Juggling a writing routine among your other life routines

 

What’s this episode about?

Welcome to the second episode of the fifth season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full episode and/or scan the blog post below for the main takeaways.

Routines in general are great. This is what I’ve been saying in this podcast since day one and I’m not going to disprove that in this episode. They’re still great and all that I suggested as information to help you build your ideal routine from before still applies. But today, I want to shift the focus a little bit, move it away from the macro picture that I painted before, emphasizing why building a writing routine is so great and instead now look at where the writing habit fits in a writer’s daily life – and why it’s not always easy to start and maintain a consistent writing routine.

Part I: From frame to cage

I wrote this episode while on my holiday. Only with the benefit of hindsight and actually getting away from my many daily routines, including my writing and author one, could I appreciate how they all fit together to create a perfect symphony of stress, unmet expectations and guilt.

I know this sounds a bit negative but hear me out – I’m the queen of routines. If there’s an activity I enjoy or think it will be beneficial, I will make a routine out of it. I will slot it in my life and start following whatever rules I set out for myself. Then rinse, repeat for any new interest I obtain. Some routines might disappear quietly into oblivion but more often than not I will do my best to follow them all, thus boarding the fast train straight to burnout.

Back in Season 1, I discussed that routines are linked to higher Meaning in Life. A study discovered that “life is not only made meaningful through extraordinary experiences but also in its daily living.” So routines can give us familiar, cozy comfort but what about when there’s not enough hours in the day to satisfy all the conditions of each routine? What to do when they clash?

I will give you an example with my March 2021 – for that month, I had a humble 9 daily routines. Briefly, there was daily author writing, daily planning, daily yoga, daily morning and evening routine, daily meal planning, daily walk, daily family time, daily self-care. There were also weekly routines like weekly goal planning, weekly social time, weekly cardio exercise.

All of these things by themselves are great but lumped together without a period to reflect how it will all work? Not as awesome as I thought. Routines give us a framework for the day but with so many, I found myself getting more and more framed by each and every one, until I was essentially in a cage, panicking and feeling trapped.

Part II: A holistic approach

If the situation I described sounds anything like yours you may be wondering, how do I stay productive, keeping up with all the routines and still maintain my sanity? Well, I’m still working it out myself but from research I see there are primarily two camps of productivity thought when it comes to sorting out your whole life and building sustainable routines – schedule builders and system makers.

The first practice, which some call ‘timeboxing’, includes working through your daily life by slotting your responsibilities in neat little boxes of time on your schedule. Nir Eyal, a writer and marketing expert, has a great guide on his blog about the benefits of using a schedule for all the aspects of your life. Briefly, he says: “If we don’t plan what we will give our attention to, we risk having our time stolen by distraction.

This method is not without its limitations of course and it’s not going to work well for people who require vast amounts of flexibility like maybe parents of small children or those who have really hectic stop-start day jobs. Stress can be reduced because you have your day planned out, leaving no chance for issues and deadlines to blindside you but on the flip side, if you fall behind, stress and feelings of failure can mount up really quickly.

Then maybe the second approach will be more suitable – creating a time-management system. The idea behind this is not to simply block out time in your calendar for everything but to take a look at the way you already spend your time and identify opportunities to streamline your processes and create a time-management strategy. Schedule building may be part of it but it’s not the only component. On the subject, one of my favorite productivity apps, Trello, has a whole article on debunking time management and suggesting ways to improve. Check it out.

Part III: Productivity through play

You may have already thought to yourself by this point, I can use elements of both schedule building and system creation. And that’s absolutely valid. Most writers will probably feel most comfortable in some split between the two, utilizing the benefits of stress relief and avoiding burnout.

I personally am more of a system builder but when the system is in place, I do build a schedule around my tasks and block out time, making sure things have a chance of actually being done in the day, minimizing procrastination. That worked for me for a very long time. With lockdown however and a myriad of other personal issues, including a significant worsening of mental health, my productivity took a hit and neither my system nor my schedule survived the change.

I wasn’t procrastinating anymore, I was slipping into a pocket dimension where nothing from the real world mattered. Everything felt detached and things that were strong motivators before, like looming deadlines, became more like suggestions. As I missed opportunities and lost momentum in my author journey, I became increasingly agitated at the fact that I knew I had to be more productive but I just couldn’t. I would start and fail. So I turned to the one thing which has always bailed me out since I was a child – I turned to play.

Part IV: Hat lotto, productivity bingo and gaming tokens

During my exploration period, where everything took way too long and was excruciatingly difficult to start, I discovered an online game which I enjoyed very much. It quickly took over my life, replacing my reality with its way more ordered, vibrant world. As I started to feel guilty about the amount of time I was putting into it and not into writing or my author business, I set out to examine which elements of it make me happy and I brainstormed ways to apply them to my writing process with the hope of boosting productivity.

I will share three of the play-productivity games I came up with. Feel free to try one or all of them, and if you want to improve them so they can serve you better, please do – and tell me about it. I’m excited to chat with fellow writers who enjoy the lighter side of productivity.

First, I tried a hat lotto. I picked up some pretty paper, wrote a number of small, broken-down tasks I had to get going with and chucked them in a hat. I started pulling out some and doing them. This helped with beginning anxiety. After every three tasks I got to play my online game for half an hour, then I would pull three more and do them. This worked well in the beginning, but its limitations started to show after a time – I realized I had many interconnected tasks to do so I couldn’t just have a random picking order.

Following that, I created another game which solved this issue. It utilizes a five-by-five grid – I called it productivity bingo. It existed on my whiteboard, where I filled every square with a task that needed doing. Then I could pick and choose what to do and prioritize either to get a ‘bingo’ line or to do what I felt like doing. For every ‘bingo’ win, I got to spend an hour in my online game. After crossing out a line, I would erase its contents and fill out the newly-opened spaces with other tasks. Again, this worked great for a time. Then, a new bout of mental health issues struck and I found that completing five tasks to get a reward was too much. If I had more stable productivity levels, I think the bingo game would have been sustainable for me.

Right now, I’m using a play system I called ‘Gaming tokens’. The gaming can be replaced by whatever activity or thing is your desired reward. I looked at my writing and author priorities, wrote them down in Trello and prepared my whiteboard. The crafty part of me was really hungry for a little side project, so I created cute cardboard tokens and was ready to use them. The rules are simple. For every hour of work, I get one gaming token which gives me 45 minutes of chill gaming time. I was surprised by how much I can get done if I have an uninterrupted hour of work. Here are some photos of my tokens and whiteboard on the blog post for this episode if you want a visual to aid the explanation.

Conclusion

To summarize, I rediscovered the simple effectiveness of the work-reward connection. It never quite worked for me before because I was following other people’s reward suggestions so the rewards never really felt rewarding. If you want to try any of the productivity games or even make your own, my one advice would be to start with picking your reward.

What are the things that bring you joy but may fall under ‘guilty pleasures’? Now is the time to harness the power of pleasure and put it towards your productivity. I’m still learning, trying things out and changing every day but that’s okay. After lots of thinking, I came to the conclusion that this is the only way to juggle many routines at the same time – by reflecting on your priorities and current practices and not being afraid to turn to something unorthodox if it means your work gets done and you’re your happiest self.

Next week on Tuesday, for the final episode of this season, I will discuss why we should return to comforting pieces of fiction when our writer journeys take unexpected turns that we’re struggling to process. One of my favorite books, and the one I re-read when I’m feeling stuck in life, is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I will talk a bit about how I interpret some of his ideas and how they have helped me with my mental health and my writer’s journey.

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If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening/reading everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.

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