Press This to Be a More Prolific, Productive, Profitable Writer

Close-up of computer keyboard with one red key that says improve productivity

For most of us, the practice of writing falls somewhere between a business and an art …

You want to make a living from it, but don’t want to restrict your creativity.

You want big fees and fascinating projects, but without too many rules.

And you want the freedom to take long vacations, but without working like a maniac for days beforehand.

Seems like an unsolvable problem. But, I found an unlikely way to balance all of this. And to be honest, it’s made me a happier, more productive, calmer, and richer writer.

It will probably do the same for you.

What’s the solution I found? Time tracking.

The Anti-Gimmicky Productivity Tip

But hold on. Before that frown on your face becomes permanent, let me reassure you that time tracking is not the same thing as time management. I’m not going to tell you how to plan your day, or what productivity tips are best, or which habits of prolific authors you should adopt.

It’s not part of a gimmick, or a subscription, or a group effort.

And you don’t have to be organized or skilled in the arena of record-keeping. (I’m neither of these things.)

Yet time tracking can boost your writing productivity by impressive leaps, help you earn more, and make you feel better about your writing career.

Time tracking is quite simple: When you sit down to write, or to research a project, or even to read and answer emails related to a project, you press a button to start tracking your time. When you’re done, you press a button to stop it. At the end of the day, or week, or month, you look at the results to see how much time you’ve spent on that particular thing.

But You’re Not Looking to Do This …

Let me toss in a quick disclaimer here — this has nothing to do with billing for your time. Hopefully you’ve heard the common advice to not bill for time spent on a project. Because in the long run, billing on a per-hour basis won’t help you grow your income and you’ll do more work for less money.

Case in point: When I first started life as a writer, I landed a client who needed 10 editorial articles every week, on a range of topics, at around a thousand words each.

Initially, it took me two-and-a-half hours to produce a single article.

But by the end of the year, and with hundreds of hours’ practice in writing for that client, I averaged closer to 45 minutes to finish each piece. Fortunately, I billed on a per-article basis instead of hourly.

That’s why time tracking is solely for your own information and productivity.

Because Ambiguity Kills Ambition

So it’s rare you’d ever need to track your writing time for anyone else. That said, you should always track your writing time — but you do it for yourself.

That’s because seeing how you really spend your time will either energize you to continue or motivate you to change.

The catalyst here is the death of ambiguity. Nothing kills a creative career faster than too much ambiguity, where you’re not completely sure what to write or how to write it or how long it’ll take you or where to start.

In fact, copywriting legend Gene Schwartz, the genius behind breakthrough advertising copy, had a habit of “tracking” his time. Whenever he sat down to write, he would punch in 33.33 on a kitchen timer and hit the start button. And he would force himself to sit there at his desk for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and just write.

Those times when he was drawing a blank, by forcing himself to sit there for that set amount of time, he inevitably would wind up writing something.

You see, that’s the thing about tracking your time. You can kick ambiguity to the curb.

Along with eliminating ambiguity, four things will happen when you start time tracking your writing:

  1. You’ll see patterns in your natural productivity. Some call this your “magic-time” — or the times of day when you’re most productive.

    For example, time tracking helped me realize I’m productive 55 minutes out of every hour if I write before 10 a.m. But if I write after 8 p.m., I’m productive 35 minutes out of every hour (usually because I spend the other 25 minutes foraging through the fridge for a sugary pick-me-up).

  2. You’ll gain confidence. Imagine the elation when you pound out copy on a project that normally takes you two hours, but you round the finish line at one hour and 15 minutes. (Just remember, you’re not competing against anyone else, so do yourself a favor and be honest about your time.)
  3. It’ll bring you more money. Before time tracking, I fiddle-faddled over projects and lamented how long it took me to do anything.

    But once I started tracking my actual time spent writing, I could connect money to time. So whereas, a $2,000 project felt like it took a week to finish … the actual writing time was only a total of eight hours. Meaning I could finish it comfortably in two days, or one long day, which meant I could accept another $2,000 project provided I had at least eight hours free in the coming week. It’s amazing what you see when you subtract out your distractions.

  4. It can make you healthier. You’ve surely seen the articles about the hazards of sitting for too long. Use your time tracker to record how long you sit during a single writing session, or how long you stand if you have a standing option. I try to stand for a total of two hours each day, and to save myself from having one more thing to think about, I just track it with the rest of my time.

How to Time Track with Purpose

Do a quick Internet search for “free time tracking software” and you’ll see dozens of options. Click on a few of them and give them a quick glance. Does it look intuitive? Easy? Straightforward? Pick the one that appeals to use. I use the free version of Toggl.com, but I’ve seen several other terrific options.

You’re not looking for an entire new software education. You want something you can click to start, click to stop, make easy adjustments on, and add specifics to.

To check your time efficiency for each project you work on, simply track the time it takes you to complete the project. You can break it down into research or conference calls related to the project, but I’m a big fan of keeping it easy. In other words, put all of that together to figure your total time on the project.

If you work on a monthly retainer for any clients and do multiple projects within that retainer, you can still time track on a per-project basis. But again — to make it easy on yourself, add a client tag to each of your project time entries. Most setups let you tag a client when you enter the name of a project you want to time track. That way, you can see how much total work you’re doing for that client each month, as well as how long it takes you to complete individual projects.

Automate the Habit

Your goal with all of this is simply to make better use of your time. When you really see how you spend your writing hours, it eliminates that paradoxical, stressful feeling that you have too much to do and that you never get anything done.

Make it as easy as possible to keep up with this practice and it’ll be a habit before long. Since I do my time tracking online, all I have to do is click my browser window and a tab with Toggl automatically opens up. And once you’ve made it a habit, you’ll see how quickly your writing career will accelerate.

Do you have any of your own productivity secrets to share or time tracking software you prefer? Please post in the comments below.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


Click to Rate:
Average: 5.0
Published: September 27, 2017

4 Responses to “Press This to Be a More Prolific, Productive, Profitable Writer”

  1. Great, timely advice. I’ve used a simple Excel sheet to plan schedules or time track my music gigs. Easily format a worksheet template to do the math. Once done simply press CTRL+Shift+;… Excel automatically enters the time, Use same hotkey for the “time out” column. Wala! It automatically calculates the hours between them. Plus, you have an onboard record. You hit me where I’ve been living lately. I can send a simple template if anyone wishes lists [at] braddunse dot com

    Brad DunseSeptember 27, 2017 at 3:16 pm

  2. Thank you! This is so helpful.

    Guest (Columba)September 27, 2017 at 4:27 pm

  3. Thank you, Mindy, for these tips. I'm working through Part 3 of the Accelerated program. I work full-time night shift (my choice) so have tried a couple of ways to use my time wisely. I love the program and exercises and want to give it my best. But also need some sleep! I am immediately, as of right now, using the kitchen timer idea and plan to look into the others tomorrow. Thank you again.

    Guest (Marsha Gadley)September 27, 2017 at 7:21 pm

  4. Thank you Mindy. I've tried the kitchen timer (old school) and have decided the ticking is distracting.

    I will make it a goal in 2019 to find a(quiet) timer to use, and will also look into the online options.

    Vanessa

    Guest (V Lewis Writer )November 10, 2018 at 2:22 pm


Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)


This name will appear next to your comment.


Your email is required but will not be displayed.


Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters


Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)