So far, so Snails

I said a while ago that some day I would start working on my novel again. That day is today! Well, technically it was the 1st of July … but I’m still working on it today!

For 3 weeks now I’ve been sitting down to write from 10am-12pm, then again from 1pm-5pm. Basically I’m trying to treat Project Snails like a proper job. I know it’s not, since I’m not getting paid for it (yet), but it’s one of my ways of tricking myself into being productive. So if you hear me talk about “working” in the near future, feel free to mentally sub in a dismissive verb of your choice.

Ten things I’ve learned since starting:

1. Writing all day is perfectly possible. I have to break through a few walls of “Oh god, there’s no way I can do this”, but if I just ignore that feeling and get on with it, it works.

2. However, it does weird things to me. My perception of time goes a bit wonky – one moment time seems to be creeping along at a snail’s ™ pace, but then suddenly it’s the end of the working day and I feel like I’ve only been writing for a few minutes. I also feel a weird kind of exhausted – a slightly amusing detached kind, like I’m looking at video footage of myself falling asleep and going “Ha! He’s so tired, the buffoon.” And almost every night since I’ve started I’ve had very vivid dreams which I defy any Dream Dictionary in the world to decipher. In one, the government was providing a stripper to every house in the country for Thanksgiving (and bear in mind this dream, like my life, was set in the UK). In another, I gave an inspiring lecture on morality to two teenage pickpockets. Then there was the one about pandas leaping into the air to disarm a missile over Edinburgh … I could go on.

Big Rambly Notebook
The Big Rambly Notebook. Aaa-aaa-aaah.

3. If I’m struggling with a section, or even just one sentence or word, it helps to switch away from typing the actual novel in the Big Official Document and start scribbling notes in the Big Rambly Notebook. I might talk more about the Big Rambly Notebook in a later post, but basically it seems to be able to solve any problem if you just scribble rambly stuff in it for long enough.

4. If I’m really stuck with the novel, or just want a break from it, it helps to have something else to switch to for a while that I can still count as work – like brainstorming comedy sketch ideas for Project Ho Ho Ho!

5. Wearing a shirt makes me feel productive even when I’m not.

6. I’ve lost the will to read much, possibly because I’m so immersed in my own fictional world that popping out to visit other people’s seems tricky at best and dangerous at worst – almost like I might not be able to find my way back. It may also be because humans aren’t really designed to stare at a bunch of words all day. This makes me sad, since I was greatly enjoying my post-uni freedom to read whatever nonsense I felt like, but hopefully I’ll eventually settle into some rhythm where I can get away with reading a bit more.

7. On the days when I write less, I tend to be more confident that what I’m writing is what I should be writing. On days when I write more (I had one this week where I wrote 4,000 words), I worry that I’m getting lazy or going off in the wrong direction. My mind does love to be contrary.

8. Watching pointless videos on the internet is much more fun if you save it as a reward for yourself rather than doing it all day while soaking in a pool of self-loathing-induced tears.

9. It’s hard to think of interesting pictures to accompany blog posts about writing.

10. If I aim for something to be the best thing ever, it will usually turn out sort of okay-ish.


My week’s been pretty productive so far. As much as I’d like to give myself some credit, I think it’s mostly down to this thing:

No wait, the framing of that picture might have been misleading. I meant this:

Let me explain. (The second picture, I mean, don’t ask me to explain the first one.) In one of my infrequent attempts to find a reliable way to trick my brain into being productive, I’ve been using this timer, which counts down from 20 minutes and 1 second and then goes be-be-be-beep, be-be-be-beep until you reset it. I think of a task to do – this used to be reading books for university, but this week it’s mostly been working on mixes for Project Bubble – start the timer, and focus solely on that task until the sudden beeping snaps me out of it. But by that time, I’m often so involved in the task at hand that I keep going for longer.

I think this is necessary because I never think I want to do anything useful or enriching, basically anything that requires any commitment whatsoever. Even playing a game or reading a book sometimes seems like too much effort. When I do make the little effort required to get started on something worthwhile or genuinely enjoyable, I almost always find it’s worth it. But the supremely lazy and cynical me that’s in charge a lot of the time is happy to fritter away hours, days, just clicking through his bookmarks bar in a depressing cycle, waiting for something to change in the online world, something that will motivate him to get his behind in gear and get out there and do something amazing!! It never does…

What this timer does is let me know “Okay, you only have to do this for 20 minutes and 1 second, then you can feel good about yourself and go back to your boring and mildly self-destructive ways”. Because there’s a definite end in sight, not too far away, it’s not too intimidating to start a task. Whatever I’m doing, I get a sense of achievement when the beeper goes off, which, however hollow, seems to be psychologically important to me.

I can’t remember if I read this exact idea somewhere, but I remember hearing that your brain can only concentrate on something for 20 minutes. This sounds suspiciously like one of those made-up pop psychology facts, but somehow 20 minutes has become an important length of time in my head. Unlike with 30 minutes, you can comfortably fit two of them into an hour, including all the faffing around, cycling through websites, working out what to do next, sitting down in the right place with the right stuff, etc. that inevitably happens in between. (The extra second is to compensate for the time it takes me to remove my finger from the “start/stop” button on the timer and begin my task. Sadly, I didn’t add it on just to make myself seem strange. That takes no embellishment.)

This has been pretty successful this week. Five out of six of the mixes for Project Bubble are in a good place. (The other one doesn’t exist yet, but let’s not think about that!) Who knows how long this method will continue to work, but no doubt I’ll come up with another productivity experiment once the novelty wears off this one. Maybe some day I’ll find one that works indefinitely! When that happens, I’ll either tell you about it or take over the world. We’ll see.