Working with Time I Actually Have, Not the Time I’d Like To Have

It’s seven fifteen in the morning and I’m in the Wintergarden food-court, writing. My phone is counting down the minutes, my pomodoro app ticking softly to mark each passing second. I’m seated amid the empty tables, notebooks splayed out in front of me. There is weirdness on the walls, interior design done with light and shadow instead of wallpaper or paint.

In an hour and a half, I head off to the day job. There are one hour and fifteen minutes of usable writing time between now and then, and I’ve got a list of things that need to get done today.

  1. A) This blog post.
  2. B) The next scene in my current work in progress.

In the five minutes between writing bursts, I get to tweet or check Facebook or contemplate this question: what is the best use of my writing time right now? What is the opportunity cost of focusing on A, instead of B?

HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU REALLY HAVE FOR WRITING EACH WEEK?

There is a recurring obsession with time, when it comes to writing advice. You hear it over and over: set down an hour a day and write, guard it like a lioness protecting her cubs. Treat your writing time as sacred, and turn off the internet while you work.

It’s a useful starting point, but it has its limitations. For one thing, it’s focused on the act of writing, not the business of maintaining a writing career.

For another thing, if you’re the kind of person who wants to write for a living, that one hour a day probably isn’t going to build your career as fast as you’d like.

Because writing isn’t just writing, after a certain point – it’s redrafting and dealing with edits on your work; it’s running correspondence and dealing with the minutia of a small business; it’s tracking deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects that people ask you to get involved in. It’s teaching classes or doing talks, writing guest posts and doing promotion for your work. Networking and being a good part of your peer community.

And if you practice that one-hour-a-day-is-sacred by rote, you can lose track of the lesson it’s trying to teach you – your time is a resource. It needs to be deployed wisely.

I am not wise with my time. Not the way I should be.

I did some calculations, a few weeks back, which brought this realisation home. When I put my writing plans together, I look at time as an abundant resource. There is always time there, and I can always find more if I need it.

It’s not hard to see how this got started: I work part-time. I have two dedicated write clubs every week. I have weekends I can fill with words, if I’m so inclined. I have hours and hours and hours, if I need them.

Which means, of course, I don’t use much time at all, because everything can be deferred until later if it has to be. There is always time tomorrow. I can always do better, if I didn’t get enough done today.

I tend to think and plan my writing projects aspirationally, rather than realistically

I also have nine months of data about my writing habits. Weeks and weeks of information tracked through rescue time, plus a whole stack of handwritten notes recorded in my bullet journal. Those informed me that my writing time was no-where near as abundant as I thought, and identified the blind spots where I’m losing hours.

So I sat down and looked at the hours I spend working every week. Not just the total, but the quantity of time spent doing each individual thing.

Then I looked at my weekly schedule and asked the hard question: if I treated time as a finite resource, how much time could I realistically devote to my whole writing career week to week?

How much time did I really have for writing, in order to get things done?

The answer was 21 hours, assuming I paid attention and monitored my time.

And when I looked at my to-do list, I was trying to cram way more work than that into the week to come. I approached my schedule aspirationally. I planned for the time I thought I had, rather than the reality in front of me.

ASPIRATIONAL THINKING IS A PROBLEM

When thinking aspirationally about your time, there’s no concession to the realities of living your life.

In my aspirational schedule of what might happen in the coming week, there’s never a bad day or a knotty problem with a project that takes longer to sort out than I think; there’s never a night when I go hit the movies or catch up with friends; there’s no weekend where I flake out and watch wrestling, because my sleep is disrupted and wrestling is my escape. I am always writing, always moving forward, doing the next thing.

When you’re thinking aspirationally, like your time is abundant, It’s easy to give up time now, because I will be perfect tomorrow.

In my aspirational schedule I never really need to clean the house or do laundry or wash the dishes. I certainly never need to iron, which is a chore that catches me off-guard ever week now that I have do it again.

In my aspirational schedule, I can chase down every possible project and do everything I want. And I am perpetually feeling lie there’s something left undone, and everything I do is making me fall behind.

REAL HOURS

Here’s how I came up with the 21 hours for writing jobs.

In real terms, there are only 168 hours in a week. 56 of them are spent asleep, since sleep is no longer negotiable for me. If I miss a few hours, I pay for it, and I’ll lose more writing time than I gain by staying up late.

Bad things happen to my brain chemistry when I don’t sleep enough – both RescueTime and my Bullet Journal showed that – and nothing will cause aspirational time to become wasted time faster than depression. My ability to make smart choices is basically gone.

So, we’re down to 112 hours. Now 21.45 of those are spent at the day job. 14, more or less, are spent getting ready for the day or for bed, showering and shaving or getting where I need to go. 7 hours are spent reading every night, before I go to sleep, which could be qualified as a “writing” job, but has more to do with good sleep habits than anything else.

That’s over half my weekly allotment of hours gone before I pick up a pen, and none of it can be cannibalised to get some extra writing time.

Spending time with my family? 4 hours a week, on average. Catching up with friends? 6 hours or so, depending on how write club breaks down and whether I’m meeting to catch up. Watching movies or TV? Lets call it 3 hours, if I’m paying attention to the way I use time. A whole weekend, if I’m not and I just let Netflix autoplay.

Now I’m willing to give some of those things – I don’t need to jam two days of Netflix into my week all that often – but a lot of it isn’t something I want to give up. My parents are getting older and my dad isn’t well, so the time I spend with the family means a lot right now. Hanging out with friends is a necessary thing, right up there with getting enough sleep every night, if I want to remain on an even keel.

When I start with that 168 hours and start taking out all the stuff that needs to be done, that large expanse of aspirational time looks considerably smaller. And so, I end up with:

21 HOURS

That’s it. 21 hours for all the tasks associated with my writing career, while still having sufficient time to clean and bathe and work and see other people. 21 hours, and that largely means working seven days a week and aggressively searching out writing time.

Here’s the other problem with aspirational thinking: it doesn’t take into account everything that needs to happen within those 21 hours. In my head, if I don’t think about it, that’s twenty one hours of pure writing time. It doesn’t take into account the redrafting and dealing with edits; the correspondence and the minutia of running a small business; the tracking of deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects.

If someone asks, are you available to do this, my first response is to say yes and assume there is time to get things done.

When you approach your business like that, 21 hours disappears incredibly quickly.

Let’s be clear: that 21 hours is a privilege, and it add up to a hell of a lot over the course of a year. But getting those 21 hours means staying on top of things. Even with four days a week at home, it means aggressively clearing space in my schedule. It means getting up at 6 AM and jamming an hour of half of writing at the food court before I head to the day-job. It means hammering out some seven-hour writing days on Saturday, if I want a half-day off on Sunday to do lunch with friends.

You can’t do that if you’re not paying attention to the hours you’ve got, always thinking about what you might be able to do in a week if you really had too.

And this is where I’m now: 21 hours is the realistic hours I can devote to my writing career each week. Not just the writing – the whole damn career. It was a sobering thing to realise, because it meant figuring out the best ways to use it and giving up what might be possible and focusing on what usually is. When I look at a goal that I’ve blithely put down, say finish a novel by the end of the year or write five blog posts a week, there is context around how those things get done.

And there is context around the things that need to get cut.

When you focus on how much time you’ve got, you start paying more attention to how it gets filled. Drafting five scenes on my work in progress, moving the rough draft forward? That’s a good 10 hours of time every week, just for a crappy zero-draft.

Plotting out new scenes? Two hours a week to come up with a sequence of five or six scenes, then sketching it out well enough to write it when the time comes.

Redrafting and making scenes that don’t suck? Another seven hours or so, and that’ll move at a slower pace than the handwritten drafts. Email? An hour a week, just to stay on top of things. A relatively straightforward blog post like this? About two hours, all up, from draft to redraft to posting it online.

Spending a few hours setting this up and tracking it has proven to be a real useful thing for me. Nothing about time sits in the realm of abundance anymore. Anything I do gets balanced against the things that won’t get done as a result.

Is my desire to blog six times a week worth the nine hours of writing time? Do I want to devote more than one-third of my productive time to blogging, or would I be better served writing stories or working on the novel?

It isn’t always fun. Working with real hours makes it easy to see where the focus should go, but damn, it still hurts to do it. Because it means giving up things that feel a lot like work, simply because there’s not enough time to do those and get the things that need to happen done.

But what it gets me is well and truly worth it. Being honest about my time is incredibly hard, but I can prioritise the things that need to get done and distribute my hours accordingly. I can devote two thirds of my weekly hours to writing and rewriting, distribute the rest as necessary for the tasks that are more about maintaining the career rather than moving it forward.

More importantly, when those 21 hours are done, I ca be confident that I’ve done enough. I can fuck off and enjoy wrestling or a movie or hanging out with my family, certain that I am there rather than feeling haunted by the things that probably aren’t getting done.

Tracking the 21 hours, making decisions about how they’re used, means being aware of the fundamental truth of writing in the age of the internet: things take the time they take. You have to pick the things that are most important and give them the lion’s share of your attention and your time.

  3 comments for “Working with Time I Actually Have, Not the Time I’d Like To Have

  1. Kate
    12/10/2016 at 8:32 AM

    I love this blog post more than I can articulate. I have also been obsessing over time, especially since our charming but irrepressible newborn grew into a charming but irrepressible toddler. I used to have jobs that I treated a bit like caring for an infant – that is to say, I ran organisations to which I gave the lions share of my attention at all times, I thought about them constantly, I prioritised them above other things in my life (especially my own writing), when they needed something urgently I dropped everything to make it happen, they caused much anxiety and constant lack of sleep. But despite all that I still essentially had the power of choice. I could, if I wished, choose to get up earlier or stay awake later. I could choose to work less and write more. I could choose to say no to a weekend workshop or an industry event. The thing that’s immoveable and non-negotiable in my new reality is that these choices really don’t exist, and probably won’t for a long time to come. There is something in our lives that is the first and major priority and she doesn’t observe routines. She gets sick when she gets sick, which is often. She wakes up when she wakes. She brings us a book to read and we put down whatever else we are doing and read it together. She takes 10 minutes to eat lunch or she takes 30 minutes. She has one nap or two or none at all. There are a few things that we set our clocks by – pick up time from daycare, dinner time, bath time, but most other things are constantly changing from week to week, day to day, and even still hour to hour. Planning ahead is paradoxically both essential and also, in most instances, completely meaningless. So I’ve been pondering how to think and act in relation to my writing in this new context. For instance, I recently signed up for NanoWriMo. Just this last weekend I did a word count planner for myself and realised that the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days is all but impossible. That’s okay, I’ll still do the challenge, as for me at this time, simply writing something new of any size is a big win. But it also means that I think about units of time differently. For convenience, I guess many people use an hour as a standard unit of time. An hour for a work meeting. An hour for lunch. An hour for exercise. I have started to think about time in about 10 minute blocks (and even that is a bit luxurious in a lot of instances, but it seems like a unit of time in which tasks can still be completed) I can write a paragraph in 10 minutes, sometimes several. I can block out a scene. I can make or revise a task list. I can eat a meal. I can take a stretch-and-think break. It still means that my active writing time is reduced to an hour or less a day, but the idea of trying to find an hour of time all in one neat block in every day is frankly unrealistic, but several 10 minute blocks? Yes, I can do that, if I am prepared to keep my notebook with me at all times, to sit in the car and write for 10 minutes before I pick up the toddler or while she naps a little longer in her carseat, or in a short break between meetings at work or in my lunch break, or after she’s gone to sleep but before I’m too tired to do anything but stare at the TV or go to bed. I won’t say it takes discipline, because that seems like the wrong word, but it takes mindfulness and commitment and a lot of flexibility. That means a completely different approach to writing than I’ve had before. I’m still learning.

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