So Many Projects, So Little Focus

It’s gray and rainy here in Paris today, which is actually kind of awesome because it enables me to refrain from feeling guilty that I’m sitting here at the computer, again, rather than being out in the streets wearing fabulous scarves and shopping in open-air markets.

On the other hand, the rain isn’t doing great things for my morale. And my morale is already suffering a bit today, under the weight of my to-do list. The good news is that all of these to-dos are my very own projects — nothing handed me via email (and yes, as of 11.23 am CET, the inbox remains empty), nothing that I owe anyone else. But the problem is that I’ve got three major projects that I want to be working on, and I’m not doing a fabulous job of dividing my time among them.

The morale problem comes from two different directions: on the one hand, my sense of the summer zipping by, and my fear that, come August 15, when I really must turn my attention back to stuff-for-others, I won’t have completed any of the three, but will instead have managed dribs and drabs on each. And, on the other hand, the tyranny of the empty window: for two of these projects, the next thing I need to do is write, and I’m having no small difficulty getting started.

I’m curious what your strategies for getting out of such cul-de-sacs are. The getting-started-writing problem is one I’ve encountered repeatedly, and the best way I know to handle it is simply the head-against-the-brick-wall mode of setting a timer each morning and doing nothing but staring at that document, putting down whatever crap sentences one can manage. Usually the first two days of that regime are excruciating, but by about the third, something starts to break loose, and the head-banging turns into actual writing.

But I don’t have good strategies for the multiple-projects problem. When you really need to be working on two things at once, how do you divide your focus? Two separate timers, with two separate writing windows, each banged against each day? Or two timers, two windows, but only in sequence — full attention given to one until it’s complete, and then full attention to the other?


  1. Since I ALWAYS have several projects going on at once, I tend to divide my time by days. For example, today is designated as “revisions to really old manuscript” day. I’ll also do some errands, of course, and email stuff — by the time all of that is done, I will be lucky to get a solid 2 or 3 hours of work on the revisions. Summer schedule, of course. Tomorrow I go backpacking for the 4th of July, so I’ll excuse myself from writing chores, but Thursday is “write letter for outside reviewers” day. Plus a dentist appointment.

    I also have issues with getting started writing, but what I tend to do is to break down the job into little segments. For example, I’ll start by outlining the whole piece that I want to write, and then I can get myself started by choosing a piece of the outline and writing it. For me, the problem is often feeling overwhelmed by the huge thing I have to create. If I can nibble off pieces instead, I cana feel successful by just doing a little part of it.

  2. This is the story of my life — and particularly the story of this summer. When the projects are of different sizes (and, better yet, due at somewhat different times), I can use Dr. Bad Ass’s technique and assign them to different days or segments of days, depending on their scope.

    It’s harder when, as now (and as for you, it seems), they’re all more-or-less due at the same time and of the same size and (worse yet) when the deadlines are only meaningful to me, rather than export dates. Then, I try to nibble off pieces and assign them deadlines that feel real, but also mix things up: this week for reading and brainstorming about project x; the following week for getting momentum on project q; and so on. Often, it’s a problem of momentum — once I have that, I can use shorter periods of time more efficiently.

    And it’s utterly depressing that August 15 feels as though it’s just around the corner. Sigh.

  3. Thanks for the comments, both of you. I’m doing a bit better today, as I think I’ve found a means of prioritizing the projects and figuring out which to work on when. The problem, as you rightly note, DR, is the problem of deadlines that are only self-imposed: one of my three major tasks does have an official deadline, but it’s the one that I’m waiting on input from others for, and so I can’t really move forward with it. One of the other two may get a deadline externally imposed, but I don’t know what it will be yet. Aside from that, the deadlines are entirely my own, and thus infinitely fungible, which makes it really hard to figure out where my energy is best spent.

    I find myself working very hard, however, on remaining blithely insistent that August 15 is a BLOODY LONG TIME AWAY, thankyouverymuch, so while I want incentives to keep me moving forward, I don’t want them to be too pressing. It’s all about momentum, as you say, but developing momentum can be difficult when one senses a looming brick wall not far ahead…

  4. here’s my advice.

    go outside.

    take with you a notepad and pencil or pen.

    find somewhere (a park, a cafe, a chair) to sit.

    think. enjoy. be receptive to your environment.

    stay there until you have written two to three paragraphs. the notepad should be the size that fits one meaty paragraph (in other words, not 8.5 by 11 but rather those smaller ones that journalists use. when possible, use a yellow notepad). do not worry about filling in quotes or citations or facts or data. in other words, write sentences like “As Haraway notes, blah blah (p. ***). This is important because …” you don’t have to have the exact quote to write what you think about that quote.

    upon writing two to three paragraphs, celebrate. wine works well. so does fresh fruit. so do walks. so do all kinds of activities that i won’t mention on your blahg.

    go home. get in front of your computer and type your notes in. people say they don’t write pen on paper because it takes too much time to transcribe to computer. this is nonsense. transcribing two to three paragraphs to a computer should take you no more than ten minutes. listen to music while typing if that is your thing.

    fill in quotes, citations, facts, and data.

    once done, format the paragraphs into double space and check how many pages you have written.

    if successful, you will have written two solid pages – more than enough for a day of writing. more importantly, you did it out of the house and off of the computer.

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