January: Objective-setting for busy writers

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I’m an inveterate deviser of schedules.   At school and university, I’d spend ages devising revision plans, colour coding and decorating them.  They were the answer to my prayers.  I’d have an optimistic surge, each time I did one, that a carefully crafted plan would see me through and be the answer to my success.  Mostly, I did pretty well at exams.  But the fact remains that I enjoyed the process of controlling and organising the revision process more than the revision itself.  

The new year can be like that for me, too.  I don’t tend to make resolutions – but at the end of the year I find it useful to take stock of my writing progress, and think about what I want to achieve in the next one.  Writing objectives – for me, at least – are more likely to happen when I think about them in conjunction with the available time I have.  I think about the tasks I want to achieve in any one week – writing and writing-related (which includes social media and blogging, for instance) and balance those up with the other things: family and domestic responsibilities, and other types of work (teaching and consultancy, for me).  Like most writers I know, I’m juggling all these things constantly (you can read an excellent recent post here by Mo O’Hara about juggling writing with the rest of life).  The key thing, as Stephen Covey argues in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is to ensure a spread of tasks across each area of responsibility so that nothing is neglected.

The first stage is to identify each day’s non-negotiable  tasks (which, for me, involves stuff like dropping off my daughter in the morning, cooking dinner and walking or running with the dog).  The rest of the day is then broken down into blocks of work time.  In line with the method outlined in Tony Schwartz‘s book Be Excellent At Anything, I find that 90 minute chunks of focused time (during which I don’t flit across to Facebook or Twitter, and don’t check emails) works best.  Sometimes there are stretches of time that don’t fit into this 90 minute model – half an hour in the morning, for instance, between waking and having to get my daughter up for school, or in between finishing writing and starting on dinner prep.   I try to identify what would work best in those bits of time.  Sometimes, that might be checking emails (a very focused and purposeful limited time in which I deal with the inbox).  At other times, especially in the morning, it will involve musing, doodling or dreaming about ideas for new projects (or sharpening ideas for existing ones) – my sort of truncated (and lazier) version of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.

colour coding

I find the easiest way to organise all of this is to colour code everything.  Then I can see how my time is apportioned across the week.

Which brings me to another issue: making the most of my optimum writing time.  I write best in the morning, so I try to schedule as much writing as I can earlier in the day – especially first draft writing, which I find most difficult.  That way, I’m doing my hardest (and perhaps most important) work when my energy is at its peak.  I save the other stuff – editing, consultancy, teaching prep – for later in the day.  Imagining my day as an empty jar waiting to be filed with rocks, pebbles and sand, I’ve come to view these 90 minute chunks of time as the larger rocks, with the smaller slots (30 minutes in between a work session and lunch; 10 minutes of grabbed time while I’m waiting for supper to cook), constituting the sand.  Always, when I’m planning, I focus on getting the rocks in the jar first, then look for the spaces where the sand might go (for more on this time management strategy, click here).

But of course the schedule is just the beginning.  To keep all the balls in the air, I need to be sure to follow through and put the plan into practice.  It’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve got a handle on this – by taking time each writing day to log how I’m doing.  I set myself objectives for that week’s writing and check in every day, and especially at the end of the week, to see how I’m doing.  This is thanks to the genius of my friend, Bec Evans, who has devised a mobile website designed to support writers in the writing process.  ‘Write Track’ is in its testing phase at the moment, but you can have a look at it here.  It’s exciting to see how it has the potential to encourage writers in their individual practice, and be a means of connection for mutual support with their writing goals.

Each day I write, I set a reminder each day to check in with how I’m doing.  Have I stuck to my plan?  Did I do as much writing as I set out to do?  Have I balanced that with the other tasks and priorities for the day?

So far, in 2014, so good.  It’s only January, though. 

Writers: what steps will you take to achieve your objectives this year, and stay on track?  For more thoughts and suggested resources on writing, habits and time management, visit Bec Evans’ blog at Write Track.














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