I’m participating in Blogtober, and this is the 22nd post in a row. We’re also approaching Nanowrimo, where many people across the world will set themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days, a feat I’ve succeeded at three times. Suffice it to say, I know a thing or two about staying on task, which is the subject of today’s essay.
Let’s start with the first tool in my toolbox, which is sheer force of will. When I want to get something done, I set my mind to it and dig in like a mule. It’s a strength (and sometimes weakness) I’ve cultivated over the years.
How do I apply my will? Personally, I tie it to my wants and desires. When I want something bad enough, and it’s within my control to attain it, I push towards that goal.
For example, this month, I want to complete Blogtober, because every time I’ve succeeded at that, I’ve succeeded at Nanowrimo. My desire is great enough that I can overcome my usual difficulties with blogging, which include distraction and a fear of not knowing what to say. The benefits from completing this month-long task are enough to get me to schedule time each day.
I can turn the desire around to avoid doing things, too. I want to maintain my current weight, so I won’t eat the doughnuts that appear in the break room at work. I want to finish my novel, so I won’t play a bunch of computer games when I get home. From the outside, it may look like I’m capable of resisting temptation, but really it’s just focusing on my greater desire over the lesser.
Scheduling and Time Management
For short tasks, will power can be enough to get from the beginning to the end. Longer tasks, on the other hand, usually require time management and prioritization.
Looking at Blogtober as the example again, it’s not enough for me to just say, “I’m going to write a blog post every day this month.” In order for me to maximize my chances of staying on task, I needed to break the large task into many smaller ones. One for each day. Not only did that make the overall task easier to comprehend and manage, it laid out for me what I needed to do and when I needed to do it to achieve my goals.
Even smaller, short-term tasks can get a boost from a time component. Often, I will bring up a stopwatch when I’m writing and do sprints. The task then becomes, “write as much as possible while the clock is running,” which puts me in a different frame of mind. It gives me permission to silence my inner editor. It lets me shut out all my other cares in the world, for during those 20 to 30 minutes, the only thing I need to do is write.
I’ve talked about the importance of community and family when it comes to writer support. They can also be a great resource for helping you stay on task in the form of accountability.
They don’t have to be active to keep you accountable. Just telling a friend that you’re going to do something sets up a promise between yourself and another person. It makes the task more real when you put it out in the open, and not something just floating in the recesses of your brain.
Friends and family can be active accountability buddies, though. When I go to the garage to write, my wife will sometimes come out and check up on me to make sure I haven’t slid into the land of YouTube videos or solitaire. If you let your friends and family know you can use some help staying on task, chances are good they will help.
I mentioned sprints before, and that’s another place where your online community can help keep you accountable. On Twitter and on Discord, my writing communities perform together in sprints, all racing against the same clock. We’ll share word counts and favorite lines, sometimes.
Sometimes, you set yourself up to try and eat the whole elephant. Sometimes, factors beyond your control intervene to keep you from staying on task. Sometimes, you’ve had a bad day and it’s much easier to eat the doughnut than stay on your diet.
Don’t let minor slip-ups get you down. Forgive yourself, then get back on task.
All too often, it feels like a break in the pattern or rhythm throws everything off, and it seems impossible to keep going with your goal. Setbacks suck. They feel bad. But setbacks happen, and it’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.
I might not participate in Nanowrimo this year, even if I succeed at Blogtober. This is because I might not finish Synthetic Dreams before November as I planned. I hit a wall a few days ago, and I kept trying to write a scene that wasn’t working, that would never work. When November rolls around, I don’t want to start a new first draft if I’m still working on an old one.
If I don’t participate in Nanowrimo, it’s okay. The task I’m setting for myself is to write novels. Nanowrimo is just a tool I use to help me stay on task. In this case I’m stepping back and looking at my priorities and my desires. Whether or not I write 50,000 words in November, I’m staying on task.