“I’ll get more writing done when I only have one child to care for.” That’s what I told myself when I was juggling the care of three toddlers: my son, nephew, and niece. But eventually, I only had my son to care for and my writing output seemed about the same. “When my son goes to preschool, I’ll get more writing done.” Off he went, three mornings a week, but my writing remained the same. “When he goes to kindergarten for a full day, I’ll get tons of writing done.” Except I didn’t. I was producing the same amount of work in six and a half empty hours a day as when I was changing diapers, warming bottles, and playing hide and seek. I realized I had to dissect my days and pinpoint how all the free time was disappearing.
What I found were the black holes of the writer’s work place—time suckers. It doesn’t matter if you’re dedicating six hours a day to your writing or 30 minutes, time suckers can quickly cut that time in half without you even realizing it. So, it’s time for you to outlaw the time suckers and get serious about writing.
The kids are on the bus by 7:30 a.m. and you’re sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper and planning your day. The problem is you can see the sink piled high with dishes and the messy living room. You have all this free time, so what’s a few minutes? You can go through yesterday’s mail as you eat, then quickly unload and load the dishwasher. On the way to your computer, you can grab a few toys off the floor and head to the kids’ rooms where the beds are unmade…
It’s true that each of these jobs only takes a few minutes, but if you whirl through the house like a cleaning tornado, you’ll easily eat up an hour or two. And if you manage to avoid the morning cleaning session, you’ll find yourself taking cleaning breaks throughout the day—a load of laundry here, running the sweeper there. It’s even easier to overlook the time those “breaks” took since they’re just brief interruptions. By the end of the day, you’re certain you wrote for two hours but it was really more like an hour with four cleaning breaks.
Break the news to your family: there will be no housework done before the kids arrive home from school. Your job is to write; not to create a Better Homes and Garden home. Straightening and cleaning the house is a family responsibility.
“Stop to ask yourself: Is this something I can only do during my writing time or can it just as easily be done another time?”
Hobbies can steal a lot of your writing time: scrapbooking, church choir, shooting baskets in the driveway. It’s easy to underestimate the time you spend since these are things you like to do—unlike scrubbing the toilet. Also, many of our hobbies are good for us or our family. Exercising, gardening, and baking (my big weakness when I have writer’s block) are all hobbies hard to qualify as time-wasters. Stop to ask yourself: Is this something I can only do during my writing time or can it just as easily be done another time? Can you bake while you’re on call for your kids while they do homework? Can you exercise while waiting to pick your son up from baseball practice?
Then there’s television. If you’re protesting that you only watch three shows a week, stop! Admit it, once the TV is on, it becomes difficult to pull yourself away. How many times have you broken the promise to only watch your favorite show and then go back to writing? After all, there’s always another show coming on, you have six million channels to choose from, you’re in your comfy chair and often there are snacks! Find a way to control the TV temptation. I found it easier to ban television completely during my writing time. Can you Tivo your show and save it as a reward for finishing your 1000 words?
But it isn’t a hobby, it’s work. As writers we can conveniently shove so many of our favorite hobbies into the “for work” category. Reading books, magazines, and newspapers, visiting the library, history society, and websites. Even a leisurely stroll to your mailbox or post office can eat up 30 minutes. Again, you have to weigh your ability to accomplish the tasks at another time. Do you need quiet time to write? Then don’t waste your alone time researching on the web if you can easily surf while your kids watch Nicktoons. Write better in the morning? Then don’t waste your breakfast time reading the newspaper. It’ll wait until afternoon. And be honest with yourself. Sometimes you don’t really need that internet searching, library visit, or book for a writing assignment. Sometimes more research is just a way to avoid writing.
“Some people may view your writing as a hobby, but you know it pays the bills.”
Once you volunteer one time for a cause, school, or organization, you get on THE LIST. They will call you every time they need volunteers. No surprise there; we’ve all experienced it. What you may not realize is that they don’t expect you to say yes every time they ask. Sure, they’re going to ask every time—they’ve already got your name, phone number, and email. It’s their job to contact you. It’s your job to say NO. And the world won’t implode when you do.
Remember the reality of your situation. Maybe you have a day job and write in your spare time. If that’s the case you need all the spare time you can get. Your friends may not realize it, but you actually have two jobs: writing and being a fill-in-the-blank. So be choosy about the time you dedicate to volunteer causes. Or perhaps writing is your full-time job. Some people may view your writing as a hobby, but you know it pays the bills. You wouldn’t expect them to take a day off from their fun-filled cubicle without pay—which is what taking a day off amounts to for you.
So again, be choosy. Also, it helps your bottom line to squeeze in an extra writing session to replace the time you spend volunteering. Choose a volunteer activity that could help your career (writing press releases for a non-profit, anyone?). Or don’t volunteer during your writing time. I could spend days of my writing time soliciting local businesses for donations for our annual school auction. Instead, in between checking homework, making supper, and getting everyone ready for bed, I email national businesses for donations.
“…standing firm makes it easier for everyone.”
Children, partners, friends… You may call them family, but chances are, these people are your biggest time suckers. Since you like spending time with them, a request to go for a walk, play Candyland, or just chat will often leave you wavering. Would it be OK to say yes just this once? But, as with anything, standing firm makes it easier for everyone. First you’ve got to set the rules. Let them know how long you’ll be working. Because I have children, a short burst of writing followed by a burst of kid-time works best for me. Outline the reasons for disturbing you during writing time. Blood, lost children, toddlers using kitchen appliances—yes. Sisterly arguments, snacks, lost cell phones—no.
Sometimes the temptation of having you right there is too much. If it’s possible, head for the nearest diner or find a hiding place inside your house. Like every mom/wife/writer I’ve conducted many phone interviews from behind the bathroom door. The working rules aren’t only for children: friends and family benefit from knowing when you welcome visits or phone calls and when you need to work.
“Unless you write in a hermit’s cave, your family has to become your gatekeepers when the world wants to interrupt.”
Unlike most jobs, you can’t always tell when a writer is writing. If you’re sitting in front of a blank screen, your children might think this is a perfect time to ask if they can play computer games. It’s even tougher when you’ve moved away from your computer or tablet and are deep in thought as you drink coffee or mindlessly wash dishes. That mystery of when you’re writing and when you aren’t can cost you valuable writing time if you don’t make it clear to the world. Years ago, I watched a soap opera where the romance writer wore a feather boa when she was writing, editing, even thinking about her books.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a feather boa. I do have a mantra I repeat whenever a family member approaches me. “I am working now. I am working now. I am working now.” It didn’t take them long to realize it meant I was unapproachable. It also helps to always have a prop like an open tablet you can scribble in furiously when anyone approaches.
Unless you write in a hermit’s cave, your family has to become your gatekeepers when the world wants to interrupt. Teach each family member to say, “She can’t come to the phone/door. She’s in a meeting.” It’s much more effective than “She’s talking to herself and chewing on her eraser.” If you venture outside of your home to write, you’ll have to learn how to brush off friends and acquaintances or you’ll waste all your writing time catching up on the latest gossip. Remember, your writing time is precious. Do you want to spend it chatting about the Henderson’s new car or the budding romance between the high school gym teacher and the school secretary?
Since I’ve pinpointed the five time suckers in my life and taken steps to change my habits, my writing time has become more productive. My goal for this year is to finish my novel, land a regular writing gig, and continue writing my non-fiction articles. With all the extra time I’ve found, I think I can do it.
Jodi M. Webb lives in Pottsville, Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. She has written hundreds of articles for publications such as The History Magazine, Pennsylvania Magazine, and Christian Science Monitor. She has also contributed to anthologies on baseball, gardening, pop culture, married life and the military. Pennsylvania Trivia (Blue Bike Books), a book she co-authored, was released in September 2008. In her spare time, she works on her first novel—the story of a group of women on the homefront during World War II.
Jodi is also WOW! Women On Writing’s Online Sales Representative. You can email her at: jodi[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com.