Tips to write faster: drop the productivity hacks and find flow

Joe Bellavance
Joe Bellavance

How to make writing feel fun and easy…

Some days, you’re on fire. The sound of your fingers on the keyboard is like the hammering of heavy rainfall on a tin roof. On other days, the words flow like toothpaste. 

It’s true whether you’re a copywriter, a blogger, an entrepreneur, a marketing professional, or any kind of creative who writes: your written output is your living. 

The more high-quality writing you can generate, the more you stand to gain. 

Whether that writing involves:

  • Weekly blogging 
  • Reports and white papers 
  • Churning out pitches, fast  
  • Dozens of social posts each month 

. . . written words are the lifeblood of your business.

But we all hit that wall sometimes. Blocked and distracted, the words don’t come when we need them.

As writers, we know it’s not simply a matter of spending more time writing.

More writing, good writing, requires not only time at your desk, but that elusive thing they call flow

Flow is—simply put—blissful focus. 

It’s the feeling we get when we have everything we need to write well. 

Peaceful surroundings, mental clarity, and a grasp on what we want to say. Research, references, reliable sources. And the genuine desire to work—not just to finish, but to do the writing for its own sake, because the payoff is built-in.

As James Clear (Atomic Habits) puts it:

This blend of happiness and peak performance is what athletes and performers experience when they are “in the zone.” It is nearly impossible to experience a flow state and not find the task satisfying at least to some degree.

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi described it as:

  • Being completely involved in the task at hand
  • Having a pleasant sense of separation from everyday reality
  • Having great inner clarity on what needs to be done and how well we’re doing
  • Knowing a task is doable—we’re capable and have what we need to complete it
  • Serenity and a sense of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
  • A sense of timelessness

It’s something you can’t fake—that state of being so absorbed in a task it becomes intrinsically rewarding and easy. It feels effortless. 

Most of us who have to write for work would pay to have flow on tap. But what if we could have more flow without being chained to our desks?

With these tips you could write faster just by letting go of the hacks and habits that actually block flow.

Are you squandering your writing flow? Here are some of the ways you could be.

You’re using the wrong productivity hacks

Do you use a tomato to keep you on track? 

There are plenty of Pomodoro technique devotees who swear by the method. 

It involves setting a timer for twenty-five minutes and dedicating that block of time to one piece of work, followed by a short break. 

The theory is that you won’t work solidly for three hours, so don’t try. Break it up. But the Pomodoro approach might be missing a trick. 

In his instant productivity classic, Deep Work, Professor Cal Newport notes the effect of moving from one task to another and back again. It’s been studied and labelled: it’s called ‘attention residue.’

If you’ve spent 25 minutes getting into a state of flow, setting an alarm to cut you off for a five-minute coffee break, or (let’s be honest) a quick email-check, is counter-productive. It’s pulling you out of the zone. Possibly just as you approach peak focus. 

What we really need is more experience actually concentrating on something for any length of time. 

Which brings us to . . .

You’re feeding the distraction monster in your leisure time

Since the advent of smartphones, we don’t spend long, uninterrupted stretches of time on any single leisure activity. 

Instead, we listen to podcasts while cooking, or in the bath. We check Facebook while watching our favourite TV shows. We reply to client queries while on a hike in the woods.  

You might like to think focused attention is something you can call on when you need it, like a tool in your back pocket. But—to borrow an analogy from Professor Newport—concentration is more like a muscle. It gets slack. Weak, underused muscles can’t lift heavy objects. Your focus won’t let you jump as high, sprint as fast, without practice.

So attention juggling hurts our performance even when it feels like time off. We lose access to the places deep thought can take us. In effect, we make ourselves dumber. 

From Deep Work, here’s a quote from Clifford Nass, the late Stanford communications professor who studied behavior in the digital age:

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand . . . they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

Don’t let it be you! One more . . .

Our workflow – and the apps we use for writing – have attention-switching baked in

Remember the day you learned how much more got done when you put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode and turned off email popups on your desktop? Great job tuning out those attention-switch triggers.

Unfortunately, dropping the notifications only takes us so far. That’s because the very tools that pull on our attention are the tools we use in our work when we write. 

Professor Newport’s suggestions, in more recent work, include abandoning email altogether or quitting social media.

In the short term, these measures are laughably out of reach for most of us. When you’re marketing to consumers who spend their lives on social media platforms, or working with clients, you need email and social media.

And even when we aren’t checking email or social media, we’re still diluting our focus.

It could be searching for that file in Google Docs, or being pulled into another tab for the crucial datapoint.

It might be rifling through your local documents folder, your notes app, or a client’s social accounts for a quotation.

With the best intention in the world, when you work this way you’re losing focus. Like it or not, by leaving your document screen mid-flow, your eyes are scanning unfinished tasks. Attention residue can’t be rinsed off—it takes time. In the minutes that follow, your writing suffers.

That’s why so much of your writing time is spent trying to coax your attention back to the task in front of you.

Tips to find writing flow and work faster

So you want to snap out of the fog of distraction and find flow when you need it. What can you do?

Try time-blocking 

Creating periods of time PURELY for writing makes us better writers.  

Instead of working on several projects in 25-minute bursts, let a writing task fill up a morning. Settle in and let the cognitive rewards bubble up. 

If you’re really committed to bulking up your focus muscles, plan leisure activities that cultivate attention, too.

It could be swimming (can’t take a phone into water!), mindfulness meditation, or a stretch of time each day reading a book while your device sleeps in another room.

By setting this time aside, you’re making yourself more creative and potentially much more productive (buying yourself the time and space to fit in more of these productivity-boosting leisure activities—what a beautiful virtuous circle!).

Batch your tasks

When you’re writing, write. When you’re emailing, email. Make an effort to keep the time spent searching for sources completely separate from focused writing time.

That way you have your mise en place, like an experienced chef. You don’t need to go searching when the words are flowing.

Your best ideas might just emerge from those previously dark corners.

If you’re mid-flow and need to check your facts, but don’t have a source at hand? Put in a placeholder and return to it later. 

Of course, you’re more likely to have everything gathered in one place if you follow the next tip . . .

Use software that supports focus and flow

Most of us are wedded to tools that work against our writing. 

We’re constantly taking the taut water balloon of our attention, poking holes in it, and letting it leak all over the floor.

Writing tools like Microsoft Word or Google Docs lack some pretty no-brainer features to make writing less painful. Like easy access to source material. Or click-to-load for different sections of a piece of work for smooth navigation.

It’s curious that software has been developed to optimise the workflow (and capacity to concentrate) for other professions. Designers get Photoshop. Traders get Bloomberg. Programmers get Visual Studio/IDEs. 

There are more writers than traders, designers, and programmers put together. Most knowledge workers write. Writing makes the business world go around. So why is our workflow lagging behind?

At Slice, we’ve put everything into enabling a new, better approach to the writing process. With a range of features designed to take writers from disjointed, distracted, and slow, to writing in flow.

Take a look:

Yes, you can write fast and well.

But ditch the productivity hacks and giving the deepest source of your power—your focus—the chance to flow.  

Slice can help. Check it out—and sign up for a free trial.

Photo by Chris Stenger on Unsplash. Thanks, Chris!

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