I am a shorebird writer. Distract me too often and ‘poof’, my day goes by with no calories in my metaphors. Fleshless ideas and rattling skeleton stanzas offer white noise which does little to keep me awake when unmet deadlines hover at midnight. Recognizing my shorebird work style one day a decade ago, I embarked on a voyage of self-discovery to understand and improve my desk time.
As a shorebird forages for sustenance, my mind ranges deep into the grey matter for metaphors, similes and compelling copy for my corporate clients or my own creative writing. Dog owners walk a beach maybe allowing their canines to chase birds forcing them into flight to escape the ‘predators’. It may be akin to a proud parent standing in awe of ‘Rex’ or ‘Zeus’ having ‘fun.’ It is important to compute the cumulative effect. All those lift-offs mean shorebirds are unable to consume enough calories to maintain life let alone replace calories expended during escape attempts. Kind of like my bank account falling behind.
A few months in on my voyage, I found myself ranting. Thanks to a 9-5 friend who texts me multiple times during the day. Add her messages to a few other friends, four siblings, one son, and work-related distractions and all the notifications morph into dogs nipping at the heels of my muse forcing her to abandon the shores of my imagination. My plan is to complete a daily average of three hours corporate tasks. My daily creative goal is to write three hours on fresh drafts, revisions, and/or submitting creative projects. Six steady hours is a small request.
Listening to an internet podcast on procrastination, one tidbit resonated. Every time we are interrupted at a task requiring concentration, we average 18 minutes to return to our uninterrupted workflow mode. Tally 15 texts and one can see how it takes a minimum of 10.5 hours at my desk to accomplish six hours of work. Add in the other distractions and my creative work is abandoned often fulfilling corporate obligations into the double-digit evening hours. I really do want to sip wine or tea on my couch at a reasonable hour reading a book while anticipating a savoury supper simmering on the stove and experiencing a work-life balance. Eating supper at a decent time turns me useless. Too many days, I work past 10:00P.M. nibbling on almonds to finish a job.
If you work at an office, you are in the majority who can go home and leave work behind. Solopreneurs and those who work at home often lack that option and struggle to establish and maintain a careful work-life balance. So if I avoid your call, please know it is not personal. I am trying to stay in the zone and desperately hope to step away from my computer at 5:00 – even 7:00 is a bonus.
I wonder how other writers, content creators and creatives maintain their attention span. If the buzz, trill, whistle, knock, vibrating cell phone notifications ding like Pavlov’s bell in your mind, like mine, what are we to do? Colleagues suggest turning the phone off. Wikipedia even has an entry called “interruption science.” Another helpful resource is: Interrupters Log: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_94.htm
A good suggestion and if a client should call, may be to return the call an hour later. Will it damage our professional relationship? Possibly. A potential client may be impatient or desperate and find an alternate writer on his next call. While I can reject calls from family or friends, my shorebird brain lifts off into empty space at the smallest distraction. I admit the trill of a text can turn me about-face and abandon an overdue bathroom break. This is my brain and ignoring distractions is not an option. Limiting them is my goal.
I have also known for a long time, I am not a calendar or day-timer type person and am unable to section my days or my brain in two hours on one project, and three hours on another. Initially, I need long uninterrupted spans of time to delve into a project. Once drafted, I can revise and edit in chunks. On the long-haul days, I give myself permission to take my personal accounts offline to concentrate on the bread and butter emails. Multiple free email accounts are easy, however, I resist the idea of two phones. With my phone on for potential clients, friends or family may each think he or she is only one or two blips.
TRAINING FAMILY AND FRIENDS
For those who work at an office, family and friends are more likely to save questions for after office hours. When your home is your office, you may need to ask your people to show the same restraint. The people who interrupt my workday fall into three camps. My roofer nephew says two seconds after the call he is placing the next shingle. Once this first camp knows the average 18 minutes I need to return to my uninterrupted thought pattern, they start sending an email or wait for me to call them.
I can also deal with the second camp who question why write, what is the purpose and refuse to see the creative placement of words on the page as a viable or legitimate career. The worst camp for me are those who assume because I am my own boss, I am free to do whatever I want whenever I want or stopping and starting whenever I want is as easy as saying hello, good-bye and hammering the next nail. The text that started this rant and cracked me in two was a friend asking at 7:34 A.M., "In your always busy lifestyle, are you running from something?"
I would never think of texting during her 9-5 work day to ask, “Are you running from something while you are earning a living?”
Time to kill the assumptions and educate a few folks. I really do not want to be up at midnight just because no one thinks of calling then. Oh wait, my friend knows I am still up late at night or early in the morning and will text, “r u up?” or “can you take a 30-second call?” It is up to me to state the boundaries.
Writers unite. Tell your 9-5 job friends, imagine they are paid for piecework similar to our projects and deadlines. They are no longer paid by the hour. Imagine if they didn’t have the luxury(burden) of finishing that piecework after 5 or after they put the kids to bed even if they wanted to because they are just too tired. After they have five days of incomplete projects and no paycheck, they will be barring and locking their doors, turning their phone off and avoiding chatty emails. Imagine being responsible for work products/piece work instead of steady paychecks for the finite work accomplished between your 9-5 hours. Welcome to the world of deadlines.
Knowing my work habits and creating a schedule that works for me is only the beginning. If I fail or neglect to respect my own work, it may be impossible to train family and friends to not call, text or email willy-nilly during my work day.
Maybe my friend asked if I was running because I made myself unavailable for the 30-second phone calls. Gloria Mark, a leader in interruption science, conducted a study on office workers. Quoted on Wikipedia, Mark revealed, “Once distracted, the average knowledge worker, takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task.” I knew ’30 seconds’ derailed me. I was shocked to learn it took not just 18 minutes but close to a half-hour out of my productive work time. I have become aware it takes gargantuan effort to pull myself back to the keyboard and re-engage my brain in the paragraph or stanza or metaphor I was previously puzzling over and on the verge of capturing. So after four days of not answering her “r u running from something” text, I receive this one, “I think of you every day. Is part of the root of all this the subconscious need to prove yourself?”
Her intelligence and genuine caring are the basis of our friendship. And it was my irritation with her “r u running from something” that made me realize I am running. I am sprinting and out of breath in a mad dash towards myself and my own success. My chart of hours offers me a system that works in my brain. My mission to teach myself better work habits and put my work first during the days and not respond to every notification has shortened some of my days. It is a process. Never underestimate the power of giving yourself a gold star for the days you meet your goals.
Oh and my friend, all I had to do was explain to her I am a shorebird writer and her texts are endangering my livelihood. For the most part, she remembers. It is human nature to think she is the only one. It still is up to me how much I produce and stay true to my creative goals and earn the essential dollars.
Reference link in the body of the story above
Interrupters Log: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_94.htm
Learn more about Rusti:
Rusti L Lehay, a global editor and book and writing coach, created over 40 articles guiding writers to authordom. Witnessing writers find and speak in their own voice to serve the real boss, the audience, not the editor, is one of Rusti’s greatest joys. She offers bi-monthly online writing STAY-Treats and monthly lounges and teaches weekly creative writing classes. Her primary mission is to inspire, provide value and make writing fun and easy.
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