The hidden extra work is hard to find. One of the earliest experiments I did at my day job came after I read Sam Carpenter’s book, The Systems Mindset: Managing the Machinery of Your Life.
The book’s a bit dated now. Hard to believe that. It was only published in 2016. It talks about how everything is connected, which plays into how you can’t address only work and solve time management problems. Nor can you address finding extra time to write after work without addressing what’s happening at work.
He gives an example of a process that was very painful and time-consuming. The more steps any process has, the more likely mistakes will happen.
This is particularly true if you’re getting interrupted all the time. All it takes is for you to forget where you are in the process and skip a step. If you want to see this in action, watch Air Disasters. If a pilot gets distracted during the take-off process, he can forget a crucial step. Like forgetting to set the flaps, which causes the plane to crash.
All businesses are good at bureaucracy. You will get more steps, even when you know they don’t make sense.
The bureaucracy can also influence or even spread to your fiction writing.
In Mr. Carpenter’s book, he talked about mapping out all the steps in a process and figuring out if all of them were necessary.
So I did it on a report that was painful to create each week. It took me at least four hours, more if I was interrupted.
It was, like most of the tasks were get, something I inherited from someone else. I did it the way she’d done it.
Every week, I updated a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. The information had to be manually pasted or typed in. It constantly changed. Then I had to create two other versions of it and remove some information because two different departments didn’t want everything.
I emailed it. Then, to store it, I went through a laborious process to format it for printing. It was too big for a standard print run, even on legal paper. Every time the information changed, I had to redo the settings to print.
One of the departments emailed me back. Why was this on their report? I’d goofed up and missed one of the rows and they were unhappy. And if you’ve had problems with the glut of emails, getting ones like this adds an incredible amount of time you don’t need.
It made the report very frustrating. So I dived in, hoping to find places to cut back on some of the time. I used a yellow legal notepad and recorded each step as I did it.
Stopped. Looked at one. Considered. Why was I printing it? The file cabinet simply stored pieces of paper that no one looked at again.
I was printing it because the person I had gotten it from had printed it.
Other steps surfaced as I worked through it. I later went back and added drop-downs to many of the columns to help cut back on my typos. I also added filters, which made building the other two reports less prone to errors.
And asked why I was creating three reports.
One day, I decided to combine everyone on one mailing list, and I only sent out one report. It was terrifying. I expected one of the other groups to squawk at me.
Not a peep.
The result was that I could produce this report in about thirty minutes and have far fewer mistakes.
Gurus will tell you to do a process check like the above on every single task. I find that’s unrealistic. I’ve seen some people say they’ve tipped and tricked themselves to death, following all the rules, and suddenly realize they’ve sucked the life out of what they’re doing.
Just pick one painful task and see what you come up with.
Because then you’ll be more aware of where some of this creeps in.
This showed up for me on the writing side:
I used to be on a different host for my website. A family member had initially recommended it and I used it for an official website for an actor until I handed it off. Then I used the host when I was co-writing. After we broke up, I switched over to my site.
At the time, technology was still developing. I used Microsoft FrontPage to update the site and publish it to the host.
No problems there.
Until my hard drive failed and I had to replace the computer. The extensions no longer worked. I wasn’t sure if it was on my end of theirs. Front Page was discontinued not long after that, though.
I had to rebuild the entire site using the host’s online templates.
The templates were terrible. Though I was a business, none of the templates fit fiction writing. They had images of business people doing business things—you know, those images where everyone’s smiling as they gather around a table.
Definitely not fiction writing!
But I found one that was tolerable because what else could I do? (Yeah, it didn’t occur to me right away that I should look for a new host).
The host used this wizard to create the site. It was simple enough, though frustrating for me because I was used to being able to do more formatting. I got the site up and published.
About then, I was starting to indie publish.
And discovered a problem when I went back to add one of my books. The host’s template assumed:
- You were building a new website
- You were only adding text, not images.
- You were never going to update the website.
It was not designed for frequent updates. I had to rebuild the site with the wizard every single time I added a book. Adding images was a frustrating process. It resulted in me not updating the site when I had a new short story release.
Fortunately, because I’d done an initial mapping of a process in my day job, I recognized a broken process. It also gave me information I could use when shopping around for a new host. I needed a site that could tolerate frequent updates.
These little things add up. The reality is that while I was fussing at the template, my critical voice was getting involved. If it gets too much of a foothold, it’ll land in the writing and stop monkeying around.
Look for tasks that annoy you and see if you can cut the number of steps.
After that, think in terms of “intermediate packets.”
This is a term from Tiago Forte. You can find more details in his book, Building a Second Brain. He also has it on his blog, but it’s behind a paywall.
An intermediate packet makes you less vulnerable to interruptions. Essentially, you break a task down to its smallest parts so that if you do get interrupted, you don’t lose track of where you are.
It was a very hard concept for me to understand. I’d think of a task as everything that had to do with this thing I had to do.
For the day job: With a report, I had to download it, review it, fix problem one, fix problem two, contact Joe Smith, contain Jane Doe, etc. If I got interrupted, I’d miss that I still needed to fix problem two until someone contacted me and it was now an emergency.
For indie publishing: Format the book into the template, proofread, write the blurb, come up with keywords, find the cover image, create the cover, publish to three sites, and post the cover and link on my site. If I got interrupted (in this case, because I was worn out from all the interruptions at work), I’d miss something like a typo in the blurb, which I then have to correct.
Breaking this down a little more with the report example:
- Download the report (or actually reports, since I try to do multiple for batching).
- Review it and identify anything that needs action. Note it on the report.
- If I have an issue that needs help desk intervention, add a task on my calendar to do it the next day (since I know that will take some time to get through).
- Record all the names of the people I need to contact first, then contact them via Teams. This is another batching, so I can copy the spreadsheet section impacting them and paste it into the Teams.
If I get interrupted during any stage, I can refer back to what I’ve already done and knock it out. Once I’m finished with the reports, I move them out of my downloads into my archives so I know I got it done.
Onto the indie example:
- I build a keyword guide and dump all the keywords into it, adding more as I need to. This is so much better than me trying to reinvent the keywords every time I publish. I have one for my GALCOM Universe series, one for Dice Ford, Superhero, and one for fantasy. I’ll eventually add mystery and science fiction.
- I built a category map and dump all the categories I want to use on one publishing site so I can reuse everything.
- Find the image. This can usually be batched with finding more than one cover.
- Create the cover. This sometimes has a revisit to the second task. Sometimes I download an image and it’s not right, or too complicated for a cover, or not enough contrast.
- Drop the story in my first template. Quick formatting round to clean it up.
- Write the blurb (it goes in the template with the story).
- Run my macro. This uses FrEdit, which you can find online. In my GALCOM Universe series, it searches for the ship name, including my misspellings of it, and replaces it with an italicized version. I also have some phrases I want it to look for because I use them too much.
- Run Microsoft Word’s spell check, Grammarly (free version), and ProWritingAid. I proofread and edit, then run PerfectIt.
- Migrate to my source file and download the license for the image(s). A brief check through and any additional formatting clean-up.
- Migrate to my eBook template.
- Build my Jutoh file and create the epub.
- Publish to the three sites.
- Update my website.
- Review the story’s folder to make sure everything is named properly and I’ve downloaded all the image licenses.
That’s a lot of individual tasks! When I tried publishing before, my critical voice informed me that it was easy and why wasn’t I doing it more? I pantsed the steps, not always in the correct order, and interrupted myself just being tired from the day job.
Intermediate packets make completing something more dummy-proof. But also, it shows you as well how much work something is.
It’s well known that we underestimate how much time something takes. Our critical voice jumps to the result and says, “This isn’t going to take much time.”
And then you find something that will be harder than you expect, you get interrupted, start on it again, get interrupted again, and by the time you surface, you’re on something. It gets forgotten.
It becomes very stressful when you do miss steps. During the bad days of the day job, I woke up in the middle of the night, dreaming about all the things I’d forgotten after getting interrupted a dozen times a day.