The only way to get writing done is to do it. In my last column I suggested three techniques—brief daily writing sessions, a project box, and a ventilation file—that, when used in combination, can enhance productivity and make writing less stressful and more rewarding.
But we don’t just want our writing time to be more productive; we wish we had more of it in the first place. Each semester we schedule research days, mornings, or afternoons for writing—and all too often, other obligations invade that time. How will we ever find time to write when we’re already swamped?
The fact is, not everything that fills our time matters as much as writing. We acknowledge this when we reschedule writing for “later”—some mythical time when we can do it thoroughly and thoughtfully and well. But “later” usually ends up just as busy and pressured as today. And every day we don't write is another day we feel frustrated and guilty.
We may vow to become better time managers. But before we can manage our time, we need to know exactly what’s happening to it. We need to let go of the delusion that we will have more time later, and instead figure out just where our time is going, now.
Here’s one way to do that: Spend two weeks scrupulously keeping a “reverse day planner.” Instead of recording upcoming events, you document, in as much detail as possible, where your time goes. Include not only the time you spend preparing courses, grading papers, and meeting with students and colleagues, but also on routine tasks, like doing the dishes and the laundry, running errands, and driving. And don’t forget the time you spend answering email, reading, meeting friends, surfing the net, staring at the wall, and sleeping.
My day planner is a lovely desk-sized leather academic calendar, bought online from Gallery Leather, in Maine. It has two pages per week. On the left page is seven days, divided into morning and afternoon, with blank lines for every hour; on the right is a lined page I use for additional notes. I simply note on the left what I did every day with my time, and use the right lined sheet to help explain my choices to myself. I do this as the day unfolds, and I make sure the planner is completely filled in by bedtime. Every hour is accounted for—walking the dog, writing a letter of recommendation, department meetings, eating, watching TV.
Keep a record like this, and the results may astonish you. Within two weeks of logging my time, I realized that I was a whirling dervish of unexamined commitments. For years I’d been trying to “balance” work and family by squeezing in more writing, service, exercise and self-care activities. And I was feeling like a failure because one or more of those was always getting short shrift. No wonder I was exhausted and bewildered by my inability to “find” time to write.
What my reverse day planner revealed, in concrete detail, was how ineffective my so-called “balancing act” really was. I was choosing to devote a lot of my time to tasks—like community and departmental service, class prep and grading, working out, and volunteering for my kids’ extracurricular and school activities—that, while important, mattered less to me than writing. With such a busy schedule, writing felt like another burden crammed into an overstuffed life—because it was.
And I could see exactly how often (“just this once!”) I gave up my writing time. I’d been succumbing to what can be called quasi-crises—seemingly urgent requests with a pending deadline. I wanted to “get them off my plate.” Or I’d change my schedule because I didn’t want to make trouble for someone else. And I’d delude myself into thinking these interruptions wouldn’t take long.
The reverse day planner let me stop wondering why I couldn’t find time to write. It wasn’t that I needed more “balance” or time-management skills. I was always saying I wanted time to write while choosing to be very busy with other things. Now I could let go of my self-recrimination, as well as my fruitless efforts to “find” writing time. I could instead decide what I wanted to keep in my life. What is really worth my time and energy?
Your revelations will be different from mine—not everyone stuffs their life full of activities in order to feel less stressed! You may spend some of your hours on social media or video games or cooking. Or going to movies or working out. But whatever you discover, you will find out what is really getting your time, energy and attention. Then you get to decide: Is each and every one of those things more important to you than your writing?
If not, it’s time to put writing in a place of honor. Learn to circle the wagons, close your door, and shut out distractions—like email, non-urgent phone calls, social media, and people who drop by—because if you don’t respect and protect your scholarly time, who will?
And use the reverse day planner to keep yourself on track. Mine gives me an irrefutable record of when and how I fail to secure my writing time, and an irrefutable record of how I still do manage to get things done, when I choose to write as scheduled. And it shows me how often I dishonor my commitment to writing.
So writing time is not about making, finding, or stealing. It’s about deciding what matters. If writing is something that matters to you, then you can secure time for it by documenting your current priorities. Once you know how you fill your day, you can give your writing the protected time it deserves. Whether you close that project box in 10 minutes or three hours, you will still have enough time for all the other things that matter, too.