How I Maximize My Writing Productivity
I am a professional writer. I get paid to pick and organize words into articles and essays and publish them on the internet, my business card says, “Maxine Builder, Writer,” and when I fill out customs forms at the airport and they ask for my occupation, that’s what I put down. And by any standard, I write a lot. For the last three years, I’ve written at least one article a day, each one usually coming in at about 800 words. (By my back-of-napkin math, that’s well over 600,000 words written and published over the last three years and doesn’t include the work I’ve also done to interview sources, optimize each story for search, and source images — but that’s for another article.)
Whenever this tidbit about my professional life — that I write and publish one article each day — comes up in conversation, most people are surprised by that rate of productivity, and the inevitable follow-up question is, how. How do I come up with so many ideas, keep track of so many moving parts, and get a finished product out the door so quickly?
My personal philosophy for getting work done, and the advice I give to those trying to maximize their writing productivity too, is: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of done, for done is the engine of more.
I did not come up with this mantra—or, at least, it’s not strictly my own philosophy. It’s a bastardization of an aphorism attributed to Voltaire, that perfect is the enemy of good. This has always made sense to me, especially as a recovering perfectionist who spent most of high school panicked about failing, which, to me, meant getting a B on an English paper. If you’re constantly striving for perfection, nitpicking at your work so you can catch all of the flaws before it goes out the door, you may miss the fact that what you’re working with is actually pretty good and ready to be released into the world.
But that quest for perfection is also the enemy of being done, of completing the task at hand so you can move onto the next thing and continue your streak of productivity. That last bit of my personal mantra — that done is the engine of more — is pulled straight from the Cult of Done Manifesto. It was written by Bre Pettis and Kio Stark back in 2009, in 20 minutes, while they were both lying in bed. As Pettis, co-founder and former CEO of MakerBot Industries, tells the story, “It was one of those magic writing moments where I had the laptop open and our ideas flew onto the page. For me, it is a map of my 2009 heart. Getting it on paper was a cathartic documentation of my life, my soul, and my passion for unbridled creativity.”
This efficient text lays outlines a coherent philosophy in which finishing creative tasks is more valuable than making sure each one is a perfect, polished gem before it sees the light of day. The point is not to be lazy or to rush through your work, it’s acknowledging that, at a certain point, you start seeing diminishing returns. You should absolutely read over your writing before submitting it, and going through a round of edits can serve to make a piece stronger, especially if it’s a meaty or difficult topic. But you can’t get to that editing process unless you’ve got a completed essay, with a beginning, middle, and end, and when finishing is the goal, you quickly realize anguishing over specific word choices is rarely worth the worry.
And for those still skeptical that shifting your goal from doing the best to doing the most might lead to writing that’s less important or impactful, there’s at least one experiment that comes to mind to show how prioritizing quantity to quality can actually lead to better outcomes overall. In his book Atomic Habits (which has quickly become a favorite productivity book of mine, one I find myself referencing in many conversations), James Clear shares the story of an experiment run by a professor at the University of Florida. On the first day of class, the professor divided his film photography class into two groups. The first group of students would be graded on the amount of work they created over the course of the semester; the more work, the better the grade. The other only needed to produce one photograph to pass, but they would only get an A if the photograph was perfect. As Clear explains:
At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.
Everyday I work to be part of the quantity group, focused on producing more and more rather than spin my wheels, trying to write the perfect story. And my dirty little secret is that whenever I go back and read old articles, I almost always find words I’ve repeated or sentences I wish I had phrased differently. But these are “mistakes” so miniscule that I am sure I’m the only one who notices.
The way I stay productive is to complete the task at hand so I can move onto the next thing and continue my forward momentum. And by constantly creating, I’m learning new skills, reinforcing good habits, getting better at my craft, and ultimately making something that’s really, really cool, even if there were a lot of mistakes and failed experiments along the way.
So if you’re trying to write and publish more, write and don’t be too precious about it. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of done, for done is the engine of more.