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.
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.
Yes, even before setting goals, you should first set up and master your schedule.
It’s that powerful.
Why you need a schedule
As the list above should have hinted at, 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.
As writing is an “upper right quadrant” exercise — that is, it 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 things but writing stuff.
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.
The aim is not to create the perfect schedule first time out of the gate.
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 increases.
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.
Although you’re creating a daily schedule, think about things you do weekly–they need to be added to the list, too.
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 usually use blocks of 30 minutes, although if I’m really under pressure, I will break the days up into 15 minute segments.
I put the days of the week along the top.
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 view of my current schedule:
I’ve also used a table in Word, for Word will do almost the same merging/coloring/prioritizing as Excel.
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, just start.
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, even though I work from home, I have 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 is easier to fit in with that cycle, as I still have family members who work Mon-Fri day jobs. Their presence in the house, or not, affect how some activities are scheduled.
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 Hemmingway 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.
If you split your writing activities up into first draft + everything else, add both types of blocks in.
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.
Right now, all my spare time, except for date-critical projects, is formally dedicated to writing my first thriller series.
I also use my spare time as “overflow” time for my day-to-day writing tasks. This week, 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, production, blogging & marketing, and “business”, which is a bit of a catch-all.
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!
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.