zenhabits : breathe

The Productive Sprint

By Leo Babauta

In the past two weeks, I’ve written more than 45,000 words, including 10 posts for Zen Habits and Sea Change and 30 chapters in my new book.

That’s a lot of writing.

I don’t usually write that much — it’s an unusually high output for me, and I’m not usually that productive. The biggest motivator is that I’m going on a trip today for two weeks with Eva, and I needed to get my writing done before the trip.

I call this kind of high-powered output before a vacation my Productive Sprint, and I do it probably 4-5 times a year for various trips and other events. Other people do that kind of feverish churning out of work before major deadlines, which is similar but imposed by others. I prefer to create my own motivation.

Let me tell you about this most recent Productive Sprint, and then make some suggestions for doing your own.

My Recent Productive Sprint

These last two weeks have been some of the most productive writing weeks of my life, and the major reason is that I’m trying to get the draft of my new book done before this trip I’m taking.

I’m pushing to get this book self-published and crowdfunded by the end of this year, which means I need to get the draft to an editor and then a designer and then a printer in the next month. And smack dab in the middle of that process, I decided to take two weeks off to travel (hey, a guy’s gotta have some fun too!).

I usually write my Zen Habits posts in advance, before I travel, so added to the book writing was advance post writing.

So here’s what I did:

  1. Started waking between 4-5 a.m., making a pot of French press coffee, and writing as soon as I could.
  2. I would get up every 30 minutes, stretch, walk around, get the blood circulating.
  3. I would write all morning, and some of the afternoon (I reserve some time in the afternoon, and all the evenings, for my family). I discovered I can write three book chapters a day if I work like this.
  4. I promised to send my book chapters each week to an editor and a friend, so that I know they are waiting for my writing.

It’s an amazing feeling to write 4,000-plus words in a day, I have to say. You feel superhuman.

The combined pressure of having a book to write and an upcoming trip were enough to motivate me to get up early and start writing immediately. I’m also writing a book that has to do with overcoming procrastination, so putting the book’s principles into practice is a useful way to test them out in the wild.

How to Do a Productive Sprint

I don’t think you need to have high output every day of the year, but if you have a big chunk of work to get done, a Productive Sprint can be very helpful.

I also do short writing sprints (most recently with my 21-year-old daughter) to make writing fun and focused. But the longer, sustained bursts are something else entirely.

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Create the time pressure. Schedule something a week or two in the future, like a trip or a book celebration party, where you have to get your work done beforehand. If you don’t want to do a trip or event, just make a big public promise to friends that you’ll get your project done before a certain date or you’ll have to do something really embarrassing and they can film it. You won’t want to be embarrassed.
  2. Map out your work. I had each day planned out (loosely), so that I knew how much I had to write to get done before the trip. On days when I would slack off a bit, I knew I was putting more work on future Leo, and that future Leo would be mad about that, so I tried to do that as little as possible. Future Leo was usually grateful.
  3. Carve out your productive time. What time will you get the work done? You can’t leave this vague, because there are lots of other things you can be doing, distractions that come up, emails to answer. Block off a specific time and make this time sacred — nothing else should be able to be done during this time.
  4. Work in smaller sprints. If you’re going to work for a 4-hour block (for example), I recommend doing shorter sprints in this block, like 30 minutes each. This allows you to take breaks of about 5-10 minutes, and makes the 4 hours more doable.
  5. Tell people about it. At the end of each day, I really enjoyed bragging to Eva and the kids about how much writing I’d done. “I wrote more than 4,000 words today,” I’d exclaim with pride, and they would try their best to look impressed. I also had two people I had to send my chapters to each Friday, and I didn’t want to look like a total loser to them (well, not more than I usually do).

The huge pot of French press coffee is optional, but if you’re a coffee drinker, you’ll love the combo of high-intensity writing with thick coffee. Tea is a great alternative. And no, sports drink isn’t necessary.

May your Productive Sprints be filled with joy and a wild, towering passion.

The Mindful Productivity Habit

If you’re interested in forming a productivity habit in a mindful way, I invite you to join my Sea Change membership program, where we’ll be working together on the Mindful Productivity Habit.

In this habit module, we will:

You can join the Sea Change program here.


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