As a writer with a full-time job, being in control of the way I work and organise my time is really important to me. I make lists, plans and procrastinate like a normal person, but am always keen to try new ways to distract, I mean, focus myself.
A while back, when we were talking about the creative process, a friend shared an idea she’d picked up at college with me; it’s all about managing time. With my day-job being full on, I was finding it almost impossible to find the time (and the energy) to write. Generally I would struggle along, doing bits and pieces of writing here and there, on the train to work, the occasional evening, or when my inner critic got angry enough I would shut myself away with the intention of just writing for the whole weekend. But intentions are just ideas and even after this enforced solitude I would often feel that I hadn’t written enough. This lack of productivity was enough to charge up my inner critic and there I was again, falling fast back down into the black hole of creative block and general despair at my writing-self.
The idea my friend shared suggested I did have the time to write, the problem was simply that I was prioritising everything all back-to-front. You see, I’m far from lazy and I’m always doing something and I find sitting still really challenging. I read, dance, garden, entertain the cat (and friends), swim, sleep, do weights classes, cycle up and down hills, sew things, shop, daydream, explore and travel, fix things, and at the time I was also learning to drive. This was all before I counted the time I spent organising gatherings, socialising and having fun. With this new method, all these other things were still allowed, I just had to be clear about my priorities.
The essence of the method was to start prioritising by taking a big step backwards out of the tangle of things I wanted to do. I needed to have a long-term focus, not a small ‘here and now’ perspective. I had to think about one or two really clear long-term goals and make these my priorities: these would be what I spent my precious time on. Once I had my focus, I set myself three small tasks to do every week that allowed me to make progress towards my goals. All the other stuff I wanted and liked to do, the stuff that seems important at the time but in truth distracts me from my focus, that would go into a big To Do List called: For a Rainy Day. That way the other things are still there but prioritised as something extra to your real goals.
For example, this last year I’ve pretty much had just three key things I wanted to do: to build a body of work, to submit work wherever I can, and to learn to drive.
This may seem like strange goals but they are part of much bigger long-term plans. The bigger plan is get to a place where people can read and enjoy my stories – which means getting them published. Reaching this goal involves a whole heap of smaller steps and it’ll take lots of time and work. Another long-term plan is to travel and explore New Zealand and (maybe) have a little house truck. I can’t do any of that without driving. I cycled everywhere in the UK, and mostly got to places quicker than my friends who could drive (traffic is crazy there), so driving had never been a high priority, yet here in New Zealand, it’s very different, so I decided it was time to actually focus and get my license.
With my long-term goals clear in my mind, I could then focus on my weekly goals. Knowing what I wanted to aim for, this became a lot clearer: draft some writing or do some editing; check for open submissions; and get in some driving practice. Then, once I had done some ‘real good value for me work’ I would have some guilt-free time to do something from my For a Rainy Day list, something like take my bike up the hills for a play, read a book, or go see a movie with my friends.
The other part of this method is to reflect on what you’ve done. I picked a day and every week, look back at the wee list and tick off my progress. But, and there is always a but, despite the three simple tasks, I was still getting stuck. So I reflected on it and worked out this was because some of my tasks were too vague. The task ‘do some editing’ was simply overwhelming. I would look at my pile of pieces I needed to edit and distract myself. It seemed too big a job. So I made things easy for myself. I broke everything down to: spend 15 minutes researching for the new story; or spend 15 minutes planning a blog for my website; or spend 15 minutes editing one specific story called… etc.
These specific 15 minute tasks work really well. Doing lots of tiny tasks for just 15 minutes, takes away all the stress. I know where to start and can stop after 15 minutes. And the reflection is so good. If I am stuck or blocked I quickly see it is because I’ve overloaded myself, so I just unpack it and make it easy and fun again.
Ironically, I’ve been spending hours working on my goals now that I feel I don’t have to! That’ll be my anti-authoritarian head-space. But it works for me, and that’s the best thing.