How to Work on Multiple Long-Term Creative Projects at Once
My good friend Jonathan Fields asked the following question on Facebook:
Creative effectiveness Q - Let's say you have 2 distinct creative projects. Both are long-term and will take months to complete. Do you: a) Do one for X hours a day, then the other for Y hours a day, or b) Do one for a full day, then the other on alternating days? Or something else? Experimenting with this now, curious what works for you.
I answered it briefly there, but I wanted to answer it here at length.
First, you might expect me to push back against working on two distinct creative projects at once, but you'd be wrong. Actively working on two or three long-term projects at once can prevent the stuck points, boredom, and general life-hating aspects of working on one monolithic project until it's completed. Similarly, doing one long-term project alongside short-term, finishable projects can help keep your momentum going. Cross-pollination can add depth and new insight to both projects, and the momentum from making progress on shorter projects helps you avoid the feeling that you're never going to be through with the long-term project.
So, with the two options proposed -- and assuming a predictable schedule -- I'd go with (and recommend) A.
Here are a few reasons why:
Daily momentum is easier to maintain than sporadic progress and tends to enhance prolificness. From a mathematical point of view, writing 2,000 words every other day is equivalent to writing 1,000 words every day. From an experiential point of view, they're not at all the same thing.
Many long-term projects need about as much active downtime for incubation and reflection as they do active uptime spent developing them. Our minds have a way of working out one problem subconsciously while we're working on another project consciously.
Option A facilitates realistic chunking better than Option B. Most people tend to be overly optimistic about what they'll actually get done in a day because they're assuming that more time will equal more creative progress, when the reality is that you'll still have the same 4--6 peak creative hours regardless of how much time you have allocated for the day. Jonathan has been cultivating his creative mojo long enough that he'll be able to have four creative blocks per day, so he can allocate two 90-minute blocks per day per project. You'd be really surprised at what you can do in a focused block.
Given #3, I've observed (in myself, friends, and clients) that the time remaining in a day that's outside of peak creative time is spent screen-sucking or force-working because that time was scheduled to be "working on important stuff." It's much harder to quit at 2:30 when you're spent if you've set the intention that you're going to be creating until 4, but the best thing you could do is likely to quit working at 2:30, allow yourself to recharge, and come back if you're inspired. When you know you need to switch projects the next day, it can be really hard to truly let go, in which case the story starts sapping more energy than the work.
When you work on more than three long-term projects at once, it starts to get hairy when it comes to momentum because there just isn't enough creative time to go around. One of the hardest parts about long-term creative projects is that they're hard to pick up once they've gone cold, so juggling more than three inevitably means that you'll spend more time ramping up than being in the groove. I don't have any useful suggestions for how to work on that many projects at once besides to avoid it as much as possible, which normally means deciding which projects you're going to put down so you can finish the ones that are nearer to done.
Obviously, if you've tried both methods and you know the opposite works better for you, do what works for you.