Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Social Media Break

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my living room for a visit with two people. We talked… sort of. They both had their phones out, and their eyes were on the screens even when they were answering questions directed at them or offering distracted contributions to the conversation.

A few months ago, I’d have had mine out, too. It’s just kind of the way things seem to go these days. Even if we all start the evening with good intentions and our phones in our pockets, they come out as soon as there’s a question that could be googled (or someone gets a ping that says another conversation demands their attention, so everyone else gets theirs out, too, just to check). And then the devices don’t necessarily go away. There’s always another app to look at, a YouTube video everyone else just has to see while the phone is out, another response to that online conversation. A lot of us feel naked without our phones in our hands. Understimulated. Bored, even when we’re sitting with loved ones we haven’t seen in a month.

This post isn’t about criticizing anyone who’s committed to the always-online lifestyle. I get how appealing it is to have a constant source of (free!) entertainment. I know the pain of worrying about missing something.

And I’m not saying socializing online is bad. I have friends I’ve never met in person, but I consider those friendships as real as any I’ve had in real life. I credit social media with exposing me to a lot of ideas I’d never have considered if I was only experiencing life with the people who happened to live near me. A lot of us work or do our marketing online. Fairly important stuff, as it turns out.

Social media can be cool. I’m aware that Facebook is not, in fact, cool anymore. But neither am I, and it happens to be where my friends are. So that’s been my challenge.

And since I mentioned in a post a while back that I was taking some time away from it, I thought I’d share the results. (If you scroll back a little in my posts here, you’ll find that this wasn’t my first attempt. It has, however, been my most successful thus far.)

I didn’t track the results of this experiment like I am with my productivity stuff. It was just something I needed to do, and I did it (mostly). I didn’t like how much time I was wasting scrolling through my Facebook feed, refreshing it when I ran out of new things to look at. I knew while I was doing it that I was wasting time, that I’d be miserable after, that I should stop. That I wanted to stop. It didn’t matter. It was a thing that I did, one that occasionally rewarded me with an interesting (but almost always useless) hit of information or entertainment.

As Manoush Zomorodi notes in my current non-fiction read, Bored and Brilliant, “I wasn’t using my smartphone to connect. I was using it to escape.” We’re not talking about me using the service intentionally or productively for personal or business purposes. I was getting nothing out of it (except the pleasant little chemical blips in my brain when my efforts were rewarded with a comment or interaction). But it was there. So I was there, too, even though I knew it was bad for me.

Scary.

And then there’s Messenger. I always felt less guilty about spending time having conversations with friends than I did about mindless scrolling and reading, but my desire to always be available was hurting me. The fact that I was responding to every message right away was eating into work time. A lot.

And worse, I had my phone in hand when I was with the kids and they wanted my attention. I wasn’t neglecting them, but it was getting to the point where I was a little concerned that they might engrave just give me a second I’m talking to someone on my gravestone some day.

Now, I expect my family to respect the time and space I need when I’m working, reading, or doing something that’s important to me. I don’t want to raise kids who expect everyone to drop everything any time they want to talk about what Dan TDM is up to today. But I do want them to know that they’re more important than anything that comes through my phone, work-related or not. And when I’m with family or physically present friends, I don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of what I might be missing elsewhere.

Some of you probably know what I’m talking about, but obviously this isn’t a problem for everyone. You might be reading this and shaking your head, with words like willpower and self-control rattling around in your head because you have those things and I so clearly don’t. I’m not going to try to explain it.

Just know that I had a problem, I recognized that it was a problem, and I decided to do something about it.

Moderation isn’t my strong suit, so I went very nearly cold turkey off Facebook, only checking in occasionally with my reader group and posting once in a while to my author page. I deleted the app (not for the first time). I told friends that if I didn’t answer messages, it wasn’t because I was ignoring them. I just wasn’t checking my phone. I turned off messaging on my author page because a) the system is glitchy anyway, and b) my email address is readily available on my website if anyone really needs to reach me.

I was already in the habit of not keeping my phone in the bedroom. I had an alarm clock radio to wake me up, which meant that checking my phone was no longer the first thing I did every day. I’d seen the benefits of postponing that kind of distraction, even if some days that only meant delaying it until I got downstairs and gave in to the urge to check for notifications. Oh, and I’d turned off sound/vibration notifications for Messenger and incoming emails a while back, too.*

So what happened when I really tried to kick the habit, left my phone plugged in most of the time, and started going up to a week without visiting Facebook?

I started finding 99+ notifications when I did drop by Facebook, and found that almost none of them were anything I actually needed to click on. But when I was on there all the time, I’d have spent a lot of time clicking, anyway.

I missed out on finding out that my mom got a new car. And then she told me in an actual conversation. So that was cool.

I stopped checking in with author groups that are full of information I feel like I should know, but that I never use. So yes, I’ve learned less. I’ve also wasted less time learning stuff I won’t use, and I know where to find that information when I decide I do want to use it.**

I stopped feeling anxious when other people seem to be doing, being, and achieving more than me. I settled into my own goals and my current focus on writing, and I let go of my panic over all the promotion everyone else seems to be doing. For the first time in ages, doing my personal best started to feel like enough.

I realized that most of the people I interact with online aren’t really my friends. Those interactions of convenience are really fun, and I genuinely like a lot of those acquaintances. They’re funny and insightful and inspiring when I bump into them. But me dropping off their radar hasn’t made any impact on their lives, and not getting their news hasn’t hurt mine. I’m a lot less lonely than I thought I’d be without them.

I kept in touch with the people who really are my friends and those who made the effort to message me directly, but spent less time disagreeing with strangers and getting pissed off by posts from people I don’t really care about (but who nonetheless get under my skin). My stress levels dropped accordingly.

I had online conversations when it made sense in my schedule, when I wasn’t supposed to be working and when real life people didn’t need my attention. When I could give those online friends the attention that they deserved.

I started paying more attention when I watched TV and movies, and was actually there with the people I was watching them with.

I saw fewer ads for stuff I don’t need and suffered through less of that horrible feeling I get when I realize how targeted Facebook’s ads really are (don’t even get me started on how damn creepy that gets).

I missed Stephen King’s birthday. There’s no up-side to that, except that I’m 100% sure he’s not personally offended by me not posting about it.

I started reading more. Instead of having my phone in my hand while I cooked or when I relaxed after supper, I had a book handy. I started choosing nonfiction books on random topics that caught my attention and found that going deep in a topic in book form was way more satisfying than getting the Cliffs Notes version from a short article.

I started being a little more present in my own life. That night when my companions both had their phones in their hands and the conversation fell into regular lulls as they read posts or had other conversations, I enjoyed the cat who had plopped himself on my lap. I paid attention to how soft his fur was, tickled his little pink toe beans,  and tried to figure out how he managed to be solid and liquid at the same time, oozing into every little space between me and the chair. (I decided that his variable physical state had something to do with the constant vibrations coming from his throat. Or that he’s actually some sort of fuzzy amoeba.)

I stopped losing track of time so often. And I got a little more of my crap done.

And I realized that the things I do are real and important even if I don’t share them with everyone I know. Crazy.

That’s not to say I’m some kind of mindfulness devotee now. I’m still highly distractible, especially when there’s work to be done. Meditation frustrates me. If I’m sitting still, my brain’s working at top speed. My memory is still crap. I have trouble getting to work (though cutting out a few potential distractions has been very helpful). I’m still constantly searching for any kind of mental stimulation, and reading has picked up a lot of the slack that the Facebook void created.

That last sentence might look like six of one and half a dozen of the other, but I’m enjoying seeking out information that interests me instead of accepting whatever happens to be presented. Who knew cannibalism was so fascinating?!*** And yes, I’m missing out on a lot of current events-type news. But I’m learning to say, “No, I didn’t know, can you tell me more?” when someone asks “Hey, did you hear about…?” And that leads to a conversation, and to something I can find information about from sources I trust. So that’s kind of cool on both fronts.

It feels like more of my mental energy is going into ideas now. I’m daydreaming more. Noticing more. I’m thinking about story problems instead of reaching for the nearest distraction to numb my pain when I hit a speedbump in my draft…

…Sometimes. The temptation to just shove the problem aside and go read an unrelated book or write a blog post will likely never go away, and I’m starting to accept that it will always be a struggle.

The first few weeks were hard, but I was actually surprised by how quickly checking on my Facebook group turned into something I put off because I didn’t want to face the stressful information flood of my timeline and useless notifications. I’m actually way behind on posting there. Sorry, guys. (Side note: They’re an amazing bunch of people. I can’t quit them.)

So yeah. Taking time away from Facebook (and Twitter, which I never really liked anyway) has absolutely been beneficial for me. I feel less scattered, and more in control. I like the fact that I’m reading more. I like that I’m not saying just a second every time a member of my family wants to talk to me, and I’m so much calmer when I’m not reading a steady stream of opinions, complaints, and pointless arguments every day.

Is it sustainable? Probably not on a professional level. Being discoverable is kind of essential if I want to meet people who might want to buy my books. There is information out there that I need, and I’ve always liked picking up ideas from unexpected sources. I likely wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the people I happened to meet online when I was in the right place at the right time. I’m missing out on learning what other authors are doing to promote their work and on making connections with people who I might be able to help some day. I’ve likely gone too far into Full Hermit mode, and the pendulum needs to swing back a bit so I don’t become totally closed off and clueless.

But on a personal level?

Yeah. I actually think I’ll stay away for a while longer. And then I’ll creep back slowly. I’ll leave groups and unfollow people who aren’t really adding anything to my online experience. I’ll try to start getting photos printed for myself instead of just posting them for everyone else. I’ll focus on making sure that when I do post, it’s adding something positive to someone else’s newsfeed.

And I’ll limit my time. Instead of setting one day a week or a few hours a day aside as social media-free, I’ll only be on there for a set amount of time. I’ll use that time to make it work for me, and I’ll do my best to remember that my phone is my tool, not my master.

I mean, I’ll try.

It’s all I can do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some kitty cat toe beans to tickle.

 


 

*I highly recommend both of these ideas if you’re interested in cutting back on social media distractions. Having a bit of clear mental space in the morning helps me remember that exposing myself to the quicksand flood of newsfeeds and tweets is a choice, not a foregone conclusion, and it makes me think about the real world first. It also means my phone screen isn’t the last thing I see before I go to sleep. And turning off notifications means that I choose when I get messages. They can’t distract me from my work or whatever else I’m doing unless I let them. For me, setting those boundaries is in and of itself powerful.

**By which time all of the information I’m not learning now will be obsolete anyway. Another note: Checking in with these groups actually feels like work now. I’m at least temporarily off the obsessive treadmill of constantly needing to keep up with information. Whether that will be a good thing in the long run, I have no idea. But I am spending more time actually writing books.

***Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt. So entertaining. Really.

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Godawful Early Schedule Week One

Well, friends, not much about this week’s attempts to get up early surprised me.

Exciting, right?

The potential benefits of getting up a bit earlier and getting some work done are unquestionable. The house is quiet. The kids are still asleep. It’s work time when I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be doing anything else.

Best of all, it’s work that’s done before life has a chance to throw curveballs at me. On Tuesday I had a dentist appointment and a whole bunch of errands to run in the morning, and then a migraine hit in the afternoon and I ended up spending several hours zoned out in a dark bedroom.

But before that, I wrote 1441 words. I’d only worked an hour (I’d let myself rest in bed an extra half hour before I got up because of that threatening headache), but I got words written on a day that would have been a total write-off on my old schedule. 1441 words isn’t a lot. It’s not a scene. With the way this book is going, it’s not even most of a scene. But it’s PROGRESS, and it’s a day when I didn’t totally lose momentum.

Of course, getting up at 5:30 hasn’t been easy. I only make it out of bed because my alarm clock isn’t within arm’s reach and I have to stand up to shut it off. And then I just kind of stand there, swaying on my feet, staring into the darkness, trying to remember who I am and why this little black box is yelling at me.

Oh, right. Brayn make werds nao. Kay.

Even on Friday, after 8.5 hours of sleep, I had trouble getting up. I was only actually up at 5:30 two days last week (5:45 on Monday as I started shifting back, 6:00 on Tuesday and Friday when I got up, had a big drink of water, and attempted to shake headaches). But I expected this to be hard, so that’s okay. I’ll get there.

Getting to work in the early morning has been a challenge, especially on the few days when I’ve let myself pick up a book to read while the kettle was boiling. Note to self: Don’t give distractions, even positive ones, an inch. They’ll take your whole morning. Even without that, my usual tendencies seem to be in high gear even if my brain’s not totally on yet. Procrastination and wasted time are real dangers*. And when I do start, I feel slow and dopey. But words are coming out. So that’s a win.

Also not surprising: Evening exhaustion. But given the fact that I regularly crash at 6 PM anyway and migraine weeks are always worse, I’m not putting this in the con column yet. We’ll see what the next few weeks bring.

One unexpected result: On mornings when I did manage to work 90 minutes in the early morning, I didn’t get many more words than I did on 60 minute mornings (at least, not as many as I should given my usual words-per-hour average). Over the next few weeks I’ll watch to see whether that changes–and if not, I’ll look at letting myself sleep until 6 and working for an hour, instead. But I said I’d give this schedule a month. Anything could happen.

Total hours worked: 22.2 (including writing, scene planning, and several hours brainstorming my way out of plot and character problems)

Total words added to manuscript: 11,467

Note: Friday was a write-off, so to speak. Post-migraine wooziness kept me from writing early in the morning, and then a neighbour offered to take me out to see a good spot for berry picking. One simply does not refuse an offer like this.

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Nature’s candy. Seriously.

So obviously getting up early isn’t some magic bullet that will instantly rocket me to writing half a book in a week. It’s not doing anything to help me overcome the “nope” that regularly keeps me from getting stuff done, and working first thing in the morning doesn’t seem to provide any momentum to keep me going later. And that’s okay. This is all about baby steps.

On to Godawful Early week two.


*It’s so weird. I can perfectly visualize what I want my work hours to look like. What I’d like to get done, how I want my brain to switch gears smoothly so I can do the thing that I know I should do and want to do. I know how good I’ll feel if I get it done. I can see this other version of myself making tea in the morning, stretching out those sore back muscles, appreciating the quiet, lighting a scented candle, cracking her knuckles, and getting back to what’s shaping up to be an amazing book. But it’s like I’m watching her through a window, and real me over here on this side just doesn’t do the things. Like someone’s got a halter on my brain and is pulling its head off course every time I try to do the things, directing me toward things I don’t want or need to do at this moment. I fight, but it hurts. Frustrating thing, this. And exhausting.


The Sticky Stuff

I’ve tried a lot of productivity methods and planners that didn’t work out for me. Here are a few things that have helped. None of them work perfectly or keep me on track all of the time, but they’ve made a huge difference nonetheless. If you have questions or would like to see a separate post on any of them, please let me know!

  • Goal setting. Even if I don’t always hit my deadlines, knowing what I want to accomplish and how/when I intend to get there is the biggest idea that’s helped me in my work. I set goals for finishing books, set 90 day goals for work and home projects, and choose my top three goals for every week and every day.
  • Prioritizing. This connects to those top three daily tasks. By writing down what I’d want to accomplish even if nothing else got done, I remind myself what my priorities are and how I should be spending my time.
  • Weekly planning. Having a nice quality planner that I can decorate (or not) as the mood strikes me makes me want to use it. And taking time on Sundays to get a bird’s eye view of the week ahead helps prevent surprises and crises along the way because I know what’s coming and what I need to accommodate for. I plan meals for the week, too, so I’m not running to the store/scrambling to figure out what to eat/saying “screw it, let’s get McDonald’s” too often.
  • My bullet journal. I’ve tried other daily and weekly planners, and use a pre-printed weekly planner for family stuff. But for my personal needs, nothing beats a blank dot-grid notebook. It holds my long-term goals, project notes, ideas, reference pages for everything from school schedules to clothing sizes, weekly review notes, reading lists, brain dumps, reading notes, monthly/weekly/daily plans… it’s my brain on paper, basically, allowing me to externalize a lot of the things that I’d otherwise forget or be distracted by as I tried to juggle them all in my mind. My daily pages have space for my top 3 tasks, a reminder of the larger goals I’m working toward, to do list (with unfinished tasks migrated to the next day so I don’t lose them), my desired vs actual schedule, notes, and gratitude lists. Weeks include the meal plan, grocery list, goals, a look at next week’s events, and “to do” items I want to transfer to my days. And if I need it to do something else for me, I just create a new page for it or change my week/day’s layout.
  • Figuring out where analogue and digital work best for me. Planning apps, whether it’s iCal for scheduling or Scapple for brainstorming, just don’t work for me. I plan and brainstorm best with a pen in hand and pages I can flip back through, make charts on, doodle all over, and connect with on a physical level. I find that for me electronic notes seem to get lost or forgotten easily, and I find it harder to see connections between unrelated items in separate electronic documents than I do when they’re on physical pages. I remember things better when I mark them down in my own handwriting, and just reading them back in that format often jogs additional ideas that weren’t quite there yet when I made the note. BUT. I don’t draft on paper. Trying to do so drives me batty. I need to type so my hands have a chance of keeping up with my brain, so I can rework sentences as I’m writing them (just part of my personal process), and so I can easily search for previous scenes and information (GOD BLESS SCRIVENER xo). I plan my scenes on paper, then write them on my laptop. (Note: when I keep a journal, it’s on paper. And quickly turns into a bit of a scrapbook stuffed with movie tickets, candy bar wrappers, and movie tickets. It’s hard to do that in an app. I should get back to it some day…)21886923_10155476411810325_826380582_o
  • Limiting social media time and access. Social media is a problem for me. I can lose hours scrolling and clicking on Buzzfeed lists only to discover later that I gained nothing from that time except maybe a headache from staring at the screen, but the temptation to “just take a quick look” can be unbearable. I mean, come on. There are Ten Things I Don’t Know About David Hasselhoff’s Bellybutton? Click. It goes beyond simple willpower and self-control, and I’m aware that it’s not healthy. I try not to carry my phone around with me. I removed the Facebook app from my phone to make access at least a little less convenient. And I try not to let myself post until my work is done for the day, as the temptation to check for notifications is far worse after I do. Social media can be great if you like what you get out of it. For me, the costs aren’t worth the rewards on most sites, so I’m limiting my time. Side note: I am reading SO MUCH MORE now that scrolling’s not an option! Still in kind of a fiction slump, but good HEAVENS am I finding some interesting non-fiction…and none of it about the Hoff’s navel.
  • Daily exercise, ideally outdoors. I realized the importance of this several years ago. It has a huge impact on my mood and mental health as well as my physical condition. Taking forty minutes or an hour out of the day seems counter-productive in terms of getting work done, but I’m not bringing my best self to the office if I don’t get physical activity and fresh air into my day. It’s also a great time to let my mind wander–and if I don’t get that, I feel like a shaken-up soda bottle that’ll explode at any second. I need the release valve.

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    I have extra motivation to get out. This is the face that follows me EVERYWHERE until he gets his walk.

  • Having a routine. This isn’t important for everyone, but as it turns out, it is for me. A routine means I’m working consistently, not waiting on inspiration or a time when I feel like working (which honestly never happens). It also means I’m not using my mental energy and willpower on deciding what to do next. I know what to expect and what to prepare for. I know where my brain needs to be focused, so even when it’s difficult I’m a little less inclined to give up and do something easier. It also helps me remember to do routine tasks that I might otherwise forget, like feeding the dog (right after he goes out in the morning) or watering my plants (Tuesdays, with apologies to those who died in my pre-routine days). Summer vacation was a great reminder for me of two things: how great my kids are, and how desperately I need the routine that school provides for all of us. That said, I’ve learned that scheduling every hour of every day also doesn’t work for me. It’s too much pressure, and I instinctively fight against it. It works for a lot of people, though, so don’t write it off if you haven’t tried it.
  • Working in my office. Interruptions are my kryptonite. I can’t wrangle my brain into a focused state if I anticipate visitors, deliveries, or people talking to me when I’m trying to put ideas on paper. Like, it’s insane how my mind clutches its pearls and reaches for the smelling salts at the idea of distractions…. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because it takes me so long to get into that focused state that my brain knows it’s wasting its energy if it fights that good fight only to have to start over because MOM WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR SUPPER*. Not so stupid after all, maybe, even if it doesn’t help me much when I have 30 minutes to work and can’t get anything done. In either case, once I do get focused, I become quite irritable if I’m interrupted for any reason. So the best plan for me is to stick a Do Not Disturb sign on the office door and close that door, physically marking a separate time and space for focus.**
  • Writing down distractions as they pop up. Whether they go into my bullet journal or onto a post-it note, I write down every idea that threatens to derail me. Need to call the school about that thing? Write it down, do it later. Missed a birthday? Whoopsie-doodle, better make a note to get in touch with them later. Forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer? It’ll still be there when this work sprint is over. Writing it all down means it’s not taking up memory/mental processing space, and putting it somewhere visible takes away the worry that I’ll forget it. And if it’s a fun idea, I can use it as a reward and take care of it on my next break. WOOHOO LAUNDRY YASSSSS!
  • Sorting out my values. This is a huge, ongoing thing for me, but it’s making a difference in how I do everything. It’s easy to accept other people’s definitions of success and ideas of what a good life looks like, but if they don’t align with your personal values, they’re going to lead you to making choices that either don’t motivate you or make you miserable. Making a six-figure income is a pretty standard definition of success, and you can find loads of books, podcasts, and advice on how to do that as an author… but for me it would require changes in my life that I’m not ready to make. You can also find a lot of books/podcasts/posts on how to crank out more stories, faster. A fine goal, but what excites me is immersing myself in my stories and characters in ways I can’t manage if I’m rushing them out the door. I can’t have both at the moment, so for now I choose to go deep instead of wide. Hitting the NYT bestseller list is an amazing achievement, but it requires investment of money and promotion time that I’m choosing to spend on other things. My values and needs aren’t better or worse than anyone’s who chooses those other goals. As long as we’re both excited by what we’re doing and not hurting anyone in the process, we’re both successful. But if I chased their goals or they felt forced into my idea of a balanced life, we’d be miserable. Taking time to make a conscious choice about this has alleviated a lot of stress for me. It’s something I’ll have to keep coming back to (I’ll likely want to focus more on commercial success after the kids are out of the house, or maybe travel and new experiences will become a new value), but knowing what I want right now makes it easier to say no to things that don’t align with those values. And I hope that in the long run it will help me stop comparing my achievements to other people’s. (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is a great place to start looking at this if you want a fun, irreverent read that contains a ton of f-bombs and a lot of interesting ideas about pain, choices, and values. The audiobook version is excellent, too, though NSFW.)
  • Getting enough sleep. It’s not always good sleep, but I aim for 7.5 to 8 hours in bed a night. I limit caffeine intake after about 2:00 in the afternoon and try to stay off my computer/phone/tablet for an hour before bed***. I’ve had some bad experiences with non-restorative sleep and with loss of sleep time because of work or babies. I have no intention of going back to that kind of exhaustion if I can avoid it. My brain might screw up a lot on a good day, but it’s nothing compared to days when I’m sleep deprived. I’m having trouble with sleep quality these days, but at least I can try to control the quantity.

That’s about it, I guess. Some of it’s practical, some of it’s a bit more ephemeral, but it all works for me. And these are things I won’t be changing during this experiment (unless I have to to test something else out).

I should note that none of this turns me into a productivity machine. No matter how well I plan and prioritize my day, my brain will try to keep me away from writing, and making myself focus will be at best frustrating and at worst painful. I will likely never find a trick, a drug, an idea, or a coach that can turn me into an eight-hours-and-ten-thousand-words-a-day writer.

But at least I’m going into battle prepared, and I’m getting a lot more done than I used to.

If you’ve got thoughts on what helps you get stuff done, go ahead and leave them in the comments! We’ll take a deeper look at what’s happened since I cut down on social media in a future post, plus anything else that seems relevant to the experiment.

Next week: The results of week one of the Godawful Early Schedule. Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN…


 

*Answer: It doesn’t matter, just eat it.

**I haven’t always had an office door I could close. Before we moved to this house two years ago, I didn’t. I tried working at a desk in the living room, but you can imagine how that went. I ended up constructing a makeshift office space in the basement out of stacks of plastic storage bins, boxes, and pet carriers, with a sheet strung up for the door and my upstairs desk hauled down to serve me there. It wasn’t paradise, but for the first time I had my own space. It made a real difference.

***I’m running into a problem with this now that I’ve figured out how to borrow library ebooks. I’m like a kid in a candy store, reading a lot… but I can’t transfer most titles from the app to my Kindle Paperwhite, so I’m actually reading from a tablet before bed some nights. CURSE YOU, CANDY STORE.

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Productivity Experiment Week 2 Baseline Results

Yeeeeeah.

Welp.

It was a week. That is a thing I can say about it.

I mean, it wasn’t all a bad week. It was a pretty reasonable baseline measurement week, actually. Between Monday and Friday I only managed to work 12 hours (mostly writing hours), but I added 12,829 words to my manuscript.

Not as many as I want to be adding per week. Not as many as some people add per day. But that’s not the point. Progress is progress, and I did my best every day.

I averaged about 3 hours’ work on days I was working… which did not include Thursday. Thursday was one of those days I mentioned needing to be prepared for. A migraine and back pain teamed up to leave me in a painkiller-and-brain-fog stupor, which in turn left me lying on the couch watching Roseanne all day.

I got the box set for Christmas. It is most excellent.

I watched more TV on that one day than I usually do in a week. I don’t feel bad about that. It’s not like I could work. So Thursday was a write-off.

And that’s kind of how things go. Sometimes my best is the 4780 words I wrote on Tuesday. Sometimes it’s trying not to feel guilty about taking a sick day.

So between that and my struggles with trying to get started on work in the morning (or like… any time), trying to fit yoga with my husband into our schedule, and having a regular school week to deal with, things were pretty normal around here. Score one for the baseline measurement!

And I got other stuff done. People got fed. No one was crushed under a pile of clutter or choked to death on litter box fumes. A kid had a friend over. I worked on a sample edit with a potential new editor and made last-minute plans to do a panel at Atlanti-Con. I helped with homework. I watched a movie. I waked my dog, and I found time to read. Stuff. Lots of stuff.

Judging by my notes from the past two weeks and my memory of how things worked last year, I’m calling this the baseline against which I’ll be measuring future results:

  • Work hours: 15
  • Words per writing hour average: 1200
  • Sleep: 8-8.5 hours per night
  • Energy: generally low, crash by 6:00 on weeknights

So what does wrapping the baseline weeks up mean?

It means that this week, I start the Godawful Early Schedule.

I’m more excited about it than that name implies. Yes, it’s going to be crazy hard to get up an hour earlier than I do now to fit in 90 minutes of work before I wake the kids up. I’m used to getting up early-ish, but I’m not exactly energetic or what you’d call mentally present in the morning. I may cry. I might not word good.

But if I can make it work?

If I can make it work, I could get a good chunk of my work for the day done before anyone has any reason to interrupt me. I could be alone with my work when I’ve just rolled out of dreams, before distractions have a chance to get to me. I could let ideas filter in the back of my mind while I get the kids up and out, and maybe have new ideas when I get back to writing. Or I could continue drafting in the morning and do edits later, using that natural schedule break to split my day and still finishing my work day by 12:30.

I could have afternoons free for napping so I won’t crash so hard at supper time, or to get a walk in to help me shift gears before home and family time. Maybe I’ll be able to enjoy my evenings instead of watching the clock to see if it’s bedtime yet.

That’d be cool.

We’ll see how it goes. My big plans might not pan out, but there’s always a chance.

(This Thursday’s post is going to take a look at the productivity tips and tricks that are already working for me, which will conclude this series of experiment intro posts. After that, I’ll post reviews of some productivity books, talk a bit about writing/being my own boss and productivity, and of course posting updates on the experiment. Let me know if you have questions/topics you’d like to see covered!

…Assuming I don’t fall down the stairs in a sleep-deprived stupor some early morning and find myself unable to post. It’s not unpossible.*)


 

*Unpossible is a perfectly cromulent word.


Where I’m At Now (Productivity Experiment)

SUPER BORING POST AHEAD. Kind of. If you want to see how my days look, what my job entails, and what I need to work on, you can totally stay. But no pressure. I’m just putting this here so we have something to compare my experimental schedules to. There are probably more interesting Buzzfeed articles and kitten videos out there to fill your time.

Okay, then.

Here’s a look at the baseline schedule I’m tracking right now. This is highly variable, of course. Holidays, sick days, and snow days happen. Medical appointments and car repairs eat into work hours. Summer vacation is a total crapshoot. But ideally, this is my weekday schedule:

6:30 – wake up. Morning routine (wash up, let the dogs out and feed Jack, gratitude notes, tea and breakfast, meds/vitamins, reading, plan my day and note top 3 goals, and 10 minutes meditation + floor stretches (if I don’t get distracted)

7:30 – kids up, showered and dressed, pack lunches, make sure everyone gets breakfast, do last night’s and this morning’s dishes, get the boys off to school

9:00 – walk Jack, listen to music, finish up housework that’s likely to distract me while I’m working at home.

10:00 – work time

12:00 – lunch

1:00 – work time

2:30 – stop work

3:00 on – homework, housework, family time, errands, cooking, supper, read to kids, wash hair, whatever else needs to get done, relax

9:30 – kids to bed

10:00 – bed, maybe read a bit, maybe just crash

It looks so simple laid out like that. Maybe not quite enough work hours to do as much writing as I want and take care of the promotion I should be doing, but decent part-time work hours.

And at its simplest level, my goal here is just to make the most of all those hours. To figure out how to get my brain to stop freaking out when I sit down to write and just frigging do it, to switch gears when I need to let go of work and do something else, to learn how to relax in those unclaimed after supper hours and to enjoy the time I get with my family… and more importantly to figure out how to gain more energy and conserve it so I have something to offer myself and others later in the day instead of turning into an unfocused zombie (mombie?) like I did three days out of last week.

…plus organizing my time/energy/attention so I can tackle all of the tasks related to my job (story brainstorming/planning/beats, writing, revisions, editing, marketing, hiring and coordinating editors and cover artists, answering emails, writing short stories and posts for my newsletters, critiquing work for other authors, networking, doing live reading events, managing my social media accounts and facebook reader group, bookkeeping/taxes/finances, and keeping on top of ideas and news that are relevant to my job without being distracted my the insignificant things) and my home life (you can probably fill in the blanks there. Two kids, three cats, two dogs, one husband who works full time, blessedly few extracurriculars, no hired help or childcare).

Because in reality (and last week’s time-tracking-induced efficiency aside), that schedule usually looks like a chunk of Swiss cheese when you take out the time I spend chatting on messenger, checking my email, scrolling through Instagram for too long, getting lost in an irrelevant Wikipedia rabbit-hole, searching for papers I’ve misplaced, responding to crises I could have avoided had I organized things better, procrasticleaning, and giving in to the urge to do non-critical tasks instead of ones that are important but aversive.

I said I was going to be honest, right?

I’ll let you know on Monday how the second baseline week panned out on this schedule, and then we’ll take a look at what I’m already doing to plug those Swiss cheese holes.

For now, here’s a look at the work projects I’m going to be working on over the next few months. You might notice two things: First, that there’s not a lot of business/promo-type stuff listed. My focus right now is on handling all of the writing I need to do to meet a few firm deadlines I’ve got coming up, including having a major project ready for an editor who books a year in advance. Second, this is a lot to accomplish in <20 hours a week between now and mid-January, even if I’m using those hours consistently and effectively. We’ll see how it pans out.

  • finish drafting Phoenix project (YA Fantasy/Dystopian): ~60K words to go
  • Get Phoenix revised, self-edited, and ready for critique
  • prep Phoenix for editor (post-crit revisions + polish)
  • Fixes on pen name book 3 when it’s back from the editor, polish for beta read*
  • plan and draft pen name book 4
  • book 3 cover art (commission, brainstorm, supervise, approve)
  • proofread, format, and publish book 3
  • try to plan and execute book 1 promo surrounding release of book 3 to get the series selling

Time to get cracking.**

 


*For anyone who’s interested in my writing process, here you go:

  • initial idea, brainstorming, plot and character arc outline, story beats and basic scene outlines
  • drafting (I generally average 1200 words an hour with scene planning and no distractions, and I take revision notes along the way instead of halting my momentum to fix things. I do, however, do a lot of sentence-level second-guessing and fixing as I’m writing. I can’t just leave cheeseball dialogue or dead-end ideas sitting there until revisions. This is probably why I don’t hit 2K words an hour, but it also means my first draft is more polished than it would otherwise be.)
  • rest time (at least 2 weeks to give me some distance and objectivity)
  • read through, look for places I could take the story deeper or make it more interesting, watch for plot holes and character inconsistencies, etc.
  • revisions (could mean massive rewrites or smaller edits)
  • critique (one fellow author and two more casual but sharp-eyed readers read the story and point out flaws/opportunities I might have missed)
  • further revisions and stylistic polish
  • professional editing (up to 6 weeks for a novel, during which time I’m working on something else)
  • edits back, make changes and fixes
  • cover art (I always hire someone for this, but it does require my time and attention)
  • beta read (three or four more readers offer feedback on what should by now be a polished manuscript)
  • fixes and multiple proofreads
  • formatting for ebook and paperback
  • order paperback proof and read over one more time
  • publication

**It probably goes without saying, but I have a tendency to plan bigger than I can actually execute. I get really optimistic in the planning stage, ignoring my average writing speed or forgetting the time I need to plan scenes, overestimating my ability to focus, and not accounting for lost work time. Building those factors into future deadlines will definitely be part of this experiment.


Week One Baseline Results

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One week down.

One week of tracking (almost) every hour, working the bugs out of my tracking system, and getting back into the swing of things as school started.

I’ve gone from just colour coding my time use to combining that with a line in my notebook where I can record what I was actually doing during that time. Does “work” mean drafting a story, emailing a potential new editor, or making plans to sit on a panel at an upcoming event? Does home/family time mean homework, cooking, or going out for a birthday supper? And what did I do during that mysterious “personal” time? What about times when I’m doing two things at once, or those activities that don’t fit neatly into one category?

So notes are good. And I gave up on attempting to measure my focus. Instead, I’m making notes. How hard was it to start work? To become immersed in reading? How irritated did I get when distractions popped up? When did I feel tempted to procrastinate?

I’ve also decided to have my weeks run Saturday to Friday, which will allow me to look at results and write blog posts on Saturdays.

The results:

No major surprises so far, which I guess is good. The first two weeks are just to figure out  how well things are working before I start changing stuff.

As expected, the fact that I’m paying close attention to how I’m spending my time means that I’m wasting less of it than I did on this schedule last year–Thursday’s post will look at that schedule and how it usually pans out. I’m acutely aware of the time I’m spending avoiding the day’s work, so I’m fighting harder against procrastination. I’m also less likely to let myself off the hook when I do it.

So yes, that makes this schedule look more effective than it really is. It also shows that time tracking, while it’s a huge pain in the ass, does lead to more effective use of my time.

Monday and Tuesday weren’t work days. Monday was labour day and Tuesday was an admin day for both the kids’ schools AND my older son’s birthday. I generally went with the flow, checking everything off my to do list but not according to a strict schedule. The only work I did involved taxes (so stressful).

I drafted several blog posts on Monday and noted how easily I became absorbed in the task. My fiction writing is almost always a struggle for me, especially at the beginning of the day… and I think I know why. We’ll talk about aversive tasks in another post, and why it’s writing a book is so deceptively hard to stick with. On the surface, writing a blog post and writing a chapter look similar. Experience tells me they are not.*

My energy was good those two days, and fairly consistent until it started dropping in the evening. Light tasks, lots of reading, and few focus-intensive aversive tasks led to everything running pretty smoothly.

Wednesday was the first day of school. Back to packing lunches. New teachers, a new school for one of the kids. Much excitement. Also back to work for me. Thursday and Friday also offered, in theory, typical work days. No appointments, no errands that couldn’t wait until later. This means that in theory I had 5.5 hours to do what I needed.

It worked out to 3, 2.5, and 3 hours of actual work.

The first hour after the kids are gone (by this schedule) is for dog walking and shifting gears to get into work mode. I take an hour for lunch, partly because I don’t plan my lunches ahead and partly because decompressing is nice. So 3 hours of solid work really isn’t bad.

But I learned or remembered a few things.

  • Writing exhausts me. The human brain burns an insane amount of energy for its size, and mine is firing on every possible cylinder when I’m writing. I love this job, but it’s not easy for me. My scenes are planned in advance, but the paragraph-to-paragraph choices about word selection, character  movements and motivations, dialogue flow, and building tension require a lot of decision making. On another level I’m already assessing elements that will need to change in revisions, planning ahead for that and making notes. More importantly, I’m constantly fighting to keep my brain on task when it’s tempted to wander, take a break, or do anything that might offer the rewarding feeling of completing a task. Which means…
  • I am DONE by 6:00 PM on writing days. I can get through homework (another aversive task for everyone involved), housework, and making supper just in time to pass out in my food.** Much as I’d like to try running in the evenings or picking up a hobby, Zombie Kate is having none of it***. There’s obviously also no question of trying the “split shift” thing where people fit in another hour or two of work after supper. I can get a little energy boost if I fit in a catnap, which means I managed to bake cookies one evening and I’ve been reading with the kids before bed. So that’s something, even if it doesn’t really get me through the whole evening.
  • Attempting to start work makes me wonder whether I’m insane. I like my job. I love my stories and my characters. I cannot settle down to work like (I think) an adult should be able to during work hours. My mind scrambles for distractions, and it requires a ton of willpower to write them down and set them aside for later. I know what I should do. I know what I want to do, what feels like my purpose. I know I have limited time to do it. And I still feel like I’m ramming my head into a glass wall when I try to get there. (“Butt in chair, fingers on keys” might be a great productivity tip, but it’s not always that simple.)
  • Replying to a chat message, checking email, or posting on Instagram before work time are recipes for disaster. Just the possibility of responses is a massive distraction. Lesson learned.
  • Working outdoors in the afternoon is actually, surprisingly, okay. I feel more distracted, but when I look at my hourly word count it’s no worse than morning hours spent in my office. Plus, fresh air is nice. Thanks for giving me That Look and guilting me into it, dogs.
  • My attempts to break my social media/phone addiction are paying off. I’ll save that for another post, since we’re running long here. But I’m pleased.

So there were bumps and hiccups, but none of them were really surprising. And overall I think I did well this week. I generally used the work hours available to me. When a headache hit on Friday around noon, I fought the temptation to take the afternoon off and opted for a coffee, painkillers, and a catnap instead, and I got another 1300 words written before school ended.

I’m not getting as many work hours in as I’d like, but I’m doing what I can. In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz reminds the reader to always do your best. That means not doing less than your best, but also not expecting yourself to do more.

I’m doing my best.

One more baseline week, and then we see how I can make changes that will give me the time and energy I need to make my best more productive.


TOTAL HOURS WORKED:  9 (1 business, 8 writing)
WORDS ADDED TO MANUSCRIPT: 11,000****

HOME LIFE: tasks completed, no one starved, hosted a sleepover, but too tired to function well between 6 and 10 p.m.

PERSONAL: Morning routine rocks my socks. Lunch date with husband was good, but probably doesn’t make up for the whole zombie thing. Read I Know How She Does It and started re-read of The Happiness Project. No fiction reading. Watched Baywatch. It was hilarious. Walked the dog 6 days, hit at least 10K steps 3 days (and 9K one other).


 

*this is part of the reason this project has to fall under Personal and not Work for me. If I let my brain think for a second that doing this is a valid way to use my work hours, I’ll never get my draft finished.

**Yes, this is with reasonable caffeine intake early in the day, eight hours’ sleep, multivitamins, daily exercise, and whatever healthy-ish food I can force myself to eat when I’m on a medication that makes food ew. I just burn out.

***Speaking properly is an issue. I tried to say “sausage pasta” the other night and the best my brain could do was “passage.” So close.

**** This looks high, given my usual 1K/hour average. I was occasionally able to edit parts of scenes from a scrapped draft of this book, which boosted my average. From here on out it should be almost all straight drafting.

 

 

 


The Productivity Road Test

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So, what’s this great experiment going to look like, anyway?

My brain had more than a few ideas.

(Fun fact: I have a lot of trouble focusing on writing and business tasks, especially when I’m trying to get the ball rolling every day. But show me a bright, shiny idea for a new interest or project and it’s like a switch has flipped in my brain that turns me into a mega-focused idea generation machine. If only I could use my powers for good instead of procrastination…)

I wrote down a lot of those ideas, discarded a few, and wrangled a bunch of them into what I’m calling phase one of the experiment. The whole thing is ridiculously unscientific, of course. The fact that I’m tracking my time and focusing on productivity will no doubt offer a false boost to my focus and productivity. My sample size is moi. I can’t control other variables that might affect outcomes when I’m testing an idea because this is life, and life is messy.

But I can plan, I can implement, I can track, and dammit, I can take notes.

And I can make some rules to keep my rebellious mind in line (maybe):

  • Give ideas a fair shot, including time to adapt to changes and to account for health/hormone fluctuations. Unless something presents a clear danger to my health or well-being (or anyone else’s), stick it out.

  • I will not try illegal drugs, questionable supplements, crazy diets, etc.

  • Work productivity will ideally not interfere with home and family responsibilities or my ability to take time to (attempt to) relax. Short-term scheduling experiments may impact the hours I spend available to my family, but should not get in the way of commitments I’ve decided are a priority (like helping with homework/projects, taking time to walk the dog, cooking supper, packing lunches, spending time hanging out with my husband, listening to the kids talk about their interests*, etc.)

  • Control other variables when possible. I will do my best to take medications consistently, get the same amount of exercise each week, sleep the same number of hours, and not make any huge changes to my diet unless I’m actually testing those changes.

  • Be honest about the process, results, successes, failures, and obstacles that affect outcomes (even if they make me sound like a whiny baby or look like an ass… and I totally will).

  • Post results on the blog once per week. Add other posts when possible on related topics. Write posts on the weekend so procrastiblogging is not an option, and don’t count writing them as productive work time. They’re not, even if they feel like it. This is a hobby that will hopefully support my work. Got it, brain?

  • When possible, cite the sources of ideas and information used in the experiment.

So, how are we going to do this thing?

*cracks knuckles*

It’s going to be pretty low-tech for the most part. One of the “hacks” (ugh, I hate that everything is a hack now) that works for me is limiting the time I spend with my phone in my hand, as it inevitably leads to temptation and distraction from email or social media. I don’t use electronic calendars, time-tracking apps, or to do lists if I can avoid them.

I have a notebook, pens, and markers.

I have a Fitbit.

I have an app to block internet sites while I’m working, though I have honestly never used it and should therefore probably test it separately. So scratch that one.

I have Phone Jail, which is a box where my phone lives when I’m not actively using it or out of the house (and which keeps me from losing my phone, which I do a lot.)

I have my bullet journal, which is also a notebook. But it’s a different notebook, so it’s on the list.

And I’ve got books that are full of ideas.

Here’s how I’m putting them together.

  • I will be tracking how I actually use my time. As I write this, I’m on day one and am already hitting snags (my tendency to float from task to task if I’m not working at the computer means accuracy is difficult even if I track my time in 15-minute increments. And the fact that my Fitbit only lets me set 8 alarms a day means I have to rely on my phone–the one that’s supposed to be in jail–for the rest. Seriously, Fitbit. The heck.) This is where the markers come in. Tasks/activities are colour coded and broken down into categories like work, exercise, personal time, family/home focus, and sleep. I have no doubt I’ll need to mess around with these categories (and find a way to track focus vs. multitasking and minutes spent procrastinating) but it’s a starting point.**
  • I will also be tracking my energy levels every hour to see how changes might affect them.
  • I’ll be noting water, caffeine, food, and exercise in case I need to look back on them later.
  • I have a list of ideas to try out. I also have a list of “nope” ideas I’ve come across, because you just never know when a nope might become a “but what if…”
  • I’ll be noting my hours worked, word or page count (drafting vs editing) and business hours/accomplishments, mood, energy and focus I have left for post-work stuff, and other measures that will help me more judge what’s happening.

All of this is just to help me track the results of my experiments/changes, and it’s really important. I’m a terrible judge of both how I use my time and how long tasks take. My memory of how I’ve used my time is also awful, so I tend to feel unproductive at the end of the day even if I’ve crossed off a whole lot on my list. Stopping to think about it and make accurate notes every hour will force me to look at what I’m really accomplishing instead of what I feel like I’m accomplishing.

Not everything is objectively measurable. If I write 10K words in a day but end up burned out, headachey, and miserable (with my kids starving and the litter box overflowing), I can’t call that a win. That’s why I’m tracking the non-objective stuff, too.

The Plan

Weeks one and two will just be me working the same hours I attempted to work last school year, but with attention to how I’m really spending my time. How long does it take me to actually sit down and work after the clock starts running? What’s getting in the way? What hours are the most productive, assuming I’m focused? I’m not changing anything (except that increased awareness of how I’m spending my time), but seeing what I can do without making any major changes. This schedule frequently felt like it was working for me, so for now it will be the baseline I’ll test other options against to see whether they’re helping or hurting me.

Then I’m going to move on to the one major factor that will actually affect the number of hours I have available for work and personal (ie not home/family) time: My schedule. We’ll get into details on the hows and whys later, but the basic plan is to experiment for four weeks with what I’m calling the Godawful Early Schedule (waking up at 5:30 to get 90 minutes of work in before I need to get the kids up and out, working through the morning after they’re at school, and using afternoons for reading, exercise, and restoration so maybe I’ll actually be awake after supper). The second schedule I’d like to test is the split shift: Working during the day and then attempting to add a few scheduled hours here and there in the evening after everything else is taken care of or on weekends.

(Yes, this is where the blog comes in. It’ll be easier for me to stick to early mornings/justify later hours to myself and my family if it’s For Science But Not Really Science rather than just me kinda trying a thing.)

And then? Then I’ve got an ever-growing list of ideas to try once I’ve settled on a schedule that works for me. Some of them are weird. Some of them make me want to slap myself for even considering them. Some will require big commitments and further changes to my routine. Most are smaller. All will be challenging, but I hope some will be rewarding.

Let’s go.

(In the next few posts we’ll talk about what my current schedule and productivity look like, what I’m working on, and the productivity techniques that have worked for me. Yay, groundwork… ^_^)


*Minecraft. They talk about Minecraft. And other people playing Minecraft. Save me.

**I’m reviewing and posting this on day four, and this has already evolved a lot. We can look at that in another post once I’ve got all the kinks worked out.

 


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