There are good days...

...and then there are bad days.  Today was one of the bad days, at least as far as productivity goes.

It started out all right.  I posted to my book review blog, scheduled a couple of future posts, and worked on updating some of the affiliate links (an ongoing project I've been working on).  By the time I was done with that, it was lunch time, and I was hungry.  I decided to read a little, and instead of reading some of the research material I've assembled for my novel, I picked up the book I'd been reading at bedtime last night.

Big mistake.  It was a couple of hours before I put it down again, and even then it took some serious willpower.

I was so proud yesterday, when I worked on my novel all day long, doing a little research and nearly doubling my word count.  Oh well.  I guess you win some, you lose some, right?

I've got a little bit of my day left, so I think I'm going to try to complete some client work (what I'd originally wanted to get done yesterday).  I want to free tomorrow up for some more noveling!

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, August 30, 2011 At 4:02 PM 0 comments

Prioritizing and the difference it makes

Lately I haven't gotten much done on my novel, not even much research.  I started thinking that perhaps it's because I haven't been putting it first on my to-do list each day — even though my intention has been to shift my focus and work more on fiction, "Work on novel" still ends up being fourth or fifth on the list every day.

Today was different.  Even though my list, as I made it last night, still had my novel down as #4, I woke up wanting to work on it.  I had a scene that I was thinking about as I was waking up, and I was burning to get it onto paper (or into type, techically).  And so as soon as I rolled out of bed and into my office, I started working on my novel — writing, not researching or outlining.

The difference in productivity was amazing.  I hardly checked email, and when I did, it was only to respond quickly and return to my novel as fast as possible.  I stopped writing once for a bit to research something, and again to eat lunch, but otherwise I worked on it fairly steadily for a large chunk of the day, ultimately adding more than 3,500 words.  Moreover, the details that I wasn't sure about before are coming to me quickly as I write.

Now I don't know if this is really how I want most days to go — now that I'm calling it quits for the day (forcibly — I could probably keep going for a while, no problem), I don't really have much time to finish the other tasks I was going to work on today.  But I'm thinking that, if working on something first thing is the best way to make sure it gets done, I ought to plan on starting off with my novel at least a couple of days a week.

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, August 29, 2011 At 5:01 PM 0 comments

Hello, my name is Katharine, and I am a bookworm...

When I was a kid, my mom and dad were once told at a parent-teacher conference, "We try to get everyone else to read more, but we have to try to get Katharine to read less!"  Even then, I was reading when I shouldn't be — in class, namely — and although most teachers in elementary school were pretty tolerant of it, as I got older they started getting less so.

I can remember in fourth (or was it fifth?) grade, when my teachers finally stopped letting me get by without doing my work.  Apparently I hadn't been doing my assignments all year, and when that information came out at a parent-teacher conference, I had to make up all the assignments I'd missed throughout the year.

After that, I learned that if I did the work and got good grades, most teachers just didn't know what to do with a kid who read in class instead of paying attention but was obviously still a good student.  If I had good grades, how could they justify telling me to put the book away?  Some still did, obviously, but I got away with it an awful lot.

Fast forward to today.  I've been reading a lot lately, more than in previous years.  In the past year, it's started to interfere with my work.  I'm more likely than I used to be to take an hour or an afternoon to finish a particularly engrossing book, and I'm finding that lately I've been reading so much that I'm finding it harder to do any research for my novel — even though I read all the time, very little of that time is spent on the books I've picked out for research.

Obviously, reading is a good thing.  Great writers are great readers, and all that.  But maybe it's time to admit that I might have a teeny little addiction.

One thing I'm trying to do differently is to change what I read while I eat lunch.  I used to take that time to read for pleasure, but I find that's often what gets me into trouble, because I don't want to put the book down and get back to work.  Lately, I've been using that time to read my current "research" book (in this case, Flapper).  I'm also trying to leave my Nook in another room while I work, but that isn't always successful.

It's funny, but that book on procrastination that I read talked about how TV is one of the biggest time-wasters that people use to procrastinate.  I never even think of turning on the TV during the day, so I was pretty pleased when I read that, but the truth is, reading IS my television!

What about you?  What do you love to do that tends to encroach into your workday if you don't watch it?  I don't mean browsing the Internet or checking email and Facebook, as I think those are fairly mindless time-wasters — you're not doing it because you love it, necessarily, but because you're on the computer and it's easy to get distracted.  I'm talking mainly about hobbies or other pastimes that refuse to stay in their own time and place.  What do you find the most difficult to limit during your workday?

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By Katharine Swan On Tuesday, August 16, 2011 At 12:52 PM 2 comments

How to stop procrastinating

Over the weekend I finished reading The Procrastination Equation, the book I blogged about on Friday.  I have to say I'm impressed — the book combines solid research on why people procrastinate with suggestions on how to stop.  I've got a lot of ideas now that I'm hoping will help me to be more productive going forward.

The author says that there are three different factors that cause procrastination, and everyone procrastinates for different reasons.  Early on in the book, he has you take a quiz to see where you stand in each of the three categories.  The first factor he calls expectation — i.e., the expectation that you're going to do poorly at a task causes you to put it off.  This one is linked to low confidence and sometimes even depression.  However, overly high confidence can also be a problem, as you tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take to do a task (a problem when you also tend to leave things to the last minute).  I scored really high on confidence, so obviously lack of belief in myself is not a problem, but apparently too much may be hurting me in other ways.

The other two factors are value and time.  The first represents how much value you place in your work (e.g., how meaningful it is and how much you enjoy it).  Time is more about impulsivity and how easily distracted you are, but also how likely you are to put things off to the last minute.  I scored the minimum "problem" score in both categories, so both are equally an issue for me, but neither is much of an issue.  In other words, since I scored just barely within the procrastinator range in each category, I ought to be able to get beyond this and improve my productivity pretty easily.

Once you've determined how you rate in each category, the author discusses all of the ways in which we procrastinate, individually and as a society.  He lays it on pretty thick, and by the time he's done, you feel pretty terrible.  Once you're properly disgusted with yourself, he goes into fix-it mode, and walks you through approaches to combating each type of procrastination.

The value section, for instance, talks about how to increase your perceived value of what you do.  He does suggest viewing your current job as a stepping stone to what you really want to do, or even trying to move into a different job altogether, something you will be more motivated to do.  I'd like to think I've already started down that path, having made my decision to freelance part-time so that I have more time to work on fiction.

He also talks about making goals in order to challenge yourself and make your work interesting.  He explains how to make effective goals: positive (instead of "Not doing such-and-such"), reasonable (something you can actually achieve in the near future), and specific (rather than general goals).  I already make a to-do list every day, but I could probably stand to make the items on my list more specific goals for that day, rather than a list of everything I need to do (more than half of which I never get to).

The value section also addresses energy, because as he said, it takes a lot of energy to keep yourself focused.  He talks a little about your natural rhythm, and how that affects your productivity.  He said that night owls are often procrastinators, because they are trying to force themselves into an unnatural (to them) schedule.  Bingo!  I've said before that I feel I'm less productive now that I'm trying to work during normal hours (instead of late at night).  The good news is, it sounds like there's a way around this: The author also talks about doing your most difficult tasks during your most productive time, which (apparently) starts a few hours before you get up, and lasts for only about 4 hours.

Interestingly, my typical schedule of answering email, blogging, and marketing first, and then moving to more important things, fits into this time frame pretty well — IF I can learn to focus myself better once I start on the actual work.  There's where my distractability comes in!

In the section about impulsivity and distractions, he talks about using precommitment, which is where you commit to something ahead of time to make it more difficult for yourself to back out (or procrastinate) once it's time to do the task.  One example is software to keep you from getting onto certain sites during work hours.  He mentions LeechBlock, which is a Firefox add-on that I was thinking about downloading a while back; this book gave me the extra push I needed to do it.  I get easily distracted by the Internet when I'm working, but of course most of the time I can't turn it off entirely, because I need it for work.  But LeechBlock allows you to block certain sites (Facebook!) during certain times of the day, or limit yourself to, say, ten minutes out of every hour.  It looks like there is also a lockdown feature, which presumably also allows you to lock yourself out of the chosen sites for a specified period of time — say, the hour you need to finish some certain task.

I'll play with LeechBlock a little and see what settings work best for me.  I'm thinking of starting of by allowing myself ten minutes on each site an hour during my peak productivity times, and using the lockdown feature when I really need to focus for a designated period of time.  I also took the author's advice and disabled all of the "new mail" notifications in Outlook.  I have a habit of immediately checking any new email the minute it comes in, and as the book points out, it takes a little while to get back to work after such a distraction.  I'll still have the distractions of the pets (my cat Ivan is distracting me as I write this by doing things he's not supposed to, which requires me to get up and make him stop), but at least the worst of the distractions — Facebook and other sites — will be minimized.

One more thing the book talked about, although I think this was in the value section: using productive procrastination.  This is when you avoid a bigger task by working on something else you've been avoiding.  Many writers will recognize this as their tendency to clean when they have writer's block, but you can also use it to, say, work on a different client project.  (Or, in my case more than once recently, work on fiction when you're avoiding a client project.)  A somewhat related technique (this one being from the time section) is breaking a larger task down into smaller tasks.  I've used this before to get myself going on an intimidating project, by starting with something easy like research or outlining.

As you can probably tell, the book is a treasure trove of suggestions, and I'm hoping I'll be able to put it to good use.  What about you?  Do you struggle with procrastination?  Have you tried any of these techniques before, or do you have a technique of your own that has worked for you?

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By Katharine Swan On Monday, August 08, 2011 At 11:55 AM 4 comments

How badly do you procrastinate?

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Procrastination can be a real problem for me, so when I saw this ebook available from my library, I put my name on the wait list.  Amusingly, I procrastinated about getting it, moving my hold back several times because I had too many other ebooks checked out and knew I wouldn't have time to read it... and now I've procrastinated on picking the book up until just a few days before it's due.  Not much hope for me if I'm procrastinating on reading a book about fixing my procrastination, huh?

Anyway, I've only just started reading the book, but I wanted to share my results to the author's procrastination survey.  It's a 70-question multiple-choice survey, so it's a perfect distraction when you're procrastinating on getting something else done.  (Ha ha.)  There's also a shorter, Facebook-based quiz, but I took the longer survey.

Your score is 53 out of a possible 100
You're an Average Procrastinator!


You rank in the middle 50% of the population in terms of your level of procrastination. That is, when it comes to putting things off, you do so at times even though you know you shouldn't. Likely, you are about average in terms of conscientiousness and self-discipline. Probably, your work doesn't consistently engage you or perhaps you are surrounded by a few easily available and more enticing temptations. These temptations may initially seem rewarding, but in the longer-term, you possibly see a few of them as a waste of time. Though you likely still get your work done, you could probably could do it sooner and experience less stress. You may want to reduce what procrastination you do commit. If so, here are three tips that have been scientifically shown to work.

Answering the questions in the survey, I started getting the feeling like I wasn't going to rate as highly as I'd feared.  I do get frustrated at myself for procrastinating, but I also don't have terrible issues with impulse control otherwise (lots of questions in the survey ask about that), so theoretically I should be able to control my procrastination.  And while I do often leave things for the last minute, I don't do that with everything.

My test results also gave three tips for how to reduce procrastination: goal setting, stimulus control, and routines.  It says that goals should be short-term, detailed, and achievable (we all know what happens when you set general New Years resolutions!).  I don't think my problem is there, unless you count the fact that I tend to put way too many items on my to-do list every day.

The section on stimulus control advises me to have one place that I work that's free from distractions.  This is probably my biggest problem area, but the advice doesn't work for me for a couple of reasons: One, I do like a change of scenery sometimes when I work (and often find that I can jump-start my productivity halfway through the day by moving, say, to the couch), and two, my biggest distractions come with the territory.  I need the Internet for research when I work, but it also happens to be my biggest distraction!

The last section, on establishing routines, is probably also part of my problem: I don't really have one.  I definitely think having a routine is helpful as a freelancer, though.  For instance, a lot of freelancers I know start out with something easy to get warmed up — checking email, blogging, etc.  Next might come marketing, and finally some client work.  Or, as I know many freelancers do, you might jump right in by starting out your day with client work (because that's the hardest and therefore the most likely victim of procrastination).  I personally tend to follow the warm-up approach, but sometimes I find that I run out of day before I get to the things I most need to do, so perhaps I need to rethink that strategy.

The problem is that not every one of my days starts out the same way — as I mentioned in my last post, about making time for hobbies, I go to the barn a couple of mornings a week to ride.  So perhaps what I need to do is establish two different routines, one for full days and one for half days.  The half days are the ones where I'm most likely not to get anything done, so perhaps I should skip my "warm up" on those days, and go right to the more pressing tasks.  Hmm...  Food for thought!

What about you?  How do you score on the survey?  Any thoughts on the suggestions for how you can improve?  If you write about it on your blog, please feel free to include a link in the comments — I'm interested to see how my own bad habits compare with my fellow freelancers'!

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By Katharine Swan On Friday, August 05, 2011 At 1:55 PM 0 comments

Playing hooky and making time for hobbies

After the progress I made last week on my novel, I'm sorry to say that I spent the last several business days playing hooky.  On Thursday I had a riding lesson, and on Friday I went on a trail ride.  Then my mother-in-law was in town Monday and Tuesday, and hubby was off work too, so I spent both days either with them or with horses (or both).

This made me think of something that I neglected to figure into my visions of my new, fiction-inclusive schedule: horse time.  I ride a lot, especially in the summer, and I do need to figure in several mornings a week being spent at the barn.  (Although I do try to make smart decisions and pass on rides when I get really behind, as I did this morning.)  This leaves less time to be split between client work and fiction writing, but the horse stuff is something I'm not willing to give up, so I just have to do my best to work it in.

I think what I'll do is continue to plan, say, 2 mornings a week to be spent at the barn, and try to make other rides in the evening.  (Evening rides interfere with work less but don't allow for trail rides — I need daylight for that, which means mornings, because the afternoons have been too hot lately.  Plus mornings are when the rest of my trail-riding buddies go, and Panama and I don't hit the trail without at least one other horse and rider with us, for safety reasons.)  This will be a flexible schedule, though: I'll continue to stay home when I need to work, and plan on adding extra mornings in to make up for it when I have slower weeks.  Slower weeks will be defined as less client work — I can generally get work done on my novel at any time of day or night, but with client work I am more productive when I don't lose half my day by going somewhere in the morning.

What about you?  Do you have any hobbies that you try to plan your work schedule around?  The nice thing about freelancing is that you do have a little more flexibility, even if many of us pay the price by working more hours in the long run.  (Hard to get away from work when you don't leave an office at the end of the day!)  Or do you find that you work better if you treat freelancing like a 9 to 5 job?  I know freelancers on both end of that spectrum, so I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this question, just personal preference.

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By Katharine Swan On Wednesday, August 03, 2011 At 2:13 PM 0 comments

Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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