The Productivity Story

May 19, 2020

“Are you productive today?”

I asked the famous literary fiction writer; she promptly said, “Yes.” She had spent a considerable part of her day gazing at a blank word document on her laptop screen. In those hours, she had imagined multiple shades of a widow— the singlehood of the widow mixing, on her mental palette, with the plurality of biases against polygamy. The surging voice inside her had clamored for an opening line for her new novel. The writer’s block had lingered in her wordlessness.

She finds the journey of struggling with words quite meaningful. Meditative. The fruitful process of visualizing, creating the complex emotions of a character for hours is the preparation she needs to type her first word.

Those seemingly unproductive hours explain why all her books are bestsellers. How she wrote seven books by the age of 43. Why she has earned the reputation of an insanely productive literary genius. Paradox?


She has disciplined herself to be focused on a task, to persist even when there are no tangible results. Aware of the “just-one-time” trap, she distances herself from the temptation to check her phone—“for a minute,” “just once”—until she reaches the finish line. The instances when one minute extended to few good hours, she remembers. What does the phone have to offer her? Attention so seductive? She knows the deception that attention is, and talks herself out of gratifying her impulses.

So that she isn’t defeated by her fragile willpower when words refuse to cooperate, she keeps her desk free of distractions. The internet is switched off, the phone sleeps in another room. Out of sight, out of mind. A large peanut butter jar stationed on the desk caters to her food requirements. The rule is clear: no one disturbs her unless unavoidable.

After her recent divorce, a spiral of negative emotions ruined her ability to concentrate on writing. She wondered how a self-dependent woman like her became a slave of her own emotions. The fear of failing again in a relationship consumed her mind for days, leaving her with little mental space to pay attention to writing. Dealing with her emotions was no longer an option. In her daily journal, she wrote about them, their behavioral pattern; traced their roots as far as she could go. She identified herself as an airport, a temporary halt, where her emotions arrive at and depart from. With all the ruthlessness she could summon, she accepted them. She doubted their permanence and confirmed the importance of her work. They gradually lost their control over her.

Alongside writing, the single mother teaches a creative writing program. When she started teaching, she found it difficult to prioritize her day. Conceptualizing the classes, reviewing script submissions, writing every day, meeting literary agents, attending promotional tours, taking care of her family, et cetera. She resorted to multitasking. Reviewing scripts while spending time with her daughter. Absent in her presence. Neither could she enjoy her parenting time, nor could she do justice to teaching. The growing sense of dissatisfaction within her drove her to simplify her style of work.

“One thing at a time did I start doing. With 100% attention.” I noticed how sincerely she attended me. Her phone lying on its face didn’t own its owner. A deviation from the other celebrities I had interviewed.

She works less, achieves more.

“Multitasking is the common cold of productivity.” She showed me the note she had written in her journal. Red pen. Red journal.

“Unitask, Baby! I have taught myself how to live by this principle.” With gusto she uttered.

I couldn’t resist. “Where do you find the hope to write?”

“Hope? I find. In the sentence at a loss of words. In the wisdom of the young. In the asymmetry of perfection. In the poor cousin of freedom. In the You of YouTube. In the grapes, sweet and sour. In the choice between right and right. In the reality of fiction. In the eyes of an imaginary child. In the letter one wrote to no one.” She gently stroked her earrings.

“Hope, you ask? I find. In the answers not found. In the slow haste. In the misfits. In the rejections. In the brushed-away words. In the celebration of acceptance. In the paradoxes. In the toothless smile. In the borrowed law. In the doting parent one can’t ever be.” She leaned forward.

“Hope, I tell you. I find. In the faith that humanity is still within our budget.”

She knows how to get under the skin.

“Any more questions?” She grinned. Ready for her dinner date with a lawyer much younger than her.

My eyes were feasting on her aesthetically designed home. Small libraries divided the cavernous hall into six blocks.

“Is reading or writing your favorite habit?” I got up, ready to leave.

“Neither. Running. I started running when I was 11. I wouldn’t have known the joy of getting into a flow had it not been for running.” She tapped on her knees.

The quintessential question—“Any advice for those who are trying to crack the secret of productivity?” I had to ask.

“Flow.” That vehemence in her response.

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