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Choosing Presence over Productivity

Many writers have an idea of what a productive writer should be. 

Often, it involves completing X number of words each day, submitting X number of short stories to targeted journals or finishing a novel by X date. 

As an emerging writer with big ambitions, I recently set out to complete a long writing project. I had a plan. Previous experience. I felt prepared. 

Life, however, can bring periods of intense disruption. Major changes can happen simultaneously, derailing best-made plans like mine. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about new global challenges—lockdown, working from home, increased virtuality, travel restrictions, and social distancing. But common transitions like relocating to a new country, losing a loved one, or a career change can bring about stress, derailing productivity too. 

We can be very hard on ourselves when life gets in the way of our writing. 

A SIMPLE ANTIDOTE 

As an antidote, I’d like to share a quote by Alan Watts, a British philosopher who popularised Eastern wisdom in the West in the sixties.

‘Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence.’

Alan Watts

Watts’ quote offers a much-needed mindset shift.

I realised much of the stress I felt about my progress during the present challenges came from holding onto a limiting idea of productivity, shaped by unrealistic expectations of output and emotional satisfaction. This idea of productivity can be counterproductive.

It’s time to let it go. It’s time to be present. 

THREE STEPS TO WRITING WITH PRESENCE

Writers may be liberated by experiencing days by degree of presence.

Here’s a three-part process I’ve found effective which I’d encourage you to try.

1. Be aware of your mental and emotional state 

Is your mind focused and calm as you write? Or is it drawn elsewhere—by news updates, family obligations, worries about the future? Do you feel energised or tired?

Take note of these as they are, like a scientist recording observations, to cultivate non-judgmental self-awareness. 

Resist adding justifications like ‘I’m tired because …’ or ‘I should be doing better’. These mental judgments are interpretations of your work activity, not observations. They don’t define your ‘success’ or ‘failure’ as a writer. They will come and go as you remain in this state of self-observation.

2. Forgive yourself for limiting beliefs 

Does your idea of being a productive writer come with ‘baggage’? 

Recognising and releasing yourself from that deepens presence. I noticed that I was blaming myself for feeling uncomfortable working alone for long periods of time. This unearthed another limiting belief: that a productive writer has to be introverted. 

I forgave myself for not living up to this ‘ideal’ and accepted that I needed a certain level of social interaction to maintain my wellbeing as a writer.

3. Take action aligned with experience, not presumption 

Allow your experience to inform your actions, rather than what you think you ‘should’ do as a ‘productive writer’.

If the words are flowing and you’re feeling inspired, keep writing. 

If you’re getting tired or distracted, take a break. 

Sometimes a break recharges you for the next bout of writing. Other times, that’s all you can handle in one day, especially during this trying time. That’s alright too. 

For the extroverted writer, releasing guilt over the need for social interaction can inspire new activities that are still work-related. Taking online literary masterclasses or doing Skype work sessions with friends are some examples I’ve benefitted from.

MEASURE WRITING BY PRESENCE

Choosing presence over productivity doesn’t mean you have to stop tracking your word count or how you’re getting on with your work-in-progress. Neither does it mean that every day becomes magically easier. Writing can still be challenging at times.

However, by embracing presence, word count targets and project progress may lessen in significance and stop being the be-all-and-end-all in determining your worth as a writer. 

You should also find yourself becoming alert to elements of the creative production process that might previously have been dismissed as ‘unimportant’—your mental and emotional state, energy levels, limiting beliefs, preferences for introversion or extroversion. You can use these insights to shape your writing life in more mindful ways.

Releasing targets doesn’t mean things will fall apart. Short stories can still get done. Novels should still progress. But, by experiencing your days by degree of presence rather than productivity, you practise self-compassion. 

In times of uncertainty, presence is a precious gift we can give ourselves.

About Jenny Mak

Jenny Mak's fiction has been shortlisted in the 2013 InkTears Short Story Competition and published in Read Me anthology (2013). She has written poetry and for theatre and film. Jenny holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Warwick. She is currently working on her debut novel.

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