If you’re anything like me, chances are you have to squeeze your writing into the little cracks of the day. Before work before the family wakes up, through the lunch break, after dinner while the dishes are piled up in the sink. Where does the time go? It’s more elusive than sleep after a horror movie and a shot of espresso (which sounds like a terrible combination). Today I’ll outline four tips on how to get organized and maximize your writing time.
1. Time Management
Ironically, this one takes a little time. The best technique I’ve found for managing time is finding the gaps in your day. You can accomplish this by mapping a week in a spreadsheet in 30-minute increments, like this one by Laura Vanderkam. (By the way, read all of her books. They’re fantastic and short and actionable.)
Her instructions for filling out your time log are easy to understand, and she explains everything in detail in her book 168 Hours. I recommend charting the whole week, and I’d like to add that you should start now. Don’t wait for Sunday. Don’t wait for a “normal” week, unless you’re on vacation. Chart from Wednesday to Tuesday, even if you’re taking Friday off for doctors’ appointments. Complete the spreadsheet from Friday to Thursday, even if you have family in town.
This is how I discovered that I decompress in front of the TV from about 6:30PM until bedtime if I’m allowed. Do I need four hours to just relax? Not really. I also used to drive home every day for lunch, a one-way trip of 15 minutes. That’s over two hours a week right there, so by taking a lunch to the office, I save time and gas!
2. Rearrange Your Schedule
Once you’ve documented your week, it’s time to find the gaps. Find where you end up aimlessly scrolling the phone. Find the dead zones in between tasks. Can you fit them together to get blocks throughout the day? All you need is ten minutes, and you can get a page or two in of writing. Ideally, you’ll find a few big chunks of time. Can you wake up thirty minutes earlier each day? It adds up! Schedule your writing time like you would a job, complete with deadlines and stretch goals. Give yourself bonuses for reaching those goals.
3. Recharge Your Batteries
Now you’re thinking, “Okay, awesome, I’ve found this two-hour chunk of time, but after I get home from work all I want to do is sit in front of Netflix and scroll through my phone. Scratch that—it’s all I can do. I don’t feel creative at all.” Don’t beat yourself up. Times are stressful, and I think being kind to yourself is more important than anything else.
In this case, the best thing to do is find a ritual that relaxes the brain and signals that it’s time to switch gears. Everyone’s is different. How I tackle this brain-numbing issue is by rinsing off the day. Also, it’s an ironclad, absolute fact that you get your best writing ideas when you’re in the shower and can’t write anything down. Some people have certain playlists, candles, tea or coffee (caffeine content depending on the time of day). Find something you like that signals to your brain “It’s time to get to work!” I’ll caution you against the other extreme. You don’t want to train your body to only write during the solstice while the sunlight hits your chair just so amidst the quiet chatter of a coffee shop. Then you’d only be able to write twice a year for about ten minutes, not during a pandemic. Keep your signals small, and if you’re missing coffee shops, author Victoria Schwab recommends finding café playlists on Spotify.
4. Hack Your Habits
“I already know this time management stuff won’t work. Even if I schedule writing time, I know I’ll stick to that about as well as I do my New Year’s Resolutions. Which last until January 6th, by the way.”
I was the exact same way, until I discovered Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework. You can read her book The Four Tendencies or listen to her podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Ms. Rubin proposes that there four personality types that have a huge impact on how we form habits. We all have outer obligations (work deadlines, meeting with friends, etc.) and inner obligations (resolutions, goals, etc.), and we can all be sorted based on the reaction we have to these expectations. Take the quiz here.
- First you have the people that respond well to outer and inner pressure; these seemingly lucky people accomplish whatever they set their mind to, although they have their own hurdles. Sometimes they flounder if expectations aren’t clear, even going as far as strictly following rules that don’t make sense.
- Next you have the people who don’t care as much about outer obligations. They’re only going to do something if it makes sense. You know these people. They spend a thousand years making decisions. Sometimes they’ll spend a thousand hours researching the perfect floating shelf and you still won’t have one at the end of the day. (I’m lovingly referring to my husband here.) They excel when they’ve had a chance to plan and consider how forming a new habit benefits them.
- If the introductory paragraph above resonated with you, you’re in the third group with me. We excel when someone else sets deadlines, but if we decide we want to try exercising more or schedule writing time, we tend to fall short. Our group benefits from accountability partners, but here’s a little secret. If you’re short on accountability partners, you can try thinking of yourself as an accountability partner. Back when I was waking up at 5:30AM to run and couldn’t get out of bed, I’d think to myself how if there was someone waiting to run with me and I ditched them, I’d be a terrible friend. Past me wanted to run at 5:30. Future me will be disappointed if I don’t run. Why would I be a terrible friend to myself? And so, I was able to get out of bed and run/jog/walk/die. (It also helped setting my clothes out the night before.)
- The final group is the smallest and arguably the most interesting. They have the knee jerk reaction to defy outer and inner expectations. Meaning that if anyone wants them to do something, they suddenly want to do the opposite.
No one tendency is better or worse than the others. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. Finding your tendency can definitely help you focus and get your butt in the chair (or butt in the gym or wherever your butt needs to be).
And there you have it. The best part is that these techniques can be used for any goal you want to accomplish. I concentrated on writing, but you can also apply scheduling and time management to other activities like exercise and learning new hobbies.
I’m happy to do a deep dive into any of these topics, so comment below about what you’d like to hear more about!