I mentioned this exercise in a journal-writing workshop I just taught for the Hermosa Arts and History Association (HAHA) on Saturday, March 16th, 2019.
If you take one week to monitor where you spend your time you will discover what your current priorities are, even if they are unintentional. Once you realize where your time is going, you can choose your priorities and make changes in how you spend your time so that you can accomplish your goals– in this case, writing goals.
The Time Monitor
Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day [96 lines for a 24-hour day]. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.
Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: … cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don’t think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.
Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.
* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.
* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, “Sorry we don’t have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn’t go get it.”
* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you’ll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer’s block.
* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don’t schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.
Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.
How to Benefit from the Time Monitor
At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities– no matter what you might have told yourself or others.
If you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mindset as well as your actions.
Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don’t try to change too much too soon. That is, don’t immediately say, “Well, NEXT week I’ll spend 5 hours a day writing.” Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don’t try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.
Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.
Suggestions to Consider While Changing Your Priorities
* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you’re fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.
* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don’t try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and “fail,” you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.
* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.
* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think “Five minutes isn’t long enough to do anything,” but if you’ve been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don’t have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought–washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.
* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it’s time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don’t write where you sleep– where your body and mind are trained to slow down– or vice versa; don’t eat or watch TV in your writing place.
* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, “OK, it’s time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing.” Anything that works for you is acceptable.
* Don’t get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven’t created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning– as writing is– requires energy.
* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing– your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it’s not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.
* Avoid noise distractions. I can’t write with the radio on– the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises– traffic, for example– and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don’t play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I’m trying to write.
* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you’ve asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don’t know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.
In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:
A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:
“I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”
Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:
“Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery
or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.”
— from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (NY: Ballantine, 1992)
If these gentler messages don’t work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative– “You are rude, you are ruining my work”– try putting the message more positively: “I am having trouble with what I’m working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? ”
Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone– your mother, for example– while asking her not to interrupt: “Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I’ve created this writing job for myself.” Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.
* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)
Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas.”
interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.
* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It’s hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives– turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: “I’m working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” The deadline might be your own– “I’m going to finish this today”– but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.
* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively– not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Organizing Your Time
* What little task can I finish in five minutes?
Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: “I am making progress.”
* Am I beating myself up?
Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up– berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.
I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!
I am arriving;
I am home.
I am here;
this is now.
I am rooted;
I am free.
in the ultimate.
–Buddhist gatha, prayer
* Is this a piano?
Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: “Well, this ain’t no piano.” If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don’t ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well– doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.
Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don’t have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.
* How did I waste time today?
As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you’re more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”
* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?
Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt– that deadline, you know– and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.
* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?
Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.
* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn’t do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.
The investment of time will pay off– often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.
* Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you– what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.
* Would I pay myself for what I’m doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you’ve just taken your third popcorn break.
An Exercise That Refreshes and Recharges
The Roaring Lion
Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged– with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.
The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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(This blog was originally published on my website’s blog page on April 18, 2012)