This is part 2 of a post from last week. You don’t have to read that one first but I think it makes more sense and will likely be way more helpful if you do.
Getting (Back) Time To Write
I made a conscious decision, after having no time to write (I had plenty of time to write) that I wanted to write. And so I started on a mission to reclaim my time and write. Here’s how.
Step 1: It Wasn’t About Tracking In The Traditional Sense
Many people will take a week and track what they are doing in the moment. How much time they spend on things like commuting, making meals, watching television, etc. While I love to track and am a fan of this type of data collection to get a baseline (I even wrote an article about it!), I know that this was busy work.
Yes, it’s busy work. How did I know? Because the facts were simple:
There are 24 hours in a day. I work for 8 of those and sleep for another 8. Where the heck were the other 8 going? I didn’t need to track how much time I was spending on other things. I knew I was spending 5-7 hours on other things and only writing for maybe an hour. No need to track.
Step 2: I Made A List
This was a little hard. I don’t like to admit my flaws and this was, essentially, a baring of every bad habit I have. Every one of them. Like wow. But it had to be done. What did I list? I listed all the things I do in a day. Not every day. But at least 3:5 weekdays was my general way of approaching this very unscientific endeavor. I added to the list as I went about a few days to make sure I didn’t miss things.
Something I have done since my mid-twenties when making lists is to just list everything. And then I go through and find patterns. I find this super helpful. It’s how I can quickly get shit out but then go more deeply. Also, it saves time. It stops that desire to be busy. I’ll break it down for you.
Listening to podcasts
Napping (ugh, so embarrassing but I do love a nap)
Boardgames with Kris
general phone use
Talking to friends on the phone/texting
drinking (not like all day, but often dinner in our house includes a bottle of wine)
beauty related stuff (that time you spend picking at your face in the mirror… lemme tell ya, it adds up)
complaining about not having time to write
I then went through and broke down (by a lettered code) the type of thing they were. So some shit has to get done. I cannot give up walking the dogs, dishes, laundry, cooking, shopping, reviewing the mail and paying bills, cleaning. These are things we have to do.
I then went through and looked at things I enjoy doing: reading, podcasts, napping, tv, boardgames, staring at my face in the mirror and picking at it, socializing (includes talking to friends), organizing.
And I looked at things that I’m not sure why I do them because they don’t necessarily give me enjoyment but they’ve become a part of my routine like scrolling through Facebook and social media way more times in a day than I ever thought I would.
Once I had these categories I thought about each one. How could I do the things that HAVE to get done in the most efficient way? How could I write but still do the things I enjoy, and how could I train myself to stop doing the things we just do.
On that last one, and Kris is going to kill me, we recently talked about how much longer it takes to go to the bathroom in our phone-riddled world. Because, let’s face it, we all look at our phones while on the toilet and then stay longer than necessary to finish the article or click the next link or find the next hidden picture.
Circling back, this listing process is a good example of diminishing busy. Many people would have color coded up front and come up with the categories. My problem with that is that it slows you down because you are thinking of the types of categories by thinking of the things that will be on the list. Brain dump the list, then carry it around and add to it, then break it up into categories. Believe me, it’s faster.
Step 3: Changing my Thinking
I have a few television shows that I really love. Most of these I watch with Kris. The Americans, House of Cards, Love, Search Party. Three of these are Netflix ready. We generally only watch one show at a time… so if nothing is on Netflix, like for the last few months, we don’t watch anything. Americans is on at ten pm on a weeknight. In addition, I can watch any episode of Law & Order: SVU at any time. Like if I were walking down the street and it was a nice day and you were watching it and your windows were open? You would likely turn to find me watching through your window. There is something about that show that sucks me in. This was what revolutionized my process and got me to where I am now, with so much time to write.
Law & Order: SVU is not going anywhere. It will likely survive me and I envision the cockroaches watching it after the nuclear holocaust that has haunted my nightmares since watching The Day After at Jill Monteleone’s in 7th grade. I like Law & Order: SVU and there is an episode of it on all the time thanks to stations that seem to play nothing else, Netflix, On Demand, etc.
My time watching things with Kris are more fun because we are together and it’s something we enjoy watching and discussing. So Law & Order? It’s kind of like dessert. I don’t have to have it with every meal. In fact, I shouldn’t have it with every meal. But sometimes it’s great. What does that sound like?
Step 4: Rewards
At the end of the day we are all five. We want a chore chart with a gold star. This is what Law & Order: SVU taught me about my life. And my writing life especially. I do not need to pop on an episode while eating lunch (which always turns into 2). Instead, I can use it as a reward for hitting some writing goal.
I made a spreadsheet where I listed various writing goals month by month. These spanned several types of writing: blogging, fiction, free writing (still where I get a LOT of ideas when I do it right). I put on things like outlining a short story or submitting a piece.
From there I came up with a list of these things I love to do. List A was things like “reading” or “playing a game”. Things that can be done for an arbitrary amount of time. List B were quickish things that require say 30 minutes. Taking a bubble bath. Taking a nap.
Next I came up with longer term things. These are things I have wanted to do but for whatever reason (I blame Law & Order: SVU and napping) I never have time for. This includes going for a photo walk or checking out a new restaurant for lunch. List C is for pretty big accomplishments, like hitting my monthly blogging goal.
My last list, List D, is for major goal accomplishments and some of them require spending a little money. So… buying a new book or nice pen. Picking up a cute accessory. Taking myself out for a few glasses of wine. These are things I could do any day of the week but saving them and using them to celebrate gives me more inspiration.
And that’s the lesson I learned in a lot of this. I needed to change my thinking and treat things like dessert. Like a special treat. And use my writing to get there. And here’s the thing: I like writing. It’s not a chore. It’s my favorite thing. But I was spending too much time on other things I like. But do I like them as much as writing? Probably not.
Step 5: Assessing and Changing The Plan
Obviously I needed to put this plan into place and lemme tell ya — once I did my writing picked up considerably. Sure I had that dip in February but I’m writing more now than I have in a very long time. But that doesn’t mean I found the quick fix. I have my goals and I track them and I have days that are better than others. And at the end of every month I figure out what is and is not working and change it up.
The most important lesson in all of this has been prioritizing. Something that I have never found a happy medium of. I am either really good at it, or really bad. One thing that helps me is writing things down. If I write something down, anything, I will likely do it. I like to check things off a list. So I’ve started making them. My writing list looks the same every day but guess what, on the days I take the time to consult the list and cross things off? Yeah, my writing is on point that day.
There are a few ways to prioritize; it may take a while to find a tool that works for you. Here are a few that I have tried and my personal feelings on them. I’m curious to know what other people use since I think there are probably a million methods out there that I don’t know about.
The Things I Stopped Doing
Organizing. In addition to doing certain things based on rewards I have also stopped doing certain things. I really like to organize things. But, my house is very organized. So when I organize it’s more about finding a new system. So here’s what I’m learning: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My pantry makes sense. There is no reason to reorganize my spices. Alphabetically. Sure, it may feel good but I use a lot of fucking oregano. Having it at arm’s length? Way better idea (and quicker, too!). Over-organization is a huge culprit of busy people. It also contributes to having way more stuff than you actually need.
Keeping A Wine Journal. When I quit my job and started freelancing, and actually for a little while before, I was writing about wine. And I started methodically tracking the wines I drank and taking notes and tasting. But you know what? I don’t write about wine anymore. And that feels like work. And it takes FOREVER. I don’t do it anymore. But Jesus, was that hard. Like really hard. Sometimes we do things simply because we’ve done them for a while. Assess the things you do and see what can go.
Drying My Hair. I used to not use a blow dryer between about May and October. I’d shower after dinner and my hair would be dry by the time I went to bed. Now I don’t ever blow dry my hair. That’s a lie. I blow it out if I am going somewhere. I have a LOT of hair. It’s not thick but there is so much and it takes FOREVER to dry. So on a typical day I put a little product in it so my curls don’t go crazy or I just let it go and then braid my bangs. Sure, I work remotely and I don’t have to worry about my hair looking spectacular every day but there are plenty of hairstyles that work without a ton of time spent on it. And, just to be clear, I love hair/makeup/beauty. But if I’m not leaving the house it’s time better spent writing.
I started this year with a spreadsheet. It’s nice because I have it in google drive which means I can access it virtually anywhere. It has a tab for each month, a brain dump tab, my running word count recorder and my 100 rejections goal. it’s great. Clean and easy and it doesn’t the math for me. I can’t count past 4 so this is a serious perk.
But there are some downsides. First, it requires picking up my phone or computer. And those things hold a lot of distractions so if I’m not in the right mindset to begin with I can quickly get led down the path to Wikipedia death spiraling and Buzzfeed articles challenging me to read a list without spending $20. There’s also something about analog that just seems to engage my brain.
Scrap Paper Lists
Whether an envelope or a form letter, there are always scraps of paper lying around. Even in a house like mine where I stand over the recycling bin with the mail. These are great because they are accessible, small, and I feel better about using them.
The number one downside is what to do with them. Like if I’m making a list and I come up with something brilliant, what do I do with it then? Type it? That’s kind of a waste of time and this is all about getting my time back.
The Life In A Notebook
For years I carried a small, blank page, fat, spiral, short sketchbook and just wrote shit down. Everything. If it was important I folded the page over. I also carried a planner for the calendar. People ALWAYS give me notebooks so I would just fill one and then be done with it.
The problem with this is that it is inconvenient to carry two notebooks. Although sometimes it’s worth it. Like…
Yeah. So I swore I would not give in to the hype but I have and I am totally, totally hooked. I have one for life/work and then a separate one for writing. I can write about everything in it from ideas to goals, I track my word count and the projects I’m engaged in. I keep the index up to date so things are easy to find. I’m sort of tempted to move to just one but I feel like having a dedicated space for writing is really important. So far? Not a single downside to this system. Not one. I’ll keep you posted as it goes.
At the end of the day, with some time devoted to really assessing what you’re doing you literally can have all the time you want to write in the world. Yes, my schedule is a little more in line with this because it doesn’t involve kids or commuting but my job does keep me pretty damn busy (especially on Mondays and Wednesdays) and I’m still writing. You’ve just got to get to the point where you are ready to decide what can wait and be done as a reward and what can go completely. Then you’ll start building a writing practice that works for you. And when I say works for you I can’t even tell you on how many levels.