Thursday, November 3, 2011

NaNo Survival Tips I: Plan Your Days

It's day 3 of NaNo, and I'm already a day behind schedule. And I'm happy about it, because I'm only a day behind schedule. In former years, I would have been two or three days behind schedule at this point.

Not only that, but most often at least one out of the three days would have been a day where I didn't add to my word count at all. Even the year I won has that pattern--of the 27 days on the graph (I reached the 50,000 word mark three days early!), twelve of them, or nearly half, had zero word counts. This year, I'm aiming for a little more consistency. Actually, a lot more consistency. My number one goal this month is not to write 50,000 words, but to write at least 100 words every single day.

It's going to be a challenge, because while November is normally a crazy busy month for me, this month it's even crazier than normal. Instead of one concert in November and one in December, my orchestra has two concerts in November, and two in December. Instead of planning one major ecumenical event in my community, I'm now planning two, one of which takes place the last weekend in November, and the other the first Saturday in December. I have full time responsibility for my autistic son, who is no longer in school, and I need to plan something for us to do together, so he doesn't end up watching television all month while I write. I'll probably have a couple of days of work at the church office, and I'm filling in on the security checks for a few days, and I'm preaching at a friend's church for two Sundays while she's off having surgery, and I might be preaching a third Sunday at a new church, and...

Every day, something gets added to the list. Plus, I'm making an effort to eat at home, which means meal planning, grocery shopping, and washing up in addition to meal preparation. I continue to work on cleaning up my home, and I'm babysitting my friend`s two grandsons on Saturday.

And I haven't even talked about preparing for Christmas yet, have I?

So why, you might ask, am I feeling so good about this year's NaNo? Why don't I just throw in the towel right now, and say I'm too busy? Do I have a secret magic trick up my sleeve? Am I exaggerating my other commitments? Am I going to lie about my word count? Or is my novel secretly all planned out, and all I have to do is fill in the blanks????

No, no, no, no, and no!

What I have is 24 hours each day. Much of it is used for daily living activities, sleeping, eating, washing, and so on. But I still have lots of time to do other stuff, and I do it all, 15 minutes at a time. Just this evening, I started in on my novel. I wrote for fifteen minutes, then I did a load of laundry. Then I did some dishes. Then I wrote some more. Then I switched the laundry to the drier. Then I finished the dishes. Then I had dessert. Then I came upstairs and wrote this post. The clock just struck ten. Two and a half hours after I started, I've done my daily writing, I've ensured that I have clean clothes and clean dishes for tomorrow, and I've written a fair number of words. And I even managed to get about a half hour of Civ IV playing in there as well.

What I didn't do was waste time deciding what I was going to do next, or how I was going to do it. The decisions were already made and the routines were already in place. I didn't waste time thinking about what I'm going to do tomorrow, or next week, or about what I didn't do yesterday. I'll review tomorrow's schedule (which will be at least as busy as today's) when I get up in the morning.

Nor did I waste much time unproductively staring at a flickering screen, wondering what I was going to write. I didn't have every word planned out, but I knew approximately what was going to happen in my fifteen minutes of writing time. My characters still managed to surprise me, but in the end, I controlled the process, rather than having it control me.

Pre-planning is the key to extreme productivity without stress. When I get up in the morning, I mentally review my day. At that point, the time chunking I do is in large blocks--what is happening this morning, this afternoon, this evening. I get the morning all lined up, the afternoon thought through, but the evening is barely on the radar at this point.

Fifteen minute blocks. Get up, take meds, get dressed, make bed. One block. Go get son from his dad's. May take one or two blocks, depending on how ready he is. Doesn't matter. By the time we get back to my house, it's 8 o'clock, and I have an hour to feed us both breakfast and get things ready for my day. Enough time for me to take two entire fifteen-minute blocks just to sit at the breakfast table and enjoy my cereal. Make my sandwich, tidy the kitchen, gather the things I need for the morning, and off we go!

The rest of the day goes the same. At lunch, I take time to review the afternoon, and schedule my blocks more closely. Travel time is scheduled in--all too often, I encounter those who are late for things simply because they don't build travel time into their schedule! At lunch, I was thrown a curve--I'd signed up to do an afternoon service at a nursing home, and forgotten about it. (Make a mental note to be more proactive about writing things down on my desktop calendar...)

No problem, really. A half hour after that curve was thrown, I was ready for the service (it does help that I signed up knowing that I had a service to do that morning, and that I'd just use the same sermon), and I had time to sit down and have lunch with a friend. In that half hour, I'd outlined the service, and decided what on my afternoon schedule could be postponed, shortened, or cancelled. A meeting at 1:30 went ahead as scheduled, because we had to make some decisions regarding our event at the end of the month, but I went into that meeting have decided ahead of time what precisely needed to be covered, and what could wait for later.

Evening rolls around. I've already planned what to have for supper, and know how long it's going to take to cook. I knew what was in my pantry when I decided on the meal, and I have everything I need on hand. I have time to spare. I'm too tired to write, so I use the time that supper's in the oven to lie down on the bed for a bit and rest up, hoping for a second wind. A healthy supper goes a long way towards restoring my energy. A bath and a bit of a lie-down after supper does the rest. By 7:30, I'm back in action and ready to write!

If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail.

I've always heard that, but never really understood it until recently. I've come to realize that I don't have to go overboard and plan the rest of my life in fifteen minute blocks before I go full steam ahead, but I do need to plan the next day. I need to know, before I leave the house in the morning what I'm having for dinner, and when I have to start meal prep in order to have it on the table on time. I need to know what I'm doing during the morning and afternoon, and what is critical for me to accomplish this day, what is important, and what is merely desirable.

I need to stop at strategic points in the day (I use mealtimes for this), and think about the next two or three hours. At that point, the general becomes specific, and a three-hour block of time gets broken down into fifteen minute sprints.

Then I can concentrate on each task, knowing as I do so that everything I'm not doing at that moment will get done in good time.

So that's my secret to conquering NaNo while maintaining a schedule that makes most other people's heads spin. Planning. Not obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist-type planning (no, I do not have the entire month's meals written down on a schedule somewhere, and yes, I am still, as always, open to a change of plans), but a secure enough outline that I'm not putting energy into panicking and running around aimlessly moaning, "I'm so busy, I don't have time to think!"

I always take time to think, because I know that if I take the time to think before rushing headlong into my day, the day will go smoothly, and I'll get everything done that needs doing.

Happy writing!

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