Hacking the Writing Process, August ’16 Edition

Every couple of months I sit down and look at my writing process, trying to pick up inefficiencies. I study my habits and the things that go wrong, and I double-check systems to make sure they’re working the way they should. The last time I did it, I noticed a bunch of slightly interrelated things that went something like this:

  • My primary work-space had become my couch, which is also the place where I eat food, read books, waste time on social media, and stream television from Netflix. This meant I needed to be really conscious about writing, when I sat down, because there were so many other habits tied to the location that it was easy to get distracted.
  • The desktop computer, which I’d originally intended to be my primary work-space, had gradually been ignored. Primarily this was because there were always multiple steps involved in sitting down and using it, starting with “move all the laundry off my office chair, then turn on the computer.”
  • A secondary problem with the desktop – it was tucked out of the way, in the corner of my bedroom. It never served as a trigger for behaviour in and of itself, which meant I had to rely on other habits to get me there.

If that sounds minor, you’re right. It’s totally minor shit, but it’s often the minor shit that gets in the way of building an effective habit by inserting little moments of resistance, which is why I try looking at this stuff.

When I started coming up with solutions, a lot of it came down to a pretty drastic rearrangement of my small flat, with the accompanying disruption to my entire house. I probably would have left it alone, except that I went through this at the same time I started to have people around to my house semi-regularly for the first time in about seven years. This made me acutely aware of the set-up in my non-sleeping spaces, which were designed with the idea that there would rarely be more than one person in the flat at a time.

So re-arranging furniture became the solution du-jour, and it’s been interesting. I spent a few weeks making notes and pricing options, spending some quality time with the measuring tape figuring out where things will fit. And finally, last Friday, I started rearranging my apartment to start making better use of the space and hack my habits a little.

A lot of the changes are pretty minor, or not writing related, but there have been two changes that are paying off right now.

Hacking My Space, Part One: The Writing Desk

My primary goal with the rearrangement was this: I wanted the absolute minimum level of resistance between me and the act of writing. In both cases, when I identified issues, chairs were a major problem, so I’m currently experimenting with a standing desk under the theory that I don’t have to sit down to start working. Any time I am in the vicinity of the desktop, I am now in the position to start typing, and that seemed like a useful thing.

With that decided, I started to put together a room layout that put me in the vicinity of the standing desk as much as possible. The first step was putting the bookshelf where I store my keys, wallet, and work ID next to the standing desk, which means it’s the first place I walk when I step into the apartment. With the writing computer right there, it makes stepping away from the computer a conscious thing rather than a subconscious habit.

It also puts the writing computer between literally everything else in the apartment and the couch, which tends to rack up another couple of moments where I find myself thinking oh, yeah, I should write on a given day.

It also had an unexpected side-effect: because I am standing already, and listen to music when I write, I am 60% more likely to start dancing when I hit a pause at the keyboard instead of switching over to Facebook and Twitter.

Also, because there is no chair to dump things on, I am more likely to put things in my bedroom.

Hacking My Space, Part Two: The White Board

Here;s a useful thing I learned from checking my RescueTime Stats: Television distracts me from writing. And it’s not that I watch a lot of television – by the standards of the average viewer, I’m pretty low on the hours spent staring at a screen – but the stats tend to show that if I sit down at the computer and start streaming something, I will keep watching for the rest of the evening instead of watching an episode and then doing something else.

Given that I’d fallen into the habit of watching TV while eating dinner, that was becoming a problem. Setting up the standing desk went a long way to stopping that, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that as a solution. I didn’t mind watching TV – hell, I like the television series as a narrative format – but I wanted it to be more conscious and less automatic.

Enter the white-board, which now sits in front of my television and holds the highlights of my weekly Checkpoint from Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative process.

This shit is one of the reasons I like living alone. It would be absolutely impossible to pull this shit in a shared lounge space where other people want to watch things and the process of pulling down the whiteboard would be an imposition. Me, i just whack it up there and take it away the two or three times I actually want to watch TV a week, and the rest of the time it reminds me of the things that need doing.

It’s proving to be really great for the small tasks that I’d otherwise forget about, I do love marking off a check-box, after all, and there’s a lot of process tasks I can get done in twenty or thirty minutes of free time so long as I remember them. It’s already proving to be horribly efficient for writing tasks, since I’ve ticked off half the writing work on there in the space of two days.

The best part about this set-up is that it doesn’t interfere with the thing I primarily use the television for, which is streaming youtube music playlists while I work.

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