How to manage your time as a writer effectively

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Writing is a solo endeavor. Even if you work for a corporation, perhaps maintaining their social media accounts, you probably have deadlines to meet. Chances are you are told what the assignment is, when it is due, and are simply left to complete it. Although you have some structure to your day, you are frustrated by the difficulty you have completing work, or by the length of time it takes you to finish.

If you are a freelancer, then your time is yours. This might seem ideal—no one looking over your shoulder—but it’s a trap. If you’re like many writers, you’ll look at the one paragraph you managed to complete when you wanted to finish the paper, and think, “I got nothing done today.”

But that’s not true. You got groceries, took the cat to the vet, bought gas, checked your email (too many times), played a few online games, chatted on social media, and spent an hour ranting about politics—to yourself. You also finished that paragraph. The problem is you needed to finish the paper.

If you consider the imaginary day outlined above, you’ll see it consists mostly of time-wasting activities that do not help your productivity. Even when you’re at your desk, you’re distracted, possibly by all those errands you need to run, and drifting away from the task at hand. So, how do you learn to manage your time so that you can write more effectively?

Start by figuring out how you’re truly using your time

The best place to start is to determine where your time is going, since you can’t make any changes without a starting point. One suggestion is to keep a log for a week at a minimum, and write down exactly what you do. Filling in 8.3 am until 5.00pm with “Work” isn’t likely to help you. It’s far more valuable to break the day into shorter increments of 15 or 30 minutes, and nail down your activities precisely.

You might end up with something that looks like this: 8.30 am until 9.00 am—answered emails. 9.00 am until 9.20 am, drafted article. 9.20 am until 9.30 am—chatted with colleague. 9.30 am until 9.45 am—break. 9.45 am until 10.15 am—meeting. 10.15 am until 10.30 am—tried to concentrate on article; chatted instead. And so on.

You will probably find that your biggest time waster is social media, and that you spend far more time than you think with your email accounts. That’s why it’s vital to keep time in short spans, because you may not even realize you’ve just spent 20 minutes on Gmail until you write it down. You must be honest and admit where the time is really going, even if it makes you cringe and think, “I’m a jerk.” Nobody is going to see this chart but you. Remember, the entire world is now tied together and it’s very seductive to want to check and see what’s going on, so don’t beat yourself up. Just be aware that some of your time is going into the internet black hole.

Once you know how you’re spending your time, your next step should be to ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Do you want to keep your current job and improve your performance so you’re promoted? Or are you a freelancer working on the novel you want to publish in a year? When you have the end goal in mind, you can start working toward it, but without knowing where you’re going, you’re just floundering around. Someone looking for a publisher will have different goals from someone meeting corporate deadlines.

How about a few actual tips and less blather?

First, write before you do anything else. Whether you’re freelancing or in the office, write as much as you can before other people and duties start distracting you. If you have something on the page that will give you a boost to help you stay on track and finish the piece.

This is also a great way to end the day. Write the opening sentence of your next chapter, or jot down the fact that will start your next blog post. That way, you’ll have a start the next morning, which again gives you the feeling that you are in control of the project, rather than racing to catch up with a day that’s already running away from you.

If you’ve done your homework, you’ve already identified those times when you’re watching TikTok or talking about the price of Taylor Swift tickets with your colleagues. But guess what—your company knows too. They understand their employees are not chained to their desks for eight straight hours and expect some downtime, and if your superiors haven’t talked to you about your work habits, they are happy with you.

What you can do is to use these little breaks to focus on writing. Instead of checking Facebook, jot down a story idea, and instead of listening to the latest office joke, lean back, relax, and think about the customer service issue that demands an official response from the company, and start composing it. In other words, learn to recognize those little slices of time you usually spend on non-job-related activities, and turn them into tiny opportunities for writing.

Find your sweet spot for productivity

One important aspect to writing more effectively is to understand when you are most productive. If you are working for someone else, you may not be able to switch your hours, but you can certainly arrange your work so you are handling the most challenging tasks when you are most alert. If that means you do your hardest work in the last two hours of the day, that is an option, provided you are not holding up other people with this practice.

If you freelance, you can set your own schedule. You might enjoy getting up at 2.00pm, having lunch, running your errands, and then starting work at 6.00pm, building up to your “sweet spot” at 2.00am.

Bundle your tasks

You can also save time by bundling activities together. You wouldn’t go to a department store, go home, go to a shoe store, go home, then go to get groceries; you’d run all the errands at once. You can do the same thing with your work. If you have a series of columns that need to be posted to various company accounts over the coming weeks, you can write them all, or at least outline them all, at the same time. Once you start, you can focus on this task, and you’ll soon find you’re on a roll.

Stick to what you’re good at

You are also allowed to say no to requests on your time. If you want to focus on getting the most amount of work done as possible, you’ll want to stick to the briefs and the tasks you are best at writing about.

You’ll rarely get rewarded for doing more than you need to, so keep that in mind whenever you’re offered a brief that doesn’t fit your particular skill set.

Know your limits

One of the hardest things to admit is that you can’t do everything. Some writers are brilliant at creating complex plots, but their characters lack depth. Others develop characters who jump off the page, but they can’t spell. And while some can create a visual masterpiece for their cover, they have no idea how to format their book correctly.

When you find you are spending hours on one task without success, it makes no sense to keep trying to accomplish the job. This is the time to swallow your pride and admit you need to outsource this aspect of the project.

Turn that phone off

Finally, try to limit distractions—turn off your phone or shut off the ringer; that’s what voicemail is for. Set the phone so only texts and calls that are truly urgent can get through. In the physical world, you might find it’s helpful to create a writer’s “retreat,” a space that you keep only for your writing projects. Lock the door and keep the kids, spouse, pets, friends, and visitors out. This will become a “temple,” where you can dedicate your time to what you love: writing.

To recap: find out where your time is really going; decide what your end goal is; write at the beginning and end of every day; transform those little work breaks into writing opportunities; discover when you are most productive and schedule your most difficult tasks then; do like activities together; learn to say no; delegate tasks; admit you can’t do everything, and limit distractions.

You won’t be able to incorporate all these ideas at once, but change, like writing, is a process. Focus on changing what you can now, and the rest will fall into place.

When you’re ready to use your new skill set, contact Words of Worth and check out opportunities to write for us.