How I Work (2020 review)

Burning clock / burning time

Cribbing a title from the wonderful Lifehacker series, I kicked off the new year (I don’t do January First “New Year” plans since it’s such a busy post-holiday time) by reviewing how to approach 2020. After a few rough years, I’ve fallen into some half-ass habits and need a review. Not that I haven’t put in the time, but it’s been three years since our youngest was born and two years since I managed anything approaching an efficient workflow. To make 2020 meaningful, I must rebuild to be effective.

Physical Space

I’m fortunate to be a technologist. Or ‘geek’ if you prefer. I’m also a decent woodworker which allows me to customize my work space. I have three computers: A dual monitor desktop, a writing desktop, and a MacBook Pro that allows me to escape my office.

The writing desk is where I spend a majority of my work time. A triangular-shaped desk tucked into the corner next to a window in the front of our house. I used to write in a tea shop in Toronto inside Bayview Village, which offered seating outside the shop still inside the mall. I wrote my first novel there freehand on legal pads. The environment of the noisy mall helped back when I was figuring it all out on the fly. I also learned something odd, which is if movement is on my right, it’s a distraction. If the movement is on my left, I can filter the motion and noise with no problem. So my desk design allows for this with the window on my left through which I can watch neighbors, animals, and the weather when a moment to think or an opportunity to rest my eyes is necessary.

Daryls writing station
My writing desktop

Resources go on my right, including maps, notes, reminders, and copies of Ingrid Sundberg’s Color Thesaurus I find useful. Out of the frame to the left is a 152 color Crayon stand and a short shelf of my favorite resources.

Also out of the picture is a small table on castors. This table sits to my right and is partially cleared for drawing, note-taking, or searching through books. There is also organization for folders.

Software

When writing, I am a massive fan of Scrivener and have used the application since beta-around 13 years now. I sync files across all of my computers and make frequent backups. I prefer Firefox, but use different browsers for different needs. Safari stays clean, with limited add-ons so it presents sites as designed.

A newer application now central to my writing organization is Stack. Stack is currently free with plans for a pro tier. Using Stack, I’ve built a workspace to manage various web apps and sites. I keep the left side of the app against the left side of the monitor for quick access to the icons (You can see below how the icon strip runs along the left side of the application).

My tabs include Gmail, GCal, Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, Reverse Dictionary, Wikipedia, Inked Voices, and most recently Green’s Dictionary of Slang. I haven’t made the change yet, but am considering swapping in Related Words for Thesaurus.com as I like the interface better and the ads are less of a distraction. Thesaurus.com will continue to be easy to access through the Dictionary.com interface.

A few other writing-focused apps I plan to use more often are Aeon Timeline and Scapple, the latter from Literature and Latte which produces Scrivener. I own both, but have not yet put either into committed use.

Finally, I want to recommend the Affinity graphics suite. I’m a long-time Adobe user and have instructed dozens of workshops for Photoshop and Illustrator, but still gave the suite the boot last year. Paying a monthly or yearly fee for tools I use inconsistently was a waste. It hasn’t been the easiest transition, but I’ve found the suite capable. Black Friday pricing brought the cost of Photo, Designer, and Publisher to $105 for the set. That’s just a hell of a deal by comparison. If you’re not a professional with a need to work with industry standard applications, Affinity’s suite is a no-brainer. And the workflow is similar enough the switch from Adobe won’t be an uphill climb.

When and Where

My mainstay is the old “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” mentality. I’m fortunate (though it is a mixed bag) to be a stay-at-home dad. I’m just not very good at downtime, so I take on projects such as building a fancy bunk bed or enclosing the landing and stairs of our back deck-which takes approximately four billion man-hours and ends with me down a pound of knuckle skin after snipping vinyl siding by hand.

No one can say I don’t bleed for my projects.

On normal days, I wake up, see the kids off, have breakfast, then insert my butt in THE chair. My weekends are similar when possible. I like to get in a solid 4 hours of writing each day, but I’m sad to say this hasn’t been possible the last few years. At least not for any duration.

And that has been a problem. Partly because the lack of progress becomes a hurdle to believing progress is even possible. But also because too much time between writing erodes memory of both story details and best practices. For the latter, I constantly remind myself it’s not always about time. Two hours in one place might not be as effective as an hour in another.

So while I spend the bulk of my time at home, at my writing station, I also use my laptop to escape. This works when switching gears or for a fresh perspective, and giving my body a break by sitting in a different position.

A practice I somehow forgot was taking a morning every week or two for a bird’s-eye view of my plans. This used to include an hour or two at the Barnes and Noble cafe followed by lunch at a nearby favorite spot. Sad to say, the restaurant moved too far away for casual access. And I have not yet found another to fit my need (good food at a fair price that isn’t too busy between 11:00 and Noon).

Since that realization, I have visited BN twice. I leave my laptop at home and only take my iPad to review material. Both visits paid dividends because I can’t do house projects or wrote, only think by cutting myself off from those overriding distractions.

Process (Write/Edit/Post)

As mentioned above, I prefer Scrivener and all original work begins there. My old method was Edit/Write, meaning start the day by editing the last bit of writing before moving on. I really liked this process and plan to re-implement going forward.

I used to print edits for red-inking. This worked well, though was time intensive and often required multiple revisions. Last year, I purchased lifetime access to Pro-Writing Aid and find it simplifies/speeds up this process. I still red ink before posting for a critique, but now do this digitally using my iPad and Pencil. Saves a lot of paper and is much easier to work through the PDF on the screen than loose papers. I’m not getting any younger.

This is probably the where I need to recapture my best practices. I learn a lot from critiquing work and self-editing is a must for success.

  • Disinhibition (and the time of day)

Another consideration, a deeper layer, is finding the best state of mind. Or maybe timing the best state of mind. There are two suggestions I’ve followed with some success. The first points to when our minds are the most creative. Some claim morning, right after waking, when we are still groggy. Others claim at night after the logical-reasoning portions of our brains grow tired. Still others claim it depends whether you are a morning person or night-owl as to when your creative mind is strongest.

The second suggestion focuses on feeding disinhibition. On a Spit! podcast, there was discussion how addiction can come from a need to disinhibit: both to stoke creativity and to handle dealing with attention. The latter is another whole issue for some, but for the former they made the point there are many ways to disinhibit including (these are from months-old memory) hard exercise such as jogging, a walk in the woods, taking a shower, or listening to music.

Years back, I had two times for writing. Mornings for the bulk and evenings for putting down ideas. With a second child and lower energy levels after an illness in 2018, my evenings are often shot. By the time we get our son to bed, I’m usually too tired to work. That leaves my days, mostly mornings. Not my best creative time.

I also suffer stress as a major inhibitor to creativity, and to focus. Weaving through these issues hasn’t proven easy. So I’m experimenting with both decreasing stress and developing a productive mental state. Developing my creativity, which is a skill. A small part of this is morning golf on our old Wii, which used to help. Exercise neds to be a bigger part of this. Consistency is the glue to hold it all together.

And, finally, the belief I can manage any of this. In early 2016, it was all coming together. Since then, the rough times have far outweighed my creative streaks. 2020 has to be a year of rediscovery leading to renewal.

Still To Do

I’ll revisit my process in a few months. See how this is working, what isn’t, and any new practices. Please share thoughts through the form at the bottom of the page. I’m always open to ideas and happy to create a separate post attributing submissions.

Also, please feel free to submit any questions. If I don’t have an answer, I am happy to help with research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.