Monday, September 21, 2015

One Thing at a Time

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?  


  1. I sometimes think I would like the luxury of focusing on just one thing at a time, but life often interferes with that schedule. Fortunately, most of the "to-do" list around here is flexible, so if I've brought work home, I can get everything done before I'm up against an immutable deadline. But it can mean that I do nothing but work until it's done; fortunately [for getting things done] I'm not too tempted by the waiting email and all that as long as I've already dropped in here . . . .

  2. Diane Hale here. I'd love to focus on one thing at a time--unfortunately my ADD & I stay at odds. Susan--get a pneumonia shot. Also, if you're having pneumonia that frequently you need to see a pulmonologist (lung doctor for those uninitiated to medical terminology).

    My longest stints at the computer are those times I've gone to bed, done some visualizing on a scene, then saw it so vividly I had to get up and write it. 1500-2000 words, up until the wee hours, then exhausted the next day.

    For everything else, I procrastinate.

  3. Absolutely one thing at a time. And lists. When I'm writing a first draft, I start the day with yesterday's total word count on my paper notebook next to my desk, and I can't really do anything else until I've added at least 1000 words to it. I don't use a timer, but a bunch of us all over the world check in with Ramona DeFelice Long on Facebook at 7 every morning, and then we write without interruptions for an hour sprint. I love being part of the sprint club and being cyber accountable. Ask her - she'll let you in, too! I take a breafast and laundry break after the hour, and then try to do another sprint. But the first one is always the most successful.

    As some of you know, I have three multi-book contracts (gulp), so I HAVE to get that word count done! But I do tend to run out of steam by the end of the morning and then I do all the other author work in the afternoons.

  4. Thanks, Diane -- you're absolutely right.

    And Debs, with the new book, I'm taking your advice and trying Scrivner. At some point, you all might see a post on how it's going......


  5. I recommend - highly - this short little video.

  6. Yes! Write down the goal. For some reason--that works! A psychologist would know why…Roberta??

  7. Yes, because your brain needs to see what it's shooting for, in very specific terms. That's why sports psychologists also suggest thinking about a big goal, and putting something to represent it in your workspace. For example, it could be a copy of the New York Times bestseller list LOL. Then forget about it and break it down into manageable little steps. If they are too big or not specific, we get overwhelmed.

    Joan we love that we are your first stop!

    Edith, you are proof that all the goals and tricks work--good for you!!

  8. One thing at a time, a doable daily to-do list, writing goal for the day, and no multi-tasking. I am 100% behind Hank on that.

    Thanks for the support, Edith. 7:00 a.m. writing hour, no Internet, no interruptions. Everything else is still there when the timer pings and you have 1000 new words.

  9. I love the idea of the Sprint Club... Am I the only one who keeps second guessing myself as I write and so I have to keep circling back and rejigger? If I just kept going it would be okay, but not nearly as good as it could be. It takes me a long time to see the best (and most unexpected) course.

  10. A funny conversation I recently had with an old professor -- former not old -- was about my paper writing technique.
    She: It always looked like you sat down at your computer and wrote until you ran out of time. Then you ran over here and shoved it under my door.
    Me: How could you tell?
    She: you'd stop writing in the middle of a paragraph and sometimes mid-sentence.
    Me: That's pretty much it.

  11. When it comes to my writing, I'm pretty disciplined. I think it comes from only getting one hour a day. Sometimes I can sneak more, and sometimes I can steal time on the weekends (if the kids don't fill up the days with stuff), but I am guaranteed only five hours a week - my lunch hour at the day job. Therefore, I have to be serious about it. I don't have to bother turning off the Internet - that can wait. I usually have a task to accomplish that day. Today is sending queries. If I finish that, there's some first draft work waiting. Tomorrow will be something else. And that is all I do for that hour.

    All of this completely falls apart at the day job. I support five different products. While I may come into work saying, "Today I am going to do X," there is always the likelihood that someone will interrupt me with something that absolutely has to be done. Or I'll have three projects that all have the same release date so I have to do a little of each every day (not simultaneously, of course).

    And yes, kid schedules demand multi-tasking. Especially when they go to different schools, have different schedules, different activities, all their doctor/dentist/orthodontic appointments. I often joke that if it doesn't exist on my iPhone's calendar, it simply doesn't exist.

    And don't get me started on laundry, house cleaning, etc. I saw a great Facebook meme yesterday: My housecleaning approach can be best describe as "There appears to have been a struggle." I often throw in a load of laundry and get so completely caught up in fifty other things that hours later I forget that there are wet clothes in the washer that need to go in the dryer.

  12. Reine, that's too funny. One of my daughters used a variation of that trick when she was a kid: write the required number of words, even if you have to repeat yourself several times.

    Susan, you poor thing. Pneumonia is no fun. I used to get it, along with every other blasted upper respiratory thing that came along, until I started taking Vitamin D3. It's been almost ten years now, and I went from having at least two episodes of coughing and wheezing a year to TWO ever since. Apparently, avoiding the sun has repercussions, and the D3 (important to have this kind, not just the D) helps to overcome that lack of exposure.

    This post is so comforting, knowing that all of you struggle with keeping your butts glued to the chair. BIC, HOK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. That was my motto for a long time, but I get chained to the idea, and feel guilty if I'm not there all day long. The reality, am I right, is that one can only write for so many hours a day. And it's really easy to fool oneself into thinking that sitting at the computer is actual working. Thanks for sharing your coping strategies, Reds!

  13. One tool I use is the 2-minute rule to help me stay on track--keeping on top of three jobs, a household with 2 active kids, one cat, a hamster, sometimes 4 dogs, can get overwhelming. Oh, and me time: writing time, reading, exercising. Most of my work these days involves sitting at the computer, and that's where the 2-minute rule comes in.

    Experts advise that you should get up from your desk for at least 2-5 minutes every hour--all that sitting shortens your life span. In 2 minutes I can walk out to get the mail (bonus pts: I get exercise and some sunshine), 2 minutes to throw in a load of laundry, or unload the dishwasher, make appointments, or just walk through the house on cold days). When I sit down again, I'm ready to get back to work. This break helps especially when I need to switch from one project to another. In an 8-hour day, I can accomplish a number of tasks this way.

  14. Kaye, I watched the video. Lovely and so true. And I will take it to heart. (And maybe will write about it later this week.)

    BUT, I still have a book to finish, so am taking everyone else's advice to heart as well. Setting my word count AND my timer today:-)

    Susan, Diane is better at Scrivener than I am if you have questions. And they have a great FB page with all kinds of tips.

    Hallie, I'm always going back and forth. It's one reason I'm slow, and it's also a reason I find Scriverer so helpful. It's really easy to go back and add material, or to take it out, or to move things around.

    Karen, so interesting about the D3!! I do take it every day. The last time I had a respiratory bug was when I was on book tour last year, and I was NOT taking my vitamins, including the D3. Hmmm. It's going with me from now on.

    Lucy, for years I used to make a mock cover for the book-in-progress. I'd use one of my photos from wherever the book was set. Sometimes it wasn't even the final title but that didn't seem to matter. And you know what? I haven't done that for this book. It seems a little bit silly, but I'd put that cover where I could see it while I worked, and it made the book feel like a real thing. An existing thing. Does that make sense? So I'm adding that to my to-do list today--after I've done at least a couple of timed writes...

    I love the way our conversations mutate on this blog--today, from staying focused to visualizing goals. And all of you always have such helpful and inspiring things to say.

    Thank you, Reds and Red readers, for being a part of my life!

  15. Lucy... I do the visual reminders of the big goal to motivate me when I am down. I have my awards on a display shelf that I have to pass to get to my office. I have my Edgar nomination certificate and first NYT list on the wall above my desk , it's great to say "I've done this before, I can do it again!"

  16. Karen, thank you -- I will take extra D -- I take a multivitamin, but seriously avoid the sun/wear sunscreen, so...

    Reine, you made me literally laugh out loud....

    Now that I'm not on deadline, I'm sort of excited to learn Scrivner....

  17. One of the things that made me very good at my job was the ability to keep a lot of balls in the air. As I get older - not former, but old - I find more of the balls hitting me on the head or splatting on the floor. So I'm working on a two-tier strategy that involves some separate planning time, with more lists than I used to need, and time allocated for specific tasks, rather than for whatever handful of things are grabbing my attention. I can no longer respond to as many questions off the top of my head, and I haven't got my new process working smoothly yet, but I'm getting better at keeping things organized. I suspect I'll have the new approach running really well the day before I retire.

    As others have said, I really enjoy hearing about so many different things from everyone!


  18. Jim, that's so funny! I'm going to have this great image in my head all day, now.

    And Reine, I've contemplated your method but decided it wouldn't go over too well with my editor:-)

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  21. Hank, thank you, thank you, thank you for the timer method and the same thanks to you FChurch for the 2 minute rule. And to Lucy for reminding me of goals and breaking into steps which was how I worked in law school in my 40s. My writing now is not professional, letters...I would have made a lovely Edwardian lady with her daily correspondence...which have morphed into long emails and poetry for the fun of moving words about. But I still have trouble focusing with all the variety of distracting housework and errand running
    and all those novels all of the Reds and your ilk produce to tempt me. ;-)
    Wishing you all productive and healthy days!

  22. Everyone here is so inspiring!

    I'm so disjointed in life these days that I can barely keep a list. Lists are helpful--why can't I write one down for the day? It's like I don't want to tie myself down or commit (story of my life). The main struggle these days is with marketing tasks. I have my 750 words/day first draft writing goal, but then I fall apart for anything else writing-wise -- dogwalking, laundry, grocery shopping take precedence.

    How to fit in the marketing stuff?

    Also, does anyone have any tips for getting authorial tasks accomplished in the evening? I squander those hours most of all because I'm weary at the end of the day (day job) ...

  23. Lisa, the only suggestion I have it to get through the evening chores, get ready for bed, and then see if there's a little gas left in the tank for writing. Usually for me, if I've had a good think in the bath, I'll want to write down the results before they drift away. Even if it's only a paragraph or two to set up for the next day's writing. This is incredibly helpful and I wish I could say I did it every evening...

    But as for anything author/work related like promotion, I have to do in the morning.

  24. Luckily Lisa you're doing the most important thing first--writing! Marketing is of no use if you have nothing written:). Sounds like making the list and marking which are priorities might help. And the thing is, you may need that time off if you're working a day job too!

    Debs, the mock=up cover sounds perfect! And I did use Julie's idea for a while, something like Ramona's sprints. I had 2 other writers who wanted to finish projects, so we set the 1000 word goal and would check in at the end of every day. It really did help to have to report.

    Hallie, I get what you're saying, but I think you can do something similar by writing ahead and then fixing and rewriting later. I think.

  25. Thanks, Debs! I like the idea of a nice hot bath and thinking time -- and of setting up for the next day! It takes me awhile to wake up sometimes, so there are days I fart around for almost an hour trying to get the shape of a new scene in my head. Would be nice to have the shape by the time I fall asleep.

    I tend to the promo in the in-between spaces, which means I rarely allot them the necessary time ...

    Hi Roberta! Dedicating a time slot to marketing stuff is an idea, and taking half days off every now and then could work ...

  26. How to juggle time between actually writing and "writer's work" is something we might want to talk about in future, right, REDS? I'd love to know how other writers deal with this.

  27. Hank, I'm going to use your timer idea for getting my house back in order after the last nine months of new paint, new floors, and some remodeling. It has seemed overwhelming to finish the sorting, weeding, and putting back together. I'll try the timer method for different tasks. Thanks!!!

  28. Yes, Kathy, I think that might work! It's all about making a big task in to doable bites. Pick one thing to do. One drawer. One closet. You don;t have to do the WHOLE house. Just--one thing. Keep us posted!

    And yes, Debs--writer's work is work. ANd we have to --get to--do it. So it's all part of it and that's very very difficult.

    I still think it's about setting time limits. xoxo