As I sat listening to another lecture from my boss about punctuality and found myself on Amazon’s pre-order blacklist for missing my deadline, I couldn’t help but wonder what it is about being on time that is such a struggle for me. Even as I write this blog, which I had every intention of posting about three weeks ago, I’ve managed to distract myself somewhat continuously by browsing unrelated memes, group messaging my friends, generally contemplating the meaning of everything, and pondering all the reasons anyone might take time management advice from me. People must learn about the existence of catermelon.
But I digress. My friends are the first to tell me I have the time management skills of a carrot, the meaning of everything is forty-two, and while I’m aware I’m not off to a promising start demonstrating my credibility as a time management guru, the truth is, I get shit done when I need to. The problem is that I’m either moving from task to task with the speed of a two-year old on a sugar high, or I’ve passed out in the corner with my ass in the air. Basically, I do all of the things, or I do none of the things.
It was as I sat in a pit of self-loathing, worrying that my editor might fire me for postponing delivery of my latest manuscript for the umpteenth time, that I decided to sit back and honestly examine what is is during those times that I’m “on” that works and figure out what’s missing during those times when I’m “off.” The first thing I learned, infuriatingly, is that my mom was right. It isn’t until you’re older and catch yourself saying the very things you repeatedly heard growing up that you finally admit, maybe your parents knew some stuff. I’ve always known my mom was smarter than the average bear, but it was during my musings on time management, and my lack of it, that I acknowledged her old adage “Work expands to fill the time you have”
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as a reality, not philosophical mumbo jumbo.
Basic Principles of Time Management
1. Work expands to fill the time you have.
This sounds made up, but it’s true. Think about your morning routine. We all set our alarm and plan our morning according to the number of tasks– drink coffee, shower, get dressed, do hair/makeup– we’d like to complete before heading off to work for the day. Some of us budget lots of time to include workouts, cleaning house, curing cancer, etc., while others barely budget enough time to pee and don fresh underwear before tearing out the door. But no matter the number of tasks you strive to accomplish, like most people, you probably keep at them up until the time you have to leave. Or in my case, 5-30 minutes past the time I should have left. Now, think about that same morning routine, only this time you’ve overslept your alarm. Simmer in that moment of panic for a minute. Good? Okay. Now, we can cram an incredible amount of getting ready into 2 minutes or less when we’re forced to. And guess what? It works exactly the same in other areas of our life.
When we know we only have a short amount of time to complete a task, every second counts, so we work pointedly. But the longer we have to do something, the easier it is to be distracted by something else and put off the original task, because a) it doesn’t need to be done until later, and b) the new task is more pressing, more interesting, more fun– just more.
In college, I once wrote a 15 page, 10 source paper that I had to do a 50 minute presentation on and comprised 50% of my grade for the class the night before and the day that it was due. Mind you, I had an entire semester to finish said paper and I literally did not crack a book on the topic until the night before it was due. In case you were wondering, I was two minutes late to my own presentation. I also got an A- on the assignment. What can I say? Some people thrive under pressure.
2. Set a deadline.
I’m motivated by deadlines. I know, I know; I mentioned chronic tardiness at work and a missed deadline for submitting my manuscript as the reason I will be unable to put anything up for pre-order for a year, so you might think that deadlines themselves don’t motivate me. And you’d be right, because it’s not the deadlines themselves so much as the consequences for meeting the deadline or not meeting it, as the case might be, that motivate me. I’ll address the idea of consequences in more detail when I discuss motivations, but for now we’re going to stick with deadlines.
From the time I started putting words on paper for Fallen to the time that I actually hit publish was about two years. Undoubtedly, I still wouldn’t be finished with it if a friend of mine hadn’t given me a reason to publish by a certain date. She was organizing and hosting her own author-reader con and as one of my beta readers and earliest fans, she told me she would include me as one of her featured authors, but only if I published Fallen before the con. Challenge accepted.
Like the paper that expanded the course of an entire semester, without a deadline, Fallen would have continued to expand to the point that I might have died before ever seeing it in print. A goal without a deadline is simply a wish
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, so while we all have them, if we don’t set a date for our some-day goals, we’ll never achieve them. Remember, Someday is not an actual day. So when you tell yourself, I’ll [fill in the blank] some day, what you’ve just done is given your brain permission to put it off. And it will. All of the things that are in any way more will immediately move in to occupy your attention. Deadlines help to drive our focus so we can keep the clutter out.
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3. Figure out what motivates you, and incentivize yourself appropriately.
There are intrinsic– internal– and extrinsic– external– motivators. Intrinsic motivators are things like pride, desire, a sense of accomplishment, while extrinsic motivators are things like material rewards, such as a paycheck, praise/attention, avoidance of punishment. I always believed I was a highly intrinsically motivated individual. I like to excel at the things that I do, so I work hard to build the know-how and skills to do them well. What I didn’t realize until very recently is that while my motives for the quality of my work may be internal, the incentives that drive me to actually finish things are very much external. And this is an important distinction because the reasons for how we do something are not necessarily the same as the reasons for why we do it, which includes why we do it within a certain amount of time.
Take, for example, the situation with my friend. She was going to feature me as an author at her conference if I published my book beforehand. It didn’t matter how much before, just that I commit and get it done. Day one of Reading Until Dawn Con 2015 was October 8. I hit publish on the paperback on October 2. If you’re thinking that is pretty impressive given my track record for timeliness, I didn’t hit publish on the ebook until day 2 of the 3.5 day con.
I learned a lot about myself and my writing process during those two years. So I thought publishing my second book would be a breeze. I knew when I needed to get the first draft to my editor, how long to expect the first round of revisions to take, and when I would need to have the final draft submitted if I were to put it up for pre-order, so I set my deadline. I watched my hopeful deadline approach, and then I watched it go screaming past. No problem. This is exactly why I set two deadlines. I’m smart like that. I then proceeded to watch my YNTTTIRFNOYWPOT (You Need To Turn This In Right Fucking Now Or You Won’t Publish On Time) deadline as it barreled toward me and continued to plow right over me.
Three months after I missed my YNTTTIRFNOYWPOT deadline, I turned the first and very ugly draft of The Beauty of the Beast in to my editor. This was shortly after I worried that she might fire me for being impossible to work with and well-beyond the point that I realized I was going to miss my pre-order deadline, landing myself on Amazon’s naughty list for changing the release date. Oops. By this time I’d acknowledge that I am not as intrinsically motivated as I’d always thought and it was through this experience that I learned that it is not enough to have a deadline, I need an external consequence for meeting or missing that deadline. Annnnd the consequence must be bigger than the more that might try to take up residence in my list of priorities.
As a brand new self-published author, being featured at an author-reader con next to New York Times and USA Today best sellers Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, and Cynthia St. Aubin was a huge incentive for me to finish Fallen. Being banned from using pre-order for one year because I wasn’t going to finish on time and changed my publish date for The Beauty of the Beast? Not so much. In the next year, I’ll probably only publish two books: The Beauty of the Beast (re-set for May 2 *aw, it’s really cute that I still believed that when I initially wrote this*) and Destroyed, the second book in the Fallen Series (set for October 2016 *my reasons for missing this deadline are a lot less quirky and adorable and a lot more FML*). Because I’ll only be publishing two books and I really don’t yet have a big enough audience to make pre-order a necessity, when I should have been writing and I felt like, you know, not writing, the knowledge of my upcoming restriction wasn’t enough to incentivize me to crack down and focus.
You know what did get me to finish? A burning desire to start working on Destroyed. Like the temptation of the forbidden fruit, nothing ignites a fiery passion to do one thing, like being forced to wait because you have to finish something else first. You might be wondering why wanting to work on Destroyed would be an incentive for me to finish The Beauty of the Beast. There was no external force stopping me from just working on both at the same time, right? Well, yeah, but that brings me to my next point.
4. Multi-tasking is a myth.
I have a hard rule about only working on one book at a time. This means that while I might, and usually do, have multiple story lines running in my head at any given time, I am only allowed to put words on paper for a single story at a time. This can be really difficult because sometimes the voices that are loudest in my head are not the ones from the story I am presently working on. I know there are writers that will work simultaneously on multiple books from multiple series and the quality of their product is in no way diminished. I would argue that these writers are few and far between and I readily admit that I am not one of them. I tried working on multiple series at the same time, but quit when I thought my writing style, characters, and content were all starting to sound the same.
What happened to me isn’t all that unusual either. Our brains aren’t actually capable of multi-tasking. I’m not talking about the talking and chewing gum kind of multi-tasking, I’m talking about the kind of multi-tasking in which both undertakings require higher cognitive function, like critical thinking. When we think we’re multi-tasking, what we’re actually doing is ceasing to focus on one thing in order to focus on another, and then switching back. When we alternate our attention back and forth like this, we ultimately perform both tasks slower and less effectively even though we might believe we are being more productive. So if you want to do something and do it well, focus on one thing at a time.
5. It’s not about starting, it’s about finishing.
The book that my Kindle estimates will take 3 hours to read, took me 2 years to write. That would almost be depressing if it wasn’t so cool that I wrote a book. I wrote a fucking book! That’s awesome. Boom baby!
We’re wired to seek out instant gratification, but when we’re talking about our some-day goals, we’re usually talking about our big goals. The goals that are tied to our hopes and our dreams. As much as we might wish they were, these are not the type of thing that can be achieved in a day.
Writing a book takes time. A lot of it. Since I couldn’t up and quit my day job in order to focus on writing full time– because, you know, life costs money– I had to fit writing into the cracks of my life. Fifteen minutes here, a couple of hours there. Through diligence, the hours added up and eventually I had a completed product and a desire to do it all over again. You don’t have to know everything in order to get started. Time is going to pass regardless of whether or not you do that thing your inner voice has been whispering at you to do, so just go for it.
6. Make a plan.
Did you know that writing something down increases the chances that you will do it? Busy people are excellent time managers and it’s because they have to plan their time diligently in order to accomplish everything. Whether it’s in your phone, a day planner, or a sticky note on your computer, plan your time for the day, the week, the month.
Be strategic about it. Give yourself an appropriate amount of time, but don’t stretch your deadlines so far that
you allow the clutter in. Understand what really motivates you and incentivize yourself accordingly. Interweave the things you want to do– things like your some-day goals– with the things you have to do– like work your J.O.B. Limit distractions and work with focus. Concentrate on one task at a time before moving on to the next and be specific. For example, schedule social media time so it doesn’t interfere with working time. Then get started and don’t quit.
Did you see what I did there tying it all together? Not bad, am I right? All right. And now, more cat videos.
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This blog was originally posted March 23, 2016 on my old website. For the latest updates on all my projects check out what’s On My Nightstand.