Organization for the Writing Life

clockNone of us has enough time, but we might improve considerably our approach to the time we do have.

I suggest we consider time ‘as Catholics,’ ‘as professionals,’ and ‘as artists’ to make the most of time.

Catholic Time

As Catholics, we should have regular recourse to refreshment in ‘time out of time.’ I can’t say enough about the role of Sabbath-keeping, Liturgy, and holy leisure in the life of a Catholic artist. Essential, critical, pivotal…and largely ignored. (See Souls at Rest for more on this.)

Professional Time

To see yourself as a professional writer – whether or not you make money at it – is to place your creativity and passion within the helpful boundaries of discipline, time management and deadlines. This may feel like a cramping of your style, but these constraints can actually free you to accomplish much more.

David Allen is famous in the world of business for his approach to time management (Getting Things Done), but writers and artists may not yet be familiar with his helpful advice. His is a system of Project- rather than Time-Management, so it lends itself very well to writing projects, which often involve a series of tasks (interview, research, transcribe, draft, proof, get feedback, check sources, format, send to collaborators, etc…) – many of which are not the writing itself.

What’s great about this is that we may continue to work on a project constructively, even when we aren’t in the mood to write. What’s bad about this is that all those other tasks make a project feel so oppressive and complex, we can’t write, or we avoid digging into the project at all.

Allen’s basic framework is to make a different file for each Project, with a list of the Next Actions required to complete it, in order. If you can’t do it now, all at once, it’s not a Task, but a Project. If it’s a task, schedule it, do it, and move on. If you have no clear actions to take, this is not a Project, but an Idea, or a Reference, and should be tucked away or tossed. One Project file might be Develop Ideas, and its Action steps, 1) Pull Idea File for Reflection, 2) Turn Three Ideas into Projects by clarifying action steps.

This Idea file is particularly important for writers, because we are constantly generating new ideas that can clutter our work flow and distract us. As Allen teaches, we must have a system in place to ‘capture’ all the ideas, information and stimuli that bombard us on a daily basis. That system must be trustworthy. As we learn to use and to trust it, we grow more able to let go of these things in order to focus on the tasks at hand – the Next Actions which move each of our Projects forward.

Having reviewed our myriad Project files and compiled a listing of just one action (the first one) for each Project, we now have a clarity about the use of our time that prevents our hiding under disorder. We see what to do, we do it, we do the next thing, and have the delightful experience of watching one or more Projects actually get accomplished. This does wonders for boosting the energy, the willingness to do work, without which, nothing.

Maybe you can only block off one hour a day, but you waste none of that time wondering what to do next. As you reflect each week on how this process worked for you, you may find you need to tweak it a bit. Did you start to “Write First Draft” and realize you should have broken that down into “Outline” and “Write”? Maybe you got ready to write, and realized that “Clear desk,” “Get paper and pens,” and “Arrange babysitting for writing day” should have been your prior Actions for the Project.

Live and learn! It’s this kind of gritty detail that helps move ideas into reality. You’re learning to manage yourself, your environment, your commitments, your project process, your filing and calendar and capture systems, and your evaluation/adjustment process – not time, which is actually not in your control!

When I began to use Allen’s approach, I had to turn my mountain into molehills. Instead of noting reference links, I had made 2, 3, 4 copies of materials needed for different projects. Now, the references (quotations, articles, book and interview notes, etc…) stay where they belong, duly noted in the appropriate projects wherever needed for Action. I discovered a good bit of mis-filed material in my overstuffed files. I realized that “Map Action Needed” is an Action in its own right – a step that takes time, is worthy of doing, necessary and valuable.

I saw I had a pattern of avoiding certain work, and of hesitating to ‘own’ and support my own ideas. I saw that I was undermining myself when I scribbled memos on tiny scraps that could hardly be read, much less deciphered later. I felt real accomplishment on completing even the ‘extra’ tasks required in a writing project.

I loved being able to choose from an array of First Actions one that fit my current mood, energy level, or amount of time available. Taking these aspects of my own being into account (instead of trying to be the slave driver, forcing myself to do work) made me less rebellious about doing what I had planned to do. I began to feel that, not only could I trust my system, I could trust myself!

Best of all, this approach helped me evaluate my own priorities – acting as a visual, physical mind map to clarify the many related ideas and projects swirling in my brain. When every idea has approximately the same very low chance of being realized, it’s much harder to discern which ones are more important. When it becomes apparent that what you intend to do is very likely going to be done, God willing, then you take the various projects seriously enough to make subtle judgments about which ones are the best ones to invest in.

Artist Time

The last way I recommend you look at time is as an artist. By this I mean that you build in the kind of buffer you need in order to process your materials as a human being, and not as a machine. An artist must consider not only the quantity of time, but also the quality of time. You need to think about and evaluate what conditions are conducive to the kind of mental/emotional/spiritual process involved in your line of work.

As a Catholic, you are making time for inaction, for being acted upon by God, for refreshing your very being, for its own sake. As a professional, you take seriously the need for planning, systems, evaluation and effective use of time. As an artist, you concern yourself with yourself as a performer or craftsman, and take seriously the implications of the fact that you are a fine instrument with reasonable demands to make as to your care and maintenance.

These demands might need to be adjusted in light of family responsibilities, a primary vocation, or the needs of others, but they need to be given authentic attention, and they take time. Does your time need to be quiet, or do you need to schedule work when concerts may be heard blaring on your stereo? Do you need space to spread out your project, and protection from anyone who might interfere with it? When can that happen? How long can that project remain on the kitchen table without infringing on your housemates? Do you need time to get into the flow of work, go through a preparation ritual, set up materials and tools just right, or be quite alone? You must try to build these realities into any work system you design, or it won’t be true to you, or enable you to work in truth and freedom.

I hope you’ll enjoy taking organization seriously as a real factor in your work capacity. It can be hard to merge the ‘creative’ and ‘efficient’ aspects of the writing life, but it is a delightful adventure to  integrate them more effectively.

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2 Responses to Organization for the Writing Life

  1. Charlotte – Wonderful column! Comes just at the “write time” :)