Resource management

Over on her Blog of Doom, my Stonecoast friend and classmate Shawna Borman was sharing her time management strategy and asking for others to share theirs. The comment I was going to leave got a little long, so I’m posting it here:

Time Management

I find time management relatively easy. I’ve set myself the goal of writing three hours a day, six days a week for 2019. That’s 18 hours a week (pretty much full time for me, as I’ve discussed elsewhere) which leaves up to 22 hours for non-writing tasks like brainstorming, reviewing markets, submitting stories, keeping up with email, and other obligations that creep in. But as far as time management goes, it’s pretty straightforward—I put three one-hour blocks on my calendar every day. Done.

If only it were that easy.

Scheduling writing time is straightforward. Making productive use of it, less so. Rather than time management, I’m trying to figure out focus management. And energy management. And enthusiasm management. And productivity management. Let’s take them in order of significance.

Energy Management

This is the big one. This morning, for instance, I kicked off the day with a particularly punishing CrossFit workout and spent the next couple of hours in a WOD fog. [1] So much for my calendar. I had the time scheduled but couldn’t make use of it. Sometimes I’ll oversleep or undersleep or just wind up in a funk because of the weather, and all the calendar time in the world is no help because I don’t have the energy to take advantage of it.

When I’m working in theatre, energy management is easy for me. I get so fired up in rehearsal that my stage manager has to remind me to give the actors a break. I’ll often come early, or stay late, or work through the break if there’s an actor that needs help with a monologue or a fight or a tricky bit of business. My energy level isn’t an issue, regardless of how I eat, sleep or exercise.

Writing is different, and there are lots of confounding variables. I have more energy earlier in the day, but not before noon, regardless of when I wake up. Getting enough sleep is important, but not as important as getting up at the same time every day. Eating clean helps. Too much rice or pasta leads to a carb coma that’s worse than a WOD fog, etc., etc., etc. I’m still figuring out what works for me, but the level of sustained concentration I need for writing is much more susceptible to disruption than anything else I do.

A big win for me in terms of energy management has been dividing my writing time up into multiple shorter sessions. As little as 30 minutes can be enough time to make useful progress on something, but a full hour is better and 90 minutes to two hours seems to be close to ideal. Longer than that and I start to get restless. A change of location, though, is enough to break a single longer session into two, so I’ll often start at the library before moving to Starbucks, or write upstairs in my office before moving downstairs to the dining room, or some combination of the above.

Enthusiasm Management

The next challenge, for me, is enthusiasm. Sometimes I’ve got the time on my calendar, the energy to write and …. nothing. I’m squared away at Starbucks with a grande English Breakfast tea and my Bose headphones. I’ve got Scrivener open on my Macbook, and I don’t even want to start. This happens most when I’m dealing with big or ill-defined projects, and the best way of managing my enthusiasm is creating a measurable sense of progress (so much so that I almost called this section Progress Management).

Nothing feels more hopeless than to bash away at something for three hours and not feel any closer to being done than when you started. Breaking the project up into smaller, well-defined deliverables (chapters or drafts) really helps, as does mixing in some shorter, easier projects. I started this blog to get practice at finishing things, but it’s also been a place to turn when I’m stalled out on a larger project. I can bang out a short post relatively quickly and feel like I’ve accomplished something, which makes it easier to dive back into the abyss when I’m over the hump.

Another tool for enthusiasm management is “leaving a rough edge,” that is, leaving a paragraph or passage unfinished so it’s easy to pick up in the next session and make some immediate progress. [2]

Focus Management

Shawna mentioned writing sprints and pomodoros, two great tools for creating focus. A sprint is just a brief burst of concentrated effort with no distractions. A pomodoro is the same but always 25-minutes long. You can fit two pomodoros into an hour, which makes them ideal for scheduling, still leaving room for a five-minute stretch break after each.

I love pomodoros. A lot of writers concentrate on word count, giving themselves a daily quota, but I find a pomodoro quota more effective. [3] It’s hard to focus for three (or more hours). It’s not as difficult to focus for just 25 minutes. And then another 25 minutes. And so on. [4]

Shawna also mentions accountability. Nothing sharpens your focus like knowing you’ve got to report your progress to a friend, the more immediate the better. Write-ins are great for this (though they can also be a source of distraction), as are online writing communities.

Productivity Management

The final challenge is actually being productive with your time. This is something I’m starting to make real strides with. I have memories of sessions past where I put my head down and wrote for 25 minutes and came up with just a sentence or two. More recently I’ve been able to knock out an entire project in one session. 

My big tools for success in this area have been pre-writing (brainstorming, outlining and research) and metawriting (writing through blocks). Knowing what you want to write saves so much time. You could call the whole process writing, but I find separating the writing from the thinking more efficient, and it certainly feels more productive.

Of course all of these resource management strategies feed into each other. Sloppy time management (scheduling writing blocks too soon after exercise or a big meal) can lead to poor focus. Poor focus can kill your productivity, which in turn dampens your enthusiasm. Bringing it full circle, it becomes much easier to schedule writing time when you know that you’ll be rewarded for the effort. 

I’m curious what other resources you have to manage as a writer, and what your strategies are for managing them.

[1] WOD = Workout Of the Day. Working out regularly is so important to my mental and physical health as a writer that I include it in my 22 hours.

[2] I’d thought the “rough edge” advice was from Hemingway, but it’s actually from Cory Doctorow (Hemingway said something similar). Here’s the quote: “When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.”

[3] I created the Magic Spreadsheet (named by Mur Lafferty, now maintained by Greg Chamberlain) as a way for writers to gamify and track their daily word count, and as a way of being accountable to their friends without having to exchange daily emails. Very early on I added pomodoros as an option. I’ll have more to say about the Magic Spreadsheet later.

[4] I use an app called Focus Time that’s quicker and simpler than setting up a timer, but also tracks my pomodoros. I can also set up distinct categories for each project, so I know how much time I’m spending on my non-fiction project vs. my novel vs. this blog.

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