“The trouble is, you think you have time.” Buddha
It is the world’s only universal currency but, unlike dollars and cents, we cannot store it, accumulate it or trade it. Time management, therefore, is just everyday economics: managing the demands on us with what we have in supply: 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day… you know the rest.
It is a simple concept to grasp and yet time management is one of the hottest topics in non-fiction. Everyone from college students to multi-millionaires wants to learn the secret of how to manage this precious, and terrifyingly finite resource, more efficiently. We are desperate to squeeze more out of every day and, with over 100,000 results on Amazon Books, I’d say there are more than a few ideas out there about how to do so.
I will not pretend that I can surpass the likes of David Allen, Stephen Covey or Tim Ferris. Rather, I want to focus on something closer to my heart: time management for writers, especially aspiring ones.
Keeping track of all our day-to-day commitments — hello family, friends, work, sport, some resemblance of a social life… — is hard enough without adding on budding career aspirations into the mix. But this is the default for most writers. In the early days, we don’t make enough (if any) money from our writing so it gets relegated to the sidelines. Writing is for those spare hours we have before work, during our lunch breaks, after the gym or on rare commitment-free days.
If writers, like everyone else, want to make the most of these ‘extra’ hours then there are a few things we need to come to terms with.
1. The Harsh Truth
Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four-hour days- Zig Ziglar
Time management is all about making more time, right?
No, not exactly.
Whilst our perceptions of how quickly (reading a good book) or slowly (running on a treadmill) time passes can change, we cannot take an hour and stretch it out to be longer than 60 minutes. If you allocate an hour for a task and work beyond that, you haven’t created extra time for it. You’ve taken it away from something else.
As an example, let’s have a look at the universally used but widely misunderstood phrase, “I don’t have time.”
If you have never uttered this phrase — or any of its variations — then you’d be in the minority. I used it five minutes ago to explain to myself why I haven’t changed out of my pyjamas.
But what is really going on here? Am I really telling myself that I don’t have two minutes in my morning? I have no immediate or urgent matters pressing on me, so why don’t I have time?
The point I’m about to make can be a harsh realisation to come to but we so often fool others and ourselves with this excuse because it sounds a lot kinder than what is, more often than not, the truth:
“It’s not a priority.”
The urgency or importance of the matter doesn’t change this. If something is a priority in our lives, then we will make allocate the time for it. It’s as simple as that.
2. Find Your Priorities
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least- Goeth
I am telling myself that I don’t have time to change out of my (very comfortable) pyjamas but the truth is that this action is lower on my priority list than finishing this article, and once we think of time in terms of priorities we see things in a much clearer light.
It rarely feels like it and we often forget that our time is finite. We cannot make time. We can half it, quarter it or squander is completely but our priorities will always dictate the balance. If we want to make the most of it, we need to allocate it towards the Things That Matter.
For most writers, that will be their writing.
Time management isn’t about doing more, it’s about doing more of what matters to us. The overwhelming feeling we get when confronted with too many commitments stems from not knowing what our priorities are. If we don’t know what’s important to us, we don’t know where to spend our time and, because of this, we try to spend it everywhere.
Make time for yourself today. Talk to yourself about the Things That Matter. What are your priorities now? For the year? For the future? What are you willing to take time away from and put it towards?
The answers to these questions may not come straight away — introspective processes take time — but the longer you can dedicate to looking at your values, actions and priorities, the clearer the picture will become.
Of course, knowing your priorities and committing to them are very different hills to climb. There is a way one to help you get to the top though.
3. Ask Yourself Why
Efficiency is doing this right; effectiveness is doing the right things- Peter Drucker
Why do you want to write that book? Why do you want to start a business? Why do you want to run a half-marathon? Why do you want more time with the kids? Why do you want to learn Spanish? Why do you want financial freedom?
Setting your priorities is important but understanding why you’ve chosen them is critical. This is especially true in this modern age where our tendency to pursue instant gratification makes it all too easy to sacrifice our long-term dreams for the seductive and easily-satisfied desires of the present.
What does that mean? Goodbye writing. Hello Netflix binge/ Youtube rabbit hole/ Pinterest addiction/ endless Insta-scrolling.
Never mind that manuscript on your computer or that idea for an article you had… you don’t ‘have’ time for it because there are other things that are much easier. Ease and priorities are often mistaken for each other but they aren’t the same thing. That becomes apparent when we just start asking why.
Why do you want to go with what is easy? It’s been a stressful day. You’re tired. You deserve it. It’s a habit. You can’t help myself.
Why do you want to write? It’s always been a dream of yours to be an author. You have a story to tell. You want people to learn about XYZ. You want to shine the light on a big issue. Writing brings you joy.
Now the scale tip.
If a priority means enough to you that you would sacrifice your valuable time for it then don’t undermine yourself by putting it aside just because something is easier at that moment. Something will always be easier than pursuing The Things That Matter.
Reminding yourself why you’re doing something will help you stay on track.
4. Golden Hours
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work- Stephen King
So, you have your priorities and you know why you want to pursue them. Great! The next part is knowing when. When are you productive Golden Hours: that brief and elusive window of time when it feels like the cogs in your head are churning at their most productive?
Despite our traditional workday, not every single person will be at their most productive between 9AM — 5PM. Some people are absolutely wired between 4–8AM whilst others don’t get the ball rolling till after midday. Personally, my brain disintegrates around 5PM until I’m a drooling mess staring at a computer screen. That’s when it’s usually a good time for me to hit the gym rather than the keyboard.
The hardest thing as an aspiring writer is that we have day jobs and sometimes our Golden Hours coincide with our Work Hours. However, there is hope! Our brains are amazing and frustratingly complex organs, and we can rewire them. You can shift your Golden Hours, but it takes time.
Start off by breaking your free time (for me that’s the hours before work) into smaller, more intense blocks of work: 20- 30 minutes of work with short breaks is a good start. Don’t expect to accomplish much in the first week, but once you get through one block, you can add more. The work may not be your best but, with writing, some words are always better than none.
5. Form A Routine
The best time to start was last year. Failing that, today will do- Chris Guillebeau
Write consistently. Write at the same time. On the same day. With the same people. Whatever and however you do it, you need to do it for long enough until it no longer feels like something you need to plan for. That’s the power of habit and when properly forged they are iron clad, helping you to stick to your priorities and circumvent those easier temptations.
Habits, however, can be just as difficult to form as they are to break, and there is a whole other sub-category of non-fiction dedicated to them. Theories on how long it takes to form a habit range from 2 weeks to 9 months, but everyone will be different.
Start by defending your writing time. Don’t allow interruptions to impede it and don’t allow someone to convince you that your time should be spent elsewhere. The Things That Matter to them may not be the same as the Things That Matter to you.
Remember that the world will not implode because you disconnect from it for an hour. It will be there when you come back.
6. Be Accountable
Accountability breeds response-ability- Stephen Covey
You don’t need to go it alone.
90% of the time, writers are pretty tuned in to their Internal Accountability. Writing is a solitary profession/ hobby and we know from Day 1 that no one will or can write our story for us. Thus, the motivation we need often comes from within, which is again why those why questions are so important.
But we are also imperfect creatures, and it’s that other 10% that can let us down. Writing is not like a day-job. No one is expecting us to come in (except our characters). There’s no phone call from the boss if we’re late. Because of that, we sometimes need a slightly bigger carrot on the end of the stick to get us going.
A lot of literature will suggest setting deadlines but, in my experience, self-imposed deadlines rarely work. Even when I set reminders or promise myself a reward for completing tasks on time, I usually end up finding ways or excuses to circumvent them. What works, however, is asking someone to dangle that prize in front of me. I’ll aim for the carrot, but knowing there is something the end of the line waiting for me to reach it is what really counts.
If you are the same, then consider recruiting an Accountability Buddy. Friends and family work great, so long as they invest in your writing success, and are available to provide regular support. Otherwise, you can also find incredible people in your local writing group or online community that are happy to be a source of motivation and encouragement.
Before asking, consider just what form of accountability you require and how much time your buddy can dedicate to their role. Should they call you once a week to check-in? Should they ply you with jelly beans every time you complete a milestone? Would you be happier meeting up in person? Do you need subtle reminders or something more akin to a fire alarm? Can you offer them something in return for their time?
7. Create A Space
Time is what we want most, but what we spend worst- William Penn
Our last question to consider is where.
One perk of writing, compared to other creative outlets, is that we can take our work and our imaginations with us. Because of this, we can often underestimate the critical role our environment plays in our productivity.
Like defending your time, define a space as a WORK ONLY environment, physically and mentally. That means (brace for it) turning your mobile devices off. Shutting the door. Telling your family that you’ll be unavailable for a few hours. Using the composition mode on Scrivener. Sticking in earplugs. Whatever you have to do.
As much as I would love my own dedicated office-come-library space, creating space need not require major renovations. As mentioned earlier, our brains are crafty things and can adapt to even tiny changes. For me, this switch between Relax Space and Work Space is as simple as moving from the couch to the dining table. Small steps = big difference.
Regardless of how you go about it, learning to manage our time is a journey without a destination. Lives are messy and don’t always go to plan. Habits break. We forget The Things That Matter. There are too many stories and never enough time. Surprises happen. Life is unpredictable and if managing our time was as simple as filling in blank slots on a timetable then we’d all do it to perfection. Until then, all we can do is try, and keep writing.
All images and designs © 2014–2020 to MK Photography (Sarah Pragnell). For more, go to https://www.flickr.com/gp/isis375/3nqg25