Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Ideal" Life vs. "Real" Life: Where Does the Time Go?"

As Mary Ann mentioned in her last post, we received an Ask the TeachingAuthors question regarding time management. Pam T. of Illinois asked for advice about how to allocate time between actual writing, reading, improving your craft, etc.

Like Mary Ann, I don't feel I really have "the answer." My ideal writing day (when I'm not teaching) would look like this:
  • 1 hour -- meditating/praying/spiritual reading
  • 3-4 hours -- writing/revising
  • lunch break
  • 1 hour -- historical research (I'm working on a historical novel.)
  • 1 hour -- walking/exercising (preferably outdoors)
  • 1 hour -- emailing/blog writing and reading/Facebook
  • dinner break/family activities/meetings
  • 1 hour -- reading other historical YA or adult novels (before bed)
However, in real life, my day looks more like this:
  • 0-.5 hours -- meditating/praying/spiritual reading
  • 0-.5 hours -- writing/revising
  • 2-3 hours -- historical research
  • lunch break
  • 4-5 hours -- emailing/blog writing and reading/Facebook
  • 0-.5 hours -- walking/exercising
  • dinner break/family activities/meetings
  • 0-.5 hours -- reading other historical YA or adult novels (before bed)
It's obvious that two activities are absorbing much more time than I intend: historical research and email/blogging/Facebook. Both are forms of procrastination. I know that the procrastination is triggered, at least in part, by perfectionism. The historical novel I'm working on is set in 18th-century Italy, and since I can't time-travel, I worry about getting the details wrong. To compensate, I over-research. And I waste time. After all, if I never finish the project, no one will know if I get the details wrong.

I have yet to "cure" myself of this problem. However, I have found some things that help:
  1. At the start of my work day, I set a timer for 2 hours and make myself focus on writing/revising until the timer goes off. I don't allow myself to read email or do anything else during that time.
  2. I now track email time separately from blog-related time. Using the same timer technique as in #1, I allow myself only 1 hour of each per day. That's still more than my "ideal" but it's better than what I was doing before.
  3. I try to remind myself: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." To read more about this concept, check out The Happiness Project blog.
  4. I set monthly goals for my writing progress that I share with a group of fellow writers. We periodically report our progress to each other. Shame can be a great motivator.
I could say much more on this topic, but I'm running out of blogging time for today. :-) I'll leave it to my fellow TeachingAuthors to continue the discussion. And if any of you have time-management tips you'd like to share, do let us know. Meanwhile, here's a time-management Writing Workout.

Writing Workout: Where Does the Time Go?

For a week or two, keep a log of how you spend your time. I do my record keeping in a small journal or notebook. When I start a task, I note my start time and a brief description of the task. For example:
1:15 Blogging.
You can't see it above, but I leave space next to the start time. Later, when I switch to a different task, I note the end time in the blank space. So my sample line now reads

1:15-2:15 Blogging.
I then repeat the process for my next task. At the end of the day, I total up how much time I spent on each task.

1:15-2:15 Blogging 1 hour
2:15-3:00 email 45 minutes

3:00-4:30 writing 1 hour 30 minutes, etc.

Note: I lump my tasks into broad categories so that record keeping itself doesn't become too time-consuming. As you can see above, I don't list individual emails, just the total time spent reading and sending emails.

When I first began logging my activities, I was surprised at how little time I was spending on writing/revising. And I was appalled at how much time I had invested in email and surfing the Internet. While I believe correspondence and networking are crucial to success, I don't want them to take priority over my writing. By regularly tracking and reviewing where my time goes, I'm getting closer to making my "ideal" day look more like my "real" day.

By the way, keeping an activity log is also a good tool for finding more writing time. In Time Management from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern suggests creating "time maps." You can read an introduction to the process at Lifehacker.


Unknown said...

I love that you and the other Teaching Authors are tackling this topic. With three kiddos that I'm homeschooling, I'm at the 5-minutes at a time stage of life :)
I do enjoy reading how everyone else manages their time, and I've picked up a few ideas about how I might manage mine a bit better.

Thanks, ladies!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I liked this - thanks for reminding us all about not letting the email/networking/facebook stuff take over. I have to turn my email OFF to get anything creative done!

Mary Jo said...

Thank you so much for these posts, ladies! I think setting the timer method will work for me, I work best under a ticking deadline...
Happy writing,
Mary Jo