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The Productivity Hacks I Used To Write A 93,000-Word Book In Six Weeks

Nicholas Carlon's writing deskNicholas CarlsonMy writing desk. Note all the gum and the Red Bulls.

Last week, I published my first book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!”

One question people ask me a lot is how long did the book take to write.

There are a few answers to that.

I took book leave in May 2014 and I turned in my first draft in the middle of August 2014.

So you could say four months.

But I signed my book contract in September 2013, so maybe the answer is a year.

I started working on a big, 20,000-word biography of Mayer in 2012.

So two years?

But if the question is: how long was the amount of time between when I wrote my first sentence and when I wrote my last, the answer is about 6 weeks.

I started on July 4 and sent the epilogue to my editor on August 22.

The book is 93,000 words long, so I wrote, on average, 2,447 words per day.

This speed floors people, so I thought it might be useful to share some productivity hacks I discovered while I was writing.

I went to bed and got up at the same time every single day for the whole six weeks. I went to bed at 10:30 P.M. and got up at 6:30 A.M.

I had long, lazy mornings. After I woke up at 6:30, I would brew a cup of coffee, make breakfast (a fruit and vegetable smoothie), and read Business Insider, the New York Times, and Twitter. I would lounge for as long as an hour. Then I would walk to a nearby park and meditate on a bench for 10 minutes. Then I’d walk home and start working.

I worked in hour-long, concentrated bursts and took frequent breaks. When I got back to my desk around 8:30 or so, I would set a timer for an hour. As soon as the timer started I would force myself to either write or stare at the screen until the hour was over. (I would pause the timer if I needed to make coffee or tea or go to the bathroom.) Then, when the hour was over, I would get up from my desk, go outside and walk around a city block — leaving my iPhone behind. Then I’d come back to my desk and do another hour of writing/staring. Then another walk. Then one more hour. Then I would take an hour and a half lunch, where I would walk to a restaurant, eat, and then walk to a park. After lunch I did three more cycles. I’m just guessing, but I think this pattern worked for me because an hour isn’t a very long amount of time to work, and it always felt like a real break was just around the corner — and after that, lunch or the end of the day.

I caffeinated — for a while. At the beginning of the six weeks, it would take me three cups of coffee to get through the morning and a Red Bull to get through the afternoon. But after about two or three weeks I didn’t need the caffeine anymore. I went back to one cup in the morning with my news reading.

I told myself: “Don’t strip the screw.” When a screw is screwed in too tight, you can get it stuck forever if you strip it by turning too hard too suddenly. Sometimes, when I was working, I would hit a tricky passage, get very anxious and want to force myself to START WRITING NOW. This never helped. So I imagined my brain was a screw that I didn’t want to strip. I gave myself a break and allowed myself to just stare at the screen if that’s all I was able to do at that moment. I did not allow myself to look at my phone, check email, or otherwise distract myself.

I chewed so much gum. During each hour-long writing/staring session, I would pretty much constantly have a piece of gum in my mouth. I really liked Trident Layers. There is a store on my block that sold four different varieties. I would buy one of each just about every other day. My home office started to smell a little like Trident Layers. Whatever, they say chewing gum helps you take a test. I found it helped get my brain moving when writing.

I would start every hour by revising the last section I wrote. I don’t get writer’s block, but I do start the day with a sluggish mind. It helped me to go back to the last section I wrote and revise it. By the time I got to the end of what I had written again, I was in the flow again.

I worked out at least three times a week — outside. I was usually done working by 5:30, and it was summer, so I spent a lot of time on my bike, zipping up and down hills in Central Park. After, I felt entirely refreshed and totally jacked up with endorphins.

I quit drinking. I love a good martini and will drink a bad one if you hand it to me. But during my book leave, I found that even having one drink in the evening would greatly slow me down the next morning. I couldn’t afford that, so I quit drinking. My sleep was better. My concentration sharper. Words flowed easier.

It’s too complicated to get into here, but the other reason I was able to write so fast was that I had a 30,000+ word outline. I built it directly from my reporting news (transcripts and documents) using Evernote. You can learn all about that process in a post I wrote a couple months ago.

Also, you can buy my book if you want. (You want.)

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