It’s the second week of September – the first full week of the month, since last Monday was a holiday – and most of us are still in “back to school” mode. It’s that feeling of new beginnings, that we’re going to get a bunch more things done, tackle and finish new projects, and probably lose weight and become better people in the process.
Sadly, most of us are merely human, and being merely human means we don’t accomplish the big things we want in life. And why not? Because they look too big. We all want to write a novel, or an entire series. We want to lose 20 pounds, or 50, or a 100. We want to run a marathon. But most of us don’t do any of that. For most of us, it’s a victory just to get to work five days a week, pay the bills, do the laundry and the grocery shopping, and try to raise a kid or two.
But when you think about it, what are big things anyway? Big things are just a whole bunch of small things. No one wrote a novel without writing the first solitary word. No one ran twenty six miles without first running fifty yards. No one lost twenty pounds without first pushing away that dish of ice cream.
The two keys to success in any big endeavor are breaking down big projects into small goals, and finding the time to do them. Since this is a blog for and about writing, time management for writers is the lens through which we’ll look at this.
The very first step in time management is writing stuff down. Ironically, it’s also the first step in weight management. The weight gurus say to write down everything that goes into your mouth, and you’ll subconsciously eat less to avoid having to write down what you ate. In much the same way, writing down everything you need to do – even items as minor as emails you need to send – makes it that much more likely that you’ll actually do it.
I know several people who love their to-do lists, and write out five-year plans and ten-year plans to go along with yearly, quarterly, and monthly goals. I’m not that detailed yet. I have a vague idea of what I’d like to have accomplished ten years out, but right now my biggest focus is on this week and next. Every Sunday night, I update the list for the week. The left column has all my meetings and appointments for the week. The right column is the to-do list. It includes my writing goals for the week, what I need to do to forward my real estate career, marketing my self-published book, and people I need to call or email. I check it every morning and update it as I go along, as items get added, or at the end of the day. I know it’s going to be a bad week when I spend more time adding items than crossing them out!
The writing part of my to-do list includes the weekly post, plans for next week’s blog, and specific writing goals for each day. If it’s a writing-heavy week, it will say: Monday write 1500 words, Tuesday write, Wednesday, etc. Usually my goals are smaller and my time not as free. Currently my goal is to write two chapters of my WIP, and that will probably go on the back burner once I start up the final rewrite of my previous book. (It’s still with beta readers now.)
The second step, after writing stuff down, is actually doing the stuff you’ve written down. That sounds pretty obvious and relatively simple, but it’s not. Not only are writers the world’s biggest procrastinators, but often we have very good reasons not to write. We have day jobs. We have screaming kids. We have a dog that just pooped on the living room carpet. The result is, at the end of the day the kids will be asleep, the carpet cleaned and the bills paid, but the writing didn’t get done. Have too many days like that, and pretty soon that novel will be just another great idea you had once, but were unable to follow through on.
The trick to this is very similar to the advice financial planners give about savings: Pay yourself first. In this case, do your writing first – although feel free to clean up the dog mess first. There will always be screaming kids and angry emails from your boss. Even if all you can squeeze out is 250 words a day, try to start your day off with those words. That way, whatever else comes along that day can’t keep you from writing.
Setting daily or weekly writing goals and breaking down your project into manageable word counts are pieces of advice that are specific to writers. I’ve also got a few tips that will help you be more productive in general:
Know how long it takes you to get something done, and budget extra time. Usually it’s the smaller things that trip us up here – the commute into work, the daily email, the vet appointment. If your dog has weekly shots, and you routinely budget in a half hour when it actually takes an hour when driving and Fido’s nervous breakdown are added in, pencil in 90 minutes for the entire project. It will keep you from running late before and after the appointment, and take into account everything that needs to be done around it. Why is this important? Use the information to keep yourself from making too many commitments. When you have an accurate picture of how you’re spending your time, you’re less likely to bite off more you can chew.
On a related note, stop biting off more than you can chew. Every day, we’re asked to volunteer for a great project, join a new class at the gym, contribute to a short story collection. No one can do everything they want. Practice saying no. Practice saying yes, with a limit – I’ll try this class four times. If it doesn’t work for me, for whatever reason, I’m giving it up. Practice stopping one activity to start a new one: I really want to join a weekly bike-riding club, so I’m going to give up drama class.
On another related note, now that you know how long it takes you to do regular activities, have a short list of action items that take about 20 minutes that you can accomplish while waiting for something else. Many writers fill up this time by reading a chapter of a book or writing a paragraph. There are many blocks of time like this throughout the day, whether we’re at the doctor’s office or we’ve finished a project slightly ahead of schedule and now have time before the board meeting. Getting this micro-projects done while waiting for something else to start is a great way to be productive and efficient.
Don’t do the same thing twice. For me, this specifically deals with non-urgent email. The problem with answering these is an hour later you’ve got another email from the same person. If it isn’t urgent, save it until the end of the day or until you’ve got that 20 minute block of time and you’ve answered everything else.
Try to do similar activities together. If you’re sending query letters to editors or conducting research for two separate books, try to slot them at the same time. The momentum from finishing one project will carry on to the next. Similarly, if you have to print out your entire manuscript this week, make sure to do it at a time when you’re sitting at your desk working on something manual. The constant stops and starts of the printer will be annoying if you’re trying to punch out the next chapter, but a harmless break if you’re writing out next week’s to-do list.
Plan the next day’s work after you’ve done today’s. For writing, that means writing a short summary of tomorrow’s chapter while the work is still fresh in my head. When I sit down to write the next day, I already know exactly what I’m going to do.
Budget time for unexpected tasks and appointments. Do this by making your to-do shorter than what you think you can accomplish this week. That way there’s room for the report that’s dropped on your desk or the sick child needing the doctor.
Ending your week feeling accomplished in work, writing and life is one of the keys to happiness. Time management is key to that accomplishment. Try doing just one new thing this week – maybe at 9am, write down what you want to get done by 5 – and see what a difference that makes.
Next week I’ll be doing the Character Blog Hop. Here’s an example:
Want to play? Leave me your name and email address in the comments, and I’ll tag you next week.