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How to Write Around a Busy Schedule – Part 2
In part one of this series (How to write around a Busy Schedule Part 1), we explored the possibility of pursuing a writing career while holding down a full time job which requires a regular daily commute. In this article will focus more on those issues which arise due to being confined mostly to the home environment during the day. For me the key obstacle to being effective in the home environment is the relative lack of structure as compared with the corporate office world.
By lack of structure I mean a freedom to switch randomly from one task to another combined with a continued stream of distractions which would not happen in the office. We shall explore three vital points which need to be addressed if we are to become successful in working in the home environment.
- A Lack of structure of the actual physical work environment
- A lack of structure with regards to a chain of command
- A lack of structure with regards to time management
These are not new problems to most of us. But it is my experience that in the home environment they become greatly magnified. This magnification can bring about a paralysis which can cause any productive writing activity to grind to a halt.
1. A Lack of structure of the actual physical work environment
Using a Self Imposed Structured Environment to facilitate the process of getting things done
To write effectively at home we need a self imposed structured environment which will temporarily cordon us off from the rest of the house. What is a “self imposed structured environment?” Well with regards to writing, a self imposed structured environment is any environment which actively supports the writing process. A classic example would be a study. But not everybody can afford the space to have a dedicated study so we sometimes need to improvise.
The more important part of the phrase “self imposed structured environment” is “self imposed.” This is because in the home environment where there is no manager to impose structure on us we must deliberately take responsibility for imposing structure on ourselves. It took an accident for me to find out how powerful it is to work in a structured environment while spending an extended period of time at home.
It was in a sense fortunate that this happened. This is because after rather forcibly being made to learn the value of structure, I became more pro-active about working with structure in the home environment.
When a leg down can give a leg up
A few years ago while rushing to catch a train on my way back from work I slipped and fell quite badly. The pain in my left ankle was excruciating. It was so bad that I had to be wheeled into a waiting taxi and driven straight home. Diagnosis later revealed a broken leg which put me mostly on my back for over 6 months. Now during this time a very interesting thing happened.
By working on my laptop computer while lying on my back I was able to do a fair bit of software documentation and development consultancy for a charity which I support. Also in the process of doing this I was able to pick up new skills which contributed considerably towards my securing a better job after I got back on my feet again.
And when both legs were working?
Two years previous to this incident I had been at home for a few weeks while seeking another freelance contract. During this time I had found it almost impossible to settle down into a work/study routine. So why was it easier to knuckle down after breaking my leg? What did this teach me about working from home?
A bed-ridden environment is a good example but we want it to be voluntary
In my case I was bed ridden hence this provided the structured environment. While confined to this environment I was more easily able to set up a routine. This routine enabled me to carry through on my work activities. However to be bed-ridden is not generally ideal. What is ideal is to consciously choose the necessary confinement of a structured environment which will make it easier to get things done. Some writers have likened the act of writing to the flow of a river whereby the banks of the river can be compared to the necessary structure required to guide its flow.
Use more than one Structured Environments to create natural breaks
Some people are fortunate to have a study at home. But even then it can take a degree of discipline to retire to that study and take up the proverbial pen. When we walk into the study we are deliberately imposing the structure required on ourselves. Many of us are familiar with how procrastination can manifest itself as we find excuses to do anything except go into that study and start writing. I know somebody who hates ironing but sometimes she finds herself doing some ironing rather than carrying on with writing her latest article.
So how can we overcome this procrastination?
The number one principle is “ease of Access facilitates getting things done”
The number one principle is ease of access. Do not limit yourself to a single structured environment but create a number of them around the home and make sure your writing tools are available at each way station. So for example you could map out the following environments around the home:
(a) Your study (if you have one).
(b) Your bed and bedside table.
(c) Your bathroom or toilet.
(d) Your kitchen or dining table.
Having more than one location gives you flexibility
Having more than one location gives you the flexibility to choose the spot where you are least likely to be disturbed depending upon what is going on in your house at that point in time. So if there is drilling going on next door then head for the kitchen table or dining area.
Having more than one location gives you variety
In the case when I was bedridden with a broken leg I had the structure but the lack of variety proved quite irksome. Switching structured environments within the home can sometimes be as refreshing as taking a break. This can serve to prolong your actual writing stint before you actually need a real break from writing. For example today I was working on this article in my bedroom upstairs and as the evening wore on I started feeling tired.
I moved downstairs to the dining table and the background noise of my kids playing there consoles combined with this change in environment helped to energise me and keep it flowing. But take note that I didn’t just move to any area of the house. I switched to a previously designated area where I knew I would be comfortable because it met all my requirements. So take the time to explore your home and locate and test drive all the nooks and crannies.
You can have access to multiple working environments even if you have a one bed apartment
Just to clarify “your home environment” extends beyond your immediate living quarters. Suppose you are living in a one room apartment and you want to take the multiple location approach to keep yourself awake or boost your stamina to keep going. (The principle behind switching locations is that a change can be as good as a break or a rest).
Depending on where you live there might be some potential writing locations which are within walking distance. A few typical locations could include:
(a) The local park.
(b) A nearby coffee shop.
(c) The local library.
(d) The local shopping centre.
(e) The house of a friend who also works from home.
(f) A local communal work centre specially tailored to the needs of those who work from home.
As always do the ground work to map out these locations before you need them
It’s worth taking the time out to explore and experiment with potential writing locations well before they are actually needed. Then when you really need them as a means to motivate yourself to meet a tight deadline they are already tried and tested. So please keep your eyes peeled on your way to get some groceries because you never know when you could spot a good location for writing.
Try to get outside occasionally even if you feel you have a sufficient number of rooms or locations to work with inside
On a radio program I was listening to recently, a psychologist mentioned that the internet was making some people emotionally ill because they were using it as a substitute for interacting with people on a personal basis. I feel that we human beings need company more than we care to admit. For me the mere act of being among people can give an emotional boost even if I don’t know them personally. This energy can then be fed into the act of doing some more writing.
I also find the hustle and bustle along with ongoing conversation between others sometimes triggers ideas which I would not normally have if locked up alone at home.
2. A lack of structure with regards to a chain of command
Having addressed the issue of a structured physical environment let us explore in some detail the conundrum of managing ourselves at home given that there’s nobody else to do it.
Cultivate a Self Starting attitude
As hinted at before I believe this is still a problem of structure. In the corporate world we have the well defined management hierarchy with its corresponding chain of command. We are told what to do and we strive to do it in the allotted time frame specified. We are accountable to our bosses and this in itself (given that they are our paymasters) is usually sufficient motivation to at least try to get something done.
Now there’s nobody looking over my shoulder how can I motivate myself?
In my experience it’s easier to get going when I’m surrounded by like-minded people with similar or related goals and objectives. Of course having a boss to motivate us on can be quite effective and if the boss has tact and knows how to work with people this can indeed be a preferred option for some of us. But what do we do when none of these options are available and we find ourselves left to our own resources?
Have a portable keep-fit strategy because it’s easier to be a self-starter when you’re feeling fit and healthy
This point was raised in part 1 of this series so it’s worth re-reading that. But in addition I would like to add that it might be even more important to have a simple and effective method of regularly exercising if you work from home. The reason why it might be more important is because the act of commuting to work can be a natural form of exercise in itself if we use public transport. This is something I quickly discovered when I spent an extended period working from home as in no commute. I soon began to put on weight and feel quite unfit as I started resorting to quick snacks to alleviate the boredom of being alone.
It was only when I discovered a simple exercise routine which was portable (could be done at anytime anywhere without the need for any equipment), that I was able to regain control of my weight and also gain a general sense of wellbeing.
Separate the writing process from the planning process
In part 1 of this series I passed along some tips gleaned from Nick Daw’s writing course “Write any book in 28 days.” Nick suggested that the article or book writing process can be greatly facilitated by taking a few minutes to plan out the general content. This is quite obvious to many of us writers but what is interesting is not what Nick is suggesting but how he proposes that we go about it.
He suggests a three step process for creating a book or article:
- Brainstorm a list of keywords (planning process).
- Using these keywords formulate a list of questions (planning process).
- Write your book or article by answering these questions (writing process).
What I noticed when I tried out this approach was that the structured approach supported my activities much as the skeleton supports the body. The goal of brainstorming a list of keywords is much less daunting than the goal of writing an article. The key to self starting is to break you big task down into many small tasks and simply set one goal at a time. If the 3 step process outlined above is used correctly (as detailed in Nick Daw’s writing course) writers often find that by the time they get to step 3 the article virtually writes itself.
Use a continuous chunk of time to do your planning
For me the act of planning out my articles requires more of a quiet uninterrupted chunk of time than the act of writing. But this might be different for you. Hence I am usually very careful to block out a minimum of a couple of hours of quiet when I wish to plan out an article. What I’ve found is that once the plans have been laid out the actual writing can be done sporadically and piecemeal.
Use a public location near your home if the presence of other people helps you to self start.
This point has already been touched on under “using multiple structured work environments” as a way to create variety. However for some of us it’s more than the quest for variety which drives us to work in a public place when we have the alternative of the comfort of our homes to work in. There’s an energy to being around people which helps to get us started if we are feeling bogged down.
This is why writers find libraries so effective. It’s not just the quiet and having access to books for reference. It’s encouraging and motivating to be among people who are also quietly studying or writing.
3. A lack of structure with regards to time management
Finally let’s explore the age old problem of time management in the home environment. There’s a lot of documentation out there on time management. However in this article we shall draw a tight bead on those aspects of time management which work when writing within the home environment.
Become a Clock Watcher
The term “clock watcher” is usually used in a somewhat derogatory manner in the corporate world to indicate an attitude of simply working the required number of hours then dashing home. Actually there is quite another side to “clock watching.” I’ve often found that when I carefully monitor the passage of time while I’m performing a task it helps to create a false sense of urgency which helps me to meet a deadline.
This is not a novel idea but a principle which has been hammered out by many Time Management gurus. So in performing your writing task you can if you wish proceed as follows:
- Take a few minutes to decide how long your stint is going to be.
- Start your stop watch.
- Begin your task and continue your task until the specified time has elapsed.
Where I have fallen over on the past is in the continuation of the task. I have overcome this by not being too ambitious in specifying how long I wish to work for. A goal of writing for 10 to 15 minutes is much easier for me to stick to and complete than a goal of writing for 1 hour. After the stint has been completed hopefully you will feel sufficiently encouraged to set another target time. If you’re feeling stale or stiff then change to another structured work environment for variety. Then back to step 1 to decide how long your next writing stint is going to be.
In the final analysis it’s really down to us
No matter what strategies and techniques we use the ultimate responsibility for achieving success lies with us. The various techniques available are there to help us but on their own they cannot do anything. The doing will come from our own actions.
This is what makes it so challenging when operating from the home environment as a writer.
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