The Secret to My Productivity, Or: Thoughts About Luxury and Privilege

The secret to my productivity
Photo by gothick_matt via Flickr

During interviews or conference Q&A sessions, I’m either asked about my productivity (for those who witness and admire it), or I’m asked about time management. How does one balance creative work, marketing and promotion, and the demands of family or a day job?

Most recently, I discussed this as a guest on Jeff Yamaguchi’s excellent podcast, Writing Drafts, but I’m disappointed by my answer. Part of the problem is I want to be helpful—to really identify that critical mindset or method that might provide someone else a breakthrough on this issue.

But truthfully, I’ve never had a specific mindset or method, even though I occasionally write about them. My methods are fickle and informed by what else is happening in my life. I’ve used and discarded many list-making and organizational tools over the years, including OmniFocus, Apple Notes, GoodToDo, Covey planners, and Uncalendar (that one really dates me!). Currently, my tool of choice is Evernote.

But all these tools are ultimately beside the point. There’s one big reason I’m productive.

I have the luxury of time, to do exactly what I please, with little or no responsibility to anything (or anyone) except to myself and my own self-fulfillment.

I have no children.

I have no family to take care of.

I don’t belong to any organizations.

I don’t have a conventional job.

I don’t clean the house or do laundry. (I do cook.)

I have a partner, but he’s kind and accommodating, and allows me to put work first whenever needed.

I also consciously avoid obligation or external commitment in the first place. I mostly want to be left alone to do my work, and that’s exactly the life I’ve created for myself.

And so I have the luxury of time that others don’t have, but it’s part privilege as well. While I’ve made conscious choices that have led to this life, some choices were made easier (or possible in the first place) because of access to good education, a supportive and stable family, and opportunities to advance in my career.

Privilege has been discussed elsewhere in relation to the writing life.

There are other kinds of privilege or luxury, too.

I often see celebrations of writers who take a stand and say, “I’m not marketing and promoting myself (or my book)” or “I’m not going to use social media.” I generally see two reasons for the celebration: Such things are seen as less important activities that steal time away from writing, and need to be minimized as the distractions that they can be. But also, they’re seen as activities not befitting the serious writer, who should be only writing and not building a “platform” or “brand.” Such activity diminishes the art, it diminishes the writer, the thinking goes. And so we celebrate when someone is courageous or stubborn or independent enough to flout the commandment to “engage” with a readership. (It’s a horrible commandment, I know. The language surrounding anything marketing related can be hard to take and full of meaningless platitudes.)

But the decision not to engage at all? To be offline or off the grid and focus on writing to the exclusion of all else? That is a luxury that most new or emerging writers don’t have.

To choose to not market your book: a luxury.

To ignore self-promotion and platform: a luxury.

To be offline (at least for most Western writers): a luxury.

When social media such as Facebook and Twitter started taking off in 2007 and 2008, and I began experimenting online, no one was telling me it was mandatory, necessary, or a good thing for my career. (I’m grateful for that—I didn’t develop any anxiety about it before diving in.)

But I experienced a life-changing career shift when I became more active online. I became visible to people in my industry whereas I was mostly invisible before. (I was working in Cincinnati at the time, otherwise known as flyover country to anyone in New York City and the core publishing community.) Through social media, I was able to communicate, share, and demonstrate who I was and my ideas to a much broader audience of readers and influencers. I started to gain a reputation, and people knew me when I attended conferences. I received more speaking invites. I developed a platform almost by accident, by simply doing what I do in a more public forum. (For more on this, please read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!)

Social media gave me a bigger voice; it gave me power I didn’t have before. That’s not to say I didn’t have any power prior to social media—I did—but I developed a different type of power. Through most of the 2000s, I had few relationships with influencers; I was skills-rich, time-rich, and network poor. With social media, I developed a noticeable footprint and suddenly merited attention. (And while some of it is deserved, it is not entirely deserved. The drawback is that when you’re known for a large online following, you begin to be known and solicited for something rather empty, rather than for your work. A subject I’ll have to tackle another time.)

When authors like Jonathan Franzen reject marketing, promotion, social media, or anything else that takes them away from their art, it’s often (if not always) because they’re in a position where activities like social media don’t afford them any more power, or any interesting opportunity or benefit, relationship-wise or creativity-wise—it’s only a headache or an obligation. And that’s logical and more than acceptable to reject those activities, but it’s not admirable in and of itself nor is it a good model for people beginning a career.

Ian Bogost wrote an excellent post about reaching a point in your career trajectory where you get to call the shots:

You have to say ‘yes’ for a long while before you can earn the right to say ‘no.’ Even then, you usually can’t say ‘no’ at whim. By the time you can say ‘no’ indiscriminately, then you’re already so super-privileged that being able to say ‘no’ is not a prerequisite of success, but a result of it.

Why do some people reach a level of success where this is possible, and others don’t? A million-dollar question. But playing the “what if” game can help illuminate where you might have advantages that lead you toward success, and where you aren’t so privileged. Or it can help you understand why some people can walk away from the usual obligations that everyone else is fulfilling. Consider all of these potential variables:

  • Who’s from a well-connected family that introduces them to the right people at the right time?
  • Who lives in a place where they’re more likely to have access and proximity to the right people, institutions, or opportunities to boost their career?
  • Who has money that allows them to write for free, take non-paying internships, or enroll in an MFA program?
  • Who has mentors that push them, make introductions, and lead them to the right career opportunities?
  • Who has a work environment that’s helping them grow as an individual, rather than diminishing them and making them small?
  • Who has a family that offers time and support for creative work?
  • Who possesses a network that offers them enviable opportunities—or access to a community that puts them in close contact with people with decision-making power or privilege in their field? (This post is not a complex way of saying it’s all about “who you know” or that you need the right relationships to get published or achieve your creative goals. Of course it helps, but it’s just one asset or privilege of many that a person might draw upon.)

None of the above is meant to argue that practice, hard work, and diligence is absent from the equation, but that these other factors aren’t talked about nearly often enough. I’ve been asked for so long, and so often, about the “secret” to my productivity and success; there’s an implicit assumption that it’s all a result of a well-honed and practiced method. It’s not. A great deal of my work life has been unstructured and undisciplined (though not without vision and purpose). It’s just that I’ve been able to spend nearly 20 years focusing on my work to the exclusion of nearly all else. How many other people have that luxury?

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