I have a problem.
Well, I have plenty of problems. But one in particular is bugging me right now: I’m no longer in the exciting early stage of my current priority project, brimming with initial enthusiasm. I’m fighting the temptation to fall into a pit of cynicism and despair and tedium.
Not only is it hard to push on during the demoralizing middle stages of a marathon project, I keep having new ideas, which tempt me away from what I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing.
I should keep working on my draft… but perhaps browsing the internet for a secondhand saxophone would be more fun?
At least I’m not alone. Most multipods I know have confessed to me that they’re constantly being enticed away from their current priority by some new, exciting idea.
My usual strategy for keeping on task…
Historically, I have handled pesky new ideas by repressing them. I try to ban myself from even thinking about new musical instruments, other book ideas, languages I’d like to learn, TV shows I’d like to binge…
If any distracting ideas pop up, then I dump them into a document. (This is a handy technique: dumping any irrelevant thoughts into a list, and reviewing them after the project is finished.)
But this strategy of repressing all my new ideas requires a lot of discipline. And, honestly, it isn’t very fun.
An alternative strategy: Tinkering Time
Recently (being the fancy Puttylike insider that I am) I was lucky enough to get a preview copy of Emilie’s new book How To Be Everything.
I used it as an excuse to give myself an afternoon off, and I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, in a cafe on the first day of spring sunshine. (I recommend every part of this.)
On this very pleasant afternoon, I was struck by several of Emilie’s great ideas. One of these ideas, in particular, solves my current problem: an idea Emilie calls “Tinkering Time”. It’s a very simple, very obvious, very practical idea; so clear that as soon as I read it I felt stupid for not thinking of it before.
Simply put, Emilie suggests building a short amount of time for playful productivity into your regular schedule. In other words, first make a list of every activity that you mentally classify as “someday” (someday I’ll write a book / learn Japanese / make a website…) plus all those other tempting ideas that pop up from time to time.
When you need a break from your priority projects or are suffering from extreme shiny object syndrome, allow yourself to set a short timer (Emilie suggests 40 minutes) and play with any or all of these ideas.
So simple. And it addressed many sides of my current getting-through-the-lackluster-middle-of-a-huge-project problem.
The benefits of indulging in unstructured play time
1. Recharging motivation + creativity
Taking a short period of time away from my main priority actually increases my energy. Instead of a constant slog at one project, I can play with something fun and return to the main project re-energized.
2. Leading a more balanced life
Sometimes I don’t let myself play because I fear that I’ll enjoy it too much. (I realize how ridiculous that sounds, but I fear I’ll never get back to what I’m supposed to be working on if I let myself enjoy anything else. I suspect I’m not alone in this!) But if I commit in advance to a specific amount of playtime, I can enjoy it without worrying about killing my progress on my current priorities.
3. Turning play into tangible progress
Without a system like this, I would realistically never make progress on those “someday” goals. The day when I have time to sit down and learn Japanese might just never come. But if I treat tinkering as a reward at the end of a working day, then I have something exciting to look forward to—something which also progresses one of my long-term goals.
4. Taking control of your time
Emilie suggests that you schedule Tinkering Time for later in the day, so you’ve already made progress on your main priorities beforehand. Of course it’s totally in your control. Perhaps a weekly tinkering session works better for you? Shorter sessions, longer sessions, different times of day. Experimentation is the key!
We can move forward on our priority projects and our “someday” projects
I’m excited to experiment with some Tinkering Time in my schedule, to clear my mind and release some of the nervous energy of a long-haul project.
Instead of frittering time away on social media, I’m going to delve into my “someday” list and make my recharging time productive.
How do you balance your shiny new ideas with your current priorities? What are you dying to tinker with right now?
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.