So what do I mean by this? It’s actually not as nutty as it sounds. In my bedroom I have three closets, one of which is the entire back wall and consists of four 2-panel doors. The doors are white, stretch floor-to-ceiling, and are really good at retaining sticky notes.
It’s actually rather simple, but if I’m being honest, it’s changed everything about my process for the better.
Previously when I’ve outlined my work, it’s always been pen-to-paper or otherwise typed up on the computer. That means sitting down (or sometimes lying down, I do a considerable amount of writing stretched out on the floor actually), usually at a desk or a table if I want to stay focused, or on the couch if I’m just doing it for fun.
So this post is actually about productivity.
When I say “stay focused,” I really mean this in a relative way. Computers are very distracting to me. I start most of my difficult first drafts by handwriting them simply because it’s easier for me to get ideas out without my troll-brain taking over and causing my attention to wander off.
But when I outline with the sticky notes, I’m not sitting at my desk or stretched out on the floor. I’m standing up. And moving around. And pacing. And engaging with the space around me. I usually have my headphones in and my phone in my back pocket, so other than to change a song here and there, I don’t check it. And like most people with ADD, if I’m moving around my troll-brain is quiet/generally content, which allows the rest of my brain to get stuff done.
AND, even better, changing my outlines has never been faster. Yesterday I woke up after going to sleep on a plot problem, looked at my board, changed two scenes around, and the problem was fixed. Previously, this would’ve required me to pull out an outline, completely rewrite a whole section, and spend a lot of time reading through it to make sure it still worked. And of course, every time I pull out my computer is another chance I’m going to get distracted by something entirely unrelated.
And now here’s a tangent about being productive with ADD.
As I get more and more serious about my fiction, I’ve really been having to change the way I look at productivity. In the past, when fiction was merely my hobby, I wrote whenever I wanted to. Sure, I wrote almost daily, but only when I felt like it. Now, however, I have myself on a schedule (weekly posts can be daunting if you let them stack up), and that’s in addition to my paid nonfiction writing. So I no longer have the luxury of writing only when I’m inspired. Writing has become work and (contrary to what my younger self feared) I’m definitely okay with that.
But this also brings writing into conflict with the troll-brain.
What do I mean when I say troll-brain? “Troll-brain” is what I call the part of my brain that gets distracted, takes over, and derails my focus. I’ve heard other people refer to this as a sort of manic monkey or a monster that eats up all their productivity. For me, it’s my troll-brain. It isn’t all of my brain, it’s really just a tiny corner, but it has to be constantly dealt with diplomatically if I want to stay on top of things.
For years I’ve tried to use force to stay focused.
This means that I’ve told myself “If I just exercise enough willpower, I can sit at this desk and get things done like a ‘normal person.'” And I’m often very productive at desks, that much is true. But it’s one of those things where it works until it doesn’t, and it will stop working whenever it pleases. I’ve always been a fidgeter, I embraced that part of myself several years ago. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve embraced the fact that, sometimes, I need to work while moving and walking around.
It also helps that I work from home, in a job that requires me to do a lot of creative brainstorming and outlining. Back when I held an office job, this sort of way of staying focused just wasn’t possible. The kind of work I did was tied to the computer at all times. I could get up and take a lap around the office, but as a break, not as a different way of being productive. In the end I always returned to my chair and computer and the battle started again.
In martial arts, this strategy is known as push hands.
I’ve done martial arts since I was five, and when I was growing up it was something my whole family did. So one of the strategies my parents taught me to deal with any sort of conflict was taken wholesale from Tai Chi, and it was the concept of push hands. Push hands is a drill where two people are touching hands and trying to redirect the other’s energy without using force. This means going in the direction of your partner’s energy while using that same momentum to slowly guide them in the direction you want them to go.
It’s almost embarrassing to me, given how long I’ve used push hands in other aspects of my life — leadership, conflict resolution, conflict avoidance, friendly debate — that it’s taken me this long to embrace it as a method of combatting the troll-brain. In the past I’ve tried to muscle through, thinking “No, if I just focus hard enough, I will be able to sit at this desk and work!” and many times, I was successful, but that success was won only after expending a lot of energy and getting relatively little gain for it.
This next metaphor is for you parents out there.
But if I do what I need to do (outline a story or an article or a paid blog post) in a way that the troll-brain wants me to do it (not sitting at a desk putting words to page), I expend less energy and get more work done. And then from there, it’s almost like putting a baby down to nap. While the baby is sleeping, you get your busy work done.
So when I do my storyboards, I always have my computer or my notebook out on my desk. I use the storyboard to get my ideas in order and silence the troll-brain. Then, while it’s asleep, I jot down a rough paragraph before returning to my outline. Back and forth, until I have a complete rough draft.
And after that it’s smooth sailing. The troll-brain loves editing. It’s one of our favorite forms of procrastinating.
The long and the short of it is this:
- Troll-brain = ADD
- Combatting the troll-brain via sheer will power = inefficient, exhausting
- Abandoning traditional ways of doing work in order to adapt ways that satisfy the troll-brain = effective
- Katherine’s efficiency at tasks that she previously got distracted at = increased 200%
- Also, Katherine has three closets. Feel free to feel a little jealous.