Are you wondering when you’ll find enough time to start writing? If so, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you’ll never have more time than you do right now. The bad news is… well, that is the bad news.
Time is never “found.” Time can only be “made.” If you decide to wait until your kids are in school, or in college, or you have enough money to quit your day job, or retirement, you could wait forever. The only way to make those writing dreams come true is to start looking at the time you have now, today — and find ways to make that time work for you instead of against you.
Treat time as an investment.
Some say “time is money.” A more accurate statement might be that “time is like money.” We have only so much, and must make decisions about how and where to spend it.
Writing, like any new career, requires a start-up investment of time. Many new writers, however, feel uncomfortable with that initial investment. Those long, unpaid hours at the computer or keyboard often feel “wasted” or “self-indulgent” (especially if you aren’t satisfied with the material you are producing). Worse, many writers have family members who share this view.
This start-up time is essential, however. It takes time to build your skills, sell that first article, and develop a client base. If you were to sit down today and send out your first set of queries, it might be two to four months before you receive a response, six months before you make a sale, and eight months before you actually see your first check. But if you don’t invest time in that initial “doldrum” period, you’ll never see that check at all.
Step Two: Examine your “time budget.”
“Making time to write” doesn’t mean finding “free” time; it means reallocating time from other projects and activities. Before you can do that, however, you must discover exactly where you are “spending” your time.
A good method is to purchase an appointment book that breaks the day into 15-minute segments. (These are available at office-supply stores.) For two weeks, diligently record where every block of your time goes — including eating, sleeping, brushing your teeth, etc. Be honest: If you lingered for an hour over your cereal reading articles about Leonardo DiCaprio, write it down. (At least record it as “celebrity research.”)
The results of your log may surprise you. Do you ever have those days when you feel as if you never sit down from dawn to dusk — yet can’t say, for the life of you, what you accomplished? This log will help you discover where that time went. You may be surprised by how long certain tasks take, and how many “unnoticed” tasks nibble away at your day. You may also find that you are spending a great deal of time on tasks that you don’t care about nearly as much as you care about writing.
Step Three: Examine your priorities.
No matter what you’re doing now — working, raising a family, going to school — you already have a “full” schedule. Your first reaction to the thought of scheduling writing time into that schedule is probably “How? Where?”
Chances are, you are going to have to make some tradeoffs. You may have to give up some activities in order to reallocate that time. A good exercise at this point is to look at your log and categorize the various activities you pursue. Possible categories include:
- Unavoidable tasks. Your job, for example, would probably be included here.
- Necessary tasks. Obviously you’re not going to give up cooking dinner, washing clothes, getting dressed, eating lunch, etc. However, some of these tasks can be reassessed, rescheduled, or combined with other tasks (for example, instead of leaving the office for lunch each day, consider spending that hour at your desk and reviewing sample magazines or Writer’s Market).
- Tasks that make you feel good. Don’t give up everything you enjoy; that’s a sure way to burn out. If you feel that you would truly lose something of value by giving up a particular activity, put it in this category.
- Tasks you perform because you think you “should.” Volunteer activities often fall into this category: You may not enjoy them, but you feel obligated to continue with them. Certain types of housework also fall into this category: Is it absolutely necessary to press the sheets? This is a good place to look for time that you can reallocate to writing.
- Tasks that someone else could perform. We often become habituated to handling minor tasks for others (such as hanging up a spouse’s shirts) that they could just as easily handle themselves. Sometimes, delegating such tasks not only frees time for you, but helps others become more responsible and independent.
- Tasks that seem to take an inordinate amount of time. Did it really take three hours to do laundry, or buy groceries, or wash the car? Why? In many cases, we lose time through distractions or “make work” without realizing what we are doing.
- Tasks that are purely recreational. Reading, television, and computer games all fall into this category. So, in some cases, does “surfing the Internet” and handling e-mail. I have known would-be writers who spend 40 hours a week on role-playing or computer games. Don’t imagine that you have to give up all your recreational activities to become a writer; however, if these are occupying a large number of hours, you may wish to reexamine your priorities.
Step Four: Eliminate time-wasters.
We all have them. Some are conscious; some, however, creep into our lives in the guise of habits, procrastination devices, and assumptions about what we “should” and “shouldn’t” do. Here are some of the most common:
- Television.I have a friend who spends three to five hours in front of the set on Saturday; during the week, however, she complains that “nothing is on.” A VCR can solve this problem: By taping her favorite shows, my friend could free her Saturdays for writing, and still have something to watch on weekday evenings when she’s too tired to write.Ask yourself whether you’re watching certain shows because you enjoy them, or simply out of habit. If you eliminate two one-hour shows per week that you don’t care about (or that the family could watch just as happily without you), you’ve just gained two hours for writing.
- Videos. Videos involve a conscious decision: You must decide to rent one and decide what rent. I know people who rent three videos for a single night: One for him, one for her, one for the kids. Eliminating just one of those would provide two hours of writing time. If you rent three videos per week, consider cutting back to two, and you’ll gain another two hours.
- Junk mail. Some people feel that they must open every piece of mail. Why? There is no law that says you can’t toss that ad for a new credit card or magazine or whatever without reading it. Develop the habit of screening your mail, tossing anything that you don’t need directly into a trash bag or recycling receptacle. Do the same with unwanted catalogs or flyers; don’t bother reviewing them. Spend time only with mail that matters.
- Magazines. If you receive more than three magazines per month, examine the stack carefully. Does it include publications you never get around to reading? Publications that sit around for weeks before you get to them? Publications that you only skim? These are all likely candidates for cancellation. Do the same with newspapers: Do you really need a daily, or could you get by on a weekend edition?
- Errands.Errands consume more time than we realize, because they involve hours that aren’t spent directly in the store. They include round-trip travel time, and “home” time as well (e.g., time spent putting groceries away). In addition, they sap our energy, leaving us too tired to jump straight into writing.The greatest drain on time is making repeated trips in the same day. We often forget that a trip to the store may involve a fifteen-minute drive each way — a total of an hour if we go twice. Often, keeping lists of errands can eliminate wasted trips for things that we forgot. (Don’t stop at your grocery list; keep lists of office needs, things to pick up and drop off, etc.) Try to combine as many errands as possible in a single trip, or combine errands in the same general location. If you forget something and can live without it, wait until your next trip (for example, if you don’t pick up the drycleaning today, it will still be there tomorrow). Schedule a specific day each week for errand-running, so that you get in the habit of planning around that day. And if, the day after your grocery shopping, someone says, “honey, I’m all out of such-and-such,” either postpone that purchase until the next trip or point the person toward the store.
- Telemarketers. If you’re like me, your mother probably told you that it was rude to hang up on callers, even sales-callers. Your mother, however, wasn’t raised in the age of telemarketing, when one can receive four or five calls in a single day. One solution is to simply not pick up the phone; install an answering machine and, if you’re in the midst of a project, turn off the ringer. Another is to invest in a caller ID machine; “unavailable” almost always indicates a telemarketer, which leaves you free to ignore the call. If you do pick up, tell the person quickly and firmly that you are not interested, and if the person attempts to keep you on the line (relying on that politeness so many of us learned), hang up.
- Household chores.Few distractions are as tempting as housework. There are days when I’d literally rather do the vacuuming than face an article assignment — and I am far from the world’s most dedicated housekeeper.One of the questions I’ve learned to ask is “will this get done, even if I don’t do it now?” Often, the answer is “yes” with respect to a household chore, but possibly “no” with respect to an article, an interview, a query, etc. For example, if the dryer has stopped, I know that sooner or later, I’m going to empty the load (eventually, I’ll run out of underwear). However, if I interrupt myself in the middle of an article, it may take me a long time to get back to where I was. The laundry can wait; the writing often can’t. The same applies to vacuuming, washing dishes, dusting, etc.Another option is to hire household help. I’m quite serious about this. If you are regularly selling $500 articles to a publication, for example, you may find that it’s worth the money to spend $15 to $20 an hour once or twice a month to bring in someone who can vacuum and mop. If you do hire outside help, be sure that (a) you are hiring a contractor, so that you don’t have to pay a “wage” (including taxes and benefits) and (b) you hire someone who does not charge a minimum rate, such as three hours per visit.
Teach others to respect your time.
Many of us have learned to drop everything when someone else requests (or demands) our attention. It could be a spouse, a child, a coworker, or that friend who calls every day to talk about her problems.
If you don’t guard your time, no one else will. It is not enough to simply request that others respect your “writing time;” you must enforce that request by refusing to drop what you’re doing whenever someone interrupts you. Otherwise, people will interrupt — not out of malice or lack of consideration, but because you have given them no reason not to.
Many “writer moms” (and dads) enforce the “if it’s not on fire or bleeding, don’t bother me” rule. This is sometimes easier to do if you have a door that you can close, but that’s not always essential. What is essential is convincing others that you mean what you say: When you say, “I am writing and cannot be disturbed,” that means that you will not stop writing unless the house is on fire.
Sometimes this also means refusing to answer the telephone, or even turning off the ringer. In some respects, a caller ID machine is even better than an answering machine, because you can see who is calling before you pick up. If the caller is your “friend with a million problems,” simply pretend that you’re “out” and don’t answer. The same applies to neighbors who know that you’re “home” (and therefore, obviously, available) and want to drop by for a chat or a coffee break.
Protecting your time means cultivating the art of saying “no,” “later,” and “I have to go now.” At first, this may seem the most difficult task of all, but eventually you will realize that your new attitude hasn’t caused the rest of the world to view you as an ogre — and you’re actually getting some quality writing done!
If you’re looking for time to write, don’t wait until tomorrow or next week or until the kids have grown up and moved out of the house. Start today. It’s really all the time you need.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.