How to Make Your Mind Like Water

Over this last week, I’ve been reading books on how to organize yourself while flying out to Chattanooga Tennessee for Liberty Con, a science fiction and fantasy convention with an emphasis on Baen authors and Baen books.

I went for the first time ten years ago and since then it’s become our home away from home in the convention circuit.  Over the years, my husband started attending, and then my sons (the older of whom is also a published professional in SF/F.)

While at the con I had to deliver a short story I was contracted for and also to keep up my blog posting. At the same time, as I said, I was reading books on how to organize myself.

The one that has so far captured most of my attention, and which shows the most possibility of success in helping me organize is Getting Things DoneI confess what is so attractive about it, is probably the subtitle: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen.

But there’s more to it than that, as the author emphasizes this book is directed at “knowledge workers” – which I think includes us creative bums.

You see, most of the other books seem to be directed at business situations.  I realize my knowledge of those is deficient, because the last time I had what could be described as “honest work” – by Heinlein’s definition, something that required one’s going to the office and spending time there – was a good twenty two years ago. However, they seem to be more hard-and-fast as compared to the fluidity of creative/knowledge work. You have goals that impose themselves on you externally: appointments, meetings, things to check off your to do list.

My husband is laughing at me as I write this. He’s often complained he comes home to work because at the office he gets interrupted by someone else’s emergency every five minutes. But since he works in scientific programing, I suppose he too is part of the “knowledge worker” industry, where things can be done everywhere and therefore work bleeds into free time and vice-versa.

Every Time I get interrupted, another hour of concentration swirls down the drain.

My problem, sufficiently described in other posts, is in fact a constant sense of always being delinquent on some duty.  It is like having four full-time jobs.  When I’m working on my contracted Baen books, I’m not working on my editing of my backlist to publish, I’m not working on short stories due various places, I’m not working on my indie novels where one is waiting revision and the other half-done.  And if I switch to any of those, the others nag at me.  I am constantly stressed and taking time off doesn’t help, because when I come back to work (and sometimes before) the stress pumps to the previous level or higher, because of more things left undone.)  This is before you consider my part time job of looking after the house and family.

Then add in the parts of my job I can’t control: when page proofs arrive; a question from my publisher that cuts my concentration completely; emergencies related to household management that cut my train of thought; an interview request; a request for a short story with a short deadline. All of these turn an overstressed system into pure chaos.

I read in the beginning of David Allen’s book that your mind should be like water and thought “mind like water” no problem. My mind runs through things and retains no memory.

Turns out that’s not what he meant.  He was talking about how water reacts to a pebble thrown in it.  How much force does it use?  Exactly as much as needed.  No more.  No less.  And then it immediately returns to the state it was in before the disturbance.

Allen says to manage this you must clarify your commitments; keep reminders in an organization system you trust and review regularly; break down your projects into bite-sized, manageable bits.

My problems in the past have come with: what good is it clarifying your commitments when new ones are constantly added; I have trouble trusting any system outside my head, because I’m given to losing notebooks; I have no issues with breaking down my projects into bite-sized bits, but then other stuff interferes and nothing gets done.

Another point Allen makes is to start from the bottom up: do not the most important bit, but the one you can do right now.

He emphasizes five stages 1- Collect all things you need to do; everything weighing on your mind, from, say “promoting individual freedom” to “buy lettuce” 2- Process what to do about them. For instance, promoting individual freedom is a reactive thing. When faced with a choice, I’ll promote individual freedom over top-down organizing.  It’s not a project I can do a bite at a time.  3- Organize the results of the above.  4 – Review options.  5- Do.

After a while, all those "to do" things carried from day to day because I couldn't get to them become like the leaky faucet you just can't fix.

Because I resolved to try his method, and because so much of it is based on keeping “commitments” outside your head, I’m trying to find an electronic list/planner device that will work and which I can back up onto the computer.  I am at this point trained enough I’m not likely to simply lose the Kindle Fire but if I do, the computer will be there as a back up.  This might allay my discomfort with “things outside my head that I can lose.”

The other thing I like is that the only lists (after your overarching lists) he suggests you make are of the things you can do that day, on your various projects. Way back, I used Franklin planner, and carrying forth all those lists of as, bs, cs and ds nearly drove me nuts.

There was a constant trickle, trickle, trickle of attention at the back of my mind, like water in Chinese water torture.

If I understand his method correctly (and I’m re-reading the book to make sure, because frankly reading organizational books on planes is slightly less than satisfactory) I am to make an overarching list of all projects nagging at me, then break each into pieces and keep those sublists.  (For this an electronic list-keeping seems most apt.)  The only things I’m supposed to enter on my calendar, hard and fast, are those things that have drop-dead deadlines: meetings, cons and story turn-ins.

For the rest I’m supposed to “fill the day” with the “actions I can take right now” on various projects, living enough space for new things to come in. And when new things come in that can’t be immediately acted on in a short enough time, they’re to be either filed away for future breakdown action, or to be delegated or ignored.

Say, for instance, I’m in the middle of a chapter and the email light pings. I know most organizational manuals say to only check the email two times a day or some such.  But that’s – in my opinion – an attempt to make today’s methods of communications conform to the time when mail arrived twice a day. Sometimes my publisher pings me with a question about a book title, or attribution, the answer to which is waited at the printers’. For me to not check email for five more hours might make someone miss a deadline.

Much easier to look at the email.

Say the email is a question about a title.  This is usually (not always) fairly urgent, but more important it takes me about two minutes to answer.  I answer it, that’s done, out of my head, and I return to my work.

Say the email is from my lawyer; it’s a question about out of print titles, and I’m required to look up when the book was published/out of print.  This might be urgent, in which case I do it, and lose 15 minutes, as it requires me going to my files.  If it’s not, though, I either make a note to do it at the end of the day, or I delegate – i.e. ask my sons or husband to look it up and bring me the info.

On the other hand, say the email is from someone who might do an anthology they might want me in in the distant future.  Do I read it through and think it over and decide if I want to participate?  No. Depending on whether the editor is a friend or an importune stranger, I either send back a couple of lines saying “Sounds interesting. Tell me when things are firmer” or I ignore it.  If it becomes real and they really want me, they’ll ping me again later.

Of course, I’m not absolutely sure after these interruptions I can make my mind return to the serenity of a broken lake, but I’m going to try.

The plan for this week is to find a notetaking method and to get used to this new way of thinking of one’s schedule.  At a guess, it’s going to take training.

Alas, that poor swan is in the mind of a writer.  Any minute now, the Loch Ness monster will break those limpid waters, and all that will be left of the swan will be some floating feathers.


images via shutterstock / megainarmy /  VERSUSstudio / Stephen McCluskey / Zacarias Pereira da Mata