Tag Archives: Time

Am I writing enough?

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I’m writing more than  I have at any point in my life, and yet I sometimes don’t feel like I’m doing as much as I could. I suspect this is a common feeling. I’d like to think it’s particular to my current writing moment, as someone trying to transition to writing as a profession instead of only a passion. But this is something that I think will only chase me more and more as I get older. The worst head-space to be is thinking you’re not working hard when you’re actually busting your ass.

Here are some things I’ve learned as I’ve tried to both feel satisfied with the work I’m doing, while simultaneously cramming more in…

Define daily success: I’m not the kind of guy who likes to create daily writing plans or goals, but the one advantage I can see to them is that you know when you’re done for the day. For a lot of people it’s helpful to write this stuff down: do a blog post, tweet 3 tweets, write 500 words, and read several chapters of a book a day. For others keeping this inside your head will work just as well. Making some kind of a plan will make you feel like you have a direction for your work. And if you don’t make the plan, that’s probably more of a sign that you need to reevaluate the plan than a sign that you’re not working hard enough. I’m constantly making small tweaks to my routine and priorities to fit the new projects of the moment. As much as planning is a measure of whether you’ve done what you need to, it’s also not a bad way to figure out what are the things you’ll make time for.

Eliminate distractions: Yesterday morning I read undergrad and graduate level math papers for two hours in a Starbucks. When I was done, my head felt like mush, I wasn’t sure if I’d wasted the time, and I was desperately in need of more caffeine. But I didn’t get distracted by my tablet, browse around Facebook for 30 minutes, or watch TV. Writing takes a lot of work, and a lot of hours. Early self-published authors should NEVER figure out their hourly rate of pay. If you worked on the thing you wanted to for the time you wanted to, that’s good enough. And you’re likely to find you did better than you thought you did when you come back with a fresh brain.

Make a “go” bag: Make it so that you can work on all of those projects wherever you are. If I’m waiting for a carry-out order, I might whip out my tablet and take notes for a few minutes. But more important than sneaking minutes here and there (because it’s also important to relax and clear your head sometimes), just make sure that you can work when you want to work. Everything I need to work on my latest projects fits in my orange bag that pretty much never leaves my side. Sometimes I need heavy real-books, but that’s at home where my office environment is very conducive to work.

Work one day on the weekends: This means two things: don’t veg out and do nothing your whole weekend, and don’t kill yourself and work your whole weekend away. I think Sabbath’s and spending time with family are very important to the restorative part of the creative process, and just relationships in general. But I also think it’s easy to plunk down in front of the TV and lose track of time. And if you’re not working on your book, but things around the house that need to get done, that’s good too.

Communicate when you’re working: Unless you live alone, you’re with someone who hopefully likes spending time with you. A good partner will be supportive of the fact you want to write (and in my case is also an invaluable resource for bouncing off ideas, dealing with some of my crazy, and for contributing to projects). However, they will also want to spend time with you that is not writing. Talk it out between you as to what’s reasonable and if you feel you need extra time, communicate this as early as possible. Be sure to take time when projects are finished to celebrate and swing the pendulum back in their direction.

And finally, don’t worry about writing. Write, read, get better, and then repeat. I know that’s it’s not as easy as just saying “don’t worry” (believe me). But it’s something to work on. Worrying makes you crabby, and steals time from the thing you’re worrying about not working on. Some of things above may help, but it’s also important just to tell yourself you’re doing a good job. Keep at it.

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Chipping away

I think I’ve been given a great lesson in patience by having a job that involves a lot of repetition. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of opportunities for creative thinking, design, and analysis of tough problems. But there’s also a lot of work that needs to be done over and over. This patience has helped me in building databases of information for upcoming projects, keeping track of a growing library of books and music, and even drawing patterns by hand.

I have a weird ritual when I start working, whether it’s writing or my professional job. I take my “go bag” (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and completely unpack its contents onto my desk. I then put things away that I won’t need, or things I’m finished with as I’m working. If I’m at home, I may analyze if this particular object needs to go back in the bag, or whether it’s just taking up space. I’m always fighting the twin impulses to take everything with me, and to only carry the things I actually need and will use.

The ritual provides focus. Every day I’m making a quick analysis of what needs to be done on the day’s projects, and I’m even making some long term decisions about how I’m spending my time. I don’t tend to plan out projects too specifically in the long term. Sometimes all I’m doing is shooting for a particular date, and making decisions along the way to make sure I hit that date.

One of the recurring themes in my life is the desire to do a number of projects, but the time to only do one or two at a time. Sometimes I’ve tried to whittle myself down to a single focus, whereas others I’m exploring half a dozen different avenues of creative expression. Both can be valuable. Exploring a bunch of different ideas can help you determine what’s the best path forward. And focusing on a single project can bring a clarity and a lack of distraction.

My hunch, though, is that two projects is the optimal number, at least for me right now. I tend to be really focused and excited about something for short bursts, sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and then I need a mental break. I’m a disciplined writer, so often I just push through these fallow periods, but the times when I have felt most productive and engaged are those when I’ve had something else to fall back on. Having another project can get your brain thinking in a different way, which can in turn bring new insights back to your original goal.

I think it’s important and valuable to make quick and routine assessments of how things are going, and to make changes as necessary, Don’t spend forever deciding if a particular notebook should go back in the “go bag”, but maybe try to think about the last time you used it. Recognize that time, like the space in a carry bag, can be limited and is best spent focused on a few things. But take advantage of the space you have, and the place you’re in at that moment.

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ICYMI – Check out Berthold Gambrel’s latest review of Surreality. “A ‘hardboiled’ murder mystery with a modern twist.”

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“We are biological creatures”

The two-part TED Radio Hour series on screen time has been a fascinating listen for the last two weeks, and you owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing. There are countless inspirations for stories or blog posts in that tight 120 minutes.

One of my favorite segments was from Abha Dawesar, discussing how computers distort our sense of time and our presence in the now. You can find her full talk here.

Dawesar speaks of a “digital now” separate from the physical present. The “digital now” is made up of all the connections trying to distract us or lead us down the rabbit holes of the internet, the trending topics on twitter, books our friends our reading, all the little places we spend our time online.

I have a fairly mid-90’s or early-00’s experience of the net. While I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, I use Facebook primarily for amusement, and Twitter largely for puns with my friend Brian and a few links to interesting writer posts. But I have experienced the “digital now” and how fleeting it can be. Often I will want to write a blog post about something going on in the physical or digital present, but by the time I’ve reflected on the event and formed an opinion the moment to discuss it has largely past.

I don’t like being a reactionary writer. Quick writing ends up being sloppy, half-formed, far more arrogant and self-righteous than I ever intend to be, and pisses people off more people than I’d like. Every time I’ve posted something without really thinking about it, I’ve regretted it. Thankfully those regrets have been few and self-contained.

But my sense of time is still governed by computers even if I’m not the most outgoing or plugged-in sort of person. Anyone who has spent time transferring a lot of files from one place to another has felt what it is like to be slave to a machine. I carry these little black boxes around with me, or little colorful fingers, and they all have to be organized, categorized, equipped. Just because I don’t have a smartphone doesn’t mean I don’t like my tablet, or my laptops.

My grandfather had a desk under his stairs he called the “nerve center of the whole operation.” No computer, not even a typewriter if I’m remembering correctly, just papers and pens. My nerve center is more akin to the 90’s stereotype of the hacker, sitting in my dark basement lit up only by screens surrounding me on all sides. I go to sleep with a tablet at my bedside and my morning routine is governed by checking my websites as much as it is emptying the dehumidifier.

Here’s where I can confirm some of Dawesar’s assertions. Few of the memories I’ve formed in the last year that are lasting and meaningful have had anything to do with computers. They’ve mostly had to do with my dogs and my wife. And I have “lost time” many times when using the computer, frittering most of an evening away working on one project or another without realizing it was almost time for bed. Technology is another thing in our lives that demands attention.

I don’t know if I share her faith that people will pull away from technology of their own accord. While I can acknowledge that a walk outside is more physically restorative than sitting in front of a computer for hours, I really have to force myself to do it. Sometimes writing is refreshed by a change of venue, but it is still staring at a screen, just in a place with lighting that induces glare, with plugs that are too far away and chairs that aren’t quite as comfortable.

But we owe it to ourselves and our children to strike some kind of a balance, to not stare at a screen all of the time. Maybe that means leaving your screens in one part of the house, and not bringing them into the others. Maybe that means deliberate and scheduled time with those you care about.

There’s an old cliche that says nobody ever died wishing they spent more time at the office. I suspect the same rule applies to spending more time on Facebook.

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