Red and Blue, Focus and Schedule

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One of the significant challenges of writing is focusing on writing when we have to worry about schedules. We want to get words into reality, but we also have to ask if the book is on time, where the cover art is, etc. It’s hard to write when you’re worrying – and rare is the writer I’ve met who didn’t have concerns about time weigh on them.

I found a helpful perspective in the works of David Marquet. Previously I wrote about Marquet’s concept of Redwork and Bluework from Leadership is Language. It’s a valuable concept that humans work in two modes – Red (measured, time-based, measurable) and Blue (imaginative, non-linear, creative). Some of this applies to writing and worry – in a surprising way.

The act of actually writing is Redwork in many ways – putting words down following an outline or a direction. Bluework is the plotting, imagining, and outlining. In some cases, one may alter which kind of work they’re doing rapidly, but the division is useful.

Redwork may have a time component – you work for so long or deliver so many words – but it is not the time far into the future. Whatever limits and goals we set on our writing Redwork, those should focus us on the job at hand. Anything else is just disruptive.

The Bluework of writing – plotting, making timelines, etc. – is when we want to think of larger timeframes. That’s when you work out how you’re doing on your schedule or what the plan is. Bluework may be imaginative, but sometimes it takes imagination to figure out how to get a book out on time.

What I learned from this examination is that when I write, I focus on writing. If I worry about the schedule, I just focus on the writing all the more – almost like a meditation. There’s no time to think long-term, and that will just mess you up.

So now I’m working to save my worrying for when I’m not writing. If I get words down and words edited, I’ll always move forward. If I think about schedules during the Bluework of planning and review, I’ll be ready to figure out how to get to my goals.

Marquet’s idea of dividing up work into two kinds is useful, and it’s also useful to figure how they apply to various goals. I think I’ve got more lessons to learn as they apply to writing.

Steven Savage

The Purple Pain of the Author

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Serdar picked up my post on David Marquet’s different forms of work and explored his own experiences in understanding the work of writing. We both understand writing involves radically different kinds of work – grammar, putting out words, worldbuilding, etc. In his own analysis this stood out to me:

I’ve long been averse to what should be the more “fun” side of the job — the worldbuilding, the coming-up-with-stuff part of it. Some of that I can trace directly to the time-manglement [sic] issues outlined here. But the rest of it is an outgrowth of those things, a second-order effect. Because I’ve not been very conscious of how to handle the just-coming-up-with-stuff phase vs. the get-the-words-down phase, I get averse to going too deeply into the former at times, to avoid becoming … well, unproductive! I feel like that way lies drowning, where I end up writing an encyclopedia about my setting instead of writing the actual book.

Some of us may know that worry – that our wild imaginations may make things, but won’t advance the work we want to do. Others of us may have different worries in a similar vein – that the wild part of writing can take over and we may make but won’t write.

Martquet’s Book Leadership is Language, which inspired my original post, addresses this problem. He describes two forms of work – Redwork (the grind, the clock, and “Get It Done”) and Bluework (creative, imaginative, off the clock). Healthy work of any kind has time for Redwork and time for Bluework. He repeatedly warns of the danger of slipping from Bluework to Redwork – because they different and their mindsets conflict. You can’t create and dream watching the clock and ticking checkboxes.

If you, like Serdar, fear that the time spent worldbuilding or dreaming is going to get out of hand, that’s applying a Redwork mindset (“the need to turn out specific things”) to Bluework creativity. A fear of producing nothing – or producing too much – is just applying the Redwork obsession with productivity to something that doesn’t work that way. A few minutes of consideration and you’ll recall times like that in your own life – I do.

Fortunately Marquette – and myself – are used to addressing this. If Bluework falls into Redwork for you – or you fear you can’t take time to imagine – you formalize it. Every X hours/days/whatever you spend Y minutes/hours/days using your imagination to build worlds, or analyze code, or dream up new book ideas. You formally take time to step outside of formal nose-to-the-grindstone work, and then return with whatever you find at the end. In that time you’re free to let your mind go – even if it goes nowhere in some Zen Koan irony.

This is one of my own obsessions – how we can build systems to support creativity. It’s also why analyses like Serdar’s matter – when we reflect and share on our challenges we learn from them. If you’re a writer, you need to keep analyzing how you work and grow – and finding new perspectives, such as a book on leadership.

That contemplation of our own flaws as creatives? That’s Bluework, by the way. Many of us seem to happily shift into letting our minds go when we wish to look at our own flaws. There’s a lesson in that too, I’m sure.

Steven Savage