Develop a Routine to Develop Ideas

This is it, friends.  I’m now officially self-employed.

I got up today at 5:30.  I had some oatmeal.  And then I sat down to get to work.  I turned on the mental tap…

…and all I got was a drip.  The ideas were not flowing.  At least, not like they had before, so reliably on weekend mornings (and, unbidden, plenty of weekdays) at ten o’clock.

The fact is, I’m off my routine twice over.  First, of course, I’ve made a huge professional change that necessitates a wholly new routine.  But even if this were just another Saturday at ten o’clock, I suspect I’d still have a mental water pressure problem.  Those of you who are regular readers here may have noticed a dearth of posts over the past month or so.  This was for reasons largely outside my control, and it frustrated me  because at first, ideas did keep flowing, leaving little soggy ideation puddles all over.  I tried to sop them up and wring them out into notebooks and fragmentary WordPress drafts to develop later, but I didn’t get much of a chance to do so.  A backlog ensued.

And getting the hint that I was too busy to keep up with her, the Muse got out of the habit of dropping by, even on weekends.

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And so, here I am, with lots of formerly soggy notebooks, now dried up with wrinkled paper.  Or perhaps we could say that while I used to always have my next post or project simmering on the back burner, I now find myself with several pots on multiple burners, all of which have gotten cold and congealed after the gas went out on the mental stove over the past month.

This just serves as a great lesson—and a timely one—to show how important routine is for writers and other creative workers, no matter whether you’re working full time at something else or have made writing the center of your professional life.  Either way, you need a way to sustain a cycle of productive energy—or to restart it when it’s stalled.

For me, reading is part of it.  Jotting notes down is part of it.  Pondering and contemplation are part of it.  Breaks are part of it.  And hunkering down at the keyboard for long stretches is, of course, the keystone holding it all up: somehow, this effort doesn’t just result in a single product, but keeps the gas turned on and the water pressure up.

Having cut the cord with a the 9-5 external job, I now have a greater ability—and a greater responsibility to myself—to optimize that energy cycle.  So my task for this first week of self-employment is to develop a routine that works for me.  I’ll know I’ve got it if it enables a stream of production that is, first, consistent and reliable, and secondarily, as powerful as possible.

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It just struck me that at the moment, some of you may be participating in that collective exercise of masochism known as NaNoWriMo.  I’ve never even attempted it, though I did participate in 2007 in a spinoff called Novel in 90, which I would recommend precisely because it helps writers develop sustainable habits.  (The idea is to write 750 words a day for 90 days.)  That’s how I completed writing my own first novel.  Now, I know lots of people have success through NaNo, or even failing that, lots of fun, and I don’t mean to rain on your parade.  If that works for you, keep at it and best of luck!  The point is to figure out what works for you.  (And if there are others here who have always instinctively balked at NaNo, you’re not alone!)

So yes, if you ask me, having a powerful creative energy stream is valuable, but having a reliable stream is even more valuable.

You can find loads of successful writers who have said as much.  On that note and somewhat coincidentally, I happen to be reading a neat book called Rest, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (library/Amazon) that I bought a few months back and, not yet having had a chance to read it, picked up the other day because, frankly, I was exhausted and it said “Rest” in big letters on it.  What I didn’t realize when I started it was how perfect this book actually would be for me right now; I suspect the Muse left it on one of her recent visits, when I was too busy to have time for her.  I’m not yet half way through it but so far it’s argued that, left to their devices, successful creative types tend to work about four hours a day (yeah, that’s about what I’ve always thought was doable!) and they do it in the morning when their brains are fresh (yes yes yes!) and then they tend to take walks to help them contemplate.  Tchaikovsky was one of the many examples, providing a second reference for that same routine that I mentioned way back when I was wishing I could live such a life.

So with this guidance from the Muse and several other writers in mind, here are my tasks for the next couple weeks:

Fine tune the routine.  For instance, I know that exercise helps, but should I swim at five thirty in the morning, or take a walk midday?  (This is something I have always insisted on, at every job I’ve had.)  What’s the best breakfast to make sure I can power through for four hours once I start?  (It didn’t matter at my previous jobs because I never experienced flow, but with writing, I don’t want to be interrupted by a drop in blood sugar!)  Should I have tea?  Coffee?  (Coffee makes me twitch and sometimes ruins my productivity unless I manage to have my system in perfect balance, in which case it can help me crank out words.  I also don’t like it unless it’s flavored and more milk than coffee.  I do like tea, which might fit with the sustainability element.)  And when should I answer email?  (Hah!  That one’s easy: DON’T OPEN MOZILLA THUNDERBIRD UNTIL AFTER THE DAY’S WRITING SESSION.)

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For a brief period, I’ll do this by just writing whatever comes into my mind, often (but not always) for this blog, until I get that habit ingrained.  The next step, however, will be more strategic:

Contemplate content.  I have so many ideas, but I’m so out of touch with them that it will take some effort to refresh myself and get back into them.  I’ll choose just a few to put on the front burner and pursue actively; I’ll also strategically choose a couple to get simmering on the back.  Also critical is to remember that there are only four burners!  I can’t do all of them at once, even if I have the whole week.  Once I have determined where to focus, however, I will be able to research and contemplate effectively, which means that once the routine is set, I’ll be primed to get started each morning when I sit down.

By the way, I’ll note that this blog isn’t the center of my long-term plan, but it is a useful tool for me in the short term.  I actually have some other projects that will be taking up much of my time—things that need more attention than someone working full time can give, and that could pay eventually but won’t pay immediately.  I think if you’re doing anything but writing, they call that “entrepreneurship.”

If I’m to have a chance of succeeding at any of that, I need to get that routine established.

So today’s victory is that I started writing at 7:30, after reading a chapter of Rest to kickstart my brain.  When the first draft was finished, I went for a walk, then came back to polish it.  By 1 p.m. I was just about ready to post it, except Pixabay was down, so I opened email and slowly made progress through my mess of an inbox while waiting to find some illustrations.  Pixabay finally came back online around mid-afternoon, so I found some lovely pictures (I love that part of the process!), and now I’m hitting publish, on a topic that I think might actually interest some of you.

It may not be an amazing blog post, but my goal was to finish it, and I did.  That’s the first step in building my routine, which is the first step in building my career.  And the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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Images by kellepics, Taken, mkvietkova, MiraGregorCosic, and pixel2013 on Pixabay

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5 thoughts on “Develop a Routine to Develop Ideas

  1. 1 – I am glad I’m not the only person using Thunderbird!
    2 – I didn’t do Nano last year for the first time, and this year I cheated and re-wrote something. I am starting to feel like Nano doesn’t work for me anymore. This is after 16 YEARS of doing it.
    3 – Congrats on self employment. It’s fun/scary. What are you doing?

    I have struggled with schedules. I know I do better with one – I think it’s one reason why my anxiety and depression was at bay for so long when I was in school. School provided a rigid schedule, and I think that was comforting to me.

    But leave me to my own devices, and it’s way too easy to get derailed. I am an expert at rationalizing distractions and using the whole “you can’t FORCE creative work” excuse.

    But I also realized that I am not going to change. I’ve tried everything from setting timers and alarms to punishments to rewards … and I seem to have been free floating so much that a rigid schedule isn’t something I can keep up when it comes internally. If I have an external schedule set by something or someone else, I do much better. Sadly, when you’re self employed and you don’t have external clients … I guess I can rationalize letting myself down or not accomplishing things without feeling as terrible, so I do it more often.

    I realized the other day that my working schedule actually mirrors how I plot writing now. In the past I was all about character profiles and plotting diagrams and chapter-by-chapter notes of what needed to happen. But I’ve written so much that now when I write, I have a very loose outline and let things happen organically a lot more than I used to. Nano refers to being a plotter or pantser, and I was a plotter and now I am a … plotser? So I have a loose outline, but freedom to change without guilt.

    My working schedule seems to mirror this, because I can tell you generally when and how I do things, but it’s not set in stone and rigid like it would’ve been 20 years ago. (I just realized that I can say “20 years ago” and be referring to a time when we knew each other, because it has been 20 years ago this week I found your website …)

    Sometimes this works for me – in general for daily life it fits, and I can take time to do other things and also get work done. But from a productivity standpoint, I can definitely say I don’t have as much output sometimes. When I have client work, though, I am much more able to be rigid with my time.

    I also don’t think my creativity has suffered like I thought it would when I started to schedule it. Nano was a good teacher in this regard – I learned that if I sat down to write, the words would eventually come, and it would get easier the more I did it.

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    1. Arieswriting! Thank you! Great to hear from you. I was planning to get in touch with you soon too, as I try to get back to my writing roots…of 20 years ago. (Whoa. And yeah, my mom brought that up too!) What am I doing? That’s a good question. I’m eager to talk about it, but I figure I should prioritize and pace myself before I throw out lots of specific expectations that may not come to fruition (because I can’t do ALL of them at once), or at least not soon. But I’d still love to talk to you about it, so I’ll email you. 🙂 Suffice it for now to say — I have way too many ideas and I need to pick some and focus.

      Thanks also for sharing your experience on this thread! It really does have to be a system that works for each individual (or, a non-system, as the case may be). The best advice here is probably know thyself. And when I think of people for whom NaNo works, I always think of you, with how many novels–actually good novels–you finished through that program. It amazes me. Any ideas why it stopped working for you?

      In my case, I miss the routine because I haven’t had a single instance of ten o’clock flow time this week. This suggests to me that
      prioritizing is really the main issue. If I have a regular time when I digest thoughts and think about ideas, then I suspect that will prime the flow that I experienced after a week of thinking about an idea when I was at a job.

      Distraction is definitely proving to be an issue for me, too. For instance: in writing this comment this far, I have gotten up to make tea and been distracted by one cats. That’s not much, but then, I haven’t written much here. 😉 And I figured I’d start with a walk today because it’s so nice out, but then, should I do some email first so I don’t have to do it all in one long stretch and burn out? (So here I am, responding to some of the fun email/comments!) And what I REALLY need to do today is research for a piece I’m writing that might actually be published. (That seems like a good place to start as far as prioritizing goes! And that’s the research that will prime me for flow on other days!) So my hope is that a routine will help me tame the whims more. I’ve already had a little bit of success with making 4 p.m. mindfulness meditation time.

      I get what you’re saying about letting yourself down vs. letting clients down. I’ve had some of that, and then, at other times, I’ve been even more determined to get things done BECAUSE I QUIT MY JOB AND NOW I HAVE TO, as opposed to knowing that I’ll always be at work (i.e. working for someone else) tomorrow and can just get to whatever it was later. I’m hoping my response here will settle down into some more predictable habits, both in terms of action and in terms of emotion. I’ve definitely been on an emotional roller coaster this week (except that I’ve never liked that metaphor, because on roller coasters, the steep drops are fun). I’ve been a little down in the evenings when I’ve failed to produce what I hoped I would (and I think, again, prioritizing will help with this tremendously), but the good news is that in the mornings, though some of the daunted feeling lingers, once I sit down and start working (whether on research or on writing), I feel really pumped and optimistic. I guess I’m learning the same lesson you learned on NaNo–just write (or research). The words (or ideas) will come.

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      1. I’m really not sure why Nano isn’t working for me like it used to. Last year I skipped it – well, I signed up, but wrote nothing. I was always SO terrified of “failing” at it, but I was totally burnt out last year and didn’t WANT to do it. So I didn’t. And the world didn’t end. So now I have no terror of failing to keep me going lol.

        I think I also write more outside of it, so it’s not like I feel I have to keep to only writing big drafts in November or something. I also think that I’ve gotten better at crediting the other stuff I do as “writing”. Like time I spend editing or researching, or just thinking stuff through, because that mental expenditure is a part of the process. I used to feel like unless I was writing I wasn’t “writing”.

        I also truly believe some of my lack of interest is depression and I just don’t enjoy Nano like I used to. That is one aspect of it I don’t think I can tackle fully at the moment, because I can’t pinpoint WHY I don’t enjoy it … and if there is no why, it presents a problem of how do you change that.

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        1. It sounds like maybe you got what you needed out of it, and besides, you do plenty of other writing. Do you enjoy that other writing more? It would make sense to me that Nano wouldn’t be fun, in that case….

          Also, I wholeheartedly agree that researching and thinking things through definitely count as productive time. As does editing!

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    2. Oh yeah, and I wrote that part about Thunderbird in there wondering if anyone else still uses an email client like that. I like it because (a.) it’s not a browser tab, so it feels mentally separate, which helps me, and (b.) I refuse to use a free email client (I’m looking at you, Gmail) that shows me ads based on what’s in the content of my email. That feels so creepy to me.

      Also, I just like it! 🙂

      Like

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