Prioritizing Multiple Writing Projects

by Todd Rogers
(Sacramento, CA, USA)

Hello again, Glen!

I was watching the penultimate episode of "Sons Of Anarchy" tonight (cried the entire episode), and at some point I read that series creator Kurt Sutter (Kate Segal's husband) started writing SOAs replacement ("The Bastard Executioner" which Kate is also in) while still writing episodes for SOA.

I have several projects that are both created and in the idea stage (based on recently read material), and yet I always seem to have a problem with spacing the projects out so as to not contaminate one story with elements meant for another.

What do you suggest I do to prioritize my writing schedule?

Should I just focus on one story at a time or is there a way to juggle multiple projects without sacrificing quality?

Response: Hi Todd,

One of the biggest challenges everyone faces today is boundaries.

The Internet has essentially destroyed many of the boundaries we used to have between the different spheres of our life. For instance, in the old days you might have had a workplace (office, studio etc.), which was physically separate from your family space (home). And you might have also had a separate recreation space you shared with friends (such as a cottage, country club, local pub, church hall, etc.). Worktime was also separate from family or recreation time, in that you had set hours when you worked and didn't. You might schedule recreation time to not interfere with family mealtimes, etc.

Also, when you were working on one project, you had to bring out the tools and papers related to that project and file away anything related to other projects, again creating separation.

Today, thanks to the Internet, recreation and family activities easily invade work, and work easily invades family and recreation. You can have multiple projects open on your computer at the same time. While the net is a great tool in some ways, it is also the biggest time-wasting technology ever created. Games, social media, and newsfeeds offer endless distraction.

But I digress...

The key to accomplishing writing projects is to have firm boundaries. You have to know what periods of time are the most productive for you and create boundaries to protect them. You need to know both when a writing session starts and when it ends.

For instance, start by knowing whether you write best in stints of one hour, two hours, or four hours. (There was a highly successful copywriter who used to work in 33 minute stints, each one followed by a short break.)

You need to know if you work better writing one day a week or every day. Do you find it easier to write intensely (perhaps three stints a day) for a month, and then take a break? Or are you more productive writing one stint a day for a year? Sometimes you can discover this by experimentation, and sometimes it is simply dictated to you by the circumstances of your life.

When you know what works best for you, you can prioritize your projects. Sometimes it works to think of priority levels as the four burners on a stove.

Your big front burner will obviously hold the project that is your top priority at the moment. You may choose to devote 50-80% of the writing stints in your weekly schedule to that project.

However, you may also have a project that goes on your small front burner, such as an on-going blog or an outline for your next project. Or you may want to have some time just to play around with other ideas, because playing keeps your creative juices flowing. So you might schedule 15-30% of your stints to this secondary task.

On the big back burner, you may have some projects that aren't priorities but you want a little time to think about them or work on some ideas for them, so you allow 5-15% of your stints to revisit them.

Finally, you can't help getting new ideas at odd times of the day. So you make sure you have a notebook or a set of index cards to jot these down. Some people prefer to email notes to themselves or take memos on their phone. Your smallest back burner may be time you schedule to review these ideas. Some you may discard; others you need to file where they can easily be retrieved and perhaps developed later.

Obviously, you have to adjust the percentages to fit your priorities.

The Big Secret: make sure that each burner is clearly separate from the others in terms of both time and space. Don't try to work on two or more things in the same session. If possible, use separate desks, computers/devices, or workplaces for each. Some people like to put on a different hat or piece of clothing when they write. These are tricks to remind your brain that each writing project is a separate task that requires a different mindset.

Above all, don't let other parts of your life intrude on your writing time. If possible, disconnect from the Internet and turn off your phone.

You may not be able to completely separate the projects, because you are the common factor among them. As your thoughts, skills, and experience grow, these things will affect all your projects.

This is actually an advantage, because when you come back to a project after a time, you will have grown and some of the pesky problems you encountered last time will have clear solutions.

Nonetheless, when you sit down at the start of a writing session, remind yourself what your goals/ideas/plans are for the project yo will work on in that session -- as distinct from any other project you may be working on. Maybe you have a mission statement you can review -- such as a brief summary of the idea or the theme you want to express. Use this to focus your mind on the project at hand.

Another way to reconnect with the project is to read over what you wrote for it in the previous session.

When your stint is done, you may want to have another ritual to mark the ending. It could be something you say aloud to yourself. Something simple like, "Good job!" or "Writing Time is Over" will work. Or you might do something physical such as five jumping jacks. Maybe you set an alarm clock and let the buzz mark the end. Some people reach for food or tobacco, but that can have negative consequences.

Best of luck.

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