On the recommendation of one of my fellow local NaNoWriters, I recently installed a handy little program called TimeLeft. It’s a very straightforward program; it lets you put little floating timers on your desktop, which stay on top of everything and can easily be dragged to more convenient locations as necessary. It’s a deceptively simple software gadget. I’m trying it out as a means of helping me parcel out my writing time; Lifehacker recently shared a tip suggesting a 90/30 split of work time – 90 minutes working, 30 minutes taking a break. It’s a good idea.
Now, I’ve heard these tips – or versions of them – before. Work for X time, take a break. Use a kitchen timer. That sort of thing. It’s a good idea, and I’ve known for a long time that it’s a good idea, but I never implemented it until now. Why? Because my writing process is constantly in flux.
I know the way I write isn’t optimal — not for me, and probably not for anyone else, either; and I’ve determined, through trial and error, that trying to change everything at once doesn’t work (and fails to do so in a spectacular fashion). Sometimes I try new things and they don’t work. Sometimes I try three new things at once, crash, and throw them all in the bin, only to discover a year later that two of the things are helpful and one of them just doesn’t work for me. (I try to avoid doing the latter these days.) So really, it’s kind of that these tips came back around at the right time for me to work them into my process. And they help.
It’s worth noting that, though the proportions are right, actually writing for 90 minutes straight and then taking a 30-minute break is just flat not going to happen for me. It’s really not. I don’t work that way. I write a paragraph, I wander off and think about it, I write a page, I dig out an iron vein in Minecraft, I get distracted and dig out sixty more iron veins in Minecraft, I build a small fortress in Minecraft, I get an idea and write a sentence. That kind of thing*.
It’s really the middle part I need to get under control; I need small breaks in the middle of my writing to refresh my mind, but the benefit plateaus very quickly. Five minutes might not be enough; ten minutes should do the trick; fifteen minutes is not significantly better than ten minutes. The types of games I like best are open-ended games like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, The Sims**. It’s very rewarding to drop into one of those games for ten minutes and dick around***, and it’s very, very easy to accidentally spend six hours instead.
So: Timer. Check it. I set the writing timer for 90 and the break timer for 30. Any time I take a break I pause the one and start the other, and vice versa. Because I want time to play Minecraft later, I keep one eye on the timer, and after around ten minutes I pop out, with twenty more minutes if I want to stop and read an article or something later. Alternately, I set a third timer for ten minutes and run it alongside the break timer. Or, I lose track of time and use up all of my break, and now I have to write for seventy-five minutes straight. I’m still working out the bugs in the system.
Breaks, it should be noted, are mental health breaks – reading articles, playing minecraft – not things like stretch or bathroom breaks. (For those, I pause both timers.) Also, 750words counts as a writing activity, as do blog posts. Basically, the point of the writing blocks is to get rid of the writing portion of my red tasks.
This leads incredibly un-smoothly into my next bit, where I idly list my red tasks; the tasks I set to priority 1 (color-coded red) in Remember The Milk. The red tasks are the ones I try to finish before noon, and the ones that I won’t let myself play Skyrim until I’m done with them. Like, at all. Yeah, it’s pretty harsh. Right now the list looks like this.
- 750 words unfiltered (at 750words.com)
- 500 words public copy
- 500 words pay copy
- 500 more words pay copy
- 1667 words on This Novel Will Fail (right now, I’m aiming for a lot more than that); this can overlap with the 500 tasks
- Daily word count in Derelict (it’s alright if this is delayed until December)
- Write one chunk of game design or background. I have this listed as about 500 words, but experience shows it to be closer to 250 – I’m actually going to change the tooltip on it right now.
- Do a load of dishes (best done while Summer’s awake)
- Do a load of laundry (best done while Summer’s awake)
- Caffeinate (this part is really important, and, yes, sometimes I’m derp enough to forget)
- Check email and clean out inbox (first thing in the morning, usually while my tea water is heating)
- Usually, cleaning one of the rooms in the house (today is the living room)
This is obviously rather specific to this November. Right now it theoretically involves writing somewhere between 3000 and 4000 words, depending on whether I do any drafting in 750 words, whether I write a blog post, etcetera. Realistically it involves much more than that; I have 17300 words on This Novel Will Fail, and four days left. I’ll let you do that bit of math. Pray for me. Cast a spell. Send cookies. Do whatever it is you do. :)
The general form of the red list – that is, during months when I’m not trying to kill myself – looks a bit like this:
- Check email and clean out inbox
- 750 words unfiltered
- 500 words public copy (may overlap with 750)
- 1000 words pay copy (may overlap with 750)
- 1500 words current novel (may overlap with 750, 500, and/or 1000)
- 250 words/1 chunk game design (may overlap with 750, 500, and/or 1000 if prose)
- Perform 4 general and 1 specific household chore (often dishes/sweep/vacuum/laundry/room)
Which means on a general day I’ll get a decent amount of housework done, write somewhere from 1750-3000 (or more) words of various types, drink coffee, and check my email. These are my before-noon tasks, which gives me about six and a half hours to get it all done and be on schedule – noting that it’s not the end of the world if it takes me until sometime in the afternoon, it just means I’m probably not emptying Google Reader today.
Unrelated: The time is now Oh God O’Clock in the morning, and I missed the ding at the end of my writing timer on account of it blending into the music or something. Bugs, I tell you. Working on them.
* This all assumes that I’m doing this during a time when Summer is asleep. She usually wakes up around 7:30, and can generally be persuaded to take her morning nap about ten, so on a good day I can probably get two writing blocks in during the morning. Realistically her morning nap is unreliable, so if I get a second block in I can roughly double the amount of time and halve the productivity of it because I’ll be busy entertaining/feeding/cleaning/chasing Summer.
** It took me forever to realize that that’s not a vastly disparate list of games at all, and that the factor I love about them is the open-endedness. Sometimes I’m thick that way.
***Except for The Sims. Ten minutes is almost long enough for your save to load in that game.
Current Music: Cake’s albums Comfort Eagle and Fashion Nugget, with a bit of Three Doors Down before that because the albums together come to about 85 minutes. I basically love every song on these albums. Every song on these albums is on my favorites list. Er, no, wait, now Cake is over and we’re on to Billy Talent I and II, all of which are also on my favorites list. Going to bed now.