Help me manage my time
December 14, 2011 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Fiction writers with day jobs and lives: How do you organize your time to get your fiction written?

I am committed to finishing my novel, but I have a full-time job (with flexible hours) and I'm also looking for another job. I want to start working out, too. I have friends and chores and such. Please help me set some daily, disciplined fiction-writing goals. How much time do you spend writing? How many breaks do you take? What time of day do you write? Do you have a daily word count goal? How do you keep from resenting all the stuff that takes up precious time?

Please help me accomplish this lifelong dream by giving me your hacks. Thanks!
posted by sucky_poppet to Work & Money (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I am committed to finishing my novel, but I have a full-time job (with flexible hours) and I'm also looking for another job. I want to start working out, too. I have friends and chores and such.

Are you more committed to finding another job, working out, having friends, getting chores done and such than finishing your novel? If that's the case, then all the hacks in the world won't really help.

If you are committed to writing, you'll schedule it exactly the same way you schedule your other priorities. If you can schedule an hour after work to go to the gym, or every Friday night to go hang out with friends, you can schedule some time to write.

Writing isn't a magical thing that requires something other than time and effort.
posted by xingcat at 6:06 AM on December 14, 2011

Honestly, all the hacks and tricks and scheduling and such will not make any damn bit of difference until you say to yourself: "Finishing this novel is an important thing for me to do."

Because as soon as you finally believe that, then you will find that time yourself come hell or high water. You will forgo working out because "I want to finish the novel first". You will cut time short with friends, or postpone seeing them, because "I want to finish my novel first". You will take your notebook along with you on errands because "I want to work on my novel while I'm at the laundromat". You will carve out time in your lunch hour at work because "I can work on my novel". You will stay up a little late at night, or get up a little early in the morning, because "I can work on my novel then". You will show up late to things because "I was working on my novel". You will MAKE the time to work on your novel DESPITE everything else because that's how badly you want to work on it.

THAT is how you will find the time.

And yes, I know how hard this is. I'm trying to make myself believe that myself. I haven't found something to write yet that I'm that passionate about -- but I've been there in the past, and when I knew I wanted to write badly enough, and BELIEVED it was important enough, I was staying late at the office and pulling all-nighters and typing in a white heat to get it finished.

Now -- this is not to say that I'm advocating "wait for inspiration to strike and then go for it". There is definitely something to be said for discipline to get you through the doldrums. But I get the sense that deciding that "dammit, this is important" and then really BELIEVING that will make "how do I find the time" a hell of a lot easier. We make time for the things that are REALLY important, without asking people for their advice and "hacks" -- so the key, then, is deciding "is this novel that important?"

And then asking again: "no, seriously, IS this novel important?"

And if the answer is yes both times, then get yourself to really down to your guts BELIEVE it.

And then you'll start seeing time to work on it.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:09 AM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Here are some "hacks" (because, really, there are no hacks but determination as above) that I use as a "writer" (because despite the hacks I've sort of stopped temporarily and have nothing published). YMMV.

Schedule an hour a day on weekdays. I was most successful with the hour right after work, but then I don't mind eating late. I've also tried getting up an hour earlier, which works when my job is stressful and I'm mentally drained when I get home. I went to the gym on my lunch breaks and saw friends on the weekend. I didn't beat myself up too hard if I skipped a day.

This takes a long time and a lot of determination, but I did finish that novel.
posted by AmandaA at 6:32 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Are you more committed to finding another job, working out, having friends, getting chores done and such than finishing your novel?

The answer is no. It is the novel I am more committed to, with the other things seeming to get in the way but I'm scared my life will fall apart without them.

EmpressCallipygos: I'm already doing those things so I will take your response as encouragement that I'm on the right track. Thanks! Perhaps I just need permission to let these other things go for a while. More suggestions are appreciated and I promise not to thread-sit.
posted by sucky_poppet at 7:05 AM on December 14, 2011

For me the most important thing is having a regular schedule and routine, so I don't have to think about it and I'm not always telling myself, "no I'll do this thing now and write later," because writing time is already fixed. When in the day that window comes has varied depending on my particular job and lifestyle. Right now I write during my lunch hour, but it isn't that simple:
-I never bring food to the office so I have to leave in order to eat, because if I stay in the office I just keep doing work
-I bought a cheap netbook to bring with me every day because my laptop was too heavy to schlep everywhere

So on the one hand, yes, of course determination is the most important thing. But for me that manifests itself through engineering a block of time when impediments to writing go away. It makes me feel a bit like a rat designing its own maze, but still, I do manage to spend time hunched over a back table in the crappy sandwich place close to my office, writing.

My other strategy is to save up a bunch of money, quit my job, and then write as much as possible.
posted by unsub at 7:14 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Small daily goals. Start at 500 words a day. That's two paragraphs! That's nothing! Once you start hitting that out of the park, bump it up to 1000.

I don't really use the daily word count goal anymore, but that's because I've written a few manuscripts at this point. But I try to write something every day, and typically it's much more than a thousand words because I built up steam easily. Usually I write in the morningish before work, but if not, I make myself do it before I get to bed.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:16 AM on December 14, 2011

I'm already doing those things so I will take your response as encouragement that I'm on the right track. Thanks! Perhaps I just need permission to let these other things go for a while.

I think you may have misunderstood my point.

If you really DID believe your novel was a priority, you wouldn't "need our permission to let these other things go for a while," because your attitude would be "fuck you all, I don't need your permission because I care about my novel more than I care about anything else."

The reason you're asking about "hacks" and that you "need our permission" is because, deep down, you actually don't care as much as you say you do. Change that fact and the rest will fall into place, seriously.

And I hope I don't sound too harsh; this is the very problem I'm wrestling with myself. So I know how hard this actually is. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:33 AM on December 14, 2011

Definitely check out this book.

I know that you're writing fiction and not a doctoral thesis, but from what I've read, this book teaches you more of how to get into a habit of writing everyday than anything else. It might really help.
posted by lobbyist at 7:37 AM on December 14, 2011

I don't actually believe that there is any truth to this "if you REALLY wanted to, you would." I mean, maybe some people work like that--they just have enough passion for something that they do it regardless. I do not. I do not know anybody who does, but I do know people who have been published. If I did what I had the most passion for, the thing I WANT to do the most, I would sit on the couch and read books, read the internet, and occasionally go on long walks when it's warm enough outside. I might write a little bit, but I wouldn't work hard at it.

That doesn't mean that I am not ambitious, however, or that I don't want to do cool things in my life (like write novels, for instance! I am also working on one).

Writing is work. It is not always something that is easy to do. That means that we have to train ourselves to want to do it. We avoid it because, even if we care, even if we do want to do it pretty hard, there's a lot of emotion riding on writing, and a lot of self-worth tied up in it, and it's just hard work even without any emotional baggage.

Like anything else you want to do in life, you just have to learn how to prioritize it and fit it in. You should search for Ask Mes on getting things done--there are a lot of them. It's just working. It's just a thing you do. So read about how to get stuff done, and there you are.

As for me, I tend to rely on things like putting it on a dily to-do list and setting a timer. I'm more a fan of timers than word count goals, but while that timer is going, everything else has to be shut down--no browser open, no television, no nothing except maybe some music. Just me and the page. I've got over 10k on my novel so far by setting times for 15 to 30 minutes a day. Well, before I started school this fall, after which my top priorities just didn't include the writing, but I was okay with that.
posted by hought20 at 8:01 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

An hour a day, every day, no excuses.

I prefer mornings because less interruptions materialize. Even better, mornings before the spousal unit wakes up.

It really is just a matter of making a commitment and meeting it. Train yourself to have that one hour of productivity every day, no matter what, and once it becomes routine the rest will fall into place.

Don't limit yourself though, if you feel inspired to write in the evening and have time, go for it. Just so long as you don't use it as an excuse to skip your scheduled block.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:07 AM on December 14, 2011

nth setting goals. I prefer time to word count. I shoot for 8 hours a week, usually 2 hours saturday and sunday, then 4 hours over the 5 work days. Gives me a little more flexibility that I find useful. If you miss your goal drop it, forget about it, go after it the next day (or the next week if you use weekly goals). If you make your goal, drop it, forget about it, go after your goal the next day.

I find that environment helps a lot. Create a space that you like being in for you to write in. Having everything set up so you can just sit down and go is tremendously valuable. (I do recommend Scrivener, I've just started using it for my own novel and it's hugely useful). Organization is really important when working on longer things. Make sure you have a system of notes, outlines, sketches, research materials, that's quick and easy for you to reference.

But the most important thing to remember is this: writing is a jealous, old god. It demands devotion and it demands sacrifice. If you aren't willing to sacrifice things, be it some sleep or time with friends, then you're not going make it very far. If you are having trouble finding time to write, identify something that you're willing to sacrifice and do it. If there's nothing you're willing to sacrifice... then maybe just be content with 'dabbling'.

You have to find that calf of 'other' to slaughter on the altar of Writing. (or, you know, move some things around)
posted by ghostiger at 9:49 AM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I finally started writing again this fall after putting it aside for several years. The only thing that works for me is forcing myself to get up at least an hour early -- two if I can swing it -- and put in some time in the morning. If I'm working on the novel itself, I aim for 1000 words at a time (though try not to beat myself up if I don't quite make it). If I'm doing more free-form exploratory exercises (brainstorming scene ideas, discovering a character's back story, etc.) I don't really have a word count, but instead try to get in good hour.

I find that if I'm steadily doing that morning work, then the story is percolating regularly enough when I'm away from the computer so that I often have the independent inspiration/energy for a second sitting at some point after work. And if I don't have that second sitting, it's no big deal; as long as I get that morning time in, I'm moving forward.

I put Chrome Nanny on my computer so that I can't do anything in the mornings except check my email, and I limit my time on various websites (cough) to an hour a day at home (i.e., at nights and on the weekends).

Other than that, I just sort of faced the fact that at the end of the day, I feel better having written than I do not having written. And that reminder keeps me going well enough.
posted by scody at 11:15 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

But the most important thing to remember is this: writing is a jealous, old god. It demands devotion and it demands sacrifice. If you aren't willing to sacrifice things, be it some sleep or time with friends, then you're not going make it very far. If you are having trouble finding time to write, identify something that you're willing to sacrifice and do it. If there's nothing you're willing to sacrifice... then maybe just be content with 'dabbling'.

That is, in my experience, astoundingly true. Something WILL have to go: it might be an hour of sleep, it might be happy hour now and then, it might be your work-out (although I actually find my jog is very useful in terms of working out creative problems). There's no "hack" beyond sitting down and writing the thing. For me, I have a somewhat flexible day job, but I am just not very creatively productive on weekdays. So I would just write all day Saturday and Sunday. I'd give myself a couple of hours to get groceries and I'd usually give myself off one night to see people, but the other 14 hours of daylight I would just write.

I also work from a very detailed outline, so I know what happens in every chapter, and I have deadlines set for each chapter and for the overall manuscript, with a time built in at the end for editing and proof-reading. You know that old saying about how if you work for yourself, the problem is that your boss is a bitch? I am a total hard-ass about it with myself.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:16 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

What got me through my thesis was a calendar and a box of gold sticky stars.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

My hack for anything like this is:

* try any given hack for a week
* evaluate
* repeat and enhance

Pick any hack you think is doable. Can you commit to writing for 30 minutes every weekday before breakfast? Can you commit to PhoBWanKenobi's 500 words a day?

Here's what I would do:
  1. Commit to 500 words every weekday.
  2. Start a list of Writer's Hacks (a single folded-up sheet of paper is fine) and commit to keeping it with you and writing down Writer's Hacks.
  3. THIS WEEK, TODAY, start on those 500 words.
  4. This Saturday, take 15 minutes to ask yourself: How did that go? Did it feel like a good start? What worked well? What could work better?
  5. Complete the 500 words every weekday all next week.
  6. Next Saturday, repeat the evaluation (What went well? What could go better?) and also review your list of Writer's Hacks to see if there's another one that appeals to you. (For example: Always stop in the middle of a sentence so you'll be raring to pick up where you left off. Or use the Pomodoro Technique to get to the 500 words with more focus. Or whatever.) Ramp your goal up to 750 or 1000 words as soon as you feel ready. (Or sooner.)
  7. When you're not Focused On Writing (when you're not getting those 500 words out), any time you want to poke around on the Internet for a few minutes, go searching for Writer's Hacks and add ideas to your list. (Steven Pressfield has some good ideas, as does MeFi's own John Scalzi.)
  8. Add a second list to accompany your Writer's Hacks: call this one Quick Tasks. Try to think about little things that you can do in under 5 minutes to move your writing forward. Maybe you need to research Civil War uniforms for part of your story. Don't do that while you're working on your 500 (or 1000!) words; break it down into small tasks ("1. list resources. 2. skim resource A. 3. skim resource B.") and be ready to knock off those small tasks at the end of the day when you have a little time and a little energy and could do a little something toward your novel.
  9. As part of your Saturday reviews, make a point of acknowledging what you've gotten done. "2500 words this week! Go me!" This reinforces how important this project is to you, and reminds you that you can make progress when you make the time for it.
Good luck!
posted by kristi at 3:31 PM on December 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Really good advice above, and each writer's process is so different. Nothing works for me 100% of the time, so I switch up my hacks/tricks constantly. I have a full-time job, and in the last five years have written two novels, a few parts of novels (one in progress), and dozens of short stories, poems, articles, and online wordage too numerous to count. Some of what I do:

* Get up early. Writing at night doesn't work as well because I'm tired at the end of the day, and I'm more prone to succumb to distractions.

* Word counts (500, e.g.) are good spurs, but so are short spurs -- "I will write one sentence today." If I'm having serious motivation problems, I plan to write one sentence. That usually leads to a page or so. Who the hell can't write one sentence? It's a pathetic goal, and it always jolts me into motion.

* Time limits -- use an egg timer, a stopwatch, or whatever -- and write for 15 minutes. Hands on the keyboard all the way along. No bathroom breaks, no answering the phone.

* Try new techniques until something sticks. Maybe some of the following will work for you. Change screen color, font, font size. Put on music. Cut off music. Turn on ambient noise machines or tracks on your iPod. Write naked. Write clothed. Set your alarm to write in the middle of the night. Write drunk/high. Unplug the phone. Turn off the internet. Turn on the internet. Fool around with Scrivener or Write or Die. Write hungry, bloated, drunk, sick, or sleepy. Write on the bus, in your car, in parking lots, at the museum. All of these things may work for you, individually, in combination, or sequentially.

* What everyone else said about commitment and zero-sum time. If you want to finish your novel, you will put other things aside. If that's your sole goal--i.e. you do not wish to be a lifelong writer and are just looking to finish this one thing--you can do 15 minutes a day, or whatever, and your novel will eventually get finished. If this is part of cultivating an overall habit of writing, you have to cut other things out. When I got serious about writing, I curtailed my television & movie watching, drastically reduced the time I spend socializing, and largely cut out video games. I miss all of those things, but not enough to give up writing.

* As kristi said above, reward yourself. There has to carrot as well as stick, and the writing may become the carrot over time, but if not, treat yourself well when you complete a goal: buy a toy, have a nice dinner.

Good luck!
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:28 AM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

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