Time Management for Writers

This is based on a presentation I have at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference earlier this year. My co-presenter was Cindi Madsen, but these thoughts here are based off my notes and what I wanted to present.

I’m putting this here because I attended the Castle Rock Writers Conference today, and one of the sessions I sat in on was how to juggle writing and a full-time job. Most people consider me an expert in this area because of how much I get done when I’m not at the Day Job.

However, I’ve been slacking on my writing these days, and I felt I needed a refresher course. The session helped me out a great deal. While I didn’t learn anything new, I was reminded of several tips and tricks that I had let fall by the wayside.

In an effort to remind myself further of how to manage my own time, I’m putting this together for everyone out there to learn from. Let’s get started!

Make Time

You can not find time. It’s not a quarter on the ground waiting to be picked up. You are allotted the same 168 hours in a week that everyone else gets. There’s no way to get extra (except for maybe that pesky hour shift during daylight savings, but an extra hour a year won’t make a difference to anyone.) You have the same time as everyone else. What you make time to do is what matters. Every time I hear someone say, “I’d love to write, but I can’t find the time,” I grind my teeth. Here’s why I react so strongly to such statements:

Flashback to 2010

The busiest time in my life was in 2010. Here’s what my typical week looked like during this year:

Activity Hours/Week (168/week)
Full Time Graduate Student 20
Full Time+, Lead Software Engineer 45
President of the CSFWG 8
Webmaster of the CSFWG 5
Commute to/from Work 8
Sleep (~6 hours a night) 42
Family (Wife + 2 Year Old Son) 25
Writing 15

I’m not posting this chart to brag. I’m showing you this to illuminate how busy Real Life can be. I was left with a mere 15 hours each week to work on my writing. During this year, I wrote (and finished) most of a novel, and roughly a dozen short stories. This is not counting the endless pages of critiques I did this year.

Because of my busy life during 2010, when someone claims they can’t find the time to write, I call bullshit. Everyone can make the time to write if they are passionate enough about it.

Now to the meat of things. How do you go about making time to write?

Stolen Moments

You don’t have to block out hours on end for writing (that does help, though). You can steal moments from your life with which to write. This means being prepared to write at any location and at any time. Make sure you always have a writing device and some paper with you.

If you can, drag your typical writing implements with you everywhere. This can be your laptop if that’s your preferred writing method. At a minimum invest in a pen that is comfortable for your hand and a few Moleskin (or similar) notebooks. Keep one in your car. Keep another in your purse (for the ladies). Keep another in your office desk. Keep another in your back pocket if you can. Scatter them around your life. You never know when you’ll have a moment or five to write.

Last winter, I hit a pretty hefty patch of ice and found myself up against a fence and in a bar ditch. I couldn’t get out of my car, but I was unharmed. After calling my wife to let her know what happened, I called AAA for a tow truck. They told me it would take about an hour for the tow truck to arrive. I pulled out my notebook and outlined five short story ideas. I didn’t get to write any of them as I was in “idea mode,” but it was still forward progress on my writing. This was a stolen moment for me.

Here are some places/times where you can steal moments. These are all things where waiting and doing nothing is common.

  • Emergency Room
  • DMV
  • Lunch Break
  • Driving (voice only or percolate on your story)
  • Public Transportation
  • Oil Changes
  • Waiting on others
  • Auto repairs
  • Napping Baby
  • Child goes to bed early

Make sure to keep your laptop battery charged at all times. You never know when a moment will strike to write!

Schedule Time

Stealing moments of time is great, but if you can schedule time, even better. As a writer, you are a small business. Yes, you are also an artist, but remove that “artist hat” for a moment, and put on the “business hat” for a bit.

As a one-person small business, you have to treat your writing like it’s a job. Sure, it might be a part-time job for some of you, and a full-time job for others. Whatever the case may be, jobs come with meetings. We all hate them because we feel horribly unproductive while sitting in a conference room instead of being at our desks doing what we do best.

However, in this case, putting something down on your calendar can pull you away from your Real Life distractions (the dishes can wait) and put you in a place where you can get some words down on paper.

Make meetings for yourself in your calendar. Stick to those meetings. If something non-essential comes up during your meeting, decline it. Tell people, “Sorry, I have a meeting during that time.” If you want, you can tell them it’s to write, but you don’t have to. If you just stick to the line I’ve just given you, people will understand and know that you are busy at that time.

If you get to the meeting early, or if you stay late after the meeting is over, reward yourself. Maybe you get to go to the movies on Friday night, or have a date night with your spouse. Perhaps you get to buy that book you’ve been eagerly awaiting. Maybe it’s a spa day or just a candy bar from the local corner store. Set up appropriate awards for yourself that reflect how much of a “dedicated employee” you’ve been while working for your small business.

If you are late to a meeting or miss one entirely, then it’s time for punishment. Think about what your boss might do to you. Maybe it’s more work or additional meetings (e.g.: additional writing time). Maybe you don’t get to go to the movie. Maybe you don’t see it at all until it’s out on DVD. Maybe you have to get black coffee at the coffee shop instead of a frappachino. Maybe you call your massage place and cancel your appointment for next week. While you’re not going to the movies or getting a massage, guess what you’ll be doing? That’s right! You’ll be writing! (See how that works out?)

Reduce External Interruptions

When you’ve scheduled that meeting with yourself, get rid of external interruptions. These are (usually) things out of your control that try to steal the time you’ve made for yourself. Some of these are within your control, so grab them by the neck and wrangle them to your will.

Here are my tips for reducing external interruptions:

  • Close the door (if you have an office or bedroom to use)
  • Put a sign on the door warning people away.
  • Go somewhere else.
    • Coffee Shop
    • Library
    • A mostly vacant diner late at night
    • Panera Bread
  • Turn the ringer off on your phone. (Don’t even let it vibrate!)
  • Turn off the WiFi on your laptop.
    • The Internet will still be there when you’re done with your meeting. I promise.

Most of these are establishing solitude for yourself. However, don’t become a hermit. You still need to have fun with family/friends and socialize. Balance your life.

Reduce Internal Interruptions

Internal interruptions are probably more destructive to the time you’ve made than anything else. These are things you do to yourself to keep you from writing. I’m not talking about writer’s block or anything like that. I’m talking about activities that you actively engage in that distract you from your writing.

  • Again, turn off the Internet. If you need it for research then avoid:
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Tumblr
    • Pinterest
    • etc.
    • Email
    • Non-vital research
      • Avoid rabbit holes.
      • Set a timer to limit research

Idle Your Engine

You obviously can’t be productive ever moment of your day/week/month/life. Attempting to do this will lead to a miserable life, and will only burn you out on the concept of writing. This will, of course, kill your productivity, and that’s not what we want to happen.

You need to, from time-to-time, step away from the keyboard (or pen) and just let your brain run at a slower pace. You’ll be amazed at the ideas that spring forth when you’re not actively thinking about your prose. Again, be prepared to capture these moments with a pen and notebook handy.

Things you can do that idle your brain:

  • Laundry
  • Dishes
  • Vacuum
  • Change the oil on your car yourself
  • Go for a countryside drive
  • Shovel some snow
  • Walk the dog (or alone if your dog-less)
  • Play with your children
  • Talk with your spouse

Increase Your Productivity

We’ve talked about ways to avoid productivity killers, but there are some tricks to increasing your word count during a scheduled meeting. These are broken down into external and internal motivations. These can be used in combination with each other.

I’ll say this up front, though. Some of these work for most people. Some don’t. Give them a try. If you find something here that doesn’t help you out, then either adjust it until it does work, or you can walk away from the suggestion. It won’t hurt my feelings either way.

External Motivations

Find the #1k1hr Twitter hashtag and participate! Wait. I thought I told you to turn off the Internet and Twitter? Well, the 1k1hr hashtag on Twitter is a challenge you share with other writers during the same hour. The goal is to write 1,000 words from the top of an hour to the top of the next hour. Guess what? This means you fire up the Internet and hit Twitter just before the top of the hour and join in the fun with a tweet. Then you kill the Internet and close the Twitter tab in your browser. Just before the one hour is up, get back online and prepare to compare word counts with your fellow writers.

Find a “support group.” This can come in the form of a critique group, beta readers, or writing partner. They are your initial audience for your writing. They expect submissions from you. They want your words. If you haven’t written anything by the time the next meeting (or scheduled email) date rolls around, they’ll be disappointed. Don’t do that to them! This kind of motivation can help you churn out the words.

Similar to #1k1hr on Twitter, you can sometimes find a “word war” going on at Facebook with your fellow writers. Perhaps you challenge someone to a word war. Sometimes you put out the fact that you want to be challenged. The idea behind this is to set a time limit (usually 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour) and see who can crank out the most words during this time period. It’s actually great fun to cheer on someone else ‘s word count at the end, and you get cheered on as well.

Write-ins are great fun, but only if done right. A proper write-in will start at a certain time, and the first 10-15 minutes are for socializing. This allows everyone to get set up, get the chatting out of their system, and then it’s down to business! The rest of the time is spent hammering the keyboard, except the last 10 minutes or so when everyone compares word counts. The energy (even when the only sound is the skritch of pen on paper or the clattering of keys) in the room is palpable. It’s a great time. Another thing I’ve sometimes seen at write-ins is that everyone brings a book they no longer want. The person with the highest word count production at the end of the write-in gets to take all of the books home. I recommend bringing books on the craft/business of writing as rewards, but any kind of book is cool. There seem to be more write-ins during November and NaNoWriMo than other times of the year, but they do happen year-round.

Internal Motivations

How do you get into the right headspace to write? How do you stay there? What triggers those mysterious Alpha Waves in your brain that drive your creativity?

You can write to music. Some people can do this. Some people can’t. Perhaps you think you can’t, but maybe you haven’t found the right music yet. Some writers make a playlist for their story and put it on repeat. This helps keep them in the mood and tone they need to be in to execute their story properly.

Personally, I find the music that fits the current scene type that I’m writing. If I’m writing a fight scene (I do lots of those), then I put on some heavy metal. If I’m writing dialogue, I put on more lyrical and melodic tunes. If I’m writing narrative or description, I put on music without lyrics.

As I’ve mentioned above, you can reward yourself for accomplishing certain goals. Set a reward at certain word count markers. Set a big reward for typing “the end” on a story. You’ve earned the reward! Make sure you claim it. Just make sure it’s appropriate for the level of accomplishment reached. On one of her episodes of I Should Be Writing, Mur Lafferty said she will reward herself with an hour of Skyrim on the XBox for every two hours she writes.

Magic Spreadsheet

Another thing I learned from Mur’s podcast relates to this magical creation called The Magic Spreadsheet. You can earn points for each consecutive day in which you write. If you miss a day, you reset back to zero points and start over. You can create different awards for yourself for attaining more points. Set up larger rewards for larger point levels.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are tons of ways Real Life can get in the way. There are also ways you can get in your own way. There are methods to battle these distractions, and also approaches to increase your productivity when you write.

I hope this (rather lengthy) blog post has been useful to my fellow writers. If you have any tips or tricks of your own, please drop them in the comments.


2 Responses to “Time Management for Writers”

  • Dan

    This is all good advice, especially the “stolen time.” However, some people really don’t have the time. Example: You recognize a need for idle time to recharge. Some require more than others. I have found that if I am working 40 hours a week, my writing is very nearly completely shot. It has only been during vacations and periods of unemployment that I’ve really flourished. Of course, my idle time is where I have come up with plots for future episodes, and sometimes I come up with them even at work.

  • J.T.

    Dan,

    If someone is truly passionate about an effort (writing, working, family, hobbies, or whatever), then they will have the time for it. The advice I gave is for those people with passion to write, but can’t seem to make the time in their lives.

    The excuse of not having time falls in the same bucket as not being able to “find” time to do something. I just don’t buy it.

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way.