Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Simple Matter of Time

I’ve commented before that my most creative time for writing is in the evening. Usually between five o’clock and eleven o’clock. That’s when I’m at my most intense focus. It appears to me there is a certain calm that settles over the world at that time. The sun sets. The air itself seems to relax.
More importantly, I am less likely to be interrupted by people or phone calls during this time. Heck, my telephones are programmed to stop accepting calls after a certain time. Then, they simply shunt any calls directly to voicemail.
Times when I know I will not be interrupted are the times I am most productive.
Mornings I usually use for reading the news, correspondence, or other mental activities. Then I’ll take care of any running around. With all that out of the way, there is nothing to distract from the work at hand.
As anyone can tell you, life is never really that neat and convenient.
April was a complete blowout as far as writing was concerned. I had far too many things on my schedule—and all of them at the wrong times. Everything came up. There was one weekend where six different groups scheduled events on the same day. Two of which were mandatory!
The worst thing I can do to myself is schedule something for the evening.
I noticed long ago that I disliked working the evening shift. As a teenager—that age where one pretty much can only get jobs that happen during evenings—I disliked working evenings. As young and inexperienced as I was as a teenager, I thought my disinclination for working evenings was odd. It didn’t quite strike me as normal. By the time I reached my twenties, that dislike had grown into a hatred. When I had an evening shift ahead of me, I felt like I spent the entire day getting ready for work.
Oddly, I loved working the graveyard shift. Sure, it sucked socially because I turned into a pumpkin whenever the sun went down; I would fall asleep whenever my butt touched a horizontal surface. Still, I loved the graveyard shift. When that shift ended I and stepped out into the glorious morning sunshine, I had the entire day in front of me!
That feeling was and is the crucial clue to why I hate working evenings. The other clue, though not as clear, was my feeling that I had to waste the entire day getting ready to go to work when I had an evening shift in front of me.
It wasn’t until I decided to throw myself full-time into writing that I realized just why I didn’t like evening activities. Or rather, why an evening activity would completely throw off my productivity.
When I start on a project or task, I don’t like to stop. It takes me about 40 minutes to get into flow state; once I’m there, I will stay completely focused on what is before me until I am too tired to continue. The slightest interruption is enough to keep me out of this high state of productivity. Even the threat of interruption has the same effect.
And if I have something scheduled ahead of me, that is the ultimate interruption. 
This is why the evening shift always left me feeling like I was spending the whole day getting ready for work. It was because I couldn’t allow myself to drop into flow state and work on a project until I started falling asleep. I couldn’t get myself to get started on a project knowing that I would have to stop right after I felt I had gotten into the zone working on it. The opposite was getting out of the graveyard shift. I truly did have the entire day in front of me to sit down and work on some given project, without having to artificially stop.
This April has been one of those months where everything seemed to pile up. Too many activities requiring too much of my attention, something had to give, and that something was my writing schedule.
I am not a multitasker.
I do best when focusing on one thing at a time. My full concentration can be brought to bear on a particular problem without hindrance. But, it takes a certain amount of time to become fully focused on what is before me. If I am dividing my attention on two different things, then each time I switch my focus there is a delay of time until my concentration is at full steam. To me, that is a waste of time.
The process of mentally switching gears from Project-A to Project-B consumes so much time, that trying to do things at once results in it taking twice as long to complete both projects than if I merely set one aside for when I finished the other.
Life is not so convenient.
I keep to a certain work schedule. Monday–Thursday are reserved for writing. Friday is my official day off. Saturday and Sunday are optional days for me, either for taking time off or working on some other project.
Why take Fridays off? Because over the years, that was the evening when most of my friends wanted to blow off steam after the workweek and go out for either dinner or drink. Saturday evenings were a close second, but those activities were usually more structured activities such as going to a show or a special scheduled event. Long ago when I worked very odd hours and schedules, I missed out on a lot because I had to work when my friends wanted to play. When I was able to get into a career path that allowed me normal work schedules, I declared weekends to be sacred.
But life does not follow a schedule. Things come up. Some evenings are more convenient than others for some activities and projects. My cat—an animal that is purported to be supposedly aloof—has an urgent need to be snuggled or draped over my arms while I’m trying to type.
April proved to be one of those months. In the midst of all this, I was forced to set aside writing for the month. Not a good thing for the various deadlines hanging over me!
Time management is a must and it only works with good self-discipline. There will be times, however, when a rigid schedule and iron self-discipline must be thrown out the window. Flexibility is important, too.
Structure your time. Remember the good ’ole days before you became a writer when you worked 9–5, M–F? That’s structured time. During that time, you knew you had to focus on work in the work environment and that is exactly what you did. By structuring your time, you set the foundation for your self-discipline to ensure you use this time to write or at least work at related functions to writing. You can say, “This is the time I work.” It also gives you the necessary explanation to tell people not to interrupt you during your work time and thereby avoiding the interruptions that could cause you to lose your train of thought.
The absolute last thing you want your family or friends thinking is, “Oh, Bill is a writer. He’s not doing anything, I’ll call him to [insert favor or errand to be asked].” I suggest turning off your telephone if this happens a lot. You can always check voicemail when you pause to take a break.
Figure out the times when you are most productive. Set up your daily schedule based on this. Turn off your telephone/cellphone. (Telephones are my nemesis.) If this time of creativity changes over time, then adjust your schedule to match.
Once you have your work schedule figured out, determine which days you will have off. I suggest you schedule your off days to coincide with off days of friends and family. What good is having a day off if you cannot enjoy it with those closest to you? Even the most introverted of individuals needs to socialize with friends and family. Stick to your off days religiously.
You do not do your best work if you are constantly driving yourself.  Even God, according to the Bible, needed a day off. God created Heaven and said it was good. He create Earth, the trees and animals and said it was all good. Then he created Man and said, “Whoa! I seriously need a day off!” Then, after a day off, he was able to think of a lot of improvements and created Woman. Clearly, taking time off is important to the creative process and the quality of your work.
If God needed a day off, so do you. Do it.
By carefully and strictly structuring your time, you will find that you can be a lot more flexible with your time. Knowing when to work and when not to work allows you know when to put other activities on your calendar. It will also make adjusting your schedule a lot easier. Getting yourself in the habit of working certain hours and resting during others will also help you avoid the issue of burn out from writing too much.
Carefully managing your time will not always prevent blowouts to your calendar like I had this month. But it will make it easier to adjust and return to a regular working schedule when such things happen.