Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Writers Like Me and What I Finally Did About It

I’ll admit. There was a period in my life when I didn’t sympathize with anyone who moaned about a lack of time to write.

Life was radically different for me back then.

I lived alone in a streamside apartment overlooking Mount Tremper. With vast savannahs of time spread out before me, I had a full-fledged writing practice. Accompanied by mourning doves, cardinals, and the river rushing down the mountain, my writing spells were broken only for food, yoga, and mid-day siestas spent lying on a giant rock in the middle of the stream.

Life was simple. Uncluttered. Harmonic.

In two years I finished a short story collection, wrote a series of essays on the craft of fiction, and earned my MFA. I must have read something like two-hundred-and-fifty books. And I was healthier, fitter, and calmer than ever.

Around this time I also met and fell in love with my soul mate, Ian. Within a few years we gave birth to our daughter Safira.

Priorities shifted in epic proportions.

And for the first time in my life, I relinquished all control over my time.

To say my relationship to my work changed dramatically is an understatement. No more writing in solitude and silence. No more eight-hour stretches of uninterrupted flow. Nope. I wrote with my baby beside me, under me, over me, on top of me.

As she grew from toddler to preschooler, my weeks became even more jam packed.

There were day trips to caves, museums, parks, and lakes. Play dates, costume parades, and fairy-themed birthday parties. At home was the constant surge of meal and snack production, perpetual laundry, and a house that, most days, looked like it had been ransacked by wild chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, project upon project piled up on my queue: manuscripts to edit, coaching calls to deliver, books to outline, workshops to prepare. Revisions. More revisions. Always revisions…

To frustrate matters, Safira rarely napped and was typically, most nights, still leaping off furniture until around midnight.

photo by Ian Laughlin

Which was about the time I’d finally sit down to write. Not exactly my brightest hour, as you might have guessed by now.

So what was an unschooling work-from-home writer-mom to do?

I tried everything.

I renounced minor pleasures like Netflix and HBO.

Deferred house cleaning to the point that, in order to have friends visit, we required at least a 48-hour lead time.

Negotiated with Ian to take on the lion share of gardening, house clean up and organization.

I just about stopped doing yoga, my one pillar of sanity.

I pleaded. I blamed. Yelled. Burst into tears.

Yet, for all the fragmented time I dropped back into my writing cache, I didn’t have much to show. For every page I managed to eke out, there were multitudes of drafts, all on the brink of completion, but not a single one finished.

So these days, when someone tells me they don’t have enough time to write, I get it. I sympathize. Really, I do.

But I’m still not letting you off the hook.

The Myth of Time Management

To paraphrase something the author Stephen Covey once said, we can’t really manage time. We can only manage ourselves.

Because let’s face it. Time is not really the problem.

We all have plenty of it. We all have a say in how we use it. Yet we often squander the hours available to us. And sometimes in the most inane ways.

I used to fire up the Internet first thing every morning. I’d respond to emails. Read a stream of online newsletters. Check in on my Facebook friends, add my two cents to their updates. Hop on Twitter.

Before I knew it, I had frittered away the better part of my morning.

When I turn off the Internet, when I say “no” to low-level distractions, I get reams more writing done. And the most mileage out of my time.

What can you say “no” to?

Make Writing A Priority

Then schedule everything else around it.

It’s not about about cramming more into our day. It’s about stripping down to the few things that really matter. And then making those things absolute and non-negotiable.

If writing isn’t the first thing I give myself before anything else, the rest of of my day is, for the most part, shot. I’m tightly wound, ready to unspool and explode at the slightest infraction. Sure, I can survive a day or two without my fix, but beyond that, I’m pretty unbearable to be around.

Of course there will always be things we must do, like it or not. Writing can’t always take front row and center. But scrubbing the tub or reloading the dishwasher can usually be put off until after we’ve written our pages. Laundry, phone calls, paperwork — all these can be tackled a little at a time during scheduled writing breaks.

It’s all about energy. Not time.

Time is finite. And for most of us, increasingly scarce.

But even if we have just one hour a day to devote to our writing, we can get a lot more done – and done brilliantly – if we’re firing on all cylinders.

How can we level up our energy?

For starters, we can swap out processed, canned, and sprayed food for real, whole, organic food. We can load at least half our plates with leafy greens. Drink less alcohol. Minimize caffeine. Avoid refined sugar. And get our bodies moving; a brisk fifteen- to twenty-minute walk, or ten- minute jump on the trampoline can do wonders.

The things is, there is a relationship between your health and your creative output. Your body is your operating system. Upgrade your operating system, and your writing will soar accordingly.

Define Your Ideal Writing Scenario, Then Move Closer Towards It

Maybe you write best in crowded cafes with jazz pulsing in the background. Or late at night while everyone else in the house is asleep.

My ideal setting is early morning, wrapped in solitude and silence. It’s not the amount of time I crave so much, it’s the quality of it. Uninterrupted. Focused. Pure.

Not easy to come by in a house teeming with life.

So recently, I did something radical. Something I always knew I should do, but never believed I had the pluck to pull off.

I began waking up early. Very, very early.

Nowadays, almost without exception, I rise between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. The silence, the sense of expansion and creative liberation this brings is sacred. And it’s the closest I can get to that ideal writing space I luxuriated in before becoming CEO of my household.

These days, I can outline a book, edit a manuscript, revise a short story, maybe even slip in a brief meditation — all before Ian and Safira even stagger out of bed. Any writing I do during the balance of the day is a bonus.

When I take the reigns and create my own oasis of writing time, rather than demand my family bend to my will and create it for me, writing and everything else that follows, becomes easier. Time stops being this unwieldy force I have to wrestle, control, and conquer.

I may not be writing all day, every day, like I used to. And yes, my house is still a mess. But I’ve produced far more work in the past few months than I have in the last three years. And I’m moving ever closer to my ideal.

How about you? Is time getting between you and your writing? What are you doing about it?

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8 Responses to Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Writers Like Me and What I Finally Did About It
  1. Diane Watanabe

    I am a novice writer working on my first novel. When I was unemployed (for 15 months) I had plenty of time to write, but wasn’t always creative. Now that I am employed full-time again, I have little time to write and have lots of creative moments. I use long business flights to edit my novel that just reached 80K words. It’s about 3/4 edited before I do a full read through to check on continuity.

    I’m working on developing a schedule for my weekends to get a couple of solid writing hours in each day as I have a lot of work ahead of me. My first novel’s synopsis needs a lot of work. Novel #2 needs a little attention so I don’t forget what I want to write about and Novel #3 needs to be plotted out so I can focus on my research. It is a daunting task, but one that I am looking forward to.

  2. The issue of time and writing has been on my mind lately, so this post really resonates with me. I used to think I didn’t have time to do things, especially when my daughter was first born over 3 years ago. I’d written a novel before she was born and went through two agents. Of course after she was born I had so many new ideas for the book but no time! I was mad at the book for a while (well really, mad at myself). But now it’s as if I have all the time in the world, even though nothing has changed! It’s because I made a decision that I am going to rewrite this book, no excuses whatsoever. I sneak time in the morning and late at night. I take my MacAir out with me everywhere and write, write, writer whenever I can. I hustle when she’s at nursery school. Only a few weeks I was nervous to start chapter 1 and now I’m almost halfway through the book. I, a busy freelance writing mom, can say with certainy that time is no excuse. If you have dreams of writing, you will find the time. And yes, there may be extra piles of laundry to fold and sweeping to be done, but that’s all okay.

    • Tracey, I had a similar experience. I had written my short story collection a year before Safira was born, and was deep in revisions around the time she was born. For some reason I thought motherhood and writing would naturally go hand in hand. I really believed Safira would happily aid and abet my writing habit. Boy was I delusional!

      And talk about conflicting desires. It was torturous not to be able to get to my writing. And when I did get to it by hiring a fabulous mother’s helper, I felt guilty as all hell for having another woman change my daughter’s diapers. I finally figured out how to get my writing groove back without feeling like I was completely failing as a parent. It was painful. But like you said, it was never about time.

      Thank you!
      Nanci Panuccio recently posted..Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Writers Like Me and What I Finally Did About ItMy Profile

  3. Diane, thank you for sharing your process.

    I had a similar experience years ago when I worked full time as a copywriter; my urge to write fiction was never stronger. My best creative bursts came during lunch hours. Ironically, years before, after I had left my job at a magazine with the resolve to spend several hours a day writing my novel, I felt creatively bereft. I just couldn’t get into the right headspace, even though I had more than enough time.

    Sounds like you’ve got a really rich, productive practice going. And did you say you are working on 3 novels? That’s amazing X 3!
    Nanci Panuccio recently posted..Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Writers Like Me and What I Finally Did About ItMy Profile

    • Diane Watanabe

      Nanci,

      Surprisingly, Novel #2 came about from an unsuccessful interview process. The company I was interviewing was in a specific niche industry and the ideas just flowed. So, I have my primary and secondary character development and chapter outline. Outside of initial research about the niche industry and the above, I haven’t gotten any farther.

      Novel #3 is just a grain of an idea. It’s a departure from my first two projects as it is more of a fictional account of a real person. The process itself is daunting and I haven’t been able to devote enough time to sufficiently research the person and era to get any farther.

      May I ask a question? I’m having a problem writing my synopsis for Novel #1. I like where it’s heading, but it has morphed so much during the editing process, I may have lost the plot somewhere along the way. Any suggestions on how to get back on track? Thanks!

      • Oh, I love this question, Diane. It sounds like you’re letting the story breathe and become what it’s trying to become. That’s why it’s morphing. That’s a good thing.

        Keep in mind that plot isn’t the dominant element of a synopsis. Plot concerns itself with the external events; this happened then this happened, and so on. It’s the action plot structure. So if you go through your novel and write down everything that happens, that’s your plot. But plot is not the story itself. The story is the emotional architecture. It’s who it all happens to. The internal journey that runs underneath the events. So when writing your synopsis, consider, not just your plot, but subplots, the characters and their relationships to one another, their conflicts, sequence of events, setting, and the novel’s thematic concerns. Hope that helps. And I hope I get a chance to have a peek at your novel(s) sometime. I’m already flat-out amazed at what you’ve accomplished!
        Nanci Panuccio recently posted..Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Writers Like Me and What I Finally Did About ItMy Profile

        • Diane Watanabe

          Hi Nanci,

          Thank you for your answer. I think that is exactly what is happening with my story. The original journey is still there, but the way the story is being told has changed at least three times. Will try and focus on my synopsis from a different angle. I would LOVE for you to have a peek at what I’m doing. My story structure is different from what I’ve read in the past and could use some constructive criticism. One of my friends said that, so far, it’s kept her interest so that gives me hope and promise!

          Diane

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