Effective time management
Every single person gets the same amount of time in their day: 24 hours. So why is it that some people are able to accomplish so much, while others just shrug, shake their heads and say they don’t have the time?
It comes down to a combination of factors: setting priorities, managing one’s time efficiently, having rigorous self-discipline, and recognizing and avoiding self-sabotage. Anyone who masters any one of these things already has an advantage; but if you manage to master all of them, you will be unstoppable.
Before you start on any of the other things, the most important thing to know is what your priorities are in life. The time we have in one day is limited, and we can’t have 27 priorities. It’s absolutely necessary to determine an order in which things have importance in our lives. I recommend actually sitting down and making a list, and putting numbers next to all the elements; write everything that you do, be it house work, hobbies, classes, your job, everything, and give them a relative order of importance.
It’s essential to do this because you have to understand that if writing is down there after washing your car and flossing the cat, then it’s normal that you don’t have time for it; it’s just not a priority for you. If you are trying to make a career out of writing, then obviously it should be a priority, but if it’s something you do for fun, just because you feel like it sometimes and have no intention of ever publishing what you write, then you shouldn’t worry about your word count or productivity.
If, however, you are planning to make a career out of writing, then you should immediately start treating it as a job and move it to the top of your priority list. Think about it this way: if you called your boss in the morning and told him you couldn’t come in because you had to pick up the leaves, paint the garage, or catch up on your favorite TV show, how do you think he’d react? Well, if you’re planning to make it a career, then writing should have the same kind of priority as your job does.
If you don’t know where your priorities lie, you will never get anything done properly; you will always spend too much time on something and not enough on something else.
A long time ago, my father told me the following story:
A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “yes.”
The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
“Now,” said the professor as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—-your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—-and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else—-the small stuff.
“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.” The same goes for life.
If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented. The professor smiled and said, “I’m glad you asked.” The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.
THE MORAL OF THIS STORY IS: Figure out whether writing is a golf ball, a pebble, or just sand to you. And treat it accordingly!
Managing your time
There are a few things that you must learn how to do in order to efficiently manage your time:
– Do things in advance. Don’t wait for the last minute, and don’t stretch out things or take your time because the time you have to do it is longer than it takes; try to get everything done as soon as possible so you can move on to more things. Always get started on things right away instead of putting them off.
– Use dead time constructively. Always carry work with you. If you have to wait somewhere, or during those fifteen minute breaks you get at work, try to do some work: work on your character bios. Reorganize your project bibles. Do some research. Do a little editing. There’s always work that can be accomplished in a short amount of time.
– Use manual labor to solve story problems or visualize your scenes.
– Use project bibles. Keep all your material in one binder or one folder, and organize it so you don’t waste time searching for information.
– Establish a routine: Work daily and stick to it. Once we fall into a routine, it becomes second-nature to us.
– Schedule yourself, and respect your schedule. Also schedule your breaks; when you’re working, you’re working. Don’t allow yourself to do other things. Studies show that we have the mental capacity to concentrate on a given task for three hours, so schedule your breaks accordingly. Also schedule lunch breaks; don’t eat while you work.
– Test and know which times of the day are your most productive hours. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my most productive hours were very late at night, and in the small hours of the morning, until about 4:00 AM. When I got a bit older, my most productive hours were very early in the morning, around 7:00 AM, so I had to change the way I built my schedule. Now that I’m in my thirties and a mother, my most productive time is the afternoon. Be ready to try working at different times of the day, and try changing those times when you see they don’t work for you anymore. Everyone has a peak hour, and that hour changes every 5-10 years.
– Finish what you start. Working in itself generates energy; it’s what we call “being on a roll”. It takes much more energy to get started than it does to keep going. Don’t stop every five minutes, or you will run out of energy. Keep going!
– Rotate your tasks so you don’t get worn out. If you have three periods of time set aside to work in your day (or week, depending on your priorities) alternate between them. Do some writing in one, some research in another, and some revising in the last. It keeps you from getting stuck and spending too much of your energy in the same place; different tasks stimulate different parts of your brain, and rotating prevents overstimulation.
– Try to consolidate your housework. Instead of doing a little each day, try to do it all in a chunk. Schedule it, for example, a morning if you’re productive in the afternoon, or vice-versa. Do the same with your cooking. I like to spend several hours on the weekend pre-cooking large meals that I freeze in individual portions so I don’t have to think about cooking during the week.
When you’re a writer, you are your own boss. You can’t allow yourself to be too permissive (or too strict, either, but I’ll stick with the former because it is the problem of the majority).
Writing is your work: respect and treat it as such. If you wouldn’t do something working a cash in a grocery store, what are you saying about your writing when you allow yourself to do those things while writing?
1) Tell everyone you are working and must not be disturbed. Not only are they less likely to disturb you, but if they catch you on Facebook, they might just send you a message and go “weren’t you working?” that will put you back on track.
2) Turn off the ringer on your phone, and let it go to voicemail. You can call them back at the scheduled time. Any interruption is a huge waste of time.
3) Designate a place as your workspace. That might be a closet, or a corner of your room. Just make sure it doesn’t have a TV and you don’t have to pick up all your things when it’s time to eat.
4) Your email can wait. Same as the phone. Schedule email breaks every few hours.
5) Your family can wait. Yes, I’m really saying that. Learn how to recognize TRUE emergencies. Again, if you wouldn’t leave your job as nurse or grade school teacher to respond to a situation, don’t leave your job as a writer. It’s work too!
6) Have your workspace ready. If you know you have a runny nose, get thirsty, or will need a dictionary, put the things you need within arm’s reach so you don’t have to constantly get up. It may only be a few seconds each time, but it quickly amounts to a lot more when you have to do it fifteen times in one work session. Reaching for a tissue doesn’t interrupt your train of thought; getting up to go get one from the other room each time does.
7) Turn off the TV, and recognize other distractions. Watching TV while you work is a distraction. You can’t divide your focus and really immerse yourself in your story at the same time. I find the same thing true of noise and music for me. If you are used to working with music, at least try once to work without it and look at your performance. A staggering percentage of the people to whom I’ve recommended this have discovered that working in silence helps them focus on their story, instead of having brief mental pauses where they listen to the music, even if it’s just for a second.
8) Respect your scheduled lunch breaks. Breaking a good stride or a good routine starts with that. Besides, you need appropriate nutrition to keep up your energy.
There are many ways to sabotage a carefully established schedule and end up having done no work at all. Of course, some are obvious, like playing computer games or watching TV instead, but the most common ones are very insidious, because they look like work, but they’re really a way of procrastinating.
– Tolerating interruptions. I think I’ve talked about that enough.
– Checking your email. It might seem important. It can wait. Sure, maybe you’re waiting for a reply from your agent or your publisher, but you can be sure they won’t be waiting by their computer clicking “refresh” every ten seconds; they have better things to do, and so do you.
– Exaggerate in research. Research is extremely important, which is why you should schedule time for it and make a list of what you need to find out. Research can easily translate into five hours of unproductive Wikipedia surfing.
– Play around with computer programs. There are new computer writing programs that come out all the time. If you’re very comfortable with computers, go ahead and try them out, and if you find that they really do save you time, use them. But a lot of people just get lost in trying the features and playing with the different ways you can do something without ever getting anything done.
– Over-organize. You should keep your project bible organized, and your drafts, and your folders, yes, absolutely. But this is something that should be done when you have a small ten minutes to spare, not when you have writing time scheduled.
– Eating and drinking. You need both hands to type (and if you’re the search and peck type, please learn to type, it will save you an inordinate amount of time) so don’t occupy one of your hands. Having coffee or a glass of water is fine; eating a meal or a muffin takes a lot more time, and leaves your fingers greasy; besides, you shouldn’t be eating over your computer. If you do it every day, those accumulated crumbs can really clog your keyboard.
– Reading about writing. Is it important to learn something new about your craft on a regular basis? Absolutely. It’s essential. Which is why you should schedule a weekly time for it. When I accidentally find articles on writing, I bookmark them to read at my weekly time. Don’t spend your writing time learning about writing; it’s counter-productive, if well-intentioned.
So there you have it. That’s a huge part of how you can get really productive. If I don’t get any more special requests during the week, next week’s post should be the twin to this one, on the importance of setting goals and how to nurture and develop the personality traits you need to be the most efficient you can be!!