Blog in Progress: Time Management for Writers and Freelancers
“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon. December is here before it's June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
– Dr. Seuss
Most creative writers support themselves by either teaching or freelance work – technical writing, advertising copy, journalism. Until recently, I was an anomaly. I’ve taught at Grub Street for years, but my main day job was a 20-hour-a-week gig – with benefits! – in a field completely unrelated to writing. My day job was as a cytotechnologist, using a microscope to screen pap smears.
Fortunately for us all, they didn’t just let a wayward writer wander into a lab and start evaluating slides. My B.A. is in biology, and I did my cytology training shortly after I finished my creative writing program. It seemed an odd choice to many of my writer friends, but I hadn’t particularly enjoyed teaching freshman comp when I was in grad school, and cytology school felt like an investment in my writing future: a way to pay the bills that didn’t sap my creativity. I thought I’d be doing it for five years, maybe ten max, while I wrote and published my first book.
I’m not sure what I thought would happen after that – did I believe my first novel would somehow be a runaway bestseller? Suffice it to say that I needed to keep working as a cytotechnologist after that first book came out in 2002, but I didn’t mind all that much. For a very long time, it was a really good gig, and I liked having something I did for work that was completely apart from writing.
But in recent years, sitting at the microscope took a toll on my spine, and changes in medicine were leading to less and less flexibility in terms of the hours I worked. My good gig was suddenly causing me physical pain and not meshing well with my writing life
So I left that job last month – though I’ll still be doing a few per diem hours per week in the lab – to focus on teaching and consulting, and of course, my own writing. I came out of the gate like gangbusters at the end of June, transitioning seamlessly into nearly full-time work on my writing as I strove to get my new novel opening in shape for a July 1 fellowship deadline. But once that deadline was over, and especially now that my teaching and consulting work has kicked into gear … well, I’ve kind of hit a wall.
My dilemma seems to be multifold. First, how do I schedule my consulting work so that I don’t end up pulling all-nighters to meet deadlines, and how do I get myself to stick to that schedule when my days are so unstructured? Second, where does my writing fit in to the equation? Third, what do I do about answering e-mail? Fourth, how do I make sure that my decision to leave my job doesn’t lead directly to my living in a cardboard box?
My first attempt at setting up a work and writing schedule was very loose. I’d put the name of the student whose work I needed to critique into my calendar on one day, and then I’d also type in: “Write for 3 hours.” (That’s about all I can sustain for the early draft work I’m doing now.) But I didn’t schedule either piece of it into actual blocks of time. The results will not surprise you. Over a week, all I got done were critiques imminently due. The writing, and the rest of the work, languished.
For my second attempt, I scheduled everything with specific times: my writing sessions in the morning, from 10 – 1; my consulting work, from 2 – 6 (knocking off a little earlier on nights I teach). I scheduled for six days per week, giving myself one day off, except for weekends when I had plans.
The problem with this system is that my ideal writing time is afternoon; I learned this long ago. And I have the type of anxious personality that makes it hard for me to get my creative work done when I know I have deadlines looming for the paid work. If I had a high volume of e-mail that morning, forget about it. I’d spend all my morning writing time on that.
I started reading articles about time management, and following threads on social media that discussed the topic. I knew many of my writer friends used an app called Freedom to block the internet so that they didn’t get too distracted by social media. But I’m at a stage in my novel where I often need to do online research, and I occasionally have to go online for my consulting work. Plus, frankly, the very idea of the app annoys me. Some app is going to tell me when I can fart around on Facebook? No way! Besides, I could just check it on my phone.
I read three articles that helped me to devise the system I’m currently trying out. First, two articles by Laura Shin: one discussing money management as well as time management; and her Ten Tips for Working Smarter in 2014. I also found these time management tips useful
The single most helpful piece of advice I gleaned from all of these articles was not to check e-mail first thing in the morning, since it can derail your plans for what you need to accomplish that day. I usually check it on my phone before I’m even out of bed! But my morning e-mail checking days are over, I hope. Here’s the new schedule I’m starting this week, based on my own writing idiosyncracies (and the fact that I’m not an early bird).
10 am – 12 pm: writing/consulting work
12 pm – 12:30 pm: break. Quick e-mail & social media check; only answer what’s urgent.
12:30 pm – 2:30 pm: more writing/consulting
2:30 pm – 3:30 pm: lunch
3:30 pm – 6:30 pm: write
6:30 pm – 7:30 pm: answer e-mail
(On nights that I teach, I’ll spend a little less time on the consulting work in the morning so that I can still get my writing time in.)
For now, this will be my five-day-per-week schedule, and I’ll be flexible on weekends, working – and writing – as I need/am able to. I haven’t accounted here for the ten hours of per diem cytology I plan to do each week, but as of right now, I’m sacrificing one afternoon-into-evening and part of one weekend day to that work.
I don’t know if this particular schedule is the answer, but so far, it feels more workable than the others I’ve tried. So much of a schedule’s success, I think, is knowing yourself as a writer. Are you better off doing your creative work first thing in the morning and letting everything else wait? Are you a night owl who stays up late writing? Since your time is truly your own if you’re freelancing, schedule it at times that work for you – even if your day doesn’t start until 3 pm and end until 11 or midnight.
I haven’t yet answered the question of whether or not this shift to freelance work means I’ll end up living in a cardboard box. But right now, the roof over my head seems (fingers crossed) fairly secure.
And how about you, readers? Any other tips out there for successfully managing writing time?
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa has published humor in McSweeney’s, essays in The Rumpus and several anthologies, and short stories in Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. She has taught creative writing since 1997, shifting her focus to the novel when she developed GrubStreet’s Novel in Progress courses in 2005. She also co-developed and co-taught GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator from 2011 – 2013, and developed and led the Novel Generator from 2014-2017. She now teaches in the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s online MFA program. For more information on Lisa and her work, visit lisaborders.com.See other articles by Lisa Borders