Many writers I know are overwhelmed and struggle to focus on writing anything. Do I research? Get a draft down? Should I be blogging? Do I need to get a business license? What about social media? What’s for dinner? (Sorry, my kids added that one.)
A few years ago, I learned a technique that helped me get a handle on my to do list, and freed me to prioritize my writing. Along with sneaking time to write, learning to write in batches has changed the way I work.
Batching is a technique I first began to use in my day job to make sure I don’t get stuck in the lesson-planning-rabbit-hole-of-ideas. I could plan lessons all day long, but my students need me to teach and grade, my colleagues need me to answer emails or attend meetings, and occasionally I need to use the restroom or eat lunch.
I began batching several years ago, identifying the most critical tasks and then setting aside specific time for each.
If the idea of planning gives you hives, don’t worry! We’ll start small and then you can scale, building focus on writing as you go.
Know your what and why
As a writer, know what you want most. If you are working on your first book, the most important thing you can do is finish a first draft. If you are building a blogging tribe, your priority needs to be words on the page (and blog) on a regular schedule.
You have to know what you want most because everything will feel like it needs attention right now. It doesn’t.
Choose the top one or two things you want from your writing time this month and take a few minutes to understand why this is the priority. Don’t skip this step, because it will be the motivation you need to tell the multitasking elves in your brain to pipe down while you work.
Make it actionable
Make sure your priority task is something that is actionable and in your control. Here’s an example of the difference: instead of “get an agent,” your task might be “query five agents this week.” I can’t forcibly “get an agent” without being arrested, but I can research and query five agents who would be a great fit for me and my book.
If you are finishing a book, set a word count goal. Building a blog? Set a number of posts per week or month goal. If you are working on marketing, set the goal of creating an email sequence to reach your email list.
Maybe you’re thinking: But I need to do all those things! Everything I read tells me to blog and market and email and write and daydream and get an agent.
Please hear me say this in my most compassionate, firm teacher voice: No. You don’t have to do all those things today.
In fact, trying to do them all at once is killing your writing and motivation. Over time you may complete each of those tasks, but unless you are a full-time writer with an assistant, it isn’t all getting done this week.
Release yourself from unrealistic expectations and choose the top two or three priorities.
The magic of batching
I often watch students as they write, and sometimes they write a sentence, check Twitter, open their Biology homework, and then go back to their essay or story. Then they wonder why they can’t get any momentum. Adults do the same thing.
I read about batching several years ago, and the simplicity of it appealed to me. When you batch, you work at one type of task for a set amount of time, take a break, and then either continue the same task or switch to a new one for a set amount of time.
For example: Let’s say I’m writing blog posts and sorting/answering emails. I set a timer for twenty minutes and only work on writing a blog post. If I finish the first one and the timer hasn’t gone off, I start a new blog post, and continue working until the timer rings. Then I take a three to five minute break. I reset the timer for twenty minutes and start working through emails.
For twenty minutes, I say no to the call of social media, the research reference I need to look up for that blog post, and anything else that threatens to distract me. I just focus on writing.
Steve Jobs, in reflecting on innovation, once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
His words apply to anything we want to accomplish. Focus is saying “no” to a thousand things crying for our attention. Batching helps you prioritize and focus, knowing that the other things on your list will have a turn in time. Your writing life is worth valuing by giving it the most precious resource you have: time.
Stop overthinking and making tasks more difficult than they have to be (I’m speaking sternly to myself here).
Make your list of two or three high priority tasks. Begin with the one you identified that was most important. Set the timer. Don’t let yourself wallow or writhe, just work on it for twenty minutes. Take a quick break and do it again.
Over time, I hope you’ll find that it frees your mind to go all in on the task at hand and focus on writing instead of wandering from tab to tab in your browser, letting multitasking steal your time.
Have you tried working in batches? What do you do to prioritize your writing time and focus on writing? Let us know in the comments.
Practice your batching skills today. Take five minutes to consider your writing priorities. What do you want to accomplish this month? What do you need to do to make progress towards that goal?
Then, focus on your top priority for ten minutes. If your goal is to finish your book, continue writing it. If you’re blogging, start a new blog post. If you’re preparing a short story for publication, focus on editing it. Whatever you do, don’t allow distractions to take you away from your writing!
When you’re done, share your writing practice in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.