Last issue, I talked about "shoulds" vs. "wants" -- and how to choose which project to work on. But there's another type of "should" that crops up all too often in a writer's life, one that will never, ever attain the status of "want." Indeed, if it had ever been a "want" it probably wouldn't exist. It's the dreaded backlog.
There are many ways to define "backlog," so here's mine. It's that thing that preys on your mind. It's that thing that looms over your shoulder. It's always lurking, always there. It's the third party in the "should vs. want" discussion -- when you're trying to choose between the project you know you ought to do and the project you'd really like to do... and the elephant in the room, the project you're really avoiding, the one that's more important than either of them: your backlog.
Backlog is often the child of procrastination, but it's not the same as simply putting something off. I procrastinate on writing my novel, but that's not "backlog." I may get to it someday, or I may not; the only consequence of "not" is that it doesn't get written.
Backlog is what occurs when procrastination -- or, sometimes, unforeseen events -- result in the postponement of something that actually needs to be done. For example, if I have a book contract that's due in three months, and it takes me one month to write three chapters, and I still have 20 chapters to write, that's backlog. It doesn't really matter why I have fallen behind; what matters is that I have, and that somehow I have to catch up or face some sort of consequence.
Quite often, backlog begins fairly innocently. One of my lurking backlogs involves my sideline eBay business. I love to shop at thrift shops, where I scout for items that I can resell at a profit -- thereby, in a nutshell, "shopping for pleasure and profit." Last November, I had a small backlog of stuff that needed to be photographed and posted for sale. Without thinking, I put up my holiday decorations -- and realized that I'd eliminated my photography spot. I'd have to wait until after Christmas to do the photos... Meanwhile, the pile continued to grow. No worries, I thought, in January I'll tackle this... But in January, a series of unexpected, and unexpectedly time-consuming, projects with tight deadlines suddenly hit, and since the eBay business really is a "sideline," it remained on the back burner.
Did I stop shopping? No; that would have been too sensible. By June, an entire bedroom closet was full of "stuff." The only thing that finally triggered a massive, three-day photo shoot was the fact that we'd decided to have the bedroom painted, and I realized I'd better photograph the stuff before packing it up and moving it. It's still not all listed, but at least the pile is getting smaller rather than larger.
That's another characteristic of backlog: It tends to get bigger over time. Consequently, it becomes harder and harder to face. This is where procrastination tends to enter the picture: We put something off while it still looks relatively small and manageable, thinking, "I'll get to that in just a bit." Just a bit becomes quite a long bit, and in the interim, the project has grown from "small and manageable" to "huge and overwhelming." At that stage, we begin avoiding it, because now we can't figure out when to carve out the time to take on something so massive.
To genuinely qualify as "backlog," the task (or tasks) must be something that genuinely needs to be done. There may be a significant consequence (such as defaulting upon a book contract). Or, it may be that you can't move on in a project until the backlog has been taken care of. My eBay business, for instance, is fundamentally "on hold" until the backlog is processed -- not a disaster, certainly, but certainly a loss of revenues. Sometimes a project can drag on, unfinished, for years due to backlog.
A backlog is more than just a huge task, or pile of tasks, that needs to be done. It's a joy-killer. It's emotionally draining. Because you know it needs to be done, you can never completely get it out of your mind. There's always the nagging thought that you should be tackling it -- but because it has become so overwhelming, it's repeatedly postponed for some more immediate need. That ends up adding to the guilt (and in some cases, it also adds to the size of the backlog itself). Backlogs drain our energy even when we're not actually working on them, because it takes energy to grapple with the guilt that arises every time we think about it and don't do anything about it.
Now, here's where I'd like to jump in with a cheery bit of advice on how to make backlogs go away quickly and easily and painlessly. Here's a new trick, a new twist that will solve this problem, tame the beast and make it go away.
Except... there isn't one. At least, if there is, I haven't found it. The only cure for backlog is to stop running from it, turn around, and tackle it. Accept that it is huge and that this isn't going to change. Accept that it's going to be a monster and this also isn't going to change. But most importantly, accept that you do have the power to defeat it -- that's the real change. It doesn't have to control you. You can control it. You can make a plan to get rid of it.
My own experience has been that the only good way to tackle a backlog is to make it my top priority. It means putting everything else on hold. I've found that backlogs don't really yield to the "nibble" principle -- work on it a little bit here and a little bit there, when you have a little spare time. They're almost impervious to nibbling. They need the sledgehammer approach: Clear your desk, sit down, and concentrate entirely on the backlog.
Often, you'll find that when you give the backlog your full attention, it goes away more quickly than you anticipated. It took me only three afternoons to catch up on eight months of eBay photos. I suspect the "full immersion" factor helps as well -- when you devote yourself entirely to "backlog" and avoid distractions, it's much easier to get into a rhythm that gets things done. And finally, dedicating yourself to your backlog switches your mental state. You move from a state of avoidance (and guilt, and dread, and worry) to a state of control. You're taking charge. Instead of running from the monster that has been looming over your shoulder, you're facing it head-on. And you're going to win.
Once you've done that, you make a wonderful discovery: Instead of a "backlog," you have a "major accomplishment" -- a source of pride rather than dread. And it feels wonderful.