Prioritizing…or Avoiding?

Edith here, trying not to get whiplash from the New England winter weather of the last couple of weeks.

I recently faced a conundrum and put it out, as one sometimes does, on Facebook to gather insights from others.

I wrote, “Saturday poll: When you’re kind of stuck on a project (like a book…) and you have three other smaller projects looming (like TAXES, writing a short story, and final read-through on another book), do you power through on the first one, or knock off the other ones so they’ll stop looming?”

This wasn’t only a case of muddling through the middle, which we’ve discussed before on this blog here, among other places. The “stuck” part did have something to do with where I was in my fifth Local Foods mystery, but this isn’t that post.

My conundrum was more a product of staring at my whiteboard, which is directly above 20160225_125719my writing computer, and seeing:

  • Taxes
  • Ch breaks & recipes for GRITS
  • New short for Bouchercon

Every time I sat to write, those items stared at me from directly below the “WRITE THE %&!$@# story!” graphic.

All four of those things needed to be done, in a certain order of urgency. GRITS was due March first. The story, March fifteenth. Taxes, well, you know, April fifteenth. And the book I’m writing, May first. Still, I wanted to get the first draft of the book done before I go on a trip on March tenth.

I know that often when I’m a bit stuck I just need to stay in my chair and start typing (thus the “Write the Blankety-Blank Book” bit). I type, stuff comes out, and I get unstuck. But this particular book has been going more sludgelike than most lately, and I wondered if it was because of those other tasks looming. If I prioritized my to-do list, would I be helping myself or just avoiding the inevitable?

PrioritzeWhat do you think the 52 replies to my highly unscientific Facebook poll said? You got it. The vast majority suggested knocking off the small things so I’d have the peace of mind to do the big thing. Here’s a sampling of suggestions on that theme:

Ramona DeFelice Long started the reply thread with, ” I have to do the small stuff, because they drive me nuts.” Another friend wrote, “Gotta remove distractions from my creative flow.” Author Anna Loan-Wilsey said, “I get at least one of the other small projects done so I feel like I’ve accomplished something and gotten a break from the project I’m stuck on.” Cori Arnold chimed in with, “I’m totally on board with everything Anna is saying [wink emoticon]. One small project and take a walk.”

My friend Elizabeth added,  “Use each one as the relief task when you get sick of working on one of the others.”  And Sisters In Crime President Leslie Budewitz offered one of the only views from the other side: “Oh, Lordy. An eternal debate. Today, I’m choosing the big project, but other days, other choices!”

So here’s what I did last Saturday. GRITS was nearly done. Besides being first on the “due” list, it was also the easiest and most straightforward to accomplish. I touched up the recipes, inserted chapter breaks, made a final copy, and hit Send. One item to cross off the list! And it only took two hours of my morning.

Then I went for a long fast walk, which always helps me when I’m stuck on anything. Not only did the exercise start to unstick the book, it also let me talk through the short story to myself. Yes, out loud. In public. I think by now people around town know me as that crazy author lady who talks to herself on her power walks.

I took the next two days to draft and revise the short story for the Blood on the Bayou bloodonthebayoulogoanthology. The tale almost wrote itself, which in the past has led to some of my best stories (I hope it’s true this time!). Another item was well on its way to being crossed off. I let it mull for a few days, read it to my critique group, and gave it a final polish before sending it in on Tuesday for consideration in the anthology.

Now I’m back on the book, Mulch Ado About Murder. I needed a new suspect and he gave birth right there in my mind. I needed one character’s secret and, bingo, she told it to me on another walk. I’m at over the 56000-word mark and heading into the end. I’ve finally removed enough obstacles to let the story flow again.

Taxes, you say? Hey, I still have six weeks…

Wickeds and Readers – What works for you to remove obstacles? Do you power through, or wash the kitchen floor/do your taxes/knock off an easy task so you can keep going? Share your tips!

15 Thoughts

  1. I do my writing tasks in the order they’re due, whatever the length. The size of the project doesn’t matter to me. I’m not sure why, but I think I see the time more than the task or the space that holds all tasks in time–infinite in all directions and not segmented. Whenever I’ve tried to set my tasks on a line, I’ve failed them. What then do you do with the time between tasks. Do you try to fill those spaces with specially-sized tasks. This could be very trying… filling in the gaps. I think I would spend a lot of time ordering time segments and miss doing things that would never fit in any of my time gaps. Maybe you get more done than I do. xo

    1. I usually do that for the small things, Reine – but the books are such big things they are ongoing no matter what else is due!

  2. You already have my answer!
    I love the image of you walking around, talking out your book issues. What I’d really like to see is you acting out the action scenes!

  3. I agree with whoever said to get the little things out of the way (that doesn’t mean taxes!). That gives you a feeling of accomplishment and clears the deck for the big thing. Although having said that, I usually find I’m most eager to write a chapter or two in whichever book I’m working on, before digging into all the petty stuff.

  4. I find that sometimes those small things are an excuse to working on the big things — and sometimes they are mental or energetic clutter. Only you can decide, being honest with yourself.

    And sometimes the best choice is none of the above — that long walk you mentioned!

  5. Sounds like the other tasks were keeping your mind occupied. It was a successful form of procrastinating and let your brain work out the issues in your novel. Glad to hear you are back on track.

    Taxes? That will have to wait until next weekend for me. I usually try to do them in February, but not this year. Or maybe the weekend after that. We shall see.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I wrote a very exciting scene this morning and then had to dash out to yoga (“Gentle Senior Yoga” that is). Now back to it!

  6. I agree that when the pressure of the little stuff piles up, it’s time to get it off the plate. However, Edith, you’re far more productive than me, so I’ll follow your lead.

  7. I like to write first, almost always. I break my responisbilities into categories that include fiction writing, administrative work like creating website content and correspondance and, finally, family/personal. If I get writing done that pleases me either quantity or quality all the other bits of my life fall into place and my mind is at ease. Administration activites always try to outshout everything else but I find I am much happier and more productive if I compress the time I allow for those tasks down to the minumum. So far it has worked for me.

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