Almost All Systems Are GO…Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part series on the systems I have put or am attempting to put into place in pursuit of the goal to MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Part 1 dealt with Inspiration and Energy. Part 2, below, is all about how I manage my time. Enjoy!

dragonfly-clock

Time Management for Easily Distracted Creatives

I am not a natural at time management. In fact, I’m naturally pretty horrible at it. I get off track really easily, and have a bit of a reputation for spacing things like bill paying and clipping my own toenails. So a solid system for managing my time is a necessity for me.

The key here is redundancy. One system alone is not enough. I need several chances each day to keep myself on task and to keep tabs on what I’ve accomplished, or what I still have left to do. I’ve come up with five ways of doing this, and each of them motivates me in a different way, which is nice because I get bored easily.

Daily/Weekly Planner

The daily planner is pretty much a no-brainer. Everyone has one, either in analog or digital form; the key is to actually USE IT. I tried planning stuff on my iPhone for a year, using Google Calendars and some different apps, but I never found anything that really worked for me. For one thing, it is easier for me to write short memos by hand than to finger-tap on a touch screen. For another, I found that a good sized planner has a lot more space–I can see whole weeks at a time, with all the pertinent things written down instead of having to tap through to another screen or do that awkward thumb-and-forefinger expandy motion to embiggen the text. Plus, there is something super satisfying about physically crossing a to-do item off of my list.

My planner is spiral bound, about 4×7″, with a brightly colored cover that makes me happy when I look at it. It is divided into weekly sections, and each day of the week has a good ten lines or so to write all the things down on. There is a monthly view at the beginning of each month, and there are a lot of extra pages for note-taking and stuff. At the beginning of each week (usually on Sunday), I go through and write down all the tasks I intend to complete for the week, trying to space them out so that no one day is too hectic.

This is not the first time I’ve had a planner, but it’s the first time I’ve figured out the most optimal way to use it and really stuck with it. Of course, the planner space isn’t limited to just creative projects. My other day-to-day tasks go in there, too. Like the work I do for my virtual assistance clients, homeschool lessons with my daughter, and errands I need to run. When planning my week, I don’t slate out my schedule hour by hour, but I do try to weigh out how long things are going to take, and try to allow myself enough time each day to get some creative work done.

Habitica

benjaminfranklin104457

If there’s a pithy, but slightly chastising adage to express a universal truth, chances are Ben Franklin invented it.

So there is this RPG thingy called Habitica that helps you set goals, form habits, and motivate yourself to accomplish stuff. This game has been a wonderful help for me in keeping track of things I want to do on a daily basis, that would take up too much room if I wrote them down in the planner, as well as setting to-dos and projects that have multiple components that need checking off over time.

The game rewards you for getting things done, whether it’s flossing your teeth, sticking to your daily exercise regimen, or completing your novel. You get an avatar, and as you move up in levels, you earn points that can be used to buy your avatar new gear. Every once in awhile, you’ll get an egg drop. Eggs can be combined with potions to hatch pets, which, when fed, grow into mounts. I’m totally geeking out here. Please forgive me, but I love Habitica! Plus, if you get friends and family to join, you can do quests with them. Quests are challenges that make the whole team accountable to each other for staying on task. If one member skips their dailies, for instance, the whole team suffers. But if everyone stays on track until the quest ends, they all get rewarded with treasure and whatnot.

Days For Certain Things

I’ve designated certain days of the week for certain tasks, especially for things that I will often forget to do, or things that NEED TO BE DONE weekly, no matter what.

For instance, Saturday is “working on the property day”. I take two hours to do some kind of cleaning-up or fixing-up project outside. If the weather’s not good, I find an indoor project to work on. What does this have to do with making my life more about writing? Well, this is the kind of thing that I will forget to do or put off for months, and the fact that it’s not getting done will distract me from everything, including my creative projects. So it’s all about limiting distractions.

On Sundays, I do laundry. I used to do laundry whenever I happened to think of it throughout the week. But I never seemed to get through the laundry pile, and it was taking time away from other stuff I would rather have been doing. So now, I do all my laundry on one particular day of the week. While the washer and dryer are running, I work on writing or revision. Two birds with one stone. I haven’t scheduled toenail clipping yet, but it might not be a bad idea.

The Major Hurdle: Sleep Schedules

catnap

Without my systems, this is me every day at noon.

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, since I’m, you know, a grown-up person with offspring of my own, and like, things that I do to make money and stuff. But for most of my adult life, I’ve generally slept in pretty late.

“Oh, that’s no big deal,” you might be thinking. “I often let myself sleep in til 9. Sometimes even 10.” Um. No, it was worse than that. On the average day, I used to get up around noon. My whole family did. My husband works late, I’m a night owl, and we homeschool our daughter, so we all kind of got into this pattern of going to bed in the wee hours of the morning and not rising until noon. I consider getting up at ten “early rising”. Serious. And, okay, I guess it worked out alright most of the time. Homeschool gets done. Client work gets done. Household chores get done. Bills get paid, etc. But what really nagged at me is the feeling that I could be doing MORE if I were getting up at normal-people time. It didn’t quite make sense logically, because either way you sliced it, I was getting the same number of sleeping and waking hours each day. But I had started to notice that, on the precious few occasions when I did get up early (early-early, not ten o’clock early), I FELT more productive and motivated to do stuff. So I started getting up earlier.

Going from late-riser to early-riser is not an easy change to make. Trust me. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do it before, and failed. So this time, I decided to go with a nice, slow, very gradual transition. For a week, I set my alarm clock for 11:30. The next week, 11:00, the next week, 10:30, and so on. Of course, the other half of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. My secret is to listen to audiobooks in bed. Knocks me right out.

So here’s my progress report on early rising: Currently, I’m stopped at ten o’clock for a few weeks because I couldn’t seem to wake up earlier than that. It must be a psychological thing, but if my alarm clock goes off at any time before ten, I’ll hit the snooze button in my sleep. But, even getting up at ten, I am getting clear and definite boosts to my productivity, especially in the writing realm. I may need to try transitioning by smaller increments of earlier-ness, now that I’m legitimately waking up in the actual morning. I could try going back fifteen minutes each week.  My goal is to wake up no later than 9:00 each morning, and it WILL happen. From there, I might even venture further into the mysterious morning realm. Who knows what treasures await me there?

Self-Imposed Deadlines

panic-meter

This is how I used to deal with deadlines, before I started my own business three years ago. Now I need to apply what I’ve learned about keeping deadlines for clients to my own creative projects.

I am motivated by deadlines. I can’t stand the guilty feeling of failing to deliver on promises I’ve made to clients or friends in a timely manner. Since I know this about myself, I decided to try and use it to my advantage in the creative department. I’ve begun assigning self-imposed deadlines for creative projects.

Sometimes the deadline will be a project completion deadline, like “I will complete the first draft of this story by the end of next week.” I write down the deadline in my planner and add it as a to-do in Habitica. Then I try to space out the work in such a way that I can accomplish the task within the stated time period, without pulling an all-nighter on the last day.

Other times I’ll give myself what I like to refer to as “homework assignments”. These are small tasks that are designed to help me grow and evolve as a writer. For instance, I’ll re-read a favorite short story to analyze the plot or character arcs. Or I’ll assign myself a writing prompt–nothing major, just a few paragraphs utilizing a particular element of fiction for practice. I usually think up these homework assignments in the morning, after my regular writing session, and I’ll give myself between one and three days to complete it, depending on how involved and time-consuming I think it will be.

Both of these methods have proven useful to a certain extent, but I’m not completely sure yet whether this particular system is going to stand the test of continual application. Somehow the promises I make to myself don’t carry quite as much weight as the promises I make to clients and loved ones. So on good days, when everything is going well and nothing unexpected comes up to distract me, I do pretty well at following through, but on more difficult days, these self-imposed deadlines tend to be the first thing I put off until tomorrow. Three or four difficult days in a row, and the deadline is all but forgotten.

What I really need, I think, is more ACTUAL deadlines. Or better discipline. Hmm. This systems thing is a never ending uphill trek, it seems. But maybe that’s just how it looks from halfway up the mountain. Onward and upward!

 

Almost All Systems Are GO… Part 1

***Note: When I finished this blog post, it was really loooooooong. So I’m splitting it up into several parts. This first part gives a brief introduction on the idea behind the series, and delves into the first of my productivity systems, which deals with inspiration and energy. Check back soon for more installments!***

Two months ago, on New Year’s Eve, I published a post about my 2016 Writing Plan and all of the creative goals I hope to achieve this year. Three weeks later I began to write this blog post, got over half of it written, got distracted, and didn’t come back to it until tonight. As you can see, my 2016 Writing Plan is hitting the requisite slumps and blocks. But good news! Despite random periods of slumpishness, I am well on my way to doing all the things! (I even was offered beard help.) I’m feeling productive. The words are flowing. The plots are coalescing. The ideas are being seized upon before they flit away. But none of it would be so, were it not for my SYSTEMS. As promised, I am writing this post to fill you in on the details of the 2016 Writing Plan’s logistics and behind the scenes operations.

cat-productivity-caption

I started implementing my systems about five months ago, little by little. Some of them are still in the beta testing phase, and they are all still subject to refinement, but I think I have enough data to illustrate how they work.

The purpose of each of my systems is to get me to do four things:

  1. Stay inspired and energized on my creative projects.
  2. Manage my time, including work time, family time, down time and creative time, in such a way that I don’t end up TOTALLY SLACKING OFF.
  3. Strike a balance for my writing between the spine-tingling creative rush and the tick-tock production schedule.
  4. Most importantly, MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Otherwise known as Immersion.

So, what are these brilliant systems, you ask? I will tell you.

Inspiration and Energy

Here’s a scenario that has happened to me about a hundred too many times. I’m working on this awesome project–a short story or a novel or an article or a blog post, whatever–and I’m just chugging along, feeling super inspired, writing 5,000 words in one sitting, not being able to stop thinking about the project for days on end…and then, Something Happens. It might be a family emergency, or the sudden realization that I am behind on other things, or it might be that I suddenly get stuck in the plot of what I’m writing. In the past, I’ve responded to this sort of interruption by stopping. I can’t say how many times I’ve told myself, “I’ll just take a short break for a day or two, and then get right back to it”, but let’s just say if I had a dime for each one, I’d probably be a hundredaire.

So last year when I was evaluating the roadblocks on my path to being a better and more prolific writer, I identified this one as “easily losing inspiration/energy.” To avoid this roadblock, I needed a system for maintaining inspiration and energy. Here’s what I came up with.

  • Write every day. My current daily word count goal is 800 words of fresh drafting or one scene of revision, which is a good goal (challenging but reachable) for where I’m at in my life right now. But if my schedule tightens up, I’m not scared to reduce that goal to whatever I can tap out in ten minutes. Likewise, if ever there’s a lull in Things To Do, I can ramp up the daily wordcount to fill up all that free time.
  • Have multiple projects going at once. A novel and a short story is working well for me at the moment. This way, if I run into a quagmire in the novel that I’m not sure how to resolve, instead of losing interest and letting my energy wane on the project, I switch over to the short story for a few days. When I do this, I am refusing to let my ideas stop steeping (which is essential to working out plot problems), or my writing muscles atrophy. I’m keeping up with my daily writing, and while I get all stoked on project B, project A is still simmering in the back of my mind, hopefully working out its own kinks. This method has already helped me immensely.
  • Writerly fellowship and peer pressure. My writer friends keep me on track. I’m part of two writing groups, one virtual and one local. My Odyssey class meets weekly on Google Chat to brainstorm and commiserate, and we have a running competition for who can get the most story rejections. We also have a couple of in-person reunion events planned for 2016, because we love each other with a deep and passionate love that makes your marriage look like a last ditch prom date. I’m also part of a group that convenes in meat space near where I live, once a week to critique each other’s stories. After the critiquing, we gather in a circle to type at a feverish pace for about an hour. It’s surprising how effective peer pressure can be for your word count. I’m a busy person outside of writing, so I don’t make it to every meeting of either of these groups, but I try to do at least one of them each week, if not both. It really, really helps. These people understand me, and they encourage and inspire me in ways that no one else really can.
  • Write at a particular time each day. To be honest, I haven’t gotten this one down yet. The idea is that if you sit down to write at the same time each day, you will eventually have your brain trained to be in creative mode at that time. My life is so wacky, however, that it’s really difficult to carve out a specific block of time for anything that can be repeated daily. But I’m hoping that as I get my other activities and responsibilities shuffled into something approaching an orderly schedule, a consistent time for writing will emerge. UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have upgraded to a morning routine, and have been spending at least one hour on writing projects first thing after breakfast each day. The routine is working really well for me, and I’m getting my writing done each day when my mind is at its freshest and most creative!

So, that’s it for inspiration and energy. Look out for future installments of this series, which I will post as I finish revising them.

 

2016 Writing Productivity Plan

be-more-awesome

I’ve never been a big fan of New Years’ resolutions. It has always seemed to me that if you really want to accomplish or change something in your life, there’s no good excuse to wait until January 1st to begin. I think the reason why people so often give up on their resolutions is because they don’t really want that change badly enough. They’re just making resolutions because, hey, that’s what you do on New Years, right? The resolutions are for changes that may very well be beneficial to implement, but the feeling or motivation behind them is too vague or wishy-washy to carry them through.

Speaking of changes, I decided in March of 2015 that I wanted to make a few. They’re all interrelated, but they all kind of fall under the umbrella of “Be more productive and do more with my life so that I don’t crumble under the weight of so many regrets that I can’t dig myself out of them.” Yeah. It was like that.

such-productivity

Look, I’m not an expert on productivity. Far from it. I remember the first time I ever completed a major creative project, rather than abandoning it partway through when I got distracted by a new idea. It was four years ago. I’m thirty-three, and I only figured out how to complete a project four years ago. Also, I have a tendency to be super spacey about schedules, to-dos, and commitments, and I am NOT an early riser. My mental image of a Very Productive Person looks like this: gets up at 6:30, exercises for thirty minutes, makes a healthy breakfast and eats it sitting down, does profitable work for several hours without skipping lunch, completes all errands and housework in a timely manner, and is committed to devoting a certain amount of time each day to creative projects. Also never forgets to pay the phone bill. None of those qualities describe me. Or at least, some of them are only just beginning to. (There will be a blog post on how I’ve managed to up my general productivity over the past few months. Stay tuned.)

What I’m really shooting for here is to make my life more about doing something with my creative drive. More specifically, I want to write more and to do more with my writing. (And when I say writing, I mean the creatively fulfilling kind–mainly fiction. I clarify because I actually do write a lot, but it’s mostly blog posts for my business clients, and while they pay the bills, blog posts about “How to Find the Right Futon Cover” or “Ten Things You’re Probably Forgetting to Clean” aren’t really creatively fulfilling at all.) The thing I’ve realized is, there’s not much stopping me. There never has been. It’s just that I’ve always been too easily distracted or overwhelmed by ADULT STUFF that I ignore my passion. And if I ignore my passion, it will never take me anywhere.

So, in lieu of resolutions, I’ve decided to make a 2016 PRODUCTIVITY PLAN. Or, as I like to think of it: Starr’s Mission to Level Up (And Be More Awesome Than Last Year). It’s basically like what businesses do at the beginning of a fiscal year. A plan for the year is better, and more likely to succeed, than a list of resolutions. For one thing, a plan requires more thought and energy, getting you more pumped up and motivated. It also requires you to figure out HOW you’re going to make the changes you want to make. And, of course, it can serve as sort of a road map that you can refer to going forward to make sure you’re on track. Best of all, you don’t have to wait until New Year’s to implement your annual productivity plan. Any day of the year will do. Just check back with your plan periodically and make a new one around the same day next year.

I’ve been working over the past few months on putting in place systems that will help me progress with my goals, and with this blog post, I’m officially setting my intentions for 2016. (More about the systems in that upcoming blog post I mentioned.) I figure that posting this plan in a public place will have the added benefit of making me feel more accountable for actually doing it.

In developing my 2016 Productivity Plan, I took stock of the things I accomplished this year, and then considered whether I wanted to do more of them next year, and how much more.

To give you an idea…

Things I Accomplished in 2015:

  • 1 First Draft of a Novel Halfway Written (I started it during NaNoWriMo and am still plugging away at it. The first draft should be finished in January or February, 2016.)
  • Won NaNoWriMo for the Second Year Running (Yay!)
  • 6 Short Stories Written (This is better than any previous year, but I’d like to do more.)
  • 12 Posts Written for My Own Blog (Ideally, I’d like to do at least one blog post a week, but I’m trying to set reachable goals here, so I’ll settle for somewhere in the middle. Also, I don’t like how the 12 posts were spread out over the year. When I look at my blog stats, there’s a big gap in the middle of the year where I didn’t publish anything for four or five months.)
  • ~50 Posts Written for Clients’ Blogs (This will probably be about the same in 2016.)
  • 78 Critiques of Other Writers’ Stories (This is freaking AMAZING, and I entertain no delusions that I will match it next year, as most of these were written during my attendance at Odyssey Writing Workshop, where I had to write two to three critiques a day for six weeks. I don’t think I will come close to doing this many critiques again, but I do want to make time for critiquing other writers’ work, for two reasons. One, it is part of my ongoing education in What Makes A Good Story; and two, I will probably need critiques of my own work, so of course I will want to reciprocate.)
  • Estimated 95,000 Total Words of Fiction Written (This might sound like a lot, until you realize that over half of these were written in the month of November, during NaNoWriMo. If I can do 50,000 words in one month of mad activity, then I can certainly get in 20,000 in a regular month, don’t you think?)
  • Estimated 15,000 Total Words Revised (This is sloppy. Just sloppy. I have a pile of short stories sitting on my desk that need revising.)
  • 3 Months of Writing Statistics Recorded Daily (I began recording my daily writing stats on October first, and have fully implemented the habit now. This is awesome. I love being able to watch my words pile up on the spreadsheet. And I only missed 15 days of writing in three months. Which, for me, is very, very good. But I want to do better.)
  • 19 Short Story Submissions Made (Nowhere NEAR enough.)
  • 0 Novel Queries Sent (Which makes sense, because I haven’t got a completed novel…YET.)
  • 17 Books Read (4 science fiction, 4 fantasy, 4 writing guides, 2 literary fiction, 2 short story collections, 1 horror. You can see the titles here.)
  • 1 Con Attended (ReaderCon in Boston–it was a blast!)
  • 1 Workshops Attended (Odyssey Writing Workshop–life-changing! Should probably count as 52 workshops.)
  • 2 Science Fiction/Fantasy Magazines Subscribed To (Fantasy and Science Fiction Kindle edition, and Fireside Fiction. I love reading speculative short stories, and since I want magazines to continue making them available to me, I figured I should do my part to support my favorite ones. Next year, I’d like to support a couple more as well. I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford another subscription, but maybe a small donation here or there when I’m feeling flush.)
  • 0 Beard Progress (An epic beard makes you a better science fiction/fantasy author by giving you like eighty kazillion experience points. It is known.)

(In addition to my Writerly Pursuits, I also mom’d a bunch, did daily social media maintenance for several clients, narrated five audiobooks, ran a successfully funded IndieGoGo campaign, met a bunch of awesome new friends, and did some other stuff…)

Now, taking into account the above list of 2015 accomplishments, which, I have to say, I already feel rather good about, here are my goals for outdoing myself in 2016.

Things I Hope to Accomplish in 2016:

  • Revise 1 Novel (The one I’m currently writing, ideally.)
  • Write another Novel (In November, obviously.)
  • Write and Revise 10 Short Stories (Only four more than this year! I can totally do it!)
  • Write at Least 18 Blog Posts (On my OWN blog, of course.)
  • Write the Obligatory Number of Client Blog Posts (However many they’ll pay me to write.)
  • Write at Least 1 Salable Non-Fiction Article (NOT a blog post. Like a real article, for a magazine or something. Must be on a topic that actually interests me.)
  • Fiction Word Count Goal: 150,000 (This is quite a bit lower than I think I can do. Baby steps.)
  • Revise at Least 100,000 Words of Fiction (Yikes.)
  • 100 Short Story Submissions (Crazy, right? But I’m in this weird cultish blood pact with some of my writer friends. If I don’t submit 100 stories, I forfeit my soul or something. I don’t know, I haven’t read the fine print…)
  • 25 Queries (You know, once I get that novel up to scuff.)
  • Read 20 Books (As always, reading Harry Potter to my kid at before bed doesn’t count!)
  • Attend 1 Con (I’m going to WorldCon!!!)
  • Workshops? (I don’t know. We shall see if the opportunity presents itself. As always, I’m committed to continuing to deepen my knowledge of craft in other ways.)
  • Buy a Convincing Fake Beard

Think I can do it? I’m certainly going to give it my best shot. And I’ll keep you posted as the year progresses.

Do you have any resolutions this year? Or an ambitious Productivity Plan, like mine? Let me know in the comments. Maybe we can be motivation buddies!