Screenwriters are not machines. Sometimes we get into the writing zone and write quality work for hours. But most of the time, we write in fits and bursts and distract ourselves – writing, deleting, staring into space or search dubious terms on the internet without being overly productive. There is a way for screenwriters to measure their productivity.
Traditionally we measure performance against two key metrics – number of pages written and time spent writing
Although these metrics provide some useful information, Adam Grant, Organizational Psychology Professor at Wharton School At The University Of Pennsylvania, suggests screenwriters should learn to manage their attention rather than time. Focussing your attention by removing actual and potential distractions will enhance your productivity. Think of it as impulse control management.
Plan Your Writing Sessions
Before you start each writing week, list a few major writing tasks you want to complete. Don’t overestimate what is reasonable in a week, but don’t set the bar too low either. You know you can’t write a viable first draft of a screenplay in a weekend.
If you’re unsure what task to add to your list, run a quick benefit analysis. What task excites you the most? Which task is more likely to be well-received by the industry. If you’re still unsure, ask yourself why you wanted to write a particular story in the first place. Figure out what it means to you.
Multi-tasking, as a way of boosting productivity, is largely a myth. Alternating between two screenplays during the same writing session will not help you complete them twice as fast. It is more likely to take more than twice as long to type in “the end.” Our minds don’t function like flip switches where we can easily shunt between tasks. Humans have attention residue. It takes time to fully transition mentally between two scripts because part of your attention is still attached to the previous script.
Deep and Shallow Work
Work on one thing in the morning and one in the evening. Ideally, your morning screenplay (assuming this is your most creative period) should be the one at its first (or early) draft stage, and the evening one should be a polish, outline, or rewrite.
Divide your work into two main categories: deep work and shallow work
Think of these categories in terms of how memory intensive they are. Starting a new script easily falls into the deep work category. Ever tried starting a new script at 10:00 pm? Good luck with that.
Given that our minds are typically programmed to work optimally in forty-five to sixty-minute bursts, use that knowledge to your advantage. Your five-hour writing marathon will rarely yield an Oscar-winning screenplay. These focus bursts are evolutionary and are part of our fight or flight instincts. That shot of adrenaline when our ancestors were out hunting. The actual kill was relatively fast while the planning takes longer. Tune in to relevant stimuli and tune out distractions.
Your productivity bursts can be scheduled throughout the day. Many screenwriters call their periods of shallow work “downtime” or non-writing related tasks. Although they are not fully revving your brain motor, you are in cruise-control and still moving.
Batch these shallow work tasks when you plan your writing day. These include emails, social media, online and offline research, and phone calls. Once again, perform these tasks in timed blocks. Try to clean out your email inbox every day. Use the flagging feature in your emails if they require follow-up. Some screenwriters flag their emails using two colors – one color for reference emails and one color for follow-up emails requiring actions.
Some of these tasks may be marked as deep work. Comprehensive research or a lengthy response to an email requires deep thinking. Even updating your web page is considered deep work.
Our minds need unshackling from the rigidity of deep work to refresh itself. Screenwriters need time that isn’t dedicated to a hard task. This could be reading an article in an unrelated field or listening to an audiobook or podcast. You could do something artistic like doodling, listening to a random music playlist, or watch a new TV show. The key operative here is the word NEW. Your neurons will fire in different directions until your memory sets in and you perform a task on autopilot.
Try writing in a new way. Write your script freehand, backward, or in the bathroom. Turn up the heat or the cold. Embrace a bit of discomfort each day. Use a dodgy office chair. Limit your bathroom breaks. We’re hard-wired to live with discomfort. Use it to improve your performance.
Humans are hard-wired for discomfort
Write the kernels of a new story idea for a few minutes a day. They could be scenes, visions, sounds, characters, or even smells. Return to these ideas in a week’s time and see if you can find thread them together into something resembling a story or an outline. The closer you get to a structured screenplay, the longer you should let this ruminate – a few weeks at the most. Otherwise, your mind will have to ramp again and it will be like writing from scratch. Take extended breaks, but don’t use them as an excuse not to write.
Don’t forget to reach out to other screenwriters. Perhaps you can do a script exchange and give each other feedback? Maybe organize a table read, or view a film and discuss it afterward?
Our cognitive minds are structured for the resolution of ideas. Each story should have a beginning, middle, and end. This is thought to be an evolutionary survival mechanism to ensure that danger is over and it’s safe to relax.
Try ending your writing session mid-scene, mid-sentence, or mid-dialogue. Leave it unfinished. This will send your creative mind into a frenzy. An incomplete task creates a schism in your train of thought and your mind will pester you to complete the task in your next writing session. Complex creative tasks are best completed in our subconscious minds while we are away from them.
Know The End
When you have completed your writing tasks for the day, shut down your computer. Don’t become a martyr and insist on writing one more page. Set hard boundaries between work and play. You need time to rest, reset, and refresh.