I’m currently working through some of the original posts on this site, which are now several years old, and updating them for the times we currently face, to build in some resilience and flexibility so you can succeed in a future you may not be able to guess the shape of right now.
Today’s post was first posted in March, 2018, and it deals with one of the critical, cornerstone elements of a productive indie writer’s life: Your writing schedule.
So yeah, it’s geeky, nerdy and over-the-top practical. And absolutely worth reading through. More, I encourage every writer to build their own schedule for writing. If you’ve written on the fly, until now; if writing in snatches and when the mood strikes you has been your standard, a writing schedule will revolutionize your productivity.
If you’ve been using a calendar, but still never seem to get enough time to write, or you use all your writing time for pre- and post-production and promotion, then this post will help you, too.
A writing schedule will let you navigate busy times, tell you when you have to catch up (instead of waking up six months from now and realizing you haven’t released a single book in all that time), and helps you trouble-shoot lifestyle choices, family, friends and business demands that negatively impact your writing career.
A writing schedule is that powerful.
Match it up with a production schedule (a highly specialized calendar of book releases), and you have the two basic tools of an indie author’s career that, working together, help you control your output, increase your revenue, and avoid disappointing readers.
- Do you have a list of novel ideas you wish you could turn into books sooner, rather than later?
- Do you spend your day dealing with bosses and kids and chores, only to get to the end of it and have no time left to write?
- Do you get up every morning, determined that today you will write a thousand words no matter what? Do you live up to that promise?
- Does your list of books you want to write seem to extend for more than a lifetime’s worth? Or do you have zero ideas beyond the one you’re working on, and think you can’t really be a writer if you’re not brimming with creativity?
You need a schedule.
What is a writing schedule?
A writing schedule is actually an all-day schedule, for it includes everything of importance in your life. It is the very first tool you should reach for in your quest to be more productive and write more.
On its face, it’s simple: A table that displays what a typical week in your life should look like, with time for all the essentials, including writing.
But building that simple, standard week sample comes with some self-examination and compromises. It will tell you how much writing you can realistically fit into your (current) life, and from there, you can plan how many books you want to write for the year, and when you should release them.
Yes, even before setting writing goals, you should first set up and master your writing schedule.
It’s that powerful.
Why you need a schedule
The lack of a schedule means you’re living your days in reaction mode, letting everything and everyone else in your life dictate what you pay attention to.
Writing is an “upper right quadrant” exercise (see this post from a couple of weeks ago about overwhelm, and the Stephen Covey quandrant of priorities, if you don’t know what this means). That means writing is Important, but not Urgent (generally). It is way too easy to off-load writing to deal with other, seemingly more urgent, things.
If you’re in reaction mode every day, then everthing is urgent and writing just doesn’t happen.
Chaos doesn’t work.
A writing schedule also:
- Lets you figure out your hourly writing rate (which you need for your production schedule)
- Provides structure in your day, which takes away the need to make decisions about what to do next (minimizes decision fatigue)
- Tells you when you’re slipping and need to get back on track (as no one else will)
- Saves your sanity (because you know you’re not missing anything important — urgent, or not).
Once you learn to set and abide by schedules, you’ll start to like yourself more and more, because you’re getting things done. Not just personal or job-related things, but also your writing.
You won’t get it right, first time, or fiftieth time.
When you first attempt to schedule your time you face two challenges:
- You don’t know how long it takes to get stuff done.
- You have unrealistic expectations about what you can do in a day.
These are related, but different, problems. However, they’re both self-correcting. The more you work with a schedule, the better you will get at judging just how much you can squeeze into your day and not go crazy.
The more you work with a schedule, the better you get at sticking to it, too. You begin to see the pay-offs and long term benefits, which are incredibly motivating.
Don’t try to create the perfect schedule first time out of the gate. It’s impossible.
Like most creative endeavours, the aim with scheduling is to start, mess up on the page–repeatedly, if necessary–then tweak and improve as your mastery at scheduling and control over your life increases.
I’ve been scheduling my writing time for nearly a decade and I’m still tweaking and defining my writing schedule, sometimes as often as every month. If I’m not changing it because of shifting life conditions, I’ll often experiment with different schedules. For example, everyone says to write first thing in the morning, before the business of the day intrudes. But lately, I’ve been “clearing the decks” –getting all the business done first thing—which clears the rest of my day for writing. This seems to work well for me. I haven’t yet changed my writing schedule to match this new habit, but I might.
And in summer, I will schedule an hour working in the garden, very early in the morning, and right in the middle of my traditional writing time, so I can beat the heat of the day. I’ll writing later into the day to compensate.
It’s not just learning how to schedule more effectively that creates a need to change your schedule. You will also have to tweak or completely rebuild your writing schedule whenever there is a permanent or long-term change in your circumstances:
- A pandemic sweeps the globe, and suddenly, everyone has a lot more time on their hands, including you.
- You lose a job, or get a job.
- Long term illness, or chronic health conditions that give you more or less “spare” time.
- Family commitments increase or decrease.
- You stop or start a new sport or hobby, or social interest.
- Seasonal changes to your activities.
A Writing Schedule Is Not A Calendar.
I’ve grown to understand that many authors mix these two concepts up, or think they’re synonomous.
A calendar (I use Outlook for mine) shows how you’re actually going to spend your time. It includes all the regular buckets of time from your writing schedule, but also includes one-off and short term events – doctor’s visits, social occassions, time off for conferences, family events, etc. Around these calendar events, you schedule your writing and writing business.
Your Writing Schedule gives you an ideal writing week (or fortnight, or month, if your regular events cycles less frequently than weekly). With your Writing Schedule properly built, you know how much time you ideally should be scheduling on your calendar for writing, for business matters, for promotion, for working out, for sleeping, for date nights, and whatever else you consider a priority in your life, and want to devote time to.
Properly built, your Writing Schedule includes time for everything important in your life. I guarantee it will never be enough time. But by juggling and compromising, you’ll be able to give some time to everything important.
Or, if you find that a challenge, you can decide what permanent changes you need to make to free up time for everything.
Once you have a Writing Schedule that works for you, you can then drop buckets for those priorities onto your Calendar, and shifting those buckets around the one-off events, so that the most important things (and writing should be one of them) get the time they should. I’ll talk about this a bit more, below.
So…where do you start?
1. List everything you need to get done on your average day
You can do anything you want. Yes, even if you have a day job, you can still do anything you want after-hours.
You just can’t do everything you want.
However, for now, don’t stint on the wishlist of things you would do, even if you know that it would take a 72 hour day to contain them all. Write them down, anyway.
Also add the things you do weekly.
Include the obvious and goes-without-saying items like sleeping, eating, and personal grooming.
Anything that takes up time in your day goes onto the list.
Don’t forget to add writing to your list. You should break this up into two activities:
- Writing fresh manuscript
- Everything else writing-related.
For open-ended activities like writing, add how much time a day/week you would ideally like to spend doing that activity. At this point, you may be guessing wildly. That’s okay. It’s a place to start.
2. Now, sort your list
Break the list of items up into three groups:
- Absolute must-do’s
- Rewards and indulgences
Don’t fuss too much about where an item belongs, because when you start slotting items into your schedule, your priorities will sort themselves out through the pressures of time.
Your list will contain a lot of “shoulds” that other people and authorities have guilted or scared you into thinking you must do (flossing three times a day, reading every Great Book out there, sorting your recycleable plastic into categories). In fact, you may not even realize that an item is externally motivated. That’s another benefit of scheduling — you’ll figure out very quickly what is really important to you.
Must-do’s should include your writing time (both sorts), down time, time for loved-ones, and many health-related activities (eating, sleeping, exercise, etc).
Rewards and indulgences are not necessary downtime activities like meditation, reading, and a minimum amount of socializing.
3. Build the schedule
What tools can you use?
I generally avoid using a pre-made and printed calendar for scheduling. They’re often quite limited, with time only broken into hourly segments, if at all.
My go-to tool is Excel, because it will build the time into whatever increments I want, down the left hand side.
I’ve also used a table in Word, for Word will do almost the same merging/coloring/prioritizing as Excel.
I usually use blocks of 30 minutes, although if I’m really under pressure, I will break the days up into 15 minute segments. I once worked with a CEO whose calendar was scheduled in increments of 7 minutes!
I put the days of the week along the top and time down the left.
With the time structure in place, I can merge cells to create blocks of time, colour them, and unmerge them when I want to change things. Here’s a sample of one of my schedules. It’s quite old now, but I used this one for over a year:
When I first started obsessing about squeezing the most out of my days, I used paper. Gridded paper is great (and the Bullet Journal style page is built for this), but even a blank sheet of printer paper will work. Use a pencil and an eraser, because you will be making a lot of adjustments the first time you do this.
Use whatever tool works for you. You’ll likely change tools as you get better at this. For now, start with whatever is to hand. Adjust as you go.
Next week, we’ll look at the practical steps of building your writing schedule.