This is the second part of a multi-part series on the systems I have put or am attempting to put into place in pursuit of the goal to MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Part 1 dealt with Inspiration and Energy. Part 2, below, is all about how I manage my time. Enjoy!
Time Management for Easily Distracted Creatives
I am not a natural at time management. In fact, I’m naturally pretty horrible at it. I get off track really easily, and have a bit of a reputation for spacing things like bill paying and clipping my own toenails. So a solid system for managing my time is a necessity for me.
The key here is redundancy. One system alone is not enough. I need several chances each day to keep myself on task and to keep tabs on what I’ve accomplished, or what I still have left to do. I’ve come up with five ways of doing this, and each of them motivates me in a different way, which is nice because I get bored easily.
The daily planner is pretty much a no-brainer. Everyone has one, either in analog or digital form; the key is to actually USE IT. I tried planning stuff on my iPhone for a year, using Google Calendars and some different apps, but I never found anything that really worked for me. For one thing, it is easier for me to write short memos by hand than to finger-tap on a touch screen. For another, I found that a good sized planner has a lot more space–I can see whole weeks at a time, with all the pertinent things written down instead of having to tap through to another screen or do that awkward thumb-and-forefinger expandy motion to embiggen the text. Plus, there is something super satisfying about physically crossing a to-do item off of my list.
My planner is spiral bound, about 4×7″, with a brightly colored cover that makes me happy when I look at it. It is divided into weekly sections, and each day of the week has a good ten lines or so to write all the things down on. There is a monthly view at the beginning of each month, and there are a lot of extra pages for note-taking and stuff. At the beginning of each week (usually on Sunday), I go through and write down all the tasks I intend to complete for the week, trying to space them out so that no one day is too hectic.
This is not the first time I’ve had a planner, but it’s the first time I’ve figured out the most optimal way to use it and really stuck with it. Of course, the planner space isn’t limited to just creative projects. My other day-to-day tasks go in there, too. Like the work I do for my virtual assistance clients, homeschool lessons with my daughter, and errands I need to run. When planning my week, I don’t slate out my schedule hour by hour, but I do try to weigh out how long things are going to take, and try to allow myself enough time each day to get some creative work done.
If there’s a pithy, but slightly chastising adage to express a universal truth, chances are Ben Franklin invented it.
So there is this RPG thingy called Habitica
that helps you set goals, form habits, and motivate yourself to accomplish stuff. This game has been a wonderful help for me in keeping track of things I want to do on a daily basis, that would take up too much room if I wrote them down in the planner, as well as setting to-dos and projects that have multiple components that need checking off over time.
The game rewards you for getting things done, whether it’s flossing your teeth, sticking to your daily exercise regimen, or completing your novel. You get an avatar, and as you move up in levels, you earn points that can be used to buy your avatar new gear. Every once in awhile, you’ll get an egg drop. Eggs can be combined with potions to hatch pets, which, when fed, grow into mounts. I’m totally geeking out here. Please forgive me, but I love Habitica! Plus, if you get friends and family to join, you can do quests with them. Quests are challenges that make the whole team accountable to each other for staying on task. If one member skips their dailies, for instance, the whole team suffers. But if everyone stays on track until the quest ends, they all get rewarded with treasure and whatnot.
Days For Certain Things
I’ve designated certain days of the week for certain tasks, especially for things that I will often forget to do, or things that NEED TO BE DONE weekly, no matter what.
For instance, Saturday is “working on the property day”. I take two hours to do some kind of cleaning-up or fixing-up project outside. If the weather’s not good, I find an indoor project to work on. What does this have to do with making my life more about writing? Well, this is the kind of thing that I will forget to do or put off for months, and the fact that it’s not getting done will distract me from everything, including my creative projects. So it’s all about limiting distractions.
On Sundays, I do laundry. I used to do laundry whenever I happened to think of it throughout the week. But I never seemed to get through the laundry pile, and it was taking time away from other stuff I would rather have been doing. So now, I do all my laundry on one particular day of the week. While the washer and dryer are running, I work on writing or revision. Two birds with one stone. I haven’t scheduled toenail clipping yet, but it might not be a bad idea.
The Major Hurdle: Sleep Schedules
Without my systems, this is me every day at noon.
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, since I’m, you know, a grown-up person with offspring of my own, and like, things that I do to make money and stuff. But for most of my adult life, I’ve generally slept in pretty late.
“Oh, that’s no big deal,” you might be thinking. “I often let myself sleep in til 9. Sometimes even 10.” Um. No, it was worse than that. On the average day, I used to get up around noon. My whole family did. My husband works late, I’m a night owl, and we homeschool our daughter, so we all kind of got into this pattern of going to bed in the wee hours of the morning and not rising until noon. I consider getting up at ten “early rising”. Serious. And, okay, I guess it worked out alright most of the time. Homeschool gets done. Client work gets done. Household chores get done. Bills get paid, etc. But what really nagged at me is the feeling that I could be doing MORE if I were getting up at normal-people time. It didn’t quite make sense logically, because either way you sliced it, I was getting the same number of sleeping and waking hours each day. But I had started to notice that, on the precious few occasions when I did get up early (early-early, not ten o’clock early), I FELT more productive and motivated to do stuff. So I started getting up earlier.
Going from late-riser to early-riser is not an easy change to make. Trust me. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do it before, and failed. So this time, I decided to go with a nice, slow, very gradual transition. For a week, I set my alarm clock for 11:30. The next week, 11:00, the next week, 10:30, and so on. Of course, the other half of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. My secret is to listen to audiobooks in bed. Knocks me right out.
So here’s my progress report on early rising: Currently, I’m stopped at ten o’clock for a few weeks because I couldn’t seem to wake up earlier than that. It must be a psychological thing, but if my alarm clock goes off at any time before ten, I’ll hit the snooze button in my sleep. But, even getting up at ten, I am getting clear and definite boosts to my productivity, especially in the writing realm. I may need to try transitioning by smaller increments of earlier-ness, now that I’m legitimately waking up in the actual morning. I could try going back fifteen minutes each week. My goal is to wake up no later than 9:00 each morning, and it WILL happen. From there, I might even venture further into the mysterious morning realm. Who knows what treasures await me there?
This is how I used to deal with deadlines, before I started my own business three years ago. Now I need to apply what I’ve learned about keeping deadlines for clients to my own creative projects.
I am motivated by deadlines. I can’t stand the guilty feeling of failing to deliver on promises I’ve made to clients or friends in a timely manner. Since I know this about myself, I decided to try and use it to my advantage in the creative department. I’ve begun assigning self-imposed deadlines for creative projects.
Sometimes the deadline will be a project completion deadline, like “I will complete the first draft of this story by the end of next week.” I write down the deadline in my planner and add it as a to-do in Habitica. Then I try to space out the work in such a way that I can accomplish the task within the stated time period, without pulling an all-nighter on the last day.
Other times I’ll give myself what I like to refer to as “homework assignments”. These are small tasks that are designed to help me grow and evolve as a writer. For instance, I’ll re-read a favorite short story to analyze the plot or character arcs. Or I’ll assign myself a writing prompt–nothing major, just a few paragraphs utilizing a particular element of fiction for practice. I usually think up these homework assignments in the morning, after my regular writing session, and I’ll give myself between one and three days to complete it, depending on how involved and time-consuming I think it will be.
Both of these methods have proven useful to a certain extent, but I’m not completely sure yet whether this particular system is going to stand the test of continual application. Somehow the promises I make to myself don’t carry quite as much weight as the promises I make to clients and loved ones. So on good days, when everything is going well and nothing unexpected comes up to distract me, I do pretty well at following through, but on more difficult days, these self-imposed deadlines tend to be the first thing I put off until tomorrow. Three or four difficult days in a row, and the deadline is all but forgotten.
What I really need, I think, is more ACTUAL deadlines. Or better discipline. Hmm. This systems thing is a never ending uphill trek, it seems. But maybe that’s just how it looks from halfway up the mountain. Onward and upward!