Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Accountability groups and time boxing to help find focus

When the pandemic hit last year, I struggled to focus as society and the world as we knew it changed before our eyes. I had deadlines to meet, and projects to finish, but I was perpetually distracted, sleeping badly, and anxious. And it makes sense -- nothing this past year has been normal and it's even less normal to push through it and work anyway

In those early weeks, all I could do was draw coloring pages for families stuck at home, posted to Instagram, as some small way to help someone out there who might be struggling, too:

I'm part of the community at You Belong Here, an arts and co-working space here in San Diego. Last March, when I presented my focus problem during our entrepreneur meetups (now happening virtually on Zoom), my friend Nic enthusiastically suggested: CAVE DAY! Cave Day runs 1 and 3 hour work sessions on Zoom (like a silent study hall) facilitated by trained guides who lead participants through stretches and refreshing periodic breaks.

This combination of accountability and time boxing -- has really helped me, and maybe something like this will help you if you're struggling with focus, too.

A painting by Susie Ghahremani, created during Cave Day virtual co-working sessions

Accountability to me means setting goals or making plans with others in the same position. 

At Cave Day, hundreds of people working from home join sessions daily, all hoping to move the needle on our projects or work. Our cameras are all on as we video conference in silence together. We are a community of people who want to improve our focus and to have better boundaries around our work. At this point, I typically participate in Cave Day 5 days a week, and have logged hundreds of sessions. They continue to be helpful to me.

Accountability can also look like joining a group like 12x12, Storystorm, entering your work in a SCBWI manuscript review or portfolio show, a 100 Day Project, or taking a class -- all of which meet a specific challenge with SMART goal criteria.

What are SMART goals? SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

For example, in the 12x12 challenge: it's writing / revising 12 picture book texts during the course of a year. For Storystorm, it's generating a picture book idea every day for 30 consecutive days, in January. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based -- with a community engaged in the same.

Time Boxing for me means dedicating a specific time to a specific task. By signing up for a 3 hour session on Cave Day, I can plan the work I want to do during that period of time. That has helped with the toxic feeling of Always Needing To Be Working. It also helps me set up an actionable plan around when I'll focus and what I'll accomplish. It also helps me to time box things like learning, revisions, working on new artwork, emailing, using social media, etc.

One hallmark of this past year is that time has felt basically meaningless when every day feels exactly the same, so time boxing helps with that feeling as well. Here's more info about time boxing.

It's hard to believe we're coming up on a year of pandemic life. During this time, folks here at KidLitArtists have continued illustrating, writing, creating, and releasing new books, while also tending to their kids and parents and friends and communities and mental/physical health. It's a lot! It was a lot even before the pandemic.

If you're not able to focus -- or you're feeling like you're just barely getting by -- you're not alone. Hope these tips help you, and please share your tips in the comments!

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Susie Ghahremani (@boygirlparty) is the author and illustrator of picture books STACK THE CATS and BALANCE THE BIRDS

She is also the illustrator of WHAT WILL GROW by Jennifer Ward, WHAT WILL HATCH by Jennifer Ward, LITTLE MUIR'S SONG by John Muir, SHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED by Marcus Ewert, and LITTLE MUIR'S NIGHT by John Muir.

She paints with gouache, wanders in forests, listens to vinyl records, and snuggles her baby nieces.

Find her at: Boygirlparty | Patreon | Etsy | Fb | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok


  1. I do a version of Cave Day with a friend over zoom. We’ve been doing it off and on for years, but it’s one of the only things that’s helped get my butt in chair this year. Real Cave Day sounds amazing.

  2. I do a version of Cave Day with a friend over zoom. We’ve been doing it off and on for years, but it’s one of the only things that’s helped get my butt in chair this year. Real Cave Day sounds amazing.