Focus and creativity help, please.
June 10, 2012 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Please help me focus when I have multiple projects I'm excited about.

Hello. I have multiple creative projects I'm working on right now. (All writing/research related -- academic writing and freelance, with a smidge of fiction). The thing is, I don't know how to tackle them. I'm excited about ALL of them. Recently, my approach has been to do a little on each one every day, but lately I'm finding that completely unsatisfactory -- I feel like I'm not doing anything on ANY of them. And when I'm working on one of them, my mind starts drifting to what I should be doing on another one of them. This makes me really anxious and foggy.

How do other people deal with this? Just work on one project at a time? 2? Pick a day for each? Morning on one, evening for another? Assume I'm equally excited about each one!

posted by caoimhe to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely schedule your time, and stick to that schedule. Tell yourself, "These are my two hours to work on X" and then work on focusing on X exclusively during that time.

Personally, I can't handle working on more than one major project simultaneously, and end up setting aside whole days or weeks where I concentrate on one thing at a time. I find that it helps me to get some momentum going when I'm not trying to change gears so often -- a large part of my ability to get work done has to do with building and maintaining a routine, and that routine is easier if I'm not trying to juggle too many things.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:13 PM on June 10, 2012

Honestly, I sort by productivity or some other measure of importance. In my case, that's built around money, so I do the things that pay the most first and when those are done, I work on the things that pay less, down into things that might turn into paydays some day and then into things that are so larval they might not even see the light of day. When I get ideas for the other projects, I jot them into that project's file, then shut it back down and go back to what I was working on.

If there are multiple things I have to work on at once, I set limits to how long I'll work on each. I work with text, so I might decide today is the day I crank out 500 words for Article 1 to wrap that up since it's almost done, then jot out an outline and a few hundred words for Article 2 and get it to the point where I can take the next steps, then I want to get started by doing something concrete for Article 3, so maybe I'll type up all my ideas and notes into a rough form.

What helps me particularly for writing things is using a system like Scrivener's that lets me think and set things up modularly and not be confronted with a jumble of ideas or, worse, a blank sheet of paper. It helps set concrete goals to know "Okay, that scene needs about 400 words of love, so I'll do that first, then I can block out the action scene in Project 2, then I can fill out the outline for Project 3."

What's important, for me at least is being able to set concrete limits and steps when I work on multiple projects. Rather than "I'm going to work on my short story, then work on my novel," it would be "I'm going to finish the first draft of my short story, then flesh out these 3 scenes of my novel, then do some brainstorming for my next short story..."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:36 PM on June 10, 2012

This may or may not work with writing (because of the shifts in thinking involved), but it works with a lot of other types of projects. Pick a time increment -- 5 hours? -- and label your projects from A to Z, and pick one that's going to be the most important, and give it an end goal (write 40 pages? finish the project? get it mailed? whatever). Then you go like this:

5 hours project A
5 hours B
5 hours A
5 hours C
5 hours A
5 hours D

and so on, alternating project A with several other projects in succession. When A reaches its endpoint, you promote something else to most important and alternate IT with others.

It helps because you get a little bit done on every project, but your most important project makes real progress and moves forward fairly quickly. Experiment with time increments to find one that works. When your mind starts to drift, you tell yourself, "Nope, I've got two more hours on project A, THEN I can think about project C."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:31 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, me too! Me too! I find I can do a maximum of three projects at any one time. Two that are at the writing stage, and one that is still at the early research/analysis stage. I guess I could make it four if we are counting hobby projects that I do in my spare time too.

But I have about 20 projects in various stages of completion at any time and I want to work on ALL of them.

I find it's easiest to concentrate just on the three I can do at one time if I can be sure I won't forget about the others. So something like a GTD system where you have a long-term projects and regular review sessions works for this. I don't use GTD myself because I find it too complicated, but I have been enjoying using Kanban Flow for the past few months.

For those not familiar with Kanban Flow, it's a system where you have columns across your screen labelled with whatever you like. Projects and tasks are in the form of little sticky notes/labels, which can have subtasks attached to them, and these get pinned to specific columns. You can drag and drop them from one column to the next to represent a change in status.

My system is as follows: I have a column just generally labeled "stuff to do" and every project I come up with goes in that column. Then the next column is "near-future" and I move over everything I think might happen in the next three-six months into that column. The next column is "this week" and I limit it to three major projects (and a bunch of small to-do tasks that will only take max one hour each.) Each day I pick a couple of things from the "this week" column and move them into the "today" column. I only allow myself to switch out any of the major projects for a different one on a Monday morning. Once the three focus areas have been chosen for the week, that's all I can choose between each day.

The advantages of this are that you see all the projects you ever want to work on every time you open the site, but they are in the far left column and you can ignore them until you are ready, without worrying you will forget about them. And you can see at a glance whether you have set up an unrealistic number of different things to work on any given day or week. (You can also set the program to a maximum limit for a particular column, so it gives you a warning when you exceed this).
posted by lollusc at 8:19 PM on June 10, 2012

I'm the same way. I am currently writing too many books at once, collaborating on others, working on adding/updating functionality to a website, redesigning a couple others, making several videos, doing some woodworking, landscaping, normal chores, and trying to keep up my obligatory writing (letters, blog posts, etc.), all the while having hobbies like reading and watching movies and such. I also have a job and my girlfriend appreciates it when we spend a little time together on occasion. Oh yeah, then there's that whole job thing.

First off, limit your time on timesucks like metafilter. Minimize your unproductive time. Try to work in creative time in places you normally don't. Pack your lunch and write over your lunch hour instead of hitting takeout.

List your projects and put a few of them in a holding pattern. Some just can't be done right now so put those away and worry about the ones you can make progress on. Be honest with yourself and you'll realize a few aren't as exciting as the others. Put those to the back.

Measure your time. If you actually work for 5 hours you might not finish something, but you will know you made progress. Pick a quick project and knock that out in a day. Having the satisfaction of finishing something will help and that's one less thing out there.

That's just a few ideas.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2012

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