Sometimes it feels like the more time I have, the less I get done. I’ve had an erratic work schedule for almost two years now, doing everything from paternity leave in a school which took up five days a week, to doing nothing but evening and weekend tutoring to make ends meet while I write a book and complete my Masters. It’s a strange sensation, not having fixed work hours, a fixed income, a steady schedule to take you through each day. It also ups the pressure at the time I’ve allowed myself to write. With sometimes just a few hours, sometimes a whole day, suddenly I have a word count to get to, deadlines to fill and a blog to write. I set myself deadlines to help motivate myself and encourage me to work, but the problem is that I’m asking my creativity to appear at the drop of a hat. There are days I get 2,000 new words written in a couple of hours, and other days where I have an entire day just to edit and I only get 600 done. I’ve been experimenting with the way I spend my interim time, in order to find out which tends to result in a more creative and productive process.
One of the problems is, I’m not exactly a relaxed person with my time. In between completing my MA, I set myself the target of blogging once a week, entering short story competitions, running three times (at least) a week and spending at least fifteen minutes a day learning French. Once you add in the boring ‘life admin’ of washing, cleaning, gardening, cooking and shopping, that doesn’t really leave a lot to experiment with. Still, I look at things like time spent eating (yes, I don’t like to waste even that), evening pursuits and the odd half an hour in between all this other crap. Of all of the things I’ve filled this time with, I’ve split it into roughly ‘intellectual,’ ‘enjoyable’ and ‘wasted,’ and had a think about the effects each of them had on me.
I decided that this was anything that actually taught me something while I was filling time in between other things. This could be while eating lunch, stretching after a run, having a break, chilling in the evening, that sort of thing. My time filling here included TED talks, radio podcasts about interesting things, reading informative books and articles, and watching documentaries.
I felt so smart. Every day I could give some little anecdote about something I had learned on TED, or I could approach my writing with a sense of purpose as I knew something more about the theory behind it, or I just had a little ‘ooh’ moment when something piqued my interest. The main problem was, it didn’t really feel like a break. Watching a TED talk or two while eating lunch made me feel like I needed another break afterwards so my brain had time to reshuffle things.
The criteria for this category was anything that I was genuinely looking forward to doing. This could include watching a film or an episode on Netflix, reading a novel (rather than anything informative per se) or going drumming. These worked as a great incentive. Giving myself something to aim for if I managed to finish my word target for that day, or I’d managed to sort a plotting problem out, so I was allowed to sit and do something fun, really meant that I wanted to work hard in order to earn them. I suppose the possible problem with this one was that if it was too enjoyable, I spent too much time actually doing that than the thing I was supposed to be working on, so ended up lowering my productivity. It also sometimes lead to a simple ‘word drop’ because I wanted to get to a certain goal, which I then had to edit, rather than anything decent.
This was all the stuff that I consider to be useless. That includes Facebook, Buzzfeed, looking at funny videos, all the stuff that can start off as a minor distraction and end up taking hours of your life. The problems here are obvious. They ‘waste’ your time twice, because you’re not doing anything productive, but neither are you doing anything necessarily enjoyable, and you’re not learning anything (usually). However, it turns out that this mindless time might actually be a good thing. Research has shown that these short, mindless activities often allow for your brain to tick over more important things in the background, so you might end up solving that problem more quickly than if you had used that time in a meaningful way.
The results? A bit tricky to say. It was much harder to stick to the intellectual things, and I think I went less than a week of a TED talk a day. Maybe if I slowed these things down to once or twice a week they might become more meaningful and less of a chore I’ve inflicted on myself. The enjoyable ones worked as a good motivational tool, while the wasted ones could potentially improve my productivity, although they are the most dangerous at spiralling out of time control.
What I did notice is that I never do nothing. I started looking at Facbeook and Twitter while I was stretching after a run so it wouldn’t feel like ‘time wasted.’ If I spend more than half an hour on lunch I get grumpy with myself and can end up spoiling my whole day. Even when I go and experience the lovely nearby parks, I’m doing it by running through them, not by walking through them or sitting, without a book, without my phone. This is the problem with working freelance and trying to be a writer. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. I schedule blog post writing on the train, I take photos to go on my Twitter feed on the bus, my brain never shuts off.
This is where the change is really needed. I was on holiday the other week. A whole ten days in a very quiet area of France, milling about, eating food, having a chat, doing not much of anything. All of a sudden, I had an inspiration for a short story. I grabbed a pen and paper in the car, scribbled down some notes, and wrote pretty much the whole thing on the Eurostar on the way home. That never happens to me. I’ll have a short story competition deadline coming up and I will literally stare at the world, thinking ‘I need an idea for a story,’ for hours, with nothing appearing in my brain. Interesting that when I actually just stopped, inspiration struck.
So I think what I need to add to my schedule is some big chunks of nothing. Time where I don’t saturate my brain with anything at all, but just sit back and watch the world go by. If I can fit it in…