Last week we looked at what a writing schedule is (and isn’t) and why you would want to use one.
This week: How to build your schedule.
Your Typical Day
The idea with this step is to build a “typical” day. That might mean every day of the week looks different, and you must build a schedule for each Monday, each Tuesday, etc.
For example, when I first began to work from home, I had a typical week day and a typical Saturday and Sunday, because the rest of the world gravitates around that Mon-Fri work week structure. It was easier to fit in with that cycle, as I still had family members who worked Mon-Fri day jobs. Their presence in the house, or not, affected how some activities are scheduled.
These days, all the members of my household work from home, and in the same business as me. That frees us up to ignore weekends, public holidays and generaly most of what is happening beyond the front door.
My current schedule is vastly different to the old one, from last week:
Even my Tuesdays, which used to be taken up with weekly grocery shopping, now only impinge once a month, as we order in groceries, now. I adjust on my calendar for this suddenly free time, but eventually will adjust my Writing Schedule if the change continues.
If you live alone and write full time, or if everyone in your house works without a formal, committed schedule, then you can structure your day however you want. For example, Dean Wesley Smith writes through the night and sleeps from dawn until noon. Benjamin Franklin, Howard Schultz and Ernest Hemingway were all early risers. So am I. I get up at 4.30am and I’m at my desk by 6.30am. Other creatives throughout history have arranged time to suit their muses.
All of the highly successful creatives, though, have a plan. Said Forbes, “…most creative minds schedule their days rigorously.”
There have been some seasons when I have had a schedule that breaks down into different agendas for different days, while I focus upon big projects, etc.
This is something you can adjust as you get better at scheduling and learn how the different times of day and days of the week impact your productivity.
For now, try starting with a schedule for each day of the week. You’ll find that your schedule for week days looks very similar from day to day, with only small changes across the week. Saturdays and Sundays can look very different from any other day of the week.
First, add in your non-negotiatiables.
If you have a day job, your day will already have a superimposed structure. Travel to and from work. Working hours. A meal break.
Block out that time.
If you are a shift worker and your schedule changes from week to week or month to month, you may have to sit down with your work schedule each week or month and rebuild your personal schedule around your employer’s timetable, every time your schedule changes. It is worth the hassle, and will make shift-work a less frustrating affair, as you will feel like you have better control of your time.
The other non-negotiables include activities whose times are dictacted by others. Team sports, class schedules.
Then add your writing time.
Because this schedule is a tool to maximize your writing, put your desired writing blocks on the schedule. You will likely have to adjust the blocks later, but for now, get them into the schedule.
Splitting Writing Time
If you split your writing activities up into first draft + everything else, add both types of blocks in.
For years now, I have split my first-draft (or plotting) time and the everything-else business of writing 50/50. That is, if I have three spare hours in a day, I will spend 90 minutes of those three hours writing, and 90 minutes dealing with administration, etc—including promotion.
In the long term, this ratio seems to hold well no matter how much time you have to spare for your writing career. If you shift the ratio too much in one direction, say, 80% of your time is for writing new draft, then you leave too little time to clean up and publish all that new prose. On the other hand, too much administration/promotion/business time means you’ll eventually run out of manuscripts to do all that production and promotion for.
Then add your other must-do’s.
Now fit everything else that “should” be done onto the schedule in the times that are most suitable.
If you’re like me, you will run out of empty space on your schedule by this point. Just getting your must-dos onto the schedule will involve shuffling, negotiating and creative thinking.
To repeat: You can do anything you want. You just can’t do everything you want.
This is the point where your true priorities will start to emerge–sometimes surprising you.
Is this must-do really a must-do?
Or is it something you “should” do? Or is it really something that would be nice to do if you have time?
Can you spend less time doing it?
The ideal might be an hour a day, but can you make progress with only 15 minutes a day? Or 30 minutes every second day? Or a solid two hours once a week?
Can you put the must-do aside for now, and get to it later?
We’ll talk more about seasons, in another post. But for now, think about whether you can abandon the must-do for a month or two, or more.
Are there must-dos on your list that could be done consecutively, using the same timeslot on the schedule? For example, you have a yoga class from 7-8pm every Tuesday, but the class finishes in five weeks’ time. Could you use the hour once class has finished to start the Couch-to-5K challenge?
Only start eating into the time you have blocked for writing and higher priority must-dos as a last step to make the schedule work. Fight to preserve the minimum time for your must-dos, even if it means off-loading lower-priority items that you thought were must-dos, but realize you can live without (even if it’s just for now).
Tweak and change, refit and hammer, until you have a schedule you can live with…for now.
Your Would-be-nice list
If you have a very parred down life, it is possible that you will be able to schedule all your must-dos, and still have time for your would-be-nice list. In which case, drop in the activities you want into the spare spaces on your schedule.
If you can’t fit all your must-dos onto your schedule, and you’re looking at your would-be-nice list and feeling depressed about giving them up, here’s a tactic I use to make sure I get to at least some of the would-be-nice stuff once in a while:
- I find time on the schedule, somewhere. Even an hour a week (although, as you get smarter at juggling, you can often find more than that).
- For me, that hidden/bonus time is “spare time”.
- I create a list of spare-time activities I really want to do, and sort them into the order I want to do them (this order changes frequently, I hasten to add).
- Then, in my spare time, I tackle the first on the list, usually with a smile on my face, for this spare time feels like a reward.
My spare time list has completely unrelated items on it — bead jewellery projects, on-line courses I want to take, even stories and novels I want to write that are completely outside my oevre and genre. Making birthday and Christmas gifts. Sewing garments.
I also use my spare time as “overflow” time for my day-to-day writing tasks. Say, for example, I’m in to-the-mattresses mode, catching up on my production schedule because Resistance has kicked my butt for a couple of weeks and now I’m paying for it.
If you study my schedule, you’ll notice that I don’t itemise every single task and chore in my life. I group related tasks in to blocks of time and use that time to tackle them one after another. (I keep the lists of those related tasks in ToDoist.) My writing day is divided up into writing, administration, spare time writing, and personal tasks. “Administration” is the catch-all, that includes pre- and post-production, writing business matters, promotion, and everything else that isn’t concerned with getting books written. My task lists in ToDoist make sure I tackle everything when I should during that “Administration” time.
This blocking principal works well if you have an overwhelming number of tasks — which describes most indie fiction authors.
When you’ve finished this step, you will have a schedule that works and that includes writing time. Congratulations!
Now you can build next week’s calendar, confident that you will have time to tackle everything important, because it’s all there on your schedule.
You will never get it all done.
It is simply not possible to get everything done in a day or week that you, the world, other experts, your boss and life in general expects you to do.
Scheduling (and life) is an exercise in compromise. That’s why prioritizing the “shoulds” into must-nice-luxury categories will ensure you get the critical stuff done first.
There’s a huge number of tactics and strategies for squeezing a little bit more out of your schedule–a lot of them you’ll find on this site and on other time management and productivity sites, and in books, podcasts and other resources.
Scheduling is an iterative process.
Scheduling is not a set-and-forget thing.
As soon as you put your first schedule into place and try to abide by it, you will quickly realize that you haven’t allowed nearly enough time to do xxx, or way, way too much time to do xxx. Or you have completely forgotten about xxx.
For a while, it will feel like you’re constantly tweaking and adjusting your schedule. That’s natural.
As you get better at it, you’ll find the schedule settles down and you’re making real progress on your writing. Plus, life becomes easier. You don’t have to stress about getting things done, or remembering to do them, because the schedule ensures they’ll be looked after.
You’ll still make periodic adjustments as your life changes or big events shuffle everything around. But mostly, the stress of every day juggling will drain away.
Best, you’ll be writing regularly, and there’s nothing to beat the satisfaction that will give you.