A major battle in life is how to best use the time we have. It’s a common problem, and not just for writers.
No matter the hectic pace of a day, there are moments of free time that fall into our laps. But, just because the clock grants you a moment or an hour of free time doesn’t mean that hour will be a productive one. It doesn’t mean you’ll have the mental energy to do good work. You may spend that hour starting at the screen, desperate to write a single sentence! Why does that happen, anyway?
Having Metal Energy and Free Time at the Same Time is a Rarity
Like perfect visibility during a meteor shower. Or having all the ingredients on hand when you’re craving that turkey club sandwich and have extra avocado. I love those days.
Or – to put it in a writing context – those days when writing flows. When the gates of creativity get stuck open and your 3,000 word count goal magically turns into 13,000. You blink and realize half the day is gone and you find yourself laughing at the ridiculous quandary your characters are left with when you hit the save button and call it a night. Let’s look at ways to get that flow back:
Do You Multitask Often?
I can juggle a lot in my head all at once. But that can backfire when I take on one task too many. I spiral downward quickly, feel overwhelmed, and the stress prevents me from accomplishing many of the tasks that I set for myself. Sound familiar at all? You may be like me. It’s not very effective to try and multitask when you end up distracted by many guilt-inducing things that you could be doing instead of writing when you work from home.
So, do yourself a favor. Try to accomplish one small thing at a time. The duration of each thing can overlap, and that’s fine. I like to bake bread while I write. A minimal investment of time during the day allows the dough to rise, and then I have a tasty snack when I’m ready to take a break.
If you leave too many things open-ended you will lose focus trying to remember what you started, and, likely gift your mental state a stressed, chaotic mess. Fresh bread is better than chaos. Little tasks will help you to achieve both peace of mind and better focus.
If you’re someone who has to focus on one thing at a time, and easily puts other priorities aside, know that about yourself. It’s a strength as much as a weakness. You can focus more easily on that one thing, even when it’s hard to remember what the next is once you finish. There are many days where I wish I weren’t so easily distracted.
And, if you envy those who always seem to have something to do, and appear to accomplish a million things more than you do, know that just because someone does a lot of things all at once does NOT mean that they do those things well.
Only in the past few years have I really come to terms with that. I used to spend a lot of nights with an overactive mind, always focused on the next thing I should be doing, even guilty when my priorities waged war with my own standards. Start by acknowledging that each and every thing you do matters. Writing matters. Little tasks matter. Take credit for the little things you do every day.
Think About What Times of the Day Make You Tick
Time and mental energy can be your allies if you let them. They work well together, especially if you learn to pay attention to your energy levels.
During what part of the day – or night – are you most productive?
Are you a morning person? Do you get a second wind late at night? Is 8:00pm your magic hour when your brain feels clear and focused? We are creatures of habit, after all.
I’m a morning person. I get up full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever I accomplish in the first few hours I’m awake. With a break around 11:00am for a cup of coffee, I’m usually good to go until lunch, and then around 3:00pm I hit a hard slump and turn into a pretty useless worker bee. I don’t usually recover until after dinner. Some days after dinner I get another spark of creativity around 8:00pm, and some days I just need to shut down my brain and sit with a book or a few hours of Netflix.
How is this helpful to know? Once you recognize your most productive time, take advantage of it! I struggle with following my own advice, but, we all have struggles. Sometimes schedules beyond our control influence when we have free time. But learn when you can influence your schedule. For me, I try to avoid morning distractions like, say, the internet. Sticking to afternoon housework helps me accomplish something small but meaningful when my creativity takes a turn for the worst. Walking or playing with my dog in the early afternoon relaxes my mind and gets me away from the computer screen.
This leads to another useful way to keep your goals realistic:
Recognize When You Need a Change
Measuring your energy level during the day will help you determine when you’re overwhelmed and need to take time to recharge that mental energy bank.
I consider myself an extrovert. Being social and interacting with people enlivens my day, and keeps me positive and happy. But I also value the times when I can seek solitude and a good book. When you work from home, you spend many days with books, rather than people, for company.
Recently, I read Quiet by Susan Cain, which is about understanding a bit more about introverts and how they function. It was a decent read, and I would recommend it for anyone – not only someone who identifies as an introvert.
A part of the book mentions measuring your energy levels, and I found a light-bulb went off in my head when it described what stimulation does to your energy levels. It’s described in the book as harnessing a wave, measuring the highs and lows, and figuring out how to maintain a focused, productive day by staying in tune with how stimulation affects you. The examples they used for both extremes of stimulation hit home with me.
- You know that time, when you’re at a party or in a room full of people, and think “I’m ready to leave now.” That’s a pretty good indicator that there’s too much stimulation, or you’ve had enough of the demands of social interaction.
- You know that time, when you’re reading and realize you’ve read the same paragraph several times, or can’t remember what you’ve just read? A great example of when you don’t have enough stimulation, and your mind is wandering and unable to focus.
Once you start paying attention to what those reactions mean, it can be a real game changer.
Recognizing which situations stress or rejuvenate you will allow you to relax when you need to recover from over-stimulation, and gear up when you find yourself in a sluggish, mental lull due to a lack of activity.
Conquer Your Mental Stupor
I push myself hard when it comes to my schedule. Once I set a goal, it’s frustrating to have to relent. But I can’t change my own energy level by simply wishing it would change, just like I can’t snap my fingers to recharge my mental energy when I’m tired. I can change my attitude and state of mind to help maximize my own productivity. And so can you.
Don’t invalidate your feelings, but try and learn when to set aside your original goals to focus on something productive that is reasonable to start and finish.
Recognize when you’re most productive during the day or night, and learn to look for what recharges your mental energy so that you can take advantage of the free time you have, and be in that better state of mind.
Think about your energy levels, and the ways in which your mind is stimulated. If that’s reading a book to calm your mind, great. If it’s meeting a friend for coffee, wonderful. Playing with your dog, cat, hedgehog, or red-tailed boa constrictor? Excellent.
Throw yourself a techno dance party to boost your energy, or call a friend or loved one you haven’t spoken with in awhile. Have a tea ceremony with quiet, mellow flute music in the background if you feel stressed or hectic. Build a book case. Take pictures of waterfalls. It’s different for everyone, so find out what works for you, and roll with it.
Also: If you write from home, get a bread machine. For about ten minutes of work – say, while you’re making that cup of coffee – you’ll have freshly baked bread for the week and your house will smell amazing, whether or not that mountain of laundry is done right away. Take baby steps, and be proud of your work.