Entry 11: You Gotta Prioritize
Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
Knocked out a solid 500 words today. I expected I’d do more, but pretty good for only spending about an hour or so engaged in the writing itself. The words came easy — you’d be surprised and dismayed by how many different rationales exist for North Korea to launch nuclear first-strikes — but I had to cut my writing time short to focus on other things.
I did an interview with National Public Radio in the morning (will appear on January 23), which took a lot more time than anticipated. I always try to do a little homework before doing interviews so that I can speak extemporaneously but still have details at my disposal. Preparation puts me in the right mindset. Also put in my daily time on editing for the Texas National Security Review, and started up a yoga regimen (long story).
The biggest time commitment today was writing close to 700 words for an entirely different project, on theorizing patterns of Chinese influence in Asia. I’m trying to make it a journal article but not sure it’ll go anywhere. I have five different research projects right now, all in different stages. I work on this book every day and only give these other projects intermittent attention. Gotta prioritize.
I know some people who apply the FIFO (first-in, first-out) accounting principle to their research, only working on a new research topic when they complete the prior one. I’ve never been able to stay on only one topic. My interests are too diverse, and sometimes reading the news or a journal article gives me a spark of an idea that I have to write about or risk losing forever. Writing 700 words is a kind of down payment on future research.
When I was in residence at the Center for a New American Security, my office was next door to the venerable Bob Kaplan. I asked him how he dealt with the need to juggle multiple projects at once. He replied that he thought it essential to be single-minded about book projects, but that it was justifiable to write shorter pieces that were about the same theme or topic. Not only would on-theme short pieces get the juices flowing for your book; it would also build a reservoir of reader awareness that primes them for the book to come.
Alas, my five research projects have almost no overlap with one another.
Van Jackson is a senior editor for War on the Rocks.