The Lazy Manís Guide to Productivity
Once in a while someone asks me, ďHow do you do all that writing on your own time? Do you ever sleep?Ē Those questions arose more often when I was doing three columns (two monthly) as well as C&I, but they still comes up. Recently, a colleague convinced me that they deserved more than my usual one-sentence answer to the first:
Iím lazy but Iím efficient.
Thatís always been my answer. Itís true and relevant. The tough part was what followed. ďI do almost all that writing in an hour or so every weekday and three or four hours each weekend.Ē
Looking back, Iím not sure how I did manage to write three columns and a monthly journal, a few speeches each year, even a book and briefer book-type project in that amount of time. Maybe Iíve grown less efficient or a bit slower, but it all sounds improbable.
ďLazy but efficientĒ may be snappy but itís less than useful. So, since you (at least one of you) asked for a longer answer, hereís more about how I manage.
I am lazy, at least compared to some dynamos I knowóand I most definitely sleep. Most evenings Iím gone by 10 p.m., and I donít get up until around 5:30 on weekdays, an hour later on weekends. I donít envy those who claim to get by just fine on five hours a night. I donít try to get by without a full nightís sleep.
We also watch TV for an hour or so most nights. I also read: Lots of magazines (too many magazines), the local daily newspaper, books (mostly from the library) now and then. And, to be sure, raw material for my writing: a lot of thatóannotating while Iím reading. On the other hand, I donít have any hobbies other than writing, music (mix CD-Rs and listening) and reading. And travel, if thatís a hobby.
When I get home from work ( work 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.), I exercise on the treadmill while watching old movies (longtime readers know about that from Offtopic Perspectives), shower, check the mail, thenóon most daysósit down at my desk to write. Usually, that means writing from around 5:15 to around 6:30. I may come back to the computer after dinner for another hour or soóbut there are days when I canít face writing or need to take care of chores. I probably average four days a week, but that means some weeks where I get no writing done and other weeks where I write every day. I usually manage an hour on Saturday morning, maybe an hour or two Saturday afternoon, and sometimes two or three hours on Sunday.
Here are a few elements of ďefficientĒóhow I manage to get a lot done in a modest amount of time:
ō Deadlines: When I had lots of them, I started a rolling three-month (printed) spreadsheetótwo sets of two columns each, one with dates and one with deadlines and ďprep daysĒ (seven days for each deadline and slack days when feasible), with a fifth column summarizing deadlines over the next year or so. I include vacation time, conferences, and other interruptions on that spreadsheet (I donít write when Iím traveling). I cross out each day as I come to itóbut I also cross out prep days and deadlines when I get ahead, and I try to be ahead at least four days. Why? Because I always assumed that if I ever missed a deadline, the whole set would come crashing down and Iíd never recover. My editors can tell you the results: Iíve never missed a deadline (except once, with substantial advance notice), and I usually submit my stuff way ahead. There arenít as many deadlines now, but the spreadsheet still helpsóeven though ďslackĒ days donít take into account the fact that itís not possible to write, edit, and publish C&I in seven after-work sessions.
ō Creative procrastination: My favorite way to deal with writerís block is also my favorite way to get things done when Iím trying to avoid getting them done. I can put off writing a column by writing a Perspective for C&I. I can put off a C&I essay by writing a different C&I essay or a column. And so onÖ Some times, I just need to let the ďprocrastinatedĒ project work itself out in my hindbrain for a few days. Some times, it turns out I really didnít want to write about X after all. Meanwhile, Iíve probably completed Y and Z. This only works if you have a few things going simultaneouslyóbut I donít claim any of this will work for other people.
ō A place to write and writing in its place: I have a big old L-shaped computer desk. At the corner are my display, speakers, wireless keyboard, and wireless mouse (and current schedule spreadsheet and this weekís task list). Working papers and stuff to the left; ďother stuffĒ and my multifunction printer to the right. Good desk chair. No distractions. When I turn on the equipment and sit down, Iím determined to get something done.
ō Focus and mindfulness (unitasking): I donít believe in multitasking in generalóbut in my case, itís worse than usual. Iíd love to listen to music while Iím writing but I usually canĎt. When I listen to music, I listen to music. That causes me to lose focus on what Iím writing. I donít claim my writing is wonderful; I do claim it would be worse as well as slower if I didnít focus on writing and only writing.
ō Through writing: Ideally, I write the first draft of each ďdisContentĒ column in a single session. Thatís also true for most shorter essays and some medium-length essays in Cites & Insights. For essays longer than 2,000 words or so, I try to completing each section in one pass. It doesnít always work, and I find myself moving sections around and finding new overall stories for chunks of material Iíve been working on, but Iím a great believer in through writing for shorter essays. You gain coherence and stylistic consistency, and with luck thereís a freshness to through-written stories thatís less likely with stuff assembled over several days.
ō One point five drafts: What I do not do, if I can avoid it, is let badly-flawed material go on the assumption that itís just a first draft and I can fix it in revisions. Il fix it on the spot if thatís possible. I donít plan for multiple drafts. Most of Cites & Insights is basically 1.5-draft material: A clean first draft and a relatively brief editing pass unless I recognize that somethingís badly wrong. ďdisContentĒ may get two drafts, but now that itís down to 800 words, the second draft rarely takes more than half an hour to complete.
ō Touch typing: Touch typing? Of course (70wpm after corrections, last time I checked)óbut even two-finger typingís fast enough to do the thousand words an hour I aim for. Thatís just 16.7 words per minute. The virtue of touch typing is that youíre not spending mental energy on mechanics: As far as Iím concerned, the words flow directly from the brain to the screen.
ō Integrated formatting: For Cites & Insights and most booklength projects, I know Iíll be preparing the final formatted copyóand I do that as Iím writing. I prepared a ďcites.dotĒ template carefully to make Cites & Insights look the way I want. I keep that template visible and assign styles to headings and other elements as Iím writing. Once Iíve done an editing pass, the essay is ready to drop into the publication.
ō Realistic expectations: Iím not looking for a Pulitzer. I already have a couple of lesser writing awards. I almost never write scholarly papers and donít consider myself a scholar. Iíve deliberately adopted a straightforward prose style, one that matches my speaking style. I know my writing can always stand improvement (and love it when good editors take advantage of that), but I also know my writingís usually clear and readable. I donít spend a lot of time polishing the burlap of my prose. Maybe I should spend more, but when Iíve done that in the past, the results were more precise but less interesting, even to me.
ō Experience: Iíve been writing for a long time. That first article was an ordeal, as was the first booklength manuscript (never published) and the first published book. The first non-scholarly article was easier because it was conversationalóand, little by little, Iíve developed a methodology that works. For me.
Thatís some of what works for me. It might or might not work for you.
That may still leave the question, ďHow do you get all that stuff done in so little time?Ē The answer is, at least sometimes, that I donít.
Until September 2005, that meant using vacation time now and then to catch up on projects or get ahead. Not most of my vacation timeóthat goes to real vacations. But I got more vacation time than my wife did, and neither of us could schedule all of our vacation each year, so half a day every couple of months was OK.
In September 2005, both of us got cut back to three-quarter time. From then through June 2006, I had plenty of time for writing and being even lazier. Two extra hours a day makes a load of difference. I donít know: Does C&I for October 2005 through July 2006 appear better or more interesting than what comes before or after?
When I changed employers and my wife became a part-time contractor, I returned to full time. Since then? I write after dinner a little more often than I used to. Iím spending a lot less time organizing mix CD-Rs and enjoying music than I used to, unfortunately. Book projects keep looking good (I have five in mind right now), but keep looking harder to pull off. And I still may use a half day of vacation once in a while, if itís necessary.
Iíve always ďcheatedĒ by thinking about what I want to write when Iím doing something elseódriving, reading, watching TV, taking breaks at work.
Caveats? Most of them have already appeared. My writing isnít as good as it possibly could be and probably should be. I donít claim these techniques will work for others. You may find music makes you more productive (but Iíd try it both ways!). You may find it better to write in bits and pieces on some portable device whenever you have a break. You might prefer the traditional theme-outline-expansion-rewrite cycle (I used to use outlines, but I also used to do a lot less writing). ACRLog has recommended some essays on writing; they didnít work for me, but they might be just the thing for you.
What works for me may not work for you. But now you know more about just what it is that does work for me. Ask me again in five or six years, when I have more timeóand when I may have even more things to be lazy about.
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