Successful Outcomes for Our Work, by Louise DeSalvo
May 25, 2010
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working through David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I read it years ago. Incorporated many of his fantastic suggestions about doing work into my writing practice. But I needed a refresher course. And so, back to the book again.
There’s much of importance in this book for writers. But I’d like to remark on just two of Allen’s suggestions that have made all the difference in the world to me. (I’ll probably discuss more of them in the future.)
The first is focusing upon what the successful outcome will be of any project we undertake. Allen says that few of us are taught to focus on the successful outcomes of our projects – what, when they’re finished they’ll look like. Few of us, too, are taught to determine what actions we need to take to complete our projects. Instead, many of us go to our desks and start working. We amass pages; we write what seem like chapters. We imagine that by simply writing, our books will take shape themselves, and we’re confused, discouraged, and overwhelmed when that doesn’t happen. We make huge “to do” lists of what we need to do to write our books, without having thought about the end result of all of this activity. But, says Allen, if we continually focus on what we want the successful outcome to be before we begin working, our work will be purposeful, rather than random, and we’ll be more successful more quickly.
To illustrate. A successful outcome for my current project might read: “An 80,000 to 90,000 word book about my father’s experiences before, during, and after his service in World War II, and the effect of those experiences upon him and our family.” This seems like such an obvious thing to do. But I can tell you that, when I ask writers to tell me what the outcome of all their work will be, not all of them have thought about it, and not many of them can state it succinctly.
Still, when we know where we’re heading, we can think about the actions we need to achieve that end. Allen suggests we write our desired successful outcomes down. Allen suggests writing everything down; he says that if something is on your mind and not on paper, it impairs your creativity, your ability to work purposefully, your ability to focus. When you capture everything on paper, when you’re not overwhelmed by thoughts about what you need to do, you can be in the moment, you can focus on whatever task you’re doing, you can work more quickly and efficiently.
But then, too, we need to think about the successful outcomes for the major parts of our projects. “Completed Prologue inviting the reader into the work, introducing the major themes and ‘characters’” might be what I want the successful outcome for the first part of my book to be. I need to write that down. And, too, we need to write down successful outcomes for each day’s work for each of our projects. I keep a notebook on my desk for just that purpose.
Here are a few of my daily “successful outcomes” entries for the book I’m working on now:
6 April: Finished draft of PT dream sequence.
8 April: Revised version “Apologia” section of what might become part of the introduction.
12 April: Another revised version of “Apologia,” incorporating readers’ suggestions where appropriate.
4 May: Another draft of “Lifeboat” incorporating readers’ suggestions where appropriate.
10 May: Revised Prologue, incorporating “Apologia” material.
Notice I’ve written the outcome as if it’s been completed: I’m telling my brain what I want to happen. And I’ve written it down so I can refer to it, so I don’t go off track.
I try to be realistic about what I can successfully accomplish on any given day. At the beginning of writing the book, for example, a “successful outcome” might read: “2 page draft of PT dream material.” But I’ve been working on this book for years, and I’m now revising material I’ve written and rewritten several times, which is why it might seem that I’m accomplishing a lot in each work session listed above. I’m now at the stage where I can work more quickly because there have been many, many other sessions where I generated new work rather than revised, many other sessions where I revised completed work. My successful outcome for the whole chunk of the PT dream material might read: “Completed version of PT dream sequence.” My successful outcome for incorporating this chunk into my Prologue might read: “Prologue material with PT dream sequence incorporated into it.”
Before moving on to the next of Allen’s suggestions I’ve found most useful, let me say what writing down “successful outcomes” has done for my writing process.
When I work like this, I don’t feel overwhelmed; I feel less confused than I ordinarily do; I feel as if my daily writing sessions are adding up to something instead of circling round and round and going nowhere. Even at the beginning stages, if I know where I’m headed, I will be drafting material that I suspect I will one day incorporate into my finished book. (My book, Writing as a Way of Healing describes appropriate behavior at the various stages of the writing process.) Most important, I know what my finished book will be about. And you would be surprised how many writers I know just write without knowing what they want their books to be about, as if the subject will emerge one day without our taking the time to think about it.
This is one of Allen’s crucial points – that not only do we have to do our work, we have to think about the direction our work is heading, about what we want the outcome to be. So many of us don’t know how to do this, don’t take the time to do this, don’t want to do this. But not to do this is to work less efficiently than we can.
The idea of articulating a successful outcome is but one of Allen’s suggestions.
Another is identifying the next action we should take to move our projects in the direction of our intended successful outcome. Once we’ve decided upon a successful outcome for the day, Allen says that we should write down the very next action we need to undertake – the “Next to Do” – to move the project along, and then, we should work on just that single thing.
What I love about this idea of the “Next to Do” is that it permits me to focus. Without having just one “Next to Do” in front of me, my mind races, I do this, and then that, and I get nowhere. After I finish one “Next to Do,” I move on to writing the next one for the day, and I do that. Some days, there is only one; some days, there are several, but I only write them down one at a time.
Let me illustrate from my last day’s work on my book. Please note that I did not write down all the “To dos” at the start of my work session. I wrote only the first. When I completed that, I wrote the second. When I completed that, I wrote the third, and so on.
Friday 21 May 2010
Successful Outcome: “Flushing Out the Enemy” prologue material “married with” second version of the prologue to create a new prologue entitled Prologue: “Flushing Out the Enemy.”
[Note: “Flushing Out the Enemy” material was in its fourth draft; the other prologue material was in its tenth or eleventh draft; each had been written and revised over the last few years. Note, too, that I know precisely what the outcome of my day’s work will be.]
Next to Do:
1. Continue to retype “Flushing…” incorporating handwritten revisions from yesterday.
[This, I complete in an hour.]
2. Find overlapping “Are you going to write about me?” material in second version of prologue and read against similar material in “Flushing….”
[This takes ten minutes.]
3. Integrate the two, keeping the best wording from each.
[This takes twenty minutes.]
4. Print new version of prologue
[This takes no time. I know writers who don’t print hard copy; I think this practice impedes the work; I print every time there’s a new version of my work.]
5. Write down new word total.
[I keep a tally of how many words exist of my work in progress; this takes no time.]
6. Assemble all material for possible Epilogue from existing manuscripts into one document so I can read it and print document.
[This takes about fifteen minutes.]
7. Read “Wearing…version 4” against version 5 to make sure all changes incorporated.
[Note that this is Epilogue material; this takes about ten minutes.]
8. Read Epilogue material and revise on document.
[This takes a half hour.]
9. Incorporate changes into Epilogue.
[This takes fifteen minutes.]
10. Print Epilogue
11. Enter totals.
12. File old versions; file new versions.
That’s twelve “Next To Dos” in a three-hour writing session. But I only ever had one “Next To Do” in front of me. The “Next To Do” is the single very next action that will move the project along to its successful outcome. It’s the one very next action. Not ten. Not twelve. Not twenty.
If I’d written down all twelve at the start of my day, I suspect I would have gotten none done. My brain would have been spinning. I would have jumped from one thing to another. But look at what I got done by focusing on only one simple, doable task at a time.
Try it. Write down your “Successful Outcome” for your project; for a chunk of your project; for your day’s work. Write down your Next To Do. These are powerful tools. And when you have the time, pick up Allen’s book. You won’t be sorry.