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 fromĀ 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

Redwork, Bluework, Writework, Youwork

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

There are many parts of writing, but I recently discovered a new way to look at them: Redwork and Bluework.

In his book Leadership is Language, L. David Marquet discusses the role of language, leading, and modern work. The book is worth reading on many levels, but one of his concepts is useful for writers; that there are two kinds of work. They are as follows:

  • Redwork: Redwork is by the clock, solid product, often rote work, getting something done. It despises variability and thrives on efficiency and regularity.
  • Bluework: Bluework is thinking, analyzing, adapting. It is all about variability, analysis, and is outside the clock.

Marquet takes an Agile-like approach in leadership, and much like Agile, he notes there’s a time to think (Blue) and a time to work the clock (Red). You have to take time to go off the clock to think, analyze, and imagine. You have to take time to work, get something done, stick to standards and checklists. Juggling these so they work together is vital to being effective – and avoid making mistakes.

I looked at this division and realized it also applies to writing.

There is a time to dream, imagine, plot out – Bluework. There is a time to write and check grammar and hit your checklists – Redwork. Writing is not all about imagination; it’s about getting creativity to produce a product. Sometimes you dream, sometimes you churn out words.

As I contemplated this, I realized this Red/Blue division is something more writers need, including myself. Writing is not some seamless continuity of creativity but is different kinds of activities coming together. If we do not see these differences, then we miss when we’re ready for Redwork, when we’re ready for Bluework, and when we need to stop one kind and switch to others.

I find this best illustrated from an example in the book; prepare the pause. Similar to an Agile retrospective, the idea is that during Redwork you “bake in” a time to review and evaluate. In Redwork, you don’t want to switch to imagination because it will distract you – but you need to in order to assess results. So you decide you’ll pause and reflect, be it every hour or every week, and so on.

In writing, imagine you set a time to review your work every 5,000 words, and you will set aside time for that. You don’t evaluate productivity by word count during that time, but you have up to two hours to make notes for revision. You stop Redwork and go into Bluework, reading, jotting notes, etc.

Then it’s back to Redwork, and the cycle begins again.

I think many (but not all) good writers do this pause unconsciously, but Marquet’s model gives us a new model to look at it. With new names – Redwork and Bluework – we have a new viewpoint to improve our breaks and evaluations.

I’d go into more detail, but I’ll leave this useful concept here and recommend Marquet’s book. Though it focuses on Leadership, a lone writer is leading themselves, and I’m sure we’d like to be better at guiding our writing. It’s also a reminder that writing is improved by looking at other skills and forms of productivity.

Which of course is a kind of Bluework . . . see what I mean?

Steven Savage