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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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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44 Comments on "The Secret to My Productivity, Or: Thoughts About Luxury and Privilege"

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[…] I'm often asked: How can I be so productive? Or how can one balance creative work and other life demands? Here's the most truthful answer I have.  […]

philipparees

Wonderfully refreshing and honest. I have noticed that many, if not the majority of women whose dedication and productivity, like yours, implies some secret methodology, are either childless, or post parenting. It just is so because not only time is conserved, but emotional energy. It is good to have it acknowledged!

Lynne Spreen

I agree: refreshing and honest. I published my first novel at age 58, after raising my son and reaching a level of financial security that allowed me to go to part time. After 30 years of not writing.

Lynne Spreen

Thanks for an empowering post, Jane. In support of the theme, I’d like to share my productivity secret:
“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Rich Leder
In the end, you play the cards in your hand. The trick is to love your writing life, however much time and power and soul and energy you can devote to it during any one wave in your life. You get new cards every now and again. New waves roll in without announcement. Your writing life, like the rest of your life, can change like the weather. For those of us with overflowing lives, every minute you get to construct sentences and string them all in a row is a gift. Share as many stories as you can, no more… Read more »
laurieprim

Love your comment, Rich Leder! Right/write on! 🙂

Rich Leder

Thanks, Laurie. Back at you…

Carolyn Paul Branch

What a refreshingly honest and straightforward post!

CDWenc
Thank you for this straightforward and honest post. Virginia Woolf pointed out long ago that babies have taken the place of many a woman’s novel. No amount of “time management” technique can overcome the blunt reality of how difficult it can be to get anything substantial done, or how long it can take to finish even a short story — even for the most talented and dedicated and connected writer — if the author also has to provide substantial family income and/or care for children or elderly parents. I want to see many more grants and residencies aimed at parents… Read more »
laurieprim

What Rich Leder said!! Jane, you never cease to amaze me with your good sense and generosity. Thank you for using your luxuries to benefit so many.

Frances Caballo
Jane: I find this post to be so refreshingly honest. I have really struggled this past year to be “more productive” all the while working long hours and on weekends. People tell me I need to work smarter but that is just an empty cliche to me. I do cook, do my laundry and clean the house because I must. While my husband is supportive I also need to spend time with him. And I love to hike and cycle. People say I do too much but I feel as though I need to accomplish more. I continue to look… Read more »
Carolyn Paul Branch
Jane, I’ve heard you speak twice at Midwest Writers. You pack more information and insight into the 15 minute tabletalk than most speakers do in a long keynote address. This blog is another example – every post is useful, and I often find myself bookmarking or emailing to my critique partners. When we first started following you, it was the “Editor’s Blog” all about WD books. Seven, eight years ago? Whatever, an eternity in terms of the internet and blogging. Thank you! I’ll probably never write a bestseller, but I am selling books, thanks to the help you have generously… Read more »
Kerry Gans
These things are often overlooked. I read an article once (which now I can’t find), about a man who wrote an 80,000 word book (including editing) in something like 6 weeks. That is, of course, quite an achievement! And he gave tips on how he did it. But the 2 things he never mentioned were these: he was on a paid sabbatical from work and therefore did not have to worry about paying the bills, and he had no family commitments of any kind. And I remember thinking, “If I didn’t have to work and didn’t have a family, I… Read more »
Kerry Gans

I guess I need to clarify that obviously he mentioned those 2 things, or I would not have known them, but they were not on his Official List of Tips to achieve what he had. He mentioned them in an offhand way.

robintgalt

Jane — I enjoyed reading this post. As a mid-30’s stay-at-home-mom-writer with two little kids, time is not on my side. Your post gave me realistic reminders of all the input and output required to be a successful writer. I know, in time, I will get to where I need to go, but I the meantime I have to lasso continued patience on my side. I am already in the process of eliminating some of the noise on social media that is not productive to my own vision and purpose, so I am hoping that helps.

Reina

Thank you for this post. I won’t go into why I appreciate your message; rather, I simply say many thanks, for this post and for sharing so much useful information freely.

Debra Eve (@DebraEve)
Bravo, Jane, for having the courage to write this. Most of the writers I know are, in fact, sponsored by spouses or family wealth. Privilege and luxury do make writing easier, and as Ann Bauer noted in the Salon piece you cited, “Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anybody.” But there’s another movement that keeps these factors from being discussed…self-help books that say if you’re having difficulties, you haven’t correctly applied the law of attraction or some such. In the end, I believe (perhaps naively) that hard work and perseverance will win out, but it might take some of us longer. Keeping… Read more »
Debra Eve (@DebraEve)

P.S. I like Trello as a productivity tool 😉

Ernie Zelinski
Great article. As for me, I have taken a somewhat similar and yet much different path. These words of wisdom resonate with me big-time because I have followed them with commitment and action to get to where I am today — having sold over 900,000 copies of my books (mainly self-published) worldwide: “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.” — Robert J. Ringer “When you learn to let go of the mundane and the ordinary, the extraordinary will start filtering into your life.” — from “Life’s Secret Handbook”… Read more »
Jane Steen
Great post. It’s funny how women, in particular, feel the need to defend their circumstances, even when they’re the family’s main breadwinner. It’s a rare man who’ll admit that his high-paying career is made possible by the wife who makes sure the bills are paid, the taxes filed, the yardwork done, the kids taken care of, the meals cooked, and more often than not STILL finds time for a part-time job. I could, for example, state that my writing is supported by my husband, but it’s so much more complicated than that. We have a disabled adult child and will… Read more »
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[…] intrigued with Jane Friedman’s recent post about her work ethic, using the concept of privilege to explain her productivity. It […]

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[…] discusses the problem of creative exhaustion and how to deal with it. Jane Friedman explores the secret to her productivity—and finds that the answer is a factor often overlooked and not available to […]

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[…] Jane Friedman: The Secret to My Productivity, Or: Thoughts About Luxury and Privilege […]

Shawn Manaher
What a great article Jane! It’s human to want to compare ourselves with one another and unearth the secrets of their universe. While admitting you have no secret sauce, that it was without discipline, unconventional and unstructured… I wonder if that reveals the real secret… You were you. You built a life that was going to be on your terms! Most do not. They live for unrealistic goals, dreams and for the “this is how life should be.” moments. Then when they realize “I don’t want to be that person!”, life, circumstances, finances, etc. prevent change. Ugh! It’s human to… Read more »
L.L. Barkat
This might just be my favorite post of yours, ever. I like the self-reflective nature, not just the content. 🙂 There are always exceptions to rules, but as a publisher (print and online) I have seen this “privilege factor” to be true more often than not. It is one of the reasons we commit to giving voice to many kinds of writers, even those who don’t bring the means to make it big. We do care about helping people make their way (and helping them be heard if they have something life-giving to say). I wonder how much this is… Read more »
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[…] Friedman offers her thoughts on privilege and luxury with respect to her productivity. This is particularly interesting in light of my The next chapter […]

Rhonda
Thanks for sharing these usually unspoken, but important, words. My experience regarding others’ perception of my editing productivity (I work in the oil and gas industry) is similar. Yes, I *am* a quick worker, but I also have the added bonuses of: * working from home — few interruptions, no meetings to attend, no-one tapping me on the shoulder to help them out, no ‘water cooler’ chat/office gossip, no 10-minute walks to the nearest coffee shop. no involvement with office politics. Yes, I get the occasional phone call/email to help my authors with a problem, but it’s nowhere near the… Read more »
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[…] I invite you to read one of the best pieces I have read this year on writer motivation and productivity. From Jane Friedman: The Secret to My Productivity, or thoughts about luxury and privilege. […]

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[…] Jane Friedman’s take on her own level of […]

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[…] blog (which is filled to the brim with practical advice and counsel) includes a post titled The Secret to My Productivity, where she candidly discusses what advantages she has had in crafting a writing life. Her honesty […]

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