Timeboxed Whining

photo by Mark Menzies

Please welcome today’s guest, Monica Bhide, to Writer Unboxed! Monica is a well-established nonfiction writer, appearing in such publications as Food & Wine, The New York Times, Parents, Cooking Light, Prevention, Bon Appetit, and many more. She’s been named one of the seven noteworthy food writers to watch by The Chicago Tribune, and one of the top 10 food writers on Twitter by Mashable. She’s also published three cookbooks, including her June release, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian recipes for the contemporary Kitchen.

Monica’s first short fictional story, entitled Mother, was published by Akashic Books in a collection called Singapore Noir just this month.

Recently, Monica pitched us for a guest post here at WU, and we couldn’t resist. She wrote:

We all deal with writing projects that fail. As a recovering engineer, I felt I need to engineer a way to deal with the failed project and move forward. I hope my technique will help people move forward in a more productive way.

Intrigued? Read on. We think you’ll enjoy Timeboxed Whining as much as we did.

You can learn more about Monica on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

Timeboxed Whining

Some projects die. No matter how talented the creator, how great the project, how awesome the reviews are, there are projects that do not make it. Books with great reviews sell only a few copies, paintings end up in dumpsters, innovative products never make it to market. Why? I don’t know. Maybe the timing wasn’t right, maybe the stars did not align, or maybe the artist wore the wrong shirt.  What is my point? Shit happens.

I have had manuscripts shrivel up and die, and books that I thought would be awesome just barely create a flutter in the market. It is hard. As creative people, we put our heart and souls into our work, and when it doesn’t succeed, all we want to do is quit.

I have created a coping technique to deal with the sadness that accompanies such a situation. I call it “Timeboxed Whining.”

Timeboxing is a technique I learned about during my consulting days in corporate America. Basically, it places a time limit on a situation. For instance, no matter what happens, the six o’clock news needs to go on at six. So the preparation work for that broadcast needs a timebox, which is to say it needs to be completed within a certain timeframe no matter what else happens because there is a hard deadline at the end.

Now, combine that with whining and you have a workable solution to mourning a failed project. (Artists swear by this. I do, too.) This is a five-day exercise. Here is how it works.

Days 1, 2, and 3: Set aside a time when you are going to whine. (Stay with me here.) I pick a time in the afternoon when I am prone to feeling sorry for myself and wondering how I will ever pull out of this failure. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pull out a sheet of paper—no, you cannot do this on the computer. Now start writing all the reasons why you are upset and why the project failed and why you will never succeed again and why the whole world sucks. Instead of calling a friend and complaining about the economy/weather/ whatever is bothering you and having him or her annoy you more (!), write it down. As Julia Cameron says, “put the drama on the paper” where it belongs. And leave it there. Once the 15 minutes are up, place the paper in a envelope. You are not allowed to worry, whine, complain, or think about the project any more. Your timebox is done.

Day 4:  Now that you have finished the whining, it is time to move to the next step. Again give yourself 15 minutes. Start the timer, but this time focus on all the lessons you have learned from this project. What did it teach you about your craft? About the market? About the audience for your product? Finish up and place this paper on your desk.

Day 5: Start the timer – again 15 minutes. What are the top three things about the project that totally rocked? What part did you love the most? At the end of the time, place this sheet on your desk and read it again and again, along with the one about what you learned. Take the envelope filled with the whining and in a ritual that suits your temperament, do what you need to do to get rid of it—burn it, rip and place it in the recycling bin.

It is gone. The sadness is out of your system. You have moved on. The papers in front of you are what will help you move forward: what you have learned (day 4) and how you will apply that to the next project (day 5).

Use this timeboxed whining to create what my old boss called Best Practices and Lessons Learned. Now you have terrific insight to move forward with your next dream project.

How do you deal with the sadness of a failed project?



  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this great technique, Monica. I learned a long time ago that no writing project is ever wasted. I have two starter novels sitting on floppy disks somewhere that will never see the light of day. My first self-published novel, which was the best piece I’ve ever written, has sold few copies. But guess what? I am a better writer today because of my failed projects. In my day job, we debrief every project a few weeks after its conclusion. I urge my staff to be honest. Don’t just focus on what’s right. Tell me what went wrong and what we can do in the future to fix it. Failure is a good thing if we learn from it instread of dwelling on it. Thanks again.

  2. says

    As I’ve stated here before, I’ve tried firing the cat, but she has a strong union, so I’m stuck with her. I, too, have about five dusty manuscripts that shall never be read by anyone other than my wife. But I figure it took me about 3000 hours to write those books. It also took me about 3000 hours of class time to earn my engineering degree (I’m not yet recovering). During that time, I didn’t have any engineering “successes.” As I see it, I’m about finished with my bachelors degree in writing awesome novels (BSWAN). Now I can finally move into my first paying jobs, which will not pay well. But I’ll keep working and improving until I am paid well. And, hopefully, between my 401k and writing career, I’ll be able to afford that 3rd coffee grinder I’ve had my eye on. My point is, I need to remind myself that this is a career change. It will take as many hours, or more, to become a professional writer as it did to become a professional engineer. So I don’t see my previous manuscripts as failures. Just really long term papers. Maybe I won’t graduate Magnum Come Loud or whatever, but I’ll graduate. The tuition is cheap, so I won’t complain if it takes a while.

    • says

      I just had to give a shout out to a fellow engineer turned writer. A self-deprecating statement I routinely make when first engaging fellow writers or readers is to explain my degree is actually in engineering, “like all the good writers are doing these days.”

      Your point is valid. Even after graduation and long before devoting myself to writing, I never worked as a professional engineer, instead finding myself a product manager and proceeding on from there.

      Still, I have never looked at all those hours of engineering study as “wasted.” Those years taught me a way of thinking, how to organize facts and employ logical processes to solve problems. In other words, I learned skills. Even now, mining the deepest vein of creativity I possess, I still call upon the organizational and thought processes I learned while earning my degree all those years ago.

      It may be hard to see at times, hence the need to time-box our disappointments. But projects that fall short are not wasted. They all provide lessons to carry into our next undertaking.

  3. says

    Great article! I love that this allows for and honors the grieving process while moving to closure. I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged “sadness” in my failed projects, and certainly haven’t let go of some. But that’s going to change. :) This process has me eager to tackle several long-dead projects that are cluttering my files. Time to celebrate, bury, and make room for new.

  4. says

    So, in order to remain unboxed as writers, we box something?

    Ah, but it’s boxing something that would hold us back from our overall unboxed-ness. Got it. Thanks.

  5. says

    You make a good point: identify where you are stuck, and find a way to become UNstuck.

    Sort of like the process people use to figure out if they should get a divorce.

    The mark of the right project? That’s you’re not looking for an out.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a place in your files for failed stories, or stories you might want to get back to some day – unless it stops forward progress. You will NEVER be able to write everything you can think of, so you may as well choose wisely – and that includes cutting your losses.

    If you don’t remove the hangers-on somehow – benign neglect works for me – you spend time on them they don’t deserve. Your method makes this conscious – always a good choice.

  6. says

    We used to have a colleague who complained all the time. We gave her 10 minutes at the start of the day, then after a while, 5 minutes to complain. After 3 weeks she had stopped completely! Yes, a good therapeutic technique. Applying it to failed writing projects as you have done works the same way.

    I think failure is a huge topic as is grieving and letting go and moving on. We only think we have failed depending on what our criteria of success is.

    Moving from a success/failure paradigm to one of learning is the succesful way to go.

  7. says

    Back in the old days of snail mail submissions, I remember reading somewhere about giving yourself 48 hours to mourn a rejection. It was a helpful way to go — it let me process but got me back in the game.

  8. says

    I love this! I’ve done something similar, giving myself a time limit to mope about something and it’s worked great, let’s me go through the rough patch with the knowledge that there’s a meadow on the other side. Incorporating the writing it out with a ritual is also great way for processesing it. I will certainly be trying that in the future.

  9. says

    Wow, Monica, this is really sick. How much time do I box in for the failed love affair, for the way I felt when I had to have my dog put down (I still feel that way), and that time when my son was hit by a car in the crosswalk at school? Could I up these to 20 minutes? If I play HEY JUDE three times that should about cover it. Things go away too quickly as it is, to purposefully hurry them along seems wrong somehow. Even failures.

    Let’s say you quit your job and cashed in your 401k when your first book sold to a major publisher. Then let’s say the book failed so miserably in the marketplace, that no publisher wants anything with your name on it. So, the failure was a big one. Something you spent years on hit the brick wall, broke its back, and died. What you are now experiencing with the failure of the project is glaringly akin to PTSD.

    “[As part of my recovery from PTSD], I created a visual space for my domestic violence memories. I had a closet (in my mind) where I kept my memories. I kept memories separate, in boxes with lids on the shelves of the closet. When unwanted thoughts about the domestic violence I suffered crept into my life, I stopped the thought process by telling myself that now isn’t the time. I created an actual visual experience, in which I envisioned taking the memory, opening the closet, taking down an empty box, placing the unwanted memory or thought into the box, closing the box, labeling it and putting the box back on the shelf. Then when I had quiet time or thought I was ready to confront a specific memory, I would visualize going into the closet and taking down the labeled box with that memory. I would open the box and examine the contents. Sometimes I cried, laughed, or mourned. When I had enough, I would put the memory back into the box. I found that, over time, there were fewer and fewer boxes in my closet. And the boxes were smaller and smaller. While I haven’t quite walled the closet over, the last time I went there, the closet was all but empty.”
    Kathlene, Pennsylvania.

    Recovering from PTSD is an ongoing process. You don’t seal the boxes shut (or burn them), you deal with them over time. Not in fifteen minutes. Sealed boxes do NOT go away. They sit there and wait and they will come get you in the end. If not sooner. What you should do is take the boxes down and open them again and again. You spend time with your failures to learn from them.

    So… uh… perhaps beginning a new project does not require closed-boxing the old FAILED project at all. I think we can continue to learn from an old project as we design, develop, and complete a new one. I’m often wrong about these things, but being wrong about something and coming to realize it is pretty cool, too. I might not want to box away a lesson in fifteen minutes or one week. It might be the FAILURE lesson(s) is/are waiting for me to catch up to understanding it/them. Could be next year sometime. Or maybe 2019.

    You suggest we catalog what the failure taught us and then quit thinking about it. What if we don’t know yet what the failure taught us? It’s not like we own time, after all, and can tell it what to do for us. Time… sometimes takes its time.

    Or, hey, we could sentence everyone to 15 minutes for their crimes. You know, over the course of a week, have them write it down “I will not kill anyone any more because it makes people look at me funny… because I’ll lose my job… because no one appreciates how good I am at it… because it doesn’t leave me enough time to do the other things I want to do… I will do something different instead. And the good thing about doing something different is I won’t be killing people any longer. Here’s a list of what’s good about the new thing.” Okay, done. Let me go, please.

    While the premise of setting a strict time limit on whining about something (whining to ourselves, I mean, not whining to others in the workplace) and sealing it in a box appears to be a psychological tool for dealing with failure, it looks more to me like a symptom for needing psychological help for dealing with a failure. It looks like engineered avoidance.

    • says

      Perhaps it was my perception, but I didn’t see Monica’s post as advocating to forget completely a profoundly heart-wrenching experience. Instead, I saw it as providing a means of getting beyond the detrimental paralysis that often accompanies a quantifiable loss (i.e., a single book or writing project that falls short of expectations). Think of it as a tool to quiet the voices of doom in order to resume more productive efforts. Certainly one can still reflect and draw lessons without being trapped by remorse.

      The instant one enters the realm of core emotional issues – the loss of a great love, a devastating collapse of financial security – other courses of action, and time, are needed. Heck, my first novel was about a soldier coming of age even as he copes with war trauma during a period when PTSD was scarcely acknowledged, much less treated. His recovery was by no means a by-the-numbers affair; otherwise, I could simply have produced a powerpoint chart and moved on myself. Matters of the heart are always much more complex and delicate.

    • says

      The woman’s just doing her best to be amusing, not offering a Big Bang theory to solve the problem of writer disappointment. And: to equate someone’s whining over authorial speed bumps to a person faced with post-traumatic stress disorder is to trivialize something that’s not trivial. Even when you go into detail to show you know the reality of PTSD. I say this because you rightly distinguish between hand-ringing over being rejected as a writer, and contending with truly serious crises (a child being struck by a car).

      • says

        Barry, you’re right. And so is Monica. I still believe engineering someone else’s response to a failure, or a series of failures, has risks. I also believe that working for years to build a career as an author and having it hit a wall is perhaps a little more to deal with than what might otherwise be intended here. There’s whining about nothing (why box it at all, just get over yourself) and then there are things, even in failed projects, worth a little more time than your average rejection slip being taped to the wall.

        I also don’t see how a discussion advances at WU if everyone agrees with every post. I thought the posts were launching pads for our input on a topic raised and that input would be varied. When my initial response to the original post was “maybe not for everyone,” I knew I was in trouble. And that is why my post was lengthy. It may just be me, and I am the first to admit how wrong I often am, but it’s starting to feel a bit like the emperor’s clothes around here.

        Time for me to play another game. I honestly didn’t mean to interrupt or intrude on the game being played here. I thought, mistakenly, we were supposed to. So off I go to build my own tennis court and leave this one alone. It’s best for everyone.

        • says

          For no very good reason, I have a strong wish to be understood here. When you say you see no point in discussions in which everyone high-fives everyone else in accordance with some timid fear masquerading as “courtesy,” I am absolutely with you. I don’t understand people whose notion of a comment is to lavish predictable praise on a post. And make no mistake: I know what it’s like as a writer to have the rug pulled out from under you. A formula I subscribe to goes like this: If money is the mother’s milk of politics, hope is the mother’s milk for writers and other creative people. When hope is suddenly lost, that’s when a writer finds out whether he/she is up to the task of getting up for the next round.

        • says

          Randy, productive discussions do not begin by calling the person you disagree with “really sick.”

          I’m a cantankerous sort and very rarely high-five people here, and on every WU post you’re sure to find at least one person who doesn’t believe the poster is 100% perfect. For the most controversial topics, there can be many fewer high-fives than there are sorry-you’re-wrongs.

          I hope you continue to voice your opinions here, but you’ll have more success communicating them if you start with, “I see where you’re coming from, but…” instead of, “You need psychological help.”

  10. says

    What a great idea, Monica!

    Consider me guilty of being unboxed, but I have gone through the same 5 steps mentioned with no time frame in mind. I like your idea of creating parameters, though. This way, it is an event – a process – and rather than being a potential vortex, failure can in fact be a stepping stone.

    I’ve learned to approach all my writing projects like school projects. I can read all I want about how to write a book, but the only real learning comes from trying, and with that, failure lurks. Failure, in fact, is as much a part of learning as success, so I think it is perseverance that is all the more important. Just as with school, you keep moving to higher levels.

    I must say, though, your approach brings to mind a structured time out in the principal’s office. Yeah, I feel awful during those times, but by the end I look at what I learned and how I can apply it, then it’s back to getting my hands dirty.

  11. says

    Monica! you ROCK! This is exactly what I needed this morning. And I need it for some thing(s) beyond the writing life. I’m going to try it – because everything else I seem to be trying doesn’t seem to be working – and after a wake-up call recently, I know I need to get me arse in gear and do something to alter my “mind thoughts” and “mind sets” and all that other goodle-dee-doo.

    So, this afternoon, when things are quiet, I am going to do try this thang and see how it goes.

  12. says

    In the movie BROADCAST NEWS, the Holly Hunter character, a successful news producer, set aside five minutes at the end of each day for crying. (Crying and whining are about the same?) It was really funny because she was so good at it.

    I don’t remember, though, how the story turned out for her.

  13. says

    In this instance, five steps would seem to make more sense that twelve. But it might be worth noting that someone who regularly sees her work published in Food & Wine, The New York Times, Parents, Prevention, Bon Appetit, et al., is probably less at risk for lapsing into whining mode than are most who read Writer Unboxed. You’re just too busy meeting deadlines.
    Still, the point you make is a good one: dwelling on failure longer than it takes to learn from it is a mistake. This puts me in mind of a cartoon I had taped to my office door at Lawrence Technological University. The caption read “One-session psychotherapy.” Back to us, someone is seen standing in an open doorway, just as he is being slapped by a bearded shrink. The speech bubble reads, “Snap out of it!”

  14. says

    Fantastic, Monica. I do something similar, but I call mine a 24-hour Pity Party. I let myself cry, rage, eat crappy food and journal like a crazed woman for 24 hours, then it’s time to move on. Your way seems more organized and less destructive. I’ll try a Timeboxed Whining.

  15. says

    About 15 minutes ago I got a rejection via email. First I pretended it didn’t bother me. Then I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. By the time I was standing over the sink, I was so depressed I was telling myself I might as well stop writing because obviously I sucked at it. Then I started reading blogs and found your post – wow, the universe is pretty amazing sometimes. I’ve done a version of this practice to deal with worries – now I’m going to use it to deal with failure in a healthy way. Thanks!