Monday 14 March 2016

Doing Less, Better

By Nick Cross

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:
  • 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
So why do I constantly feel like I'm not doing enough?
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?

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:

Action Benefits Disbenefits
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.

Increased satisfaction.
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.


  1. I've had this same challenge recently. Most people know how busy I am but even I couldn't manage a 50+ hour a week full time job on our farm, parenting, voluntnering for scbwi, my new work commitments - deadlines for US edits, a new book and school visits PLUS tryign to keep up with my hobbies - the things that keep me sane. You actually can't do it all so I've: handed over part of my farm job to a very able woman; dropped a few fencing competitions (hard but necessary); made sure I shift the thing that don't require to much brain power to the times when I'm most tired ( this is a good one, you probs CAN use your evening time a bit, just not for creative things). You an do it just be a bit more forgiving of yourself about your priorities, your writing is your passion, if that's the thing you need to preserve time for, don't feel guilty!

    1. I'm sure that finally being published has brought a sense of validity to what you're doing, Kathy - you're no longer writing "for the fun of it" but actually starting to build a career. I'm sure that made it (slightly) easier to hand off some of your farm work and de-prioritise other stuff. Good for you :-)

  2. Of course, the argument could be that by doing less you achieve more. I really empathise with your situation. There are times when you just have to say no. My problem is it's easier to say no to the soft parts of my life that in the long term will matter more. Finding a good work-life balance is a journey in itself.

    1. And there's so much that's not under your control! Just got to roll with the punches, I guess...

  3. Heartfelt empathy! Learning to say no comfortably is the key to a happy life and the hardest person to say no to is yourself. But if we don't say no we end up overwhelmed and ill. Life is like a wardrobe. If you buy a new outfit and don't throw an old one out the wardrobe ends up packed tight and the door won't shut. Maybe there's even creaking and bulging. Tip from an habitual 'yes' sayer - Always analyse the time commitment and think - What will I stop doing in order to do this new activity.

    1. Your metaphor is very apt, Maureen - my actual wardrobe is totally crammed full!

  4. I SO relate to this post. I spend way too much time on all the annoying things, just to make them go away - I find it really hard to write when a dozen things are chirping in my mind, 'don't forget to do this!'. But by the time I clear all that there is often little or no time left.
    Like all problems in my stationery-obsessed-life, best approached with a notebook: writing all the things down that must be done helps me tone down all the chirping voices so I can do the important things.
    In theory. It's a shame I'm so rubbish at following my own good advice.

    1. Yes, I definitely need to make more lists, if only to turn off the crazy-brain. But why is it so hard to follow our own advice, even when we know it's right?

  5. Empathies, everyone! Being involved with lots of edge-of-writing activities is a) that if you aren't careful you own core work suffers and there's not enough "output" to keep your career going, engaging though the busyness is. Also, if a time comes when you feel stuck in your own work, these outside activities can become a subconsciously useful distraction. Publishers - even self-publishers - need completed m/s, not blogs etc. Do not ask me how I know this. :-) But good thinking & planning there, Nick, and hope it works well for you. I am impressed!

  6. Good post, Nick. With you Teri. Why is it the rubbishy tasks are never done with? Tax return - you file it but they never stop coming after you with more niggling requests. Appliances - always breaking down, why can't they be for life? They used to be. These drainers and sappers do hang in your mind and make you less productive generally. I really should fence off time to clear that stuff.
    Would also like to follow Kathryn's advice on using evening more productively. Or am I kidding myself and just adding to the weight of shoulds?

    1. I guess the thing is to try it - schedule some light tasks for a modest length of time in the evening and see how you feel. I find that I need to wind down after 9ish - if I write or do too much computer stuff after that point then I won't be able to sleep later on.

    2. I can't write in the evenings anymore but I do have a lot of physio to get through so that's what evenings are for now, while watching box sets. Productive! Health is another area we all need to focus on. And box sets.

    3. So many box sets! That's another thing I have to let go of, the idea that I can keep up with all the great TV series that are on nowadays.

  7. 'A reduced feeling of personal indispensability'. I think that's actually a key part of the problem. Most of us want to feel indispensable for various reasons -self esteem/worth/belief and at work, especially now, for job security... If we can be a bit kinder to ourselves and accept that we're actually ok, and that that we are enough, then wanting to feel indispensable doesn't need to be the same driving force. Once we've accepted that, then it's easier to get your personal priorities -writing- straight, and start saying no. The fact that you've acknowledged the difficulty of letting go of *feeling* indispensable to certain people is a great start. Keep at it. Much as we all love what you've done for SCBWI, you're in SCBWI because you wanted to write for children. If that is still your genuine priority and all your lots-of-volunteering is stopping you doing your writing, you need to reduce your other commitments. It's scary and I think a lot of people will empathise with this post. A lot. Good luck. x

    1. Thanks Clare, for such a pertinent and considered reply. I think you're spot on here - it's initially nice to be wanted, but it can become a yoke after a while. There's also the aspect that the actual writing for children has become increasingly hard for me over the last few years, and there's definitely an attraction to writing about writing for children, which seems simpler and less freighted with rejection. So maybe it's all an elaborate form of avoidance behaviour!

  8. Yes, well said, Nick. I like your table of doings (I favour a lists of paper). But the manner of organisation is not much if you're not doing what you want to do - writing. I say this as one who sometimes fantasizes about not doing what I've said I'll do and wondering if anyone will notice. Sometimes that happens, like on the rare occasion of a family emergency or illness and then it's so simple to prioritise. I want that without the drama

  9. I am just building an author platform and wary of getting spread too thin. I had an iron will to get my first novel written and now need to get back into that mindset for the second! I can relate to ideas bubbling over for ancillary activities but I want to use 90% of my creative energy for my book!

  10. Nick, we are birds of a feather. More here:


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