Work without interruption

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s an interesting talk by Jason Fried — co-author of Rework, a counterintuitive look at work culture — on why work doesn’t happen at work. “Why,” he asks, “do we expect people to work well if they’re interrupted all day in the office?” Anyone who works in an office will find his argument all too familiar: interruptions by “managers and meetings” disrupt the flow of work to the point where people actually have to go outside the office to get anything done.

For creative work, he says, uninterrupted time is essential:

What you find is that especially with creative people — designers, programmers, writers, engineers, thinkers — that people really need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get something done. You cannot ask somebody to be creative in 15 minutes and really think about a problem. You might have a quick idea but to be in deep thought about a problem and really consider a problem carefully, you need long stretches of uninterrupted time.

Fried also makes an interesting comparison between sleep and work: both, he argues, work in stages: if you’re interrupted, you can’t go back and pick up where you left off, you have to go back and start over.

Here’s why this is relevant to my interests.

One of the hardest things for aspiring writers is finding the time to write. In response, many established writers, at least in science fiction, advise doing it in small chunks: Cory Doctorow tries to find 20 minutes or so a day to write a page or two, and Kevin J. Anderson goes so far as to say that “If you think you need large blocks of time to accomplish any writing, then you’re kidding yourself. One sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time.” The conventional wisdom here, in other words, is diametrically opposed to what Fried is saying above.

I’ve been absorbing the conventional wisdom for decades: make the time, even an hour a day, or half an hour, if that’s all you have. I’ve tried to follow it, and I’ve failed. Why? Because it turns out that I do need to shut everything out and think for extended periods of time. It’s hard for me to bounce from one project to another unless both projects are relatively small and easy. A larger project requires me to do something like getting into character. I can’t just write a few sentences one day, then do other things, come back the next day and write a few more. I have to re-install the project in my head, load all the information into my memory — essentially, inhabit the project’s persona — and that takes time. Even when juggling my many web projects, I’ve found that I can’t switch between projects more than once a day: I can do one thing, then another thing — that’s about it. And blogging doesn’t require nearly the same intensity as writing fiction.

Trying to write for short periods, like the pros do it, didn’t allow me to get into the necessary headspace and do the deep thinking my stories required, so my writing got bogged down. It wasn’t so much the time to write: that I had. It was the time to think — to figure out the complications, solve the problems, build the characters.

I tried something last week. I dedicated three days to doing nothing but write, and at the end of it I had 5,000 words of relatively decent copy. The story is basically trivial, so I’m not going to submit it anywhere, but it was a very useful exercise all the same. In a nutshell, it worked.

It turns out that, for me at least, fiction requires days of focus.

That would be easy to accommodate if all I did was write fiction, but I’m just getting started on that front. I still have to switch modes. So here’s how I think I’m going to manage it from now on. For half the week I’m going to do nothing but blog, and for the other half I’m going to do nothing but write. I suspect that I’m going to get better results than I’ve had trying to blog and write fiction simultaneously, and constantly feeling that each is stealing time from the other. I’m looking forward to seeing if I can do this.