Protecting your writing time means making small, incremental choices that add up to big results in going for your writing goals.
I am what could be described as a “binge” writer. When I’m on a roll (and I know which way the story is going), I can keep my butt in the seat all day and produce 5,000, sometimes 7,000, and a few times over 10,000 words. But that’s not sustainable, obviously. Once I finish a marathon writing run like that, I fall fallow, sometimes needing to recover for weeks or even months. I used to rail against that but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. Everyone has their style.
The way I get back in the writing saddle, so to speak, is to start small. It’s advice that can be effective for anyone. If you’ve found a lot of reasons why you just can’t get started — the kids, the job, the commute, the exhaustion, the lack of direction for your project — starting small is the solution to all of that. After all, we can do anything for a short amount of time. But what about when there really is no time?
Protecting your writing time is the solution in the busy, overscheduled life. After all, things do get done… the important things. The kids get fed, you commute to work, you sleep, however badly. You can claim your writing time out of that whole frenetic jumble of a day if you make it a priority. A few tips:
- Make it a priority. A real one. What absolutely can’t fall through the cracks today? A meeting with the boss, going to the bathroom (I’m serious!), filling up the car with gas, getting lunch? When you think about all the must-dos that get done, it’s obvious that you do have time to get to the vital things. How do you make your writing feel vital? There may be a component of fake-it-til-you-make-it here. Sure, there may not be a stadium full of eager fans waiting for your next project, but the part of you that has things to say is waiting for it. That part of you deserves fifteen minutes a day.
- Put your device in the hamper. Or upstairs. Or in the kitchen cupboard. Anywhere where you won’t be tempted to check it “just once.” Cell phones are the death of focus. While you’re at it, ban social media on your laptop or other writing device. Try a program like Freedom.to if you’re having a hard time using willpower. Start with short bans, like fifteen minutes, and work your way up to longer sessions.
- Create a ritual. We are creatures of habit. Over time, we engage in automatic behaviors that we associate with other things. For example: wake up, get coffee. You can begin to create these instinctual behavioral triggers by doing one or two things before sitting down, uninterrupted, to write. Maybe you put on a funny hat. Or you sit in a place where you don’t usually sit. (I like the dining room table). Or you light a candle. If you do this consistently before starting your writing session, over time, it will become a trigger that will tell your brain, “It’s time to write.” Make it fun and unique to you.
- Talk to the fam. Or the roommates. Or the boss. Anyone who might intrude on your writing time. With family or roommates, you can let them know that this is important to you and that you’d like fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time. (With the understanding that amount might grow over time). A boss can simply be alerted to the fact that there will be a period of time, not during work hours, when you won’t be accessible via email or text. And then… don’t be accessible. It can be unthinkable in some jobs, but it can be done. There was once a time none of us had email and yet companies didn’t disintegrate.
- Do the deathbed exercise. Or, if that feels too macabre for you, the legacy exercise. Either way, it’s simply this: when you look back after a long, happy, productive life, what would you like to have done? No doubt your first thoughts will be of family and happy times spent together. But when you turn to professional accomplishments, if you want to write, maybe you’ll envision a shelf full of books you’ve written. That process starts today, fifteen minutes at a time. Regularly tap into the importance of what you’re trying to create, for yourself and, if you can let yourself imagine it, for the readers who will enjoy it.
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone. I am not a morning person, but I’ve written plenty in the morning. When your schedule is packed, sometimes protecting your writing time means holding down a demanding day job and writing at odd hours. No one said the writing life is easy. That doesn’t mean skimping on sleep (no one is clever while bleary-eyed). It means getting up an hour before the family. Or writing on the train. Or taking your laptop to a nearby park to write on your lunch hour. Sure, it would be nice to have a leisurely day to write to your heart’s content. But when you don’t have that, take what you’ve got.
That’s it. Every writer whose work you admire has, at some point, had to devise techniques to protect her writing time from the intrusions and restrictions we all experience. You won’t be the first writer to try to sneak in a short writing session while the kids nap, and you won’t be the last. I once had a wise writing teacher tell me that a page a day is a book a year, and just about all of us can carve out the time to write a page, which is, on average, about 250 words. So be rigorous about protecting your writing time, and over time you’ll achieve all your writing goals.
This is part of my sporadically updated For Writers series of essays. Drop me an email at maria (at) mariaeandreu (dot) com to request pieces on specific topics.