Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
“How can I make time to write this book?” I asked myself. I had a publisher’s contract in hand, two young children to raise, a full-time job, a husband away on a long business trip — and a deadline just three months away.
I’d like to tell you it was easy. I’d like to tell you there was a magic bullet. But neither of those things is true.
Instead, I hobbled together a series of itty-bitty disciplines and put them into practice. Three months later, I sent off the manuscript with a sigh of relief. And wouldn’t you know … that book has sold tens of thousands of copies.
It’s tempting to think that one big fat lifestyle change can open the door for you to have glorious, unfettered stretches of uninterrupted time to write. But my experience converted me into a true “tortoise-wins-the-race” believer. If I could make time to write during that ultra-busy season of my life, then almost anyone can.
Whether you want to make time to write a novel … make time to blog … make time to grow your freelance writing business … or simply make time to write every day, the simple fact is this: you can make time to write by making small changes in your daily life. Subtle moves add up to plenty of words on the page.
Call them writing tips, writing hacks, life hacks, or time-makers. Regardless, those moves helped me to carve out minutes from my full days to write. You can do the same.
Choose one tip. Put it into practice for a few days. Then add another. Do so consistently … and you’ll make time to write when you thought you had no time to spare.
Use a sheet of paper to block off half-hour increments of your day. Fill in the blocks that are your pre-decided responsibilities: meetings, commuting, work, and caring for your family. Then look for places you can slip in 15–30 minutes. Block off one of those pockets of time and use it for writing. When you have a written plan for your day, you use your time purposefully. It’s not micromanagement. It’s smart.
Set aside the 30-minute window during which your children watch their favorite television program and use it to write. Or write while your dinner is cooking in the oven. Attach your writing time to another task for a week and you’ll accumulate 2–3 hours at the keyboard.
Plenty of pre-writing work can be accomplished when you’re not sitting in front of your computer. Do you commute? Wait in a carpool line? That’s prime pre-writing time for processing ideas, narrowing a topic focus, or brainstorming. Use a voice-to-text app to record your thoughts while you’re in the car, working in the kitchen, or folding the laundry.
Maybe you’ve tried creating a list of writing tasks but have found the process frustrating. Could it be that your lists are not specific? A generalized list limits your sense of accomplishment, even when you complete the task. Yours may look like this:
But when you have a list of specific writing tasks you want to accomplish, then your brain gets a shot of dopamine each time you complete each task. That boost propels you into the next task you need to complete in your writing project. Spend a bit of time creating a specific to-do list. Record clearly defined writing tasks that you want to accomplish, such as …
Choose one task from your to-do list or one bullet point in your outline to complete during your next writing session. This way, when you sit down to write you’ll have a purpose. You can get going immediately.
Let’s say that during today’s writing session, words flow. Sentences pour from your fingers. You’re working ahead of yourself, jotting down ideas as fast as they come.
You pause, look at the screen to review what you’ve written — and look at the clock. Your writing time is up and you need to get the kids into bed. It’s okay to take just another 15 minutes, isn’t it?
No. Stop in the middle of that flow and leave your project for your next writing session. You’ll be so eager to get back to your keyboard that you’ll be certain to make time to write the next day.
What are your distractions? They’re different for each of us.
Here’s an opportunity to practice self-awareness. Find what pulls you off task during your writing time. Was it the doorbell … internet surfing … social media … a habit of turning on the television rather than booting up the computer? Write down your culprit.
Once you identify your distractor-in-chief, the temptation may be to beat yourself up and throw your hands up in discouragement. A better approach? Choose to avoid that one thing the next time you sit down to write. For instance …
28%. That’s the average amount of work time spent on email, according to a recent study. And writing is work. Silence email notifications during your writing window. Or choose designated times to check your email, such as first thing in the morning, at lunch, and in the late afternoon. And while you’re at it …
Studies vary on how much time we’re on our mobile phones, ranging from 3.25 hours to 5–6 hours a day. Either way, it’s hours, not minutes, that are invested in screen time. Constant phone checking pulls you away from getting words down on paper.
Do with your phone what you do with your email. Set up notifications that identify those closest to you so that you’re available to them during an emergency. Then leave the phone off during your writing spurts. You can set it down for 20 minutes, can’t you?
While our world is increasingly virtual, there are still plenty of envelopes, flyers, receipts, and notepads littering your desk and countertops. And then there are Post-It notes — a blessing in that they’re an easy way to jot down an idea or reminder, but a curse because all those ideas are plastered all over your computer screen. Mess is distracting. Unorganized ideas force you to spend time on the hunt for the notes you made last week.
Make more time to write when you get a handle on paper. If you still believe in hard copies, then file notes and papers and tear sheets in manila folders. If you’re converting your life to cyberspace, then use an online app (like Evernote), screenshots, search engine bookmarks, and links to folders on your desktop.
“Kathy, do you have a copy of the strategic plan we made in 2010?” Clients routinely ask me to send files from projects we’ve worked on together a decade (or more) ago. Other times, I’ve become a hero when I dig out a client’s grant application login credentials from my files.
I’m able to do so because I’m unrelenting when it comes to creating file folders for each client, subfolders for different types of projects I produce for them, and clear labels for each file. For example, when I write a grant application for a client, I create a subfolder in that client’s main folder called “Grants.” Then in the “Grants” subfolder, I create a subfolder for the “ABC Foundation” and label the year.
You’re the only one that needs to understand your system. But understand it you must — if you want to make time to write. Create file folders for topics you’d like to write about … clients you’re working with … articles you’re working on.
Label files in a way that makes sense to you. It doesn’t matter what system you use. What matters is that you organize your digital files in a way that you can get your hands on information and drafts when you need them.
While you’re at it, add tags to those files with your writing software. Tags allow you to search more efficiently for a piece of information or a project you completed two years ago. You’ll make more time to write when you spend less time searching your files. Bonus: you’ll be less frustrated, too.
In Microsoft Word, you can add tags through Backstage View, Advanced Properties, or Save As. Add tags with appropriate keywords and words for that piece of content.
Do you make a grocery list or talk on the phone while you write? Don’t. “Our brains can only focus on one task at a time,” says Cleveland Clinic’s neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, Ph.D. Multitasking doesn’t give you more time to write. It reduces writing time. When your brain constantly switches gears to bounce back and forth between tasks, you are less efficient. If you’ve blocked off time to write — even just 20 minutes — then spend that time writing.
Here's tip #15: find out what doesn't motivate you to make time to write — and avoid it.
For me, it’s reaching a minimum word count each day. That’s why my list doesn’t include “Write a daily word count” as a time-making hack. Plenty of writers swear by setting a daily writing goal to jumpstart their writing. But when I set a daily word count, then I am so pressured to produce words that I can’t write any. If I get past writer’s block, then I become focused on getting words onto the page. Pumping them out becomes the goal, I end up with gibberish, and I delete most of what I write.
My point: if you want to make time to write, try one tiny change at a time. Give it an honest go. If it creates more angst than minutes, ditch it.
But you’ll soon find that one tip works for you. After you incorporate the change, it’s time to try another.
Maybe you won’t end up with two or three extra hours a day to write. But you will end up with more time to write. Those bits add up and as a result, you’ll produce more content that you can put into the hands of eager readers.
You will always be too busy to do everything you want to do in this life. But what if during your busy life seasons, you still managed to write? You can. One little bit at a time.
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