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Monday, November 20, 2017

How to Write When You Don't Have Time



I might be losing my mind a little bit, but I swear someone asked me how to write when they don't have time, but now I can't locate the question in my inboxes or messages, but I thought I'd address it just in case someone actually did ask me this question.

First off, let me start by saying, I may not be the best person to answer this. I'm not married, don't have kids, and I work in the writing industry. So if anyone reading this has their own expertise to add to this post, please leave a comment for others.

Before getting too far into this topic, I want to acknowledge that some people may be dealing with a lot of life challenges at the moment, with serious health problems, being a caretaker for a loved one, serious financial problems, and unforeseen life crises, and may be legitimately unable to work on their writing because they ran out of today's time yesterday and their physical and mental stamina ran out before they got out of bed this morning. If you find yourself in such a category, don't fret. Life happens. It won't be this crazy forever.

But for the average person who has at least half a grip on their crazy busy life but can't quite squeeze writing into said life, here are some ideas that might help.

1. Get more out of your schedule by living with more intention.


Some of us human beings struggle to live intentionally. We pull out our phones to check on something, and before we know it, we've lost an hour to the social media black hole. Or we sat down to take a break and suddenly Netflix is asking us if we are still watching Stranger Things.

I know what some of you are thinking: Isn't this post supposed to be about people who are too busy to write? Not about people who are just sitting around?

My point is, whether or not you actually spend hours unexpectedly watching Netflix, there are probably parts of your day you are living without intention, which usually means time is slipping through your fingers.

Not everyone wants to live every hour intentionally. Many cultures and lifestyles around the world don't; they just go with the flow and do whatever, like the beach lifestyle.

What I am saying is that if you are a busy person who doesn't have time to write, and you want to have time to write, this might be what you want to look at. Do you have behaviors and parts of the day where you are unintentionally losing time? Do you have the tendency to procrastinate things you don't want to do, for example?

Intentional living doesn't mean you never get breaks. It means that when you take a break, you take breaks you intended to take. It doesn't mean that you never have free time. It means that when you have free time, it's something you intended. Intentional living means making every hour count, and getting rid of moments where time doesn't. It means when you are doing something, you are doing something, not kind of doing it. If I'm cleaning my room, but sort of just leisurely cleaning it, I'm probably losing time. But if I decide to draw upon more intention, and clean my room more intentionally, I'll make an effort to do it in a more efficient manner and get done quicker.

So look at your lifestyle and see if you can free up more time by living more intentionally. And notice that I didn't say you had to live at max capacity intention. I said more intention.

2. Don't work harder. Work smarter.


There is a business show I love to watch called The Profit. In it, successful business man Marcus Lemonis goes into failing businesses and helps build them back up. One of the things Marcus says is that it's better to work smarter than it is to work harder.

And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Here is a simple example. Let's say I'm working really hard at doing the dishes. I'm working as hard as I can, but my methods are random. I hand-wash and put the dishes away one by one. I'm putting a lot of time and effort into getting this kitchen clean. But you know what's better than working harder at that method? Working smarter.

Instead of hand-washing everything, I put them in the dishwasher. Instead of putting items away one by one as I wash them, I put them into piles and take the whole stack of plates to the cupboard at once.

Working smarter is about looking for ways to work more efficiently. It's about finding ways to get more done in the time you have, and finding easier but still effective methods.

Pretty much everyone is doing something that could be done more efficiently. When you work smarter you can free up more time. Or, when you write smarter, you can get more done in the amount of time you have.

3. Stop using mental energy focusing on the fact you don't have enough time.


My dad is a really busy person. One thing he said to me several months ago has stuck in my mind. He said, it's amazing how much more you can get done when you stop thinking about how you can't get it done.

This is probably going to sound weird, but the way we think is also a usage of time--our mental time. The mental time we spend thinking about how we feel sorry for ourselves is mental time we could be putting to use in a different way. You might could even say we can try to think with more intention or to think smarter. Instead of thinking about how I don't have time to do something, I could be spending the "mental time" and "mental stamina," thinking about how I can do that thing more efficiently.

Feeling sorry for ourselves about not having time often leads to sluggish demeanors and attitudes, and only makes it that much more difficult to be productive. It's like we've dropped a boulder in our own path that we now have to push out of the way before we can continue.

The older I get, the more I realize, how we think about things is everything.

Unfortunately, though, when you make statements like that, you get a whole bunch of people going out and trying to micro-manage all their thoughts and feelings, and they actually end up just suppressing said thoughts and feelings.

It's not about suppressing--it's not about telling yourself you aren't allowed to think or feel that way, that breeds resentment toward self and unrealistic expectations. Instead, if you have a problem with the way you think, you acknowledge it and move on. Or, depending on how serious it is, you acknowledge it, work through it, and then move on. It takes time--maybe months or years--but eventually it won't be a tendency to think that way anymore. I am a strong believer that in most circumstances, we can eventually change how we think.

Anyway, my point is, stop using your "mental time" on thoughts that aren't helpful to you. You don't need them anymore. It's not helpful to focus on how little time you have. What is helpful is focusing on how to best manage the time or task you have been given. What is helpful is spending your mental stamina on how you'll build your better life, realistically.

4. Stop procrastinating and implement the 20-minute rule.


Learn to start doing something you don't want to do, when you should do it. Don't watch an episode first. Don't play Candy Crush first. Sit down and start working. Remember, it's okay if you really, really, really don't want to do something. You are allowed to feel that way. But what matters is that you do it despite it.

My brother and I have a method for when we don't feel like working on something. It's what I think of as the 20-minute rule. Now, I don't know psychologically why this works, but it works for both of us almost every single time. And I've seen it work for many others.

When you don't want to work on something, you sit down and work on it anyway, telling yourself you only need to do it for 20 minutes. Now, you need to actually do the work intentionally--actually put in effort, not just sit there--and I don't know why, but almost always, by 20 minutes in, you realize it's not that bad. It's like my dad always says, "Nothing is as bad as you think it's going to be." After 20 minutes, it's easier to work longer, and I just keep working anyway.

You can try this with anything you don't want to do, in order to get it done quicker so you can free up writing time. But you can also do this with writing, when you finally have freed up a few minutes to write and don't feel like writing. Just give yourself 20 minutes. I bet 9/10 times you'll want to keep writing after the 20 minutes.

5. Use the percolation approach to writing.


There are discovery writers, people who like to just sit down and start writing and "discover" the story as they go; and there are outliners, people who like to outline the story before they start writing. But there is also another writing approach that's very common that we don't talk about much, which is the percolation approach.

Percolation is when you get ideas for a story, and you let them sit in your mind for a while until you are ready to write them. If you don't have a lot of time to write, or time to set aside to consistently write, the percolation method is a good one for you. You probably have ideas of what kind of stories you want to write. Let them sit in your mind. Let your subconscious take a stab at them. Think about them when falling asleep at night, or in the morning before you get out of bed.

When you feel ready to write the scene and have a few minutes, you're all ready to go.

I think most writers use a little bit of all three methods. The tricky part about percolation is you might hit an area that doesn't eventually come together on its own, so you do need to sit down and work it out. But, heck, you can even use the percolation method scene-by-scene. When one scene is ready to write, you write it. Then you let more ideas percolate, and then you write that scene. You don't have to write chronologically either. Write the scenes you want, and before you know it, you might have half the book in your head done.

6. Take advantage of mental writing


There are some tasks in life that don't require much brainpower, like folding laundry or pulling weeds or waiting in line to pick up your prescriptions. If you are trying to squeeze more writing into your life, these are places where you can spend "mental time" thinking about what story you want to write. Go ahead and daydream a little. Think about that scene you really want to get started on. Ponder how to solve that plot problem. Figure out that character. Let your mind wander on the subject in helpful ways. Or, if you have a specific writing element in mind focus on what you'll do about it. Jot ideas down in your phone--if you are like the rest of America, it's always near you.

7. Play to when and how you write best


If you haven't been writing long, you might not know how or when you do your best writing. But over time, writers figure out what works for them. Most writers I've talked to do their best work in the morning or at night. I've heard that this is partly because those are the times when the creative side of the brain is awake--after dreaming, or just before dreaming. I've heard that the creative side of the brain goes to "sleep" in the afternoon. Even if you are short on time, see if you can free up some time at the part of the day you write best. Can you wake up a half hour or more earlier? Can you stay up a little later? When you play to your best writing time, you are more productive during that time.

Do you write better with music? Or without? Do you like to be sitting? Or reclining? Do you like to eat one Oreo before you start? These are little things, but figuring out what you like and seeing if you can play to it consistently, will help signal to your brain that it's time to switch to writing mode, meaning less time trying to reach that mode and better use of your writing minutes. The more consistent you can be in your "pre-writing rituals" the more likely they are to be effective.

8. Use downtime activities to benefit your writing.

There is a scripture that I like: "See that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize."

In your efforts to fit writing into your life, don't forever sacrifice the downtime needed to rest and re-energize. There may be periods where you have next to no downtime in life, but you can't last forever like that. Ideally, you give yourself downtime every day, if only for 20 minutes.

But not all downtime is created equally. You can utilize that time by doing activities that energize you faster. I recently read a post about a writer who watched television on her downtime, but realized it didn't actually make her feel rested or re-energized, and instead, running did. That's her personal experience. Maybe television does make you feel rested. Whatever the case, evaluate what activities actually do lead to you having more energy, and what activities don't.

During downtime, you can watch or read fiction, which will help you with your writing. You can do something that requires your imagination. Or go for a walk and allow your mind to meditate on writerly things.

Bonus

If you can find a balanced schedule that works consistently for you, maintain that stable schedule as long as you can.

Every time you have to try to switch to a new normal, you lose time and energy. Find the most effective schedule you can realistically maintain and keep it for as long as you can manage.


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