts. I’m thinking that I can aim to roughly live in “normal routine” mode for four weeks or so, and then switch into “spurt” mode for one week. Each spurt could have a specific goal or project.

The rationale
When you’re in the midst of a routine, it’s so easy to forget that you’re making progress on anything at all. Your incremental progress can become so normalized that you don’t even notice how far you’ve come. A year or more of slow, steady steps and you can forget where you started.

A high-intensity spurt is stressful in the moment but it’s remarkably gratifying. You look back and say, “Wow, I moved everything I own in three days!” or “Holy smokes, I finished that huge project in 36 hours!” I want to harness a bit of that adrenaline, stress, and gratification every now and then, but on my own terms, in my own time, with my own priorities in mind – in order to write more productively.

The plan
I’ll identify one project that I want to make major progress on in the next six weeks. (Incidentally, this works out well because I’m due to have my third baby seven weeks from now, so, you know, that’s a very real deadline.)

I’ll sketch out what I would consider “completing” the project as specifically as I can. Details are your friend when setting goals.

I’ll take a look at my calendar and tentatively schedule “spurt week,” a Saturday-Saturday week, during which I’ll make every attempt for that goal to take priority for those seven days.

I’ll prep beforehand, make sure my routines are relatively set up to help my life run smoothly (groceries, kids, business, etc).

If I end up needing to move “spurt week,” that’s fine, but it should happen sometime in the next six weeks.

At the end of “spurt week,” I’ll write a note of congratulations to myself to post on my mirror. And maybe have a piece of cake. Celebrate small successes, right?

What do you think?

Is this whole idea of routines combined with spurts a little crazy? Or is it just crazy enough to work? How would you tweak my plan to fit your life?

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