Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Making Time to Write

I had another lovely swim yesterday -- for all of about five minutes. Then the pool was invaded by an army of kids. It is a community pool, and they have as much right to use it as I do, but then I have as much right to use it as they do, and when there's an adult swimming laps in the deep end, it seems to be obvious good manners to have the kids play in the shallow end instead of doing cannonball jumps right into the adult's path. Though expecting those parents to guide their kids' manners is probably too much, considering they barely mentioned some serious safety issues. This is a small, shallow pool, and the very deepest spot isn't five feet deep. There are "no diving" signs all over the pool area and even fit into the tiles around the edge of the pool, yet the mother didn't say anything about diving until about the third time her kid dove into the pool, and she never commented on the running jumps. With a pool that shallow, a running cannonball isn't such a great idea, and the only difference between that and a dive is that you just run the risk of broken legs or ankles instead of a broken neck. I quickly retreated to the hot tub, which was closer to "making soup" temperature (really helped my shoulder), and eventually fled the scene entirely when I realized I was watching the kids (well, glaring in irritation) more carefully than the parents were and I figured I didn't want to be there when disaster occurred. I'm not child CPR certified, and I'm not a strong enough swimmer for water rescue, and chances were I'd be the first to notice that there was trouble.

By reader request, I'm going to tackle the topic of time management -- how do you make time to write? At first glance, a chronic procrastinator might not be the best person to address this topic, but then again, I have tried just about every time management method around. People who are naturally organized and punctual often have trouble telling other people how they do it.

I will say up front that there's no one "right" way to approach scheduling your writing. I've read so many articles and heard so many speeches in which some writer declares that if you're a "real" writer, you'll write absolutely every day. That may work for them, but it doesn't work for everyone, and it only discourages people when writers talk like that. I just have two don'ts:

1) Don't wait for the muse to strike you -- you may not have to write every day to be a writer, but if you don't write unless you feel inspired, you may never get anything written. Meet your muse halfway by sitting down to write even when you don't feel particularly inspired, and you'll find that the more you write, the easier it is to write.

2) Don't buy into the absolutes that writers full of themselves (and hot air) like to spout about the way you should be working, whether it's that "a real writer writes every day" nonsense or the idea that if anything can distract you from your book, it obviously isn't any good because it doesn't even hold your interest. You can't measure others by what works for you, and you can't measure yourself by what works for others.

So, here are a number of time management methods I've tried. You may find something here that works for you. You may even want to mix and match some of these. You probably can't do all of them at once because some of them are diametrically opposed.

1) Figure out how you spend your time.
I usually want to slug those people who say that there's no such thing as not having any time because we all have the same 24 hours, but there is some truth to that, and knowing how you use the time you have can help you carve out space for writing.
If you feel like you should have time but never seem to, try logging the way you spend your time. Use a stopwatch or just keep an eye on the clock, and be honest about how much time you really spend on various activities. If you're like me, just keeping a record will put you on your best behavior, but hey, that works, too, and seeing how you change your behavior when you're timing yourself will probably show you how you usually spend your time.
If you know you have a busy schedule and can't see where you might have time to squeeze in some writing, take a good look at your schedule and evaluate times you may be able to write or things you may be able to give up. This will require evaluating your priorities or looking at ways to rearrange things to free up time. For instance, when I had a full-time job, I used to cook on weekends so that on weeknights I could come home from work, throw dinner in the microwave and then get straight to writing. I still had time to write on weekends, but that freed up a bigger block of time on weeknights.
You may see from this analysis that there are certain days you won't have any time to write. Then you don't have to feel guilty on those days about not writing. Focus instead on the days and times when you can write.
I would suggest being realistic and not giving up everything that seems "frivolous." You need to have some fun and some time to relax. If you enjoy it, then do it. The things to eliminate are the things that don't really bring you much fun and that aren't essential, but that you find yourself doing anyway.

2) Make an appointment with yourself.
Once you've found time in your schedule that could be devoted to writing, turn it into an appointment. Write it into your Daytimer, enter it into your PDA/smart phone, or put it into your calendar program with a reminder, and treat it like a dentist appointment where you're charged if you don't show. You wouldn't skip an appointment you've committed to with someone else because you want to watch TV or because someone expects you to chat on the phone. Even if you're stuck or blocked, keep your appointment and use that time to brainstorm, read books on writing that might give you ideas or read research books related to your topic.

3) Schedule everything else you have to do, and then use the rest of your time for writing.
I got that technique from a book called The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, who calls it the "Unschedule." The idea is that you may resist doing things you feel obligated to do, so don't schedule them. Instead, make a daily schedule showing all the things you need or want to do -- including eating, dressing, going to work, watching your favorite TV show and surfing the Internet. Then you'll see how much time you have left that you could devote to writing. It also plays a psychological trick on yourself so that you feel obligated to do the things you might normally do to waste time and then free to do the thing you feel you should be doing.
How much time is enough for writing time depends on each person. There are those who can write a paragraph in a spare five minutes and ultimately produce a book by adding together all those paragraphs. And there are those who need at least an hour to get some momentum, so they're probably better off devoting those spare five minutes to something else to free up longer stretches of time later.

4) Set a deadline, then set a weekly or monthly production goal, and then create daily goals based on the time you have available on those days.
Even if your book isn't contracted, you can give yourself a deadline, then break that big goal down into smaller goals. I like to set both weekly and daily goals. If I don't meet a particular day's goal, I know I can make it up during the week to hit the weekly goal and stay on target. You can do this by word count or page count, but focus on production instead of on time. Mark your daily progress on a calendar or chart so you can see it. You can also provide incremental rewards. That's the old M&M trick -- count out M&Ms (or some other small treat) for the number of pages you want to write or for your word count, with each one representing a certain number, then eat one when you reach that mini goal.
It's important to be realistic about what you can accomplish, so factor in things like appointments, activities or other obligations when you determine your goal for that week. This technique is also good for those who have random things pop up unexpectedly that short-circuit your efforts to write. If you lose a day of work, you still have a chance of making it up later.

5) Track the amount of time you spend actually writing with a stopwatch.
This is what's working for me now because it really keeps me honest, especially since I'm in a research phase and not producing word count. I keep a chart of how many hours I've worked, with a reward after a certain number of hours. I've doubled the amount of time I devote to actual writing or other activities leading to the production of work (as opposed to marketing or business activity) since I started doing this.

6) Try planning your work.
This won't work for everyone because there are true "pantsers" who lose the creative drive if they know what happens next, but for some people, always knowing what happens next and planning the whole book ahead of time can save a lot of time in the writing process. Even if you don't plot the whole thing or do an elaborate storyboard, making a few notes at the end of each writing session about what you think will happen next can make it easier to jump in the next day, and that means you'll get more accomplished during your writing time. I've heard of writers who always stop work for the day in the middle of a sentence. They know they can complete the sentence in the next writing session, and that gets them into the flow of work. I guess this falls into the "work smarter, not harder" category. You may be able to multitask with the planning -- I do a lot of my plotting/brainstorming while watching TV -- and then be able to devote all of your writing time to actual writing instead of thinking.

7) Start small, then build.
Just as you wouldn't run a marathon without training for it by running in longer and longer sessions, you can't necessarily jump into writing by expecting yourself to write for hours at a stretch, and it can also be difficult to find those hours in your schedule. Start with something small that you know you can achieve in the time you have available -- a page or even just a paragraph. Make sure you reach that goal in each writing session. If you have time and inclination, you can do more, but once you reach the goal, you can stop. After a week or two, increase the goal, and keep steadily increasing your production goal every couple of weeks. You may start out with just ten or fifteen minutes a day, and that will gradually increase over time. It's easier to start with just a few minutes out of your schedule instead of trying to fit two hours of writing into your day, and you'll find that your schedule will naturally adjust itself as you get more into it.

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