Ink-Dipped Advice: Time Blocks for Practicality and Flow

image courtesy of Clip Art Vectors via pixabay.com

Last week’s #RemoteChat was built around what we do in 4- hour time blocks, and writer Paula Hendrickson had a great question that got me thinking about how my own process has evolved.

I mentioned how vital it is for me to do my first 1K of the day early in the morning. Most often, it’s fiction, either whatever novel I’m drafting, or a play. That is my prime creative time (the time itself is getting earlier and earlier, and sometimes it winds up being what is, for other people, the middle of the night).

If I get to the desk (I often draft in longhand rather than on the computer for the first draft) right after I’ve had my first cup of coffee and fed the cats, but before I do anything else in the day, my brain is in prime creative mode. I usually write 1000 words in about an hour to an hour and a half, which is not a pace I can maintain the rest of the day. (These are first draft words – revisions are a different process and take a different amount of time).

Hendrickson asked, “Don’t you find it hard to end the creative writing part of your day and switch to work mode?”

I used to, years ago, but while I worked in theatre, I trained myself to work in creative blocks so I could create up to and around the time I needed to spend in the theatre. That translates well to my current almost-all remote writing life.

Flow, Flexibility, Working at Peak Creativity

I try to keep my work frame as holistic as possible, because I try to approach everything as creative.  It’s all work, even though novel and playwrighting tap different facets than writing a marketing email blast to launch a product, or a press release for a non-profit, or a speech for a corporate event.

When I’m really in the flow of whatever that early morning project is, in the best of all possible worlds, I would keep going until I’m written out on it for the day.

But the reality is that I often have deadlines on other projects, meetings or interviews or keeping up with admin or specific research scheduled, and I can’t just keep writing all day on one project. I have to move back and forth between them.

Writing 1-1.5K first thing (on a strong flow morning, it’s closer to 2 or 2.5K) launches me creatively. No matter what else happens, I have that 1K written, and it’s 1K more than I had the day before. Also, 1 or 1.5K usually brings me to a good stopping point where I need to take a breath. Not only does it move that particular project forward, it puts me in a good creative mindset for the rest of my day. It’s a warm-up, like stretches for an athlete or scales for a singer. It warms up m brain and my creative engine.

After that 1K is done, I do my morning yoga/meditation practice, shower, eat breakfast, etc. Then I go to my desk and start my “workday.”

At the end of the previous workday, I spent a few minutes running through, in my head, what needs to be done the next day. I used to write detailed To Do lists, but I started resenting them, so now I keep them in my head. I check my calendar (I keep a detailed calendar with project deadlines in different colors and meetings).

Time Zones, Interruptions, Creative Saboteurs

Sometimes my official workday starts very early. I’ve had instances where I needed to give a presentation to an audience in the EU when it was about 5 AM my time. That’s the exception, not the rule. In most cases, no matter what the time zone, there are enough overlapping work hours if we need to be in real-time contact. Most of what I do can be asynchronous.

One of the reasons I had already cut back on my on-site work pre-pandemic was because there are certain people who can’t stand to see others productively working. I’ve talked about how deconstructive “multi-tasking” is in earlier posts. One can handle a variety of projects on a variety of deadlines by focusing on what needs to be focused on and having uninterrupted worktime. The projects take less time to complete, and the quality of the work is higher.

No one needs to stare at me as I write. No one needs to “just pop in” while I’m working. Don’t interrupt me. Shoot me an email. I’ll respond. I only accept phone calls by appointment, and, if I’m on a Zoom call, I turn my phone off.

The pandemic changed the landscape of the workday for me, and made it even more important to have flexibility, and not have to be tied to the computer or the office for 8 consecutive hours. Essential businesses and healthcare have specific hours set aside for specific age groups. I need a certain level of flexibility in my day to deal with them.

When I approach my official workday, I know what needs to be done within the time frame of that specific day, whether it’s a completed project or a step in a project. After decades of doing this work, I have a good idea of how much time each step takes.

Appointments have specific times, but I don’t break down my blocks into 15-minute or 30-minute intervals. I give each block breathing room.

From Theatre and Writing Life to Writing Life

When I lived worked full time on Broadway, shows were at night, and on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees. Monday was dark day, my day off (although I often spent Mondays day playing on whatever television show shot in New York). But, as anyone who works in theatre knows, the work isn’t JUST the show. There are special events and prep work during the day. I usually did one or two daywork sessions on my own show, and one or two daywork sessions on a different show, because you want to stay fresh in people’s minds. That way, when your show ends, you have relationships and can move to other shows.

On a matinee day, my daywork started at 9 or 10 AM, I worked two shows, and was often home after 11 PM. Later, if we went out for a drink or to see another show or listen to music. On a “regular” show day, I might have daywork starting at 1, and then the show at night. Or I might not have to be at the theatre until an hour and a half before the evening show.

I still got up early in the morning to write.

I didn’t have word quotas at that time. It was all dictated by how much I could get done within the specific hours for that day. Early on, I felt frustrated and like I flailed.

As far as I was concerned, I worked two full-time jobs. Although, anyone who works professionally in theatre will tell you that theatre demands more than a full-time job.

I rarely wrote when I got home from the theatre, although if I had a deadline, I sucked it up and wrote until three or four in the morning. I found it harder to switch out of theatre headspace into writing headspace than the other way around. I was better off going to bed around 1 or 2 AM, getting up at 6, and hitting the desk.

On days where I didn’t have to be at the theatre until 1, I could let it flow all morning. On days when I had to be at the theatre for an evening show, I trained myself to turn off the writing spigot at 4:30, so I could transition from writing headspace to theatre headspace, eat dinner, shower, etc.

It was difficult at first (lots of setting timers or alarm clocks). Rather Pavlovian. But, doing it regularly, it became a habit.

It became a habit that serves me well now.

I found that I could stop writing on one project and let it simmer in my unconscious while I consciously worked on something else (be it a different piece of writing or the show). When I finished the project in focus, or the part of it I could do, it receded to percolate, and the other project moved to the forefront again — with progress made while it percolated. I could dive back into it because my unconscious was working on it while my conscious mind worked on the project in front of me. Neither project suffered. I could flow back and forth, and let the creative energy of each project feed the other, even when the details were different.

Once I started my transition out of full-time theatre work into part-time theatre (as a swing), it was harder to get things done writing-wise and structure my freelance day.

National Novel Writing Month helped me with the structure and flow. The early morning writing sessions worked because then I didn’t worry about that day’s word count all day. NaNoWriMo got me into the rhythm of 1-2K/day as a regular flow, and I’ve found that serves me well now.

Practical Blocks:

The official start of my workday starts with emails. I try not to get bogged down in them, and I try to keep up with them. I look through them, delete what doesn’t need attention, answer what does, organize anything that has to do with a current project.

The next practical block consists of the morning social media rounds. I have personal and business social media accounts, and I run social media accounts for clients. I visit all of those, one at a time; see what needs to be answered; post a response or a piece of content (if it hasn’t been scheduled), etc. I try not to get bogged down, although sometimes I do. Running through my own SM accounts first means I feel the pressure of the client accounts, and stay aware of time.

I do have one client who has a particular block of hours dedicated to their work each week. In that case, during those blocks, I handle all of their work – direct response emails, creating ads and email blasts, positing new content, research, audience engagement expansion, etc., during those designated hours. That is a self-contained block of time. Although the actual hours might vary per day, when I’m in that client’s block for the day, that client’s variety of work has my full attention.

For the clients for whom I schedule social media posts, I set one or two blocks of finite hours once or twice a month per client for social media scheduling.  I plan the content/images for each post in one set of practical blocks, then upload/schedule on platforms such as Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Buffer, etc. in other practical blocks.

I do a practical block or two in the afternoon, usually right after lunch and at the end of the workday, mostly focused on email, in case something needs my immediate attention before I end my workday. I do another round of the social media accounts in the afternoon, in case anything needs response.

I used to schedule a big block of time on Fridays for admin work. That became overwhelming, so I now do admin amidst the Practical Blocks, and a late morning/early afternoon short admin session on Fridays, so Mondays aren’t so overwhelming.

Flow Blocks:

After the SM rounds in the morning, it’s time to get down to morning creative work. Maybe it’s an interview. Maybe it’s a Zoom call. Maybe I’m creating an email blast, Maybe I’m taking the information from different interviews and putting them into my article. Maybe I’m writing a press release, or working on an artist statement or client’s business brochure.

These are flow blocks. I have a basic idea of how much time each task takes, with flexibility for unexpected obstacles (computer updates, the need to get back to a source for clarification, etc.) I don’t have hard-and-fast hours set aside; I let the work ebb and flow as it needs. When I’m finished with a project, or a section of a project, I’ll stand up and stretch for a few minutes, check email/SM, clear my head for the next project.

Whatever I’m working on at the time is the most important item in my world at that moment, and everything else is blocked out of the conscious mind. Doing so allows me to give full attention and creativity, with a higher rate of productivity and a higher quality of work.

At the same time, various creative projects that are percolating are humming at the back of my brain, waiting for their turn, but not distracting me. As I stated above, they are progressing during that percolation time, even when they are not front and center in my attention.

There’s a big difference between juggling multiple projects, with complete focus as needed, and being constantly interrupted in the name of “multi-tasking” that doesn’t let you get anything done well.

Afternoons, after lunch, I prefer to do editing work or research. It uses different creative synapses than the writing. I draft stronger work in the morning; my editing eye is better in the afternoon. Whenever possible, that’s how I arrange my flow.  If I need to have another writing block later in the day, I do so. It boils down to contract deadlines and pay rate.

Reading is usually scheduled in the afternoon. Afternoons and evenings are when I usually work on the books I review, or the contest entries when I’m a judge, or research materials/background for various projects.

Some days, the flow is strong on a particular project, or that’s the only project that needs my full attention, and then I’ll flow with it all day.

Breaks, Hydration, Meals

I tend to push through for too many hours without a break and exhaust myself. Sitting for too long causes physical pain, eye strain, and emotional mush.

I’m in the process of training myself to take breaks.

Flowing with the blocks combined with listening to my body helps. When my back starts to hurt, or I get a headache, I stop. Often, I notice the physical discomfort as I’m finishing a block. When it dovetails nicely, I take a break to stretch or get something fresh to drink. I might do a few yoga asanas, to counteract a specific tension.

I usually hop on social media for a few minutes. I’ve spent much more time on social media during the pandemic, and I’m starting to scale back on it. It is an important part of my work – even the personal account has a lot to do with my writing work – but I don’t want it to overwhelm the work.

The best boundary I set is to take a real lunch break. So often, when I worked hybrid and was only onsite with a client for a few hours here or there, I skipped lunch or ate at my desk. Working remotely, I make sure I take a genuine lunch break, in a different room than my home office. I cook, I play with the cats, I might read something for pleasure.

When at all possible, after lunch, or after the next Practical Block, I take some time on the acupressure mat, about 20-40 minutes. That helps unravel knots from sitting at the computer, I can rest my eyes, I can clear my mind and re-focus for the afternoon. That break makes my afternoon far more productive and run more smoothly.

End of Day

A genuine end of day is important. I have a set time when I stop interacting with clients (unless it’s an emergency). I might stay at my desk a little past that time, to wind something up, but client contact stops until the following business day.

When I’m done, I shut everything down, and walk away from it.

We started having cocktail hour when we moved to Cape Cod, to a house with a lovely deck. It’s a nice transition time after the workday and before I start cooking dinner. There’s not always alcohol involved; it might be a Shirley Temple or white-cranberry peach juice in a festive glass. As the pandemic stretches on, I find myself drinking less alcohol.

But having a firm end of day means I have the chance to refuel, mentally and physically, for the following day. It is an investment in the next day’s work.

Technology-Free Days

I try to have one day a week where I’m not online at all. No social media, no internet muddling, no phone calls, no television. I might listen to music, but that’s it. I call it my “Day of Disconnect.” It’s vital to keeping the creative flow.

I let that fall by the wayside during the pandemic, because we were constantly living in crisis mode. I plan to start re-instating it in the coming months.

Evolving Process

Talking in terms of blocks and flow sounds contradictory, but in years of trying different techniques to point my best creative energy to specific projects, I find it works. If I make too many lists or break down my time into assigning every minute a task, it looks pretty on the page, but it sabotages my work energy.

It’s a constantly evolving process. What works well now might need adjustment in three months or six months or a year. That keeps creativity fresh. Try new tools and techniques, and see what makes sense in your particular situation.

I’ve talked about productivity too often in this post. But we have to remember that pandemic productivity is different than non-pandemic productivity. We are under enormous daily strains.  Businesses are opening too soon, and too many companies are pushing too hard for increased productivity (at higher rates for lower pay than pre-pandemic) while we’re still trying to survive a worldwide trauma. More than 500,000 people are dead in the US alone. We’re not being allowed to process, to grieve, or to find a path to healing. Healing itself will take years. Surviving is a victory. Re-defining productivity, work culture, and demands are all a process we need to participate in so that there is a sustainable future.