Taming the Workmonster

This is Charlie's mind with a new idea!

This is Charlie’s mind with a new idea!

Hi, everyone. My name is Charlie, and I’m not a workaholic. Honest. I mean, I do tend to get up at 6AM and find myself sitting in bed at 10PM thinking I should be writing something more before I go to sleep, and I have been known to get stubborn about a programming problem and work 30 hours straight, but I can give it up anytime, really.

Okay, yes, I am being a little facetious and before anyone gets their drawers in a monkey’s-fist with six inches of square chain sinnet, I’m not making fun of alcoholics or addicts or anyone else who’s been helped by 12 Step programs; I’m making fun of myself. But with a point: I do tend to overwork.

What I am is a creative. I am continually assailed by ideas, things I want to write, build, paint, or create. My observation of creatives is that they live in one of two states: they are either driven, or they’re blocked. Being blocked is horrible (and a topic for another time, but let me say if you are blocked, go out right now and read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.) Being driven is fun — you’re doing something you love and you’re excited and you don’t want to stop.


A running complaint that Sarah and I share is that while it’s great doing this, it also has its limits. Sarah knows she’s hit her limit when she gets some horrible respiratory bug or sinus infection. I know it when I get depressed, irascible (yes, even more irascible) and end up spending two days in bed, sleeping or playing computer solitaire.

I have a second issue with this. I tend to be what Barbara Sher calls a scanner — not my favorite word for it, since I’m a Cordwainer Smith fan, so maybe you could say “hummingbird” or “butterfly”. (Where does a 6′ 3″ 265 pound butterfly land? Anywhere he damn wants.) In any case, in a lot of ways I’m motivated by learning new things and rewarded by that first skin-prickling hit of a cool new idea, but tend to go “lookit, a squirrel” off after the next idea when it hits.

So Sarah and I have decided to collaborate on a new 13 week experiment in managing two competing desires:

  • being optimally productive
  • without sacrificing health and sanity. Or at least health.

We’ll be writing about this weekly (he said, typing carefully) in the form of a colloquy or conversation.

Let’s look at the issue again. I have, at last count, about 27 bazillion projects I’d like to do — fiction, nonfiction, computer programs, spec scripts for TV and movies, and I’m tied into a startup company — plus I’d like to make time for painting and drawing and I’m intent on getting a little more exercise and at least occasionally actually leaving the house.

I’ve experimented with David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, and while I see a lot of appeal in it, it’s directed more toward people who want to get things done in a limited time. When I do GTD, I end up with unlimited things. The GTD books seem mostly directed to people with limited time to want to do more; I see my problem as seeing things through to “done” and limiting my time.

Just when everything was going so well, the wild squirrel of an idea comes along!

Just when everything was going so well, the wild squirrel of an idea comes along!

Well, that and those damn squirrels. I just took a shower and had paragraphs of prose for a TV idea run through my head.

So here are the changes I want:

  • I want to capture these ideas so they don’t hang around and plague me asking for attention
  • I want to see them getting finished, preferably in ways that I find rewarding. (Hint: Money is always an option.)
  • I want to set limits, so I know when I’ve done “a day’s work” and can stop without feeling I should do One More Thing.

Here are some methods I’m considering:

  • Continuing with GTD. Like cocaine, a good servant but a harsh master.
  • Devising and following a process.
  • Using kanban. I’ll write more about this, but the gist is to have a limited number of projects in process concurrently, and have a signboard — that’s what ‘kanban’ actually means — on which progress on those projects is visible.
  • Using the Pomodoro Technique, but again using it somewhat backwards from the usual, because I’ll be using it to measure how much I’ve done and when to stop.
This is an accurate representation of Sarah's mind, and she's not even on drugs.

This is an accurate representation of Sarah’s mind, and she’s not even on drugs.

Hi, this is Sarah, and I don’t know when to stop.  Part of this, to be honest is that I don’t have logical stopping points in my activities.  When I was a translator, I knew when I was done (all the words in one language were in the other language.)  When I taught, I had a set time, then set office hours to meet with students.

Being a writer is sort of … intrinsic to me.  I can’t simply walk away and say “I’m done with being a writer now, I’ll go watch a movie or play with the cats.”  As it was, there was some sense of delineation to it when all my writing was limited to “What you can publish” or “what a NY publishing house will think is a good idea for you to do.”  Well, to an extent.  I fought very hard against agents’ and editors trying to give my career some defined direction, because I get bored easily (though I refuse to call myself a butterfly or a humming bird, Charlie, really! At my weight!) and attempts to hem me into things like “literary fantasy” made me so depressed I got terminal block. (I second Charlie’s recommendations for the books to get you out of the block, btw.) But even so there was a limit. I might send out proposals for everything from YA to hard SF, but let’s face it, the publishers — and often my agent — rejected everything they thought went too far “off path.”

Then came indie. Have I told you I love indie publishing? It allows me to write for the only company that didn’t annoy me (Baen books) but not to be limited by what they’d be willing to accept. Which is great.  it was like coming alive again.  Unfortunately, this is what my thoughts/inspirations look like now:

And not all of it is just “I want to write more of x or y” — though a lot of it is.  For instance, I want to continue my musketeers’ mysteries, I want to write more historical novels.  I want to write odd fantasy.  I want to try my hand at romance, I want to — but a lot of it is stuff I have to do.  For instance, last year I got back the rights to my traditionally published books with companies-other-than-Baen.  This means I can put them up.  And frankly, it means I should put them up, because it’s some money in the bank for work already done.  But while the writing is already done, I’m learning to do other things, like… editing, like, typesetting for both ebook and print (that second is still very backward), like making covers.  All of these are suddenly part of my job, due to the tech changes.  (Yes, I could pay for this stuff.  Beyond the fact that indie pays very slowly, I TRIED to pay for this stuff, but the people I found weren’t any better at it than I was.  I mean, some of them — particularly cover design — were spectacular from an artistic point of view, but failed at “things even I know” such as signaling genre which are essential for selling books.)

Now, add on top of this all the other things I have to do — beyond writing and publishing.  I am still the household manager, chief cleaner and cook, and probably chief bottle washer as well.  (The only bottles we have are Vinho Verde about once a week, and we just toss those, but in the metaphorical sense, I mean.)  I also do about half the handyman stuff around here.  (My husband does anything involving water or electricity, and we call experts for the really tough stuff, but most of the time we do it.)  I also follow industry blogs, and I have this … uh… politics thing that forces me to read three or four different sources of news everyday.

Then there is my art, which at this point is so neglected I’m not sure it’s any good anymore.  I’d like to take classes/practice more (it’s another source of income) but…  And my sewing (look, I like sewing!) falls in around the edges, five minutes here, ten minutes there.

Sarah would like to explore this new world where sometimes we can do something just because...

Sarah would like to explore this new world where sometimes we can do something just because…

So what ends up happening is that I roll out of my bed at six am to do my blog, and roll into bed sometime at ten or eleven, after I finish writing something else, and in between never take a breath.  It’s a red letter day if I actually take two hours off to watch a movie with my husband. (Double red letter because it means he got to take time off too, from his projects.)

Like Charlie I tried Getting Things Done, and it works by focusing my time so I don’t get to the end of the day having done ten thousand pieces of a hundred different projects. I get more done, and finish things but…

But I still work fourteen to sixteen hour days and after a few days of this get sick and lose weeks, which I can’t afford to do.

I agree with all of Charlie’s “Changes I want” but I also need to do something else.  Because a lot of the things that take my time and attention must be done, I need to figure out how to shift them, delegate them, or learn to do them faster.  Part of this is going to involve:

  • Organize house so cleaning and maintenance is easier
  • Batch cook once a week, so all we have to do is warm dinner

Get friends to help with blog and other “non essential Sarah” duties  (this is already under way.)

What I’m considering:

  • I’ve got a planner, to keep track of goals, which I’ll do by the week — and try not to guilt myself into finishing them all.
  • I’ll continue using the Pomodoro technique, but maybe use the “breaks” to do something fun.
  • I’m going to try to block out two hours in the evening to just read or sew or do something other than writing (this is going to be tough and take some time. Because I always have stuff to do.)
  • I would like to take an art course (what has stopped it in the past is that the spring semester extends to con-season and the fall semester starts during con-season, and I’m usually missing too many classes.  But since I’m not taking it for credit, that might be okay.
  • Take at least a day every other week and leave it unscheduled (I don’t know if I can force myself to do this.
  • Try to plan things in the future instead of doing them all at once.

Wish us luck. I suspect we’re going to need it. (Oh and Charlie, my friend, trying to save the sanity of either of us is like locking the barn door after the horse has left.)