When I left my last day job and began freelancing full-time, what I was most looking forward to was having more time to work on my comic.

That initial excitement lasted about a day.  Between sending out countless queries and project bids, coming up with ideas to pitch to people, building contact lists, and simply not feeling entitled to work on personal projects until all the job-related ones were done, I found myself having less time to spend on anything that wasn’t helping pay the bills.

But my worst problem, now that I didn’t have a micromanager breathing down my neck, was procrastination.

I don’t know about you, but the majority of time I waste isn’t spent on the kind of things people stereotypically waste time on.  I’m not marathoning series on Netflix or playing video games for hours a day.  It’s much dumber than that: compulsively checking forums for responses to my posts, browsing Twitter, reading short blog entries, and the like.  I’ve always convinced myself that by keeping my distractions small, I’d minimize the amount of time I spent away from my work.  However, they start to add up, and next thing I know, I’ve wasted so much time watching Youtube clips of a movie that I might as well have just watched the whole thing.

There’s a reason I’m so prone to that: I’ve been diagnosed with ADD twice in my life, once as a kid and once as an adult, but never medicated for familial and money reasons.  I’m not trying to get rid of it—which is impossible, anyway—but I do have to manage it in order to get things done and keep myself from being thrown out on the street.

How does all this relate to webcomics?  Two ways.  For one, I suspect that the reason many creators abandon their comics is a gradual loss of the will to focus on them and get them done, so I hope this post will prevent at least one webcomic from being cast into indefinite hiatus hell.

But there’s also a personal connection: when I first started drawing mine in April, I had problems sitting still and usually took frequent breaks.  But as it went on, I found myself able to work on it for hours without stopping, something I’d rarely been able to do in any other area of life.  That was because the ability to tell a story that interested me was a powerful motivator, much more than school or any of the dull, low-paying jobs I’d held to that point had been.

But the feeling of being able to work like that was awesome in and of itself, and one that I wished I could experience more, so I started trying to channel it in other areas.  All my life, I’d thought focus was some magical power everyone had but me, like the ability to do the Vulcan salute.  (No, really: my fingers just won’t separate like that.)  But working on the webcomic had given me hope.

And it turns out, as this Lifehacker article explains, that the hardest part is just getting started.  You can’t just jump out of bed and get to work—like starting a car on a cold day, you have to give yourself time to prepare for it.  For me, this usually means getting all my remaining internet activities done at the start of the day so I won’t be tempted to do them later.

There’s another key aspect, however: once you get going, you have to resist anything that might break your trance: that’s why they always tell you to turn your phone and instant messenger off.  You also have to control any of your own habits that snap you back to reality.  For example, I used to get up and pace around the room while thinking, but after a few months of freelancing, I realized I’d have to stop.

One way to train yourself out of bad habits to try working in public.  Having the public eye on you is a good way to prevent yourself from wandering around the room, playing music, or stopping for a quick fap.  Public spaces are often better work environments than your darkened bedroom anyway, especially if you can find one that provides you with more access to reference material than you have at home.  I’ve always gotten my best work done in bookstores.  (In fact, I’m writing this from a Barnes & Noble.)

But overall, the most effective method I’ve discovered is simply denying myself permission to indulge in distractions: in the war on your lizard brain, appeasement doesn’t work.

To get personal again, I grew up in a household with a lot of restrictions, so I tend to resist them in my current life.  When I left home, one of the first things I did was indulge in all the stuff I wasn’t allowed to growing up—junk food, video games, TV marathons, that kind of thing.  And to this day, I sometimes convince myself that I don’t need any more discipline, and that indulging all my whims will lead to getting better work done later.

“If I just get a coffee now, I’ll be able to stay awake much longer and get much more stuff done later.”
“If I just watch this Youtube video now, I won’t have to watch it later, so I’ll get my stuff done much more efficiently with that temptation removed.”
“If I just check Reddit one more time now, I won’t have it hanging over my head anymore, and I’ll be much less nervous when I finally get my stuff done.”
But that’s been a huge hamper to my productivity, and I wasn’t able to really go anywhere until I finally realized that.

My next step was to cut back my internet presence, lessening the amount of social satisfaction I required it to provide.  Social media and forums are colossal time-sinks not because they’re particularly fun or interesting, but because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of posting things you hope the horde will like, then compulsively checking every few minutes to see if they’ve validated your self-esteem.  But the problem is that—text being a terrible medium for bonding with people—the amount of fulfillment you get from online interaction pales in comparison to the real-life kind, so it’s a very short high.  Not to mention that as soon as you get that little hit of self-esteem or faith in humanity, in comes a GIFTer to steal it, and you have to start all over again.  Getting it from somewhere else will help cut the internet’s temptation off at its source.

Then, I got three things to help with the actual work:

The Post-Its, I use to make a list of the next few tasks I need to get done.  I used to make a daily to-do list with them, but I found that I was always underestimating the amount of time it took me to do things.  So now, I just make a list of the next few tasks and stick them on my drawing board, ordered from most to least important.   “Background reminders” go on a side table.

The timer, I use for work periods.  I set it for either half an hour or an hour, depending on the complexity of the task and how long I feel like working.  (Don’t go too long or you’ll risk burnout.)  Then, I full-screen it so that it’s always in the background when I have a window half-open, and for the duration of that time, I won’t let myself do anything that isn’t work-related.  No internet distractions, no checking or answering any form of communication, no leaving the desk for any reason short of a fire.  FocalFilter just helps me stay off all my time-wasting sites.

Finally, I guess you could say I’ve been trying meditation, but I prefer not to call it that.  I prefer to simply call it “telling my brain to shut the fuck up.”  …Which I think is an effective summary of meditation, anyway.

It can be done anywhere, and you don’t even need a mat.  For example, while on short drives, I’ll make it a point to focus completely on the act of driving – not looking around, not singing, not talking to myself or mulling over that idea I had for an article pitch.  Just silently focusing on driving.  At stoplights, I’ll concentrate on a fixed point, like the car ahead’s license plate.

These two last parts, self-denial and focus exercises, are the hardest.  In fact, I’ve lapsed in them recently, especially when it comes to cutting out the frivolous coffee and bathroom breaks in the middle of my work.  (And one probably leads to the other, now that I think about it.)

However, I’m also learning not to beat myself up over missing deadlines.

No matter how efficient you are, the amount of work you do is directly tied to the amount of time you spend doing it.  Butler and Hope’s Managing Your Mind
calls this “The Law of Mass Effect,” but I can’t find that term being used anywhere else, so I think they just pulled it out of their ass.  Anyway, no matter how obvious it seems on the surface, there’s a hidden lesson in it: don’t fall for shortcuts or “brain hacks” that promise you the ability to rush through twice the work in half the time.  They rarely work.

Also remember that your webcomic’s quality is directly tied to the amount of work you put into it, whether that work goes into perfecting the actual pages or practicing for years to be able to draw them faster.  So, despite the importance of keeping the amount of time between your updates reasonable, it’s better to be a bit late than to skimp on the quality.

On a related note, make sure to take Hofstadter’s law into account: in fact, I personally believe it’s as constant and unbreakable as gravity.  For the uninitiated, Hofstadter’s law states that everything will take longer than expected.  If you set an estimated date for its completion, you’ll probably overrun it.  And if you set a new date, you’ll probably overrun that too.

It’s strangely appropriate that this blog was four days late, as it gives me a chance to expound on this: If everything had gone according to plan over the last week, this post would have been right on time.  But it very much didn’t.

I’d expected to get it done on Friday night after work, but I got a surprise call from an old friend who was in town for the first time in almost a year, asking if I wanted to go out that night, and by the time we got home…  Let’s just say I was in no state to write anything.

On Saturday, after waking up mid-afternoon, I decided to upload the content I needed to complete my new website first, since that was a higher priority.  It shouldn’t have taken more than an hour or so, as all the hard formatting had already been finished, but it turned out that adding pictures completely broke the layout, so I had to spend the rest of the day figuring out how to fix it.

On Sunday, just as I sat down to write, a client called me and asked if I could drive out immediately to take some photos for a business card he wanted done ASAP.  He’s paying and this blog isn’t, so that took precedent.  Then, I noticed something else wrong with the site, which ended up taking several hours to fix because I’m a terrible coder.

On Monday, I was woken up by a family member banging on my door and telling me that there was an emergency she needed my immediate help with.  I won’t go into detail on that, but it ended up consuming the whole day.  (It turned out fine, though.)

The point I’m so laboriously getting to is that life intervenes.   Pretty much all the time, without fail.  If you’re assertive enough to tell it off when it tries to intrude on your time, then good on you, but for many of us, that’s just not an option.  Hopefully, you’ll have the foresight to plan for that, and allow much more time than you actually need to do things when setting deadlines.  I don’t, so I’ve just resolved to stop worrying too much about missing them.

So, that’s what I have to say about productivity.  It was much more self-indulgent than anything I’ve written, but that’s only because I think real life examples are better for this kind of thing than hypothetical ones.  Plus, I’m sure plenty of other creators have found themselves in similar situations, or facing similar problems.  It’s also much less webcomic-focused than any other posts to this point, but that’s because I wanted to write a post that would be able to help anyone who works on the internet in any capacity.  This blog will return to its normal self by the next post, which will be on dialog.

…Yet another thing my comic doesn’t have.

TL;DR

If you have problems with procrastination, eliminate distractions, time yourself, and practice with focus exercises, timed work shifts, and working in public.  However, remember that life will always intervene, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right away.


  I’m tired of using stock photos for my posts, but I’m not the type to ask people to illustrate my work for free.  So, if anyone knows any artists, preferably ones with webcomics, who would let me be willing to use their existing work, let me know: sea.ess.jones[at]gmail.com

Image by Boozle‘s Sara Goetter