Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The 80:20 Rule and How To Make It Work For You

I was having a cup of tea with fabulous children's author Liz Kessler (I mean, she's fab, tho I suspect her readership is pretty fab too).  She was saying how she starts working at 8am, and goes straight through to 3pm.  Pretty impressive stuff.  Then she said that all the stuff she was busy doing was promotional work, such as answering fan mail, organising appearences at lit fests, speaking at schools, Twitter etc.  By 3 in the afternoon she was exhausted because she'd been working non-stop - but somehow she hadn't done a smidgeon of actual writing.  

Oh, how I agreed with her (while feeling faint at the thought about starting at 8 and going on to 3 - I mean, how could I possibly miss Bargain Hunt?).  I can cheerfully spend my working day doing the following:

Sorting out my blog - posting and comments
Reading other people's blogs
Commenting on other people's blogs
Reading articles on books/publishing
Facebook (tho I'm not very good at it)
Email - fan stuff, OFAH stuff, agenty, editory, publicisty stuff, organising meetings etc
Reading other people's novels
Reading other people's writing
Plotting and planning my brilliant career (Ha ha)
Writing articles for magazines
Writing short stories for magazines

All of it is relevant and essential to being a writer, and while I'm doing it I'm patting myself on the back that I'm busy at work, but none of it actually contributes a single word to my main project: the new book.  

Round about this time of year there's usually a helpful article in the paper about how women wear about 20% of their wardrobe all the time, and the remaining 80% never.  The article then goes on to advise decluttering and sorting clothes into keep, store, charity and chuck.  

I think it's all too easy for us writers to spend 80% of our time on all the peripheral stuff, and about 20% on the actual writing.  I made a conscious decision last Spring to declutter my working day.  My equivalent of keep, store, charity and chuck went like this: 

No Twitter until lunch time
No Twitter in the evening
Don't read all those articles about the death of publishing
Don't read everything about epublishing
Make notes about blog posts at the weekend so they're ready to roll when it's time
Post on the blog Monday-Friday rather than every day of the week
Make notes on future projects but don't actually DO anything unless the word target for the day has been reached
Set a timer for reading other people's blog posts - max of 30 minutes a day
Stop being neurotic about answering every email the second I get it
Minimise Facebook and don't get sucked into LinkedIn

Now mornings are for writing, and everything else has been shunted to the afternoon or evening.  I still haven't got an 80:20 split in writing's favour, but it's getting better - more like 50:50.  And has the world come to an end?  Nope.  

Any other good tips for getting the balance round in writing's favour?


JO said...

I wish I had. For the record, I check twitter and latest blogs while I have breakfast - and try to shut this down around 10ish. Then have a morning, maybe dip into it at lunchtime, then a longer session over tea and early evening. (I live alone - this would be impossible with a family). And I only blog twice a week.

Even so, I feel it eats into time I want to spend writing and reading. I wonder if the pendulum will shift, if writers will slide back into a more controlled use of social networks - from the grapevine I think there are many of us who feel like this.

Jim Murdoch said...

Have two computers. My problem, like you, is that I work on my laptop in the living room. I have built a wee mini-office around myself and it’s all very cosy and I get to be with Carrie all day. I know a lot of writers would find having a spouse around all the time a pain but she potters around on her laptop and I potter around on mine and it all works out fine. In the past we did share an office and both longed for our own rooms in fact when we were looking for the flat we currently live in I only imposed two preconditions on her: no garden and we should each have our own office. We have no garden and we now each have our own offices and for several years I worked happily in mine. And then I fell sick and out of the kindness of her heart Carrie bought me a laptop. I still have my office PC and the nice thing about it is that when I want to do some serious writing it’s still there but it is really only good for writing and I think that that physical separation is a good thing. I don’t have that machine set up like my laptop. It’s a writing machine exclusively.

Self-control is a difficult thing to master I find. It involves breaking habits. Habits take time to form – estimates vary but about a month is a norm – and they take as long to break. It’s hard to think that keeping our e-mail and Facebook open while we work light be an addiction but that’s really what it is, the fear that we might be missing something. I think one of the worst things I ever did was make Facebook my home page. But I do make an effort. I allocate mornings to all the kind of tasks you list and so we’re talking about three hours. Then we break for lunch and then I have four hours in the afternoon during most of which Carrie takes her nap to do work-work, then tea and depending on how I’m feeling usually an hour, two at the most, after tea and what I do there depends on how well the afternoon went; if I’m on a roll I’ll keep going, if not then I mop up e-mails and read blogs. I also cut down on the frequency I blog. I only post every five days now.

One little program I have started using which has been a great help is Workflowy. It’s dead simple and I have no doubt there will be other similar things out there but it’s a way to keep track of what I need to do and what I’ve done (because half the time I can’t remember that either these days). A spreadsheet would do as well but I like the fact that this is there on my browser toolbar.

Anita Chapman said...

This is great advice. I've started the social networking thing this week as I realised that when I send my MS to an agent (hopefully soon), I need to be visible on the internet. It's so addictive and haven't done any work on my book in that time!
Re the forming a habit comment, I read somewhere that you have to do something 12 times for it to become a habit...

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I totally agree with you - I should spend more time on the actual WIP! I think my list of activities might read very similar to yours... Must stop now...

Sarah Duncan said...

Self control...discipline...good habits... Hmm. If it was that easy, I'd be 2 stone lighter!

JO, that sounds like you've got a good balance going there.

Jim, I'd hate having my partner around when writing, which only goes to show, it takes all sorts and there's no right or wrong way, only your way. I'll have a look at Workflowy, tho I'm generally averse to techie stuff - pen and paper girl, me.

Anita, yes, watch out or it will swallow your writing time - and there's no point building a platform if there isn't anything to put on it.

Pat, you, me, everybody! It's so hard to control time spent away from the WIP, yet it should be easy - we want to write! Hope you got some words down today.

Phillipa said...

Sarah - after our (very enjoyable) Twitter exchange yesterday, your post resonated with me. Yet here Iam commenting on a blog instead of 'working'

Citizen Skwith said...

Get on with your work everyone ....

Only joking. My way is to make appointments in my electronic diary 'Meeting with Florence' (the main character in my book) rather than 'Writing' that way its harder to break the appointment. I would never not turn up for a real person.

Jean Fullerton-East End Girl & Author said...

I couldn't agree more and I am constantly striving to reach that balance. I love that people write and tell me they enjoyed my books and I also have quite a lot of correspondence about East London - people whose family lived there or their own memories and I make them my priority. Added do that I have the problem of the day job so unless I religiously sit down at my computer at 7pm until 9 and again at 10pm-12 midnight each night and do nothing but write I'd never have a book in on time. And then, of course there's the publicity! Honestly, if I could give up the sleeping lark I'd be laughing.

penny simpson said...

Balance? If we were balanced people, no way on God's earth would we choose to be writers! And you've forgotten repeats of Location, Location and the complete series of House of Elliot!

Eliza Green said...

I haven't anything to add to that impressive list. I work full time and try to fit writing in around that. Although, I am a morning writer at the weekends.I like to get the work done before the play. Helps not to get sucked into the world outside. Don't open emails, don't open Twitter if you are serious about getting some words down on paper. Stick on a set of headphones and some fab music. An hour rushes past before you know it (I mean an hour of writing something, not just listening to music!)

Sarah Duncan said...

Oh Philippa, there was of course a lot of irony that we were chatting on Twitter instead of writing on a day I'd posted about using time better...

Citizen Skwith - that's a brilliant idea which I shall nick. And of course, if your heart sinks when you write, date with Jane, you know perhaps your main character isn't quite working.

Jean - I feel exhausted just reading about your schedule.

Penny - LOL! So that's why I'm so pathetic at time management: I'm unbalanced. Never been a Location, Location, Location fan, nor House of Eliot. Have recently become addicted to Antiques Road Trip though.

Eliza - I can't work to music, I find it distracting, but I know lots of people do like working to it. Perhaps there could be one piece that triggers the writing muscle, like Pavlov's dogs. I find getting myself organised in bed works that way; once my wrist supports go on, it's time to get writing.

Emma Darwin said...

Such a good post, and so true!

In principle I do my own writing 9-1 every morning, unless I have serious teaching work that it has to yield to. In practice, yes, it's a bit more scattered and scrappy than that.

I have realised, too, that I'm more inclined to get diverted into twitter, emails and not-terribly-urgent bloggy stuff when my own writing is being a bit sticky. Or it may be just that I'm tired and slightly fed up about something, and the psychological push it takes to get deeply into writing is more than I have energy for. All the other stuff FEELS like work (so I cans say I'm working) but is actually more superficial and less important (even if it is urgent). I now know, when I feel my hand straying towards Twitter, that (like adultery) it's much more to do with the unsatisfactoriness of where I should be, than the allure of the other stuff.

The other thing I've done is decide that the only work I do at the weekend is my own writing. Everything else can wait, whether it's blog posts (stats are rubbish on Saturdays anyway) or phoning a utility company. And with a secure piece of time ring-fenced against interruptions and diversions, it's amazing how everything else does actually get done in the gaps and cracks, which used to take 80% of the week.

Sarah Duncan said...

Good point Emma about it being easier to get drawn into Twitter etc when your work isn't going quite as well as you hoped, because doing all that peripheral stuff feels like work.

Michele DeFilippo said...

Great post! Social media is the greatest time sink ever invented. I think we all need to take a step back from it and recall the definition of "productivity."

Michele DeFilippo
Book design and self-publishing advice. With hand-holding.