Working on multiple projects at once

Writer? Juggler? Email answerer? It's hard to know for sure what to put on your Form 1040.

Ah, it’s a special kind of joy in the life of a professional freelancer: one project is in edits and another is in proofs and your’re supposed to be launching a third one and drafting a fourth. Or possibly you’re supposed to be drafting two different things at once, and somehow coming up with ideas for both and keeping their character arcs and plots separate in your head.

And that’s not even considering the problem of work-life balance, because as we all know, when you’re your own boss, the work will expand to fill every corner of your life, if you let it.

In fact, let’s not even consider that.

Let’s just talk about some strategies for getting ten or fifteen different jobs done at once. Or at least, in parallel.


I (and many other) writers tend to find that we only have so many good hours in a given day for intensely creative work. Three to five seems to be the common number, and often those hours occur at a specific time of day.

One can try to write more, and for some people an eight-hour day works out. For others, though, it’s courting burnout and exhaustion, and they may find they get less done when working more hours.

For me, I’m most productive in terms of drafting in the morning. So I set my day up so that I’m working on new material before lunch (and at that time, I have an internet blocker running to keep myself from being derailed into email, etc) and then on revisions or promo or hey—this newsletter—or answering emails or writing nonfiction in the afternoon. If I hit the real creative work when I’m fresh, also, it’s done before I tackle the administrivia (or “authoring” as I call it, as opposed to “writing”) … and the email doesn’t expand to suck up my entire working day.

Also, blocking social media really helps, frankly.

When I’m on the finishing burn on a draft, I may write all day—that’s when I feel like I’ve figured out the whole end of the story and it’s in my head pushing to get out. What stops me then are physical limitations.

But Bear, I hear you say, I’m not a full-time writer! What then??

Well, then you make the time when you can, and manage your projects (if you are smart) so that you’re not overcommitted around your day job. I have a Hugo-winning friend who gets up at 4 am to write before work; I used to do this (not being so dedicated, it was 5 am) and having that time limit of “You have to be in the shower at 6:30” actually did a lot to make me focused and productive.

Also, 5 am is quiet. You can get a lot done when the world is in bed. Perhaps then you can work on a different project at lunch, or when you get home at night.

different days

Another workable strategy is to break up your obligations by day. Mondays-Thursdays might be fiction, and Fridays administrivia and page proofs, for example. Schedulers can help you make sure your promo is set up and ready to go on social media and websites, so you don’t have to spend the entire week of book launch tweeting things. Tweetdeck has a good scheduler, though currently it’s only available on the older posting interface, but it’s easy to toggle back and forth with a click.

environmental cues

But say you’re trying to work on two creative projects at once—drafting two different short stories, say, or a novel and a poem. Are there ways to make it easier to switch back and forth between them?

Sure! Environmental cues can help your subconscious focus on what you want it to be working on. Scent cues, choice of clothing, music playlists, even a different beverage for each project can give your brain the hook it needs to get into the appropriate mode for a given project.

I find that layering these cues—music plus scent plus anything else—can be a very effective cue as to what I’m supposed to be focused on.

Anything that offers a physical sensation can help you focus, by the way—I know writers who put on a particular hat or a ring when they start to work, or hang up a pendant, or start a metronome. (The metronome would drive me bonkers.)

The trick is to experiment and find what works for you. A lot of writers of my acquaintance use a different scent for each novel, or even for each character, to help them get into the right mood. Playlists are popular, too.

I used to be able to listen to playlists when I wrote, and found it a useful mood-setting tool. Alas, now I’ve discovered that with my increasing age, I can’t concentrate through changing music or music with lyrics anymore, and I’m stuck with movie scores or ambient stuff that maintains a unity of feeling throughout.

change of scene

This one isn’t useful for me, because I do my best work in one corner of the couch, and while I love writing dates for social reasons I find that I get much more done if I just lock myself away at home and work than if I’m hanging in a coffee shop. However, for a lot of people, having a desk for admin work and one for creation is effective, or going to a coffee shop or library for one kind of work, or using a standing desk to answer email, for example. It can often help to get your administrivia off of your writing computer, also.

One thing that’s super effective for me is writing before I get out of bed in the morning. If I just sit up and get to work—no email, no social media—I often find that a lot gets done before I even crawl downstairs to get my first cup of coffee.

I hope that gives you some ideas! Back soon, and in the meantime, hang in there. I’ll be wrestling these edits and trying to write this future!mystery novella until I talk to you again.