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The How-To Geek Guide to Staying Productive as a Writer

People often ask me how I stay productive with all the different things I have going on—and between How-To Geek, Lifehacker, a day job, and now Productive Geek, there’s definitely a lot to get done every day. Here’s my tips on how I get things done.

Keep in mind that this is what works for me, and might not work for you or apply to your situation at all. Also note that I’m guilty of being very unproductive a good portion of the time.

Create an Ideas Database

The single most important tool that keeps you productive as a writer is a database of ideas. I’m using a piece of software called ActionOutline, but EverNote, OneNote, Google Docs, or any number of other tools will do the job admirably—you could probably use Notepad if you felt like it, since the real problem isn’t the tool you use, it’s you. It doesn’t matter how great your tool is if you never use it!

Once you’ve chosen a tool—which you should not spend a ton of time worrying about, just pick one and get started—you will need to force yourself to write down every single idea for a few weeks. Make it a point of doing research and putting ALL your ideas into the application every time. It doesn’t even matter how organized you are when you start—when I first started using ActionOutline, I just dumped ideas into a massive list and then organized them later. The point is to capture all of your ideas so they will never be forgotten, and you can build on them later.

I’ve taken it a step further, and put pretty much everything into my database—the best part about using an outliner is being able to organize things in a very organized hierarchy. I simply put the idea title on the left, and then I add my notes over on the right-hand side, which allows me to segment random ideas about the article from the more solidified idea for the article subject.

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It doesn’t really matter how you decide to keep your database structured, the point is that you actually do it, and force yourself to stick with it for a few weeks. Once you’ve done that, you’ll figure out just how awesome it really is, and you’ll be sold on the idea.

Pick a Todo List Method, and Stick With It

When it comes to picking a good way to keep track of all the things you have to do, it’s really the same as picking your ideas database—it doesn’t matter which one you choose, it’s all about just using the tool that you picked. Any of them will work, including a blank piece of paper and a pen—which is exactly what I used the first 2 years of being a writer. I’ve finally converted over to Remember the Milk and I’m a huge fan—but again, just pick something and go with it.

The biggest reason I use RTM is that I can create a custom list with just the most important tasks, so I’m not staring at a list of things that I shouldn’t be working on right now. It’s not quite the same as GTD’s “Next Actions”, but it’s very similar in use—I only show tasks that are currently due, or tasks with no due date that are also high priority.

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My tasks generally include all of the non-writing tasks that I have to do, unless I’ve got a deadline on an article—for instance, I’ve usually got a task reminding me to write my Monday feature over at Lifehacker.

Empty Your Inbox (Into Your Todo List / Idea Database)

If you really want to keep on top of everything there is to do, you should make a point of keeping your inbox nice and clean. And no, I don’t mean that you should clean it because it frees your mind up or any of that personal development nonsense—the very simple reason is that you need to keep your idea database populated with everything.

I’ve got a recurring task in RTM that reminds me each day to go through my inbox and find everything actionable and move it over to RTM… anything else is probably just a thought or idea, and that belongs in your ideas database. When a reader writes in with a tip, which they often do, I simply move those over to my ideas database for later, unless they are really time sensitive, which gets them moved over to RTM.

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The one folder you’ll see in the screenshot is the Followup folder, which I simply use as a dumping ground for everything that I’m possibly going to need to find quickly again because it might require a response. I’ll be honest, though, I’ve started simply starring messages instead because I can do so more easily from my Android phone, and with Gmail’s amazing search there’s almost no reason to do either.

Brainstorming with Friends and Online Buddies

I’ll admit it, I spend wayyyy too much time online talking to people on IM, and while it’s often a terrible time-waster, it’s also a good way to keep yourself motivated. Most of my online buddies are also tech writers, bloggers, or just plain old geeks, and anytime I need inspiration, ideas, or feedback I can simply hit one of them up and get an honest opinion.

The point is to surround yourself with people that do the same thing you’re doing, because the competition will make you more motivated to do a better job.

What to Do When You Get Stuck

Writer’s block is an inevitable problem for anybody trying to write on a daily basis, and it’s not so much a problem as a symptom of not following through on your ideas database. If you simply put every single idea you have into the database, you’ll never run out of material—just open up your ideas list, and start looking through the hundreds or thousands of ideas you’ve written down. It won’t take long before you come up with a good topic to start writing about.

Your idea database will help feed you great ideas, but sometimes the problem isn’t coming up with an idea for an article as much as actually writing it. The trick I’ve always used is to start anywhere in the article other than the beginning. Write the last line, find a screenshot for the middle, or just start at Step 1: Click the Start Button. It doesn’t really matter where you start, just write anything and the rest will follow. If you’re really stuck, maybe you need to pick up another article idea and get that first sentence written.

Note: If you’re writing for a news site, obviously the ideas database isn’t going to help you find new, fresh content. That’s where Google Reader comes in really handy.

Read, Read, and More Reading

It’s very important in the tech blogging world to keep yourself up to date with everything that’s going on, and nothing is quite as great as the accessible-anywhere Google Reader. The problem, however, is that it’s easy to get overloaded with way too much, especially when most of your favorite sites post 25 times a day. The best way to keep up with the overload is a “tiered” approach.

What I do is create a “favorites” folder that contains really important feeds that I want to immediately pay attention to, and those are the only feeds where I actually read every post. I make a point of keeping this folder nice and tidy so I’m not wasting my time. I’ve also got a “Primary Sources” folder, which contains all of the most frequently useful sources, and then the rest are organized into big groups. 

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Whenever I’m looking for an article topic over at Lifehacker, and I don’t already have something in mind, I can always check through my Primary Sources folder first to see if there’s anything worth writing about. If that comes up dry, which isn’t that often, I can head into my other folders to see what else might have slipped by me.

It’s a great way to keep up with the latest news, but not get overloaded. I highly recommend it.

Productivity is about DOING, not Blathering Nonsense

When it comes right down to it, the most important piece of advice I can give you is this: Stop Being Lazy. Just Do Something Already!

It doesn’t matter how organized you are, how many ideas you have, or how well you’ve kept up with all the latest news—if you don’t get to work now, you will never get anything done. Stop worrying about whether you are going about it the right way, if you’re going to fail, or whether anybody will care. If you believe in your ideas and simply execute them, you’ll be 90% of the way there—and you can always change course if you need to.

It’s just words on a page.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/16/09

Comments (1)

  1. iam_urz

    great article HTG!!

    is it normal to fret about writing or doing stuff for awhile? you know waiting for that “feeling” in order to dive head first for what you want to do.

    i’m the type of person who starts slow but gets obsessive at finishing once i start so once i loose the steam it’s hard for me to pick up where i left. what do you do when you, if ever, comes to such point?

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