Not all writers can afford to spend their whole day in front of the computer, typing out their next great script. Learn effective time management techniques on how to plan ahead and make writing a fixed part of your life.
By C. Bryce Fuller
You have a great idea for a screenplay but think you don’t have the time to write it. Sometimes all you need to do is plan ahead and make writing a fixed part of your life.
“I try to write every day. I finally realized it’s necessary,” says Daniel Seligmann, a screenwriter who sold a pitch entitled The Forgotten to Winchester Films and the Donner Company, as well as being hired to rewrite The Reaping for Silver Pictures. “Since becoming professional, it’s the only way to do it.”
Not all writers can afford to spend all day, every day in front of their computers typing out their next great script. There are fulltime jobs, families, errands and everyday life occurrences that all need attention. Even professional screenwriters have to eat sometime. So, the question is: When is there going to be time to write?
Every writer has their own set of personal circumstances. Therefore, the individual must find a method of time management best suited for their own conditions.
“I can’t write in fatigue,” says Naomi Foner, screenwriter of Losing Isaiah and the Academy Award®-nominated screenplay Running on Empty. “I write best when I have energy.”
Some writers have hectic schedules that may change from day to day. Others have very specific schedules that are practically set in stone. In both cases, managing time is the most important way a writer can find the occasion to apply the seat of their pants to the seat of the chair.
“I believe you can write every day for at least 45 minutes,” says Holly Goldberg Sloan, writer of Made in America, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course and Angels in the Outfield. “I don’t have one single chunk of time to write. I have two kids, a husband and a dog who all need my attention.”
Finding the Time
The first step to time management and writing is to discover when you do your best work. Some find waking up at the crack of dawn, before the world awakens, is when they’re most alert. Possibly after a morning jog or an aerobics session to get the blood circulating would be most beneficial. Others may find that when the day is done, the kids have been put to bed and the phones are quiet is the best time. Another possibility is to write over your lunch break. Find a nice location to grab a bite to eat and scratch out a couple of pages. It doesn’t matter which of these regimens you follow. If you choose one and stick to it religiously, day in and day out, you’ll have your script finished in no time.
However, not every person can stick to such a specific schedule because of personal circumstances and the unpredictable nature of life.
Finding the Location
Even if you can’t control your timetable, perhaps your writing locale is what inspires you. There may be a special place that really gets your creative juices pumping, one that accommodates your need for noise or commotion or complete, unbroken silence.
“I did my best work when the house was full of noise,” says Foner. “A quiet house is more difficult for me to write in. Distractions were strangely helpful to me. Because I had little kids, I got energy from the chaos of the family and worked in the space of time that remained.”
The library, a coffee shop, your office, the kitchen table or the passenger seat of your car may be where you do your best work. Find the place that is most conducive to your writing style. You will learn that once you find your favorite location, even if you only spend a little time there, you will be several times more productive. A location conducive to your writing style will make you more effective in less time.
There’s always something more important to do than write: the laundry, shopping, replacing the batteries in a garage door opener. The simple fact is that without self-discipline, there is no script.
Seligmann says, “For those people who really embrace writing, this is something you want to do. Discipline is the key. Don’t sit around and wait for inspiration. Writing comes from writing.”
Your individual self-discipline might be to write one, two or three hours a day. It might be to write three, four, five or six pages a day, or maybe just a few scenes. It doesn’t matter what system you use. You just need to figure out a system that works for you and stick to it.
To make the most of your precious time, make sure a few things are taken care of. Your workspace needs to be organized. Have your notes ready. Plenty of paper should be available. Any research materials should be present before you begin. If half of your time is spent organizing, then you’re writing only 50 percent of your available time and being only half as effective as you could be. As discussed earlier, locate in an environment most conducive to your writing style.
Create a Time Chart and Strategize
The key to time management for writers is to give your writing time a “home.” Unless you have a period of time in your schedule clearly blocked out, you may never get around to it. You may think that you will find the time to write in your spare time. However, there’s no such thing as “spare time.” Therefore, if you say that you’ll write during that time, you can rest assured that your screenplay will sit idle, waiting to be finished. The only time we have that is truly “spare” is when a previously planned event falls through at the last moment.
Make a graph of your week. Break up your week into half-hour blocks. Thirty minutes is probably the smallest unit of time in which a person can accomplish a single self-defined, planned event effectively without rushing. Then fill in the events that are fixtures in your life. For example, you may work from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day with a lunch break between noon and 1:00 p.m. Include your commute to and from work. Now, fill in blocks of time you set aside for your personal life. Perhaps it is dinner with your family from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., with homework or family activities lasting until 9:00 p.m. Add events on the weekends, such as date night, religious services, time for shopping, exercise and additional family events. You may be surprised to see how much free time you have.
Are there three one-hour blocks available? After the kids go to bed? Before they wake up? Saturday mornings? Write in these free times to get your writing done. The time may be Monday mornings at 6:00, Wednesdays at lunch and Fridays at 8:00 p.m. If this is what you have available, you’re doing great! These times are for you to use. So use them and honor them as if your life depended on it. You wouldn’t skip out on an important business meeting, would you? So, keep these available (and now scheduled) writing appointments with yourself.
You may be dismayed by how little time there is left. For you writers who still think there isn’t enough time in the day to get your writing done, figure out if any of the activities you’ve charted are flexible or unnecessary. For example, you may have a standing date every Wednesday to watch a favorite sitcom with your family. Or, you may have a weekly phone call to your family in Nebraska. Scheduled events like these are flexible. In other words, you can choose either to not participate or you can do them at other times. Remember: You’re a writer, so make the time to write.
Time charts work for writers because you are making time into a physical, definable object. The block of time for writing fits nicely into your now-organized life.
There are two ways to keep the time boundaries on your activities. One is to stop procrastinating. The other is to overcome perfectionism.
You may find that even though you have a time chart, which you are attempting to follow, you’re still running late or not getting to every writing session you planned. In these cases, you may need to reevaluate your chart. Are there certain tasks that could be accomplished simultaneously? For example, you may like to read novels, and you may read every Sunday afternoon or before you go to bed. To free up those time blocks, perhaps you could listen to audio books in your car during your morning commute. Maybe you attend a gym near home that you go to after work. Your commute takes one hour in afternoon rush hour. Can you free up some time by attending a gym closer to work and then heading home in the much lighter, later traffic after the rush hour has passed?
Another possible action you can take to free up time is to delegate responsibilities. You may have errands to run or chores that need to be done. If one or more individuals in your household could perform these tasks, you may want to delegate them to another person. Get your teen to pick up the family dry cleaning on the way home from high school. Your 10-year-old can rake the yard. Remember that you are not alone in the world, and there are always other people who can assist you with life’s chores. By delegating your responsibilities to others, your available time increases, which means more available writing time. (Just don’t delegate too much to your spouse if you want to write in a stress-free environment.)
Use a Planner
Now that you’ve charted out each of your life’s events, you owe it to yourself to write them down and honor them. The most useful and widely-used tool to help you do this is a planner. Planners range in size, shape, format and complexity. They can be as simple as a notepad or as complex as an online calendar or a phone app. To pick the right type, you need to look at your personal preferences. You may remember events only if you write them on paper. You may like to flip pages back and forth to get a better perspective on events. You may find computer technology cumbersome and complex. In these cases, a paper notebook or planner may be most beneficial. On the other hand, you may remember events only if you typed out the information. You may not have the need to look at past events, and you feel comfortable and able using computers and electronics. In these cases, check out online calendars or apps (just search “time management apps” in your phone. In any event, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of several types of planners. Pick the one that you feel most comfortable with and then, most importantly, use it.
Setting Boundaries on Tasks
After charting out your tasks, refining or eliminating all the tasks that can be altered and assigning a home for each task, the most difficult action to take is to set boundaries for the tasks—in other words, keeping the task within the allotted and available time frame. There are two ways to keep the time boundaries on your activities. One is to stop procrastinating. The other is to overcome perfectionism. When you procrastinate and get a late start with your activities, often one activity runs into another in a mad dash to get all of your work done. This, more often than not, allows little or no time for you to write.
There are several reasons people procrastinate. They may fear or dislike an activity. They may be unable to make a decision. They’re not prepared for the activity. Or, they may feel overwhelmed. Each one of these excuses to procrastinate has a solution. If you hate to perform an activity, try to delegate it. If you can’t delegate the task, attempt to make the activity more enjoyable. For example, if you hate exercising but love movies, why not stream your favorite movie while you do jumping jacks and sit-ups? If you have difficulty making decisions, realize that no one decision will usually make or break your career or life. Trust your instincts and keep your eye on the big picture. Lack of preparation is easily overcome by ending each event in your life with preparation for the next time you do it. End mowing the lawn by putting gasoline in the tank and an empty bag in the yard waste container. End your writing sessions by replacing all of your writing materials in an organized fashion ready to be opened and used immediately during the next writing session.
Finally, if you are overwhelmed by an activity, if you feel it is too monumental and unable to be accomplished, the most effective action to take is to break up the activity into easier or more manageable parts. Then concentrate only on the first manageable part. Once you have begun the motion on a task, you’ll be amazed at how much energy you’ll find to eventually complete that task!
“It’s like painting a room,” says Goldberg Sloan. “If you paint a little bit, 10 times a day, it will eventually get done.”
The other thing you must do to keep your event boundaries tight is overcome perfectionism. When you perform an event, you’ll need to learn to “let go” of it so that you can complete it in the allotted time. For example, you may need to vacuum the house and then realize that you could do a better job of vacuuming if you were to move all of the furniture and get out your spot lifter and the deodorizer. Understand that by attempting to do a perfect job with everything you do, you will allow less time to get to other activities. With less time for your other activities available, the quality of other activities tends to come out sub par. By spending two hours vacuuming, you have only 15 minutes to dust. By spending three hours detailing your car, you write less than planned. The difference between “perfect” and “very good” is usually so unnoticeable that the time spent making it perfect is actually wasted.
Practicing Time Management
Time management is not something that is black or white. There is no right or wrong. Only you can determine a system that works for you. However, if you are able to chart out your time, mold and shape your activities to best suit your schedule and then stick to it, you can be sure that you will see progress on your scripts that you never had time for. The key is self-discipline and a drive to see your scripts become reality.
C. Bryce Fuller is a screenwriter, freelance story editor, a screenplay analyst, and one hell of a guy. [Article originally published in Script magazine.]