Time Management for Writers

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Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.

Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964)

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80:20 rule: 80% of unfocused effort generates only 20% of results. Conversely, the remaining 80% of results are achieved with only 20% of effort.

How can you manage your time? Here are a few exercises.

1. Keep a time journal. Like a food journal, this will show you how you spend your time. Journal out your hours, days, then a week. At the end of the week you should be able to see a pattern of idle time.

2. Discover where you have idle time. If the time journal doesn’t make it clear, here are some possible areas:

a. Waiting for the kids

b. Riding public transportation

c. Doctor’s office

d. The hour(s) between sending the kids to sleep and your own bedtime.

e. 6 a.m. Saturday morning

f. Driving/Commuting

g. Waiting in the airport

h. Walking the dog

i. On the Stairmaster

3. Now that you’ve uncovered that time, you need to optimize that time for writing. Here are a few tools every writer can use to optimize idle time:

a. Small notebook and pen

b. Tape recorder (perfect for the car)

c. Post-its. Great for when you’re at your day job.

d. AlphaSmart. Can’t recommend it enough!

4. Two things are critical to optimize your time, idle or not. You need to identify your primetime and your downtime. Primetime is when you’re “on,” when you’re at your highest energy level. If you’ve always described yourself as a “day person,” then your primetime is probably morning to midday. Conversely, if you’re a “night person,” you probably don’t think clearly until the sun goes down.

5. Prepare to-do lists. This is critical for time management, and believe it or not, it is also a necessary component of the writer’s toolbox. As a writer, you need four to-do lists: one for your life, one for your story, and one each for your prime and down times. It sounds like a lot of work, but even a tornado—chaos personified—has structure to it.

a. The life to do list. This is the list for everything you do. The amount of activity in your life will dictate the length of time this list covers, be it daily or weekly. Rank everything by has to be done ASAP, has to be done today, and can be done anytime, but today is good.

b. The story to-do list. This will cover the entire life of the book, from high-concept to promoting the finished product. Using a mind map or Work Breakdown Structure will help manage the genesis of your novel. Of course, this will require sub-lists, which is why you need the primetime and downtime lists.

c. The primetime to-do list. Since your primetime is your most active, this is where you’ll schedule the major components of your book. Plotting, character development, brainstorming, outline and chapter breakdowns—all of these are primetime activities.

d. The downtime to-do list. For your low-energy time, schedule things like re-reads, cold reads, and editing. Even research can go here.

6. Sometimes you have to trick yourself. Let’s face it. We’re visual creatures. If you have four things on your daily to-do list, you’re going to believe you have plenty of time to get things done. WRONG. What you will do is complete the one or two easiest things. What’s left? The hardest, most unpleasant task. The one you’ve carried over from yesterday’s or last week’s to-do list. The one that you REALLY need to get done. The one that if it’s not completed soon will create:

7. The deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. You’re cruising along and you’ve checked off three of the five things on your checklist. You’re feeling good about things in general and then wham! You realize the item that’s still undone is the one that will take you the longest to complete, will use up the most brain cells. The project that you’d trade for a bikini wax or teeth cleaning any day. But now you’re spiraling into your downtime, and you can’t possibly get it done when you’re not at the top of your game… Don’t let this happen to you! Rule number one of to-do lists: Tackle the hardest or most unpleasant task first.

8. Maximize your writing time. Some practical do’s and don’ts to maximize your hard-earned valuable time:

a. Set a realistic goal. Don’t say “I’m going to do twenty-five pages” when you know you’re average output is usually around five. Aim for six.

b. Reward yourself for achieving that goal. Your normal output is five pages, you aimed for six and actually made it to seven? Grab the tequila! (or the Dove chocolate, or the can of Pringles…you get the idea.)

c. Make your workspace clutter-free. The old motto of a cluttered desk being the sign of a cluttered mind is true. You cannot write in chaos. Even if you have to sweep everything into a sort box for later, keep the desk surface clean. Use desktop sorters or storage drawers for pens, paper, and print cartridges. All you need on your desktop beside your computer are a pen, post-its, your calendar, and your beverage of choice. A dictionary and thesaurus also work, but I prefer to use the online versions.

d. If you like listening to music while you write, make it instrumental. Save Aretha and Aerosmith for laundry day. You can’t hear your characters talking to you if you’re singing “Chain of Fools” at the top of your lungs.

e. DO NOT play Solitaire, Taipei or FreeCell to “loosen your creativity.” You’ll only lose valuable writing time. I have been known to play Solitaire for five hours straight. That’s easily two chapters’ worth of time I’ll never recapture.

f. Don’t wait for inspiration or creativity to strike. There will be days when you’ll wait a long time for inspiration, and that day can become a week or a month very quickly. Sometimes your muse will not speak to you, and you’ll have to accept that. THERE IS NEVER A RIGHT TIME, so you have to make the time you have, the right (or write) time. However:

g. If inspiration strikes, milk that cow for all it’s worth. You may have experienced this. You’re trying to drift off to sleep or you’re in the grocery store, and an idea pops into your head. Suddenly you’re buzzing with scenes, dialogue, and the perfect ending. DO NOT SAVE THIS FOR LATER. Use your recorder or post-its, but get it out. If it’s in the middle of the night, get up. Write it down or fire up the computer, then work until you hit the wall. For most of us, these divine strikes are few and far between. That being said, managing your to-do lists will help you manufacture inspiration.

h. Build contingency time into your to-do lists. Unexpected things will pop up. That’s life. Flexing your time allows you to handle emergencies or inspiration by shifting tasks and priorities.

i. Delegate what you can. Mommy doesn’t have to do everything. There are microwaveable foods and sprays that make it look like you ironed. Designate a laundry day. Buy more undies if you run out. Use paper plates. If you family complains, show them how the broom, vacuum and can opener work, then retreat to your writing space.

j. Make sure people respect your writing time. Whether you have a day job or not, writing is your career. If you take it seriously and approach it professionally, so will those around you. Do not answer the phone. Do not flip on the TV. Do not let others interrupt you until your designated time is up.

k. To reiterate, this is your career. Published or pre-published, do not think of writing as a hobby. This is your business and you are the sole employee putting out your product.

9. Know when to walk away. Sometimes you have to give yourself a break. The difference is making sure you’re walking away because your body needs a break, not running away because you don’t feel like tackling the project.

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.

William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 5, scene 5.

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