writing advice: time management alone doesn’t cut it

This Friday, I’m going to take a look at a question that I get, in one form or another, all of the time: How do I manage my time and my writing schedule to more successfully make time to write?

If you’re anything like the majority of writers–not independently wealthy, able to maintain meaningful social connections, and committed to something outside of the confines of your home–you struggle with time management. Our lives would be busy even if we didn’t have a giant personal project to juggle, and fitting in time to write can be very difficult.

The thing I notice (and that no one seems to address), however, is that it’s not actually about the time, necessarily. We have a bajillion different systems for managing our time and managing priorities. And usually, even if they’re not 100% optimized, we can carve out the time for the things that are most important to us. We don’t fail to feed our children or dress ourselves because we’re too busy. Eventually, we get the things done that really matter to us.

But even so, even with all the best time management skills in the world, how often have you made time to write and then gotten nothing accomplished? You’re literally at your computer, you’ve eliminated distractions, you’ve juggled your plans, and then you still can’t bring yourself to do this thing that you, by all accounts, actually want very much to do.

It’s not that you’re not a serious writer, and it’s not that you don’t care, so don’t fall into that pit of negative self-talk and despair. The real issue is that we focus on managing time to the detriment of the other resources in our lives: energy and money. All three of these aspects need to be in balance (or, at least, not an active source of dismay) if you want to be able to consistently produce. It’s not just the time that you have to manage.

Now, I know that money means a lot of things to a lot of people, and, since this is a writing blog, this isn’t really the place for that discussion. (This is the place for that discussion, if you’re interested.) But let’s suffice it to say, for the purpose of this argument, that money is your ability to get the things and experiences that you want and need, the stuff that is important to you.

In order to be able to write or produce any kind of original content or thoughtful work, these three aspects of your life need to be examined. Culturally, we focus on time management, but if you don’t have enough food to eat or energy to think, you’re not going to be able to successfully create for very long. Trying to write in a cardboard box or after a 10 hour work day is akin to planting a seed in a crack in a sidewalk and hoping it will grow into a tree. The amount of work (and concrete) that is standing in the way of the little seed creates a situation where even the incredible potential of nature can’t deliver.

This is where writing gets really hard. It’s easy to read books on time management, implement a new system, and feel really productive…until you hit the same wall at your computer. And then curse yourself for your lack of dedication. But that situation is like yelling at the seed in the sidewalk for not being a full-grown maple. It’s not really the seed’s fault. And you look ridiculous.

The hard part here is that you have to take a look at your life and figure out how to give your writing the space and energy that it needs to flourish. You need to figure out how to make rich, dark soil for your little seed–and while addressing time management is easy, managing money and managing energy is not. And sometimes managing energy and money (and even time) means that we need to make some hard decisions for ourselves that we may prefer not to make.

It’s easy to see how your Grey’s Anatomy or Breaking Bad marathons are eating into your writing time…but it’s a lot less easy to identify how your Grandmother’s expectations for your life make you feel bad about yourself. Or how your inner voice is so degrading that you delete every sentence you write. Or how your mortgage ties you to a job that shrivels your soul.

While I’m not advocating that you abandon those you care about the most, quit your job, and pound out words instead of eating, it is crucial to understand what parts of your life make you feel drained, and which activities replenish you. Just like the seed doesn’t grow without water, you can’t create without energy. You need to be able to think, and retaining energy to do that thinking is not selfish or silly–it’s crucial.

And when money enters the picture, it gets even more complicated. While we don’t need money to live (you can’t eat it or drink it or live under it), we do trade money in this modern world for actual bodily necessities. If you try to write without any money whatsoever, it is going to challenge your ability to take care of yourself physically, and it is going to sap your energy worrying about your next meal. While I know that all of you are not starving artists, there’s a balance on the other side as well. Making a million dollars a year is no good for your word count, either, if you travel 80% of the time, work 12 hour days, and worry about your office while you should be sleeping.

These three issues interact and evolve in any number of ways for each individual person, and I don’t have a specific answer for you in particular. But, the takeaway is that, ultimately, you need to examine your life, especially if you are making time for writing and unable to produce. Taking a different angle may help shed some light on the parts of your life that are not overtly impeding your production but are draining your energy and interfering with your self-care.

And, if you find that is the case, the next step is identifying the changes that you have to make in order to turn your sidewalk crack into a field of arable soil. Protect your energy. Take care of yourself. Give yourself the optimal conditions to produce, and you will find that the words flow and the thoughts come in a way that is completely different than before.

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