A Writer’s Colony Lesson You Can Apply to You Career (Even If You’re Not a Writer)

September 10, 2012 · 12 comments

When you’re at a writer’s colony, time moves differently.

It moves more slowly, more smoothly. And it stretches out, so 10 days feels like a month.

That’s partly because of the solitude. If you’re not used to spending time alone, in silence, with only crickets for company, 10 days can feel like a long time.

But because of how slowly time moves, you can complete more work and develop more ideas in 10 days than you would at home in a month or even two. Or maybe it’s the other way around, that the massive amounts of creating causes time to creep?

I've managed to get out on my bike most days... Beautiful view.

I’ve managed to get out on my bike most days… Beautiful view.

As I wrap up my third visit to The Hambidge Center, I’m paying close attention to why I’m able to get so much work done here – because I want to be able to replicate that at home.

The main reason, I think, is the lack of distractions.

No phone calls. No email. No doctor’s appointments. No errands. No lunch dates. None of the little distractions that eat into your work time at home. No one’s even allowed to show up uninvited at my studio in the woods, so I know I have the entire day to myself.

And for those of you who have dogs to walk and kids to look after, there are none of those here, either.

I can’t totally ignore my email because my business is still running like normal; I’m still serving clients and selling digital guides. But because I have no email (or phone signal) in my studio, and because I have to walk a quarter of a mile to access the Internet, I’m much more deliberate with my time online. I spend an hour going through email and responding to requests and putting out fires. And then I’m OFF email for the rest of the day.

And know what I’m realizing? That block of Internet time is enough.

Some days, when I’m waiting for correspondence, I need to check email twice or even three times. And sometimes I need to spend more than an hour because my tasks require online access. But in between those small blocks of time online, I don’t truly need the Internet. (And if I do, I keep a running list of little things I’ll do once I’m online again.)

The truth is, most everything and everyone can wait a few hours. Almost nothing is as urgent as I usually make it by keeping my email open all day and responding immediately to each inquiry.

Seen down the road from Hambidge. Won't get that in DC!

Seen down the road from Hambidge. Won’t get that in DC!

I like to keep my email as empty as possible at all times because it makes me feel like my life is in order, like I’m caught up on everything. But perhaps I’m setting a bad precedent by always responding so quickly. Perhaps I’m setting an unhealthy expectation.

There is something special about focusing on work for more than half an hour, an hour, even two hours consecutively. Don’t get me wrong; I work plenty of hours each day when I’m home, but it’s not uninterrupted work. Writing and creating is kind of like sleep – you don’t get the deep kind, the REM kind, until you’ve been in it for a while, without being woken. And you don’t come up with the really smart ideas until you hit REM.

When I think of it that way, it seems like a tragedy that I often deprive myself of REM work when I’m home. It’s like I’m robbing myself of my best creations.

Lots of people preach working in uninterrupted blocks of time for optimum productivity, but I’ve never truly tried it at home. I always find myself distracted – by an item that needs a spot on my calendar, a blog post idea that begs to be fleshed out, an email from a reader who had an ah-ha moment while reading one of my guides. I stick to this multi-tasking routine because it allows me to work via stream of consciousness, to grasp good ideas when they find me. But sometimes, I get so sucked into all those tasks that I forget what I was creating to begin with.

So I’m wondering: what would happen if I forced myself to focus on ONE project for two or three hours, without even the slightest detour? Or if I answered email only during one or two blocks of designated time each day?

What if YOU tried that strategy?

Would you get more done? Would you produce better work?

Would we be able to replicate the super creativity and productivity I experience here at the writer’s colony?

What do you think?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Lawlor September 10, 2012 at 7:35 am

Wow…the comparison to REM sleep is so incredibly true. This is how I feel all the time! Just when I get deep into writing or into a project, there is some kind of distraction or interruption and then my flow is completely out of whack.
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Alexis Grant September 10, 2012 at 11:09 am

Jess — What systems can we put into place to keep that from happening?!

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John Soares September 10, 2012 at 8:38 am

Alexis, you’ve found the key secret to high productivity. It’s crucial to focus on one task for a substantial period of time with no interruptions from people, the phone, or the Internet.

Many of us have a tendency to multitask, and every now and then it can be useful, especially if our brains are in a very creative mode and we’re synthesizing ideas, but usually multitasking drains our energy and decreases our total output.
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Alexis Grant September 10, 2012 at 11:07 am

But now that I’ve found the secret… Can I implement it in my daily life? That’s the big question!

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Shannon Young September 10, 2012 at 10:20 am

I recently started feeling overwhelmed by all the great content that’s available online. Spending so much time reading blogs meant that I wouldn’t leave enough time to achieve any sort of flow on my own projects. I’ve stopped going through my blog reader so carefully and I’m trying not to read anything online until I’ve done a fair bit of work on my own stuff. It’s helped a lot, and I’m now also trying to limit the number of times I check my email. You’re absolutely right that almost everything can wait for a few hours.
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Alexis Grant September 10, 2012 at 11:08 am

People often ask me, “but how do you keep up with it all?”

The answer is YOU DON’T. You don’t even TRY, because that’s setting yourself up for failure. Those of us who are smart know we have to prioritize!

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Susan September 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm

The timing on this post is perfect! I have definitely been experimenting with this lately. Having a full-time job and trying to manage my other projects has been a time-management and productivity challenge.

When I get home from work, I only have a few hours to get a lot done, so I have been attempting to separate my time into chunks: writing (1 hour), (email (20 mins), Google Reader (20 mins), and social media (30 mins). When I’m working on one thing, I close all the other tabs, so there’s no “just checking” Facebook or Gmail for a few minutes. Just that simple act seems to help a lot. When I’ve finished my rotation, I write for another hour and then go back to anything I didn’t have time to finish before. Once I’m working less, I’m going to try to keep this implemented — only with more writing/producing time!

Of course, it’s easier said than done, but I’m hoping that practice will make it perfect!
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Alexis Grant September 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

Wow — you are DISCIPLINED!

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Susan September 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Haha — don’t be too impressed! I think the key word was “attempting.” But, it’s good to have goals, right?!
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Matt Insardi September 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Right On!! Technology has made us more ADD than ever before. Constant distractions like Facebook, twitter, emails all causing instant gratification syndrom distract us from our true potential.

To tap into those creative juices your right about the REM sleep and getting away from distraction because the ability to focus all your energy on one thing like a laser will allow you to crush it…

Squirrel… What was I saying?…
Oh well off to Facebook. ha ah
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Oli Lewington September 17, 2012 at 8:27 am

Great post and great thoughts.

I strive to be more disciplined all the time, but I think I struggle mostly because a) a lot of my work is online (social media and building websites for projects) and b) I don’t keep accurate To Do lists/plan each day properly.

I’m going to do my best to work out a plan of action whereby I can restrict my internet time, although I know it’ll be brutal trying to cut down the time I spend browsing and discovering new and exciting blogs and posts! It’s my crack!
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