Culture

Organizing your Life is Like Learning to Juggle Eggs and Chainsaws

Don't try this at home.  Not unless you have some spare arms and legs.

Don’t try this at home. Not unless you have some spare arms and legs.

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

Week Four: How to Tame Your Subconscious

Week Five: How Separating When and Where You Do Tasks Improves Both Productivity and Quality of Work!

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How do you juggle chainsaws?  Very carefully, of course.

No, I haven’t gone completely off my rocker and taken up another and completely different hobby/career.  In fact, part of my intent right now is figuring out how to reduce my needed tasks to the essential ones.

However, on the way there, I’ve come across the equivalent situation to when you’re just learning to juggle eggs and someone throws a chainsaw at you.  At best, it’s going to break your rhythm and concentration.  And at worst, it’s going to end up with a bunch of eggs broken, at the very worst, there will also be couple of fingers and a lot of blood on the floor.

Metaphorically, this week, while managing my creative life with Getting Things Done and The Pomodoro Technique, going along fine, working pretty well, ticking penguin by ticking penguin, I got a chainsaw thrown at me.  Worse, you could say I threw a chainsaw at myself, completely forgetting that I’m only a beginner in this time and task juggling thing.

I think I’ve broken a couple of eggs, in the sense that the first three days of the week were lost to a mire of emotional confusion, but I still have all my fingers and I’m getting ready to integrate the chainsaw in the flow – that is, I’m figuring out the difficult things that have to be done, and which will for a while disrupt my life, but which will lead to – hopefully – a much better way of working and perhaps of living.

Nature abhors a vacuum!  She'll never get her cleaning life organized in thirteen weeks!

Nature abhors a vacuum! She’ll never get her cleaning life organized in thirteen weeks!

It’s a truism that any time you start a program of self-improvement, be it diet or writing a novel in a month, or learning Latin and Greek, or taking cookery lessons, or anything at all, you end up having your life fall apart on you.  For instance, the year I took Latin and Greek, I also got three bouts of pneumonia and had six novel guidelines imposed on me.

Part of this might be bad luck, of course.  At least I cannot attribute to anything else the experiences of my friend who, when he signs up for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month – created by the author of No Plot, No Problem.) has a relative die.  In fact, when my husband and I both tried NANOWRIMO for the first time, we had a relative die, a pet die, lightening hit the office in the attic and fry all our electronics, and a squirrel make a hole in our roof.

That sort of thing is “just bad luck” and you don’t want to go thinking too much about what causes it, because you’ll find yourself in a solipsistic mess.  For now we’ll agree that the truism “nature abhors a vacuum” could be re-written as “life abhors improvement.”

But there is another reason why everyone thinks that as soon as they begin on the road to self improvement and things are working they’ll end up having their life fall apart on them, and that is because you notice it more.

Think about it, if you go into a room that looks like it was just given a thorough search by a couple of movie-detectives who don’t care if you know they were there or not and everything is out of place, do you notice a gum wrapper in the middle of the floor?  No, of course you don’t.

However, imagine you come into the same room and it’s spotless.  The floor is polished.  There is not a spot of dirt anywhere.  Even the books that are on the tables are in neat piles (something I aspire to, since in a house with four readers, no book is left along long enough to be neatly piled on another book.)  In the middle of the shiny floor there is a gum wrapper.

My closet doesn't look a thing like this -- so it's much harder to find things out of place.  Or indeed in place.  Clothes, for instance.

My closet doesn’t look a thing like this — so it’s much harder to find things out of place. Or indeed in place. Clothes, for instance.

That gum wrapper will offend you.

It’s the same thing with your life and your personal organization.  When your life is in a shambles, and you live under a pile of largely self-generated stress, continuously forgetting and trying to catch up on things, you don’t notice if a task has long ceased to bring any rewards, monetary or otherwise, and is just a source of stress.

But once you start straightening things, you notice the things that are beyond your power to straighten.

In my case, I got on schedule on the books for my traditional publisher (it’s going to be a week late, dang it, but that’s not so bad), started to put my self-published books up regularly, instead of going months with nothing new up, tried to edit my novels destined for indie so they too can go up and actually making some progress on them.  And then I noticed that an endeavor I had started with a group of friends some years back, in very different circumstances, not only isn’t profitable enough for the time it takes and the stress it causes, but making it profitable would require either a complete change of focus and a lot of investor money, neither of which are likely or forthcoming with the motley crew that’s available and largely doing it on their spare time; or a change and reduction of focus, which will necessitate finding someone else to take on the part of its functions that is still necessary and, of necessity, financing that person so he/she can do it.

This is necessary because though the project, as constituted, does nothing for me or my family income, it is still useful to people involved in it.  To preserve those functions – or spin them off – is necessary so the dreams and work of the people who have volunteered to help all those years don’t go to ruin.

When I realized that this endeavor was in fact a source of stress and a problem and that I couldn’t go on with it the way we’ve been, my first reaction was that I couldn’t let go because it would cost me relationships I prize.  But further examination showed that I have to let go for the sake of my emotional and financial health and that in fact it might be the only way to preserve those relationships, because now that I’m getting the rest of my life in order, that particular involvement grates all the more, and I end up resenting it and everyone involved with it.

I’m being deliberately opaque because I’ve only talked to one of the people so far and, for various reasons, have to wait probably till Monday before I’m sure of the schedule of the reorganization, exactly what we’re doing, and what the shape of things to come will be.

You know it's just waiting till your back is turned to pull out its chainsaw!

You know it’s just waiting till your back is turned to pull out its chainsaw!

This is for two reasons – since our involvement in this project has been financial as well as time, I have to make sure that other people are financially whole and able to go on; and also, I want to make sure that my plan for how to make things work in the future will really work, even in the teeth of market changes, and will not end up being a source of stress and financial drain.

I.e. I’ve found the gum wrapper in my clean room, but before I dispose of it, I have to make sure that it’s not needed and that someone else couldn’t use it.

Or if you prefer, before I stop juggling that chainsaw, I need to make sure it’s turned off, and not set on the floor still buzzing, to cut unwary ankles.  (I speak as someone who, as a little girl, had nightmares about land sharks with chainsaws.  They crawled on the floor around my bed, ready to cut off any bit that protruded. Yes, this is how one becomes a writer.  One starts out rather mad.)

The emotional impact of my realizing I needed to do a thorough reorganization stopped my organizational efforts cold.  I forgot to wind the penguin and quite lost track of my index cards of tracks, and managed to give myself several stress headaches and start the eczema going again.

But once I came up with a nebulous course of action and accepted it was the best for everyone, I got back on the penguin (really, this program makes me say the strangest things) and started going again.

I’m starting to perceive though that this attempt to make my life more organized is going to end up as a project of self-improvement across the board.  For instance, I’ve already realized I simply don’t have time to do everything myself and am paying people to copy-edit the novels whose copyright has reverted.  That way I can get them on the electronic stores and selling sooner and hopefully make up more than the money I pay.  I.e. I’m learning to delegate everything that I don’t need to do personally.

Believe it or not, this woman might be a writer and hard at work on her novel while burning holes on her husband's shirt because she just came up with a great plot twist and forgot to move!

Believe it or not, this woman might be a writer and hard at work on her novel while burning holes on her husband’s shirt because she just came up with a great plot twist and forgot to move!

This means that as I de-clutter my life I will find other areas of stress, and some of them will be difficult to extricate myself from (which is why I’ve lived with them so long.)  But since they have suddenly become obvious and that much more grating, from being the only areas of stress and mess left, I will have to deal with them. And in the end, I’ll probably end up better off.

What other changes will this organization program have on my life?  I don’t know. I’m fairly sure the husband, kids and cats are safe.  And I’m not giving up tasks which like ironing are not particularly enjoyable in itself (though ironing was made more so by the advent of the wonderful steam iron two years ago) but which by being more or less mechanical let my mind wander.  I often use my ironing time for plotting and voice-clarification on the current work, kind of like Agatha Christie in her auto-biography, claimed to use dishwashing.

But the rest?  We shall see.  As long as I enjoy something and it is at least paying its way in terms of the time I sink into it, I’ll keep doing it. But if those don’t apply or no longer apply, I’ll try to find ways to streamline.

Ways that don’t injure others, of course, if possible – but ways to streamline nonetheless.

Because if you’re juggling eggs, the one chainsaw is very disruptive.  And it might cost you a finger.

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images courtesy shutterstock / Syda Productions / Havoc / Elena Elisseeva / wavebreakmedia / Annette Shaff