Slave to the Clock: Time Management for Writers

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It's 4:55 in the afternoon, the overcast sky outside and the gentle pattering of rain on the window makes it dark in the office and it feels much later. Five minutes until it's time to leave. The clock ticks. I want to get home. I want my time to be mine again.

It's 9:29 in the morning, boarding for my plane closes in one minute. I dodge through people who aren't quite aware of the desperate nature of my rush. The clock ticks. My small suitcase rides up on one wheel as I make a sharp turn. I'm a luggage stunt driver as I rush to make my flight.

It's 7:13 at night. The cursor on my screen blinks, mocking me amid the completely white electronic page. Seven minutes until we have to leave for a friend's birthday dinner. The clock ticks. I haven't written anything. I don't want to leave until I have.

Ah time, you unrelenting harpy, we're all slave to the ticking of your minutes and the passing of your days, and who feels this passing of time worse than those striving to achieving something that demands so much of it? As they say: Ars longa, vita brevis – Art is long, life is short.

Writing is an art that requires many long hours of solitude. To write a novel, unless you're some kind of prodigy, will likely require several hundred hours of this seclusion. Now writing should not be considered a race, it's not something you want to rush, but if you're writing a novel you do want to finish it within a reasonable amount of time. A sense of urgency is often useful to keep you moving towards your goal and though I sometimes wish they would, books don't write themselves. As writers then, particularly those balancing jobs, friends, families and other commitments, time is a resource as precious as any.

So in this weeks entry in my blog focusing on writing but not the writing itself, I want to share some techniques I've found useful for managing my time while writing.

Self-Discipline

The first thing is not so much a technique but an attitude. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "I just don't have time…" but then they'll happily jump into a discussion about whatever mind-numbing reality show was on television the night before. I'm not saying don't have some veg-out time after a long day. I'm just saying when this attitude becomes a rule, or an excuse for not writing at all it's time to re-evaluate. The first step in making the time to write is having the discipline to do it.

For an interesting look at self-discipline check out this short TED talk. The hypothesis is that the most important factor in success is having the ability to delay gratification. This was proposed following a study in which children were told that if they could resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes they would be given another. In a follow-up study one hundred percent of the children who didn't eat the marshmallow were found to be successful. Not only is this informative about our behaviour it's also quite hilarious.

To me delaying gratification means having the willpower to put off something easy and enjoyable, such as watching your favourite television program, to put effort in to writing, especially when it seems like the last thing you want to do. While the act of writing is often enjoyable in and of itself, it sometimes isn't and it's times like these you need to knuckle down and get it done because one day you'll be happy you did.

Having the discipline to be regular with our writing is important in time management for obvious reasons, we need to take advantage of the time we have. The good thing is much of what we might think of as self-discipline is learned. Roy Baumeister, an expert in the field, believes that willpower is like a muscle, pushing yourself to work hard and continuing to come back to difficult problems strengthens our willpower and discipline and makes it easier to do the same in the future. Anyone who's managed to establish themselves in a regular exercise routine knows how true this is. Which leads nicely to the next point.

Establishing a Routine

Discipline is best friends with routine, they're like BFFs or something. Finding the time to write is immensely aided by developing a routine. How can you adjust your daily routine to make room for writing in a regular pattern? Do you work better in the morning or at night? Is there space in your lunch break at work or when your child is napping? Think through what will work best for you but whatever you decide be intentional about shifting your routine and sticking to it. Twenty one days is the generally accepted amount of time it takes to form a habit. Set your routine and try it out for twenty one days, if it doesn't work out you can always change it. You should feel free to tweak your routine over time.

I used to write at night after dinner. I could sit down and write for several hours often pushing on until after midnight or later and still manage to get up for work in the morning. Lately I've been finding that more difficult. It's no longer a sustainable routine for me as I'm finding myself more tired during the day and less able to concentrate during my writing sessions. So I've recently switched my routine and I'm a week into trying out twenty one days of getting up at 4:45, exercising 5 - 5:30 and then writing for two hours until I get ready to head to work.

There's discipline involved in establishing your routine but once you've got it your routine helps keep you disciplined.

Don't Underestimate Small Chunks of Time

So you're not fortunate enough to be able to devote a large slab of time each day to writing, or you feel like you want to be doing more but there's no time left. Don't underestimate how valuable it is to steal back some small chunks of time, half an hour here, an hour there, hell even ten minutes to scribble down some words.

Many writers are slow in producing work or think they don't have enough time to write when they don't take advantage of these chunks of time. You don't necessarily need a four hour block of time. Even if you can only knock out a hundred words in the time you're sitting on the train to work, that's a hundred words you wouldn't have if you used that time to play Candy Crush or Angry Birds or stare out the window at the passing graffiti covered fences and unmowed grass.

Work to Daily Word Counts

I've found writing to a daily word count a very beneficial technique. Saying you've written for your allocated two hours prior to going to work doesn't mean anything if what you've actually done is write twelve words. Instead, setting yourself a daily word goal of say 500 or 1000 words means you'll push yourself to reach that goal. Instead of using writing time as the measure of your daily success use something that is actually a measure of the outcome you're trying to achieve, words on the page.

Pick a word count you can achieve within your established routine. Be realistic but don't make it too easy, you still want high expectations of yourself. That word count doesn't have to be big to see great gains. Think of it this way. If you write 500 words a day, which is actually ridiculously easy I mean this post is already 1267 words long, you'll have written 90,000 words in 180 days, that's six months. Having something close to a first draft of a novel in six months is nothing to sneeze at.

My current daily word goal is 1000 words. If I get there in the two hours I have in the morning I start the day feeling like I've achieved what I need to and it's easy street. If I don't I look for those small chunks of time where I can add to that word count and hopefully I'll reach it over the rest of the day.

If you don't reach your daily word goal don't beat yourself up about it, tomorrow's a new day so you can have another go at it then. Whatever you do don't roll your word count over so that if your aim is 1000 words and you only do 600 don't make your goal 1400 the next day because as that goal gets bigger and bigger it will become unrealistic and you'll feel like you're failing. Instead, just set it at 1000 words again.

Some of you might be thinking, why push for a word count if what you're writing is rubbish? Simple really, you can't rewrite something that hasn't been written.

The Pomodoro Technique

My last tip is a time management technique to use while you're actually in the act of writing. This technique alone has increased my productivity and focus immensely and I use it every time I sit down to do a lengthy writing session. I've shared this with other writers, some of whom are full time professionals, and they've all told me they've found it useful.

It's called The Pomodoro Technique and was developed by Francesco Cirillo. It's named after a pomodoro (tomato) kitchen timer that would run for 25 minutes and at its heart the technique seems almost too simple. There are five steps:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work uninterrupted until the timer rings, this means no Facebook, no email, no web surfing, use that discipling you've built up to avoid it.
  4. Take a 5 minute break
  5. Every four "pomodori" (25 minute working sessions) take a longer break of 15–30 minutes.

And that's it. Dead simple right, but implement it effectively and you'll find your focus on writing increasing enormously. One thing I'd stress is that when the timer rings at the end of the 25 minute working period stop what you're doing immediately. That means stop mid-sentence, mid-word, whatever you're doing just stop and have your break. This sounds counter-intuitive but what it means is that each time you come back to start writing again you'll re-read what you've previously written, your mind will remember how you were going to finish that sentence and your flow comes straight back from there. This saves you from spending the beginning of your next session thinking about where you were going to go, you just find yourself writing again.

So that's it, some of my thoughts around everybody's cruel master Father Time and how you can manage him. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts or let me know of any techniques you find especially useful, perhaps give some of this a go and fill me in on your experiences.