How Do Writers Find Inspiration?

Writers' Guide to Cultivating Time for Inspiration by Winluck Wong

Well, it’s simple really: we sit in front of our computers or typewriters or stone tablets. And when our writing calls for inspiration, we reach out to pick its rainbow-coloured flower out of thin air.

Wouldn’t that be something if it were the truth? The reality though isn’t so much that inspiration can’t be a rainbow-coloured flower; it’s just that it’s not something you can pick at will. In fact, inspiration isn’t even a seed from which your writing flourishes. The seed you’re looking for is time.

Inspiration blooms when time is carefully cultivated down to the last minute.

Instead of getting hung up on the lack of inspiration for writing, focus first on how you can prune time to your liking. I don’t mean gaining the power to manipulate space and time (although if you do possess that ability, I have a lot of questions I’d like to ask you). You need to lay down the groundwork upfront to produce a self-sustaining yield of productivity and an occasional bonus crop of inspiration. That can be done with a combination of to-do lists, calendars, project management savvy, algorithms, and even some math.

Here’s the ultimate guide for writers to better manage their time to invite inspiration:

One small step for then, one giant leap for sanity

There’s a bunch of metaphors you can use to convey the idea of breaking down a project into smaller chunks. The thousand-mile journey. A mountain that has to be moved. Or how about a meal of elephant?

Use one that best resonates with you. For me, my metaphor is doing the dishes. It’s not as poetic or as vivid as those in the famous sayings above. But it sure does resonate with me.

See, I’m not a fan of doing dishes – shocking, isn’t it? – and it’s even worse in a small kitchen. It means that I’m always faced with a nice-sized pile every day despite all the strategies I employ to minimize the number of dirty dishes. But no matter how much the sight of the pile discourages me, it has to be done or I’ll never set foot in the kitchen again.

The only way I can make the chore manageable is by breaking it down and doing each part separately at different times. So it goes: 1) Clear space off the counter and dinner table; 2) Rinse dishes and stack on cleared space; 3) Wash rinsed dishes with detergent, rinse again, and stack on drying mat; 4) Dry and put away clean dishes.

It seems silly to split up one simple chore into so many little tasks and spread them all out during the day. But man, what a big difference it made on my sanity. It even increased my efficiency – I know because I actually timed myself. I used to slave away at the sink for about an hour and a half before I could see my counter surface again. Now, everything is sparkling clean within 54 minutes on average (divided into individual tasks of 12 – 15 minutes each). That means I used to spend around 36 minutes every day just moping about instead of focusing on getting it done quicker.

Don’t get me wrong – I still dread doing dishes. It just doesn’t weigh on me as much anymore now that I know I have a game plan for it.

All the stages of writing

So, if we can carve up something as trivial as doing dishes into bite-sized chunks, there’s no reason we can’t do the same for writing.

For instance, let’s say you have an article with a working title of “Life for Aiur: Change as the Agent of Longevity for the Protoss Protectorate”. It’s due in two weeks. Those two weeks will just fly by if you don’t start planning for the assignment upon receipt – especially if you’re not already familiar with the topic.

So, let’s start by dividing the article writing process into five main stages:

  1. Research
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Proofreading
  5. Publishing

These five stages may be enough to set as individual tasks to focus on. I recommend more specific tasks though to keep you on track in the writing process. In fact, I’d say it’s crucial with long-form articles that require in-depth research.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s drill down even more into those five stages. Continuing with the Protoss topic, the tasks could look something like this (*Disclaimer: All StarCraft names and settings are the property of Blizzard Entertainment. All article/essay/book titles are created by me for entertainment purposes only and are not purported to be part of Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft canon):

  1. Research
    1. Source relevant web articles or essays
      1. “What I Saw in the Rogue Tribes” by Executor Adun
      2. “How Can Light Exist Without the Dark?” by Executor Tassadar
    2. Order relevant books from library/bookstore
      1. “Khala: The Rebirth of the Firstborn” by Khas
      2. “Seeking the Void: A Journey in Strengthening the Nerazim Spirit” by Prelate Zeratul
    3. Schedule interviews with experts
      1. Hierarch Artanis
      2. Jim Raynor (and possibly together with Sarah Kerrigan)
    4. Extract key information/quotes from research and interviews
  2. Drafting
    1. Brain-dump all your ideas and what you’ve learned about the topic in bullet points on a document
    2. Input all the research data, statistics, and quotes you want to include
    3. Group all the related information together and give sub-topic headings to each group
    4. Re-arrange the order of the headings in the way you want to present them
    5. Flesh out each sub-topic into paragraphs and connect them with one another
    6. Draft introduction, conclusion, and article headline
  3. Editing
    1. Format the article according to the style guides of your client or blog
    2. Re-write sentences or paragraphs to be more clear and concise
    3. Spell-check and grammar-check article
  4. Proofreading
    1. Read over article and fix any overlooked mistakes
    2. Have someone else read over article to spot any other mistakes
    3. Further edits to improve readability of article
  5. Publishing
    1. Submit final draft to your client or blog
    2. Make changes as needed by your client or to fit blog formatting.

I can almost hear your thoughts going, “Okay, we just went from 5 tasks to 18…how is that helpful in any way?! I’m gonna start freaking out now.”

Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly.

It’s all so that you’re being honest with yourself right from the get-go on exactly what needs to be done. The 18 tasks were there from the beginning. But saying there’s only 5 just seems easier to deal with when, really, you’re making it harder for yourself.

I like the imagery that Andy Puddicombe uses in his book, The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness. He says that it’s difficult to slowly draw a straight line across a piece of paper, no matter how steady your hands are. He then suggests we try something else:

“This time imagine that the piece of paper has lots of very small dots on it, going from one side to the other. Each dot is very close to the next one on the page. Now try drawing the same straight line. My guess is it’s much easier now. All you have to do is focus on getting from one dot to the next. You don’t have to think as far ahead as the other side of the piece of paper, but just a few millimeters to reach the next dot. All of a sudden it’s not so difficult to draw a straight line.”

Although he uses that imagery to illustrate maintaining mindfulness throughout the day, I think it also fits in our example here. The more specific tasks you divide a project into, the less you’ll worry about how to finish it.

Once you’ve divided the article into a sequence of tasks, set the due date of the “Publishing” tasks to be at least one day before the actual article deadline. This will give you some buffer in case something goes wrong. Then work backwards in setting due dates for the rest of the tasks. As you set the due dates, give your best shot estimating how long each task will take. It’s likely that the due dates will change as work progresses, but at least you have a rough timeline to hang the project on.

The Writers’ Algorithm

Who says writers can’t use algorithms? Now that you have your detailed list of tasks, sort them in an order that makes the most efficient use of your time. Here’s the set of sorting rules to follow, in order of priority:

  1. Administrative tasks that need input from someone else
  2. Research tasks, ordered by task due date
  3. Drafting and editing tasks, ordered by:
    1. Article
    2. Completed research
    3. Task due date
  4. All other tasks, ordered by:
    1. Type
    2. Task due date.

Of course, you don’t need this algorithm if you’re only working on one article. As soon as you’re juggling two or more articles though, the algorithm will come in handy.

First, send out administrative tasks that you have no control over. Tasks like questions for clients, scheduling interviews, ordering books or sending final drafts to proofreaders. That way, you can immediately work on tasks within your control while you wait for others to get back to you. You never want to be in a situation where the whole fate of the project rests on someone else’s shoulders while the deadline is fast approaching. Make sure to also schedule follow-up times with them in case your request slips through the cracks.

The next step is to group similar tasks together and prioritize by groups with the earliest due dates. Our brains are notoriously terrible multi-taskers. By batching similar tasks together, you cut the time your brain needs to switch over to a new task with a different working style.

The exceptions to the rule are the drafting and editing tasks. It’s best to work on these tasks in sequence for one single article. Start writing the first article that you’ve gotten all the research information you need on. Only move on to the next article once you have an edited draft for the first one.

Sometimes, you may switch mid-way to a different article you just received all the research information on because it has an earlier deadline. That’s okay – it happens. Just do your best to avoid switching back-and-forth between articles too often so you don’t mix up their individual tones. It also helps you push out a first draft as soon as possible to give you more editing time.

Keep track of it all

As deadlines or priorities shift, you’ll find it’s much easier to sort and re-arrange tasks if you have a tracking system in place.

The system can be something as simple as a whiteboard separated into three columns: “To Do”, “Doing”, and “Done”. Add all your tasks to the “To Do” column and sort them with the Writers’ Algorithm. As you start on each task, move it to the “Doing” column and then the “Done” column when it’s complete. Write your tasks on Post-It notes so you can re-arrange them on the fly. Use magnets to hold them in place when they start to lose their stickiness.

If you prefer to replicate this system with software, say hello to Trello. It’s a productivity app designed to quickly create individual task cards you can move between custom list columns. The more I use Trello, the more I discover just how versatile it is for both business and personal use. Sign up for Trello here and help fuel my Trello love with custom backgrounds and stickers!

Back to the tracking system: you can set up the same whiteboard three-column method on your own Trello board. Just drag-and-drop your task cards to move them around. You can also add more lists to suit your organization style or try user-created sample Trello boards like this one here:

Productivity Workflow - Sample Trello Board
“Productivity Workflow” sample Trello board. Google “Trello Inspirations” for more user-created Trello boards!

Every Trello board comes with extra features (or “Power-Ups”) that allow you to customize the board even more. I find the Calendar Power-Up very handy because it gives you a birds’ eye view of upcoming tasks arrange d by their due dates in a calendar display.

Yes, it takes a bit of effort initially to set up your tracking system. But once that’s in place, you won’t have to spend valuable time in the future figuring out your next step after each task.

Block out time in your calendar

A prioritized list of specific tasks gives you a detailed roadmap of waypoints you want to reach. To actually commit to the roadmap though, you have to block time out in your calendar for each task.

Life moves so quickly sometimes that your calendar may be filled up a week out just as you said yes to something. By the time the week’s over, that thing you said yes to is long gone from your memory. So why not reserve the good spots with your own important tasks first? By doing so, you’re actively prioritising the tasks that matter most to you. This is one of those ideas we know to be true, but rarely put into practice.

The first time you do this, it may be difficult to estimate how long each task will take you. So start slow. Begin the day by moving two or three tasks from the top of the “To Do” list to the “Doing” list. Give yourself an hour for each task and insert the tasks into the free slots in your calendar. Leave a half-hour buffer between each calendar event in case you go overtime with one. If you finish a task early, shift everything forward in the schedule and start early on the next task. Or if you’re way overtime on one task, just shift everything back by an hour and keep hammering away on that task.

At the end of your workday, make sure you accurately record the start and finish times of each task you’d worked on. Move the incomplete task(s) at the end of the day to the next free slot tomorrow. Above all, don’t beat yourself up over how you didn’t finish everything! The point of this exercise is not to test how much you can do in a day; it’s to give you a practical estimate of how long each task takes.

Eventually, you’ll know exactly how much time you need to block out for each task type. Your goal is to set yourself up with a realistic schedule every day so that you actually have enough time to complete them all. You’ll end each day with success rather than stress.

Time-blocking also allows you to trim the day’s fat – the fat being distractions like emails and social media notifications. These may be necessary parts of your day, but they’re probably not important enough to warrant immediate attention. So before you start your workday, turn off your notifications and set aside a separate block of time to check them all in one shot. The emails and notification pings aren’t going anywhere. Hold off the reflex of dealing with them right away on the spot. By keeping those times you blocked out sacred for yourself, you’ll be much more focused in your work.

I’d say the best part about time-blocking is that you can see at a glance what times you must hang on to for your own tasks. With that, you can schedule meetings at times that work for you rather than someone else. For greater efficiency, designate one or two weekdays as “meeting days” where you can batch a bunch of meetings together. Keep those days open and don’t schedule your own stuff until you’re sure you won’t have any meetings then. Anytime you get a meeting request from someone, tell them you’re only available on those days that week and find a free slot for the meeting. Remember to still keep a half-hour between each meeting!

Keep this at the top of your mind: time-blocking should be flexible. Even with a set daily schedule every morning, unexpected events may crop up and derail your plans. Roll with it and adjust your schedule accordingly. It’s moments like these when you truly appreciate how useful it is to know exactly what comes next and about how long it will take. You can then deal with the obstacle and keep on charging forward.

In the productivity sphere, a fresh article pops up every now and then about whether time-blocking or to-do lists are more efficient methods. In my view, it’s not one or the other – you need both because they serve vastly different purposes. To-do lists tell you the destination; time-blocking gives you the ETA.

Closing time

I mentioned “the end of your workday” earlier. What does that mean for a writer though? It depends on your daily energy level or your answer to the question, “How many hours can I bear to sit down in front of the computer every day?” Whatever time you choose to shut down, make sure that you respect it as the hard cut-off time for a hard day’s work. Just because you work from home doesn’t mean you can’t keep strict office hours.

I used to have the tendency to be overly ambitious. I believed without any rhyme or reason that I can accomplish everything in one day. I thought, “But I could do so much more if I work into the evening!” Yes, I could work longer hours…but each passing hour would be at an exponentially decreasing rate of efficiency because my brain was already done for the day way back in the afternoon. In the end, a bloated to-do list with no end in sight only meant I was setting myself up for failure.

Besides giving yourself a break in the evening like the rest of the world, an office closing time will motivate you to be more productive during the day. Without that, you’ll lapse into a leisurely pace of work because you think you have the whole day ahead of you. Then you blink a few times and the day is suddenly gone.

Strict office hours also guarantee you time-off in the evenings to spend time with your family and have some semblance of a social life. When left to our own devices, we writers are often in grave danger of becoming permanent hermits. Whatever increases the probability of us getting out of the apartment is a good thing.

Embrace the tomato

You may notice a conspicuous lack of breaks scheduled with the time-blocking method. I agree that’s a terrible thing to do…unless you use the Pomodoro Technique.

For me, I find that I do my best work in sprints rather than marathons. Looking back, it was apparent in my short-lived track-and-field career at high school and even more painfully so when I started at a 9-to-5 office job. Sadly, I didn’t do anything about it during all those years until after I became a full-time freelance writer.

The Pomodoro Technique is a natural fit for me because of my sprint-working style. I can see the finish line at the end of the timer session so I’m determined not to waste a single second.

To get the full benefit of the technique, make sure you’re deeply focused on the task at hand during each Pomodoro. Even if you suddenly have a brilliant idea for another article, write one bullet point about it on a Post-It note or on the Trello task card for that article. Immediately come back to your current task. You won’t lose the idea that way, but you’re also not taken off-track.

There are some valid criticisms about the Pomodoro Technique though on how it’s too rigid for creative professionals. My take on that is to turn the rigidity into your own strength.

When I first found out about the Pomodoro Technique, I wasn’t looking for a method to stay focused. I was actually searching for a system that regularly reminds me to take my breaks after a certain worktime. My problem wasn’t that I couldn’t focus – it was that I was so focused that I’d work for hours and forget to take a break (or eat, for that matter). Yeah, incredibly unhealthy. At the same time, I didn’t want to clog up my calendar with arbitrarily scheduled breaks that are awkward placeholders half the time anyway.

Enter the Pomodoro Technique…and how I cheat the system. Look, I get why this technique is criticized because I’ve often been on a creative roll myself and don’t want to stop when the timer goes off. So what do I do? I ignore the timer.

The app I use – more on that in a bit – has a setting that extends a break for a few minutes when it’s over. While I keep working into what was supposed to be my break, the timer will go off every few minutes to signal that it’s “extending the break” once again. Rather than being annoying, it actually helps to keep reminding me about that break I’d skipped. This allows me to finish writing out the train of thought I was on, but not to the point where I continue on that track until bedtime.

So yes, the Pomodoro Technique may seem too rigid for our line of work, but only if you let it constrain you. On the other hand, don’t abuse your veto power on breaks either; otherwise, the technique is useless. I only exercise my break-veto power in times of creative necessity. Then I flow right back into the technique. “Be water, my friend.” Bruce Lee would approve of that message.

To help automate the Pomodoro Technique, I use the Clockwork Tomato app. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be with its host of customizable features.

Clockwork Tomato - Timers and Sounds Settings
Clockwork Tomato’s “Timers and Sounds” settings

If you want to use the app with the break-veto power I talked about, these are the settings I recommend changing to:

  • Break
    • End Action: Extend current timer
  • Long Break
    • End Action: Extend current timer.

That way, the break extension reminders keep looping every few minutes until you fast-forward to the next Pomodoro timer.

What’s also neat about the app is that you can view a log of past worktimes. Try to spot patterns in your work habits. You may notice which times of the day you’re most productive so you can schedule your toughest tasks then.

The Pomodoro Break Formulas

This brings us to the issue of factoring in your Pomodoro breaks when scheduling your tasks. If you block out one hour for a task and use the Pomodoro Technique, you won’t be putting in a full hour’s work. So you have to tack on extra time when scheduling your task. But how much time is enough? Well, I’ve got a set of formulas for you, depending on your task duration and break preferences:

  1. If task is 1 hour long: Add 10 minutes
  2. If task is between 1 – 1.5 hours long:
    1. 3-minute breaks: Add 10 minutes
    2. 5-minute breaks: Add 15 minutes
  3. If task is more than 1.5 hours long:
    1. 3-minute breaks; 15-minute long break: Add 18.33% of task duration, rounded up to nearest 5 minutes
    2. 3-minute breaks; 30-minute long break: Add 26.67% of task duration, rounded up to nearest 5 minutes
    3. 5-minute breaks; 15-minute long break: Add 25% of task duration, rounded up to nearest 5 minutes
    4. 5-minute breaks; 30-minute long break: Add 33.33% of task duration, rounded up to nearest 5 minutes.

It may not be the most elegant set of formulas, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to any length of time for your tasks. Any discrepancies will be amply covered by the half-hour buffer you leave between each task. So for a three-hour task with the 1st set of breaks, add an extra 35 minutes (180 minutes x 0.1833 = 33, rounded up to 35). For a three-hour task with the 4th set of breaks, add an extra 1 hour (180 minutes x 0.3333 = 60 minutes or 1 hour).

Math is awesome when it means being more productive as a writer! And we should break the stereotype of writers not liking math anyway.

As a writer, it’s especially important to take every opportunity to squeeze more productivity out of the time you have. Even something as simple as using an app for automatic Pomodoro tracking will add up to more time and energy for you in the long run.

Breaking is hard to do

I think it’s fair to say that we’re all pretty confident about our writing chops – some days more so than others. But I’ll venture a guess that most of us are terrible at taking breaks. I mean, really, what do normal people do on these “breaks” they speak of?

Here are some ideas (make sure these are all done away from your desk and chair):

  • Short breaks
    • Walk around the apartment and pausing for stretches
    • Exercise with 5 minutes of yoga
    • Meditate
    • Do some quick house chores (like one of the dishwashing tasks – my favourite!)
    • Read a chapter from a book or an article you’re curious about
    • Watch a few minutes of TV, a documentary, or a movie
    • Play or listen to music
    • Prepare a healthy snack
    • Window-watch with a cup of tea/coffee
    • Relax on balcony/deck
    • Offload stress into your journal
  • Long breaks

The key here is to do something completely different from your current task. It’ll help your brain recharge, for one; more importantly, it encourages divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is the stuff of creativity. It’s where you get your Eureka! and Aha! moments. In short, it’s the source of all your inspirations. But it’s only possible when you manage your time well enough to include breaks.

What’s your motivation?

This isn’t just a cliché question that directors ask their actors. It’s also a crucial question to think about before every writing session.

The drafting and editing stages of an article take up the most time in the writing process. Even with them broken down into smaller tasks, there comes a point when you have to string words together into something coherent. That can take an awfully long time when you have no idea how you want the final draft to look.

A powerful motivator to spur you on is setting writing goals for yourself. The goals can be word count or number of sub-topics drafted. Hit them by the end of the writing session or bust!

They’ll give you a tangible target to reach so that you’re forced to get your words out onto the page. With an endpoint in sight, you’ll wrench back your focus when you find your thoughts wandering or agonizing over a word way longer than you should.

It’s so easy to get bogged down by the immensity of a project. But with a solid productivity system in place, it doesn’t seem so bad after all. You focus on completing one task after another without thinking about what’s next because you’ve already done that legwork in the beginning. Before you know it, you’re ready to publish.

This guide should help give a framework to your workday at home so that you have a good balance between work and taking breaks. It’s maintaining this delicate balance that ensures your brainpower and energy is sustainable for the whole day. Only then can you finish all that you need and are capable of doing.

Before we go, I have to tell you about this sudden blossom of inspiration that struck me on one of my breaks: perhaps I should seriously consider getting a dishwasher machine.

What techniques or systems do you use to supercharge your productivity? How has effective time management made you a better writer?

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