On Creativity and Perception

We’d been living in our new home for two full months before I noticed the birdhouse.

I saw it, finally, when I was practicing the piano — I was trying to solve a problem, some bit of Mozart or Schumann or Chopin that was at the edges of my abilities, and I turned from the bench to the window and there it was.

Sometimes the window is what we look out of when we’re actually trying to see something in our mind’s eye.

Sometimes we see a birdhouse, instead.


Here are some of the books that L and I are currently reading and/or re-reading:

  • Godel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter)
  • Better Chess (William Hartston)
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)

It took us two full weeks before we realized that all of these books seemed to be sending us the same message:

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns.

One must develop the technique to calculate such [chess] sequences through to the end, even if it is ten or twenty moves deep. Only when you’ve calculated the calculable, and no clearly advantageous continuation emerges, is it time to move into the fuzzy thought of looking for the most promising path through the forest of incalculable possibilities.

Many of my readers have intuitively understood that this book is not only about learning to draw, and it is certainly not about Art with a capital A. The true subject is perception.

The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.

Paying attention — perceiving — looking for patterns — finding possibilities.


I was playing Hanon Exercise #31 (the wrist rotation one, where the hands start a third apart) when I stopped to write down it’s all perception in my notebook and then got up to tell L that I had discovered another “secret to life.”

“Everything we want to do depends on perceiving what is actually there,” I said, “and then figuring out how to understand it and build on it.”

It’s the same for piano as it is for writing and composition and chess and drawing and acting and math. You have to work as hard as you can to see what is actually in front of you. You can’t make assumptions or take shortcuts — I mean, you could, but that’s how you get the type of creative work that is just a little bit imprecise. A game of chess that loses its fun because you’re moving pieces instead of playing. A line drawing that captures more of the idea that everyone knows what a chair looks like than the reality of the chair in front of you, the one with a specific height and depth and light source. A section of music that you’re always a little nervous about because you know you didn’t really solve the problem; you’re just hoping that tonight will be one of the nights when you play all of the right notes instead of a few of the wrong ones.

And — let’s be honest — deciding to keep reading beyond GEB Chapter 7, The Propositional Calculus because you get the gist, you know how Boolean logic works… and then deciding to go back and really, truly learn it.


“So how can we strengthen our perception muscle?” I asked. “I mean, maybe it’s in the second half of the Kahneman or something and I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

Then I said “No, wait. It’s in Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The secret to sustaining periods of deep work is to take deep breaks. Not, like, scattered-thought breaks where you check Twitter or email or whatever. They can be social breaks, you can have a conversation with someone you love, but he says the best kind of deep break is the kind that is performed without the influence of other minds.”

I paused.

“So, essentially, walking without your earbuds in. Or meditation.”

The trouble is that I like to use my walks to study music, and I like to use my yoga practice to listen to NPR’s Up First and other podcasts, so my actual alone-with-my-own-thoughts deep break time is somewhat limited.

That might have been why I woke up at 3:30 a.m. last night and did not get back to sleep until it was time to get out of bed.

Which, in turn, might be why I’m making this blog post just a little bit imprecise by doing the easy work of adding section breaks instead of the more difficult work of writing effective transitions.


What I need is obvious — and for once, it’s tied right in with what I want.

To give myself the kind of life where I can do my best work, as a writer and a teacher and a pianist and a partner and even, if we go far enough down the list, as a chess player.

Which means I have to build the kind of perception muscles that can both understand how the game is played and be able to create the game anew, every time.

This all goes double for my freelance work, of course, and it may be one of the reasons why I’ve been able to thrive as a freelance writer; I’ve developed the ability to understand how a piece should be structured and to create a piece that goes beyond the structure to communicate something compelling and informative and new.

But to work this hard, on freelancing and Mozart and everything else, means I have to build in better breaks and deeper rest — to take care of myself, so that I can put my attention towards what truly deserves it.


There’s one more thing.

One more “secret to life,” as I like to call it.

Nobody cares if I can play Hanon Exercise #31 in every key, or if I learn how to draw a chair, or if I finally beat L at chess. The world will keep spinning whether I understand the Propositional Calculus or not, or whether I keep working at the secret writing project I’ve started tackling at 6:55 in the morning. I am an ordinary person who is trying to make art, and there’s something heroic about that (as L would put it) but also something admirably inconsequential.

Because the actual consequence — the reason behind all of this creativity — is that creating makes you more perceptive.

It’s the other way to strengthen your perception muscle, besides walking and meditation and yoga and whatever turns out to be in the second half of the Kahneman.

And all of that perceptivity, in turn, makes you more receptive — to a new idea, to a new person, to what you actually want and need. To change. To growth. To everything.

Practicing the piano, if I may put too fine a point on it, helps you turn around and see the birdhouse.

Even though it was there the entire time. ❤️

Does Love Make You More Creative?

I suppose I should tell you a bit about what’s happened to me this year.

At the end of July, I bought a house with someone — no, he can’t be “someone,” we can’t go around calling him that until the end of time, so we’ll call him L.

I’ve known L for a long time. The first time I knew him, he was one of the most important people in my life. We fell out of touch for nearly twenty years, and then I had a dream about him; the two of us, standing together in his front room, just talking.

I think that’s all I’m going to say about that. When you share your life with another person, there are some parts that you don’t necessarily want to share with everyone else.

But I’m still going to share my ideas. What I’m thinking about. What I’m working on, and the problems that I’m trying to solve along the way.

This week, for most of the whole week, I’ve been trying to figure out whether love makes you more creative.

There’s not going to be a conclusion to this, btw. If you were expecting one. This is a question that I am still answering.

Because my first thought was that no, love does not make you more creative. It still has to come from you. You still have to make the decision to make the thing, and you still have to decide that you’re going to set aside time to make the thing, and you still have to come up with the focus and fortitude to see the thing through to completion.

And then my second thought was that, well, love can help with all of that. If you’ve got someone (we’re not calling him “someone,” we’re calling him L) to support you, either morally or mentally or simply through sharing the day-to-day work of living together. If you’ve got another person to help you process what L calls the “threat matrix” — the big worries about health or family or pandemics and elections that can get into your head and become the thoughts that occupy your thoughts. If you’ve got a first reader, as it were, to respond to your work and help you make it better.

But that answer’s kind of a cheat, because most of it is about logistics and very little of it is about love. Does being loved, which I am still trying to define because it is so new to me — and which I am currently Venn-diagramming as some intersection between “being seen,” “being cared for,” and “being stimulated” — does that experience actually inspire you to produce more interesting, more complex, more honest, and/or more vulnerable creative work?

And what about the other end of it? Does loving someone else make you more creative?

Here’s where it gets very interesting (and complex, and honest, and vulnerable) because I wasn’t very good at loving L at first. I thought I was — in fact, we said our life felt like a honeymoon — but I didn’t really know what I was doing. You can see it, in my journals. They’re still about “me” and “him” as if we were two separate things that needed to be balanced and negotiated. What’s best for me vs. what’s best for him, and so on.

Then I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. It has to be what’s best for us. What will make our relationship stronger, and what will weaken it.

And somehow, loving the relationship — seeing it, caring for it, and stimulating it — made me better at loving the person.

There’s a song L and I like to sing to each other, from the musical Once Upon a Mattress:

Yesterday I loved you

As never before

But please don’t think me strange

I’ve undergone a change

And tonight I love you even more…

I used to think that song was about the emotions associated with love. Now I think it’s also about the actions. The little choices you make, every day, intuitively or deliberately. To love, after all, is a verb.

And I am not sure whether love makes you more creative, or whether either being loved or loving someone else helps you produce better creative work. The results are not yet in.

But I am fairly sure that love is a creative practice.

And I only figured that out this morning — which means that if creativity is defined as “making connections between things” (which might not be true, but it’s how I defined it in my last post) this particular connection might be one example of love making me just a little bit more creative. ❤️

In Which I Restart My Creative Practice

I don’t know about you, but my creative practice kind of stopped mid-March.

It took me until the end of August to start doing anything that even resembled a serious creative endeavor. I made a few attempts at getting back into the creative practice habit this summer, but it was kind of like “Nicole goes through the motions of being serious in the hopes that creativity will result,” and it didn’t. I was doing for the sake of doing, but it was unfocused and deprioritized and I didn’t really know what I wanted.

I found my way back in through journaling.

At first I simply wrote about what was going on.

Then, exactly like Julia Cameron suggested might happen in The Artist’s Way, I started making connections between things. (You might say, if you were of a profound turn of mind, that making connections between things is the essence of creativity.)

I began to prioritize my journaling. Made it the first thing I did every morning, before checking email or the news or anything like that. Just a few minutes with the blank page and as many thoughts and emotions as I could jam onto it.

I had an unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August — and oh my goodness I really should write about that, shouldn’t I — and after I realized what I needed to do next, getting back into the daily creative practice routine was relatively easy. (The hardest part was, of course, figuring out where and how to schedule it.)

Although, as I recently told a friend, this newly revived practice was all about studying other people’s work (at the piano, in this case). Not generating anything new.

“Maybe it will be a technical year,” I told her. Sitting down with Mozart every morning can teach you just as much as writing something of your own, after all. Maybe more.

But then I saw this tweet from Atomic Habits author James Clear:

For the last week, I have started each day by writing “What do I want?” at the top of a blank page.

It’s surprising how useful it is to keep asking yourself this question. Each time, my answers get more precise.

Once I know what I want, I translate the answer into action steps.

I added the question to my daily journaling ritual, and kept coming up with the same few responses over and over. One of which was “I want to make things.”

And then I had an idea — it came to me, literally, in a dream — and I woke up and I wrote it down.

And then I started waking up a little bit earlier every morning so I could have time to work on it.

Which brings me to now, 6:55 a.m., the sun still yellow at the horizon. (My new office faces east, which is one of my favorite things about it.) I’ve done my journaling and my making-something-new, and when I’ve finished with this post I’ll do some yoga and share a cup of coffee or tea with the person I love and get ready to sit down at the piano.

And when I’m done practicing, with the rest of the day still ahead of me, I’ll start my freelance work. ❤️

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.  

Three Must-Read Articles on Building a Creative Life

Like many of us, I subscribe to a handful of newsletters and TinyLetters; earlier this week, writer Rosamund Lannin’s newsletter It Means Rose of the World included a link to an essay by actor John Sharian titled “On how to be a creative person with a job.”

This piece, published at The Creative Independent, is both lyrical and practical. After sharing his thoughts on the work required to build a creative career around a day job, Sharian provides a list of tips to help people balance all of this work and life, beginning with:

Set a sleep pattern. Sleep is the parentheses of your day; decide how much you need (I recommend 6-8), then be religious about getting that exact amount. Disable your snooze button and address yourself in harsh terms if you don’t get out of bed immediately.

(I love love love “sleep is the parentheses of your day.”)

Sharian’s writing reminded me of an essay I’ve read many times since it was originally published in 2011: “On Discipline,” at Comment Magazine. Author Carey Wallace writes about her decision to spend one hour of each day in prayer and two hours each day in creative work, and the lessons she learned as she put that habit into practice:

I thought of this as a simple commitment, something that could be fit into the context of any life, with enough discipline. I was shocked to discover how much it actually demanded. The problem is this: creation requires firing on all cylinders. If people carved out time on a Saturday morning, but were out till three on Friday night, the time was compromised. If they hadn’t been eating well, the time was compromised. If they were distracted by other pressing worries, the time was compromised. Part of an artist’s task is to shut out these distractions and listen only for the voice of their work, and no artist can survive without that species of discipline. But many of the problems the artists in the program faced were genuine, too visceral to be ignored. In fact, introducing discipline in one area seemed to exacerbate problems in the others. “When I push on one area,” one artist said, “the rest of my life seems to go crazy.”

There is no such thing, we discovered, as disciplining one corner of a life. There are only disciplined or undisciplined lives.

Read both pieces, and see if either of them resonate with you—and if they don’t, I suggest you read economist Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “When it comes to productivity hacks, are you an Arnie or an Elon?” The Financial Times won’t let me copy a paragraph from this essay to share with you (like, literally, they’ve got copy/paste disabled on their site), but here’s the gist: sometimes it’s okay to leave your life unscheduled. In fact, Harford—and Arnold Schwarzenegger—prefer it that way. ❤️

Keeping Track: Freelance Writing With ADHD

Francine Carrel is an editorial professional with over a decade’s experience. Francine can usually be found at her computer in Bury St Edmunds. Failing that, seek her in the local coffee shop. She’ll be sitting by the window with a red pen and a pile of proofreading.

I have ADHD and I write from home.

That sentence is enough to draw concerned, “is-that-a-good-idea” expressions from most people I talk to. It’s fair enough. Freelance writing isn’t the safest career option for anyone, let alone someone with a known tendency to go off joyriding with the fairies.

But… well, I like it. I enjoy the creative freedom and the endless possibilities offered by every day. I like swanning off for a coffee break at 3 p.m. and working on articles at 2 a.m. (the two are possibly connected).

I’d been thinking about taking the plunge into self-employment for a while. Then redundancy kicked me, prematurely, into the pool a few months ago. Here’s how I’m coping.

Background

I’ve worked as a writer and editor for over a decade, since I was 16, mainly in structured, full-time roles on magazines and websites.

Time management and distraction have always been a problem, although my coping mechanisms improved over the years.

In my teens and early 20s, I would let a workload swallow me until, hours before everything simply had to be done, the adrenaline would kick in and I would do a fortnight’s worth of work in a night (I’ve never experienced the adrenaline-filled daily deadlines of a news room, although it’s on the bucket list).

Later, under the guidance of a very clever editor, I learned how best to direct my creative energy.

Boring admin tasks became interesting if I spent time working out how to automate them. Insurmountable wordcounts became manageable in smaller chunks. Ideas were freely ping-ponged across the desk — and the good ones evolved.

Most importantly, though, everything was tracked and filed. My folders spawned sub-folders, my checklists were manifold, my spreadsheets gained sentience.

These complicated systems, known to us late-diagnosed people as “coping mechanisms”, slowly turned work from something anxiety-ridden to something enjoyable.

ADHD

I was diagnosed with ADHD about a year ago, at the age of 26. It was a great relief. I wasn’t broken; or, if I was, it was in a way that I could learn how to fix.

I’d been incorrectly diagnosed with, and unsuccessfully medicated for, anxiety. It’s a common story for women with ADHD.

ADHD is a controversial disorder. Lots of clever people believe that it is a mislabelled grouping of more tenuously related symptoms. Many more people (not so clever) think it’s just an excuse for laziness.

If only! Unfortunately, ADHD means that everyday things take a lot more effort.

Why? Well, ADHD affects an offensively large section of behaviour called executive functioning.

Executive functioning, when it’s, er, functioning, helps you plan, keep track of time, pay attention and — importantly for this article — bolsters your working memory and helps you think creatively.

Not-working memory

Working memory is the temporary storage system in your brain. It keeps track of the fleetingly relevant information that needs dealing with.

If you’re interested, there are lots of complicated scientific theories about working memory, illustrated by charts with labels like “phonological loop”.

But it may help to think of working memory as RAM, rather than disk space.

Everyone, disorder or not, has experienced failures in their working memory. Ever opened the fridge and forgotten what you came for? Forgotten a sentence as you spoke it? Gone to the shop for milk and come back with tinned sardines, a bag of frozen peas, three types of cheese, and no milk?

Having ADHD is an infuriating series of those events which, added together, can lead to serious problems in a person’s work and personal life.

One of those problems is a stymying of creative work.

This is a controversial statement in some circles, as ADHD relates to creativity in many ways. Rapid-fire connections spawn ideas and out-of-the-box thinking in a way many find enviable.

But while my brain has always rattled out 3,000 ideas a minute, most of the good ones evaporated before I could do anything about them. Even when I sat down to a writing project I was excited about, I would forget what I was thinking halfway through a sentence or look up the etymology of a word only to fall into the Wikipedia abyss.

Medication

With my diagnosis came a prescription for Elvanse (Vyvanse, for those in the States). The stimulant, which has an unintuitively calming effect on people with ADHD, was a revelation.

I could sit down and write for hours at a time without wanting to bounce my forehead off the screen. I could keep track of if-this-then-that problems. I could pay attention when someone explained something!

But while my meds have been a great help, they’re not a magical fix. I’ve had to continue evolving my coping strategies. They’re numerous and frequently tweaked. Even so, I still stumble (this article, for example, will hit the inbox of the graciously patient Nicole Dieker a day past deadline).

The parts of my work life that I’ve shared have been received with a sort of horrified interest — and, from many self-employed creatives, a request for details.

Tracking is only one part of my coping strategy, but it is the most relevant to the general population. So, I hope that this is useful both for those of you with ADHD, and those without.

Keeping track

One of the persistent lies I tell myself is “I will remember this”. That might be a task, a password, a birthday, the time it took me to do something, where I put my glasses… you get the picture.

I’ve recognised this flaw since my diagnosis and have started tackling it the only way I can — by taking all that stuff out of my mind and sticking it into spreadsheets, lists and notebooks. This has proved invaluable.

Time tracking

I never liked the idea of time tracking. It seemed micro-managey and unnecessary; not to mention guilt-inducing.

My, ahem, particular style of working includes hours-long diversions and rabbit holes of tangentially related research. It comes together in the end, usually, but it doesn’t look pretty on paper.

My last editor insisted on it, though, and I came to see things his way.

Time tracking, from his point of view, wasn’t to keep tabs on the staff. Rather, it was to get an accurate picture of how long certain tasks took.

This was vital on a magazine, and it’s proved just as important to freelancing.

Guesswork is deadly to deadlines. Humans display a touching but unfortunate tendency towards optimism when it comes to time.

We go by how long we think a task should take, rather than how long it took last time.

Last time, we reason, we had that Dropbox disaster to deal with; and then Windows started updating halfway through the sync. Plus, we’ve learned how to streamline the workflow. This time, our task should take half as long.

Bollocks will it.

If issues arose last time — be they tech, tardy contributors or natural disasters — they can happen again. You should assume they will.

By looking back on the past (say) ten repetitions of our task, we can make an educated, data-based estimation of the hours it will take next time.

An added benefit of time tracking is the slap in the face. Seeing your time spent on billable work vs time spent faffing about with website tweaks, admin and “short breaks” — all in trackable, trendable, analysable units — can be alarming.

Don’t beat yourself up over the results, though. Just look for ways to change the trend (see “problem solving”, below).

I don’t use any app for time tracking (although I’m very happy to receive suggestions). I have a colour-coded spreadsheet, which I use to mark half-hour slots. Any less is unhelpfully granular; any more ends up being vague. Your mileage may vary, but I highly recommend staying away from units of less than 15 minutes.

Output tracking

I like to charge per word written/edited, or per job. It stops the awkward conversations with clients that begin, “This should only take you a couple of hours, right?”

However, I’ve always found it easier to visualise earnings by the hour. I’m contrary like that…

So, I designed a couple of trackers on Google Sheets. Different tasks take different amounts of time and effort, so I wouldn’t recommend keeping everything on one sheet — especially if you offer several services (e.g. writing, line editing, and proofreading).

Input for each sheet:

  • Price charged for job/milestone/1,000 words
  • Target wordcount

Input for each session:

  • Date
  • Start/finish time
  • Start/finish wordcount

Output:

  • Words written/edited
  • Minutes spent writing/editing
  • Words per hour
    • Per session
    • Average for job
  • Hourly rate
  • Words until target
  • Estimated hours needed to reach target

You can see mine here, but I recommend tweaking it substantially to suit your own work.

Earnings tracking

Urgh. I hate this bit. But it spirals out of control very quickly if you ignore it.

For all matters taxation, I suggest investing in accounting software, even if you’re running a very small operation (Freshbooks is my favourite, but there are merits to all the main players). If you can afford it, I suggest investing in an actual accountant on top of that.

But for your everyday “what am I earning” tracking, a little spreadsheet again does the trick. Mine has a new page for each week, five columns and a tally for:

  • Hours worked
  • Billable hours worked, and on which job
  • Money earned per hour worked
  • Average hourly rate
  • Total earned weekly

If things start looking ropey (e.g. my hourly wage is appalling, or I’m working 14 hours a day), I can cross-reference with my time tracking sheet and try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

As well as this, I keep an easily checked sheet of how much I’ve paid into the joint account (for rent and bills) and how much I’ve paid down my credit card (which I now do not spend on, under any circumstance!).

Habit/life tracking

This is less essential than the other three categories, but far more interesting.

I started tracking various health and mood metrics when I was given ADHD medication. My heartrate, weight, food intake, sleep, and med efficacy all interacted in a way that tickled my fascination and hypochondria.

For instance, the tracking helped me to realise that my medication works far better if taken after a breakfast high in protein and fat. Apparently, that’s not the case for everyone, so my tracking gave me insight I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

I’ve since added a few more trends to keep an eye on:

  • Weather (Sunny/Rainy/Overcast; Cold/Warm/Hot): I get up earlier (and thus achieve more) when it’s sunny; I end up doing more deep, problem-solving work when it’s rainy; and I’m bloody miserable when it’s cold
  • Exercise (Yes/No): Yoga, more specifically. It’s one of the few activities that quiets my internal chatter, and it seems to have a positive effect on my work
  • Productivity (1-5): Not easy to track objectively, so I give myself a score out of five each day
  • Mood (1-5): Ditto
  • Dog (Home/Not Home): The dog goes to work with my husband three days a week. Unsurprisingly, having her here decreases my productivity
  • Socialised (Yes/No): See ‘isolation’, below
  • Cycle (various): I use Clue to track menstrual/hormonal stuff. This is particularly important for women with ADHD, as our cycles affect how well our meds work

For this type of tracking, I do have a favourite app: Exist. You can make custom tags, which is invaluable for strange-living creative sorts. It also works out correlations and trends.

Conclusion

As you can imagine, all of this gets a bit tedious once you’re past the fun setting-up-spreadsheets part (well, it’s fun for me).

Unfortunately, I don’t have a fix for that — being your own boss means you’re in charge of your hours and creative direction, but it does mean that you’re also in charge of all the rubbish stuff that your old boss did. Like, for instance, shouting at you about deadlines and productivity. (Note to self: do not shout about your deadlines. It upsets the dog.)

It’s not for everyone. It might not be for me forever. I can see myself heading back into more structured jobs one day.

But for now, as I finally learn how to work well, it’s the perfect environment.

In Which I Reconfigure My Schedule YET AGAIN

Sooooo… remember how I used to tweet out the number of words I’d written on NEXT BOOK, and then I kind of stopped?

Remember how it coincided with my newest freelance gig, where I pitch/write/file stories in the morning instead of the afternoon?

Remember how I told myself that I could switch my schedule around and do creative writing later in the day, after I did all my freelancing and admin and the rest of it, and how it would totally work?

Turns out it totally didn’t.

I’d dutifully close out my email and all my tabs and fill my laptop screen with nothing but NEXT BOOK, and then I’d stare at it.

And re-read it.

And identify a problem with the story that was probably keeping me blocked.

And solve the problem.

And then stare at the draft again.

I was able to write both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People on evenings and weekends, but for whatever reason—maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because my freelance career has grown and I’m taking on more challenging work—I can’t do 3,000 words of freelance writing and then another 1,000 words of novel-writing.

So I switched it back, and I’ve been working on NEXT BOOK first thing every morning again.

I’m not giving NEXT BOOK quite as much time as I was able to give it prior to my new freelancing gig, because I also want to prioritize sleep—but I’m working on the draft for at least a half hour every day, and I’m waking up excited to spend time with the characters and see where we go next, and the words and the ideas and the creative energy are all flowing just like they used to.

As of this morning, the draft includes 25,853 words. ❤️