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Writing Wednesday: Time Management

A lot of you have asked me to talk about juggling work and writing or writing and social media. I can’t help feeling a bit like it’s the blind leading the blind here (my time management skills are far from stellar), but, for what it’s worth, here are my two bits, in a do as I say, don’t do what I do kind of way.

Since it’s a huge topic, I’m going to talk about time management and the day job today and save time management and social media for next week, even though the two intersect at points.

My first and only rule: know thyself.

Your efficiency will be predicated on your ability to understand your own writing patterns and habits. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise: you can waste a lot of time trying to follow someone else’s “more efficient” methods. You know– or you can figure out– what works for you. Are you most productive early in the morning? Late at night? Are you good at writing in short, interrupted bursts? Do you need a clump of time? If you do need a clump, how substantial does it have to be? A few hours? A few days? Don’t fight your own instincts; make them work for you.

I’m a clump-er. I need a solid block of time, preferably a whole day, in order to get real writing done. This doesn’t mean that I write for all that time, but it takes me a while to get back into my world. When I was in law school, I knew that days on which I had class were dead, writing-wise. I arranged long weekends. When I was at a law firm, I tried the early morning and late at night methods and completely crashed and burned. I hoarded my weekend time for writing instead.

Are you a write in small chunks person? In that case, try to maximize those little moments. I know people who write while waiting in the dentist’s office or driving the kids to soccer practice. (I envy them that ability to shut everything out and plunge back in. I get very picky about my own writing space and time. And very cranky if someone takes my favorite table at Starbucks. But I digress.) Most of them have very particular requirements for writing tools. Some work on iPads, so they can pick up seamlessly wherever they are; others use notebooks and transcribe from longhand later. I have friends who still swear by dictaphones. If you’re a writing at odd moments person, figure out what you need to make it easiest for you and do it.

Try to figure out how to use fragmented moments of time, or unexpected moments, for auxiliary tasks. Social media (more on that next week) is great for those weird little between times. Have a half hour between meetings and need to grind out a website post? Waiting for someone to turn a document back around to you at work and have some tweets to send out? These are generally tasks that can be accomplished in small bits of time with a distracted mind.

Then there’s daydreaming. So much of writing isn’t about the writing itself: it’s plotting and character development and generally thinking things through. You can do that while you’re walking to the grocery store, or taking a shower (note: a dry erase board next to the shower can be a very useful thing) or watching mindless television to unwind after work (I keep a clipboard next to me when I watch TV, so I can scribble down thoughts about the book as they come to me). Your brain needs these dead times to transition from work to writing, to rejuvenate and get back into mode. Even if you’re a clump-er like me, and need a solid block of time to really write, it’s useful to spend those fragmented moments thinking through things that have bothered you, scribbling out impulsive bits of dialogue, or reading other peoples’ books to refill the creative well.

Let’s face it, refilling that well is important. Sometimes, no matter how tight you are for time, you need to take that break and watch a movie or read a new novel. That might be just the thing that catapults you back into your own story. It’s not time wasting if it’s priming the pump. Beating yourself up for wasting time can waste more time than the original time wasting.

One good exercise is to think about your average day. There’s more time in the day, when you look for it, than readily appears. When I sat down and thought about it, I realized I was frittering away an hour or two each morning just scrolling around the industry blogs. (I’ll talk about this more in the social media post next week.) Half the time, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was just, as a Southern friend of mine calls it, messin’. We all have random, repetitive things we do, particularly internet-involved, that add little value to our day. My theory is that some of these are necessary brain down-time– but not all. By cutting my morning messin’, I won myself an extra hour of writing time.

Your commute can also be prime book time. As a city dweller, I never had a drive to work, but I did have a forty-five minute walk to work. (It was that or multiple buses and subways; I chose to walk.) I used that walking time to think through plot problems. I’d keep a notebook close at hand and scribble things down in unintelligible shorthand while waiting for red lights to change to green.

Primarily, be flexible. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do everything, all at once, all the time. Juggling is hard. Jobs are draining. Writing takes a certain level of emotional commitment. Sometimes, the stars just don’t align. But they will. And the best way to make sure they do is not to dwell on all the times you didn’t keep your schedule. Keep yourself open for opportunities, learn what works for you, and make sure you let yourself have time to rest and think.

What are your time management techniques? Particularly those of you with kids, since that’s not a topic I’m competent to address yet…. (If anyone wants to do a guest post on juggling writing with offspring, let me know!)

7 Comments

  1. Meredith A on June 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I love Writing Wednesdays! It’s now my favourite day of the week! I think my writing well might be almost full after reading this.

  2. Céline on June 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Once again, you managed to provide us with very useful insights…
    I’m still struggling to find my “best writing time”, mostly because of work. I write by small chunks of time, during my lunch break, in the evening after work, whenever I can and have the time.
    Like you suggested, I always keep a small notebook in my purse, it stays on my nightstand in case I have an idea in the middle of the night (I remember staying awake once for a looong time… couldn’t get back to sleep until I wrote the idea down!).

    There is something else that I wanted to ask, out of curiosity. I’m not sure it’s worth a whole Writing Wednesday, but I’ll ask anyway and you decide if it’s worth it!!
    How much of your plots is drafted before you start the “research reading”? Does it depend on the amount of research you have to do? Or do you have the whole of your plot in mind when you do your research?

    I can’t thank you enough for all the insights that you share with us every week! It’s been very useful to me!

  3. Shannon M. Howell on June 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I’m still struggling with balancing things, but you are right about the messin’ time.

    I could do a bit about balancing things with kids, if you’d like. I’ve got two, not including the 4-footed furry ones.

  4. Kiley on June 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you! I am not working on a novel (at the moment), but getting started on my Master’s thesis and this has been extremely helpful! So, thanks again!

  5. Julie H on June 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

    My main problem is finding space to write along with the time. I’m a ‘clump-er’, and I’m one of those people who needs to be away from distractions while writing. I’m living with my family right now, and I absolutely can’t concentrate when they are at home, which is someone almost always is. So, I have to go places. It’s just difficult when there aren’t many convenient places to go where you can sit uninterrupted for hours.

    You’re definitely right about using commute time for daydreaming about writing. I have a 45 minute commute. Sometimes I talk out loud while I’m thinking so that I stay focused. Hopefully the other drivers think I’m on bluetooth or something and not just a crazy person talking to herself! The key is remembering to write down what you daydreamed when you get to your destination. I’ve probably lost dozens of ideas by forgetting that way.

  6. Shannon M. Howell on June 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    I just saw this and it addresses writing with kids (home for the summer, too old to nap).

    I thought people might find it interesting (it’s not mine).

    http://limebirduk.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/summer-writing-survivor-style/#more-2640

  7. Diana Staresinic-Deane on June 20, 2012 at 1:36 am

    “Clumper.” I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to use this word as often as possible because it’s so perfect.

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