Creativity research has a lot to say about the work habits of creative people. Let us look at the issue of working on one thing at a time versus having a number of projects going all at once. What approach do you take with your creative process? Are you among those who single-mindedly work on just one project and carefully avoid being “sidetracked” by something else? Or do you happily juggle several projects at once, switching back and forth among them as you see fit or the mood takes you?

Repeating mirror images of a woman

Creators often have several intuitively-related projects in progress at the same time and exploit the situation to synergize their creative powers with constant cross-fertilization. (Image: public domain)

The Power of Monomania

It can be tempting to insist on working with just one project at a time, starting it, and then continuing with it until it is completed. The idea is simple, straightforward, and produces finished work faster than any other technique. If you can keep going, that is. It may surprise you to learn that many creators are unable to do this. At some point, for any number of reasons, they run into difficulties that prevent them from finishing what they have started. Sometimes they abandon the project and start another – hopefully more easily completed – work. A small number cease working altogether and go through a period of renewed gestation or learning before resuming the interrupted project. Among authors, writer’s block is a frustrating form of this poorly understood process. In the situations with the best outcome, the creator will set the stalled work aside and begin with something else, something new, yet thematically related to what they had previously been doing.

The Benefits of Having Multiple Projects

The tendency to sideline a project and then restart with something new means it is common for creators to have a set of projects under way at the same time. Contrary to what one might expect, what seems at first glance an unfocussed approach actually conceals an effective method. The key here is that the assorted projects are intuitively related. Once they have a few underway, the creator shifts back and forth among them in a way that extracts insights they might otherwise have overlooked. They shuffle ideas, bits of information, and insights into fresh contexts and place them in new relationships with each other, periodically switching from a stalled project to one that is, or has become, more clear.

The scheme is an ongoing effort to express more clearly the creator’s overall artistic vision. The capacity for absorption, so characteristic of the creative individual, applies not just to a single work in progress but also to the creator’s work as a whole, the pursuit of their overarching creative, artistic, and philosophical vision. Creators strive to express their innermost being, their worldview, and the subtlety others so often miss.

Do Not Emulate Leonardo da Vinci

Excessive use of the multiple project strategy would be a bad thing, obviously. Leonardo da Vinci provides a prime example. As a young man, he started project after project until he had a vast store of unfinished works. When he grew old, he realized he could never complete so many. He spent the last years of his life desperately trying to finish those he considered most important. Yet the right number of concurrent projects enables creators to keep busy all the time, thereby, in the end, increasing their productivity.

7 thoughts on “Synergize Your Creativity with Concurrent Projects

  1. This is exactly the way I work. I’ve learned not to be discouraged when a project stalls because working on another one along the same lines will often provoke new insights. And time out from writing altogether can also be a way of restoking creativity.

  2. About 18 years ago, I met Piers Anthony and asked him what he did about writer’s block. He looked at me as if the answer was obvious. He said, “I just go work on something else.” Duh. A writer writes. For me, I tend to focus on one project at a time because I don’t believe in multi-tasking, but if writer’s block sets in or if a story is stale, I have no problem working on something else and then go back to that story later. I actually did this just a couple of weeks ago. One story wasn’t evolving like I wanted it to, so I sat on it, worked and finished another story, and came back to the first and finished it with no problem. They’re both going through the review process now. Great post, Thomas! Thanks!

  3. I think most writers who persist eventually learn the lessons you describe, Catana. It’s the sticking to it that counts. Character is destiny, and with writing, only those who possess a stubborn streak ever win through. There’s no substitute for the “I’m not quitting no matter what!” attitude.

    Concurrent projects can also help develop writing technique. I used (accidently) the multiple project approach to learn the difference between writing extempore and outlining. After failing with an off the cuff novel, I started another with a reasonably good outline and a separate pile of poorly organized notes. When that book faltered, I began a third with a solid outline in which I had integrated the notes before I started writing. I now had three books to fiddle around with and compare results. After the experience, I chose the outline with integrated notes as my regular approach.

  4. Glad you liked the post, Dan. Your Piers Anthony anecdote is pure gold. Few writers can match Anthony’s output so when this man speaks about writing, we should all sit up and listen. Your own recent experience with a story gone awry is also a gem. Like you, I love to hear accounts of how other writers work and eagerly add each new one I encounter to my store of knowledge. We help one another move forward by recounting our struggles with the writing process and sharing the insights we have garnered.

  5. I also started out with a seat of my pants approach. Now, it’s a fairly detailed but flexible outline built on my notes. Only took three false starts to admit I’m not a pantser. I keep learning and refining. My fourth novel is getting close to its final edit, and other projects are champing at the bit to be finished.

  6. Dan, I don’t think many writers appreciate how much is going on at an unconscious level. Back off for a while, and what you need will eventually float to the surface. Sometimes, in very surprising ways.

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