You can be extraordinarily productive by writing two hours a day, five days a week. I know because I practice daily writing and it works.
Many writers find the suggestion to write for two hours every day ludicrous and instead aim to write eight hours a day. Unable to write for eight hours, they berate themselves and spend lots of time thinking how much less productive they are than other writers.
I have tried many different ways of convincing writers that it is much better to write for two hours a day and move on to other things than to try incessantly to write all day without success. The former leads to feeling accomplished and productive on a daily basis, whereas the latter leads to burnout and less productivity. It may not make sense, but it is true: writing for two hours a day is a much more effective long-term strategy than trying to write for eight.
In 2007, I was lucky enough to have a post-doctoral fellowship that involved very few responsibilities. This seems like an ideal situation for someone who wants to write and be productive. I showed up to my office every day and tried to write for as long as I could. Usually I would burn out by lunch time. Other days, I would intend to write, yet find myself surfing around on the Internet or staring at the wall.
I decided to try to write for just two hours a day. It worked, and my writing projects began to move forward. However, I always had this sneaking feeling that I should be trying to write more. With 24 hours in the day, how could I dedicate just two to writing? One week, I decided to try and write as much as possible. I hammered out a full conference paper in one week by writing four to six hours a day. The next week, I showed up at my office on Monday and had trouble getting started. After a few minutes of writing, my mind began to wander and I found myself surfing the Internet. That week went much less well than the previous one. My experiment taught me that I need to be mindful of my limits. If I over-extend my brain, it won't work as well the next week. I went back to writing two hours a day, and only try to write for three to four hours on an emergency basis.
Last year - 2011 - I wrote for two hours a day, Monday to Friday, for most of the year. I'd venture a guess that I did this about 46 of the 52 weeks during the year.
During the Spring 2011 semester, I wrote every day, Monday to Friday, for two hours. I did lots of different things during those two hours, but I mostly drafted new text, revised old drafts, and took notes from books and articles. Between January 1 and May 1, in four months, I drafted a total of about 42,000 words of new text. A large chunk of that writing - 25,000 words - was the first draft of my third book: Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.
It took me about 80 working days to write 42,000 new words, an average of about 525 words a day. Keep in mind that these 42,000 words were very rough drafts, and that I spent much of the remainder of the year revising these drafts. Nevertheless, by December 2011, my third book was in press and the remainder of those words (an article and a book chapter) were under review. Thus, even if I did not write any new text after May 2011, and only revised what I had written, this would have been a productive year.
During the Summer, I did spend a lot of time revising, and also wrote a small amount of new text. I wrote and/or revised for two hours a day for at least two months during the summer. By the end of the summer, I had written about 8,000 new words. In addition, I finalized and revised the short book that I drafted in the Spring, and completed a "revise and resubmit" from a journal. I also analyzed and coded some of my interviews.
During the Fall Semester, I also wrote two hours a day, every day, Monday to Friday, most of the time. There were a few exceptions when I was traveling, but I tried to make up for it. The Fall semester was not as productive as the Spring. In all, I wrote about 21,000 new words. I did not write as many new words as in the Spring because I spent quite a bit of time revising, in addition to taking notes, reading, and preparing and delivering ten presentations.
During AY 2011, then, I wrote about 70,000 new words. I almost never wrote more than two hours a day. There were also very few weekdays when I did not write. The major exceptions are during July when I took a two-week vacation and December when I took another two-week vacation from writing. Taking vacations allows me to maintain my equilibrium, renew my creativity, restore my energy, and continue to be productive.
If you focus on writing every day, you can’t help but be productive. Trying to write more than humanly possible will lead only to frustration and burnout. The best way to be productive and stress-free is to write every day for two hours a day on a consistent basis.
For me, the rewards are clear. The short book I drafted during Spring 2011 will be released in Spring 2012: Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States