More Focus + Fewer Projects = Increased Productivity


I am the poster child for having the focus of a squirrel caught in traffic. At one point, I had no less than six novels going, plus a bunch of half-baked short stories and several freelancing projects. Oh, and I thought it would be a good idea to learn nine languages on DuoLingo. And I’m always reading between five to seven books at a time. Not to mention hobbies out the wazoo.

My problem is that everything is interesting to me. I want to investigate and pursue it all. Right now. It’s like I’m afraid I’m running out of time. In some ways, I guess I am. We’re all getting older and at the rate my brain generates ideas and interests, I’ll never have enough time to do everything I want to do.

(Incidentally, if you’re like me, you might be a Scanner, a personality type coined by Barbara Sher. If you think you might be, I highly recommend any of her books, but especially Refuse to Choose. Fantastic work.)

For years I pursued this path of madness. Projects all over the place, notes everywhere, bits and pieces of hundreds of things splattered all over my hard drive, and hobby materials crowding my closets. And then one day I faced the truth: All of this “mess” is getting me nowhere. Oh, sure, I look like a very busy person. And I do learn many things.

But nothing ever really gets done. It’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. My concentration has fled, and the daily distractions of the internet, cell phones, and social media have fractured it even more. I mastered “doing” a lot, but completed and mastered very little else.

And there’s the crucial distinction. I want to finish the things I start. Half a novel is no use to me. Neither is half a short story, or half a freelance project. I can’t sell something that isn’t finished. Hobby projects that are half done are just consumers of space. The cross stitch sampler can’t be framed and hung on the wall until it’s finished. A knitted sleeve is not a wearable sweater.

I’d also like to master some things. My ultimate plan is to spend my golden years as an ex-pat in Europe. So, yes, some languages will come in handy. But knowing more than how to ask, “Where’s the bathroom?” is important. I need to pick my top most likely places to spend significant time and focus my learning efforts on those languages. I can learn just enough to get by in the others.

Even those of us who are curious, love to learn, and have more interests than we know what to do with can burn out. It’s also very easy to get confused. When you’re trying to keep six major novel plots and all the associated characters in your head, screw ups are inevitable. Learning nine languages is a recipe for disaster when you somehow manage to ask for the location of the bathroom in four languages, all in one sentence. That’s just not useful.

Worse, there’s the bigger problem that nothing gets done to any standard of quality. It’s all half-assed. As I tried to fit more and more into each day, everything suffered. Delivering crappy work is not the way to get anywhere in life.

Gradually, as these truths dawned on me, I began scaling back. I picked the projects that were most important to me. No more than two novels at a time, and short stories only if they somehow tie into those novels. (They make good freebies or teasers for the main work.) No more than two languages at a time. Even that’s too many, really, and were it not for my plan to ex-pat myself, I’d cut down to one. As for hobbies, I kept most of them, but I rotate them in and out. Some stay all year (board games and Lego), but others get their moment in the sun for the duration of a project and then I switch it up. I still get to do a lot of things, but projects get finished.

And when I am doing something? I give it my full attention. If I’m writing, I write. I don’t check social media or the internet until I’m finished for the day. If I’m crafting, I’m crafting, not watching TV. I read with the TV off, as well. I focus on what is in front of me and nothing else.

And whadda ya know? It’s an odd paradox: The less I do, the more gets done. I finish more novels in a year. I’m actually burning through the levels on DuoLingo as I become more proficient in language. Doing less but focusing more enables me to achieve more. Before I was simply “doing.” Now I am “achieving.” That’s a big difference. And a welcome one.

(Photo courtesy of Alexandra_Koch)

2 thoughts on “More Focus + Fewer Projects = Increased Productivity

  1. mirkabreen

    You’re a marvel, Jennifer. While i can revise and also first-draft different stories more or less in close proximity, i could NEVER first-draft more than one at a time. But maybe that is not a disadvantage, from what you say in this post.

    1. Jennifer Derrick Post author

      Heh. Yeah, I think you’ve got the better end of the deal. I’m trying to get closer to your end of the spectrum because being over here on my end is frying my brain! 🙂


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