Once upon a time, there was a young feature writer who had mastered the art of concentration—on one article at a time. Stories B, C, and D would have to wait patiently in the wings until the star of the show, story A, had been thoroughly researched, absorbed, written, polished, and turned in to the editor. Only then could story B move to center stage. It was a tidy, organized approach to writing—giving my all to every project, one project at a time—and, for many years, it worked flawlessly.
That was back when all I did was write. I had no other job responsibilities, which made it a perfect arrangement. My pattern was so ingrained and accepted by everyone that, when I was ready to write, I was permitted to do it at home. This was unheard of in the context of the magazine for which I worked. At first, my editor was aghast. “Haven’t you ever worked for a newspaper?” he would bark. “Good reporters can write in the middle of a three-ring circus.”
“No,” I would reply. “I have never worked for a newspaper, and I can’t write in the middle of a three-ring circus.” Of course, writing in one room, while everything from gymnastic practice to giggling pajama parties were going on in the next, was a bit distracting, but I never mentioned that. So, I wrote at home, came back to the office after a 10-or-12-hour marathon at the typewriter, turned in my masterpiece, and started over. I thought that was the way everybody worked.
My well-ordered, one-thing-at-a-time writing life came to an abrupt end when I moved into the corporate world, where it was a miracle to complete one page, let alone a whole story, without interruptions. Multiple stories, multiple publications, multiple tasks turned every day into a mishmash of unrelated activities. While I was interviewing for one article, I was writing another, running around taking photos, laying out a newsletter, working with a designer, sitting in a meeting, fielding phone calls, writing memos, or something—often several somethings at the same time.
It was an agonizing adjustment, which I never really mastered until I became a marketing manager. Then, it was either go crazy or learn to manage the chaos. I learned to manage it, which turned out to be my salvation in that job and later in my own business. I also learned that, if life is not neat and orderly, work is even less so. Here are some of the other hard-won lessons I learned along the way:
There are many ways to organize multiple assignments. One is to group related projects in one area of your desk, so that you can work on more than one at a time if the spirit moves you. A similar approach is to break large, complicated jobs into smaller, doable parts and attack one part at a time. Another is to arrange jobs in order of priority, from the ones with drop-dead deadlines down to those that allow more time or are less important. You might try positioning the jobs you like least at the top, so that you will do them first. Whatever system you use, just make sure that it makes sense to you and that you use it.
View each assignment holistically. What is its objective? If it’s complex, what’s the best way to break it up? Is there a logical order to what needs to be accomplished? What is your deadline? If you work backwards from there, how much time do you have for each part? When should you begin?
Once you choose the particular project you are going to work on, lock onto it like a magnet. Give it your total attention for the time you are doing it, then put it down and forget it. That kind of focus, where you are so thoroughly engrossed that time simply stops, has been described as “flow” by author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or likened to meditation by practitioners of Zen.
When you pull away from what you’re doing, whatever the reason, don’t just abandon it and grab the next thing on your list. Bring each activity to closure, put it away, and do something totally unrelated to help you shift gears. Take a walk, do the dishes, run the vacuum, work out—whatever it takes to clear your mind. Then, you can bring a fresh perspective and renewed energy to the next task on your list.
5. Control the clutter.
There’s an old saying about having to break eggs in order to make an omelet. Apparently, some of us have to make a mess in order to write. I’m always amazed at the litter I create in my office while I’m working. Somewhere between completing job #1 and moving on to job #2, take a few minutes to bring order to chaos. A tidy working environment is much more conducive to clear thinking than a messy one. Perhaps that’s why so many writers seem to spend more time straightening up our offices than working.