“What did I do today!” you wail. For the life of you, wiped out at the end of the day and ready for binge TV, you can’t remember anything you did except overeat for lunch. Maybe you do recall writing for twelve minutes midmorning but otherwise the day’s a blank. And paradoxically, you feel you’re always so busy, dashing from one thing to the next and never getting it all done (of course you won’t).
Most of us have likely faced this dilemma. Where does the time go? Especially as writers (day job or not) with no external prods or threats of cut-off paychecks, it’s an ongoing challenge to take hold, control and wrestle our time to the ground.
This guest post is by Noelle Sterne. Author, editor, dissertation and writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds For Writers, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. She has also published pieces in anthologies, has contributed several columns to writing publications, and has been a volunteer judge for Rate Your Story. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her handbook addressing dissertation writers’ overlooked but very important nonacademic difficulties was published in September 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield Education. The title: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. In Noelle`s previous book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at her website: trustyourlifenow.com.
I found a remedy, though, that we’ve probably all read about: keep a time log. “Oh no,” you wail again, “more to do!” True, but if you do it as you go, it’s less onerous.
I recently started a time log, with the sheet nearby on my desk. Every time I changed activities, I made a note. If you work outside the home, you can use a time log for weekends, days off, and evenings; if you work at home, use it for daily activities. I have a routine and generally (aim to) write in the mornings and address client work in the afternoons and evenings. You might also allocate time periods to each activity—I do so in my early-morning planning.
Here’s a recent morning:
6:30a Rise (a good day).
6:33a-7:15 Dress, check TV guide, record 42 shows I’ll never watch.
7:15a-8:15a Read, meditate, plan day with (ideal) time allocations.
8:15a-8:45a Breakfast, talk with hubby (that is, listen to him talk).
8:45a-10:00a Scan Internet news, check client emails, answer a few, wipe kitchen counter.
10:00a-11:15a Work on novel (finally!).
11:15a-11:30a Browse in a magazine (needed break).
11:30a-12:30p Work on current client’s manuscript.
12:30p-1:15p Lunch . . . .
My time log taught me taught me a lot! Here are nine perks I identified.
1. Those first activities were very important to me to set the day, plan, and reconnect with my husband.
2. When I reviewed the log at noon, I saw how many things I really did. Never gave myself credit for the 8:45a-10:00 activities, believing I wasted the whole time on Internet gossip.
3. My pattern became clear. Where could I improve? Obviously, less gossip.
4. I made more conscious choices. Wanting to get to my novel earlier, I resolved to browse the headlines less and answer clients’ emails later in the day (except for crises). A writing colleague decided to work out at the gym in the mornings instead of writing and looked forward after dinner to cozying up with his writing sessions.
5. I built in needed and non-guilt-making breaks. Between working on the novel and the client project, I needed to shift gears and air the brain. I realized, though, a break should be limited. Sometimes pockets of even fifteen minutes can disrupt momentum and get in the way of creative thoughts or solutions to a thorny writing problem. When a writing friend keeping a time log realized her morning phone visits with her bestie were upsetting her writing momentum, she changed the daily contact to early evenings. So watch the magazine flipping, back-fence visiting, and obsessive counter wiping.
6. I found too that following my allocation plan, even roughly, gives me permission and freedom to relax into the specific activity. As I said, always feeling I was rushing through one thing to get onto the next, I’d berate myself for not working fast enough on anything.
But when I kept the time log, knowing, for example, I had allotted 75 minutes to my novel, I relaxed (miraculously). My goal is a minimum of 500 words a day (good enough for Hemingway), and allocation let me breathe: I sat back, played with ideas, visualized the scene, heard the main character talking with others, even did a little research for equipment the character was using. And I luxuriated in that delicious feeling of time disappearing altogether and nothing existing but the writing.
7. Keeping my time log for a few days, I saw my patterns more clearly. And I compared yesterday with today, seeing where to improve: my Internet clicking certainly needed discipline. Or congratulate myself: working on the novel before the client project.
8. I strengthened my resolve to do better or keep up the good pattern and do even better.
9. I gained a great sense of control over my time. And saw how I could use the time choices to inch closer, and reach, my writing goals.
You don’t have to keep your time log forever. Often a week or two, or a month, will show you how you’re choosing your time. You’ll establish good patterns, have revelations like mine, or others, and learn to use time in different ways.
With a time log, you’ll give yourself more credit and forgive yourself for “wasting time.” With conscious choices, you’ll feel more in charge of your time and that you actually have more time. As you desire and feel impelled, you’ll choose more of your time for your writing.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.