Thursday, December 9, 2010

Time, Time, Time (tricks I use, part 1)

In some ways, time (as opposed to energy or inspiration) is my biggest stumbling block when it comes to getting enough writing done.  "Enough" is subjective, of course.  In my case, "enough" means writing often and generating a number of pages where it feels like I have some chance of finishing something that can be produced or published.  The rest of life, outside of writing, often conspires (often with my consent) to keep me busy with meetings, projects, and other comings and goings. My writing time is while my kids are in school, 8am-2pm, but that day can disappear pretty quickly. 

People sometimes ask how I manage to get as much written as I do (this year I did major rewrites of two novels, a total rewrite of a full-length play, finished a draft of a new full-length play, and wrote some new short plays).  And then we commiserate about lack of time.  But the truth is, writing comes from sitting your ass in the chair and working.  There's no big secret.  That's how the pages and scenes start to add up.  They might stink, but at least they exist.

It's easy to complain about not getting enough done.  I do it.  Other writers complain to me that they just don't get as much written as they'd like.  There are various tricks I use to make sure I have a little less room for complaining and a little room for actual writing.

The first question to ask is:  how much time do you actually spend writing?  And I'll be a little loose with my definition of writing, in that I don't mean that it only counts if you're actually hitting the keyboard, but I do mean how much time do you spend working on a project at your desk, without checking e-mail, or surfing the internet or Facebook or Twitter?

Since I'm a numbers guy, this year I actually started keeping track.  Using a spreadsheet that I got from one of freelance gigs, I started entering my start and stop time for every writing session.  The times I recorded were for project time, and also journaling and research, not e-mails or internet time (though some research can be done online).

When I started using the time sheet, I discovered a useful trick.  I'd put in my start time as soon as I sat down at my desk and opened up all the various software or notebooks I wanted to use.  But I also wrote down my stop time right I when I started.    So if I planned to write for two hours and sat down at 8, I'd enter 10 as a stop time.  Simple.  But what I found was that the mere act of committing to paper (or bits, really) a concrete stop time, ensured I would sit there at least until 10, and not get up and wander around and get distracted.  Because I'd committed, it'd be painful to go back and edit the entry to show less time.  In fact, I found that not only did I almost always stay until my intended finish time, but I often went over by 15-30 minutes.  Once I'd set my ass in the chair for long enough, I'd generated momentum.

I'd wondered if this would be like a typical workout regiment, and start to evaporate after a few months, but for me, this has continued to work all year.

The nice thing about having a record of my writing time, is that I feel less guilty at the end of a month, and don't have much writing to show for it, because I can look at the spreadsheet, and say, "Hey, what were you expecting?  You didn't have many hours where you were available to actually write something."   Or I might realize that I've allowed myself to become distracted over the past week or so, and if I want to stop feeling ill (I feel a little sick when I don't write), then maybe I'd better cut those distractions out and actually spend some ass in the seat time at my desk.

So, since I started keeping track, in January, I've spent about 417 hours writing.  I don't know if that's good or bad, enough or not enough.  I wrote a lot this year (as I mentioned above) and a lot of the reason is that I spent hundreds of hours actually writing.  I don't have 52 available work weeks a year, but I'd guess that I do have about 40.  So that means I've spent an average of 10 hours per week doing actual writing.  Not even as much as a half time job, but I do a lot of other stuff, too.  And I put a lot of hours into things related to my writing, like meetings, readings, seeing plays, watching movies, reading books, sending out submissions, etc.  In my ideal life, I think I'd probably like to write about 20 hours per week, 4 hours of actual writing time per day, 40 weeks per year, for 800 hours.  For now, I don't know if that's quite within my reach.  I think for next year (we are almost at the season of resolutions, after all), I'd like to be a lot closer to 600 hours of writing time, though I'll be satisfied with anything over 400 hours again.

I recently read an interesting book, The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau, and in it, he mentions author Jim Collins, who wrote From Good to Great.  Collins carefully tracks his working time into three categories—creating and researching, teaching, and other.  His goal is to spend 50% on creating, 30% on teaching, and 20% on everything else.  He tracks all of this obsessively and turns down a lot of offers for speaking gigs, etc.   I like that way of breaking it down.  Something for me to consider.

How many hours per day/week/month/year do you write?  Do you keep track?

Just for kicks, I'll post a blank version of the time sheet that I use (though it's really easy to make your own, of course.  There's nothing remarkable about this, except that it fills in the day of the week by itself).  You can download it here.


E. Hunter Spreen said...

Thank you for sharing this. The time sheet is a good/concrete tool. I've been keeping track in my head, but in the past couple of months I've been very clever about finding excuses not to write for my allotted time - and progress has inevitably slowed. I'll give this a try and see how it goes.

Patrick Gabridge said...

This set up really worked for me this year, in a big way. If you try it, let me know if it ends up working for you, too.