A Writer’s Search for Productivity and Flow
By Katrin Schumann
When we have time to write—hours upon hours of uninterrupted time—do we get more done? Are we happier? The answer may seem obvious, but think again.
Books on productivity are big business. They tell us we need will power. Persistence. Consistency. Efficiency. Organization. Confidence. Focus. These are values that have become deeply embedded in our psyches. If we don’t live these values, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure. The focus is on output, getting things done.
And there’s something about getting things done that is just so satisfying, right? We’ve got our lives in control! We feel accomplished. People admire us for our output, our work ethic. We’re engaging with the world, which is buzzing around us, busy, busy, busy—and we’re part of it!
The implication is: If we’re not productive, we are failing.
When I was starting out as a writer and editor, I stole moments for this work from my other responsibilities, and I made the most of them. It was slow going and frustrating, but I was able to work under the worst conditions: ringing telephones, screaming babies, paperwork, endless (tedious) trips to doctors and schools, tiny windows of time.
Funny that what I remember most about that time was how incredibly happy I was when I was writing.
Now I am living the dream I had earlier in my career: I have the time to work hard. I get to my office at 7:30 AM and if I want, I can work until dinnertime (with a break or two to take care of other things). And yet my sense of frustration has not magically disappeared. My happiness quotient is not higher.
I no longer believe in the unassailable “goodness” of productivity. As writers—creative types who just don’t quite operate the way “regular” people do—I think we have to be much more open-minded about what constitutes success for us. I spent so many years measuring success by number of words written, number of books published, number of manuscripts edited. That productivity made me feel great.
Now I have come to understand that for many of us (me included) hard work is not the answer to the question: What do I need to do to feel successful? This realization is disruptive for me, painful even, because my old formula is broken.
What defines success is different for everyone. But being deeply satisfied with your work and your work process is not as nuanced—if you’re lucky enough to experience flow (which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as immersion in work that is both demanding and rewarding), it’s instantly recognizable. It makes you happy, period.
When I encounter a problem, my instinct is to work harder to solve it. That goes for writing, too. My husband has been telling me for years that hard work is not always the answer, and I found this advice unhelpful. What am I supposed to do, I thought, be lazy?
But writers don’t work in polarities like that. The opposite of productivity or industriousness is not laziness.
A recent Millions post got me thinking about all this again. In it, three writers share what it was like to be published only to toil away for a decade on their follow up books.
“Every month I wasn’t done seemed like a sort of horrible affirmation of my own failures as a person and as a writer,” Alexander Chee explains. “The feeling of total failure drove me into kind of excessive work on it that was not to its benefit.”
When Whitney Terrell’s second book was turned down by his publisher, he says, “It felt like I had a television playing inside my head and I couldn’t figure out how to get quiet. It seems obvious now that these were panic attacks.”
Emily Barton’s agent gave her major critiques on her draft. “One day after 13 or 14 months of thinking, I at last had a good enough idea about how to address those questions,” she writes.
Barton's final comment really struck me, because it exemplifies this tension between needing time and just getting down to work: “You can do SO much in an hour. There’s something to that. Your time is up, so you do what you can and let go.” Nothing and then—bam! Productivity.
So what does this all mean? For me it means that hard work, while useful and virtuous and respected, is not the answer to feeling happy and successful as a writer. Sure, if our goals are to produce work and make money, we need to work hard (and there is nothing wrong with that goal, it just doesn’t always lead to a sense of satisfaction).
But if our goal is 1) to come up with powerful ideas, and words to the express them, that launch a bigger and deeper conversation between reader and writer, and 2) to find flow in the process, then we don’t need more time to work. It’s space in our heads that we need. Time to think and dream. And then get to work.
And, ironically, oftentimes we can do that better when we spend less time at our desks, not more.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann