Monday, August 18, 2014

This Writing Life 5: Prioritizing and Protecting Your Time

It used to be easy to avoid distractions. Take the phone off the hook, put up a “do not disturb sign”, turn off the TV and don’t answer the door. Problem solved.

Yeah, I’m old.

These days, we live in a state of constant distraction, thanks to the Internet and all it provides. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are all designed to keep you looking so they can sell more ad space. Same with all those sites that I use to keep my twitter feed busy.  So how, if you are a stay-at-home, working by the hour/job consultant and writer, do you manage to overcome the distractions and make a living?

Willpower. Sheer, unadulterated, massive willpower; nothing else will…

I’m sorry, I couldn’t finish that sentence I was laughing so hard.

Willpower doesn’t work for squat. You only have so much brainpower to power everything including your will and a lot of it is needed for work.  So here, really, is what I do.

What’s Worth Your Time: Urgent vs. Important
The first step is figuring out which of the things that you are doing are actually worth your time.  There’s a whole whack of ways to figure out what’s important in your life, but I like the Urgent vs Important matrix.  This tool was used by General/President Eisenhower, though I’m not sure he invented it.  Either way, he was pretty darn organized.

The matrix looks like this:

Important Not Important
Not Urgent

And everything you do in a day goes inside it.  So for my day today, it looks like this

Important Not Important
Urgent Blog post, work for client, edit new book, get kid to and from day camp,Work out, create plot arc for new series, housework
Not Urgent Phone calls, text messages Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, , TV, etc.

Amazing how housework is almost never actually Urgent and Important at the same time. That changes places when my mother is coming to town.

Simple, easy and allows you to see which things you are wasting your time on so you can minimize it.

A Note on Multiple Priorities
If you have more than one client/project on the go (and looking at my job board right now I have 12) then you need to prioritize them in your day. Here’s a suggestion
  1. Are they paying you?
  2. Is it on a deadline?
  3. Will it further your career?
  4. Does it involve housecleaning?
The number of “Yes” answers you get for the first three should help you place the project in order of importance/urgency.

If the answer to the 4th question is “Yes”, the project cannot be considered urgent and important unless you also answer “Yes” to one of the first three or your relatives are coming for a visit (or you need a clean space to work, which can happen I’ve heard).

…But There’s All These Interwebs!
The internet is a time suck. Turn it off.  And I don’t mean close your browser because that doesn’t work. I get distracted or bored and turn it on again, and there goes the morning/day/week/July to October, 2012.

Fortunately, there are dozens of apps out there that will temporarily disable your social media and Internet. I use Anti-Social when I’m working on client projects because it blocks social media but allows me to research as needed and use my online tracker for hours. I use Freedom when I’m writing my own stuff because it blocks the Internet completely.  Both work well and don’t stop working until the timer run out or I reboot my computer.

Keeping On Keeping On.
Some days none of this works.

You know your priorities; you know you should turn on Freedom/Anti-Social/Whatever; you know your bum should be in your chair, your fingers should be on your keyboard and your cursor should be moving to the right.

But you don’t do it.

These are wasted days. Wasted days mean no earnings, no movement forward on your goals, and no luck convincing your significant other there’s a good reason why the kitchen isn’t clean.

And sometimes they happen.

There's a lot of reasons wasted days happen.  Lack of external stimulation, maybe. Lack of exercise or sleep or solitude or maybe your brain just needs to recharge.

If wasted days start happening regularly, or if they happen more than two days in a row, you need to sit down and re-think your schedule.  You are falling into a rut that can really, really mess up your life (and your ability to pay rent).

So, if you lose a day, feel free to berate yourself and be angry and upset. But the next day, be back at your desk, and the next and the next. Keep on keeping on.

Because if you can’t do that, you need to find another line of work.

Next week: The One Rule to to Writing!

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