Finding time

People often talk about “finding” time to write, as if there’s a few minutes to be found under the couch, or “making” time to write, as if by sheer force of will we can make the next hour contain 69 minutes instead of the usual 60. I don’t much care for either notion. There is no more time for you than there is for me, and unless you’re incredibly fortunate, there are likely roughly as many demands on my time as there are on yours.

So no, you don’t “find” or “make” time to write. All you can do is use the time you’ve already got. I wish I had more time to write, but then, so do all who live to see such times. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us. (Seems I’ve heard someone say something very like that before…hmmmm….)

John Scalzi put it all very bluntly a few years back, and I tend to agree strongly with him here:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

Yes.

But still, lectures like that aren’t always the answer. Specific examples might be helpful, if you’re struggling to somehow pack more writing into your day. All of this involves tradeoffs. It involves concluding that some existing time-sinks in your life need to be adjusted, in terms of their priority, in order to squeeze something else in. In some cases, it might even involve making some painful decisions regarding things that you really like doing, so ultimately it all comes down to the question of just how much you like writing in the first place, and the only person who can answer that is you. These are the things that I did when I decided that it was time to shift from “I wanna write sometime” to “I’m gonna write NOW.” Some of it is about using time for writing; others are about maximizing the quality of my writing time.

1. Get up earlier. Unless you’re a morning person by temperament – and I am not – this one sucks. But I had to do it. I used to get up at 6:00 am to get ready for work (my shift starts at 7:30 most days, and I have a roughly 15-minute commute). I started getting up at 5:30, thus gaining an extra thirty minutes of writing time before work. Does it suck? Yeah, sometimes. I am not, as I note, a morning person. But the time’s gotta come from somewhere, and there are fewer demands on my time early in the day than later, so that’s when I’ve decided that I have to get some of the work done.

2. Write during lunch. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now! As I write this, it’s my lunch period. Now don’t worry, I’m not giving up eating. But what I’ve done is utilize the down time I get at work differently. My job allows me a 15-minute break and a 30-minute lunch period each day. I used to take the break in the morning sometime, and then lunch around 1:00. Now I take the break around noon, during which I eat (because quite frankly, it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to eat), and I take the lunch period around 2:00 or 2:30, during which I exclusively write.

It helps that I have my own small work area with my own door, so I can get privacy, and it also helps that I have never much liked the atmosphere of “break rooms”, no matter what job I had. Am I missing out on some social time with coworkers? Maybe, but I get plenty of that anyway.

3. The crockpot is your friend. It really, truly is. Now, you don’t want to overdo it, but several nights a week it falls to me to cook, and sometimes it’s nice to have a meal option that doesn’t involve losing an hour or two to prepping and working over the stove. You can do wonderful things with a slow cooker, and it can really free up some good writing time. (This is also why God invented rotisserie chickens and frozen pizzas.)

4. Set a daily quota. I have been a firm believer in quotas for years, and I plan to go right on being a fan of quotas. Setting real, measurable goals and breaking them down into meaningful chunks is important to me, and it helps me feel like I’m actually making progress when I have those days when, as Stephen King puts it, I only feel like I’m “shoveling shit from a sitting position”. Make your quota high enough to be a challenge (it shouldn’t be easy), but low enough to be attainable.

This is where you have to know yourself and your level of likely useful productivity. Currently I’m enforcing a quota of 1200 words a day, because that’s what I feel I can reasonably achieve in a day while still leaving room for family, meals, showers, dog walks, reading, and other stuff. If you can write more than that with the time you’ve carved out for yourself, great! If less, then that’s fine, too. If you set a quota and find that you’re hitting it every day with ease, raise it. If you’re never hitting it, then lower it. A quota is a goal you set for yourself, and more than that, it’s a tool to help you be productive. A quota is not a stick to beat yourself with.

5. Know which days are good and which aren’t, and feel free to adjust quotas accordingly. Just because you have quotas doesn’t mean that they have to be the same every day. In my own life, with the routine we currently have, it turns out that Tuesdays are really bad for writing. More specifically, Tuesday nights are never good for writing, so if I want to hit quota on Tuesdays, I have to get out of bed and make it happen early. On the flip side I have Saturdays, which are almost always awesome writing days, so I allow myself a quota of 2000 words on Saturdays. Every day is not created equal!

6. When you hit quota, STOP. This is another thing I believe. There are days when it’s grossly tempting to plow past my quota and keep going until I double it, triple it, whatever it. I don’t think that’s a great idea, because I think it can lead me to raising my expectations for each day out, thus magnifying the shittiness of the shitty days, and it can make it easier to blow off a day when I’ve blasted quota to bits the day before. Along with my strong belief in daily quotas is an equally-strong belief in steady, consistent production. Binge-writing, in my experience, leads to days when I write nothing at all, and those days are poison to my writing-loving heart.

There’s an old adage in storytelling: “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” Well, I think it applies to writers, too: Always leave yourself wanting more!

7. Leave a note for the next session. This is something I started doing after I read Rachel Aron’s book 2k to 10k. It’s not so much “outlining”, but when I end a session “in the groove”, I always have a good idea of what’s to immediately follow. Since sometimes twenty-four hours can pass before the next session, I find it hard to jump back in with the same enthusiasm with which I finished the day before. I do some hemming and hawing as I try to recapture a thought process that ended a day before, and in this way I lose valuable time.

So when a session ends, I try to leave myself a note – two or three sentences is enough – telling me where I’m going next. It makes hitting the ground running the next day a lot easier, and when time is of the essence, hitting the ground running is pretty important.

Let’s see, what else? Some folks swear by apps that disable their Internet access or other such efforts to make their work distraction-free. I do not do this. I can get distracted by the Internet as much as anyone, but I’m pretty good at cranking away without needing distractions when I get myself going, and my whole writing practice is designed to make it as easy as possible to get into that zone. About the only thing I like to do in terms of reducing distractions is using Scrivener’s fullscreen writing environment, and even that sometimes I eschew, since I like to keep two panes open, one with the manuscript and one with my character notes or some other info file.

So that’s how I maximize the time I have in order to get the most work done. How about you all? Let me know your tricks for getting productive!

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