Saturday, January 21, 2012

How to Be Productive by Writing Two Hours a Day

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.

Tryping: My Name Is Matthew Allard

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


  1. I've been receiving your daily writing tips for last few months now - but I can't seem to summon up to write daily. By the time i have taught, planned, marked, replied to emails, placed students in placements, tutorials, meetings with colleagues my day is over. And the last thing i feel like doing at home is dedicating 2 hours to writing.
    How do you balance your teaching/research and admin responsibilities with daily writing? Where do you do it? Do you do it at Uni or somewhere at home? ..... I have a chapter to do by end of March and am just embarking on Pt PhD with ft job.


  2. Anonymous:

    I write each morning, from 8am to 10am. I do it at home, in my office, or at a cafe. Then, I attend to everyone else's needs: emails, meetings, teaching prep, office hours, etc.

    If your job does not permit you to carve out 2 hours, can you carve out 25 minutes (one pomodoro) at the beginning of each day?

  3. Best time for me looks like 4-5 in my work day - so I'm going to try this over the next week and see how i get on!
    Keep writing these blogs - they are really helpful!!


  4. Thank you so much for sharing what works for you! These tips are incredibly helpful. And judging by your productivity they obviously work. Much appreciate your openness!

  5. Jess: Keep me posted! I hope the plan works out for you!

    Anonymous: Thanks for your note. Best of luck with your writing!

  6. "Last year - 2011 - I wrote for two hours a day, Monday to Friday, for most of the year" Can I just send out an applause on this? Excellent stellar follow through... I am motivated by this diligence.-RT

  7. I'm curious. It sounds like you include research related reading in your "writing time." Is that correct? I find the idea of two hours of producing or revising text daunting, because there is so much reading involved in my research (I'm in lit). I know I shouldn't get caught in the trap of thinking I always need to read something else before starting my writing, but still... I would great appreciate if you could clarify.

    Thank you for this post and your inspiring blog.

  8. RT: Thanks!

    Anonymous: I do count reading (when I am taking notes!). But, I try not to let the note-taking carry on for too long....

  9. 2nd year asst prof here, and I REALLY NEED TO DO THIS! (that was me yelling at myself). In-class teaching takes up most of my day 2 days per week, but I think I can do 2 hours in the mornings of those days IF I prepare for class ahead of time. What ends up taking up my time is course prep, emails, advisees etc. and then days go by and I don't write. I'm not a schedule person, but I'm considering mapping out every hour of my work day (teaching prep, emails, 2 hours of writing etc.) and trying to stick with it. Any advice on the sticking to it part?

  10. Anonymous: What works for me in terms of sticking it are 1) reviewing my schedule each morning so I can see it. 2) Having my schedule always available in an electronic format so that I can refer to it. 3) Setting up reminders to myself about what I need to do. Good luck!

  11. Your advice is impressive. However I meet up with a problem: what should I put into the computer directly when I am reading a well-organized textbook. Seems all are great point. What can I do with that. I am writing a concept paper on social welfare for my qualifying exam. Thanks! I also found would need great time to revise the sentence to be my words. Looking forward to your advice!

    1. when you are taking notes, there is nothing wrong with copying verbatim. just be sure to make a note that you are doing that, to avoid potential plagiarism issues.

    2. Thanks for your kindly advice. However, my concern is when I am typing the notes while reading, it seems promote my understanding, but take great deal of time. Can you share with me you practice wisedom when taking notes: are you reading and taking notes at the same time, or highlight what you need to take as notes and tpye them in the computer after you finish some part of reading? And,are you taking notes in your words or with the text's word without changing when you are taking notes? How can I plan to revise the notes in my words and at the same time I need to read a lot of materials and also finish my concepts paper. I have cut them in several part in my framework, as liberalism, maxism, neo-liberalism, and political economic...But I am also willing to finish it in about a month. I am also worried about the time management issuses. Thanks for your kindly help!

  12. I just revised my New Year's resolution to write for three hours a day to two, as I have overwhelmingly not been meeting my target. I threw the question out there on the internet whether it would be okay to only do two hours a day, and it took me to this site. Thanks for providing confirmation. I'm hoping 4 highly focused pomodoros counts as 2 hours (not including any reading), despite the 5 min breaks in between?