How to Be More Creative: Use This Method to Manage Writing Projects

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If you’re like most creative people I talk with, you probably have a dozen different projects bouncing around in your brain. You may even be working on a dozen different projects at once, bouncing back and forth as the muse strikes.

That’s a common approach — but it can also be exhausting, creatively.

I’ve been feeling the creative burnout lately, so I picked up Productivity for Creative People by Mark McGuinness. It’s a great book, but one section in particular really struck me. He talks about creating a sustainable workload by figuring out what ongoing work you have to do (client work, family obligations, recurring tasks) — this forms your base time obligations.

Then, in your extra time, work on a project.

One project.

McGuinness defines a project as anything requiring a large chunk of sustained work. That could be planning for an event (book launch, speech, conference), building an asset (writing your novel, creating a website, blogging), or clearing your backlog (dealing with piled up emails, errands, or housekeeping tasks).

Rather than using my method of bouncing distractedly from project to project, McGuinness limits himself to one project at a time, then works through it until he’s done. Rather than trying to herd a whole mess of basketballs toward the other side of the court in one go, McGuinness takes one ball, dribbles it down, shoots and scores before jogging back to pick up the next ball.

When you’re spread too thin, it’s hard to do your best work. Of course, life still gets messy, but keeping the principle of one project at a time in mind can help you create better art, work more quickly, and stay energized.

Find your priority

What’s the most important thing on your plate right now? Not just the most pressing — what will make the biggest impact on your career or life right now?

That’s your main priority.  

Of course, chances are you have a dozen other obligations that need to happen, too. You may be faced with multiple deadlines or an overabundance of client work. Doing this work may take greater priority from day to day, but your big priority project should always be chugging along in the background.

Even if you have multiple responsibilities or deadlines, try to stick with the One Project approach as much as possible.

What that means for me is that I now spend larger amounts of time working on a specific task until completion, rather than trying to accomplish work for five different clients in one day. I’ll generally choose two pressing client projects per day, and spend the morning working on one and the afternoon working on the other.

Commit the time

Remember that overarching priority we just talked about? Even if it can’t be your daily priority, commit a few minutes each day to making progress.

One thing I realized a few weeks ago is that the root of my recent creative block is that I’ve been waiting for a mythical huge chunk of time to materialize so I can work on my novel. In that waiting, I’ve written nothing.

Finally, I decided simply to take 30 minutes every day and work on it first thing before I do anything else. It’s been a fairly easy resolution to keep, and even though I’m only writing 300-500 words a day, that’s 300-500 more words than I was doing last month!

If you can’t find 30 minutes, I know you can find 15. Commit to spending that time on your big project, no matter how hectic life gets. Then, even when life seems crazy, you’re making progress where it really counts.

Commit to going deep

Sometimes you can’t help but be spread thin — there’s simply too many demands on your time.

But skipping shallowly along won’t make it better. In fact, it’ll just make you feel like you’re being pulled in too many directions at once.

When you need to blast through a daunting pile of projects, commit to going deep. Rather than taking shallow sips from each project, turn off the internet, take a deep breath and practice focusing on the task at hand until it’s done.

I like to make myself a visual reminder to work deeply, like putting a Post-it note on my laptop screen, or tying a piece of yarn around my wrist. That way when I have the urge to zip over to social media for a minute, I’m reminded of my commitment.

This is much harder than it should be (for me, at least!) But it’s also an incredibly satisfying practice.

Avoid getting spread thin in the future: Keep a list of “no”s

The best way to not be overwhelmed today is to have said no to half your obligations earlier — obviously. This tip may not help you if you’re already spread thin, but Future You will love you for doing this.  

Start keeping a list of things you say no to. I simply don’t take on certain types of copywriting projects, for example. I’ve also stopped taking on clients if I don’t love their company’s mission. In addition to client work I say no to, I also have a much messier list of personal projects I say no to. A few weeks ago I came up with an amazing anthology idea, which got a great response from friends who wanted to submit to it. When I told my husband, he said, “I have two words for you: Stay focused.”

Don’t worry. It’s going in my back pocket.

How can you tell what to say “no” to?

I can’t remember where I first heard this phrase, but this sums it up for me: Only say yes to what “feels light.” What’s your gut is telling you when you consider this project. Does it fill you with energy and joy? Does it make you feel leaden? If you sit quietly with the decision, can you hear a little voice in the back of your head screaming “noooooooooooooo!”?

Remember: You don’t do your best creative work when you’re spread too thin. Try picking one project and staying with it until completion — or at least until your creativity is telling you its time to change gears.

If you could pick one project to work on today that would have the biggest long-term positive effects on your life or creative business, what would it be?

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Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working with B2B marketers to tell their brand’s story, you can find her scribbling away on her latest novel, riding her bike to the brewpub, or sewing something fun.... .

Website | @jkwak

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Comments

  1. I find that I often come up with good ideas when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I can’t stop to insert the scene, add the detail, the character or the idea, so I write it down, just a reminder, which will bring the whole thing back later. Ideas don’t always come first thing in the morning, but often they do.

    The list of “nos” is an excellent idea. The list of “Don’t forgets” also helps me keep organized.

    • I love the idea of having a list of “don’t forgets”! I have an Evernote file titled “Brain Dump” where I jot things down and go through them when I have time. I really need to get in the habit of carrying a little notebook, too.

    • Don’t forget your smart phone has a voice recorder. I have grown children so my phone is next to my bed when I am sleeping. If I think of something, I just press the record button and talk. Sometimes the message is a bit garbled, but if I can catch two or three words, my brain takes me back to the original thought. Also works in the car. It helps to have the voice recorder icon on the first screen.

  2. Jessie, I love this idea of one project at a time! Getting something done well and efficiently is all about focus, and devoting yourself to a single project is an excellent way to ensure you’ve got a laser focus.

    Thanks for the inspiration as we head into the new year’s pile of projects!

    • You’re welcome! Posts like this are reminders for me as much as for everyone else — I struggle with the temptation to bounce around constantly. 😉

      • I totally agree, Jessie. When I was a teenager I also wanted to be good, even perfect at everything and as the results was pretty awful at a lot of things. I think the same goes to writing. You need to give your best, all your passion, and time, and energy to one project to make it right.

        Thanks for delightful reading!

        Emma Cameron,
        http://www.paragraphchanger.com

  3. You’re right; this is the way to do it. The key is, of course, to keep the discipline to focus only on one project. I do keep an idea file and write down stuff so I don’t forget, but I am trying to stick with finishing one novel, and not straying off to another one or working on a short story, or whatever.

    • Ha, yep – it’s one thing to say and quite another to do. I’ll admit I do have multiple WIPs on the back burner, but I only ever focus on one at a time.

      If I start to sense that one novel or story needs some more incubation time I’ll switch to another one. Or, if I need a break between a draft and the next edit I’ll go write something different. But I know that my fiction writing time this week or this month will all be dedicated to the focus project.

  4. Thank you for this information .i like your website because it have a lot of articles that they happen in everyday of our life.

  5. I hear you! I am working on three books, a blog, and editing/copywriting work for clients. All this while being a caregiver to my husband, recovering from breast cancer, and managing my MS. Arrrgh! Needless to say, not much getting finished! LOL I promise I will try to stay focused, and the 30 minute idea is doable.

    • It sounds like you have a lot going on, Conni, not to mention managing your energy. Narrowing your focus on your creative projects might help you make bigger strides there – and give you more frequent wins. Stay strong, and stay creative! 🙂

  6. Yes, a project you focus on will get done sooner than a project you don’t focus on. But just as we’re not meant to multi-task, we’re also not meant to stay on “one gear” all day. I learned that back in (engineering) college. The curriculum was so math (left brain)-heavy that one day I started cutting paper snowflakes to feed my creativity-starved right brain.

    Writing doesn’t get that extreme, but if something’s getting bogged down, switching to a completely different project can be more productive than trying to brute force your way through a writing block. When my creativity can’t dredge up a scene to follow the one I finished, I switch to non-fiction, where everything’s created and just needs to be organized into a book. When facts don’t want to get together into something that makes sense and has flow gets, I switch to fiction, where I can manufacture “facts” to fit the story.

    • This is a great point, Wendy. I use a different set of brain muscles for non-fiction or client work than I do for fiction — I can’t really do either for the entire day.

      And when my brain gets tired of putting words together correctly, I take a creative break to sew. That exercises the more analytical and mathematical part of my brain (when I’m drafting), or just lets me zone out (if I’m sewing something simple).

      Managing your creative energy is critical!

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