Time’s a’Wasting

by Tim Waggoner

It’s the writer’s eternal complaint: “If only I could find more time to write.”  As if time were something that was lying around somewhere, waiting to be stumbled upon, if only one had wit enough to know where to look.  Experienced (which is often a synonym for cynical) writers sneer, if only mentally, when hearing an aspirant to their holy order mutter these words.  “If you can’t find the time,” these more experienced writers think, “then you’re never going to make it as a writer.”  Which is logical enough on the surface: if one can’t find the time to produce words, then there’s nothing to submit for publication.  QED.

However, there’s a deeper dynamic at work here.  What the experienced writer is truly thinking is that complainers lack the drive, that all-consuming need to write that will see them through the years of the hard work necessary to become published writers.  Remember that old writer’s cliché: the first million words are practice?  Well, if you can’t find time to practice, you may never get through your first hundred words, let alone your first million.

But it’s grossly unfair to consider every writer who complains of not having time to write to be a poseur who’s more interested in calling him or herself a writer than in carving out a serious career as a wordsmith.  People are busier these days than ever before with work, school, kids, the house . . . it’s a wonder we find time to eat and sleep, let alone write.  It isn’t really a question of finding time for your writing; it’s a matter of maximizing the time that you have.  As someone who’s spent half his life pursuing a writing career (and who hopefully hasn’t become too cynical in the process), I’ve learned a number of ways to make the most of the time I have, and, with a bit of imagination and flexibility, you can too.

Make a commitment to writing.

This is the first and most important thing you need to do.  If writing is always last on your to-do list, you’re never going to get around to it.  And it’s not enough for you to make this commitment alone.  Your family members, friends, and co-workers – anyone who feels they have a claim on at least part of your time throughout the course of  a day – need to, if not share your commitment, at least be aware of it and respect it.  Writing needs to be first on your to-do list, and you need to shape your entire day around the act of writing, to organize your life so that you make writing not only a possibility but a certainty.  But you won’t be able to do this alone.  Kids, spouses, and co-workers have to help too, if only by leaving you alone while you write.

You don’t need to make any grand pronouncements about your commitment to writing, but you do need to let the people in your life know that you’re serious about this and that you intend to take a part of each day to work on your craft.  Setting and negotiating boundaries will help.  Obviously your boss doesn’t want you writing on the company’s time, but would it be okay to sit at your desk and write during lunch?  Your spouse needs to know that when the WRITER AT WORK: DO NOT DISTURB sign is on the door of your home office, you mean it.  Your kids may not like sharing you with your computer, but if you allow them one hour a day to watch their favorite videos while you write, that computer suddenly becomes their best buddy.  Let your friends know that you don’t pick up the phone during your writing time: that’s why God invented voicemail.  The more you take your writing seriously, the more others will too.

Set writing goals for yourself.

Studies have shown over and over again that goal-setting is key to success in any endeavor, and writing is no exception.  You can set short-term goals: what do I want to accomplish during today’s writing session?  You can set long-term goals: how much do I want to have done at the end of the week, the month, the year?  You can make these goals general – I want one hour of uninterrupted writing time a day for a week – or more specific – By the end of the month, I want to produce a polished, ready-to-submit short story.

Not only will setting goals give you targets to aim for (which is of course the whole purpose) but it gives you something more specific to say to people when they ask what you’re doing.  Instead of telling your husband, “I’m trying to write,” you can say, “Today I’m working on the sidebar for the gardening article I finished last week.”  People are always more impressed when you give them specifics, and they’ll be more likely to take your work seriously when it appears that your nose is pressed relentlessly to the grindstone.

One final point about setting goals: don’t let it get you down if you fail to meet a particular goal.  You might have set your sights a bit high this time, or life may have simply refused to cooperate with you that week.  Goal-setting is supposed to serve as a motivating force, not become another reason to beat yourself up for not writing as much (or as well) as you wanted.

Declutter your life.

Far easier said than done, but our lives often become the equivalent of the junk drawer in the kitchen, the one that’s full of old paperclips, keys that don’t fit any of the locks in the house, expired coupons, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of day-to-day living.  In order to find time to write, we might need to make a little more space in our lives.  Do you really need to go out for drinks with friends after work every Wednesday?  Is that TV show that comes on every Thursday at eight really that important to watch?  Could you pay a neighbor kid to mow the lawn so you can have a little more writing time?  Do you really need to cook dinner tonight, or can you let Pizza Hut cater the evening’s meal?

Take a good, hard look at your life and ask yourself: Do I really need to be doing all this stuff?  And do I need to be doing so much of it, so often?  If your answer is no, then get out your metaphorical pruning shears and start cutting back on a few activities and time-wasters.  Morbid though it may sound, I always apply the death-bed test.  When I’m lying on my death-bed looking back over my (hopefully) long life, will I wish I’d spent more time cleaning the cat’s litter box?  Dusting the house?  Watching infomercials on TV?  Or would I have rather spent that time writing?  My answer is almost always writing.  What’s yours?

All right – you’re committed, you’ve set goals, and you’ve decluttered your life.  Now let’s talk about specific techniques for maximizing your writing time.

Write first thing in the morning.

This works well for me.  If I can get a few pages done before the rest of the world stirs and begins to make demands on my time, no matter how stressful or harried the day becomes, nothing can interfere with my writing because it’s already finished.  I’ve had a full night’s sleep, and I haven’t done anything more taxing besides brew some coffee.  My mental and emotional gas tanks are full, and I can use that fuel for my writing.  Plus, there’s nothing else on my mind yet – no crises around the house or at work.  I can concentrate more completely on my writing, and because of this, the words come faster and easier than at any other time of the day.

If you’re a morning person, this approach is a natural for you.  If, however, you’re like me and don’t fully come awake before noon, you may need to adjust your biological clock.  Go to bed an hour earlier and get up an hour earlier.  It’s not a huge change in your sleeping schedule, but having an interrupted hour every day to work can make a major difference in your writing life.

Write before going to bed.

You could try the opposite technique and write in the last hour or so before going to sleep.  The downside is your energy reserves might be at their lowest peak of the day. The upside is that anyone else in your family will hopefully be sleeping instead of interrupting you at your computer.  And some people like the feeling that they’ve finished with the busy work of the day and can now treat themselves to a session of writing – it’s the goal they’ve worked toward since waking that morning.

Write during breaks.

Lunch time at work, when your two-year-old is napping, before class, between meetings . . . whenever you have even a few minutes of downtime throughout the course of your day, pull out your notebook or laptop and start writing.  This technique works well for people who don’t need any time to warm up their creative juices and can hit the ground running.  They also need to be able to concentrate during small snatches of time without minding the start-and-stop nature of this particular technique.  If you’re someone who needs a while to get up to speed and who hates to stop just when the writing is beginning to flow, this technique may not work for you.  On the other hand, if you want to write badly enough and break times are the only times you have, maybe you should try to train yourself to be a start-and-stop writer.

Make an appointment to write.

If your life is so scheduled you have to write bathroom breaks in your datebook, you might want to try treating your writing time as if it were another appointment, albeit an extremely important one not to be missed.  If you can schedule this “appointment” for the same time every day, say 7 to 8 p.m., and you stick to it – meaning that you don’t schedule anything else during that time and you show up to work at your computer at seven on the dot, then not only will this hopefully become a daily habit for you, but the other people in your life will have an easier time adjusting to your schedule because they know 7 to 8 p.m. is your writing time, no exceptions.

This technique has the added benefit of helping to get your mind ready to write.  Just like Pavlov’s dog, your brain can be conditioned to be creative, and if your brain learns that seven o’clock is go-time, once you sit down to work, the ideas should flow more freely.

Set a daily page quota.

Maybe your life is so chaotic it defies a rigid daily schedule.  In that case, try to set a specific writing quota for each day.  No matter when you get a chance to write – morning, night, during breaks – you will not go to sleep until you have produced X amount of pages.  Make this a doable amount, say three to five pages.  Too much longer and you may be setting yourself up for failure.  And if a day goes by without you adding any pages to your quota, don’t beat yourself up.  Tomorrow, try again to produce your set number of pages.

Put out your Do Not Disturb sign.

I don’t mean this literally, though maybe a real sign might work for you, and especially for family, friends, and co-workers who just don’t get it.  Whenever and however you manage to grab your writing time, you need to hold onto it.  Too many writers, after fighting tooth and claw to get to their writing desk, abandon it all too easily.  Don’t answer the phone or the door, don’t get up to check on the kids (if they’re seriously injured, they’ll scream), don’t even go to the kitchen for a drink, and do not, do not, do not check your e-mail or log onto the Web for “research.”  When it’s time to write, don’t do anything but put words onto the page, and don’t stop putting words onto the page until your time is up.

Get the heck out of there.

If you’re sitting at your computer at the office trying to work on a poem during a break and you can’t stop thinking about the way the morning meeting went, or if you’re at home at the dining table scribbling ideas for an article on a legal pad and you can’t stop worrying about the leak in the basement, then go write someplace else.  Sometimes out of sight, out of mind works.  Pick a place to write where you’ll be inspired but not distracted.  A bookstore café, a library, a restaurant, a picnic table in the park . . . anywhere will do, just so long as you are alone and can concentrate.  And do yourself a favor: don’t tell anyone where you’ve gone and turn off your cell phone or pager.  Better yet, leave the damn things in the car.

Try a weekend getaway.

If you can’t manage to find regular time week in and week out to write, then reserve one weekend a month for nothing but writing.  Check into a hotel for that weekend if that’s what it takes, but make sure that the entire weekend is dedicated to your writing.  Order room service to avoid going out to eat or bring your own food with you, but write, write, write!  The benefit of the weekend getaway is that you should have plenty of lead time to arrange your overall schedule to make room for it, and there should be more than enough time for the other people in your life to adjust as well.  Sometimes, my wife will take our two daughters to visit their grandmother for the weekend, and I’ll stay home to write.  Not only do I get a lot of pages written, but I also get a bit of a rest as well (but don’t tell my wife that last part!).

Try any and all of the forgoing.

Over the years, I’ve learned that all the techniques I’ve mentioned work, but they don’t all work all the time.  I’ve learned to adapt how I approach my writing to whatever my life circumstances happen to be at any given time.  When I was single, I made a daily appointment to write.  After I was married, I wrote five pages a day whenever I could fit them in.  After my first daughter was born, I wrote primarily during her naptime.  Now I tend to write first thing in the morning, although I’m typing this during my second daughter’s naptime while the first (who’s seven now) is sitting cross-legged on the floor behind me, reading quietly.

Sometimes I feel like a soldier with an arsenal full of weapons, ready and able to use whatever it takes to get the job done.  And it’s that determination, along with a flexibility I’ve learned from years of experience, that’s managed to help me get these words down today.  I know it’s not a matter of finding time to write; it’s a matter of using the time that I have most effectively.

So why are you wasting your time reading this article?  Go get to work!