Time Management Tips for Writers: How Much Time Can You Afford to Give?

Get organized. Or try to, anyway.

You may have been approaching time management wrong your whole life.

Hello! Welcome to Novelty Revisions, where I bring you the truths about writing you didn’t ask for. Grab a seat and your stress-relieving beverage of choice, because it’s about to get controversial in here.

I have struggled with time management for as long as I can remember. Naturally, the older I got, the more I started trying to figure out how to “resolve” my constant arguments with time. I read and absorbed all the online and offline advice you probably have. Everyone always seems to say the same things.

Give up what you like to do so you can do what you have to do … so that one day you can do what you like to do again.

You can sleep when you’re dead.

And my personal favorite: You can sleep, work, and have a social life. Pick two.

In the right contexts, there is technically nothing wrong with any of this advice. Well, okay, if you want to get super technical, advice can’t be wrong at all because it’s based solely on opinion even if that opinion is rooted in evidence. But that’s a rant for a different corner of the internet.

The problem with generalized advice, of course, is that it’s impossible for every suggestion to work for every person or fit their individual needs. Some people can survive on three hours of sleep a night and they have no complaints. I tried to be one of those people and made myself so sick I almost had to drop out of university. Every piece of advice about giving up sleep to make better use of your time does not apply to me personally. If it works for you, awesome. Say hello to the darkness for me.

Long story short: I was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated recently. The list of things I wanted to do more of kept growing, but so did the list of things I needed to get done. So finally I put myself through my own solo time management “boot camp” to figure out how to be less frustrated and stay productive and happy.

What I discovered: Time management is about organization, not elimination.

Instead of asking ourselves, “How do I make more time for the things I want to do,” maybe we should ask instead: “How much time can I afford to give to everything that matters to me?”

Here’s what I did.

I started by listing out everything I wanted/needed to do just on that day. The list included everything from “walk the dog” and “empty the dishwasher” to “write tomorrow’s blog post” and “drink 8 glasses of water because hydration is fun.” What you realize when you do this is what your day is filled with plenty of big tasks, but also very small ones. The issue isn’t always that you don’t have time to write a blog post or empty the dishwasher, you just haven’t figured out the best time in your day to do these things. When is the best time to empty the dishwasher? Right after walking the dog, it turns out. Who knew?

THE LESSON: Looking at what you’re working on can be overwhelming, but if you’re a visual organizer, seeing your obligations in front of you can help center you and get you to a place where you can fit everything that needs doing into the hours you have.

I kept track of what I did and did not get done every day for a week. I’m one of those people who takes unfinished tasks from Monday’s to-do list and slides them over to Tuesday … and Wednesday …and sometimes this goes on for an embarrassing amount of time. And if you’ve ever been in this unfortunate self-inflicted position, you know what it feels like to KNOW you need to write that article for that person and you keep SAYING you’re going to do it but every time you remember it IT JUST DOESN’T HAPPEN. This is bad time and project management, of course. If you consistently feel like you don’t have time for something, do you really need to be doing it? Or is there a day, time, or place that you would be more likely to do it?

THE LESSON: I don’t have the time or energy to do most of my freelance work during the week. It’s just not going to happen. I therefore have two options: Stop doing the work or spread it out over Saturdays and Sundays instead. Again, my time management issue now has a possible solution. I just took something I consistently felt I did not have time for, stopped getting mad at myself for not doing it Monday through Friday, and did it on Saturday instead. I feel better now.

I also highlighted the things I really did not want to make time for. Example: Sweeping and/or vacuuming the floor every single day because my dog sheds more than your dog sheds and if you want to argue with me come over to my home and sweep the floor once. This is something I have decided I have to do but I DO NOT enjoy even thinking about doing it, I PUT OFF doing it, and when I do it, I HATE EVERY SECOND OF IT. This time could be spent doing something else, and if I’m spending every second of my sweeping/vacuuming party stressing about how much I need to do after I’m done, I’m just going to have a bad time. I admitted I wanted this responsibility off my plate, and looked for another way to make sure it got done.

THE LESSON: You gotta do what you gotta do, but there might be an alternative way to get it done that doesn’t make you want to yank all your hair out. I now own a Roomba and it does 95% of the work for me while I sit at my desk and write. Problem solved. And if there just happens to be something you’re spending time on that doesn’t deserve your time, in some cases … you can just stop doing it.

I broke my weekly to-do list into must-dos and should-dos. I must go to work, feed the dog, write, and do the dishes, but if I don’t go jogging or read 25 pages of my book the world isn’t going to end. What this allowed me to do was look at everything I wanted to get done and decide once and for all which things were going to require the most time and which I could afford to dedicate less time to. Would I love to spend five hours a day writing? Absolutely. But I really only have time for two or three.

THE LESSON: You don’t have to give up anything to get more writing done. You just have to spend less time doing certain things to allow yourself more writing time. This might mean reading for a half hour every morning instead of spending three hours in front of a book. It might mean you only watch one episode of your current binge-worthy show or save it for the weekend. Getting things done does require sacrifice, absolutely, but you don’t have to mope around feeling miserable because you’re not allowed to watch TV. If you can watch less of it, isn’t that better than your other alternatives?

I don’t know you. I don’t know what kinds of things make it harder for you to write. But it’s pretty safe to guess time management is a common struggle among us. Creative people want to make things and spend all the time they have in their own worlds, and you just can’t. Life is real and unpredictable and not always forgiving or nice. We have to figure out how to make the most of it while still feeling like we’re doing things that matter.

Maybe my suggestions will help you. Maybe they won’t. But I do hope they at least get you thinking about the things that might be hindering your ability to write as much as you want to write. And if there is anything I can do to help you come up with possible solutions to those things, as always, all you have to do is let me know.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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