The Unproductive Writer’s Guide to Success

Martyn Chamberlin is a copywriter and web designer from Two Hour Blogger. Following him on Twitter may be the easiest thing you do today. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

There is something about the word productivity that makes every blogger blush deeply.

You turn on your computer, check your email and Facebook, and forget why you logged on. Forty minutes later you walk away feeling guilty and unproductive. It happens to you every single day.

A Writer's Desk - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #4792809

The Internet is inherently unproductive. Every aspect tries to consume your attention. Your friends want you to read their updates. Apple wants you to check out their latest gadget. Google wants you to click on as many search results as you can.

But there is good news. Believe it or not, productivity is overrated. It is not the secret sauce that leads to success. You do not have to get a lot done in a short amount of time.

When I email Seth Godin, he invariably writes back within minutes. Despite what others tell you, that giant checks his email early and often. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you do not have to be productive to build a successful online community and business, what do you need? You need to provide content that is worth people’s attention.

Attention is difficult to get. For example, let us suppose you have an audience of five hundred readers. If you publish articles twice per week, your audience grows accustomed to this.

If you start posting every twelve hours, you are suddenly demanding extra attention. Eventually you wear them out and they unsubscribe. There is a limit to the amount of attention your audience is willing to give you.

You must learn to use it wisely.

You must learn to be efficient in the amount of content you make visible.

Every word you write is asking to be read; every picture you tweet or Facebook is asking to be seen. The more you scatter across the web, the less attention your followers are able to give each item. In other words, each item becomes decreasingly effective.

Every time you disappoint your readers, you decrease the likelihood they will open your next email. If you want your stuff to spread, you must learn to censor what you publish.

This is a painful business. Very few writers can do it. When you see someone who achieves success every single article, you may rest assured he is editing like mad. Creating a wildfire every time you post is a difficult feat.

If your archives are lousy, you lose potential subscribers. You may have an awesome article today but the meager post you wrote two months ago is hurting you.

This applies to every aspect of your online presence. For example, it is often tempting to tweet snippets of your life’s happenings, but the result of these outbursts is an undermining of your relevance; followers grow less likely to pay attention to your next tweet, which might be great content.

These things are all connected, you see.

The less noise you make and the more effort you put into each point of contact, the more attention you build. As you develop a reputation for only putting the best of yourself online, readers will notice. They will reward you with a healthy dose of their attention.

Attention is a difficult thing to get, and an easy thing to lose.

You must play your cards wisely.

It has nothing to do with productivity, and it has everything to do with efficiency.

How does this affect you? Instead of spending five hours writing ten blog posts, spend five hours writing one good post. This means the amount of attention you are asking is less, and the prose you are offering is superior.

If it takes me all day to write an email that makes me a lot of money, that is better than spending five minutes to write an email that fizzles on impact. Yes, the email must do its work efficiently, but I do not have to be productive in its construction.

Individuals are the building blocks of an audience; treat them as such. Give them stuff worthy of their attention. But do not bother with being productive in the process; it is okay.

Instead of shouting and splashing, slow down and be unproductive. Focus on just one thing and do it right. You will be spinning circles around your competition.

Or better yet, love your enemies and tweet this out. They need some help.

Question: Have you focused on productivity at the expense of quality? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Gerrard Fess

    So says the Guy who blogs all the time ….ah irony …

  • Anonymous

    I really liked Martyn’s site.  Just subscribed and got his free e-book, Everything You Know About Traffic Is Wrong.

    • Martyn Chamberlin

      Awesome Karl! That’s cool to hear. ;)

      And for the record, I’ve been blown away with how vibrant and receptive this community is. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nowhere. 

      • Michael Hyatt

        That’s good to hear!

  • Barbara @

    Well, if you send me an email, Michael, I will respond quickly, too!  ;)  I subscribed to Seth’s Domino project after viewing your interview with him. 

    On the other hand, I think you are changing, if subtly, since your retirement as CEO of Thomas Nelson.  This post feels like you are shouting and pointing a finger.  And while the message to be efficient is different from a recommendation to post often – there seems to be a conflict with your previous recommendations.  Seems to me. 

    Nonetheless, I take your recommendations to heart and will mull over them for what I need to learn.  

    • Michael Hyatt

      Barbara, I didn’t write this post. It is a guest post from Martyn Chamberlin. I did publish it, but I believe a diversity of opinion is healthy.

      • Martyn Chamberlin

        For sure Michael, it looks like I’ve really gotten some of your readers thinking. It’s funny, because an article like this would be “mainstream” if it were on Copyblogger. 

        I’m glad it’s here instead. :D

        • Michael Hyatt

          You sure have. I love it the conversation!

          • Robert Ewoldt

            I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, too, Michael! It’s interesting to hear another point of view.

      • Barbara @

        Ack! How did I miss that this was a guest post! My sincere and embarrassed apologies.  Diversity of opinion is fine. 

        • Michael Hyatt

          No problem. It is easy to miss!

  • Jamsmooth

    I just wrote about this very topic on my own blog the other day.

    I agree with Michael and John Mayer.

  • Bret Mavrich

    I’m going to run, not walk, to my archives and clean house— the post I wrote two months ago is killing me.

    • Martyn Chamberlin

      One of my clients is actually deleting the majority of his blog posts and starting over. 

      We tend to ignore our old posts and assume others will too – but it’s simply not true. They’re either helping or hurting. Glad to hear it, Bret!

      • Bret Mavrich

        I’m actually going to post on this exact topic Monday morning. Watch for it!

      • Robert Ewoldt

        Wow, that’s a big step. But, I’ve heard that pruning can help with new growth…

    • Jeff Goins

      Bret – I go back and edit those archives and re-release them as new articles (sometimes tweaking the title).

      • Robert Ewoldt

        Jeff, that’s a good idea… I should try that.

      • Bret Mavrich

        That’s brilliant.

  • lilli

    Thank you for confirming what I believed, but haven’t had enough experience yet to find out whether or not my belief was true.

  • jesse

    You nailed it. With so many people vying for my attention, I stop following anyone who wastes my time. It was Kurt Vonnegut’s number one rule, not wasting your readers time, and I try to keep that in mind whenever I post/publish.

  • Bret Mavrich

    Ironically, Problogger has a related post today called,

    23 Blogger Breeds

    (I think I’m a combo between the “Passion Purist” and the “Commenter.”)

  • Ashleigh Allen

    Interesting take on productivity/efficiency in blogging. I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone else talk about it in terms of stewarding the attention of your audience by filtering content.

    I’ve just entered into the blogging world in the last year, so having someone confirm that approach is so valuable. Thank you!

    • Ashleigh Allen

      Judging by the comments here, there are some other posts I need to take a look at on this topic too!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I thought that angle was what made this post particularly valuable.

  • Jim Warden


  • Lenore Buth

    Martyn, thanks for the offbeat wisdom. It refreshes  like a cool glass of  water on a hot day.

    I remember with longing the now-looking-blissful past when it was enough to write as well as I possibly could for whatever project I was involved in. Once upon a time that fulfilled my part of the bargain.

    Now I constantly hear a nagging voice that says I should be doing more IF. (If I want to be taken seriously. If I want to rate notice by editors and agents. If I want to have sufficient platform which seems to be taken as seriously as the quality of one’s writing.)


  • TNeal

    Something to ponder the next time I feel the need to post. Thanks for making me take a deeper look at what I do when I write. This connects well with something my wife noted about a month ago in relation to my Facebook posts. I made too many posts (actually did it automatically) about exercise and calorie goals. It diluted my Facebook presence and made other posts less appealing.–Tom

  • Gail B. Hyatt

    Thank you. Everyone can go home now. This post was written for me.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You are a very funny person. Now quit being distracted and WRITE!

      • Martyn Chamberlin

        Uh-oh, this looks like a family moment. Looks like I’ll need to reinstate that disclaimer policy. 

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Ha, ha!

  • Travis Dommert

    This quote came to mind:

    “I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”

    by Blaise Pascal

    • Martyn Chamberlin

      Ironically, the original draft for this article was a whopping 1,200 words long. Michael told me it was plain too long. 

      So I spent extra time and made it shorter. :) This Blaise dude is on the money.

      • Robert Ewoldt

        I agree, it’s a great quote.

  • Nancy

    Began to focus to much on productivity and now moving back into quality. Learning in social networking and writing in this venue; Many times less is more and more is less. Meaning my readership drops when I shift into the area of productivity. As I read this article on productivity I am reminded of the email I receive from Harvey Mackey. It arrives in my inbox once per week. I always find time to read it. Why? It is written in a concise manner and applicable to my life’s circumstances.  I am a picky email forwarder, but this email is one that I always forward to at least one person. Why? Great content.

  • Emily

    Yes, yes, yes! I am sweating over my fiction, writing, re-writing, studying my target audience on a forum for my genre, because what I want is thousands of hours, collectively, of people’s precious TIME! Something cobbled together in a hurry and shipped off because I want it for my own ego, or money, or whatever, is not worthy of that.
    I hope that when the book is finished, it will give back to the consumer many times over the hours they gave me by reading it.

  • John Aadeez

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  • Jeff Goins

    Interesting article, Martyn. I actually hear you not vying for non-productivity but for a different type of productivity.

    You seem to be criticizing this fast-paced, American mindset of “just shipping SOMETHING” and calling writers to take their more seriously. (Which I agree with.)

    Something that I appreciate about you as a writer is that quality is more important  to you than quantity. This is definitely an emerging theme in the blogosphere.

    With so many people writing and shipping mediocre content regularly, the real cream that rises to the top may be the slowly-crafted, more thoroughly thought pieces.

    The challenge for me, of course, is that by regularly shipping, I’ve really improved in my craft. Scaling back would tempt me to neglect this discipline and possibly cause my writing to suffer.

    How do you balance this?

    • Martyn Chamberlin

      Jeff, you’re an unusual guy because you can write a lot of content and still keep it high quality. The fact that you blog each weekday is (in part) what makes your blog so fun to follow. Everything is fresh, and there’s a certain spontaneity that y0u just can’t get elsewhere. 

      To become a better writer, you have to write a ton – no question about it. Whether you publish everything is personal preference (just look at the discussions here!).

      I’m actually a bad one to advise on this. I haven’t done *serious* writing in a week or two – been too busy designing Web sites and making money! :D

      • Jeff Goins

        thanks, martyn. you have a lot to offer to the writing community. i’m learning from you!

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Jeff, that’s the good point. What if you were to write regularly, but only publish sparingly?

      • Jeff Goins

        Hmmm… I think you need to do both but some stuff just needs to stew before getting released.

  • Robinson Mertilus

    Timely post, I need to work on my next blog post. That’s why I logged on in the first place.

  • Dyuhas62

    I rarely post more than once a week simply because it takes time for me to develop a well-written article and life goes on in the meantime.  Now I’m glad that’s so.  It’s also true that I skip over too-frequent posts and unsubscribe from sites that inundate my inbox.  Furthermore, I see that I must be less concerned with gaining new followers than interacting intelligently with the followers I already have. Thanks for a timely reminder.

  • Astrid Paramita

    I agree wholeheartedly. It is very tempting to produce more (so-so) content just because everyone told you it’s what you need to do to keep your online presence. I think what you wrote makes perfect sense. Even if everyone could post whatever they like, as often as they like, we’re all still looking for a good content :).

  • Paul Swann

    Isn’t this what John Locke was trying to say in his book (How I sold over 1 million…) that you advertised? Thanks for this post. 

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  • Anonymous

    This is a quality post. It has made me really think about spending more time on my posts so I can produce better quality posts on my leadership blog. 

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    ” Instead of spending five hours writing ten blog posts, spend five hours writing one good post.”…..”slow down and be unproductive. Focus on just one thing and do it right.” — That was a much needed advice to novice like me in the early stages of my career.

  • Phil Rothschild

    Outstanding post. I’ve been accused of spending too much time on making our posts or newsletters perfect. Your explanation captures what I’m trying to accomplish — efficiency not perfection. Thank you.

  • Dylan Dodson

    As I read the comments on this post, I realize one thing that I personally do. No matter how often I post, I typically spend the same amount of time on each post anyway. I don’t know that I could force myself to post less and spend more time on a single post, but maybe I should give it a try!

  • Kay Wilson

    Now you’re scaring me Michael, I only pray that I have enough to say that will keep my readers coming back often.  

  • Rick Womack

    Timely post…I’m in the midst of trying to find (again) my groove on posting. I imagine I’ve lost a lot of followers because of my infrequency so battling the “how-many-readers” in my head is an obstacle I must overcome.

    Thanks for the timely post.

  • W. Mark Thompson

    Laughed out loud during the first 2 paragraphs. Then looked around to see how in the world you are watching me.

    Great post, Martyn.

    Now I’m off to write Seth!

  • Voranc Kutnik

    Great post. I’m glad that I’m not the only one feeling guilty and unproductive after 40 minutes of behind the computer…and nothing done.

  • Joshua Monen

    Martyn, thank you for this article. It’s easy for me to feel guilty for not getting more done in a day but you hit the nail on the head. It’s better to write one killer post than five mediocre ones. Good stuff!

  • Keven Card

    I have to tell you; this article hit home for me. I am guilty of productivity over careful censorship. I will make the adjustments to produce better; more focused content from now on.

  • Jonathan

    One thing that I have decided is that it is unproductive to continue following these comments. It seems  we’ve gotten into a rut with them. At the same time, perhaps it IS productive because it has made me review my blog (albeit it has slowed down my drive to post) and identify some needed improvements.
    At the same time, it has given me fodder for a post, too. Productive Unproductivity

  • TalkYourWalk

    We are on the same page…I saw an increase and interest…WooHoo! my passion and enthusiasm ramped up and I want to share more. Adding value to others who are listening and want to learn and grow increases the desire. Pacing ourselves is so key. Not everyone has the focus to add value. Love the John Maxwell Team, like minded folks encouraging change in the world. Keep up the good work Michael! Having an accountability partner truly helps.

  • Tim Spivey

    Michael, that was a terrific post! I think all of us with any online presence have a tough time with how much to “produce” online. One of the biggest difficulties is simply deciding how much personal vs. how much professional to blog, tweet or Facebook. Great stuff!

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  • Jennifer@SurprisingJoy

    Very helpful, Mike. Thank you.

  • John Aadeez

     This is really amazing article… thanks for sharing me… good work nice job
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  • Harleena Singh

    That is a very interesting and honest post!

    Being a freelance writer myself, I can connect to it so well and understand the true meaning of this post! I totally agree to writing one good post by taking the time you want, rather than squeezing several posts within a short time span, as this just shoos away your readers.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Brenda Welc

    Well, I hate to say this but in response, in the environment in which I work, yes productivity can often come before quality and this a sad arrangement.  I won’t mention the name, however, I work for a major fast-food restaurant and it just irks me when they want us to go faster and faster, yet nothing improves for the quality.  We have a good reputation, yet we seem to be ruining some of the quality aspects just because we want to move more customers through the drive thru lane.  Along with quality over-productivity reduces the one on one contact with regular customers.  We get so focused on move, move, move we barely can get a wave or a smile in as the customer grabs their food and goes.  I agree about slowing down and focusing.  Even as I am new at this blogging, as  Christian writer, I do not want to bore people yet I know they need to hear what God is doing in the lives of others.  I strive to find a balance in the frequency of my blogs.  God calls us to be less productive and He urges us to spend some down time with Him.  I  feel this is just another aspect of being in the world but not being of it.

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  • Sharon Gibson

    This perspective is very reassuring to me. I care about my posts and care about the quality I offer my readers. Though I’m not perfect and do make mistakes, as much as  I can,  I feel the need to be a good example.
    The idea that you need to “provide content that is worth people’s attention,” is a relief . I’ve wondered if I should buy a course that teaches how to write articles in 7 minutes or less. Now, I feel reassured to continue on, investing the time in quality. In an age of fast food and cheap products, I believe a focus on quality content will set you apart.Writing is a labor of love for me,  love of God in using the gifts He’s give me to help others, love of my readers in nurturing them in their writing desires and love of my chosen craft of writing.

    Thank you for sharing this insight with us.

    Keep up the good writing, good thinking and good content!

    Sharon Gibson

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  • Brandon Weldy

    This was one of the most challenging posts I have read in a while! I was immediately pulled in and I kept thinking “do I do that?” I have been guilty of putting too much out there. I come across a good article so I write about it or just update my facebook or twitter with it. Then a few minutes later I do the same. I started thinking about people who do update all the time and how I really am less likely to read any of their “stuff.” Apparently I never thought about it applying to me! Thanks for helping take my blinders off for me. 

  • Ashleyscwalls

    Over the past 6 months, I have managed to blog about 3 times a month. Recently I started grad school again and my blogging has greatly decreasaed. Very glad I read this post because it confirmed what I was thinking regarding quality blogging versus quanity of blogging. I have slowed down to 1 or 2 blogs a week, but I do miss posting as much as I used to.

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  • michelle

    I have to say i am very impressed with the way you efficiently website and your posts are so informative. You have really have managed to catch the attention of many it seems, keep it up!