Response to a Reader: Getting It All Done

I have been receiving some of the most flattering e-mails from you folks lately. I want to thank you for telling me how much this blog (and the newsletter) mean to you. Really. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.

One of our readers included a question with her kind words. Here’s an excerpt from her e-mail:

How do you do it all?

You recently posed your own question to your blog readers–how does one prioritize, versus “just” set goals?–and related to that, I would like to know what your basic weekly schedule looks like. How do you keep up with the various facets of this varied industry, talked about in so many journals, blogs and other media; teach (and prep for teaching); write (both fiction and nonfiction, and now poetry); read (both for pleasure and for reviews); submit; go to literary events (even just the informal, ‘easy’ ones, like readings); expand to new projects; whatever else I’m neglecting to mention; and sleep and eat? And just think. Or just relax.

[….]I would appreciate your inspiration as well as your concrete, specific ideas (the latter even more so, at this point): How and in what form do you create your to-do ‘lists’? Do you say, wake up by reading a set group of blogs and journals, to always start up-to-date; are lunch hours reserved for pleasure reading (and eating)? You obviously have a good model, and I’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to use it, or adapt it, as well.

Wow! Our reader gives me A LOT of credit. Much more than I deserve.

I’m certainly not satisfied with the amount of reading I’m doing, or with the number of literary events I see listed in Time Out New York but somehow don’t manage to attend. And I shouldn’t receive kudos for teaching or fiction writing these days. As you’ll see if you continue reading through the response I’ve cobbled together for my correspondent:

1) I’ve learned to say “no.” I’ve learned to accept that it’s OK to move on from certain projects and commitments when the time seems right. For example, after one semester teaching my online book reviewing course for the Lesley University MFA program while simultaneously settling into my full-time desk job in New York, I went on a teaching hiatus. While I’m considering returning to teaching in adult education and one-time seminar settings, I’m not taking on any semester-long commitments right now. It’s just too much for me. Similarly, I’ve cut back on producing new e-books/guides (and those I once updated quarterly now receive semi-annual updates). I’ve even retired some of the guides as I’ve the purposes they served (providing lists of short fiction or poetry markets, for example) handled better elsewhere. So I do manage to open up time and mental space for new projects (sometimes!).

2) I use technology, to the extent I’m able. This may seem silly, but my research moved exponentially faster once I switched from dial-up just a few years back. Also, I’m now able to draft some blog posts ahead of time, and schedule them for publication so I don’t have to allow drafting time before work each morning. Those are just two examples. If you’re more tech-savvy than I am–and trust me, there’s an overwhelming likelihood that you are–technology will likely help you with your writing practice, too.

3) I do indeed check the same set of blogs/sites more or less daily, first thing. This may sound odd, but having accumulated a set of resources that I know and trust really makes my information-collecting life much easier.

4) I use my lunch hour for correspondence with editors, more Internet research, blog/newsletter work, etc.

5) I try to update my immediate to-do list each week (usually Sundays). I exchange a list with another practicing writer (a poet). I print out the list after I e-mail it and keep it in my organizer (see, I really am a Luddite–I use a leather-bound organizer).

6) I try to maximize and combine as much as possible. For instance, next month I’ll be attending a writers’ conference, where I’ll focus on fiction more intensively than I’ve been able to do for months. Said conference is in Paris, a city dear to my heart that I haven’t visited for years. Vacation time is especially precious now that I’m a 9-5 gal again. So being able to focus on my writing in a place I’ve been longing to return to makes particular sense for me. (Bonus: It turns out that I will overlap briefly in Paris with one of my best friends, a college roommate who shares my Francophilia; we now live several states apart, so I’ll get in some quality staying-in-touch-with-those-important-to-me time as well.)

7) I get adequate sleep. Although there was a time when I could function on relatively little sleep, that time has passed. I need my sleep, and I make sure I get it. That helps, too.

Finally, though I’m not about to recommend it as a “strategy,” I should acknowledge that I do not have children of my own. Although I do spend a lot of time with the precious little ones in my life (for which I am indescribably grateful; I know that my life–and my writing–is the better for it), I do not have the all-consuming responsibilities of parenthood. And I certainly recognize that that frees up quite a lot of time and energy. It also seems relevant to add that I’m in good health (knock wood); there have been stretches when I was less productive than I might have been because, frankly, I wasn’t. (This public declaration should hopefully encourage me to stop testing fate and start exercising more regularly and rigorously, not to mention getting a little more strict with myself nutrition-wise.)

That’s about all I can come up with right now. Yes, I could agonize over how “complete” this answer is, and/or try to revise it further. But I’m going to stop. And go on to something else.

Anyone else have productivity pointers to share? Please do so, in comments!

2 thoughts on “Response to a Reader: Getting It All Done

  1. B.J. Epstein says:

    As the saying goes, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” And as we used to say at my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, “Done is good.” In other words, I don’t spend time stressing out about the impossible goal of perfection. I try to make things as good as possible, sure, but there is no point wasting time by reworking a piece over and over. Instead, I move on to the next project.

    Best wishes,

  2. Kristin says:

    Thanks for this post, Erika, and thanks also to those who comment with other ideas and advice.

    I sometimes work out of a shared office space for writers (, for those of you in the Portland, Oregon, area), and some members are talking about posting one of those dry-erase multi-month calendars at the space. It will have room for our individual to-do lists and done lists, as well as some bigger-picture goals. This way others know what each of us is working on and has accomplished so we can encourage and celebrate. I’m guessing that’s the main reason Erika exchanges her list with another writer—even the perception that someone else knows what I should be doing will encourage me to actually start doing.

    I’ve also just started a new personal system. I relabeled the A–Z divider cards in one of those small plastic recipe/address boxes with This Monday, This Tuesday…Next Monday, Next Tuesday…and then I bought a multi-color pack of index cards. Each color stands for a different category (ex: writing is green, editing is yellow). The colors are another reminder of what kind of work is on the schedule for the day, and they help me prioritize (even if I have several green writing projects to complete one day, I should probably slip at least one blue personal item in there as a break).

    The whole box is small enough to carry with me, or I can just carry the day’s cards—even smaller, and then I can’t look ahead in my schedule and complete an “easier” task that I really should leave till it’s scheduled, later in the week and after higher priorities. And of course I’ll cross off items and reuse the cards as much as space allows. It seems to be working for me, a person who is more visual than not and who likes to be able to physically move tasks around—and out.

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