Productivity tips when you can work only in dribs and drabs
October 3, 2014 5:18 AM   Subscribe

I am not making much progress on a few difficult writing projects that require concentration and "deep work". I tell myself that I'll wait until I have a substantial block of uninterrupted time (say, four hours or more) when I can get some serious work done. Unfortunately, such blocks of time are few and far between.

My life is hectic, unpredictable, and full of unexpected interruptions. I need to figure out some way of making progress on my projects during much smaller blocks of time, say the 20 minutes that I have when I'm drinking my morning coffee before leaving for my day job.

By the way, these are not work-related projects – these are personal projects without any real deadline. Some of them have been sitting on my "back burner" for years.

For the purposes of this question, let's assume that I can't re-organize my life in such a way that larger blocks of time occur more frequently. I'm not sure what kind of answers I'm looking for here. It's possible that I just need to get some self-discipline and stop using my frenzied life as a convenient excuse for procrastinating.
posted by akk2014 to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You absolutely can reorganise your life so you have larger blocks of uninterrupted time, you're just not willing to. Other things are more important that your personal projects, and that's ok. So one answer is to accept they're not going to do these things, and stop making yourself miserable.

Or, at least, throw all of them away except the most achievable one.

I'm a big fan of task boards. Take a look at Trello, and make your tasks as small as possible.
posted by Leon at 5:44 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wonder if Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day might be useful to you. Some of her advice is definitely specific to the world of graduate studies, but the way she discusses various aspects of the writing process (including dealing with writer's block and finding time to write) could be applicable to all kinds of tricky writing projects.

Bolker suggests strategies such as getting comfortable with "messy" writing in the early stages of a project, writing first thing in the day (this would work with your currently available morning coffee minutes), and realizing the remarkable potential of short, regular writing sessions that build up to a writing habit. She actually recommends starting with daily sessions of just 10 minutes!

Good luck with your writing - I hope you figure out a way!
posted by Hellgirl at 6:35 AM on October 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm struggling with this now. For me, it was less about the *amount* of uninterrupted time as much as the *quality*. That is, although it was possible I might go for thirty minutes without being interrupted, it was just as possible that I would be interrupted two minutes in. I might have to have the "what's for dinner?" conversation at 5:30; or maybe it wouldn't arise until 8:30. That absolutely killed any creativity I had. It was worse, for me, when I could go for hours of mindless gaming without interruption, but as soon as I sat down to do writing I would get interrupted.

If your 20 minutes of coffee will not be interrupted by family, work, friends etc., then you should use that 20 minutes. (Turn your phone off, or let it ring.) If you have the threat of interruption hanging over your head, I don't see how you'll make yourself work.

If you can stay up 20 minutes past everyone else in the apartment, then do that. Tell others not to bother you, and do the work then. Or get up 20 minutes earlier.

What are these interruptions? Are you interrupted by people you live with? Children, spouses, roommates, pets? Do friends drop by physically? Do you get phone calls or texts or emails you feel must respond to? Are you frequently called away to go somewhere? Are you interrupted by your own thoughts, your surroundings, or by a compulsion of yours? Answers might help us suggest things to you.

Just for me personally, I've found the only thing that works is going to a coffeeshop or library--not necessarily for four hours, often just for an hour or 90 minutes. I'm free of the distractions of people and my apartment (even if that's just "ugh, I really need to clean X"). And I *know* I'm free of them, so that enables me to work without worrying about the future.

However, I'm personally struggling with a need for alone-time, and I also work a job at which I'm constantly interrupted, so it was important for me to make that space and stretch of time in my life for my sanity as well as my work.

I have a busy life and I've found that if I don't plan time for my projects they will never happen. I will ALWAYS get a friend saying "Do you want to go to dinner tonight" or a spouse saying "Let's do X now" and I almost never feel OK saying "No, I would rather sit in a coffeeshop by myself." I'm only now getting into a space where I'm willing to fight for what I need to do this. So if you're not willing to fight for this now, why not?
posted by Hypatia at 7:23 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have used beeminder linked to draftin to get a writing project done. I set it to what I knew I could crank out in 20-30 minutes a day (350) and then ended up some days writing more, other days forcing myself to do dull paragraphs to hit wordcount, but overall, ending up with a first draft that wouldn't otherwise exist.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:27 AM on October 3, 2014

Also, set aside time for mental thinking of writing - like your commute to work is just one soundtrack you associate with that project and while it's on, you spend those 40 minutes thinking about the project. You might not be able to work on it directly, but you need mental time to daydream/plan/muse on it - the composting work of creating.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:29 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

It does depend on the type of interruptions and how much leeway you have over prioritising your needs over others. For me, the only way I got through my dissertation was firmly kicking everyone out of the house despite tears and pleading (the kids were fine, it was my husband that refused to leave, lol). When my neighbour's kid then came over to play with my kid's toys (happens all the time) I sent her back to her mother with an apology. Work called, wanting to know an urgent answer? I let it go to voicemail. Can your items to be worked on be left out in a prominent place (I would have liked to leave my research out so I didn't have to spend 40 minutes each time sorting through what had been specific piles but my husband kept combining together) so they "bug" you and allow you to start right away?
posted by saucysault at 9:09 AM on October 3, 2014

Similar to what viggorlijah said:

When your moments to work are semi regular: pay attention to your work process. Most of us have a pattern we follow: mine is 1) think about what I need to do, 2) start getting excited/interested in what I need to do 3) write or do the thing 4) fade out in energy/attention. When I have less time, I try to integrate steps 1 and 2 into what I am doing before I can sit down and write. Thinking about it while I bike to a meeting, or am cleaning the house... etc.
posted by troytroy at 8:24 AM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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