When you write for yourself, it is tempting to overlook falling short of your goals. You don’t risk being chewed out by a supervisor or letting down a team, and no one has to know you haven’t produced as much content as you were planning.
The flexibility that comes from being your own boss is freeing and might be a major reason why you chose this path to begin with. But if you take too much advantage of this freedom, you will begin to suffer from a lack of production, leading to a lack of income—which, ironically, restricts your freedom.
Last March, as I was finishing my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I set myself a challenge of producing four poems a week for the month. I wanted to build up the content of my thesis quickly so that I wouldn’t be scrambling and stressed in the last month of my program. In previous semesters, I had only ever written one or two poems a week, so I didn’t have any evidence that this outcome was possible. The thing was, even though the challenge was ambitious, I made it necessary.
By the end of March, I had accomplished my challenge and had enough content to fill out my thesis. I learned that creating a short-term writing challenge was an effective way to boost my long-term productivity. Here’s why:
One enemy of productivity is indecisiveness. Pinning down a topic, planning the main points, and discerning when your piece is “finished” are all activities that require a decision. Even if you work in an environment where some of these things are decided for you, the minor decisions you get to make—like how to phrase a particular sentence—can still become time-consuming. The creative freedom that comes with writing can put you into a state of “analysis paralysis.”
Analysis paralysis happens when we have too many options and too much time to make a choice. A rule called Parkinson’s Law suggests that the more time you give yourself to work on something, the more time you’ll take. When you set a challenge for a limited amount of time, you can’t let your decisions drag on. You have to follow your first instinct.
Regardless of whether the words you write get published or tossed in the end, making quick decisions about your writing is a skill, and practicing it helps you get better at it. You begin to notice the difference between the choices that end in success and the choices you fall back on like a crutch—but that are not your best writing.
For example, during my writing challenge, I wrote whatever adjectives and adverbs flowed naturally in the moment. But I started to notice that these modifiers weakened my poems when in my workshops, my peers and instructors usually suggested I take them out.
Now when I am stuck on which modifier to use, I catch myself and decide to forego one altogether, which has improved both the efficiency and quality of my writing. By the end of your challenge, you too will have an awareness of what works for you and how much you can really get done in a set amount of time.
Working on a challenge gets your adrenaline pumping. It feels like a game. Think of how your brain can zero in on possibilities for your next move in checkers or your next double-digit word in Scrabble. In game situations, you are aware that something is at stake.
But the stake is imaginary!
Unless money is on the table, winning a game usually won’t change your life. What’s crucial to the game scenario is the sense of competition. A competitive nature is hardwired into human biology because it is directly connected to the desire to survive.
Replicating the conditions of a game activates your competitive nature. With a writing challenge, you are competing against yourself. If you let people know about it, you are setting up a further stake in accountability. Winning as an outcome begins to feel like a necessity, and necessity drives concentration.
Setting a challenge is an effective way to combat another enemy of productivity: distraction. When you activate your competitive-survival mode, everything else fades into the background. If you’ve been in a writing slump for a while, a challenge can give you the adrenaline boost you need.
What you accomplish in the focused, short-term period of the writing challenge sets an aspirational model for the rest of the year. You learn what conditions you need to create to get yourself in the zone, and in the long term, this awareness will help you with any writing goal you set.
A writing challenge puts you in a similar setting to writing an exam in which you have a limited time to answer the questions and only one shot at them.
Being in a one-shot situation requires you to quickly develop a system to maximize your time. This could mean jotting down a quick outline first, saving the introduction and conclusion for last, or free writing for the first half of your time and editing for the second half.
Whatever your limits are, you need to stay within them, so you get creative about ways to write more efficiently than usual. Over the course of the challenge, you will find the system that works best for you—for example, I always have a strong image in mind before I work on a poem—and you can replicate this in all your writing going forward.
Whether or not you set up an actual reward for yourself, success is its own reward. You will have the satisfaction of looking at the pages of work you have produced and being proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Unlike goals, which often have a long-term trajectory, a writing challenge doesn’t have a clear finish line. I mentioned the importance of productivity for the long-game, but a challenge leverages the desire for short-term gratification in a way that also benefits you in the long term.
Even though I stopped writing four poems a week, my reward is a group of finished poems I can send out to poetry journals and that might even be a part of my first book! My one month of hyperproductivity served my long-term goals.
Whether you are working on a book, beefing up your blog to increase engagement, or building up your portfolio, what you produce during your challenge can open up doors to further steps in your career.
Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind whenever you start a new writing challenge. They’ll make it easier for you to reach your goal.
I set my challenge at a time of year when I could commit to it. It’s important to start planning for your challenge a month or two in advance to avoid overbooking that time and (unintentionally) setting yourself up for failure.
When your family and friends know you work at home, they might feel like they can call you up any time of the day. Like I mentioned before, flexibility can be a drawback.
Telling people about your challenge works as both as an accountability mechanism and a way to communicate that you simply can’t be bothered.
Before starting your challenge, tell your social circle that you are entering a period of rigidity rather than flexibility. For a set amount of time each day, they should know you’re not available.
For an added level of accountability, consider joining a local writing community or Facebook writing group. You could also publicize your challenge on social media or your blog and commit to a short daily post about your progress.
Even when you clear your schedule and plan to get into a writing routine, you never know when some kind of mini crisis might happen. Having an off day is almost inevitable, but if you set a weekly goal rather than a daily one, you allow yourself space to breathe, so it won’t get you down.
For example, tell yourself you will work on a new book idea or blog post series for four hours a week rather than an hour a day. That way, you can take a break when you’re having an off day without feeling guilty.
Ambition is important because it gives you something to work toward. However, you don’t want to start something that will end in frustration after the first week.
I set my goal for double my usual productivity because I knew my usual productivity wasn’t at my maximum capacity. To gain awareness of your usual productivity, start tracking your word count or the time you spend per piece of writing a week or two before you start your challenge. If you write 300 words per hour at a comfortable pace, set a challenge for 500 an hour.
Remember that the goal of the challenge is production. You might sacrifice meticulous editing during that hour, but you will have more content.
Think of your challenge as physical exercise. You can’t run at your maximum speed for very long, and doing so could cause more bad than good, but in short bursts, you can reap great benefits and improve over time. Similarly, with writing, you don’t want to be exhausted by the end of the day, but rather at a point where you actually feel energized.
A challenge should stem from your own norms and habits. Some people join community challenges such as writing a piece every day or reading 10 books a month. If you have never achieved anything close to the challenge you’re picking, it’s not for you.
Community challenges have the benefit of making you feel part of something, but they often fall into the “overly-ambitious” category. If you want to do a challenge in a group, allow everyone to set individual goals rather than a strict, collective one.
Besides increasing your word count, you can challenge yourself to write one more chapter per week than usual. Challenge yourself to write a blog post every other day rather than twice a week or take one hour a day to work solely on that story you abandoned months ago.
As long as your challenge is based on your habits and goals, it will be a valuable one.
Of course, there is no guarantee that you will succeed in your challenge. If you have ever failed at any goals before (spoiler: we all have), then you’re probably apprehensive about the potential of failing again.
The secret here is that the benefits of setting a challenge don’t only occur after completion, but during as well. If you end up having written double your usual capacity for half the month rather than the whole month, you’ve still done a month’s worth of writing in two weeks! That’s already setting you ahead of your usual game. Any sign of improvement is considered a win.
A challenge is a tool to boost your overall writing productivity and give you a shortcut into the writing “zone.”
If you do start to fall off track, it can be tempting to quit and say you’ll try again next month. But it’s important to set the rule that stopping is the worst possible option. Sometimes, Olympic hurdlers knock over a hurdle, but they still get back up and finish the race.
Action drives motivation, not the opposite. The dedication that you put into the challenge will make you more optimistic for all you accomplish the rest of the year. Even if you go back to normal productivity levels, your completed challenge will serve as proof of how much you can actually accomplish when you set your mind to it.
Are you up for the challenge?
Sarah Blake is a poet, musician, and content writer from Toronto. Driven by a fascination with personal development, she writes to support people with unconventional careers and lifestyles in building something from nothing. Sarah holds an M.F.A. in poetry from The New School’s creative writing program. Her poems explore how environment and place affect the formation of self-identity and relationships. You can find her on Instagram @sarah0blake and read more of her writing at sarahblakecreative.com.