How To Write When You Don’t Have The Time

Mercedes M. Yardley wears red lipstick and poisonous flowers in her hair. Her first short story collection, BEAUTIFUL SORROWS, was just released and is available on Amazon. Mercedes works for Shock Totem Magazine. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter as @mercedesmy.

Let me just start off by stating that I’m writing this with a baby on my lap.  She’s sick.  As is my husband.  As is my son.

The laundry is strewn all over the house in various states of washing and folding. (That’s what two family trips interspersed with violent bouts of the flu will get you.) I need to put together a costume for a Halloween book signing.  I also need to love on the sickies, make a bunch of crafts for a craft day that I’m in charge of, and, oh yeah, WRITE AN ENTIRE NOVEL in the next six weeks.  Not to mention reading slush for the magazine, doing a blog tour for my new book that’s out, and putting up reviews and articles that I committed to.

The subject of this particular post? Writing when you don’t have the time.  Cue wild laughter.  Cue high fiving the Universe because the irony is just so freakin’ awesome.

Time is a writer’s currency.  Nothing else is as precious.  Time will never fall into our laps; we have to make it. And how do we carve out huge swaths of time when we’re so incredibly busy?

Perhaps we need to ditch the concept of giant chunks of time.  We’d likely fill it up with other things, anyhow.  So learn to make the minutes count.

  1. Multitask.  I’m writing AND rocking the baby. Sometimes I write and get up every few minutes to stir the soup, or unload five things from the dishwasher.  Did I mention that my computer is currently in the kitchen?
  2. Prioritize. The good thing about a time crunch is that we learn what’s really important to us. If writing is your life’s blood then you’ll figure out a way to shoehorn it in.  Something has to go, so what will it be? Television?  A few commitments that you felt guilted into anyway?  Pick something and jettison it. You’re giving up something good for something fantastic: your writing career.
  3. Guard your writing time ferociously.  Bare your teeth and snarl.  When you’re home writing, everybody seems to think that you’re just playing on the Internet. The phone rings. People come to the door.  And why wouldn’t they? If you’re not going to take your writing seriously, why should you expect them to?  Turn your phone off.  Nail the door shut. Let the outside world know that you’ll get back to them when you’re finished.  And then write.
  4. Reevaluate. Is this worth sacrificing for?  If so, keep on keeping on. If not, consider cutting your losses and walk away. There should be some joy to this process.
  5. Open a can of soup for dinner. When you’re under a particularly harsh deadline, don’t have unreasonable expectations for yourself.  You can’t do everything wonderfully all of the time. Some other things will fall by the wayside every now and then, and it’s okay.  But never let your family fall, and make sure you get a little writing in every day, even if it’s only a sentence or two. Make that sentence beautiful.  Make it shine.

Priorities and Time Thievery

I’m not a write everyday kind of guy. I wish I was, and I have been at times (working on a novel seems to bring that out of me). I read comments from other writers who put in at least a few hours every day (if not more), working on their craft. I kid myself at times by thinking “they’re professional writers, that’s their job,” and while there’s a kernel of truth there, I know they all suffer from the same hecticness and interruptions as I.

The ideal is just that—writing for several hours a day, uninterrupted, churning out so many thousands of words at each sitting. During these times there would be no email, or phone calls, and no other projects demanding their share of time.

The reality for most of us is that life can’t be put on hold. There’s family, and work, other commitments, and other distractions. For me specifically, I work for myself—which means I need to be responsive to clients if I wish to continue working for myself. My work is full of ups and downs (busyness wise), and when I’m busy it’s best that I remain busy.

It is during these times when you need to realize what your priorities are. Is writing—or some other creative endeavor—critical to you? Is it worth sacrificing at least a little time to keep it going? I assume if you’re reading this then it is—I know it is for me.

There’s the big solutions—organize your time, plan, prioritize, keep lists, block out your calendar, etc. Or, you can take smaller steps—take snippets of time from other activities: write while watching TV (if this is family time, join in on the TV watching but wear headphones so you can focus on your work), while eating breakfast or lunch, during your commute (please not while driving!), in bed before falling asleep or when you just get up. Steal a half an hour here, an hour there, whatever you can get away with.

I’ve written in bed fairly often (where I started this)—before falling asleep, after having slept for a while, and first thing in the morning. I’ve written the first moment out of a shower, while on the can (go ahead and judge), while waiting in line at Chipotles, in front of the TV, on the road, and in the plane. One of my favorite places is lunch (I’m currently writing at a small bakery in Sedona)—there’s often a nice but non-distracting hum of activity.

You should also keep tools around to enable these stealing of moments—a pen and pad of paper if you’re a hand-writer, or electronic tools for the rest of us. Find a good app for your phone, or carry a tablet with you everywhere you go. Keep your data in the cloud (I personally use Dropbox and an app on the iPad that syncs all of my writing to it) so you can work on your current projects or start new ones where ever you are.

And if you do time steal, don’t get hung up on word counts—in fact, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about those normally unless under specific deadlines (don’t create more things to discourage your writing). Be happy that you perfected a sentence, eeked out a paragraph or two, or jotted down some new ideas. Any and all progress is good.

If your writing is a priority, you will find ways to make it happen.

My own results are mixed, of course—I’ve gone a week or more without writing a single word. More often than not, though, I do add to something at least several times a week. During this past week, while being on vacation, I’ve finished a first draft of a short story, made additional notes on some other projects, and pushed this blog post out (a few days late, sure, but who’s counting). This all came during breakfast, lunch, in the plane, and hanging out at my father-in-law’s house. Perhaps I sacrificed a bit of conversation time, but that’s how my priorities roll.

Time is Your Currency – Spend it Well

There’s a common expectation that you should give time and attention to everything else but yourself. That you are a better person through self sacrifice. God, community, family—all of these things should come before yourself (or, in this case, your projects).

I say: not so fast.

Time is a commodity we all trade in, giving it away for various reasons. Some of these reasons are quite valid—most of us need to work to live, we have families that are important to us, or we engage in social or community activities for the betterment of the world around us. But we need to take care when getting involved with outside projects (commitments, activities, etc.)—will they become significant time sinks?

You don’t get this time back. What you use is gone. It is the most valuable currency you hold, and you have no option but to spend it—it can’t be saved.

Of course you can time manage—in a way it’s a form of savings, but it would be hypocritical of me to talk in depth about this subject. Time management is not really my forte. In reality I’m a time thief—I steal my time from other activities (as I write this my lunch is getting cold). Rarely do I watch TV without my laptop or iPad out (do you really need your full attention to watch The Voice? It’s not as if I’m watching So You Think You Can Dance). This practice can be productive even if inefficient.

However, your real gains will come from self discipline and self respect.

Self discipline comes in the form of knowing your priorities and sticking to them. Avoid activities that do not achieve your goals—browsing Facebook, playing World of Warcraft—when you have more important tasks at hand. This is doubly important when you are trying to work on a personal project—blow off your employer’s time if you must, but not your own. Find the best times to do the things you want to do and make sure you don’t do anything else during that time. If this is writing (or other repetitive tasks), do this regularly. Make it a habit. And make sure this time is priority time for you—schedule other activities around this. If you often have conflicts, find a different time slot. It takes discipline to make this work.

It also takes self respect. Certainly you need to respect yourself and your time, believing in your abilities enough to make these kinds of priorities. But respect also comes into play when deciding which outside projects to take on. How do you value your time? Will this other project benefit you—financially, experience-wise, exposure-wise—more so than your own work? Are you sacrificing time from your own creative efforts by taking on something else?

To me, this last one is the biggest consideration.

I do take on outside projects—when they are something I believe in. My involvement here at BookLife Now is essentially an outside project, or at least not within my primary creative efforts. Same goes for a Kickstarter project I’m involved with (I volunteered my professional skills). There’s little to no financial gains here. And the exposure gains are minimal (don’t buy into doing work for exposure—your best exposure will come from working on your own projects, and building your own brand). I do these things because I believe in them, I feel I have something to bring to the table, and I appreciate the sense of accomplishment they give when they succeed. But I try my best to ensure that what I take on doesn’t eat too much of my own time. Giving up TV? Fine. Giving up gaming? Sure. Giving up writing time? Not if I can help it.

Be smart, be selective, respect your own creative efforts and time—and maybe even try out that time management thing. But remember that your time is your own—spend it wisely. You can’t save it up, but maybe you can steal a bit from yourself.