Questionable: Managing Writing Time

Cate M asked:

In the real life category, how do you multitask productively when half the tasks are a day job you want to advance in, and half the tasks are story tasks, plus the work that should but is realistically never going to happen, i.e., the ironing basket? You seem to do a lot of multitasking.

Multi-tasking means doing several things at once and it’s a bad, bad, bad idea for writing because it fragments your focus. Better is to figure out what you have to do, the time you have to do it, and make a realistic schedule to follow, one thing at a time. So . . .

1. Make a list of what you want to accomplish each day, each week, etc.
2. Estimate realistically how long it takes you to do each thing. Round up.
3. Find out how many hours your daily to-do list will take. Notice that it’s more than twenty-four hours so that even if you didn’t eat or sleep, you still couldn’t do all of that in one day.
4. Now put the tasks on that list in order of importance, the most important at the top. Be realistic and be savage about what really is important to you, not what you think should be important to you.
5. You have sixteen hours in a day (because you’re sleeping eight hours, and no, you can’t get by on less that that, stop punishing your brain and body because you think you’re SuperGuy or SuperGirl, you’re a human being not a robot). Add up the times on the list and when you get to ten or twelve, draw a line under the last one. (Where do the extra four hours go? Traffic, doctor’s appointments, school plays . . .)
6. Delete everything else from the list. You can’t do those things, you don’t have enough time, and they’re not super-important to you anyway. Stop trying to put twenty pounds of activity into a five-pound day. It wastes your time and annoys the day.

Generally speaking (and I do mean “generally”) most working-an-outside-job and/or raising-children people who really want to write can spare half an hour to an hour a day to write. That’s about it. If you live alone and you don’t care that your house looks like a landfill (that would be my house) you have more time, but the combination of work and family means that it’s really tough. Maybe you only get half an hour a day. Maybe some days–doctor’s appointments, school plays, houseguests–you don’t get that.

The key is: That’s okay. This is your life, right now. Organize it, definitely, but organize it so that you’re not suffering, so that things get done without rushing around and without guilt, and if they don’t get done, well, hell, that happens. Tomorrow is another day. Get rid of everything that isn’t essential, tick the tasks off your To Do list, and stop feeling guilty. Guilt is a real creativity killer, not to mention a savage assault on the quality of your life.

Also don’t forget to dance around the house singing into a salt shaker like a microphone at least once a day. It’s done wonders for me.

27 thoughts on “Questionable: Managing Writing Time

  1. Guilt was a huge factor for me. I took one sunny Saturday afternoon by a pool to make a list of my Essential Time and non-essential time. I have a hard time sleeping, so I have about 3 more hours in my day than anyone should. I type away in those hours. Making that list was crucial for me.
    My day job isn’t in a field where I want to advance, but that’s from where the guilt stemmed. (The ‘does my indifference to what I’m doing right now make me selfish, outright irresponsible or both?’ kind of guilt) I have to pay the bills, so I use my lunch hour scribbling free hand.
    My list also helped me say no to the things I normally wouldn’t have in order to concentrate on the writing. Now I accept social invitations only when I fear my sweet friends will grow worried I’ve somehow managed to grow a beard and start a lint collection.
    My admiration for anyone who can handle a career while raising a family AND write a book -or any other thing, really- is immeasurable.

  2. And in the motivation department, I would add:

    be kind to yourself – as kind as possible

    use stickers liberally, on calendars, notebooks, whatever. Stickers make nice small rewards, for small amount of work. I get a star when ever I stand in my studio and do something, ANYthing.

  3. I find that if you don’t allow yourself the glass of wine (or a cookie, for those who don’t drink) until after the writing, it focuses the mind wonderfully.

    But really, I aim at writing every day. Some days that is 30 minutes (and the result may be two paragraphs) and some days it is 3 hours. But if it is on my To Do list daily, it helps.

  4. Also I think there’s this assumption by many that if someone isn’t writing for hours and hours everyday then they’re not really ‘writers’. Writing an hour a day for a few months will get you your first draft finished. Maybe the problem is the pre-writing? Not knowing enough about the characters and the story to feel comfortable diving in everyday and just writing?

    1. Also, within reason, be sure to count the time spent daydreaming about the story. That’s part of writing too. Not if ALL you do is the daydreaming for years on end, of course, but if you alternate the daydreaming with the putting it on the page, then the lying in bed and thinking, or the sitting on the porch watching the squirrels go by and imagining parts of your story, or whatever else seemingly non-productive activity you indulge — that’s just part of the process, and needs to be counted in the “things I’ve done today” tally. (I really encourage keeping an accomplishments tally. It helps to know that you have, in fact, been working toward your goal, especially when the work is in small increments.)

  5. My advice is to also keep track of the time you actually spend doing things. I always wonder how other people manage to spend hours on the phone or in front of the TV and then lament about not having time for anything. I mean, it’s alright to watch TV or just sit in the sunshine but be aware of the time it takes. If you really want to write that book, these might be the minutes you need to cut.

  6. RE sleep: I think the North American attitude about sleep–that it’s not that important, that it’s lazy, that you can do without it, that you don’t need as much as you think you do, etc.–is both ignorant and irrespponsible. Study after study after study shows that people who don’t get enough sleep: have more health problems; develop depression and focus problems; are less productive; have poorer ability to perceive, evaluate, and organize; have and/or cause more car accidents; make more mistakes at work; etc.

    I can’t write well if I go more than one night without enough sleep. If I go more than 2-3 nights without enough sleep, I can’t write at ALL, and I am slow and inefficient about performing other tasks.

    So whatever the solution to time management, I strongly discourage people from cutting out sleep. When I was in grade school, I had a full-time course load, two part-time jobs, and I also had books under contract. The only reason I was able to keep it all going (and leave with a 4.0 average) and also never get sick that year (whereas most of my fellow students were walking petrie-dishes of virus and illness) was that I prioritized getting enough sleep. No matter what the workload, I made sure I got 8 hours of sleep a night (with only a couple of deviations when time was so crunched that I had to stay up all night to finish a research paper on time).

    Okay, off my soapbox now. Just EMPHATICALLY agreeing with Jenny about not sacrificing sleep when trying to manage writing time!

    1. Oh, I agree. I’m not willingly depriving myself of sleep. It’s just difficult for me to get it. The meds I’ve been prescribed for it often leave me just drunk & nonsensical rather than rested. I started using my metronome for the ticking sound and that seems to help

  7. SF/F novelist Stephen Leigh aka SL Farrell has written about 30 books while always having full-time day job (in recent years, he’s been teaching undergrad sf/f writing at a local university in their genre-fiction program), playing in a rock band (which gets gigs around town all year round), and raising two kids (grown now). His wife has also always worked full time (she retired last year).

    Steve gives an excellent talk about managing writing time (and if you find his website, he may have an article or blog posted about it, too). One of the things I remember him saying is that if you can write just one page a day–at the end of the year you have a book. Similarly, if you can only write half a page a day… at the end of 2 years, you have a book.

    Diana Gabaldon has also addressed this in some of her articles. You might find them on her blog, or maybe in her OUTLANDISH COMPANION. I can’t remember where I’ve seen them, though I’ve recommended them a number of times. She wrote her first novel, OUTLANDER, while she had a full-time teaching/researching job in science, a part-time job editing and writing for a computer journal, and was raising 3 small children. (She initially kept her novel a secret from her husband because, given her workload and responsibilitities, she figured he’d try to talk to her into postponing writing a novel until her plate was less full, so she wouldn’t wind up hospitalized for exhaustion. But she had always wanted to write a novel, she was 35, and she decided she mustn’t wait any longer to try.) Anyhow, she wrote a few pieces, back when the kids were still growing, about how she worked writing time into her days. In one blow-by-blow account, as I recall, she gets about 300 words written amidst a lot of other family stuff going on–and as she says, that’s 300 words farther along than the book was the day before.

    1. And anybody who knows me well just snorted whatever liquid they were drinking up their noses.
      Do as I say, not as I do, people. (Although I make sure I get that eight hours every night.)

  8. I’m reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi right now. If I understand what the book is about, it’s really important to figure out how we view this kind of work/free time which ultimately determines whether we get pleasure or enjoyment out of our activities.

    If your point of view is that your activity is your compelling/compulsive happy challenge/puzzle time from which you challenge yourself to do increasingly complex work that fulfills your need to keep growing, then you will find yourself (eventually) happy, even if you get frustrated along the way trying to get past the challenging bits.

    But if your desire to work on your project stems from guilt, competition to beat others (and not from besting your own personal record), from someone else telling you that you have to do it, or if it is not challenging enough, or too challenging for where you are right now, or fear, then the work/play time becomes drudgery. That’s when we turn to Farmville, and Say Yes to the Dress. 😉

    Look at the example that Laura Resnick provided: for someone like Diana Gabaldon who was in the midst of a busy life when she wrote her first book. Those snatched free moments could easily have been spent playing 15 minutes of Candy Crush, or slipping into a hot bath at the end of the night. But I’d be willing to bet that those 15 minutes here and there were soul satisfying. It was the way she played every day. Getting a chance to be creative probably energized her.

    When I got stuck a few years ago on a project, I had to look back at why painting and drawing failed to be fulfilling anymore and didn’t feel like playing since that had been my play time of choice as a kid. I’ve been learning to be mentally disciplined about reframing my point of view, and finding the heart of why I wanted to make something. (That has meant learning to understand my story.) We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time – it’s an underlying refrain that directs our actions even if we don’t know it.

    Stop and learn to listen for your stories – once you’ve gotten to the heart of them, you’ll understand who you are writing for. Yourself or someone else? Who are you talking to? If you’ve ever watched a kid running around playing “Let’s pretend…” with another kid at a play date, you realize that we’re stilling doing that as adults, only we’ve learned to play it so quietly we don’t realize that the narrative is going on long after we stopped listening for it, until you realize one day that you woke up and the audio book has been playing all along.

    Getting back to find the heart of learning to make my creative efforts fun and exciting and beating my own personal best and looking at it from a growth perspective has re-energized my work.

    That makes it a lot easier to multi-task. I don’t spend as much time watching TV because I’m trying to get some painting done every day.

    1. Flow is crucial, I think. That’s a great book.
      The idea of play as a way to get back the flow you’ve lost is important, too. It’s why I collage to get to my story: scissors and glue is play, not work, and I’m looking at images, not words, and I can rip things up and move them around and it’s just fun.

  9. Wow. Did I ever need to read that. Thank you so much Jenny – you just cleared my head. I work 30 hours a week and have four kids. (even the kid in college needs my time.) So if I get a whole hour I’m doing pretty good. Excellent in fact. (Not that I’m getting an hour – mostly I’m driving an hour two and from and “Thinking” a lot about writing.)

  10. Also don’t forget to dance around the house singing into a salt shaker like a microphone at least once a day. It’s done wonders for me.

    Any chance Lani or Krissie will take a video of this (Vine, vimeo…) and post it?

    Sound advice you gave. Now listen to yourself! 🙂

  11. My critique partner lives and works in D.C. She manages to produce the same number of manuscripts a year as I do, and I’m retired. I can fritter away a lot of time. Truth be told, I’m only good for maybe two to three hours a day of actual writing. But I do a lot of thinking about what I’m writing as I work out, or walk, or shop. And I read every day, usually knocking off about four books a week. I gave up TV for reading, she gave up TV for writing. So it’s all good.

  12. Love this post. I forgot to use the salt shaker, but I sang in the car. Thank you for the reminder. I shall go to bed tonight reciting my list of tasks accomplished rather than beating my self up for the tasks not yet done.
    Robena, you get way more done than I do. I can’t even keep up with the loop.

  13. Cate M, when I read Jenny’s essay where she talked about trying to find writing time when she was teaching and coaching her daughter’s cheer team by doing the What Color Is Your Parachute exercise, marked the A Ha! moment when I started to carve out time to do the work, and respect my efforts as being AS worthwhile, if not MORESO, than the other work that others guilted me into thinking was more worthwhile.

    Thought of this discussion this morning when I was reading this article on Yahoo. (That’s where I usually spend my goof off time:)

    From about halfway down the article:
    …people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time. For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete) them, and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people.” [Barking Up The Wrong Tree]

    This is precisely what Jenny chronicled in her essay. Which can be accessed somewhere under the More Stuff link on the right, I think….(Jenny, I think that’s one of my favorite essays ever.) I don’t know where it is located anymore.

    This is such a good question, Cate. Good luck with the writing. It’s great to see the examples of people carving out their writing time that everyone submitted.

  14. I decided to pick 4 things I want to habituate. That’s a word. Now.
    So I’m not breaking the chain. One is take my health related stuff- I’m excellent at lapsing on medication, prescribed or supplements. The second is gym, daily, even if just ten minutes. Third is write. Fourth is read the non -fiction that’ll improve me and had been unread for months. Daily don’t break the chain, so far, so good. I started the writing one yesterday and gym today. Staggered so I didn’t freak meself out.

  15. I needed this post. Thanks so much! 30 minutes a day – whew! I can let go of some guilt now. 🙂

  16. Thank you for the post! My schedule just became more permanent (I got offered a job yesterday) so I’m feeling all inspired to sit down and plan. This will make the planning more useful.


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