If you’re working and trying to write, or if you’re trying to balance your own writing with paid writing or family commitments, you’re probably stressed. You’re trying to keep track of a thousand different responsibilities, ideas, appointments and tasks, juggle friends and family and actually have a life.
When your head is full of stuff and you constantly feel a little behind, writing suffers. I speak to writers who feel guilty all the time: women who think they should find writing easy now that they’re at home with the kids, people who have gone part-time to write, people who just can’t quite face writing after a full week at work.
We’re suffering from overwhelm, and when we don’t know if we’re coming or going we can’t clear headspace to sit down and write.
And that’s the key. You need space to write, both physical and mental. So what to do? It’s time to get some perspective and reduce your overwhelm.
Clear your head
I’ve always been interested in productivity and time management – let’s face it, I need all the help I can get – and the GTD (Getting Things Done) idea of clearing your head by dumping everything onto paper is great for writers. It’s only when you don’t have to worry about keeping track of things that you can focus your limited attention on, well, getting things done.
So do a brain dump. List every single thing you can think of that you have to do, all of your appointments, all of the big ideas you want to work on, personal things and work tasks. It might help to separate tasks into areas as you do this.
Focus on what’s relevant
Now that you know what you have to do, it’s time to manage your tasks and time. The list you’ve just made is probably terrifying.
The problem is that we tend to think about allofthethingsthatIhavetodo. Focusing on the enormity of the big picture rather than on the little steps that will get you there is a recipe for meltdown. Worrying about writing a whole novel is overwhelming. Even thinking about the next chapter might be off-putting.
Forget the novel, the screenplay, the big work project. What’s relevant and important right now is focusing on the next 15 minutes of actual work. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
Look at your list. How many of them are big things, whole projects? Put them on another list entirely. You can take a new sheet per project and break each of these down into component parts and to-dos, but the list that you want to actually work from though is the one that contains only the next small step of any project. Make this list.
Now our immediate list is smaller but you have everything you need to remember written down for reference. You can forget everything else and just focus on the next item on your list knowing nothing is slipping through gaps.
Make it easy
Now that you have some mental space, set up the right conditions for writing. Putting yourself in a position where you’re more likely to succeed means helping yourself, making your life as easy as possible. Some of these might work for you:
- Make your workspace nice. You should enjoy spending time there.
- Set time aside in your diary/calendar for writing and to deal with other tasks that you tend to worry about so that you know they’ll get dealt with. Keep your appointments.
- Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and use this for writing.
- Spend time planning what you want to write about. Write a list of things you want to explore (characters, settings, ideas) and possible scenes or ideas that you can use to start you off.
- Keep a notebook and try to write down at least one idea or interesting thing each day. Go through your notebooks and old writing to highlight anything inspirational. Bring these together in a list so that you always have a file of ideas to write about.
- Give yourself time to do things you want to do, not just that you feel you should do. Tell people who question you that spending an hour in the bath is important writing work.
- Take your idea for a walk before writing and sit down at the desk as soon as you get in.
- Write when you first wake and are still a little sleepy.
- Every day before you finish, spend a minute thinking about where your writing will go next and write the first sentence of tomorrow’s work.
These are ideas that I find useful, but of course I don’t have all the answers. What do you do to keep you writing when your head’s ready to burst?