Writers must multi-task.
Professionally, it’s a must — we’re editing one manuscript while drafting another, all the while keeping up with blogging and admin.
Artistically, it’s also a must. Too long just editing and we grow stale and twitchy. Too long drafting, and we lose sight of our next project. Plus most projects benefit from mulling time where we don’t think about them, and if we’re not pushing one project forward, then we want to be working on another because we have too many ideas and too few years…
Multi-tasking is challenging. Short term projects offer a quicker fix — attention, money and sense of accomplishment — than the long-term ones. Meanwhile our ability to efficiently perform a core activity depends on momentum, mood and mental fatigue (3M), and therefore the point where we need to make lucid decisions is usually also the point where we are least able to make them.
Old fashioned project management planning can’t help much because of 3M (and, to be honest, writer). More modern Getting Things Done-style approaches are also infective because we have too few external events to break up our working day into identifiable slots.
I find muddling through unsustainable because it’s stressful — All those decisions! — and guilt inducing — Why am I having fun planning a new novel when I should be marketing the one I already have and so making some money Right Now? I’d rather have a system that I can point to and say: this is what I should do next and I’m working toward the future using this system.
So (actually inspired by Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer) I’ve evolved my own approach which I am now formalising. Here it is in a nutshell:
Writing projects naturally fit into three phases:
- Planning — researching, outlining, test writing, tinkering…
- Drafting — the actual writing
- Editing — turning the draft into something publishable.
Each involves a different kind of mental activity and a different mental space, so I find I can have one active project of in each phase. More than that and I risk a kind of mental log jam, though I seem to be able to have more than one project in draft phase as long as they are of different sub genres.
So this gives me:
- One active project on each phase.
- One of these projects is the Focus Project. This is usually the one with the most real deadlines, and the most identifiable returns.
These are the things you have to do in order to keep writing (and stay married, keep your children out of jail etc). They include everything from Outreach (social media, marketing etc) through to Life.
Time when you are not actually writing. This is usually punctuated by family and living, and not conducive to any kind of working in flow. Most of the Overheads should find time in this space — I can do my tax returns in 20 minute sessions between cooking and looking after the kids, for example.
This is the precious uninterrupted time when you can work “in flow”.
Put the bulk of your daily effort into your Focus Project. When you grind to a halt, take a break to do something physical– wash the dishes, drill with a sword, all the normal stuff you do — then switch to either whatever Active Project you feel like or a pressing Supporting Task. So a typical day might comprise 4 hours editing, 1 blogging, 1 planning a new novel.
All projects have campaigns; natural spans of work. These could be days or weeks long. When you hit diminishing returns, switch focus to another Active Project. So if you have spent a week editing, spend a day drafting something or planning another project. This enables you to balance long and short term professional needs, and to stay sane.
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I’ll be trying out this formalised approach over the next couple of seasons. I’ll let you know how it goes….