Saturday, May 20, 2017

Making the most of a writer's time

Badger, Sir Thomas Browne, 1658

To reach our goals, it’s important to have a mission and a plan. Even more than these elements, though, we need to have time—and time, in fact, is the only absolute necessity.

I’m thinking of writing, although “mission” feels like more of a corporate term than an artistic one. As long as we devote some time to writing, we can muck around without a mission or purpose, and we can feel our way without a plan. But there’s no substitute for time. Writers have to write down some words, and this happens in a unit of time—a few seconds spent scrawling on the back of an envelope, an entire day drafting at a desk. You can take away the envelope or the desk, but you can’t subtract time from the equation and still say that one has written.

This formula for achievement of goals—mission plus plan over time—works for every goal, even beyond writing. We could have a mission to get fit and a great exercise plan to follow, but if we don’t spend time exercising—if we don’t act on the plan in real life—nothing changes for us. There is power in having a vision, but most of that power has to do with the way it changes our actions. I have a lot of desires, but I can’t think my house clean; I need to dip into my limited pool of time to pick up toys or scrub the shower.

My last two posts here have talked about mission and planning as ways to make the most of summer writing time that academics frequently have high hopes for. Summer, I’ve found, can get away from us if we do what we feel drawn to—sleep in, laze about, soak up the sun. With an idea of what it is we’re about, and a plan for what we’d like to accomplish, we might be tempted to go with what feels good. Sometimes that’s exactly what we should do—and it’s undoubtedly a good idea for at least some part of our free time.

But a big part of the plan is how to execute it with the resources we have, and our most important (and most limited) resource is time.

The outset of summer is a perfect time to craft a schedule for meeting our goals (and perhaps for starting a habit of intentional use of time, even though the schedule might change). Here are some steps to consider for making the most of time:

* Take a realistic look at the twenty-four hours in a day. Figure on eight hours for sleep, even though eight full hours of sleep is a pipe dream for me; still, that’s a healthy target, and I wouldn’t advise low-balling sleep, or making a plan that steals from our need to be good to ourselves.

* Start to chart out a calendar, with the understanding that your Mondays are different than your Thursdays—each day brings its own commitments and challenges.

* Make a place on the schedule for those elements that can’t be omitted—like childcare or work. It helps to know the difference. We actually can let the dishes stand in the sink for a day. We can forego a shower or a favorite show. Children are going to need to eat, but we can forego an hour-and-a-half of cooking in favor of a frozen pizza in the oven, at least on occasion.

* Look at what’s left—and again, we can do this even if we have to steal time that we might prefer to use for another purpose. I love to woolgather in the morning before the family is awake, but that’s my best chance at a few hours of uninterrupted writing time, and if I’m focused on meeting my goals, I need to be thoughtful of what I do with pockets of time.

* Give yourself permission to regard writing time as one of those immutable elements, and place it on the schedule. For me, I might make the immutable writing time that pocket I regularly have from 6 to 8 a.m.—or I might know that I’ll be waiting out my kid’s karate class or sitting in a car line for a pocket of time. I suggesting giving a regularly available pocket of time to writing, and trying to find the best pocket available for the purpose. Sometimes we’re dealing with ten-minute increments, but sometimes we have the benefit of an entire unscheduled hour or more.

* Be both ambitious and practical about the amount of time you can dedicate to writing. If you can give eight hours to it, do! But that sounds like an unusual day to me, and the kind of overly ambitious planning that dooms a goal to failure.

* Because theoretical time has a tendency to disappear, try to identify a secondary time you might use for writing if your primary spot is taken. Mark it down, and if you find it’s necessary look for places to economize on time (the frozen pizza trick) and expand the secondary pocket.

Busy people really can’t count on writing time popping up accidentally, although waiting for (and recognizing) this kind of opportunity is sometimes my method. If we are to look back on the summer with the satisfaction of knowing that we made progress on our goals, we need to have the resolve at the outset to identify who we are and what we’d like to accomplish, and then to chart a course that takes the best advantage of available time.


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  1. These are really very useful tips for the writers . There are times when writers are unable to write for long periods of time. They should utilize their time productively and these tips would be helpful.

  2. Phew... that was one lengthy post but I am glad I have read it. I know many of my friends who are into writing and pretty sure they are not aware of these tips. Going to share it with them as well