Writing Advice

Three Ways to Prioritize Your Time

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Let’s face it, we all procrastinate to some extent. The question of “to what extent” is what really separates us from one another, and separates the chronically late from the simply ill-prepared. I’m going to introduce you to three tools that moved me from the former category firmly into the latter.

The first is a physical and analog tool. This, my friends, is called a Bullet Journal. I know, I know. It’s the information age, the digital age, the time of miracles and wonder. An age that requires us to be nimble and to move quickly. Our brains, however, haven’t always caught up with that age. We’re still wired to work in an analog setting. The Bullet Journal, developed by a clever young man named Ryder Carrol, works to blend the two.

It has been scientifically proven that writing things out in longhand keeps them in our memory longer. At its simplest and most effective, the Bullet Journal consists of only three things: A number to every page, a topic to every page, and bullet points on every page.

As an example, take a look at these two pages, 114-115. This is where I keep track of restaurants I want to try and movies I want to watch, or have watched. You’ll note that each starts with a bullet point, maybe a brief description. At the bottom of the movies page, there’s a variance – having watched the Coen Brothers’ HAIL, CAESAR, I made an X through the bullet point and provided my personal 3-star rating. It was a good film, but not their best work. Similarly, under Restaurants, I’ve crossed out Trencherman, which sadly closed before I was able to enjoy their fare.

The page numbers allow me to create a quick index at the front of the journal. You can see how this system lets me take casual, one-off thoughts or comments and log them to remember later, when I’m actually looking for something to do. I find recommendations online or on television, and jot them down in the journal so I don’t have to remember them any longer.

The second tool is called the Eisenhower Matrix. Named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this is the tool that really changed the way I spend my days and weeks. He had a great quote – “What is urgent is rarely important, and what is important is rarely urgent.”

As such, the matrix consists of four quadrants: Important and Urgent, Important and Not Urgent, Urgent but Not Important, and Neither Urgent nor Important. Examples of those four might be tax deadlines, physical exercise or study, assisting co-workers with their deadlines, and – at least in my case – scrolling endlessly through social media.

It’s a funny thing about our modern age that we spend most of our lives in the third quadrant, taking care of things that are Urgent – usually for someone else – but not truly important to us.

Eisenhower recommended that you Do everything in the first quadrant as soon as possible. That you Devote the majority of your free time to the second quadrant. That you Delegate or Decline to accept items in the third quadrant. And that you Delete items in the fourth quadrant.

I found that tracking these in my BuJo – and not even marking down the fourth quadrant – truly helped me begin focusing my time and energy where it was most important.

The third and final item that helped me with time management is called the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo developed this in the eighties. The idea is that you can usually focus on ANYTHING for twenty minutes’ time. Therefore, when you begin a difficult task, you set a timer for 20 minutes. When that timer goes off, you ask yourself, do I need a break? If so, you take five minutes to stretch, check Facebook, or do other things Eisenhower would put in his fourth quadrant – then get back to another 20-minute block of work.

These three techniques have changed me from a full-blown procrastinator to a largely functional member of adult society. In fact, not too long ago, one of my mentors commented on the fact that he didn’t believe I’d ever been a procrastinator; because it seemed like I was always busy doing something different. I had to tell him, “Well, that’s the one great part about being a procrastinator. I can’t get bored – I’m just doing the things that were due in January!”

Dreaming vs Planning vs Monitoring

One of the things I did with my time away from the day job was sit down and catalog all the ideas I’ve had for projects swimming through the fishbowl of my brain. I put them down in Excel and counted them up.

There are twenty-eight of them. Mostly novellas or full-blown multi-novel series.

And here I’ve historically decried my lack of ambition.

That’s a fair criticism, however, if all I’ve done is think about them. Not a single one has more than a few thousand words devoted to it; and those words are just starting character sketches, plot outlines, errant scenes that wouldn’t leave me alone until they got on the page.

That’s why I wrote them all down, and why I chose Excel. In theory, if I pay attention and apply intention, I could finish one a year and be through with my output before I turn 75.

Historically speaking, that’s a pretty big “If.”

Now this isn’t a resolution. But it makes these dreams look a lot more solid, and at least somewhat more real, more important. It provides a framework against which I can theoretically prioritize and plan, set goals and deadlines.

Again, this isn’t a resolution.

In many ways, to be honest, it’s another form of procrastination. I get that. Making lists and making plans is just sooo seductive. It feels like making progress! And when you’re done planning, you’re done for the day! The work is planned for tomorrow. And if something knocks tomorrow off the plate, well, you did build some wiggle room into the plan …

Planning is a part of work, but it’s not the real work. You need an architect to build a house, yes; but you need a bricklayer more.

Which leads me to the second form of planning. Oh yes, mid-post turnaround, ha HA!

Planning how to spend your time is all well and good, but it’s not as good as tracking and monitoring what really happens. I learned that in Weight Watchers. You can plan good meals all week long, but if you actually eat pizza every night and call it a salad, well, your plan’s a bit crap.

So I set up a second Excel sheet, not to plan my days, but to track my time. I’m a big fan of the visualizations at Podio.com of The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, and initially I’ll follow their buckets for the most part – I am including a section for “hearth work” based on my earlier post on improving our living conditions.

I do have a few pieces in my daily or weekly routines I’m unsure how best to categorize:

  • Reading seems to fall under Leisure for the Podio purposes, so I’ll reluctantly adopt that.
  • My public speaking and Toastmasters work will be either Creative Work (writing, delivering, critiquing speeches), Administrative (in my official capacity) or Other (attending conferences, etc.)
  • The commute is currently part of Dayjobbery, and I don’t see that changing. Given that I often listen to podcasts or audiobooks, I could count it as Leisure, but honestly there’s nothing leisurely about the two hours a day in traffic, and I would use the time differently if I were working remotely or at a closer location.

I’m going to keep this tracking private, at least initially, but I do plan to share trends as I see them.

SPOILER: I hope to see Creative or Hearth Work increase 6 days a week. I also plan on it.

Surprise Surprise!

My fictional characters don’t often surprise me, but when they do, it’s quite a surprise.

FAMISHED: THE RANCH has been rolling along well. My alpha readers have been invaluable, and so far things have been not simple, but at least reasonable.

Last week, though, my primary antagonist made something clear: He’s smarter than his cousins. I knew that already, but I didn’t realize how dumb my original outline made him out to be in this section. The plot as outlined required him to overlook something fairly obvious, and this character wasn’t having any of it.

It’s a good thing for the book! The story will be better for it.

It’s a terrible thing for my rapid progress.

I don’t turn on a dime. Flexibility is a known issue for me in all aspects of my life. I don’t like that, but I have learned to accept it. When plans change, I often need a bit of time to adapt.

The problem is, I don’t have a lot of time. By week 4 of this month my available time is going to be slashed until May, which means the first draft’s got to be done before then. I can edit, revise and adjust, but I can’t be wrestling with these fundamental plot points in April.

In traditional mode, I worried about this for a week in private, then reached back to the alpha readers for advice (something else I often struggle with). They were unanimous: The new direction is correct and improves the book immensely. They removed my last possible hope of sticking to the original plotline, bless ’em.

So I’m writing this post for three reasons: Firstly, I haven’t blogged in a while. Secondly, this is the only thing I’ve been able to think about for a week.

Finally, I’m hoping that writing about the issue publicly will result in writing through the issue when I’m next able to sit down.

How about you? When your characters present a surprise, do you seize it and run? Or like me, do you need to deliberate and figure out where the new path leads?

Music of the Fears – January 2015

Scholar and gentleman Michael Grasso of the Renfusa blog pointed me to this article on teaching yourself creativity.

It’s an interesting read – an article I’ll likely mine for more blog posts in the future on topics such as the role of personality in creativity, my collection of self-help books on how to engage the creative mind, and the impact of a positive outlook on your own creativity.

Today, I’ll start with this quote:

“Most creative people have figured out a way to do the incubation thing—whether it’s meditation or staring out the window or taking long walks so their ideas can percolate,” Jung says. “It’s finding that magic space where you’re not actively engaged with the external world, and not just surfing the Internet.”

That kind of woolgathering was once my stock in trade. My bread and pickles. The trait that’s annoyed more of my teachers and romantic interests than anything else.

The arrival of the internet has made it both more difficult and simpler. More difficult, because left to my own devices, I’ll surf Pinterest and Reddit for hours at a time; and nothing kills my creativity faster than that aimless browsing.

Simpler, because I have four primary means of incubating: Meditation, Exercise, Driving … and Music.

Of course, one of the things the internet does really, really well is introduce me to music I would never have found in my local record stores or on the radio.

My alpha readers for FAMISHED: THE RANCH are getting notes on what music I listened to while writing various chapters. Since it’s a Friday before a long weekend, I decided it would be a friendly gesture to point others in the same direction.

When I’m not writing, my tastes trend to ska and hard rock. When writing, though, other people’s words get in the way. As a result, most of what I use to get into the incubating stage is ambient, electronic, or in a foreign language.

Most importantly – if you love the track, buy it! If you love the artist, let them know! Musicians, writers, and all other creatives need your support.

How about you? If music helps you get into the mood, share the love in a comment below.

Am I Writing the Right Story?

Springboarding today off an excellent post by Janice Hardy at diymfa: Are You Writing the Right Story?

I’m not going to parrot her advice, just answer the questions and prompts she provides.

  1. What kind of novels am I drawn to?

    Lately I’m drawn to crime thrillers and mysteries, in addition to my staple fantasy novels. I enjoy historical fiction, though I haven’t read much recently.

    A list of my favorite books, Lord. Um. I can’t name any crime-wise, aside from Black Lizard Pulp Collections. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless wove a period of history I’m interested in into a setting of legend and fantasy. Tim Powers’ Last Call provides grime-stained high weirdness. Fritz Lieber and Robert E. Howard give me grim heroism. I don’t enjoy the grimdark trend in fantasy, but looking at my favorites, I suppose it’s closer to what I’m drawn to than epic heroism.

  2. What kind of movies or tv shows am I drawn to?

    The only show I watch on a regular basis is Hell on Wheels, which is a Western full of difficult choices, complicated relationships, and a complete lack of status quo. I enjoyed Boardwalk Empire, which is similar in theme. In more formulaic shows, I loved Firefly for its dialogue and sharp characterizations. My favorite shows are actually nature documentaries – they’re not always story fodder, but visually they can be stunning.

  3. What similarities do you see? What common themes?

    They focus on an unstable world, where loyalties and priorities shift on a regular basis. They’ve all got protagonists who are competent though flawed. A few of them are straight-ahead bang-up action, more often they blend that action with introspection.

  4. Is there a recurring character type? 

    Competent but flawed protagonists. Slippery and powerful antagonists. Determined characters who may be at war with themselves, but who have chosen their path and will continue down it come what may.

  5. Are there recurring plots? 

    Ambition and determination.

This was a great exercise for anyone working to find their voice – I have some thinking to do.

(Thanks to Elizabeth S. Craig for the initial link to Janice’s post!)

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