“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of,
but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
– Robert Heinlein
Reason #1: “I don’t have time!”
“Time unbound is hard to handle.”
– May Sarton
We all lead busy lives and there are lots we’d like to do, but often can’t fit it all in. Writing can be like that. A nice-to-do, even a want-to-do, yet somehow it becomes a never-quite-get-round-to-it.
Well, brace yourself. I’m about to let you into a nasty little secret; a time-swallowing monster that most of us aren’t even aware of. Conquer it, even in a modest way, and in six months or a year’s time, you could be thumbing through the first draft of a completed book.
There’s no magic here. No mysteries. No arcane secrets. Nothing to buy. No special software or clever tools. All that’s required is a little commonsense, a little thought, and a willingness to give it a go.
Are you with me?
The ticking clock
How long is a lifetime? Assuming you make it to 80 years of age, you’ll clock up a little over 700,000 hours, or 4,100 weeks. What’s more, you’ll spend more than 1,300 of those weeks asleep.
Let’s break it down further.
There are 168 hours in a week — seven days times 24 hours. Subtract a third (56 hours) for beddy-byes and we’re left with just 112 hours in which to cram everything else.
A little over a hundred years ago, you’d have spent 70 of those 112 waking hours at work. Today, in most developed countries, the average work week is 30-40 hours, which leaves 72-82 hours unaccounted for.
Of course, we don’t just sleep and work, so let’s break it down some more:
Let’s also factor in meal breaks:
What, you only spend ten minutes on breakfast and eat lunch on the run? Maybe you spend two hours preparing dinner and dining with a loved one. Bear with me. These figures are only rough. I’m making generalisations and being a little over-generous.
There’s one thing missing from the above calculations and that’s general living tasks like shopping, household chores, chilling out, meeting friends, playing with the kids, walking the dog, and … well, having a life. Let’s allow three hours a day for that …
You probably don’t spend six hours a week shopping, five hours chatting to friends and so on — or if you do they’re often combined with other activities like commuting or weekday lunch hours. Remember, this is just a general estimate. The important figure is that bottom line. Even with an allowance of 21 hours for just feeding your face, it still leaves 20 hours a week free!
Let me repeat that: 20 hours a week, free!
So where the hell does it go …?
Tracking down lost time
The calculations above are broad and very general. What we really need is some specific data about you, your habits, your situation and your responsibilities. It’s time for a little exercise.
Starting now, keep a timesheet. Whether or not you do it for a full week is optional. If one working day is pretty much like another, just record two or three of them. Weekends are often more varied, but again, what we’re looking for is the general pattern. If you have a regular work-week then head off for a weekend’s skiing, and you don’t do that every weekend, pick a more regular weekend to record. Likewise, if you happen to be reading this while on a Caribbean cruise or touring Tibet by yak — and you don’t normally do that — leave it till you get home.
Don’t include every single thing calculated to the second. Just work in 15-minute blocks. And general headings like these will do:
- Personal grooming (showers, getting ready for work, make-up, haircuts, etc.)
- Household chores (grocery shopping, laundry, etc.)
- Caring for others (kids, elderly relatives, grandkids, etc.)
- Education and courses (outside of work, obviously)
- Meals (including preparation time and washing up)
- Travel or commuting
- Leisure time:
- Sports, exercise, recreation
- Socialising (in person)
- Socialising (online: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.)
- Computer use (playing games, browsing, news, etc.)
- TV (broadcast television, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. whether watched on TV, phone, computer or tablet)
- Other leisure activities
Some of this stuff falls into what I call double-up territory. What about having lunch with a friend or checking Facebook from your desk? Just record whatever the principle activity was. (In these cases, Meals and Work.)
To make adding up easier, use decimals:
- 15 minutes = 0.25
- 30 minutes = 0.50
- 45 minutes = 0.75
So two-and-a-half hours plus three-and-three-quarter hours would look like: 2.50 + 3.75. (Which equals 6.25, or six-and-a-quarter hours.)
The key thing is be honest. If you spent 19 hours blobbing out watching re-runs of a favourite TV series, don’t put it down to Education. The only person you’re fooling is yourself.
Now get to work. See you in a few days time!
Results from Sally …
Below you’ll find a sample from a 24-year-old friend called Sally. Her days vary considerably, so she spent a full week recording things day by day.
Results from Bob …
Bob is a 42-year-old whose work days don’t vary much, so he just recorded two of them, averaged them out and multiplied by five to make up a working week. He did, however, keep a full record of his “typical” weekend:
… and your results?
Assuming this was a typical week for you — there was no unexpected rush at work, no family crisis or other emergency — you’ll now have a pretty good picture of where you spend your time, and your leisure time in particular. Most people are surprised. Some are horrified.
Your results may differ wildly from Bob and Sally’s — there’s no “correct” answer — but I suspect you’ll have one thing in common with both of them; a good slice of your leisure time is spent watching television. According to Business Insider, “the average human being spends about 4 hours a day, or 28 hours a week, watching television.”
TV’s Sneaky Secret
Did you know that a typical TV hour is really only 43 minutes long? The rest is advertising, “station identification”, previews and promos for upcoming shows — which are, of course, also advertising. So if you spend 28 hours a week in front of the goggle box, you’re spending almost 8 hours watching ads!
And that’s it. That’s the time-sapping secret of most peoples’ lives: they watch TV. (This includes broadcast, satellite, cable, video on demand, etc.) In fact, they spend almost as much time in front of the television as they spend at work.
Things are changing. TV viewing hours are dropping, particularly amongst younger people. But they’re being replaced with time online: social networking, chatting, playing games, and so on.
The Addiction Connection
Ever wondered why TV movies have no ads in the first 15-20 minutes, or why you can seem to keep scrolling down Facebook forever? Two reasons: to get you hooked, and keep you there.
TV networks know that anyone watching the first 15-20 minutes of a movie is probably going to see it through, so they can steadily increase the ad frequency. Which they do. (Ever notice how many ads you get near the end of a movie? That’s not a coincidence!)
The internet’s no different. The reason Facebook appears to be bottomless is that eternal scrolling-down suggests, “Hey, there’s still more to see yet.” Likewise, if you visit YouTube and watch a video clip, once it’s over the site will automatically start another, related one. (Unless you click to cancel it.) The idea in both cases is to keep you there, improve the quality of the data they collect about you, and, hopefully, sell you more stuff.
These aren’t chance developments. Big websites and TV networks consult psychologists to improve their addiction profiles.
So what can we do about it? How can we fight all these things that are conspiring to suck up our precious leisure time?
That’s what we’re here for. Onward!
First, the bad news: If you want to write, no one is going to hand you a box of time in which to do so. You’re going to have to find that time yourself. The good news is that it’s not that difficult. Armed with the knowledge of where your time’s currently going, we can start to make some headway.
What follows are a few simple techniques to get you started on the path of regular writing. But first, let’s slay a common myth.
The fallacy of goal setting
Despite what everyone tells you, setting goals is mostly a waste of time, and in many cases it’s self-defeating. Imagine, for example, you set yourself a goal of going to the gym five times a week. Exercise can be hard work, particularly when you’re starting out, and especially if you already put a lot of energy into your job. Most people don’t really enjoy gym workouts and only go along because they feel they have to. The least temptation — a couple of drinks after work, catching up with a friend, a cold, a late night the night before — and you’ll skip a session, promising yourself you’ll catch up at the weekend, or next week … yet somehow you never do. Pretty soon, that daily workout’s down to three times a week, then two, then none.
Sound familiar? Yep, we’ve all done it.
(It’s also the reason why gyms sell memberships, not one-trip tickets. It guarantees their income because only 18% of members use the gym regularly and consistently.)
Many years ago I joined a company that had a corporate gym. I went along and did a fitness test, pedalling a stationary bicycle for a fixed number of minutes before having my pulse and respiratory rate checked to see how quickly I recovered. The fitness instructor graphed my results and said, ‘So what sports do you play?’
‘Sports? Me?’ I laughed. ‘I don’t.’
‘Something social, then: jogging, swimming, surfing, social football?’
I shook my head.
He looked puzzled and checked his graph again. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I ski a bit in the winter. A week, maybe. And the occasional weekend.’
He shook his head. ‘It won’t be that. You must be doing something regularly.’
I racked my brains. ‘I do walk to work each day.’
‘It’s about twenty minutes each way.’
He threw up his hands. ‘There you go. You’re doing two workouts a day!’
Two workouts a day? I’d never guessed. And if someone had told me I had to do two workouts a day (or even one), my answer would have turned their ears blue.
What I’d lucked into by pure chance was a system, not a goal. That system carried me to and from work each day. I never once thought of walking as a workout — and I still don’t. It’s a way to get somewhere, certainly, but it’s also a time to think, to meet people and chat, listen to music or an audiobook. It’s not dependent on anything. There are no scheduled classes, no start and stop times. I can head out early and dawdle, work late, have a drink afterwards, go to a movie and dinner, and still complete my workout for the day. I don’t think of it as a part of an exercise regime or a scheme for healthy living. It’s just what I do.
It passes what I call the Toothbrush Test.
No one ever agonises over brushing their teeth. No one goes,”‘I’m not in the mood to brush right now,” or “I’m too tired,” or “I’ll double-brush tomorrow.” They just do it without agonising over it, or even really thinking about it. It’s a habit. An ingrained system: Going to bed? Brush teeth. Morning shower? Brush teeth.
If you can sneak writing into your daily routine and make it a habit, you’re on your way. For many years I set my alarm an hour earlier than I really needed for work and got into the habit of writing before breakfast. It became an unthinking part of my routine. I just did it.
Here’s another reason why goals aren’t helpful. Consider these worthy aims:
- In two years’ time, I’m going to have my boss’s job.
- I’m going to lose 20lb/10Kg’s by Christmas.
- This year I’m going to write a novel.
What’s missing here?
You probably spotted it right away. That’s right, the how. How do you plan to get your boss’s job in two years’ time? How are you going to lose that much weight? How will you go about writing a novel?
Now consider these alternatives:
- I’m going to build my knowledge and qualifications by doing part-time courses in business administration, accountancy and IT.
- Instead of buying a two-zone bus ticket each month, I’m going to buy a one-zone ticket and walk that extra zone.
- Every work day, I’m going to write 300 words during my lunch break.
See the difference? Systems, not goals. Simple practices that will lead you to your goals — and maybe way beyond. Concrete things you can start doing right away.
A practical way to get a system like this going is to use Intention Statements, simple declarations of what, when and where you will undertake a task. Use this format:
During the next week, I will [ACTION] on [DAY] [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].
For example, a would-be writer might declare:
During the next week, I will write at least 300 words
every working day
starting at 6:00 am
in my home office.
During the next week, I will write for 30 minutes
on every work-day lunch break
starting at 12:15
in the library near my workplace.
There are three key points to remember:
- Be specific. Research shows that 91% of people who write their intention statements out fully end up following through, compared with only 35% of people who don’t plan the where and when.
- Be reasonable. Choose an action you think you can achieve and sustain. 300 words in an hour is reasonable (and notice that “at least”), whereas 3,000 words isn’t.
- Set a daily reminder. Set a reminders on your phone or calendar every Sunday. This not only adds a gentle call to action, but it reminds you to plan for weeks when things don’t go as planned. Perhaps you’ve got a heavy work commitment coming up or have to travel. It gives you a chance to modify your plan ahead of time — which enhances your sense of control.
Writing with a tomato
Now you’ve set aside a slice of time, you might consider the Pomodoro Technique, a method of time-management many writers find useful. It was developed by Francesco Crillo in the 1980’s and takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Crillo originally used. (Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”.)
There’s a whole website devoted to it, but you really only need three items to get started:
- A pencil.
- A piece of paper.
- A timer of some sort.
You can use a timing app on your computer or phone, but I prefer a mechanical kitchen timer — the type you twist and set. There are a number of reasons for “going analogue”. If you’re working on a computer, you really don’t want any more distractions on it, (see the next chapter), and your phone should be silenced and shut in a drawer for the same reason. There’s something about the physical action of twisting and setting the timer that helps me focus on the task, and I find the quiet tick-tick-tick in the background a subtle prompt to keep going.
A pomodoro is 25-minutes long. It is absolutely indivisible! There’s no such thing as a half-pomodoro or three-fifths of one. If you don’t complete a pomodoro, it’s just not counted.
Here’s how to “pomodoro”
- Decide on a task; writing, revising, editing, etc.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the timer rings.
- When it rings, put a tick on the piece of paper.
- If you have fewer than four ticks, take a five-minute break then go back to Step 2.
- If you’ve accumulated four ticks, put a line through them to cancel them out and take a 15-20 minute break. When you return, go back to Step 1.
Think back to the quote at the beginning of this chapter: Time unbound is hard to handle. And it is! If the boss gives you a week to write a report, you can bet it’ll take a week, but if he wants it by tomorrow …
The advantage of working this way is that it breaks time into manageable units which helps you keep focused. (“No, I won’t check my email till the timer rings.”) What’s more, the pomodoros don’t have to be contiguous. I know of one writer who makes her four-a-day by doing two in the morning before work, one at lunchtime, and one in the evening. Writer Kat Loterzo credits the technique with helping her draft a book in just three weeks.
What you do in the breaks is up to you. Check your phone, meditate, do a little light exercise, grab some fresh air … My preference is to get away from my desk and do something non-writerly and non-tech, like washing the breakfast dishes or playing with the cat, but it’s entirely up to you. Just be back at your desk in five minutes time, all right?
Carving out some “you” time
However you choose to work, try to make it regular. An hour every week-day is better than five hours at the weekend for two reasons. First, weekends are goof-off times. It’s harder to get motivated, and if someone suggests some fun activity or a couple of days away, you’ve just blown that week’s writing. Second, it’s more efficient. Doing it daily keeps the story ticking over in the back of your mind. You won’t find yourself sitting down and thinking, “Where did I get up to last week …?”)
Now you know how much leisure time you have each week and where it goes, carve out a regular slot each day for writing. Aim for an hour and try to write 300 words in that time. (How much is 300 words? Six times this paragraph, which measures 50 words.)
Three hundred words may sound a lot, but it’s only five words a minute. That’s one word every 12 seconds. You can do that, surely? Try speaking at the rate of one word every 12 seconds. Sheesh!
And if you can’t do a full hour in a single sitting, break it down. Aim for 150 words in 30 minutes, 75 words in 15 minutes, or even 25 words in five minutes. Why? Because the numbers soon start adding up. Check it out …
300 words x 5 days a week = 1,500 words a week
1,500 words x 52 weeks = 78,000 words in a year
The average novella is 30-40,000 words. The average novel is 70-80,000 words. That’s two novellas or one novel in a year. In less time than you now spend watching ads on television.
So get writing!
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Keep a timesheet to see where your time goes.
♦ Use systems, not goals.
♦ Try making intention statements.
♦ Write with a tomato: try the Pomodoro Technique.