The art of compartmentalising (or how I finished four books in a year)

So... this is one of those blog posts when I need to say 'do as I say, not as I do'. I've written in the past about the importance of regularity in blogging, and about keeping blog posts short to avoid getting bogged down. Well, with it being 12 months since my last post it's clearly time for me to take a dose of my own medicine.

I will, however, claim some extenuating circumstances. Put simply, over the last 12 months I've had a lot of work to do. And when push comes to shove, as they say, it's work for my clients that comes first.

During the last year I've helped four separate books come to life: a business book and three memoirs. My involvement in these has varied from drafting and re-drafting all 80,000 words to heavy editing and rewriting. In three cases I've assisted with self-publishing while the other book will be trade published next month (more on that next time).

Working on four books at once

While I've thoroughly enjoyed working on each of these books, the challenge has been that I needed to work on all four at once. They were all at different stages at different times, but none of them could be left completely alone for very long. In addition the books were all quite different from one another in terms of their content, style and tone.

Moving between them without losing too much concentration was not always easy. The secret to my success, I believe, was that over the years I've become quite adept at compartmentalisation of my time and focus.

What does that mean in practice?

Basically it means working in chunks of time. I do that in part by using the 'pomodoro technique' – working in 25-minute blocks of concentrated work followed by a five-minute break. I've used that technique for many years now.

But when compartmentalising my work I go further than that and work in groups of pomodori. My ideal day would consist of four of those 25-minutes blocks first thing, all spent on one of the book projects. After a short break, which helped to clear the head, I would then switch to another project and do another four pomodori.

After lunch I would do, typically, a 3 x 25-minute session on another project (three instead of four due to a lower energy level in the afternoon). Then a good walk with the dog or a trip to the gym, followed by a final three- or four-pomodoro session in the late afternoon.

Obsessive, but flexible

Now that might all sound a little obsessive, but bear in mind what I've just described is the ideal day. Many days didn't/don't turn out exactly like that. I would rarely get time on all four books in one day. I'm human, and some days procrastination got the better of me. Other times other work or meetings got in the way.

By far I'm most productive in the mornings so I try hard to make sure that those two morning sessions went to plan. I would focus those sessions on whichever projects needed the most concentrated work at the time, and on some days, if I got on a roll, I would spend the entire morning on one project.

And if the ideal structure of my day just falls apart? Well ... there's always tomorrow. I don't let myself get too fussed about it.

Of course I have the luxury of working on my own with minimal interruptions which does help me stick to a plan most days. However I do believe that aspects of compartmentalisation can be applied – and can help – with many jobs, particularly where you have a big, longer term project (such as writing a book) on your to-do list.

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