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Creating Regular Work Habits in an Irregular Line of Work, or: How to Sit Down and Write

So, I've asked myself whether or not I’m even supposed to write, and I've concluded that I should. It is now time to face another difficult question – how, exactly?

And I'm still not referring to the technical practice of writing, which I'll delve into in future posts. I'm referring to something much more fundamental, something that, at least for me, is no less of an obstacle – how to create the conditions that will allow me to write? That is, the concentration and routine required for the type of daily writing needed to write a series, a film, or any other long-form project.

In this post, I'll list the lessons and tools that I've personally found helpful over years of daily struggles to sit down and write. Some of these tools I’ve borrowed from others, some I stumbled upon on my own, and hopefully, at least a few will be useful for others dealing with this form of writing paralysis.

Although this post was written during a horribly abnormal time, it is also intended for normal times. Because, as we all know, sitting down to write can be tough on any given day. In fact, these tools can be used for any endeavor that requires concentration, not just writing, and particularly for those working from home.

For convenience, I've divided these tools into five categories: Choosing the Time, Choosing the Tasks, Set and Setting, External Aids, and Mental Approach.

And since, ironically, I'm starting to cross the boundary between writing the introduction and procrastinating writing the post itself, let's start with:

Choosing the Time

Oh, how I long to be a night owl. It's not just the romantic image of writing by candlelight, either – writing at night also has practical advantages, such as no phone calls or emails, as well as much less activity on social networks.

But alas, I am the sleepy sort. As such, after 10 PM, my brain can barely muster the concentration required to watch Non-Challenging Niche Content with my partner. For this same reason, I also can't be the other type of person I would have liked to be – one belonging to the Stephen King school of those who wake up at 5 AM and manage to churn out three hours of writing before the world even wakes up.

If you are one of these two types of people - I genuinely envy you. Unfortunately, I'm stuck with a depressingly basic brain that provides its optimal concentration between 9 AM and noon. In any case, let's not judge ourselves; we have the rest of our lives for that. What's important now is to understand when our good, mediocre, and bad hours are, and act accordingly. Of course, all of this is further complicated by additional objective constraints – like upcoming deadlines, non-sleeping children, or having to maintain a day job – but let’s start with how to use what time we do have.

Once we’ve noted our good, mediocre, and bad hours, the task is relatively simple: divide them into work blocks and then slot our tasks into them, according to the mental capacity needed for each task.

For example, I generally divide my day into two work blocks – the morning block (my good hours) and the afternoon block (my mediocre hours). Each block lasts two to four hours, depending on deadlines, and each is filled with tasks that match my concentration level during those hours of the day.

In the morning block, I try to schedule tasks that require the most brain power. Code name - "Creative Block." For example, breaking a new episode, writing new script pages, or a complex rewrite. After this block, I'll schedule a break of about an hour or two, ideally including food and a power nap. Then I'll return for the afternoon block (my mediocre hours), where I'll schedule tasks that require some thought, but less of it. Code name - "Edit Block." These tasks may include more technical rewrites, research, and work meetings or Zoom calls. During upcoming deadlines or intense production, I may need to convert the Edit Block into a Creative Block to write more pages per day.

Tasks that require minimal thought – such as non-urgent work meetings, logistics, invoices, emails, reading a blog about screenwriting, etc. – will be saved for my bad hours, the in-between hours (code name "Email Block"). The Email Block can be spread out at different times of the day - for example, half an hour at the end of a work block, right after lunch, or late in the evening. During less busy periods, I may switch the afternoon "Edit Block" for a less taxing "Email Block."

But how do we divide our time within the blocks themselves? Should we sit and focus on writing or editing for two, three, or four consecutive hours? Generally, no. Except for rare occasions, it's rare for me to write for such long stretches. Therefore, I break up each working block into shorter mini-blocks, about an hour to an hour and a half each. Between them, I’ll take a short coffee-snack-phone break of about 10-15 minutes and go back to work. Each of these mini-blocks will generally include one primary creative task. If my concentration levels are low, I may try the Pomodoro technique, which consists of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break, and so on.

Here's an example of how such a day might look like:

This is what a workday schedule might look like, divided up into blocks.
Possible Example of a Work Schedule

Some tips I’ve picked up the hard way:

1. Do not schedule meetings on your Creative Block. True, these hours are often the most sought after for meetings – because we all generally prefer not to work – but it's a surefire recipe for squandering away a day of writing.

2. Don't start your workday by responding to non-urgent emails, as this will often kill your momentum and somehow always leave just not enough time to do any meaningful work.

3. Do not - and I emphasize once more, do not - schedule an entire day for "work" without any internal division or limitations. For me, this usually leads to minimal productivity. As I continue to discover, I'm not very good at dealing with large chunks of time. Hence, the logic of dividing a big chunk of unmanageable time into smaller and smaller blocks.

Choosing the Tasks

Just as I find myself confounded in the face of vast chunks of time, I repeatedly discover that contrary to my perception of myself as a formidable task-juggling octopus - I'm actually a middling multi-tasker at best. While scheduling more than two or three creative tasks for the same day may sound like an efficient option, for me, it will usually end with rescheduling the same tasks for the next day on my to-do list.

The optimal situation for me is scheduling one large task for the Creative Block (morning) and one large task for the Edit Block (afternoon). If these two tasks concern the same project, all the better.

As for the scope of the tasks themselves? It is always better to be realistic, leaving room to surprise ourselves for the better, rather than always ending on a sour note, which will later fuel some unnecessary self-hatred. For example, if I know the number of pages I can reasonably write in one work block is 5, I'll aim for 3 or 4. I'll also plan for a schedule that allows me enough days to finish the draft at the most pessimistic writing pace, plus a day or two for rewrites.

Some Tips I Constantly Try and Remember:

1. Avoid setting unrealistic, unattainable goals, such as writing a whole episode in one day. This will only lead to frustration, anxiety, and self-loathing – and ultimately to lower page count.

2. Don't spread yourself too thin: Especially in creative endeavors like writing, it's generally advisable to only juggle a few different projects in one workday. With screenwriting duties, as opposed to production duties, two different projects in one day should be the maximum. Remember that transitioning between projects also takes up mental energy and time.

Set and Setting

I’ve always liked the saying, "Don't sh*t where you eat." I'm not sure whether the writing, in this case, is the eating or the sh*tting, but I do know this: you should try to give it its own separate space.

On high-concentration days, I can usually write at my home office. However, this took years of practice, plus a global pandemic. For most of the years prior, I would write in coffee shops. I'm not sure why—perhaps the inherent guilt in the proximity of others keeps me off my phone—but my productivity in coffee shops is significantly higher than at home. Even now, when my concentration is subpar, I’d take my headphones and go to a coffee shop to write. There, I’d often get a full day's work done in just a few hours.

Here's my recipe for choosing a suitable coffee shop for work: not too small (to avoid feeling like a better-paying customer could use the spot); second-rate coffee (so I feel that they need me just like I need them); ensure they are laptop-friendly; try to order something for every hour of work, even if it's just a soda.

Regarding shared workspaces, it's tricky. Personally, libraries give me The Shining vibes. However, I know others for whom it works. My favorite workspace, where I was most productive, closed a few years ago, and I have been looking for a replacement since. Occasionally, I'll try a new place, but until then, it seems I am destined for a life of bland coffee.

Additional Tips:

1. Listen to yourself, and don't be afraid to experiment. Different places work for different people. For example, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, bless her, actually writes in bed.

2. Coffee shops where you always meet friends and acquaintances may be more attractive, but are far less effective.

3. For gamers - it's not recommended to have games on your work computer. Better to keep a separate gaming computer or console. If this is not possible, and your only gaming option is your laptop, try not to play games at your work desk (i.e., where you eat).

External Aids

Now, for the easy part – a list! Who doesn't love lists? Mean and bitter people, that's who. So here's one with a few external aids to improve concentration:

Music: Sadly, music with lyrics affects my concentration more negatively than positively. Instrumental music, however, especially with headphones on, helps drive away that incessant voice in the back of my that’s looking to do other stuff. The effect on productivity is pretty amazing. Classical music works and instrumental movie soundtracks are both solid options. Recently, lo-fi beats have been my go-to. You can find the original for free on YouTube or Spotify (pro tip – if you’re using Spotify, go into the playlist, click "More options," and select "Exclude from your taste profile." Just trust me on that…).

Preventing Distractions: A writer’s worst enemies are the phone and the web browser. And I don’t mean just reaching the end of Instagram Stories (yes, there is one, apparently). To avoid work, I’ve found myself developing downright bizarre habits, such as compulsively checking currency rates (true & recent story). Therefore, preventive measures are crucial. For laptops, I've found the Cold Turkey Blocker quite effective. It allows blocking specific websites and programs with various "locks." My favorite is the one requiring you to type a long, random sequence of characters to unlock. The paid version also allows block scheduling (not a sponsored link – this is just what I use myself).

For your phone, I personally find the iPhone's focus features not drastic enough. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take me long to break the 4-digit code that I myself picked. The best solution I’ve found so far is the Forest app. It allows planting a virtual tree for a predetermined time, during which access to pre-defined apps is restricted. If you try to open those apps, your tree will die and forever taint your digital forest. The app offers different tree species, and you can even plant real trees using points earned through virtual tree planting.

The Reward System: During tough times, especially when facing a task I don't want to do, I resort to a system of rewards via entertainment. I’d choose a casual-viewing series or a compelling video game and set a rule: for every hour of work or every certain number of pages, I will earn between fifteen and thirty minutes of watching or gaming. Not ideal for the long term, but it’s better than staring at a blank screen.

The Power Nap: Ah, the post-lunch power nap. Since turning 30, it has become an inseparable part of my day. Besides being a delightful activity in itself, the extra boost in concentration it provides in relation to the time invested (20 to 30 minutes is ideal) makes it highly cost-effective. There are many days when I'm actually more efficient after a power nap than in the morning, achieving a surprising amount of writing. Also, if the morning didn’t go well, a nap is a great way to reset the day and give it another go.

Other People: As is well known, the best thing about other people is the mortifying guilt they induce. When working on a joint project, it's always easier to sit down for a writing session when you've already set a time, and any delay will be met with distaste. For non-joint projects, consider creating small writing groups and mutual deadlines. It may not always work, but at least you’ll have someone to complain with.

Mental Approach

I've made the mistakes listed above an unfathomable number of times. I intend to make some of them again this very week. And even on days when I do everything "right," there will still be cases where nothing comes out. Therefore, it's important to practice kindness toward ourselves, both to maintain sanity over time and for practical reasons—to give the rest of the day another chance, which might be more fruitful. There's always another block of time, always another day. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And always remember, even Aaron Sorkin can't write most days.

So, these are the tools I use. But undoubtedly, there are many more. Feel free to share your own in the comments.

And since I plan to continue with this blog, go ahead and message me which topics you'd like to see in future posts.

In the meantime, may you experience more Writing Blocks and fewer writing blocks.

1 Comment

Léa Lespagnol
Léa Lespagnol
Dec 06, 2023

Thank you for the tips and sharing Nir! I knew a lot of these work habits already, but it's easier to put them in action after seeing them written down in black and white by a talented writer, like official scriptwriting rules! ^^ Eventually, for futur post topics, I'll be happy to know how you approach the rewriting stage of personal projects: how to separate the useful feedback from the rest, how to be open about deeply rethinking your project, whithout getting lost, changing everything and throwing out things that worked fine etc. Thank you!


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