Time Management: Part 1 – The Writer

Here is a topic that I should have been paying more attention to recently. As you may have noticed, I haven’t been as regular about posting to my blog the last couple of weeks. I could tell you honestly that I’ve been working at the MN Renaissance Festival on the weekends and that it’s been the first weeks of a new school year. Both have been taking up time that I’ve been using all summer to write. The real truth however is that I know as well as anyone that it’s my responsibility to make time for these kinds of things because I’ll never just find it lying around.

Time management is a topic I want to take a look at from two perspectives. The first, rather obviously, is how we – as writers – manage our time. The second, on a later date, is how do our characters fill their time.

Starting with us. In particular me, since I don’t really know how anyone else does this. Time management is part science and part art. There are a huge number of factors that goes into making up our daily schedules (both the one we put in the calendar and the one we live – which can be two entirely different things some days). There are the big ones – work, sleep, eat. And the ones that many people forget to factor in – play, friends and relaxation. And all the little things that don’t take that much time but need to be done anyway – pay bills, shower, etc. All of these things take up time. Many of them could take up our entire day if we let them. In fact, there are more things to do in a day than there are minutes to do them in.

That’s where time management comes in.

Time management is literally – how do we decide to use the time we have for the things that we want to get done? This is the ultimate question that really should be taught in schools, but most of us are left to figure it out on our own. Time management isn’t something that our instincts are terribly good at. Oh sure, they’ll remind you to eat and sleep, but not to work. Of course if we don’t work we won’t have much to eat and it will be much harder to find a comfortable place to sleep. Fortunately for many of us, getting up and going to work is a well established habit.

That habit is really only good if you actually go to work. If you are trying to be a full time writer, you have to set up a slightly different habit of getting up and doing the work of writing. You can, if you remember to think of it this way, transfer the habit of going to work to your writing, assuming that you made a very deliberate move to become a full time writer (that is you didn’t get laid off suddenly and decided that you didn’t want to go look for another traditional job right now because the economy sucks and frankly you just don’t like co-workers no matter who they are).

For the rest of us, we need to “find time” to write after the “real work” of the day is done. I know that there are many of you out there in dead end jobs that chafe at the idea that your writing isn’t “real work”. Well so do I, and I love my day job – wouldn’t give it up even if I could make more at writing. So let’s just agree to drop that term and go with “day job” noting that not all day jobs happen during the day. So you get home, tired from a full shift of working for someone else, then fighting your way through traffic full of other frustrated people, so now what. If you really want to have a writing career the answer is: you go back to work. OK, maybe you take the time to kiss your sweetie, hug or pet your children (petting is for the fuzzy children), eat something and maybe make the family feel like you still exist. But, and this is the important part, before you get to the sleep part of your day, you have to sit down in front of you computer, or notebook, and make words happen.

Making words happen is the only thing that makes you a writer, so you can’t skip it. However, there is a fair amount of flexibility in this. I know there is ton of advice out there that says that they “only way to be a real writer is to write everyday”. I don’t buy it. Yes you have to write. You have to write regularly. But limiting yourself to everyday can be rather hard to do, and is a bar that not everyone can achieve. You decide how much is right for you. If you can manage 3 days a week, do it. Make sure it’s 3 days every week, and better if it’s the same 3 days every week – habits are stronger that way. Habits are what’s going to make this doable so don’t dismiss them. If you really can’t do the same 3 days every week because the little league and choir concerts and what have you just doesn’t work that way, then at least make a plan to get your days in.

As a side note, I picked 3 days as a minimum. Two reasons for that. 1) anything less and you risk having a habit too week to hold up to much of anything 2) if you really can’t squeeze 3 days out of your schedule you really need to take a look at your priorities – maybe writing isn’t one of them (not a bad thing, acknowledge it and move on to what interests you more). I also shy away from anyone who tries to push the 7 days a week thing – it’s just too much and leaves no room for anything else.

The other thing that’s flexible in this is how much time each day you write. My schedule fluctuates. On Tuesdays I spend a lot of time writing, 4-5 hours because that’s when my writing group happens and we sit together for that long encouraging words out of each other. Naturally I get more done on Tuesdays than any other day. However I still insist on writing Mon, Wed and Fri (Thu is my exercise day). Weekends are far to flexible in my life to make them part of my habit, but I do write on the weekends when I don’t have other things going on – I’ve made it my default activity. Fridays are my lowest productivity day. Partly because I have a standing appointment with a writer friend to commit exercise with each other, so the writing has to wait until I get home (and then usually tumbles out just as fast as my fingers can move because talking with a writing buddy is the best way to get the ideas flowing). Mondays are also usually a short session, I’m only worried about getting myself set up for Tuesday and often have to recover from the weekend. I don’t let that bother me, I just know that I’m not going to be as productive.

When I’m being a good writer, I stick to this schedule like glue. It’s to the point where even my cats have figured it out and don’t bother me much while I’m writing. Recently, however, I’ve let myself slide. I know that it’s in a bad way, because I’m getting cranky about it – I’m very much a creature of habit and letting myself out of a habit for too long is cranky making. Of course I have some good reasons for letting slide, but I’m putting myself on notice that it’s time to get back to work. I’m not going to worry too much over it, I just have to get back to it.

I also have to make sure that I’m giving myself enough time to relax and play and do all of that too. Normally, I can work all that in around my regular schedule. Now I can see that I need to be a bit more deliberate about it. That is I have to schedule my time for fun and relaxation.

That sounds rather regimented. It’s not. One thing that I’ve discovered in numerous attempts to set up schedules without factoring those things in, is that if you don’t, they will take over your life. If you don’t have specific times set aside for fun and relaxation, you will end up ditching your carefully planned schedule to go out there and play. Play is fundamental to being a human. You have to have it, every bit as much as you need to get enough sleep and enough food. Without play, nothing will be fun – including the writing that you want to do. So do yourself a favor and make sure that you schedule time for play – and enough of it to keep you and your loved ones satisfied.

Yes you have to plan time for the family too. Those of you living alone still have to do this, it just looks a little different in your schedule. Your friends are part of this one too. Think about it, if you don’t include them in your schedule they won’t include you in their lives at all. So make time to be with your family and/or friends.

What your schedule looks like will be rather full, but it will be uniquely yours. No two writers will find the same kind of schedule to be effective. No two writers have the same needs or the same lives. No two writers will have the same goals or dreams. All of this will factor into your schedule. Among my writing buddies I have one person who is desperate to get out of her day job – she writes as close to every day as she can. She hopes to get enough published to start replacing her day job income within the next year or two and be able to quit within five years. Another has decided to start her own imprint to get her stuff out there. Another is happy being a part time writer and likes to keep his hand in the corporate world. Another who uses her publication income to supplement her husband’s business income in their family finances, she also helps in his office when things are busy for him. I have no desire to give up my interpreting to make this writing thing work. Naturally we all have very different writing schedules, different horizons and different sets of priorities. None of us are right or wrong. It just is.

Take a look at your life: decide on your time lines and priorities. From there you will have a better idea of how to manage your time. And remember to leave time to relax, because no management plan will work if you don’t give yourself breaks.

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