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Start Me Up: Why Lists Can Make All the Difference to Your Writing Process

Dear Nancy,

I find it really hard to get going with my writing in the mornings. I get up early in order to have a couple of hours to write before I have to leave for work, but then I usually waste at least an hour checking the news online, reading email, going through bills, and other things that can wait. Absolutely anything can distract me, and I don’t get up at 5 a.m. to go through my bills. I want to write! Any tips for making my mornings more productive?

Procrastinating in Pennsylvania

Dear Procrastinating,

You need a start-up list. This is a simple tool that gets you into your writing through a series of steps. My start-up list is typed and saved on my computer. I print out twenty or more copies at a time. When I sit down to write, I take out my list and go through the items one by one. It takes about ten minutes, tops. As I “accomplish” each task, I cross it off the list, which is satisfying. When I’m done, I have cleared away all my distractions and I’m “in” to my writing. Sounds too simple to be true? It is, in a way. It’s just a list. But it works.

Everyone’s start-up list will be slightly different, but they are likely to have the same basic features. Your list might also change over time, depending on how the work is going and your circumstances. I have a start-up list for when I’m at a writing residency that is different from my “at home” list. You’ll have to make your own, based on your own preferences and work habits, but I’ll share mine, so you can see what I am talking about.

The first thing on my list is: Make a cup of tea.

No, it’s not writing per se, but I know that if I sit down to write and I don’t have my cup of tea, the first thing I’ll think is, mmmmm, I could do with a cup of tea right about now, and I’ll jump up again to make it. Which is distracting. So let’s just get that one out of the way first, shall we?

Next is: Clear desk. I can’t focus if my desk is littered with paper. I don’t organize my desk – filing is whole separate task. But I do clear it, stack up all the paper, shelve the books, and keep out only what I need for that day. My start-up list is at the top, of course.

Next is: Check email.

Yes, I know – it’s a distraction. But if I don’t do it, it’s more of a distraction, and I do need to stay connected to my clients and students. So I check, see if there are any fires that need to be put out – usually there aren’t – and I’m done. Then this step is swiftly followed by:

Turn on Internet blocking software.

This, for me, is crucial. I use Freedom, which is for Macs, and I wouldn’t get much writing done without it (if you are a PC user, there are various software programs that can block your access for set periods of time – NetNanny is one of them.)

Once my Internet access is blocked I can’t fritter away hours on the New York Times website or play online scrabble, or compulsively check my email twenty more times. I’m blocked, and I know it’s time to get serious and plug into my work instead. I usually block myself for two hours, but the time scale is variable, of course, depending on your schedule and needs.

Next thing on my list: Decide what I want to accomplish in my writing and write it down.

Often, this necessitates another list – my writing “to do” list for the day. It might seem strange to have a list that leads to another list but if you haven’t realized it by now, I’m a firm believer in the focusing power of lists. For me, the very act of writing something down makes it clearer. Therefore, it’s more likely that I’ll do it.

It’s important that you don’t give yourself gargantuan, unachievable tasks at this stage, though. Make the list of what you want to do small and manageable. You can always add to it if you whip through everything in record time.

Next thing on my list: Open the last writing document that I was working on.

Followed by: Reread that document.

Followed by: Start work.

Did I already say that the list is supposed to be elementary? So simple that any fool could do it? That’s what makes it powerful. So yes, I do give myself the instruction to open the last document I was working on, because guess what? If I didn’t, I might go rooting around on my hard drive and decide to reread that college essay I wrote nine years ago, just…because. Because it’s not my work, and I’ll do anything to avoid the work. But click on the last writing document? I can do that. That’s achievable.

Ditto for re-reading. I need to ease myself in and remind myself of what my own writing sounds like. Inevitably, I’ll read a sentence that I immediately want to change. That’s OK. That’s good – see how I am tricking myself into the work?

By the time I have gotten to my final list item – start work – I’m primed and ready. I’ve got my tea, the desk is clear, I’m sitting in front of my computer, free from the Internet, already engaged in the writing, and I have a new set of tasks for the day. I’m set.

So, Procrastinating, this is the power of the start-up list. Make your own, or borrow or adapt mine (reproduced in its entirety below). Good luck.

The start-up list for procrastinating writers

1. Make cup of tea/coffee

2. Clear desk

3. Check email

4. Block internet for ___ hours/minutes

5. Decide what you want to accomplish in your writing that day and write it down

6. Open the last writing document you were working on

7. Reread that document

8. Start work

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