Getting Shit Done: Eight Tips and Tricks for Better Time Management and Productivity
Photo by Daquella manera
Maybe you work a full-time job. Maybe you’re part-time. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home parent. Maybe you’re making enough off your writing to call it a living. Whatever your situation, you’ve got twenty-four hours in a day and at one point or another, you’ve probably cultivated the perfect set of distractions to keep you from your writing. Your personal responsibilities seem to eat up all your time like starved piranhas, and if any time remains after all responsibilities are taken care of, Facebook and Twitter, X-Box and Wii, drugs and alcohol, sitcoms and movies polish off the rest. You feel helpless, perhaps even a little deprived, as if your clock runs faster than everybody else’s. It’s one of the biggest problems writers encounter, and it has nothing to do with craft. We’re talking about time management. There’s no easy answer other than ‘sit your ass in the chair and write,’ but here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped keep me focused.
The purpose of time management is to get shit done, so it’s important to figure out what your goals are so the shit you’re trying to get done helps you achieve your goals. Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife recommends setting short-term and long-term goals for your writing career. I was surprised how much focus this gave me. Once you know where you want to end up in a year, not to mention five years, it’s easy to channel all of your focus into those goals, and a lot of energy-wasting activities sort of fall away. I used to spend a lot of time attempting to write short stories to fit various magazines and themed anthologies. Then once I had laid out my goals, I realized the most significant thing to me was to make a living doing what I loved. Devoting a lot of time to short story sales wasn’t exactly going to help me achieve that goal, so I made it a low priority activity. I still write short stories just as often and love the form above all others, but I no longer chase the market, which has spared me many hours sitting in front of a computer wondering, How the fuck am I going to write a fantasy story set in the sixteenth century about a time-traveling miniature horse named Barley?
Develop a Schedule
When I started taking writing seriously, I set daily and monthly regimens for writing and reading. Writing a minimum of 1,500 words a day, the first draft of my first novella was finished in two weeks. I posted the monthly schedule on my wall and each night after I’d completed the day’s tasks, the day was crossed off on the calendar. I never missed a day.
That said, sometimes writing to fulfill a word count becomes no different than clocking in at a job, going through the motions to appear like you’re working, and then clocking out at the soonest possible moment. The purpose of a daily word count is to develop discipline and a system of accountability. Maybe you’ve got other methods to keep yourself disciplined and accountable, and that’s perfectly okay. The bottom line is doing what you need to do in order to achieve your goals, whether that’s completing your first novel or your fiftieth, selling a book to a major publisher or an independent, or selling stories to pro rate publications. This year, my primary goal was to finish a themed story collection titled Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon. Setting a daily or even weekly word count for this book wasn’t feasible because of the sheer quantity of research and experience necessary. The lone essay in the book, about fishing the last white sturgeon retention season for years to come, required fifteen hours on the water and many hours of preparation before that. Back in January, I walked over thirty miles one day just to fish a certain stretch of the Sandy River, just to include a few details in a story. With so many adventures built into my schedule this year, it would be easy to drag this book on for several years, but the goal was to finish the book by year’s end, and I did.
Whenever shit seems daunting, your schedule should be there to keep you on track. Steinbeck wrote one page a day. One page turned into many books, some of them very long, many of them great. The bottom line is figuring out what you want to do and how you’re gonna do it, then sticking with it.
This is simple. Before you go to sleep, plan out the following day. It’s easier to stay focused when you’ve already mapped out the day in your mind.
There’s nothing like clearing your schedule for seventy-two hours, locking yourself in a room, shutting off the outside world, forgoing all notions of civility, and losing your mind for three continuous days. My writing mentor got me into marathons, and I’m really grateful to have this method in my toolbox. Writing for a sustained period of time can help you become more fully immersed in the worlds and characters you’re writing about. It’s a vital skill to have if scheduling conflicts prevent you from writing every day. Even if you can’t carve out a few uninterrupted days, having this experience will help you make the most of the time you do have. I’ve heard some people express skepticism about the quality of work produced during writing marathons, but that’s what second (and third and fourth) drafts are for. And some writers who spend years writing a novel actually aren’t spending any more time working on their book than someone who writes one in three days. So why not just sit down in the chair and write? That’s what you’re doing this for, isn’t it?
Inevitably, you’ll reach an impasse in a novel or short story. Something has you stuck. At that point, you can either struggle with the piece until you break through the block, or you can set it aside and work on something else for a while. I find that having a lot of projects going at once allows me to bounce from one to the other without ever burning out on any of them. I can juggle up to half a dozen writing projects, a dozen editing projects, and several other things on the side all at the same time. Whenever I get stuck, I move on to the next. Usually, a solution arises in the back of my mind while I’m working on something else and I can return feeling fresh without ever having ceased working. If your sprawling masterpiece about the IRS and boredom has you feeling down, consider starting up something completely different on the side. Who knows? Maybe writing a thriller about a giant alligator is just the thing you need to let off steam, giving yourself a vacation from the primary work without shutting your brain off entirely. Think about it like this: If an animal hoarder devotes themselves to collecting only snakes, they might end up with a lot of snakes, but if they collect snakes and rabbits, they end up with more animals, thus winning at life. That, my friends, is science.
I collaborated on a novel with two of my favorite writers this year and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. All three of us had a ton of our own projects going, but we managed to carve out time between those to complete the novel in just a few months. Strictly from the perspective of time management, collaboration allows you to work on a project between projects, and when you’re not working on it, someone else is. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to having multiple selves to accomplish all that you set out to do. Plus, if you choose your collaborators correctly, your skillsets will complement one another, expediting the process even more, and you’ll learn a lot about how other people think about character, language, and story. Collaboration is a fun learning experience that happens to boost productivity. I can’t recommend it enough.
Pushing Forward, Giving Up
Some people will tell you to finish everything you start, and there’s some merit to that. You can become a master of beginnings without ever knowing how to end a story. That said, I can’t count the number of books and stories I’ve abandoned. Sometimes an idea seems like the best thing in the world, the one that’ll sell a million copies. You begin writing, already tasting the success. And then something happens. You realize that you’re full of shit. Your idea sucks. Self-doubt is inevitable and one of the hardest things to learn is how to push through that wall, but at the same time, some ideas just aren’t worth the fight. I don’t look back on the incomplete manuscripts as failures. I view them as a lot of time saved, time that I ultimately devoted to other books that ended up getting published. What’s a good idea in the moment isn’t always so in the long run. Only you can decide when to give up and when to push forward.
I won’t tell you to turn off the internet, the television, etc. when you write, because what matters more than anything is that you write and what you write is something worth reading. Some people write to music. Some people need silence. Some have movies in the background. Some work in cafes or bars. Some check Facebook and Twitter in between chapters. Whatever helps you produce, as long as you can honestly say it’s not hindering the work, go for it. But there’s one thing that doesn’t help anyone write well, and that’s arguing on social media. You can look at all the cute kittens and read all the Buzzfeed lists you want and still manage to have a productive day, but the arguing, it’ll rob entire days from you. I’m not sure what to say other than don’t do it if you’re concerned about time management.
So there you have it. Establish your goals, then develop a schedule to help you accomplish them. Through nightly planning, diversifying your projects so you can change things up if you get stuck, knowing when to push forward and when to give up, collaboration, writing marathons, and avoiding time-sucking Facebook arguments, you should find yourself managing your time more efficiently. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
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