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Every year my work process changes to accommodate new realities. Much of it stays constant – the tried and true practices that form an infrastructure for working new projects into the mix. I hope if I share some of my process with you, it will help you design your own.
First of all, I have many more projects in mind and in progress than I can possibly juggle at the same time. Many of them must remain ‘in the hopper,’ but the surprising thing is that they still grow while I’m not looking! I’ve mentioned before that David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach has been very helpful to me in setting up a project system that I can trust to keep hold of projects in various stages of completion. If I can’t put it on my calendar to complete as one, discrete task, it’s a ‘project’.
If it’s a ‘project,’ there are a series of ‘next actions’ that must be completed in order to complete it. I may not have time for that series in the near future, but if I look at that project, I know the next thing to do to move it forward. Some of the ‘next actions’ are ‘take time to figure out what steps in what order,’ and those projects will not move forward until I take that time. Meanwhile, the more active projects in progress each have some ‘next step,’ which might be ‘outline,’ ‘transcribe talk,’ ‘check footnotes,’ ‘print and edit,’ ‘query,’ or something that isn’t writing at all, such as ‘discuss this idea with so-and-so,’ or ‘order these related books,’ or ‘clear file and decide whether to pursue’.
One benefit of having a collection of next action steps handy is that, if there is an opening up of some time to work, I can choose a step that fits my mood and time frame, and complete that task without wasting time figuring out what to do. My writing work reminds me of my quilting: each project, though it uses up material, seems to generate enough material for several more projects! It’s important to me to have a way of handling the flood of new possibilities as new projects that must jostle for their own realization amid all the other priorities. Another benefit to this system is that it allows for collaborative projects to run alongside my own, ‘on hold’ while another person takes their next step, and then back in my ‘active’ pile when the next action is one I must complete. I’m content to wait for the slowest collaborator, because I’ve got plenty to do in the meantime. I only wish I had more collaborators!
The key to any work flow is to trust it. If I begin to second-guess my own system, it bogs down. For instance, if I have a file for a particular project’s notes, quotes, and research materials, but create a whole new file when I have a bright idea for something to include in that book or essay, it won’t be where I need it when it’s time to do the writing. If I don’t do the work when I schedule it, I let myself and the project down. I do a major evaluation of priorities quarterly (sometimes God introduces a surprise that becomes a new top priority!) and try very hard not to waste time poring over the files for projects that are not currently my front runners. Knowing that an idea is safely held for me until I can process it enables me to mentally download it with complete trust, which clears my mind for the task at hand.
My ‘system’ still involves lots of physical files and slips of paper. I just can’t seem to do without a little notepad I carry for ideas, and would feel I’d lost them if they went immediately into an electronic format. (I’ve translated most of one project into Scrivener files now, and it still makes me nervous!) The touching of all those actual written notes keeps me, somehow, in real contact with my own thoughts and lets me rearrange my ‘materials’ to connect things in new ways. I allow time in my year for this playful handling of some of the ideas that have simmered on the backburner. I’m often surprised to find that several different trains of thought have essential connections, and that while ‘life’ has kept me from my ‘babies,’ they’ve still grown up a bit since I last saw them. I have disciplined myself to do better at writing on larger scraps of paper (imagine a file with important concepts jotted on one-inch squares cut out of larger papers that held ideas for several different projects!) and at writing ideas more fully (imagine picking up a scrap next year with a message scribbled on in what now looks like code, or jibberish – not much help!).
I know that having a ‘system’ may seem antithetical to artists, but I think it provides a necessary infrastructure for getting your creative ideas realized. I hope your creative juices are flowing in the new year, and that these ideas for handling those ideas will help you bear fruit.