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September 14th, 2009:

Covington on Time Management

I’m short on time today (and will be for probably the next week or two) so it’s appropriate to point you to Dr. Michael Covington’s post on how he teaches time management to graduate students. Much gold to be dug here, and most of what he says applies to writing a book as well as writing a doctorial thesis. Never let a day go by without progress is one of the toughest goals to meet, but also one of the most important. Life intrudes, especially for freelance writers who have houses, spouses, kids, dogs, and day jobs. Still, you should try. Take too many “days off” and you will waste time recovering context when you return to the task. This happened to me several times while I was writing Assembly Language Step By Step, Third Edition, and the deeper the subject, the more subtle the context, and therefore the easier it is to lose. (We had several family crises in Chicago while the writing was underway, and such things are impossible to avoid. I got better at context recovery through practice, but it’s still time lost that you’ll never have again.)

Another thing that Michael alludes to is that you can’t split up a difficult writing task into widely-scattered one-hour bursts. One hour is not like every other hour, except for well-defined rotework. More to the point, there is something I call “flow,” which means that I’ve goosed my subconscious into a state of high activity, and it’s spitting words up from the depths almost exactly as quickly as I can write them down. This is more common in fiction than nonfiction, but I did find that there were moments when I was blasting away at 100 wpm+ on things like passing parameters to libc functions, because I knew the material well and had had a good night’s sleep. But once you’re in flow, it’s best to keep going until it stops, or until you run out of evening, energy, or both. If you think recovering context is hard, just try to get back into flow after any interruption more involving than a bathroom break.

And finally, the Big One, which Michael does not place in bold but which in fact should be in dayglow colors: Productive people know what not to spend time on. In other words, half the trick of time management is interruption management. When I know that a flow attack is imminent and I have a free afternoon, I turn off Skype and my cell phone, clear all the toys out of my taskbar (including email) and do absolutely nothing but make tracks on the project. Without that discipline, I would not have finished ALSBS3E; in fact, without that discipline, I’m not sure I would ever finish anything.You don’t see me post as often on Contra these days as I used to because I’m feeling better and getting more done in other areas. But that’s also the reason I gather short items into Odd Lots entries: It’s less disruptive to bookmark something and gather bookmarks into a list later on than to be constantly formatting and posting one-liners.

Assuming that you have at least basic literacy in the topic at hand, success consists of focus plus debris. Really. And so on that note, back to work.