Mar 112013

[Backgrounder: I never seem to have enough time, which is stupid when I think about it. Everyone gets the same 168 hours per week to get stuff done. Or look at it this way, that’s 336 Gilligan’s Islands. But how I use that time is critical. Although I don’t watch TV — probably the biggest time-suck of them all — there are plenty of ways I fritter away that valuable time. Might as well use it for something, like creating something significant, right? This week, let’s explore my favorite ways of squandering time. If this cuts a little too close to the bone, welcome to the club.]

When working my main job of content creation, I’m expected to do some research. That’s fine. I kinda need to know a little something about a subject before I can write about it.

But I have this bad habit. I tend to do a lot more research than I need. Like, a lot! To give you an idea, for my next ebook I have a list of 38 references to check. That’s insane! At which point does all this research become too much? Probably at the point where I’m so busy researching I don’t get around to doing the job, yes?

For me, research becomes a dodge. It’s much easier than actually doing something amazing, of creating something awesome. It’s a form of procrastination, of being an incurable perfectionist. Busy work without getting down to business. To get anywhere, I have to ship my work sometime.

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Mar 012013
Yes, I write with a hard hat.

Writing, in fact all creating, is hard work. Bring your lunch pail and steel-toed boots. Bring your hard hat, too. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

OK, I’ll admit it. I keep a messy desk. Always have. It’s a three-tiered desk with a top shelf, an elevated platform for my computer, and a lower portion. The downstairs section, well, let’s not go there. It’s crowded.

The top section is much neater. I keep mostly functional items there, but some sentimental. My reference library (dictionary, thesaurus, Writers Market, Stephen King’s On Writing, a book of jazz charts). Computer speakers. A pair of Bose speakers for my stereo. A bottle of ink (because I don’t make mistakes). Some erasers (a gift from a friend, and I keep them as a reminder that I still make mistakes). Blank CDs. A hard hat.


Whoa. Let’s stop right there. A hard hat?

Shoot, I write for a living. It’s not a dangerous occupation. Not very, anyway. There’s always the risk of carpal tunnel (which I have) and an oversized bottom from desk work (not an issue with me). I haven’t needed a hard hat as a writer since my newspapering days, when I wrote the occasional article that ticked off a land developer or politician. And folks like that wouldn’t bop me over the head over something I wrote; they’d hire someone else to do it. But I digress.

The last job where I needed a hard hat was when I was ground man for a tree surgeon last summer. It wasn’t required, but I sure felt better wearing it when my coworker started cutting branches down. Most of these branches were much bigger than me and could do some damage.

It’s tough, dangerous work

The hard hat is there to remind me. Writing is work. Creating is work. Making music is work. Painting is work. Designing a new rocket or a new kitchen gadget is work. Solving problems is work.

To get anywhere I need to put in my hours. Show up. Don’t leave until I put in my time. Stay at the terminal and write. Grind it out. No leaving early, even though the only boss I’m cheating is myself.

My progress may be nothing spectacular. I will have my moments where words fly from my fingers, I get them down as fast as I think them, and every one sings. When I can get 1,500 words down without taking a break to sit down. Those times happen, and that’s when it gets fun. Inspiration is right there with me.

Much of the time, though, that’s not how it goes. I park myself at the terminal with several cups of coffee coursing through my system, and it takes a few minutes to get started. Some days I struggle to get the words out. At best the ideas are partially formed, and whipping them into writing shape takes work. I may have a pile of notes (accounting for the mess downstairs on the desk), but none of it is ready for human consumption.

It’s so easy to wake up and tell myself I’m not at my best today, the Muse is out bothering someone else, and every word is going to be a struggle.

It’s such a nice day out, why don’t I go on a long hike and forget work for a day?

Maybe call some friends, go out for lunch, or just sit down and read that novel I’d been putting off.

You know the deal. No one’s there to hold me to my work. What’s the harm of taking off? I’ll get to the writing when I get to it. When I get inspired.

Doesn’t work that way. This is a job. Dirty sweaty work, hard on the hands and hard on the brain. Just like dragging tree limbs out of the way, just like working at some steel mill or cubicle farm. The only thing missing is a constantly-hectoring straw boss.

Does inspiration really matter?

Thankfully, my years in newspaper work helped instill this hard-hat mindset. Inspiration comes and goes, but the deadline is always there.

A newsroom isn’t always the most conducive environment to writing, either. Phones ringing, me having to raise a source for another quote, the other reporters making phone calls and tapping away at their computers, bad coffee and lots of cigarettes going, the ad sales crew filtering in and out of the newsroom making suggestions, the editor racking his shotgun. Either he’s defending our turf from ad folks or enforcing my deadline, pick one.

Forget inspiration at this point. I’m thinking of survival. I’m thinking about the story.

I don’t know what it’s like now. I haven’t set foot in a newsroom in 15 years. The smoke has been eliminated, but I’ll bet the coffee is still bad and the ad crew still has a terrible sense of direction. Give them a GPS, OK? But I’ll wager newsrooms are still not the perfect writing environment, and not the kind of place the Muse hangs out in unless the troops are working hard.

As I write this now, I’m going pretty good. On a roll, actually. Don’t know if I’m nicely warmed up and in a groove or if the Muse made an appearance.

Doesn’t matter.

Really, it doesn’t.

Often the adrenaline (and a strong espresso blend) is enough to pour the words out.

I’ll repeat that one point: Whether the Muse shows up doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. I just need to show up. Ready to work, with the hard hat and all.

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Jan 082013

Here’s a question for you: Can you forget that dream without any consequences?

Trust me. I’ve tried. When I walked away from writing I hoped it would quit bugging me eventually. Every time I looked at a newspaper I missed the business, and it got worse instead of better.

Tear that dream, that calling away from the heavily committed, and you’re going to get lots of blood and pain. Guaranteed.


Dec 132012

Manana: Over-identifying with the work

OK. I write, and it’s a living. It’s what I do. I can even look in the mirror and say I am a writer without falling out laughing. But that’s not all of me.

I’m also a pretty good ex-husband, a thinker, a humorist, a decent musician, a hard worker at whatever I do, a good guy to have around on the hiking trail, and a willing ear when my friends have problems.

It’s so easy to over-identify with creative work and treat it as a life-or-death thing, and sometimes that gets overwhelming enough to make my head blow up. Consequently, this puts my productivity into reverse and procrastination seems a good option. But there’s so much life going on in too short a time frame to allow for such foolishness.


Dec 102012

I tend to procrastinate. A lot. Whatever I’m doing can be done just as easily tomorrow as today, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Much of today’s to-do list is just carried over from yesterday.

When I look at why I put things off, I can usually find fear at the root of it. I’ll hold off on submitting something because I’m scared it’s not going to be good enough. I’ll defer on that phone call because I just don’t want to face the guy.

Not sure what there is to be afraid of; I mean none of this is exactly life and death. But once I understand the role of fear I can face it, hold on to my butt, and do what I need to do.


Aug 212012

(*FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. It’s a computer user’s term, and I stole it for my purposes here.)

Productivity guru Grant Cardone suggests a way to declaw the FUD* monster is to stay busy.

Load up your calendar, he says. Find things to do. While his rationale is sound, it’s not all that cut and dried, though.

Filling up your to-do list with random stuff may keep you busy, but it’s too easy to make that your main task instead of doing that work that scares you. Staying busy for the sake of busy-ness avoids the issue; you’re just procrastinating. Instead, load up your calendar with items that will actually move your project forward and chip away at that fear.


Jul 052012

By my very nature, I’m a planner. I like to think things through, make sure all the duckies are lined up before I act.

But while thinking and planning are good, they can be a substitute for action. They can be a form of procrastination, especially if you’re one of those perfectionists like I am.

Thinking your project through won’t get it done. You’ll have to pull that trigger sometime.