Time Hygiene Matters (As Much As Personal Hygiene)
Hopefully last week you wrote your priority list and now place your book ahead of, let’s say, doing things your family members should do for themselves. However when we put aside a chunk of time to do something that requires a lot of mental focus, our brain sometimes tries to trick us to use less mental focus. Thinking actually requires a lot of calories. A leading theory in evolutionary science is that cooking (which makes calories in food more accessible) is probably what prompted our mental development and capacity for speech. You need a lot of calories to be able to think and speak. Our brain, as much as possible, tries to find ways around using calories. It doesn’t really care that you are trying to write a novel. You will survive just as well watching youtube videos as writing.
However in modern day we are not starved and have plenty of food to thrive, reproduce and write novels. Unless you are on a foolish starvation diet, in which case you will find it almost impossible to focus on high cognitive tasks. Now you know why.
As such, we have to overcome these base instincts and have the self discipline not to waste time on unnecessary things. Even if those things SEEM productive, like reading publishing articles, or listening to TED talks or watching fantastic TV shows ‘to study the plot’.
The best way to see where your time goes is to spend a week tracking what you do all day. I suggest buying a cheap day planner and every half hour, jot down everything you did. Be honest. Including pooping, staring off into space, and anything you wish you hadn’t done, like checking your ex’s facebook page and watching cat videos.
You’re probably going to learn a lot of uncomfortable things about yourself. Like that you should stop taking your phone into the toilet because no healthy person spends 20 minutes in there three times a day.
Highlight the parts you are pleased with in one colour. Highlight the parts you wish you had done differently in another colour. Look for patterns. What bad habits keep coming up again and again? Is there are certain time of day you are really productive?
Good Habits and Bad Habits
You can’t get rid of a bad habit, you can only replace it with a new habit. If you have identified bad habits—such as that you check your email first thing, then spend two hours browsing other websites—you can’t just decide to stop. You have to think of something you will replace that habit with. This is why people who quit smoking often suddenly get fat. They want to remove the oral habit of smoking, so they subconsciously replace it with the oral habit of snacking.
If you want to replace a bad habit, you have to consciously decide what you are going to replace it with, or you will pick up an equal or worse habit.
My worst habit is opening facebook and youtube. All the time. Often, I will close them and just open them up again automatically. Or worse, I’ll try to focus, move on and realise I’ve just opened them again in other tabs. I’ll end up with three instances of facebook open while I am trying to work.
Logging out is the first thing I do to stop myself. I also use a program like antisocial that will block certain websites for certain periods. Or just putting my computer on airplane mode—but when I discuss alternative writing practises, you will see why this isn’t always practical for me.
A good alternative habit is either using something like ‘write or die’ to do a 15 minute writing sprint whenever you try and do an undesirable thing. Or, my preferred method, an enforced two minute sit and do nothing to clear the head. Since I have usually become distracted because my mind needs a break, and I hate doing nothing, this two minutes of nothing is very effective for me. It refreshes my brain and makes me eager to write (or do anything really) again.
Effort Is Not Equal: The 80/20 Rule
There are many success and productivity books floating around that tote the 80/20 rule. Which is that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your efforts. So, you should focus your energies on that thing. It’s very important that you take the time to discover what is going to have the most impact on your goals and be the best use of your time.
If you are writing fiction, the most important things is always writing. Or editing. Depending on which stage of the process you are at. I don’t read a lot of blog posts by my favourite authors. What I want is for them to produce another book. And another book. And so on. What they do with the rest of their time doesn’t interest me all that much. Many of your fans will feel the same.
If you are writing nonfiction, establishing a platform is also important—maybe as important as writing. There are much better places to go to learn about nonfiction than this blog though. Go, be free and find someone better qualified to mentor you.
That said, fiction writers still need to be aware of marketing and promotion, because they need to be able to put 20% of their effort into the marketing strategy that is going to get them 80% of their results. Marketing is for a whole other blog series though.
My Favourite Part: Planning Your Day!
Now, hopefully, you have a list of your priorities in life and a week of tracking your time. You know what matters to you and you know where your time is being wasted on trivial things. Believe it or not, this really is my favourite part of my day: sitting down first thing in the morning and writing my ‘to do’ list and appointments.
Typically scheduled appointments (doctors, seeing friends, etc) are first. That is followed by the one or two most important things I have to do that day relating to my writing. Usually it is just the name of my current project and I will fill in my total word count at the end of the day.
Then are my daily chores (showering, feeding pets, dishes, etc). Then are things I would like to get done, but only after everything else is crossed off. Things like weeding, washing the dogs, baking, art, etc. A lot of these things are important—for example, Aurealis Reading always goes here. It has to be done, but it is further down the priority list. Certainly after my own writing, and caring for myself and my dependants.
I always start the day with writing, because I am most focused and mentally alert in the morning. Then I tackle the basic care needs, then the biggest, most difficult task (assuming it wasn’t writing). Because of my poor health, I am usually too sick to move most of the afternoon, which is when I do things like reading, checking emails and most of my learning and research, assuming I can do anything at all.
I tend to have very full ‘to do’ lists, but I also have to get everything on them done by midday. Maybe you think it would be awesome to spend all afternoon lying around. It’s not. It’s horrible and humiliating and disheartening. However I still manage to get a lot done—a lot more than my friends who have more free time, because I am organised and driven.
I know what I want to do, and how to achieve it, and I focus on achieving those goals first every morning. I wouldn’t say I have mastered my bad habits, but I am aware of them and I do work constantly on replacing them with good habits.
It’s not an overnight process. It can involve a massive shift in mentality and structure in a single day, but then you have to keep reassessing and making corrections frequently after that. We change, our lives change, our priorities change. And some of us have bigger challenges than others. So:
Stay tuned for the next three posts in this five part series:
Part 3: The Right Project: Write something you actually want to write.
Part 4: Using Your Time Effectively: Eagles don't catch flies.
Part 5: Alternatives Ways To Write: Other people use crazy methods to write, now you can too.
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