Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Discipline: Time Management Through Non-Negotiables

I'd say a major challenge we face as writers...at least those of us with families, jobs, and other responsibilities...is lack of time. We're trying to squeeze it in anywhere we get a break from our busy (not crazy!), full day. And then sometimes, when we get that break, that actual hour or so of freedom, we're too exhausted to whip up a few pages of brilliance let alone five intelligible sentences.

But others seem to do it. Others seem to have the ability to actually make time - create more of it from just the 24 hours guaranteed us on a daily basis! They're living busy, productive lives where brilliance seems to flow effortlessly from one project to the next. They're inspired, connected to a higher creative source, at peace when all around them their peers are hustling to barely make a deadline. What's the secret?

Ok, so as a writer you know brilliance doesn't just happen - it takes work, and yes, time. Lots of it. The others, from whom all brilliance and zen seem to flow, just manage their time better. They don't have any more of it than you do. The difference is, they put a premium value on their time as they see it directly impacting their overall productivity and quality of life. And they expect others to respect their time as well, or they simply remove themselves from the equation. It's a non-negotiable. People, not just writers, who respect their worth and their talent develop a system of dos and dont's - their own set of non-negotiables that keep them from steering too far off path. The beauty is, anyone can do this. You can start doing this today. Here's how.

Be Conscious!

The first step of developing your own time management non-negotiables, is being truly aware of how you spend your minutes. Aside from your major responsibilities and obligations, where do you spend your free time? What's the first thing you do after you've come home from a busy day, connected with your family/pets/parents, prepared dinner, wrap up some general housekeeping, etc. Plop exhausted in front of one screen or another to unwind? Or chat with friends? Hang out at a bar? Shop? Change all your status updates? Some of these activities don't seem like huge time vacuums, but over time, the minutes add up to real hours. Time that could be spent writing or reading (which I also consider writing). Good writers know the importance of every word they put on the page. It has a purpose. If they have too many words or not the right kind of words, they edit. Your time has meaning and purpose, too. Edit your time as you would your writing.


This may sound totally anti-creative to some of you, but to really get the most out of your week, plan it out before the week begins; Sunday is ideal. First, think about what you want to accomplish. What do you need to do to achieve a goal, complete your work, make an important connection, finish piece - the actions that will move your writing/writing career forward. Next, list everything you must do day to day. School, work, kids' activities, etc., fall into this category. Your second level of must dos are things like cooking and maintenance/housekeeping. These things take up a lot of time, so if you can manage hiring someone to clean house a few times a month, do it. Or delegate household responsibilities, if there's more than one of you able to share the workload (my husband is truly awesome in sharing the heft with me, but cooking is my gig). Create a daily plan at the beginning of the week clearly outlining who is responsible for completing what task and make sure they're sticking to it. This frees up hours of your time during the week.

Ok, so getting past the major responsibilities and must-dos, that leaves you with your free time to plan. Plan your family time, spouse/partner time, pet time, parent time, friend time, you get the picture. And make the most of that time you're spending with your loved ones! Next, plan your writing time. Why did I put this behind connecting with people? Because community is important. It feeds you and you learn from it. It's also important for you to participate in a community, even if your community consists of just you, your neighbor and your pet. Whatever community you're a part of, engage fully...then come back to your work focused and ready to rock!

Last, plan your writing time. By writing time I mean, writing, reading and researching. The best writers...the prize-winning ones, the ones that land on the best-seller list, read. They read the work of their peers, and they read books in genres that may have nothing to do with what they're writing. By reading, you're learning more about writing by appreciating or not appreciating how others do it. This is ESPECIALLY important if you're writing within a genre because you must know what else is out there, know the formula.

Plan your TV and screen (this doesn't include writing on your computer) time wisely. I rarely watch TV and limit my online time to blogging, updating my Lit Coach Facebook page and updating my other online sources when my blogs are up. Or, I'm researching the trades and other publishing news and a few blogs I regularly check. I don't check email every five minutes. That's about it. "Just a few minutes" often turns into a whole hour (or more) in front of a screen, plan this empty calorie time wisely.

NOW. While it's important to be flexible in your planning as life does love to throw a curve ball once in a while (for example, my son has pneumonia this week), this to-do list becomes your non-negotiable weekly schedule. The best thing you can do for yourself, for your creative mind, is stick to it, or as closely as possible. When others come into your picture and demand your time in some form or another, it's your decision to give them that time or not. Whatever you decide, you own that decision.

Your Action: Plan out your week as discussed above and try your new non-negotiable system for one week. See where it takes you. Don't forget to share this plan with those you live with so everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Bonus Points: Aim to be on time: to work; to school; to lunches; to meetings; to scheduled phone calls. Not only does this keep you on track, it boosts your credibility.


  1. [...at least those of us with families, jobs, and other responsibilities] Not to forget school, French projects, Secret Santa's or Harry Potter Movie Marathons!

    [Ok, so as a writer you know brilliance doesn't just happen - it takes work, and yes, time.] Very true- I definitely agree with that. To quote one of my best friends: "I guess that's when {myself} not having a social life comes in handy."

    I'll definitely try planning out my week! That's a pretty good idea, seeing as I don't have to worry about anything out of the ordinary happening this week...

    Thanks for another great post! You have no idea how often I lie in bed at night and regret wasting all my time catching up with some recorded television shows when I should have been writing.



  2. Great post as usual. I need to think about this. I really must plan myself better. I'm wondering how to structure the day. Like wake up 5:30 or 6:00 am and then...I don't know. When to do each of meals, a walk, some yoga, writing, reading, researching, work, etc. Not sure how to lay out the day the best.
    Julia Cameron writes about doing 3 morning pages each morning - no ifs, ands, or buts - just to journal, or vent, or anything. I feel so groggy in the morning. Not sure how to exactly structure the day and that tips me off . I find it difficult because I work from home and live in a one-room apartment. But my computer is not conducive to be brought outside the home and I have few places to sit outside it anyway. So, its a bit stifling, no matter how many short walks outside I take. I do procrastinate and I do read too many blogs, must remedy that. Also, trying to balance reading and writing is terrible for me. I've yet to find my voice or true desire of what to write in honestly.
    It is true what you say about reading though...I've read at least 2 books this month that didn't really jive with me and showed me what I don't desire to write.
    Anyway, I could talk forever.
    Life for me is a bit rocky now due to some personal drama. I'm hoping the dust will settle soon and I find some calm center and less anxiety about all of this again.

  3. Thank you, Erin! While we are talking about this subject, I'd like to add, I read a book called BOOKLIFE by Jeff Vandermeer about a year ago that was filled with such great advice. He actually included his daily schedule (both when he was working another job and when he was a stay-at-home writer.) I've adopted a lot of his habits and can really see a difference in my productivity.

  4. To Young one, Harry Potter Marathons are a must. I can't wait for the new movie to come out! I've seen every one of them in the theater with my boys. And French projects and secret santa stuff is important, too. Having a social life is a must, just go for quality over quantity.

    To Anon, not knowing your whole picture, it's a little hard for me to comment, but if you absolutely cannot change your current circumstances, you've just got to take it day by day, focus on your objective, set a plan in place that will help you achieve it and just stick to it. It's tough, I realize, but there's nothing about writing well that's easy.

    To Jill, I've read BOOKLIFE and enjoyed it. My caveat to new writers is to digest the book in bite size pieces as it's a very thorough book. Glad you're seeing the light!

  5. This is especially relevant as some of us try to push our way through NaNoWriMo—this is my first time going through it, and I’ve discovered some interesting things. Like how much my extremely extroverted husband really needs daily attention from me, and how much I want to pull my hair out when depriving him of that time leads to constant interruptions when I try to write. I’ve been learning some valuable lessons on how to manage my time so that we BOTH get what we need. Because you’re absolutely right—giving time for your community is very important.


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