On Focus and Finishing Things

My kid is about to wake up. I just know it. He’s been out for an hour already. I almost couldn’t bring myself to start this post because I just know he’s going to wake up before I get anywhere. I used to have the whole day for getting things done. Now I have two hours, maybe three, during the day if I’m lucky and Griffin deigns to nap for any length of time, and a couple hours at night if he goes to bed and I decide to give up my run and let Nathan handle dinner (by ordering another takeout meal that I shouldn’t so much as look at, let alone eat, especially if I skip the run).

There’s so little time in the day. It’s been suggested to me that a new baby is a perfectly ok reason to take some time off. The problem is, I don’t want to take time off. If I’m not writing, I turn into a perfectly unpleasant human being. I’m unhappy and stressed and nobody wants to be around me, not even myself. So how to manage what time remains so that some actual writing gets done?

I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. But here are some things I tell myself that I’m finding really helpful:

1) Be realistic about what you can get done with different amounts of time, and use them accordingly. Save big chunks of time for what takes longest: getting actual words on the page. Don’t use it for knocking items off your to-do list unless your writing for the day is already done. It takes willpower to keep from thinking, this email only requires a quick couple of lines. I can do that first and still have plenty of time afterward to get some writing done. Nope. Avoid the temptation. It never works out like that. What if, God forbid, whoever you’re emailing responds right away? Then you’ve got to reply to the reply, and maybe that takes more than thirty seconds and two sentences, and all of a sudden your time’s up. 

2) By the same token, don’t set yourself up for failure and frustration by trying to squeeze writing time out of every spare second. I can’t write while Griffin’s awake. I just can’t. There’s no point trying. Spend some time in figuring out how your brain works–how well you context-switch, how much time you need to get yourself in the zone (assuming you actually close Twitter and Facebook and try to get yourself in the zone). If you have less than that amount of time, don’t try and force words into it. Do something else. Nullify a potential procrastination thingy or two that might trip you up later, perhaps. Send one email. Wash a few dishes. Get the clutter off your desk so you can focus when you do sit down to write.

3) Allow yourself some time to fritter away. Writing is like anything–if you try to blunt-force your way through things and deny yourself any relief, your brain will rebel at some point. Rewards are good. Breaks are good. Losing an hour to an episode of (fill in your preferred guilty pleasure TV show here) is good–assuming you earned that down time.

SO, assuming you’ve protected a good hour and a half or so in which to get some work done, how do you actually make writing happen before that time’s up? Because the bottom line is, what’s important is adding words–hopefully good ones–to the work in progress. 

1) Hold yourself accountable for your writing the way you hold yourself accountable for whatever else in your life you consider to be your jobWriting may not be your full-time job, but if it’s in any way your job, and especially if it’s something you want in any way to be your career, you have to treat it that way.

2) Set reasonable goals for everyday and stick to them. I can clock 1000 words in an hour if I’m really on my game. Back in the days when I could put a whole eight hours a day into writing, generally I completed about 3000 words a day when I was writing to meet a deadline. On non-deadline writing days, I still expected 1500 words from myself, which I know I can do in two hours if I really focus my energy and attention. Nowadays, I figure on non-babysitter/non-husband days, even if I only manage to sit down and write in the evenings, I should still be able to do 500-1000 words, and that’s what I hold myself accountable for. On babysitting days, I try for a full workday of 3000 words, but I don’t settle for less than 2000. So: know what you can reasonably do and hold yourself accountable.

3) Don’t edit while you write. Don’t read the previous day’s work before you start. Make that a reward for finishing today’s words. Basically, when it’s time to sit down and write, just sit down and write. Check the clock. Jot down the time. Check your starting word count. Jot that down, too. Write for an hour. Write like crazy. Expect to get a thousand words before the hour’s up.

There are tools that can help. Mac Freedom will shut off the internet for the length of time of your choosing. Spadefish lets you track productivity and share it. It also shows you how much time you’re spending on different things, in case you’re like me and tend to be working on more than one thing at once. Even Twitter and Facebook can be helpful, if you can find a few folks to do writing sprints with you. Check in with each other before you start, then check in and report your success at the end of your hour.

These are things I tell myself and tools I use to keep myself from turning into the unpleasant person I become when I don’t get any writing done. What about you? Any tips and tricks and tools to share?

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