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How to Tame Your Subconscious

Beyond willpower: training yourself to perform effortlessly.

by
Sarah Hoyt

Bio

July 27, 2013 - 1:00 pm
It's not that your subconscious is stupid.  It's that there is so much of it to train.

It’s not that your subconscious is stupid. It’s that there is so much of it to train.

Organizing Your Creative Life in 13 Weeks: Week 4

Prolific science fiction novelist Sarah Hoyt follows up her “Your Novel in 13 Weeks” PJ Lifestyle series with a new weekly experiment each Saturday to figure out the best way for all creative types working from home to better organize their efforts.  

Week Zero, Introduction: Organizing Your Creative Life In 13 Weeks
Week 1/2, Preparation: The Case For Making Lots of Lists
Week One: How to Make Your Mind Like Water
Week Two: What Are the Best Apps For Artists and Writers Desperate To Get Work Done? 
Week Three: The Lone Writer Against The Time Masters

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So here is where I am in week four. The Pomodoro Technique and the index cards are working with the Getting Things Done method. For a definition of working: Sometimes the penguin timer rings (where else do you get to read a sentence like that?) and I continue working “just to finish something.” But mostly I try to keep to the 25 minute/5 minute schedule, and take the half hour (and one one hour, where I walk three miles, roughly half way through the day) break every four pomodoros.

How does this work? To an extent very well. I finally finished a novella that has been languishing, unfinished, on my screen, with maybe two sentences written on it a day. This week I wrote seven thousand words. And I’ve proofed stories to put up, which have been printed and piled on my desk for two months. And I’ve done some work on my novel which – assures her publisher – will be ready in August, yes. Overall, I think I cleared more work of the slate this week than at any time before. Or at least more than at any time when I didn’t go to a hotel or take part in a writing challenge or some other incentive to productivity.

Two things remain annoying:

-          One, is that I’m having trouble remembering things that should have been hard-penciled in. Now, part of this might be the transition to the Getting Things Done method of working. I need to remember, when I get a deadline, to edge over to the calendar and write it down. The fact that I just glanced at my wall calendar and it shows April is probably part of the issue. The other part of the issue is my tendency to jump on whatever just came in via email, even if I have a few days on it. This is part of a fear I’ll forget it, which brings me to my next problem.

-          Two I’m still bypassing tasks that should have priority over other tasks. Frankly, I attribute this to the fact I don’t have a functioning corkboard yet, and you can only shuffle index cards so much. The corkboard is half behind a desk and far too small. I might have to install a bigger corkboard there and work around the desk with the cards. Alternatively, I can put it on the side of my bed. Surely my husband will understand, right? After all, he’s a writer himself.

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What you train your subconscious to do without meaning to can bite you.

I think these two problems are things that will work themselves out, as I continue training myself to the “get things out of your head and onto a “planning system” method of Getting Things Done.

I don’t know if pairing the Pomodoro technique with Getting Things Done is logical or even needed for most people, but for me the Pomodoro method is helping circumvent very bad habits I acquired when I was the mother of two small children and trying to write novels. It might be physically impossible to mind to small and rambunctious boys and write a novel without ending up with your day chopped up into five minute increments.

When I first went to a workshop back in 1999, I found that I was having the hardest trouble sitting down and completing my assignments at my chair for more than five minutes at a time. It took me a while to figure out that my back-brain was scanning for the sudden halt in noise that is the sign the children are up to something very bad indeed. As the silence continued and continued, my brain would start giving me alarms that “you should go check now.”

The fact that I was hundreds of miles away and my children were being looked after by their father who’d taken the week off for the purpose, did no good at all. My trained subconscious knew that there was something very wrong with all that silence.

The problem is that once you ingrain and train that sort of rhythm, it’s almost impossible to snap out of it. As the boys grew up and went to school, my subconscious found other ways of interrupting the work so that the “normal” – by then – work flow was maintained.

Usually it’s whatever was causing me most anxiety at the time, which right now seems to be a very odd – not to say depressing – mix of household chores and national/political news.

This usually means that I work for five minutes or so, until my internal panic tells me I’m supposed to be doing something. Then I get up and do dishes, or put a load of laundry in, or – more often – check Instapundit to make sure the world hasn’t imploded yet. (It’s one of the most reliable services Instapundit provides. You scan the headlines and you go “okay, the world is still there.”)

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Soon you’ll have your subconscious so well trained it will jump through a hoop of fire onto the back of a white horse. No, the horse won’t rear. Shut up. It’s a metaphor.

The problem with that tiny work interval, and usually a lopsidedly large – fifteen minutes or so – disruption is that I might only work three hours total by the end of the day which, as you imagine, somewhat impairs my ability to get things done.

Just telling myself to shut up, sit down and work has varying degrees of success. I can do it if I have a novel pushing through with such force that I can’t think of anything else. On the other hand, for the normal pace of work and for more common tasks, like assigning my back list to copyeditors so I can bring it up online, or making covers for and formatting my short stories, or even finishing a novella, it doesn’t work at all. In the balance what I’d call the “brute force” or “sheer willpower” level works about a quarter of the times I need it to work.

So, why does Pomodoro work where it fails? Mostly because the 25 minute intervals are manageable.

I can tell myself “I will check on Instapundit in ten minutes.” As time goes on, I find I’m checking the time on the penguin a lot less often than I used to, and just working through until the penguin rings, when I give myself permission to check the news, do the dishes, sweep the kitchen or scrub toilets. (Only a writer on deadline knows how alluring the task of scrubbing the bathroom – even the kids’ bathroom – is.)

This way I’m training myself and my concentration span to last through twenty five minutes at a time. I don’t know — given my dual role as household manager, and my interest in world news — that I’ll be able to train it to any longer spans, but that’s fine so long as this works. Before, to get this level of productivity I needed to completely change my surroundings, which is why isolating myself in a hotel worked for hard and concentrated periods of effort.

Another interesting side benefit of the penguin and its rather loud ticking sound is that if my husband or kids stick their noses into my office area and hear the penguin, they go, “Oh, pardon me, you’re in the middle of a segment. I’ll come back later.” Now if they could avoid informing me of this, it would help. Also, sometimes they’re stacked three deep – only because I only have two children – outside the door waiting for the penguin to ring so they can all rush in. But that’s preferable to what I’ve had to field in the past, such as their standing by my desk arguing some technical point they expect me to be referee on.

So – on to next week, where I endeavor to get better control of my calendar and find a way to mount the corkboard so it’s more useable.

And to continue training my subconscious to work better with what I actually want to do.

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images courtesy shutterstock / Kachinadoll / Maria Bell / Hannamariah

Sarah Hoyt lives in Colorado with her husband, two sons and too many cats. She has published Darkship Thieves and 16 other novels, and over 100 short stories. Writing non-fiction is a new, daunting endeavor. For more on Sarah and samples of her writing, look around at Sarah A. Hoyt.com or check out her writing and life blog at According to Hoyt.com.

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Whoops I misstated my zinger. Should have said (Only hard to read if you believe that SCOTUS opinions should be comprised of actual reasoning, and not mere platitudes) Can't you edit these comments?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is great in concept, and probably works well for most professions, but I don't know how well this would work for lawyers. Have you ever tried to read a SCOTUS opinion in 25 minutes? Starting to read one and then taking a break is no solution either. I tried to do that, like 3 times, for Lawrence v. Texas, before I gritted my teeth and read all the way through that test of internal fortitude. (Only hard to read if you don't buy into the current paradigm that SCOTUS opinions should be comprised of actual reasoning, and not mere platitudes).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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