Six impossible things

Finding Time

Everybody has too much to do, always. You can tell, because half the time, the first thing people ask a writer is “When do you find time to write?” (the other half the time, the first thing is “Where do you get your ideas?” and the second thing is the one about finding time).

The thing about time is, nobody gets more than 24 hours per day. “Saving time” isn’t like saving money – you can’t take the fifteen minutes you spent waiting for the bus and put it in a time bank, so that when you are late on a novel you can pull it out and suddenly have an extra fifteen minutes to write. So logically, there are only three ways of “finding time” to write: 1) you can do fewer things, and write during the time you’re not using for whatever you gave up doing, or 2) you can do the same number of things, but a lot faster, so that they take less of your 24 hours and you can use the “extra” time to write, or 3) you can find ways to use little odds and ends of “wasted” time (like waiting on the bus) to write in.

Using odds and ends of time can be a lot of help, if you have enough of them (and the ubiquitousness of smartphones means that everybody can have a tiny electronic note-taker with them at all times), but it still requires that one have a process that can make use of small chunks of time (not everyone can) and/or that one have a larger chunk of writing time coming along somewhen in which to stitch together all the little bits that one collected during all those five and ten-minute time periods. It’s well worth doing, but it’s not a perfect solution.

Doing everything faster sounds like a good possibility, but it has a couple of problems. First, some things can’t be sped up – you can’t sleep any faster; you can only cut down on the number of hours you do it, which leads to sleep deprivation and other Bad Things (some of which may even impact on the creativity you were cutting back on sleep to have time for).

Second, most things reach a point where quality suffers if you do them too fast. For some things, this doesn’t matter a lot – if my lawn is a little ragged because I was paying more attention to how quickly I could finish than to whether I got the corners trimmed all the way to the edge, it’s not a huge deal. For other things, though, deteriorating quality can have serious negative consequences. You can only drive so fast before you get pulled over by the cops (best case) or lose control of the car and kill somebody (worst case).

Another problem is that, as I said before, you can’t bank time. If you speed up your breakfast and “save” ten minutes, odds are very good that by the time you get to your writing hour at four in the afternoon, you will not still be ahead of schedule by ten minutes. Something will have happened – the bus was late, there was more mail than you thought, you had to stop for groceries – to put you back on your normal schedule (assuming you have one). You can try to combine it with #3, using odds and ends, but that doesn’t always work, either.

The real problem with trying to do everything faster is that almost nobody can do this successfully for any length of time without burning out. Burning out makes everything harder; everything suddenly takes longer (if you can do it at all), and you can kiss your creativity goodbye for an indefinite period. In other words, working twice as fast only helps in the short run. In the only-slightly-longer run, it hurts far more than it helps.

That leaves the only real choice as #1: doing fewer things. This turns out to be a) exceedingly effective, and b) insanely hard to get people to do. Because, let’s face it, every single thing you are doing in your life is something you are doing because you have to (buy groceries, do dishes, get gas, eat, sleep) or because you want to (watch Sherlock, check your Twitter feed, stop at the bar for a quick one after work, garden, hang out with your friends).

There are a limited number of ways to cut back on the things you have to do, all of which involve getting someone else to do them for you (because, remember, they must happen). If you are persuasive, you can talk a friend or family member into running out to get your groceries, but they’re likely to get cranky if you never reciprocate, which means that in the end, you aren’t actually doing fewer things. If you have the cash, you can hire someone to clean your house and do your laundry, which does help, but how many can afford it? And there simply isn’t any way to get someone to eat or sleep or exercise for you – it doesn’t work.

What’s left is cutting back on the things you want to do. Record Sherlock and don’t watch it until you’re done writing. Turn off the Internet and write. Don’t stop at the bar; go home and write. Skip the concert or the party and write.

The trouble with this is, of course, that nobody wants to cut back on doing the fun and interesting stuff that they’re doing because they want to. Sometimes, this is reasonable; I once asked a gentleman who wanted to find time what he did on Saturday morning, and he shot back “That’s the time I spend with my kids. I’m not using it for anything else.” And he was right. On the other hand, there are a lot more people like the guy who said “Oh, Saturday morning is when I catch up on the five hours of TV shows that are on during the week at the same time as other shows I want to watch. I can’t write then; I’ll get behind.”

It’s especially hard to not-do something that is fun and interesting and appealing when the alternative is working at writing that is not going very well. That, however, is when one particularly needs to have exercised one’s discipline muscles, so that one can say “no, I can’t” to the spur-of-the-moment invite to the baseball game, knowing that one is probably going to spend the afternoon swearing at a blank screen.

  1. What if your writing process involves a 2nd person in the room? For some reason all my best words are written with another person standing/sitting there listening to me “um” and “ah” out loud. I’ve found lots and lots of hours to spend staring at a blank screen and poking at it. But for some reason all THOSE words come out…..boring. And I really want to stop wasting that other person’s time.

    • What are the chances of finding another writer who doesn’t mind you talking? Neither my roommate or I were writing enough, and then we started declaring “designated writing time” several hours a week, usually in the evening after supper, where we just hang out in the same room and each poke at our computers.

      Alternately, can you find someone else who can multitask while you write? They cook or wash dishes or fix the sofa or whatever, but still keep an ear out for you, so you get your writing time and listening ear, and they get something interesting to pay attention to while their hands are busy.

  2. Hear, Hear! As a writer (or anything else, for that matter), one thing I HATE is having people tell me they can’t do this, or can’t do that because they don’t have time. I’ve actually started getting rather short with people who use that excuse. Especially when it comes with the implication that, SOMEHOW, because I happen to be doing it, I have gobs more time than they do, and their schedule is SO much more important because *gasp* they are busy people!

    Personally? I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to be ‘too busy’ to do stuff.It burns me out too fast, and as you say, then nothing at all gets done. I’ve had to deliberately choose to keep my schedule from getting too full – and yes, that often does mean cutting things you want to do out. Multitasking helps too.

    What I hate is when people label you as ‘lazy’ or ‘not busy’ because you don’t follow their frantic schedule and they don’t see what you actually do fill your time with.They just see you writing, or taking a moment to enjoy the shape of that bird’s wings as it flies over – or whatever and suddenly you’re not doing anything and can’t you understand that THEY are busy and THEY have important things to do, they can’t possibly stop and take a breath and be lazy like you. Grrr.

    Personally, my writing is often done while multitasking. I tend to work better with a bit of noise than total silence. Music playing. Or even that TV show I want to catch up on, playing to the side while I write actually helps the process. (Most of the time. Sometimes the tv show is too distracting and has to get shut off because I’m watching too much and not writing enough.) But yeah, sometimes you just have to let some of the stuff you’d like to do go, so you have time to do something better.

  3. “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
    —H. Jackson Brown, Jr

    “I don’t find time to write… I make time to write. Big difference.”
    —Elizabeth Moon

  4. I really need to get better at turning off the Internet. Otherwise I’ll find myself researching random things I don’t even care about because procrastinating is easier than writing. It’s sad how easily I get distracted.

  5. “‘I don’t have time’ is a value statement.
    — Howard Tayler, Writing Excuses

  6. One of the reasons I like running, which I’ve taken up recently, is because it’s the one thing I do where I don’t feel like I ought to be doing something else. It takes me physically away from almost all the other things I “should” be doing , and it takes just enough of my attention to keep me from fretting about the eleventy-billion things on the to-do list. And even if I were to give up halfway through… well, I’d still have to turn around and get home, wouldn’t I? So I might as well finish running.

    I try to give writing the same focus and priority, and I’m getting better at it, but it’s harder when many of the other things are right there with you, in plain view. Especially, as you say, if the writing’s going poorly; you look up from the screen to ponder a sticky bit, and there’s the unfolded laundry or the unmown lawn or the stuff waiting for shelves to be built, staring back at you…. 😉

  7. :>

    While I am in no means a serious writer — I dabble at best — I think that this is solid advice that can be used for every area in your life that you feel you “just don’t have time for.” and, like most, I feel like I have a LOT of those “just don’t have time fors.”

  8. True, true post. But, I do want to mention that sleep can have a huge impact on . . . well, everything, not just writing. Sleeping smart (a cup of chamomile tea before bed, or 10 minutes of meditation) and sleeping well can suddenly open up all sorts of time. When I got my CPAP machine, I suddenly found I only needed seven and half to eight hours of sleep — not nine (and still waking up tired).

    But even when that’s said, it’s really easy to fritter that new-found time away instead of use it for writing. Discipline is still necessary. (But a little easier when one is fed and rested.)

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