Time Management Tips for Busy Writers
A Facebook post inspired this blog topic. In the post, an author asked a group of her peers, “How does anyone manage to do this with young children?” Although it started with parents of young children in mind, I think this blog post applies to all writers because one truism about modern life is that people are busy. We work, we act as caregivers to children, pets, and parents (or sometimes all three), we volunteer, we try to find a moment for ourselves, and, when all of that is done, authors also write. For authors whose writing is a labor of love, separate from the work that pays the bills, writing time can be hard to come by. Since it’s not possible to create time (or to put your job or children on “pause” for a while), the trick is to use what little time you have as efficiently as possible.
Before I get started, I want to state for the record that working efficiently doesn’t mean that you need to rush. Being frantic isn’t likely to improve your writing, and being efficient doesn’t mean trying to do two hours of work with one hour of time. Rather, being efficient means using each of your 60 minutes instead of wasting some of them. Think diligence, not intensity. Here are some suggestions for using your writing time efficiently:
1. Work when you’re most efficient. After 11 p.m. my eyes may be open, but no one is home. I get my best work done early in the morning. That’s partially because I’m a morning person and partially because I am easily distracted by household responsibilities. If I get to work early enough, no one is awake, I can’t do chores (because everyone is sleeping), emails aren’t arriving, and stores aren’t open. There aren’t distractions. Many others do their best work late at night. For you it might be late morning or early afternoon. When you have minimal writing time, maximize your returns by using your most productive time to do your writing. If it’s not possible to designate your most productive hours to writing every day, try setting them aside on a Saturday or Sunday. Writing during your personal golden hour just one day per week is a step in the right direction.
2. Minimize distractions. I’m in the middle of reading a fascinating book by Johan Hari called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. It’s a treasure trove of interesting facts and ideas, but one of the anecdotes that is seared into my brain has to do with distractions. Specifically, how the distraction of incoming calls and emails can undermine our ability to focus. Hari cites a study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard that determined employees’ functional IQ dropped 10 points when they received email and phone calls while working. Research indicates that people’s functional IQ drops by 5 points when they’re using marijuana. In short, you’re better off working high than distracted. That’s bonkers! If time is of the essence, then it pays to minimize distractions. Some distractions are unavoidable—visits from kids and coworkers, for example—but control what you can. Consider using airplane mode or silencing your cell phone. Turn off your email and text notifications. Work in the library instead of a coffee shop. Try noise-cancelling headphones. Work early or late when distractions are minimal. In whichever ways possible, minimize distractions so that your ideas can flow.
3. Know what you want to work on. When I sit down to work knowing I don’t have much time, I struggle to determine what to work on. With so little time, everything feels urgent! The solution? A goal and grit (I know, easier said than done). Determine what you intend to do with the time that you have. How you define a task depends on how you work best. Do you prefer finite goals like “draft a query letter” or “write chapter 11,” or do you prefer more open-ended goals like “write 2000 words, no matter how good or bad,” or “brainstorm for 60 minutes”? In either case, the challenge is to stay laser-focused on the task for that session and let everything else go. (Try the first tip on this post if you need help staying focused on one task at a time.)
4. Schedule your writing time. Knowing when your next writing session will happen can make it easier to stay focused. It will feel less like you have to do everything NOW if you know you’ve already scheduled time to tackle the next task. If your life is busy but consistent, you may be able to map out several scheduled sessions per week for writing. If things are more hectic, maybe you sit down on Sunday night and determine which days and times you can devote to writing during the next seven days. If things are really crazy, decide in the morning which hour you can use for writing later in the day.
5. Give yourself a little grace. Of all these tips, this might be the hardest. Even with the best laid plans, stuff happens. Unanticipated work deadlines, emergency vet visits, school holidays, snow days, illnesses. Honestly, the list is endless. It can be incredibly frustrating when you want to write and know what you intend to write, but can’t write. I live that reality regularly with three children at home (although sub “edit” for “write”). In those moments, I remind myself of two things: 1) Forward is forward, and 2) “A small daily task, if it really be daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” The first point is a simple reminder that slow progress is still progress. It may be frustrating, but you’re still getting somewhere. The second point is a quote from author Anthony Trollope, who wrote a whopping 47 novels. His quote is a reminder that chipping away at something day after day, little by little, will help you get more done than writing for days at a stretch every few months. You want to be a “10-minutes-per-day” exerciser instead of a “weekend warrior.” You may not be able to write daily, but if you’re writing consistently, you’ll get there eventually.
If you have other strategies for creating and optimizing writing time, I’d love to hear about them here!
 Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again (New York: Crown, 2022), 39.