My first exams of the summer begin this coming Monday. On Tuesday, I have two more. A few weeks after that, the real fun begins, and it’s exam galore. Needless to say, my word-count per-day quota is going to take a hit for the next month or two. In fact, this week I’m cutting it right down to a page a day, and only an hour of reading.
But, for the rest of the year, usually I’m no less busy. For those who are unfamiliar with my life, I’m a Physics undergrad, and balancing the workload with my reading and writing is a constant exercise in plate spinning.
So how do I do it? Some secret formula, or a hermit lifestyle devoid of leisure?
Well, sometimes the latter. But, most of the time, I manage to get it all in there by following a few basic principles. Here’s eight things I try to tell myself every day.
1. Get out of bed already
A lot of people spend their mornings mooching around in a half-daze, staring out the window or slouched in front of the morning news. They’re up because they’ve got work or class in an hour, but that seems so far away. So they stew, and all the while precious minutes slip through their fingers.
But you can turn that around with a few easy fixes. While you’re munching on your Cheerios, set a book or an e-reader down in front of you, and get a few pages in. You’re a writer, after all, so reading should be a big part of your life. A few more pages now is a few less to cram in later.
Staring out the window with your sunrise brew? Keep a notepad next to you, and jot down a few ideas. If nothing comes to you, take out a story you’ve been working on, and spent a few minutes editing. You might only get a page or so done, but it’ll soon add up if you make it a habit.
2. Make a plan
You’ve got work. You’ve got to take the kids to school. You’ve got dinner to make when you get home. Then your friend’s coming over. You need to hit the gym. You have to spend time with your family. There’s a documentary on tonight that you just can’t miss.
But then there’s everything else, everything that makes you a writer: reading, blogging, tweeting, networking, researching, drafting, editing, and of course the writing itself!
Then you have to find time to sleep, somewhere.
How can somebody do all of that? It’s too much!
Well, it is if you look at it like that, up in the air and nebulous. Knowing you have to pack all that in without a clear-cut plan will always lead to a string of half-completed tasks, none of which are done half as well as they would have been if you’d concentrated on them individually.
So, make sure you know what you’re going to be doing, and when. Plot out a timeline, making sure you allow for travel-time, meal-times, and breaks. This will give you a clear picture of exactly what you can expect to achieve that day. This way, you won’t end up beating yourself up because you couldn’t do EVERYTHING. You’ll have an excuse: the laws of physics got in the way.
3. Use those spare moments
This is closely related to number 1, but I think it deserves a separate mention. I’m not talking about those stagnant hours in your day. I’m talking about those brief intermissions between daily routines. When you have a few minutes after your lunch break, when you’re waiting to pick your kids up, when you’re waiting for public transport, or when you’re waiting for your computer to boot.
Use those moments. Don’t spent them idly staring into space, or scrolling Flipboard on your iPhone. It’s all good time, and those precious seconds can build up just as much as those morning sessions I mentioned.
Keep a book in your pocket all the time, even if it’s a slim volume of poetry. Better yet, get an e-reading app on your smartphone or tablet; that way you’ve always got access to something to read.
It’s also a great idea to keep a pocket notebook with you to jot down a few ideas or prompts. You can always find them surrounding you, especially when you’ve stopped for a minute and have become a temporary spectator. Even if it’s a sentence, or a single word. It’s something.
4. Never skimp on exercise
Writing is a sedentary task, as are all the other tasks associated with it. If you couple a few hours a day of that with jobs or studying, most of which are just as sedentary, then you’re going to become a malformed lump in no time. And your body’s degradation will tell on your output.
If you don’t get out and do something at least once a day, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Getting the blood pumping will give your brain an Oxygen boost, and kick-start your metabolism, both of which are vital to keep going when you’d gladly crawl onto the sofa for a Netflix marathon.
Exercise aside, getting outside is vital for its own sake. You need scheduled breaks to give you some contrast, and keep things in perspective. Otherwise it’s all too easy to end up in a downward spiral, and fly yourself right into the dirt.
5. Work around your highs and lows
Everyone has natural energy variations throughout the day. Some people are jumping jacks in the morning, some are night owls, and some people (like me) suddenly slump into a catatonic state for no apparent reason as soon as the clock strikes 3PM. Be aware of what works best for you, and work that into your schedule.
If you’re low in the evening, then get your writing done before you leave the house in the morning. If you’re flagging in the middle of the afternoon when you’re at work, then don’t try to make yourself research nineteenth-century agricultural methods for your novel as soon as you get home.
When you’re at your lowest, take a refreshing nap, if circumstances allow. If that’s too airy-fairy for you, then use this time to catch up on whatever else you enjoy. Call a friend, or just slob out for ten minutes. That might sound counterproductive, but you’re not going to get anything meaningful done when all your presiding mental voice can say is, ‘Mlaargh…’.
The best thing, I find, is to take my exercise when I’m flagging. It’s gets you over the hump, and gives you the momentum to get back to work afterwards.
6. Eat right
This is tied into number 4, but it’s no less important. If you eat crap, you’ll feel crap. Sure, a Mars bar might keep you going for another half hour when you’re in mid-flow of a great action scene. You’re really FEELING you main character’s struggle to reach the top of that mountain, you can’t stop now!
But chomping down all that chocolate comes at a cost, and when you crash half an hour later, you’ll regret it. Especially when you find that you haven’t got a hope in hell of doing any of the myriad other tasks left to accomplish.
So don’t eat rubbish, but don’t forget to eat at all, either. Make rigid mealtimes an integral part of your schedule. You can also use this time to tick the ‘family-time’ box among your daily tasks. Take a step away, eat a home-cooked, nutritious meal that takes time to prepare, and keep your body in good working order. All that will feed back to a positive mental attitude, and enough energy to keep going.
7. Treat yourself
We write because we must. I love every moment I spend with pen to paper or finger to key. But there are certain things about the process I loathe. Drafting, for instance, I find very hard to break into. I have to let manuscripts stew for a few months in a drawer before I can return to them with a fresh mind.
I make no bones about the fact that I spend those few months with one eye on that closed drawer, dreading the moment I have to open it up and try to make sense of what I’ve written. Don’t get me wrong, once I’ve got a flow going, I’m right back to the world I’ve created, loving it all once again.
It’s just getting started that I find difficult.
Everyone has their own peeve, their own thing that they find irksome and, yes, just a plain chore.
So, when it comes to tackling that special ugliness in your writing life, make sure you have a carrot to dangle in front of your face. Have some light at the end of the tunnel.
If you don’t, you’ll get home from a long day, feed your spouse, clean the car, pay the bills, then find that all that awaits you until you drop exhausted into bed is a four-hour stint of something you’d simply rather not do. And that, folks, is how things don’t get done.
It only has to be a small thing. Even if it’s a cookie after finishing that blog post, or calling up a friend once you’ve finished ten pages of proofreading. The little things make all the difference.
8. If it ain’t working, move on
Number 2 is vital. I’ll stick to my guns there. But don’t make your plan so rigid that one hiccough backs up the whole day.
Because you will get stuck. Some days you’ll sit down to your 8AM editing session, and find that you just can’t stand to look at the page.
“But I have to get this done, it’s in the schedule!” you’ll groan. And so begins the self-punishment. And from then on, the whole day’s tasks are behind, because you forced yourself to make a half-arsed effort in the morning on something that probably could have waited.
Instead, whenever you find that you hit a roadblock, give it a few minutes to see if it passes, and then move on. Do something else. Put it on the back-burner, save it for later if you think you might have time, or try swapping it out with another task later in the day. Odds are when you come to it afresh, you’ll jump right in.
Got any tips on juggling the writing life yourself? Disagree with something stupid I’ve said? Comment below and let us know!