Sunday, November 8, 2009

Do You Need to Narrow Your Focus?

I do. In fact, I've spent the past several months figuring out precisely how to do it. This is what I've come up with, and it's working!

The first step is realizing you've spread yourself too thin. Here are some clues: You write anything anyone asks you to--a magazine article, a newspaper column, or a press release for a non-profit--even when you'd rather be working on your novel. You accept contract jobs that involve travel because of the enormous potential for the growth of your business, mistakenly convincing yourself you'll get tons of writing accomplished during the flights or--God, how naive (aka stupid?)--during the airport layovers. You fiddle around on Facebook, surf the net for obscure facts of interest that don't pertain to anything you're working on at the moment, read your 47 favorite blogs, get caught up in an old movie you've seen six dozen times before... You volunteer at the PTA, Boy Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, or the local animal shelter. You offer the use of your office conference room for committee meetings of the non-profit whose board you sit on--which means you just stole two hours of personal time from yourself. You getting the picture yet?

The second step is prioritizing. As in having this dialogue with yourself: I write because I have to. Writing consumes me. I have to put my writing before everything else that consumes me LESS than my writing--otherwise, I'm miserable. Only one person bears the responsibility for my lack of writing time or success--it isn't fair to blame other people for infringing, especially not when I alternately welcome and invite interruption. For me, the priority list goes like this:
  • Family and loved ones (including my puppies and kitty)
  • The [necessary aspects of my] career
  • Me
  • My writing

Housework no longer appears on the list. Neither do grocery shopping, Christmas cards, dusting (this is not housework, it's a form of torture), or anything else I really don't want to do. You see, the category of "Me" is both broad and vague. I get to decide what fits into it. I do admit that not everyone is pleased with my seemingly arbitrary categorization of what fits under "Me." Unfortunately [for them], I was a writer before I met them and they accepted the "side effects" of my writerly personality. I was not always this callous and selfish; becoming published created the monster. There's something about realizing my dream that made me want to repeat the performance--it helps me narrow my focus.

The third, and final, step is implementation. When I received a request for contract job in Boise, Idaho, I turned it down. I love teaching there--the people are terrific. But because of the fact that you can't get there from here (not directly, anyway), the trip will involve two days of travel for the one day of paid teaching. Since I've learned [the hard way] that I don't get ANY writing done on planes or in airports, not only am I losing time from my day job, I'm losing precious writing time.

One final bit of advice: E-mails, Facebook, blogs, and reading books (not necessarily in that order) are pursuits that can be as addictive as writing. I've learned to schedule these activities into my schedule. I permit myself either a set amount of time, or only certain times of the day, for their enjoyment. I own two businesses so, as my own boss, I can do whatever I want whenever I want. However, in order to take care of the number 2, 3, and 4 items on my Priority List, I do not allow myself to visit Facebook at work, nor do I check my personal or writing e-mails at the office. Take a guess at what's more enjoyable: insurance or Facebook? Insurance or e-mails from my friends/family? What, you're wondering, does that have to do with writing?

Well, you see, it goes like this: the longer I spend at the office, the less time I have at home for writing. If I kill half an hour fiddling around on Facebook or with my non-business e-mail, I'm responsible and professional enough to make up that time at the office. So who loses the half hour? Me? Nope--I'm still going to play with the dogs and cat, eat my dinner, and do the things at home that I want to do. It's my writing that suffers.

If my writing suffers, guess who else suffers? You've got it--everyone!

Seriously, figure out your priorities and be sure NOT to leave yourself off the list. Don't martyr yourself by eliminating the things you like to do (i.e. blogging, IMing, FB)--that's cruel and unusual punishment--make a date with yourself to do them. If other people are important enough to fit/schedule into your day, so are you. And so is your writing.

What are some of the ways you've found to narrow your focus? I'd love to hear them and I'm sure everyone else will too.


  1. What great advice. It's difficult to decide what's important (that article could lead to other jobs), but once you do, you have to make a committment to yourself and stick to it.

    It's nice to know there are other writers out there losing their minds!

  2. Great post, and picture too!

  3. Good points! I'm tweeting this one, Linda.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Some very good points and it all makes very good sense. Unfortunately everytime I knock something off of my priority list I give myself at least ten good reasons why it should go back on.

  5. Thanks for the tweet, Elizabeth!

  6. Such familiar experiences, Linda, and you're absolutely right with your priorities - but procrastination is so attractive. I suppose I first started being able to do the time management you're advocating when I forced myself to learn to say no. I still struggle sometimes and kick myself for taking on a project which I knew would be dull or too time-consuming, but I'm learning.

  7. It's so easy to give advice, Bill. Not nearly as easy to follow it though, eh?

    Life wouldn't provide its sweet rewards if everything were easy. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway!