A month ago, I wrote the following on the wall of our top-secret Notes from the Slushpile hideout:
In the last week, I have:Why indeed? The Slushpile team were supportive in their replies (apart from Candy Gourlay who I trust was joking when she called me a lazy man!). But for me, the inherent problem lay in that final question. Why wasn't I satisfied with what I'd done, and what did I need to do to make sure that I was?
So why do I constantly feel like I'm not doing enough?
- Attended two book launches
- Edited a 1500 word story down to 1000 words for the next issue of Stew Magazine
- Formatted and scheduled next week's Alphabet Soup article and started work on the week after
- Commissioned two more Alphabet Soup articles
- Written a Slushpile blog
- Worked full-time for 5 days
That led me to take a hard look at my own beliefs. For years, I believed that the more busy I was, the more I would get done. But what if that wasn't true? What if I could get better results and more satisfaction by doing less?
I'm not the only person who's feeling time poor and overburdened. As first-world problems go, it's a very real one that affects millions of us. The relentless march of technology has created an environment in which we have an endless range of both possibilities and distractions. So many, in fact, that I had to resort to writing much of this post longhand to actually get it done!
My day job has been crazy busy over the last few months. Last Thursday, for example, I had 6 hours of meetings in my calendar and only managed to grab 20 minutes for lunch. Since I normally use my lunch hour as writing time, losing this slot in the middle of the day is a big problem. I’m useless first thing in the morning and too exhausted when I get home in the evening, so the hours between 11am and 3pm are my peak performance period.
As you may know, I recently launched a new weekly column for SCBWI Words & Pictures called Alphabet Soup. I had become frustrated that my previous column the Ten-Minute Blog Break demanded large chunks of my time every Monday, and felt that the new format (as well as exploring topics I was interested in such as illustrated books, comics and digital media) would allow me to spread the workload more evenly across the week. This turned out to be a true assumption, unfortunately I discovered that the new column was now taking all of my week to manage, what with commissioning some articles, writing others, compiling interview questions, formatting articles, creating images to accompany them and promoting the column.
|Logo by Paul Morton|
Somehow, I had massively increased my personal workload at a time when I was already feeling the pressure at work. I’ve had little or no time for my own writing recently – I might be doing some right now, but (irony of ironies) I’m writing this blog post!
It seems that I'm simultaneously too busy and yet also concerned that I’m not getting enough done. I can list ten things right now that I should be doing but don’t have the time for. Or is it just that I think I don’t have the time for them? Clearly, I need to take a step back, clear my head and re-evaluate how I spend my time. Enough trying to do everything and making myself thoroughly miserable in the process.
It’s time to Do Less, Better.
As well as doing less, I want to find more focus, concentrating on tasks one-by-one rather than constantly swapping between them. Studies show that humans are not natural multitaskers, and trying to juggle tasks causes a lot of unnecessary stress and cognitive load. Much of the fulfilment we get from work or learning comes from the deep flow that accompanies an activity well done. Without that, we can be left feeling overstretched and dissatisfied.
Part of the solution to focusing more is to block the world out for selected periods. I was amused, just now, when the older man at the next table to me in a cafe took over a minute to get out his ringing phone. He remarked that he hoped it would stop before he got to it, and what do you know – it did! I suspect this technique wouldn’t suit all of us, but there are other ways to turn off the distraction brain. Some people use music, and I know that Slushie author Teri Terry uses the same playlist again and again to ease her into a hypnotic state. For people (like me) who find music more distracting than calming, listening to random background noise can be helpful – Google “brown noise generator” to find sites that provide this. Since I can’t afford to sit in a cafe all day, I’ve recently started using Coffitivity, which is a website that provides a constant soundtrack of coffee shop background noise.
If I'm going to successfully do less (but better), I'll need a plan. Here's what I've put together so far:
|Make Alphabet Soup a fortnightly column||I will have more lead time to get content commissioned and posted.
I will spend less of my week working on the column
|I may feel bad or that I'm letting people down.
I kept up a weekly schedule on Words & Pictures for three years - why can't I do that anymore?
|Tackle my day job workload by delegating more and not being afraid to say "No".||Reduced workload and a better feeling of control.
More balanced project planning with less tasks that are totally dependent on me
|Risk of upsetting colleagues.
A reduced feeling of personal indispensability.
|Plan my day (including reading email) into blocks of time rather than doing things as and when.||Increased focus.
|Hard to control verbal interruptions from colleagues, who are often themselves reacting to emails or chat messages that I haven't read.|
|Make time (at least three slots a week) for my own creative projects.||"Bum on chair" time will make me get something done.||Scheduling and keeping to the time slots may be difficult.|
Even while compiling this table, I felt I could be adding more rows, doing more to sort out my problems. Hey, maybe I could turn this into a campaign? Coin a hashtag #DoLessBetter and start tweeting about it? Get some other sites on board and do combined blogs and...
NO. Because this is an example of how you end up doing more, even though you started out trying to do less! And that is also why this blog post must stop right here.
Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Alphabet Soup maker for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.