Six impossible things

Building in the time

“How do you write with a day job/kids/other responsibilities?” is a question that doesn’t have an easy, one-size-fits-all answer, because, like so many other aspects of the writing process, exactly what works depends on the particular writer. But there are a few principles that can be applied.

The first one is this: If other people are getting writing done but you aren’t, it’s not because they have more time or you have less. Everybody gets 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, and that’s all. If someone else has more time for writing, i t’s because a) they have fewer responsibilities and commitments, b) they’re better at juggling their responsibilities and commitments, or c) they rank writing as a higher priority compared to their other responsibilities and commitments – not necessarily in the abstract, when they’re making a list of what’s most important, but in concrete day-to-day action choices. Most often, in my experience, the problem is c).

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was doing one of those “list your most important priorities” exercises, and as usual “Health and fitness” was at the very top of the list (because, as my mother used to say, if you haven’t got your health, it’s hard to do anything else). Only then the exercise asked you to list the things you were doing to support each priority…and the only thing I could think of was that I got a checkup once a year.

So I was spending about two hours per year on my “very top priority.” And this had been the case year after year, for…way too long. If somebody else had told me that their top priority was health and fitness, but that all they did about it was visit the doctor for an annual checkup, I’d have looked very skeptical and asked what their top priority really was.

At that point, I had two choices. One was to rearrange my list of priorities to reflect what I was actually spending my time on, and the other was to rearrange my time so that I spent it on the things I thought were most important. I picked the second. I went out and hired a trainer, started walking with a friend on my off days, and took a course in nutrition. And I’m at least aware that there are still discrepancies between what I say is most important to me and the way I actually act, and that helps keep me on track.

In other words, there is no Big Secret to the way writers get their writing done. We spend time on it. We write instead of doing other things: instead of gardening, instead of baking a cake for the charity bake sale, instead of volunteering to run part of the convention, instead of joining the book club, instead of watching TV, instead of browsing the Internet, instead of doing all sorts of other things that we would also like to do. The thing is, we want to write more than we want to do those other things, so that’s what we choose to spend our time on.

That said, “how do you find/make time?” is a perennial topic of writerly conversation. Among the things I’ve heard other writers suggest in the past year are:

1. Turn off the Internet. This is the absolute number one tip I hear other writers recommend to each other, over and over, at every convention I attend, every time I get into this conversation. People get programs like macfreedom to block the net so they can’t change their minds; they go to coffee shops that don’t have wi-fi; they even pay to rent offices and don’t hook up Internet service so that they have somewhere to go where they can’t get online. Those who do this, swear by it. Those who don’t do it, exhibit more resistance to giving up their Internet than I see for all of the other suggestions combined, including “give up TV.”

2. Make use of existing time slots. This is number two, especially common among writers who have day jobs (write on coffee breaks and lunch hours instead of socializing) and kids (write in a notebook while waiting to pick up kids after activities, while sitting in the stands at a game, while listening to choir practice). Nearly everyone who has commitments outside the home (job, kid activities, classes) has a structure imposed on their life that has a few gaps in it. Use the gaps.

3. Drop less important activities and substitute writing time. Quit watching one TV show and use the time to write. Drop the book club and use the reading and meeting time to write. Go to lunch or dinner with a fellow writer and don’t talk; both of you write. Pick the least-fun, least-important activity you currently are involved in, stop doing it, and use the time to write. But be absolutely ruthless about using the time for writing.

4. Take a notebook or laptop to a place where nothing else can distract you and write. Go to a park, a coffee shop, a library. If your kids are too young to leave alone, hire a babysitter and go to the library, or trade babysitting with another would-be writer. Some folks actually rent an office (one guy I know says that after fifteen years of going off to work every day, it doesn’t feel like work unless he, you know, goes off to work), or find co-working or collaborative office space.

5. Stay up later or get up earlier. This is the last resort for people who are constantly distracted or interrupted by other folks, but it’s a last resort, because shorting yourself on sleep can kill your creativity just as dead as all the interruptions.

6. Don’t count anything as writing unless you’re writing pay copy. Blogging isn’t writing. Journaling isn’t writing. Emailing your editor or your agent isn’t writing. Commenting on writing forums isn’t writing. Reading how-to-write books isn’t writing. Researching isn’t writing. Spending two hours reading random Wikipedia articles and following links to fascinating web sites is, my goodness, most definitely not writing. Yes, a lot of those things are also necessary for a writer, but if you only have an hour a day to write and you’re spending it on any of this stuff, it’s no wonder you aren’t producing any actual stories. People hate hearing this almost as much as they hate the idea of turning off the Internet, but it’s still true.

None of this is new news. People make time for the things they really care about, for the things they really enjoy doing, and for the things they really want to do.

Once in a very great while, I run across somebody who really can’t drop anything. The woman who was undergoing chemotherapy while caring for an elderly parent, holding down a full-time job, and raising two toddlers is an example. But be honest with yourself. There’s a lot of space between “have to” and “really, really want to.” And if something really is more important than writing time, then it is, and you can stop beating yourself up over it.

  1. The other way to fit more writing into the day is to look at one’s writing habits and find how one is most efficient. Certain tasks I can do at any point of the day with half a brain or less; others need full immersion in the story and at least a couple of hours set aside.
    I improved my output greatly by the simple trick of opening the file when I sit down at my computer and again before I go away from it – even when I don’t have time or brain to write, the story remains at the front of my conciousness and a couple of hundred words on non-writing days soon add up.
    (The other was realising when I was starting to get stuck and *stopping* to work out the problem rather than adding another 5K that never happened and then getting stuck for real.)
    Also, ‘writing or gardening’ is not really a question for me if I take a writing problem into the garden, and mutter to myself, and plotnoodle, and occasionally stop to write things down: it means acknowledging that occasionally you will have to interrupt one activity for the other, but that’s a small price to pay IMHO.

  2. I definitely agree with turning off the internet. I know I only get about two hours a day to write while my toddler is napping. It’s so easy for me to waste that time, but instead if I turn off the internet then I’m much more likely to accomplish something.

  3. “I don’t have time” is a value statement. Courtesy of Writing Excuses. I remind mysel of that when the computer games start calling. 🙂

    I’m out of town at training for work, and my iPod touch is the only Internet access I have. Works well enough (as you can tell), but the entertainment-to-effort ratio falls off fast and so I don’t spend a lot of time on it. Despite being in class 60 hours/week, I’ve read half a dozen novels and written more than 20,000 words on my own novel in the last week and a half. I knew the Internet sucked up my time at home, but wow. I didn’t realize exactly how much. Not a perfect comparison, since I don’t have any kind of housework to do here, but certainly apt enough to be embarrassing.

  4. I also get a lot of writing done when I’m on travel for work. Part of that is that I noticed that I got a lot of writing done on those kinds of trips where the hotel internet is spotty and none of my local friends call me up to do things. So when I’ve got that kind of trip coming up I do advance research and plotting to make the most of that prime opportunity. I’m no longer sure if the away and worse internet access causes the greater word count or if it is a product of the self expectations and pre-planning.

  5. For my metabolism, it works to wake around 5 am and write for a couple of hours undisturbed, then catch up the missed sleep with naps during the gaps while waiting in the car for someone at an appointment etc.

    @ green_knight: “Certain tasks I can do at any point of the day with half a brain or less; others need full immersion in the story and at least a couple of hours set aside.”

    I’ve been playing with this approach, and it seems to have possibilities.

  6. I’ve actually figured out all of these time management strategies and have used them to good effect. Still have a problem with letting my writing time get sucked away with mindless internet/tv/books but I know why. The time-wasting zoning out is a poor coping mechanism for extremely negative self talk.

    If I ever said all those insulting things to another person – I’d wash my mouth out with hospital soap!

    Got a solution to that problem?

  7. Spending two hours reading random Wikipedia articles and following links to fascinating web sites is, my goodness, most definitely not writing.

    Laughed out loud at that one. Oh, lord, yes.

  8. For me, the hardest thing, so far, has been giving up the computer games. If I haven’t gotten a full scene done on the book, I haven’t ‘earned the luxury’ of playing them, so I don’t.

    It sucks, and I’m still kind of whiny about it, but I’m getting used to it. 🙂

  9. On the one hand, this is useful and inspiring. On the other hand, I’m here reading instead of being offline and writing….

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