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May 9, 2012
About every two years, I get a wake-up call when some form of exhaustion sets in. Without noticing, I have fudged on bedtimes, let boundaries be way too flexible, or simply taken on more than I should have.
Time to Re-Group
Then I have to sit down and play the game called ”Where’d My Time Go?” Usually I find that other people’s expectations have taken over my writing time. Nearly always I was at fault. I offered to do something I didn’t really have time for, or said “No problem!” when I should have said, “Sorry, I just can’t.”
My schedule is under control again, but I’d like to step out of this cycle once and for all. The best way I’ve found to save my writing time is to set policies. Remember, you’re the boss in your office! You have the authority to set whatever policies you need.
After you’ve spotted some of your weakest areas, develop policies to cover future requests. For some reason, stating that you have a “policy” about certain things carries more weight with people. Very few people argue when you have a “policy.”
Target the areas where you have the most trouble setting–and enforcing–boundaries. It might have to do with overtime on your day job, expectations from the neighbors, or any organization where you volunteer.
Some “company policies” might include:
- I have a policy about home business parties. I don’t attend them, and I don’t give them.
- I have a policy of not returning phone calls until the noon hour.
- I have a policy that says I don’t make doctors’ or dental appointments until after 3 p.m.
- I have a policy that includes no drop-in baby-sitting. I need a minimum of 48 hours notice.
- My policy states that I don’t commit to any event more than (X) months away. (Fill in your personal limit.)
- I choose to help with one party each year at my child’s school. That’s my class contribution, so what party would you like me to help with?
- My policy states that I charge $5 for each ten minutes that parents are late picking up their kids from my day care.
Sometimes our commitments get out of hand because we want to do such an excellent job everywhere. So learn to under-promise, and later you can over-deliver if you have extra time.
For example, instead of volunteering to help at school the entire day, say you can come and read for one hour. If it turns out that you have extra time when the day rolls around, you can use the time to write or you can “over-deliver” on your promise and stay two hours. You’ll earn a reputation as someone who delivers even more than promised—and yet you’ll have saved time for yourself.
Time Credit Cards
Some of us (I’m guilty!) promise to do things months and months in advance when our calendars are still pristine white. Then six months later, when the event rolls around, our calendars are more jammed than we had anticipated; we regret that we ever agreed to that event or favor that really isn’t that important.
Too often we commit future time that we believe we’ll have, only to be caught up short later (like a credit card junkie who charges now and is just sure he’ll have the cash to pay it off later.)
Stop charging your time ahead! Cut up your time credit cards. Pay off whatever “time debt” you’ve accumulated at this point, but don’t charge anymore.
If people want you to commit to some volunteer thing more than a month away, simply say, “I have a policy that I don’t commit to things so far ahead. If you want to call me back in (X) months, I will be able to give you an answer then.” At that point, you’ll have a realistic idea of what your month’s schedule looks like.
If you are pressed for an answer (“I need to know now!”), then regretfully tell people that the answer will have to be “no.” (Given that choice, people will usually wait.)
E-mail, Social Networking, and Web Surfing
Limit your Internet time to two periods per day, before and after your writing. Keep it short. Answer crucial e-mail, but skip all the forwarded jokes and poignant stories till later. Unsubscribe from all but the best two or three e-newsletters you receive. Delete the junk without reading it. Check the social networking sites you use for marketing, and then close down. According to current workplace statistics, conquering e-mail/surfing/Facebook addiction can save you a full two or three hours per day.
Assignment: Where is your time going? Do you know? Keep track for a few weeks and be sure. Then begin to implement whatever policies you need in order to safeguard your time.
Write your company policies down and review them daily. As you use these policies, they will become second nature. Just remember that nature abhors a vacuum. Be ready to fill your new-found time with activities that can further your writing career.
***Speaking of furthering your writing career, in response to several emails, I’ve updated my critique service page. I am now reserving spots for July, August, and September. Just FYI!
March 7, 2012
The following statement got my attention:
“There is one discipline that stands above all else in the quest for writing success… It is the single biggest reason I was published in the first place, and have produced the books I have. It is, simply, this:
WRITE A QUOTA OF WORDS EVERY WEEK
The daily recording of the number of words you write is an invaluable incentive to get your work done. But set your goals on a weekly basis…If something comes up on one day that prevents you from writing your quota, you just make it up later in the week.”
Quota of Words Written or Hours Written?
I love the idea of setting a quota. However, the quota of “words written” only works for me for rough drafts, when you’re pulling words out of thin air and creating new pages of your novel. So little time, though, is spent writing that first draft.
Before that come hours of planning and writing character sketches and researching settings. After the rough draft stage, there are months of revision. Some days you might proofread five whole chapters. Other days, your entire writing day might be spent figuring out what’s wrong with your first chapter. Several more days might be needed to fix it. How many words would that be?
For those reasons, I like a quota of hours spent writing (instead of words written). My only restriction is that the time must be spent on my current work-in-progress. Not blogging, or reading writer websites, or Twittering, or being on Facebook, or answering email, or anything except working directing on the new book.
Nuts and Bolts of Setting Quotas
If you try setting a quota, keep track of time using a timer. I use a kitchen timer, but you can use one on your computer. When I am ready to actually start work, I hit the “start” button. I turn off the timer if I get up for a drink of water or to answer the phone. I only log in the minutes actually spent working. Each time I write sixty minutes, I log in another hour in my little notebook.
My quota right now is to average four hours per day, five days per week. That’s a quota of twenty hours per week. If I don’t get it done M-F, I make up for it on the weekend. (Last weekend we had a packed schedule that included much driving, so I finished my quota for the week in the car. The day I watch my baby granddaughter, I write before she gets up, when she plays, while she naps, and later that night.)
Do I always make the twenty hours quota? No, but I get close, and sometimes I go over. But the increase in writing hours is what amazes me. Before I decided to do a quota system, I was writing as much as I could (I thought). I worked around interruptions and marketing and babysitting and volunteer work, always believing that the writing was the most important thing.
But how much writing was I actually getting done? Maybe four or five hours per week. That’s right–per week. No wonder I was so frustrated!
Prioritizing Made Easier
With the quota system, knowing that it’s Thursday and you still have a lot of hours to work before you make your weekly quota helps you say “no” to a lot of other things that tempt you. It helps you get started earlier. It’s fun to mark off the hours and add them up in your notebook. It helps me not get behind earlier in the week too, as I don’t like working through the weekend.
But mostly, at the end of the week now, I love seeing how much progress I’ve made on a novel. I like how the book lives on in my mind after I finish for the day. Because I am finally spending enough actual time writing again, ideas and solutions routinely come to mind when away from my desk.
Set a Reasonable Quota
If you have a day job and/or have small children around every day, don’t copy my quota numbers. Be realistic about how much time you can set as a weekly quota. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
On the other hand, don’t aim too low either. You can write before kids get up, during naps, after they go to bed, while cooking supper, on lunch hours at the office, sitting in a car in the parking lot, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in bleachers…wherever and whenever. I know because I’ve done it. Push yourself to claim time for writing that maybe now you are wasting.
Your quota is personal to you, based on your unique circumstances. Don’t compare your quota to anyone else’s.
Commit to It
Your quota won’t help unless you make a commitment to doing it. If you need someone to hold you accountable for your weekly quota, find someone.
Reward yourself for the weeks you make your quota–which will be more often than not. Reward yourself on any given day that you meet your daily quota as well.
The more I read about successful writers with busy lives, the more I run into this idea of the weekly quota. It’s a tried-and-true strategy. It’s worth trying!
December 5, 2011
Writing requires energy. Life requires energy! What fuel are you running on?
Many people these days are frantically running from place to place, working too many hours, volunteering for too many projects, working nights and weekends (partly) because of a need for approval.
They are fueled by sugar, caffeine, cigarettes and adrenaline to keep going. You might get more done short-term this way, but if this is your fuel, you’re injuring your health in the long run.
Last week in the online retreat workshop, we talked about “destressing the writing life.” Before we can do much, we have to destress life in general, I think.
I don’t need to tell you that we live “on alert” these days. We are bombarded from so many information sources. We allow ourselves to be at the beck and call of anyone who rings our cell phone or shoots us an email. Adrenaline is used like a drug, pushing tired bodies to work faster and harder. The end result is a crash-and-burn depletion of your reserves.
Go Against the Flow
Do you want to have a long-term writing life? Do you want to have enough energy to write longer than a 30-day NaNoWriMo stint? Then while you still have time–while you still have your health–I urge you to develop a counter-cultural lifestyle. Look at your life now. Make a list of the things that have stressed you out this past week.
No groceries in the cupboard because a meeting ran late and you couldn’t stop at the store? Phone call from a teacher saying little Johnny forgot his required permission slip for the day’s field trip? A bounced check? Having to work late at night while everyone else is sleeping, just to keep life from derailing?
All of these things make us run on adrenaline that wears down our bodies. And much as we might argue otherwise, all of these things are preventable.
Replace the Old with the New
Habits that cause you to run on adrenaline are habits that need to be replaced. I can’t tell you which habits you need to exchange, but I can share some of mine.
For one thing, I’ve noticed that for six months, I’ve arrived places out of breath and a little bit late, and I go tearing into meetings or classes after the program has begun. So embarrassing. I sweat it on the way to the meeting, and backed-up traffic skyrockets my blood pressure. I hate to waste time, so I hate arriving somewhere early and waiting. Solution? To avoid the adrenaline rush, I plan to leave early enough to arrive early, but take work or a book along, stay in the parking lot and write or read, then walk in calmly ten minutes before the class starts.
I have also noticed that the days I DON’T run on adrenaline are the days I start with exercise and devotional reading and prayer. And yet, too many times lately, I’ve awakened feeling energetic, considered the two hours I’d lose if I stuck to my exercise/relaxation regimen, and jumped into work instead. Make hay while the sun shines, right? Mostly, I’ve made headaches and a sore back and neck. I need to remember that my health regimen actually saves me time in the long run. And I run those days, not on adrenaline, but on healthy energy supplies.
I am going to set a boundary on working in the evenings. I couldn’t see what difference it would make if, while watching a good movie with my husband or chatting, I also answered some email questions and deleted hundreds of blog spam and updated my websites. Most of it was “no think” activity, so what did it harm? A lot, I think now. My mind won’t shut off when I shut off the computer to go to bed. My neck and back hurt terribly by then. And I feel disgruntled, like I haven’t had any free time at all that day.
We must convince ourselves that it’s not selfish to slow down and live at a sane pace, to build in a buffer zone or margin around activities so you can make a slow, smooth transition from one thing to another. What’s that old saying? “We’re supposed to be human beings, not human doings.”
It’s Up to You
No one can make the change for you. And frankly, many people in your life who are used to calling the shots and like all the work you accomplish won’t help you make changes. But make them you must. If you want to have a decent quality of life, you’ll have to step outside this current “hurry frantically” electronic culture of ours, and figure out what works for YOU to have a saner, happier life.
Take this month when you have some slower time (even if it’s only when waiting in line to mail packages) and think about how you want 2012 to be different. Wishing won’t make it so–but putting a stop to certain behaviors and starting other healthier habits, can.
Running on premium fuel instead of adrenaline will make you more productive, less stressed, and be better for your health. Saner writers are happier, more productive writers. And doesn’t that sound appealing?
October 31, 2011
With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, I’ve been getting organized and ready. But I know from past experience that all the organizing in the world won’t do any good without the writing habits to back it up.
Did you ever wish you could magically transfer some good habits from one area of your life and apply them to your writing? You probably can!
“But I don’t have self-discipline in anything!” you might say. You may feel that way, but it’s probably not true. Don’t believe me? Think about something you’re especially good at. (Can be anything: running races, keeping a clean house, raising children who like vegetables, keeping your weight stable through the holidays…anything.) Next, write down five or six habits you practice regularly that make you successful in this area.
Analyze Your Best Habits
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, I was a good student” or “I learned to play the piano,” but you’re not sure what habits made you successful. If that’s the case, pretend that someone approached you and said, “I’d love to be as self-disciplined as you are with your (fitness, music, housekeeping, whatever). Tell me how you do it!”
Then make a list of what you’d tell them to do. Which of those habits can you transfer over to your writing life and make them work for you?
The habits that help you lose weight or be fit or run a business might include:
- having a support system
- keeping a written record (of food eaten, miles run, income/expenses)
- setting small, sustainable goals
- rewarding yourself for meeting small goals
- journaling through successes and failures
- monitoring self-talk to counter-act negative thoughts and beliefs
Borrow Those Habits for Your Writing Habits
The next time you can’t seem to make yourself write or blog or do market research (or whatever is on your “to do” list for the writing day), think about areas where you are successful. Borrow those habits–they’re habits you already have under your belt in one area–and simply apply them to your writing.
Does having a support group help you lose weight? Then maybe a support/critique group would help you be accountable for your writing. Does keeping written records help you balance your budget? Then maybe keeping records of pages or words written and marketing progress would help your writing. Did setting small daily goals with a reward at the end help you get your closets and garage clean? Then would setting small daily goals with rewards help you get your book written?
Whichever habits work for you and your personality would probably transfer well into good writing habits. For me, I don’t need the accountability of a group. I’m a good self-starter and a hard worker. But I’m also that proverbial donkey with a carrot. I get going much quicker and work with more enthusiasm when I have a reward at the end of the task!
Writing Habits: Build on Your Past Successes
Good habits free up our time and attention so we can focus on more important things than overcoming procrastination. Chances are very good that you have had success in at least one or two other areas of your life. Take time to analyze those habits that work for your particular personality–and try applying them to your writing life.
I intend to make a list today and post it on my computer. I intend to use every trick I know to write through National Novel Writing Month!
October 21, 2011
I love routines! It streamlines the daily business of life and lets me get more done. I have some habits (like how I brush teeth or do dishes) that haven’t changed in years–maybe decades. They work efficiently.
Writers have habits too, and I think that’s a good thing. It streamlines daily chores like email, website updating, reading professional journals and blogs, and other writing-related chores.
BUT…routines can become ruts without anyone noticing.
Habits: A Slippery Slope
You may suspect your routines have become ruts if you are more bored than inspired when you sit down to write. When all your writing has the same tired voice, when you continually repeat subjects and themes–it may be a sign that your writing routines have become ruts.
So how do you break out of ruts? Try making changes in some of these areas:
- Writing area: choose another place to write, change the furniture around in your office, move your desk to the window, clean up the clutter, make a traveling writer’s bag for the airplane or car
- Time: even if you’re a morning person, try writing during the lunch hour or in ten-minute segments every hour on the hour; try a Saturday morning
- Length of session: experiment with writing daily for short periods, writing daily for longer periods, writing just on the weekend
- Tools of your trade: experiment with writing longhand, writing on a laptop, using online journals, Internet vs. library research
- Sound: if you’re used to writing in total silence, try background music you love or a white noise machine (mine makes raindrops and ocean wave sounds)
- People: if you always write alone, try writing with a group or joining a critique group (in person or online)
- Body position: try writing at your desk, standing up, lying in bed or a lounge chair, curled up in the porch swing
Mix It Up
If you’ve lost some enthusiasm for your writing, it may be nothing more than you’ve allowed your routines to become boring ruts. Try mixing it up a bit. Choose another time, place, and position to write. Change your environment with new sounds or new people. See what that does to your creativity.
What about you? What writing habits will you always keep–and where do you like to make changes? Let’s share ideas!
October 14, 2011
As a writer, don’t ever under-estimate the power of self-discipline. Talent, passion, and discipline are needed–but the greatest of these is discipline.
Best-selling author Elizabeth George speaks to this point on the first day she faces her students in her creative writing classes. Study this quote from her book, Write Away–and read through to the zinger at the end.
“You will be published if you possess three qualities–talent, passion, and discipline.
You will probably be published if you possess two of the three qualities in either combination–either talent and discipline, or passion and discipline.
You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion, but still have discipline. Just go the bookstore and pick up a few ‘notable’ titles and you’ll see what I mean.
But if all you possess is talent or passion, if all you possess is talent and passion, you will not be published. The likelihood is you will never be published. And if by some miracle you are published, it will probably never happen again.”
This is great news for all writers, I believe. We worry sometimes that we don’t have enough talent, that we have nothing original to say, that our voices won’t attract today’s readers. But as Ms. George says above–and after writing and teaching for thirty years, I totally agree–discipline is what will make you or break you as a writer.
Why is this good news? Because self-discipline can be mastered, bit by bit, day by day, until it’s a habit. Talent is a gift over which we have no control, and passion comes and goes with our feelings and circumstances. But your necessary ingredient to success–discipline–can belong to anyone.
Do whatever you have to do to develop the writing habit. Let that be your focus, and see if the writing–and publishing–doesn’t take care of itself!
September 26, 2011
I was wrong–again.
For twenty years, I’ve told students and wannabe writers that you have to put the writing first! Do it before other things take over your day.
Fight the impulse to clean your kitchen first, or straighten your office, or clean up the mess the kids made before leaving for school.
“But I can’t work in chaos,” writers protest.
You know what? Neither can I anymore–at least not well! And when I force myself to, the work is doubly tiring. Doubly stressful. Much less satisfying.
Energy Drains in Disguise
Something I read today made me realize my advice might be a tad off. Not wrong altogether, since if we don’t make writing some sort of priority, we won’t do it. However, to eliminate energy drains in your life, you need to look at the whole picture. Certainly all the things you do in a given day take your energy. Every action you take on your lengthy “to do” list uses energy.
What you may not realize is that actions you don’t take use energy as well. Your disorganized office, the piles of laundry on the bedroom floor, the stack of bills to pay, the two birthday gifts to buy, the clothing needing repair–all this drains your energy reserves as well. It happens whether you are looking at the unfinished business or just thinking about it.
It siphons off energy that could be used in a much more positive way. “These items on your mental ‘to do’ list, the ones you’ve been procrastinating about, distract you or make you feel guilty and drain the very energy you need to accomplish your goals.” (So says Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life.)
NOT an Excuse to Procrastinate
Taking care of the unfinished business that nags at your mind–and keeps you from feeling like you can settle down to write–may be necessary before you can tackle your writing assignment. Don’t go overboard though, or you’re just procrastinating. Washing the dirty dishes is one thing–taking time to replace the shelf paper in your pantry is something else.
Figure out the things that you MUST have done to feel at peace in your environment, and do those things ONLY. (It helps to do as many of them as you can the night before too.)
Eliminate the chaos in your environment, and you’ll eliminate a LOT of the chaos that blocks your writer’s mind. Now…off to clean my office.
September 12, 2011
Writers are opinionated people.
Our brains never seem to stop. We criticize because we “know” how things and people should be. This “critical editor component” of our personality is absolutely invaluable to the editing and revision process. If you can’t spot what’s wrong with a manuscript, you can’t fix it.
However, this same critical ability can cause writers to actually lose focus, allowing their writing hours to slip away with little or no work done.
Think About It
Many of us go through our daily lives with our internal critic or editor in charge. We don’t see the person right in front of us as he or she is (which may be perfectly fine.) Instead, that person reminds us of an ex-spouse, and we “see” characteristics that aren’t there. Stress!
Conversely, we think the person in front of us is “supposed” to be kind and supportive (our inner definition of parent/spouse/child/sibling). And yet many such relationships are anything but, leaving us hurt and upset because they should be supportive. More stress! Life rarely satisfies a person who lets the “shoulds” run his life.
Do we spend our time “shoulding”? We don’t see a child who is happily singing at the top of her voice. (That child should be more quiet in the store!) We don’t see an interesting shade of purple hair. (That teenager should resemble a miniature adult instead.) We don’t see the predator or user sometimes either–because trusted family members shouldn’t be such things. Our “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” color everything we observe.
Change Your Perspective
Our inner editor sometimes keeps us from seeing what’s in front of us. We are constantly “revising” the facts. So what’s the problem with that? You can’t accept–and get peace about–what you can’t honestly see or face. You stay stirred up–a condition rarely suited to being creative. Sometimes the simplest solutions evade us because we’re all riled up inside.
It reminds me of a story (you may also be familiar with) about “The River and the Lion: After the great rains, the lion was faced with crossing the river that had encircled him. Swimming was not in his nature, but it was either cross or die. The lion roared and charged at the river, almost drowning before he retreated. Many more times he attacked the water, and each time he failed to cross. Exhausted, the lion lay down, and in his quietness he heard the river say, “Never fight what isn’t here.”
Cautiously, the lion looked up and asked, “What isn’t here?”
“Your enemy isn’t here,” answered the river. “Just as you are a lion, I am merely a river.”
Now the lion sat very still and studied the ways of the river. After a while, he walked to where a certain current brushed against the shore, and stepping in, floated to the other side.
Control What You Can: Yourself
We also can’t gain peace of mind and the ability to focus unless we’re willing to give up trying to control everyone and everything in our environment. We spend entire days fuming and fretting over situations or people we can’t change or control, wasting precious writing and study time.
We need to save our judging skills for revision time and critiquing. We need to save our control freak behaviors for finagling with our characters’ actions. And you may as well give up having to convince people you’re right, while you’re at it. Letting go of those three things (judging, controlling, being right) will give you more inner peace faster than hours of yoga and meditation and mind-altering substances.
Start Right Here, Right Now
Think about something that is currently keeping your mind in knots to the point that you can barely write. I will bet that you are judging someone’s behavior, or trying to figure out how to control a situation, or having mental conversations in which you prove to that stubborn person how right you are. (I know this from personal experience in case you think I’ve been reading your mail.)
Letting go of criticism and control is freedom. For the writer, it means hours and hours are freed up for reading and writing. Just for today, let grown people and situations be what they are. Let them work on solutions for their own problems–or not. Turn all that “should” energy on your own work.
At the end of day, you’ll have something great to show for it!
August 26, 2011
I laughed out loud when I read the quote below–mostly because it describes me so well. How about you?
“You have your day scheduled out, given over to the expectations of others. You brace yourself for what’s ahead. Then you get a call. The day is cancelled; everyone who needed you is down with a three-day virus. Is there anything more delicious? You know what I’m talking about. We don’t like others to be sick, but we love others to cancel. We become giddy at the prospect of ‘found’ time–time without plans or expectations. Time to think.”
This is from a book called Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D. She is great at defining introverts.
Contrary to what you might have heard, introverts are not geeky, shy wallflowers, or antisocial. We’re introverts (by definition) because we “recharge our batteries” in solitude or in quiet one-on-one conversations, while extroverts can get recharged in noisy party-type settings with lots of people.
Introverts are not a minority–we’re just quieter than noisy extroverts. A recent large study showed that introverts comprise 57% of the population. That was a surprise to me. I always felt like I didn’t fit in with the masses. As it turns out, introverts are the masses!
I suspect that many writers are introverts. Otherwise, we might not enjoy spending so much time alone writing. And it would explain why our favorite thing to do is read and our favorite places are libraries and bookstores.
Much of the book is about celebrating being an introvert, and then using your introvert traits to thrive in an extrovert country. (Americans prize being extroverts, whereas the Japanese prize being introverts.)
How About You?
Are you an introvert? Will you admit it? (This sounds like Introverts Anonymous: “Hello. My name is Kristi, and I’m an introvert.”) If you think you are, what’s hard for you being an introvert in an extrovert world?
August 8, 2011
In the August edition of Randy Ingermanson’s free (wonderfully helpful) newsletter, there was a link to a free e-book describing a new time management system Randy is using. (For back issues of Randy’s newsletter, go here.)
Since “free” is one of my favorite words, and I’m always looking for ways to manage my time better, I downloaded it to skim.
Skimming quickly turned to reading carefully, and soon I’d read the whole 57-page e-book by Jim Stone called Clear Mind, Effective Action. It deals with the subject of “fractal planning.” Fractal has to do with breaking something large into smaller parts. (You can get the free e-book here.)
In some ways fractal planning is unique, and some parts are a combination of the best time management ideas from the past twenty years.
In the free e-book, the author explains how to implement his system on your own (on paper or spreadsheet or Word document), if you don’t want to subscribe to his service. (I’m using a Word doc–for now–to see how it goes. I have to admit that–so far–it has boosted my productivity and ability to focus significantly.) If you’d like to go directly to the Fractal Planner page and check out the features, you can do that here.
If you try the fractal planner or read the e-book, let me know. I’d like to hear about your experiences–plus or minus–if you try it out.« Older Posts — Newer Posts »