Tag Archives: Work

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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Crack of dawn

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Set my alarm for 4:40am this morning and actually managed to fight the urge to go back to bed. I’m a little groggy now at midday, but still happy for the effort.

I’ve written before about creativity being a somewhat finite resource, at least on a daily basis. The thing is, I’m not sure I really believe that. Yesterday I had a whole day of fairly repetitive, meticulous work, and when I got home I thought that the several hour block of time I had would be more than sufficient to write 1200 words .

I barely got to 250. My mind was mud. I was tired, and just not in the right head-space. Thankfully I was at least able to come to this realization quickly, rather than powering through which is my usual method for dealing with these problems. I got to bed at a reasonable hour, and woke up at an unreasonable one.

In terms of physical tiredness, it was probably about the same, at least until the first few swigs of my Venti Americano. But there’s something about my early morning brain that is just better able to string sentences together. Before another day of meticulous work, I spent my day happily typing away on my tablet and eating a cranberry-orange scone, and before I knew it I was comfortably over the 1200 word target.

Some of this may be due to the type of work. Most of my original composition is blog posts during the day. The majority of my evening time is given over to research, reading, and programming, which is a little less sensitive to my head-space. Perhaps if I built up the mental muscles again this late night timing wouldn’t be a problem, we all go through cycles of this, but I also think there’s something to the “first fruits” idea.

It’s easy to let work or the things we have to do be put ahead of the more creative projects we want to do. We think, sometimes rightly, that sleep is a more valuable resource than time, and that it’s better to have 8 hours sleep and to write in the evening, than six hours and to write in the morning. But it does make it easier to get through the more “worky” parts of my day when I know that I have also accomplished something toward my own goals. This may mean that when I get home all I’ll want to do is veg out and watch TV, but I still got something done.

There’s a saying, I think it’s from the UK, that “a change is as good as a rest.” Often this is said with irony, but in the case of this morning at least, it was quite true.

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Jack of all Trades vs. Renaissance Man

Got into an interesting conversation with Mr. Buckley this weekend, which is oft to happen whenever we occupy the same space, about how we spend our time and interests.

I’ve focused my writing to a couple of goals: non-fiction books about math and other areas of expertise, and fiction mysteries and science-fiction. At the moment that means I’m working on 2-3 books, and this blog. There are many other projects I’d like to work on: designing a video game, getting old games to work on new systems and playing them, even singing again in a choir. But I’ve chosen to focus on a few key things that matter so I can give them my full attention, and give attention to non-project based things in my life: work, family, friends, and God.

Finding new projects is never that hard for me. It’s just a natural extension of the work I’m already doing. In fact this blog, and life the last few years has gotten me to think of everything in my life in terms of a blog post to write, a book to research and write about, or a new project. I have to make a deliberate effort sometimes just to do something with no thought of the broader project.

Brian works just as tirelessly on the things he cares about but he also opens himself up to new possibilities more often than me. The way he describes it is that he’ll often be passionately interested in something for a few weeks, then drop it. Maybe 90% of time he drops a project, and keeps going with the remaining 10%. And it can be a little difficult to tell from the outset if it’s going to be one kind of project or another.

This process by its very nature makes Brian a well-rounded person. I love going book shopping with him, in part because we have a little fun with the stranger titles in the clearance section, and because he’s willing to stay in the store much longer than your average person. But it’s always mildly embarrassing when he walks out of the store with a stack of classic literature, scientific research, and philosophical thought, and I’m walking out with comic books and DVD’s. I do buy lots of heady books for research (mostly online), but I’ll admit I don’t make much time for classics like Paradise Lost, or even more fun fare like Alice in Wonderland. And I don’t research random topics of interest, I tend to stay focused on the areas of math or pop-culture that I’ve always loved.

I’m torn between seeing certain things as distractions, or as ways to make me a more thoughtful person. I know that topics outside of my current fields of study and writing may give me insight into my work, and that it isn’t good to be so far down into the cave that you can no longer see daylight. But at the same time, I gain great relief from being the kind of person who says “I don’t have time for this, I probably won’t enjoy it, and I don’t have to read it just because its old.”

I think it’s good to examine life and the things you’re doing on a regular basis. Not Agile stand-up meeting regular, but maybe quarterly reviews. And it’s good to have friends to talk to about these things who come at them from a different angle. Adjustments can always be made. Maybe it would be good to give myself three weeks to make a game sometime. I don’t gave to do the whole thing, or even do it for the reason of selling it, but just for the sheer enjoyment. Because life is not all about work and the things you can make.

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Recharging The Batteries

As you may have guessed, life’s a little hectic right now. I’m in the middle of some significant writing projects at home, and a new software development project at work. Last night after a full day of banging up against a new platform, I worked until 10:30pm at night finishing rewrites (with maybe an hour break for dinner). It was a very productive day, and that can be energizing, but it can also be exhausting.

So how do we writers live to fight another day?

Comfortable Environment: At work I have a cube, and kind of a crappy chair, but I’ve personalized the space as best as possible with various tchotchkes and pictures. I also tend to post the covers of my current projects as a reminder of where my true passions lie. At home it’s a little better. Last night I was curled up in a favorite recliner with a blanket over my legs, the record player on, and my laptop balanced on a nice lap desk my wife bought for me. Add hot chocolate and I’ve got it made. Sure it’s still work, but at least it’s in the most relaxing way possible. The danger of course is that I might fall asleep.

Go to bed: Eight hours is kind of a pipe dream, but I can get a solid seven if I go to bed on time. Too many days cut down to six hours will harm my productivity and general mood, even if it feels right in the moment. I’m a natural night owl, so I have to do things to help this goal. The 50 Peanuts strips before bed has actually been really good for this. It’s not tablet reading, so it’s easier on the eyes. It’s amusing without being too engaging. and it puts me in a good mood. Don’t check e-mail late (a rule I often break). If it’s something you can’t deal with immediately

Do something else: Distractions can be a good thing. They get your mind thinking in a different way, or just let your mind rest. I’m not one of these people who thinks any particular distraction is bad. I like TV and comic books, as well as video games and playing with my dogs. I think too much of any activity can be a bad thing, including work. And, if you’re writing about life experiences, sometimes you have to go out and have some experiences.

Talk to people: Hey, I know. I’m an introvert too. But talking to people can get you out of your bubble, and maintain important relationships. I never want the people in my life to think I’m ignoring them when I work long hours. This may mean not always following the impulse to talk about your work, or act on every idea you have. A surreptitious notebook or tablet file is a good way to stow away ideas for later.

Remember that people like to talk about your writing up to a point: If all you talk about is one topic, whatever it is, then eventually people will start to find you annoying, and it will narrow your perspective. Right now it can seem like there are really only a couple of things happening that I have to talk about, and maybe that’s true. In that case, ask questions, and find out what is going on with other people.

I better at some of these on some days than others. But they’re good goals to shoot for.

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The Light, It Burns

For about the last two years the bulbs above my cubicle at work have been blown out, as have many of the others in my part of the office. This resulted in a nice cozy workspace, soft light from my two desk lamps and my computer screens. Not dark, but comfortable.

When I arrived at work this Monday I was dismayed to find that someone had replaced every single blown out bulb, bathing the office in a bright artificial glow. Worse still, because of the placement of my light, the light balance in my cubicle is thrown off, really bright to the left, still kinda dark to the right even when I switch on my desk lights. It’s a sudden and disorienting shift to my environment. It’s giving me a headache.

Now was a writer I pride myself on being able to work anywhere. I have configured my gear and what I carry to make writing on the go a snap. And my work programming environment is tuned to my needs as well. Two screens, whimsical desk decorations and my own coffee maker. I don’t want to be some fragile baby bird who can only survive if the conditions are just right. But like a bird I do like to nest and my cubicle was one of those nests.

My office downstairs at home is comfortable. The desks are a dark color and my three desk lights provide enough illumination for the surfaces but not so much as to blind me. I have the option of an overhead light when I need to see more of my under the desk spaces, and I can easily switch it off when I don’t. The whir of the dehumidifier is comforting to the point that it’s jarring when it isn’t running.

On the go I like dark coffee shops, or book stores with are illuminated but not oppressive. I like white noise, the only thing my office at work still has going for it with all of the blowing fans. The worst place I ever tried to work was my library’s quiet rooms. Bright, quiet and feels like you’re sitting in a tomb.

Part of my annoyance is that the change was sudden and since all of the bulbs are new, they are at the point of being their most oppressive and artificial. The office used to be this bright when I started working here, and truth be told I don’t have that much control over my environment here. I’m trying to get used to it, though I’m seriously considering unscrewing the bulbs or coming to work wearing sunglasses.

Do you like where you work? What makes it a comfortable space for you?

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

I’d say one of the things I’m already learning in my 30’s is the truth of an old programmer’s adage: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

When you’re younger you can do pretty much anything you want and get away with it. I’m not saying that drinking too much caffeine, or eating too much, or not getting enough sleep don’t have an effect. You just have a better ability to power through.

Despite being a “creative” I have a very quantitative mind when it comes to this stuff. It’s hard for me to make generalized changes like “eat better” or “drink more water and less soda” without quantifiable goals, plans and known results. Ironically I like my plans clear and my results fuzzy; “I feel better” not “I lost X pounds”.

Today I started my new work schedule which is an hour later. I could tell from the way I felt during the week, and how much better I felt on weekends that I simply wasn’t getting enough sleep. And I know from my own patterns that the solution to this couldn’t be “go to sleep earlier” since pretty much no matter what I do I can’t fall asleep before 10:30pm. I may have inherited some of the Trube “gift of sleep” but so far that only seems to affect the strong desire on Sunday afternoons to take a nap. I do feel more rested and less like a narcoleptic today, and we’ll see how the siesta time in the afternoon goes.

Another change was a hard one, cut down the caffeine and limit when you drink it. Like a lot of cubicle dwellers every time I get up and walk by the coffee pot I come back with some. Sometimes it’s decaf but that’s still 4-6 cups of coffee every work day (which in terms of the actual cup unit of measure is more like 10-12). My solution, brew my own coffee at my desk. I have a little 4 cup (the unit of measure) coffee maker from my college days and I brew a full pot every morning. I try to drink it before noon and don’t drink anything but water the rest of the day (2 water bottle’s worth). I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks and find I am sleeping deeper (less waking up in the middle of the night) and I am feeling a little less high-strung. One down side is that I seem to be having more vivid dreams, not all of them pleasant but that may due to other kinds of input (shows I watch, news I hear, media I consume).

But what seems to have changed in my late 20’s and 30’s is that these kinds of changes actually have an immediate positive effect, or if I go the other way, an immediate bad effect. This might sound like a bad thing but actually it’s kind of helpful. Some of the stuff we do to be healthy can seem theoretical. At best it seems to effect only one arbitrary variable and not the systemic qualitative way we feel. What’s the basic goal of life? Be well, live long, and enjoy your time. That’s going to look different for all of us but it helps to get feedback from more than just external sources.

We’ll see long run if these changes actually result in better health, but feeling better is a good start. It’s a good lesson to learn at 30 rather than 50 (though I wouldn’t have minded really learning it 5 years earlier).

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I’m too tired to write

The above statement is what I was telling myself for a lot of November and December of last year, and even this morning starting this post at 5:30 in the morning sitting up in bed I’m very tempted to pull the sheets back and take the extra thirty minutes of sleep rather than writing these words to you.

I try not to be susceptible to writing moods but the truth is my emotions and the way I’m feeling physically does affect my output. Some of this is taking the time to actually get a good night’s sleep and to be prepared for the days work. Saturday in particular I allowed myself a good night’s sleep, woke to a wonderful breakfast in the breakfast nook with the little red haired girl, then worked at Panera for a number of hours on a writing project. I was certainly tired and wired after the session (three large cups of coffee will do that to a person even  sipped over the course of four hours), but I also felt like I’d gotten good work done.

Some time at the beginning of this year I decided I wasn’t going to let the tired excuse stop me from doing the writing projects I wanted to. I wasn’t going to say that I couldn’t take on too many projects, write more blog posts, put more hours into the writing. There have certainly been days where I’ve wanted to renig, to drop some things, to reconsider, but on the whole I think it’s been a great month and I hope to have many more like it in the coming year.

This doesn’t mean I don’t take the headspace or the tired argument seriously. I think some things are obstacles to the creative process. They may be largely created by ourselves, but that just means that the solution has to be created by ourselves as well. Sometimes the solution to not being able to write at 5:30 in the morning is to go to bed a half an hour earlier, and sometimes the solution is to write the night before. Not all emotions can be channelled into useful, productive work, though with practice most of them can.

One of the basic things I’ve found is that I’ve more to say, and more to write on the practice of writing when I’m actually writing. I have more to say about technology when I’m immersed in what’s going on in the world, and when I’m writing code. And I have more to say about books and comic books when I’m actually reading them. Taking more on has given me more to talk about (hopefully some of it interesting to the rest of you).

This is also not an inviation to overwork. There are limits to the amount of work a writer can practically do. I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve created a lot of “output” but after a point only some of it was usable, and the rest needs heavy revision. And there are other comittments in life besides the work we’re trying to finish. It’s just as valuable and refreshing to spend time sitting on the sofa curled up with a loved one and a dog (maybe sometimes a cat though a dog is more acommodating of when you have to go to the bathroom).

The only thing I’m saying is, we usually can do at least a little more than we think we can. And writing every day, or nearly every day, makes writing easier and frankly a hell of a lot more fun.

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