DEBORAH CROMBIE: The subject of mono-tasking came up in one of last week's
Our guest that day, Ellen Byerrum is writing more than one series, as
does our own Rhys Bowen. And we know writers who not only write more
than one series, but write more than one BOOK at a time.
(How do they do
that??? My poor brain would fracture...)
That little digression evoked a lot of response from our readers that day, and it rang a big bell for me. Mono-tasking is not just a little problem for me. It is a HUGE LIFE ISSUE. One of the biggest. I only write one novel at a time, and that not very fast, but I find it so hard to stay focused. No matter how good my intentions, the day is full of constant distractions. I make schedules. I write lists, usually to no avail. Lately, I've taken to turning off the phone and all internet applications while I write, or going to cafes or coffee shops and only opening my writing program.
But it's not just technological distraction, it's life in general. Dogs that need to go out (countless times a day) or be fed or go to the vet. Shopping to be done, meals to be fixed, bills to be paid, laundry to be done (going on two weeks behind on that...I've reached the point of digging in the dryer for clean clothes.) Some of this comes down to the perpetual problem of the writer working at home (or anyone working at home.) It's so hard to separate the parts of your day. For years, I've toyed with the idea of getting an actual office. But I LIKE being home. And I suspect that there would always be things coming up that would keep me from GETTING to the office.
You could put some of this down to writing-avoidance, but I am happiest and most content (if sometimes frustrated) when I AM writing. So why is it so hard to deal with distractions???
REDS, how do you manage? What are your secrets? How do you stay focused on the task at hand?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Debs, it is incredibly difficult. Incredibly. But, after years of trying to juggle, I no longer believe in multi-tasking. So if I have a secret, which I don't because if it were a secret it would always work and it doesn't--it's this. I do one thing at a time. I even write it down! A typical day might be: 7:45-8-- check to see if any pressing emails. Answer only the urgents. Mark the rest. 8-8:30 coffee and read the paper. 8:31--finish emails, do Facebook and twitter. 9am GET OFF THE INTERNET. Get more coffee. 9:15--set the alarm on my phone for 30 minutes. Write without interruption. 9:45--I can check emails for two minutes. That never works, but at 10, I will set the 30 minute timer again.
The reason this works is that I promise myself I will not do anything else but write for that 30 minutes. And I keep that promise. And usually, I get so focused that when the alarm rings, I am shocked that the time has gone by, and I'm not even tempted to do anything else but set it again. And go on. And then again.
It is all about focus.
I have so many things to do, and that's good, I am grateful! But I always think--I am NEVER going to accomplish all this.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I don't even know what to say here -- I just muddle along the best I can. One upside to spending the summer with pneumonia is that I really didn't have much to do besides nap and write — and it turned out well — I finished THE QUEEN'S CONSPIRATOR on deadline. (I mean, I'm not advising this method, but silver linings and all.) But there are still cats walking on me and demanding things, and also a sick Kiddo coming in and saying "Mommy, I'm BORED...." (Did I mention it was a challenging summer?)
Actually, after getting pneumonia four (yes, four) times this year, I have realized I need to make health more of a priority. So more fresh fruit and vegetables, exercise, Sundays OFF, vitamins. Because I can get so obsessive, I really forget to do anything for myself — and put all my energy into taking care of others and writing. And I need to change this, the way I work and parent, because it's just not sustainable in the long run.
HALLIE EPHRON: Susan, that's all good advice, whether you have pneumonia or not.
Here's my secret: I get more done when I'm busier and have deadlines. I love the IDEA of mono-tasking, but I'm easily bored if I have to keep on doing the same thing. Diversion refreshes me. I'm happiest when I'm juggling and just on the edge of having too much to do. When I have less to do and no deadline to do it by, very little actually gets accomplished though I am always "busy."
HANK: Oh, Susan, yes, good advice! I start to worry that I am not being responsible if I take a day off, when its really, as you say, the opposite. And I agree, Hallie! That's why I do one thing at a time, but in increments of short time. How funny, what we do to our brains!
LUCY BURDETTE: Oh please take a day off Hank! Even a vacation...I so agree with Susan, the things we do to take care of ourselves pay off so well along the way.
I like your timer thing Hank. The thing that seems to work best for me is a word count deadline each day, usually 1000. (Unfortunately, if I say 1000, that's where my brain wants to quit, every time.) If it takes an hour to write 1000, I'm done with lots of time to spend on other things. If I fool around on the Internet or wash clothes (so satisfying!), or walk dog, I still have to go back to those words. Sometimes it takes all day. I also find it helps not to stop at a point where things are neatly tied up, but have some notes and ideas about where I'm going next.
I wrote the last book in 5 months, faster than I ever imagined possible. It's not as complicated as a one of yours Debs, but it took a lot of grinding. One motivator-- I have a new editor and I just couldn't bear to beg for more time. And my publisher is in some disarray with lots of changes happening--why would I give them one more reason to consider dropping me? I wouldn't.
HANK: Yes, I do word count, too, for exactly that reason, Lucy! But SO funny, yup, when I hit the 1000 mark? My brain often just stops.
RHYS BOWEN: Yes, I'm the crazy woman who writes two books a year. People always ask me whether I get the two series mixed up and how I keep them apart in my mind. This is easy for me. I only write one book at a time. When I'm writing a Molly book I am in Molly's world. When I'm writing a Royal Spyness I'm in London in the 1930w. In fact I find it really hard to switch off. I will awake at night thinking about how a scene could be improved and have to get up and scribble (unfortunately my handwriting is so poor that I often can't read my pearls of wisdom in the morning.). I stay in that mode until I've completed a first draft: focused, crabby, insomnia etc.. Then I can relax a little. But when I'm writing I won't let myself stop for the day until I've written five pages. Sometimes this goes really quickly and sometimes it involves wandering around muttering, throwing things in the washing machine etc. But knowing that I am not allowed to quit before those five pages are done is a great incentive.
I think I'm also quite good at multi-tasking when I'm not focused on my writing. It comes from getting four children ready for school, writing during swim practice, driving car pools and being faced with a child at ten o'clock at night who just remembered that she was to be a peacock in the play tomorrow! I am a great one for lists and the satisfaction of checking off items as I complete them. I am also a great worrier and not good at relaxing. So I think I'd be an annoying person if I didn't always have a deadline looming.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: You've all heard me complain about how distracted I am and how hard it seems for me to just get my writing time in and finish this #@&*! book! I can identify with Rhys' kid-schedule mastery, because the ONE area where I am always on top of things is the family schedule. Picking up from and dropping off from work (The Smithie has two jobs and doesn't drive) dental appointments, doctor appointments, filling out forms, even touching base with Youngest during our daily online chat (she's away at boarding school) - I know exactly where I have to be, and where everyone else is.
When it comes to work time, though, I'm just like Debs...oh, no, I forgot to throw in a load of laundry! Then on the way back to my laptop, I'll stop in the kitchen to "just clear off the table." Thirty minutes later I settle down to my machine and open up my manuscript--but quick, before I start, I'll check Facebook and my email...which I surface from after forty-five minutes because the dogs need to go out...
So I LOVE Hank's idea of writing down a schedule and using the alarm on her phone to keep her honest. Because that forces you to prioritize, doesn't it? Oops, I can't hang around answering each and every email, THE PHONE says it's time to go to work. I'm going to try the Hank Method tomorrow. I'll let you all know if it works for me.
Oh, and also, I agree with Susan. I let my Y membership lapse after both the older kids left for college, and never re-enrolled when they came back. I recently read something that said regular physical exercise increases memory and concentration. For that alone, I decided it was time to get back in the pool!
DEBS: Susan, Julia, you absolutely must take care of yourselves! Susan, pneumonia four times in a year is your body sending you a big red flag. But huge congrats on finishing your book!!! And Julia, we are pulling with you!
And the word count thing? I set a word count goal (it used to be pages, but since I started working in Scrivener a couple of books ago, I use words because it's so easy to keep track) but no matter what that goal is, I start to lose steam at about a 1000 words...
And another thing I've discovered is that I ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO WRITE DOWN THAT GOAL. I use a paper desk diary, and on every day slot I put my goal, and then at the end of the day I fill in how many words I actually wrote. Ouch. But if I haven't written down the goal I will only write a fraction as much. Fascinating, isn't it? So interesting the way everyone gets at things in different ways, isn't it? And, as Hank says, the way we trick our brains.
Today I'm setting a timer. Thank you, Hank.
READERS, do you struggle to stay focused on one thing? (And if so, tell us your tips.) Or, like Hallie and Rhys, do you thrive on multi-tasking?