Oh Susanna – How To Organize Time For Productive Writing?

Happy Monday, my friends!  I hope you all had a lovely weekend!  And now, here we are at the start of another fun-filled week!

Phyllis and friends 🙂
Before we get to our Oh Susanna question, I’d like to take just a second to update you on Phyllis’s tour!  Our furry young friend has been VERY busy!  Some of you may have missed her Friday stop in Chico, CA with Elizabeth – if you did, hop on over HERE and don’t miss her “brains before beauty” shot – it’s not every day you see a helmeted groundhog on a bike 🙂  Phyllis also spent a day with Darshana in the Silicon Valley, where she received quite an education on micro-chips and got to wear a bunny suit!  You can see that one HERE (and as you can see above, she also got to hang out with some critters that I’m pretty sure she’s distantly related to :))  She also visited Heather in Maine, and that post will be up today or tomorrow HERE – I can’t wait to see it!  AND (yes there’s more!) she is also in the UK and visited the standing stones at Avebury this weekend with Rebecca and her 7 children.  When Rebecca’s post goes up, you will be able to find it HERE and I can’t wait to see that one either!!!

I told you our little friend was busy!

Now then, let’s have a show of hands.  How many of you are doing the A To Z Challenge?  I am tempted to join (not that Laura anyone is putting any pressure on :)) but am not sure if I can pull off the challenge and still fit my regularly scheduled events in… so I am mulling… and trying to decide if I will be the only person in the blogosphere not doing it if I wimp out elect not to… and wondering if trying to do one more thing will mean the end of what’s left of my sanity… 🙂  So please, do let me know what y’all are doing!

Without further ado, here is today’s Oh Susanna question:

O, Susanna, HELP!!  I need assistance developing a better schedule for writing, brainstorming, studying, illustrating, researching, blogging, and following blogs and links,  and of course all the usual home related obligations.  Are there any formulas for beating the distractions and staying up to date w/resources and links and staying on goal? Do you do blogging on Monday, writing on Tuesday,  research on Wednesday, go crazy on Thursday????  I’m also part of the 12×12 group – and love all the interaction and resources–but it’s almost overwhelming to keep up. Please—I need ideas!  (side note:  Ghiardelli chocolate brownies work great as a goal reward for me  🙂  
I used to have a ‘regular job’ as a principal w/ specific hours, had an office w/ a door, and everyone understood I was ‘at work.’   But now, working at home I am often  interrupted by family, friends (often very pleasant and welcome), the phone (family & business-my husband’s a pastor), the internet magnet (for research, I promise!), housecleaning (so easy to get distracted  now that my office is my home), a beautiful day begging to be explored (after all, I am my own boss), and chasing____________________ (fill in the blank with a shiny object),  etc., etc.,  
I tried a Daily Goal Chart like we used at our school.  It’s worked for maybe 2 out of 5 days. Grrrrrr—-HELP me because I’m,
Three Days Late & Dollars Short

Dear Three Days Late,

I am glad you asked this question, because I’m betting almost everyone reading this struggles with the same problem.  You can take comfort in the fact that, at the very least, you are not struggling alone! 🙂

Working on your own at home sounds like a dream come true.  What could be better than the entire day, every day, stretching before you just waiting to be filled with your words and stories?

But it’s not as easy as it seems.

You may have trouble sitting down to work until the house is clean, and before you know it, half the day is gone.  Your friends and relations may not respect your work time because it seems like a hobby, or because you can set your own schedule and work some other time, so they show up for impromptu cups of coffee or call for a long chat… and before you know it, half the day is gone.  It’s far too easy, if you hit a snag in your writing, to say, “I’ll just go to the grocery store, because I have to do that anyway…” and before you know it, the day is over and that story isn’t a word further along than it was.

As you say, distractions are myriad, and some, like blogging or online research, are especially tough because they start out as legitimate work but it’s easy to get sucked in for WAY longer than you intended, or to stray from your original intent.

So how do you manage?

The answer to that is undoubtedly a bit different for everyone.  With a little trial and error you can come up with your own formula of what works for you, but I’m not sure anyone else can give you that formula.  Let’s give it a try, though 🙂

Before anything else, look at your day and your life and your personality.  What obligations do you have to your family and household day to day, and how much time will those take?  (You need a realistic approximation of your work time, and it’s probably never going to be all day every day.  Can you realistically devote 3 hours a day to work?  6?  2 1/2?  Or is it likely to change from day to day?)  Are you a person who is unable to imagine being able to concentrate on writing before the beds are made, the house vacuumed, and the grocery shopping done?  (Then get those things done first or you will be wasting your precious work time feeling fragmented and putting less than your full energy into your writing and it will take you 6 times as long to get anything done.)  Do you work well in short bursts of intense energy broken up by other tasks, or does it take you a while to hit your stride and once you do you like to stick with it with no interruptions of any kind?  (Plan your day accordingly.)  Do you need to exercise first thing in the morning to get your brain in gear, or is it more helpful to go later in the day when you need a break from the computer screen and a little time to let story problems work themselves out?

Asking yourself theses kinds of questions should help you have a realistic idea of how much time you actually have and how you will benefit most from arranging it.

Here are some other things to think about/try:

 – Respect your work and ask others to respect it.  Even if you work at home, even if you are your own boss, even if you’re not bringing in a regular paycheck, your writing is your work.  But if you want others to respect it and take it seriously, you must first do that yourself.

 – Impose your own hours.  Make a plan.  Say to yourself, “8 AM to noon [or whatever] is my work time.”  If the phone rings, you may check the caller ID and make sure it’s not your child’s school, or the ER calling to let you know someone broke their arm, but emergencies aside, let your voice mail answer while you’re working.  You can call back later, but if you answer, you will interrupt your flow, and who knows how much time you’ll lose while simultaneously sending the message to whoever it is that it’s OK for them to call and interrupt your work.  By the same token, let your friends and relations know that you are not available for impromptu tennis games or drop-in visits during your work hours and stick to it.  Firmly.

 – Identify the time of day you are most productive, and do your writing work then.  Some people work best first thing in the morning.  Others take time to get going and are better off answering emails and doing their blogging first, then writing in the afternoon.  Still others work best when the rest of the world is asleep.  Whatever your most productive time of day, use that for your writing and slot your other tasks in around it.  All of your work will flow more easily.

 – Some people find the internet a huge distraction.  If you are one of them, there are programs for both Mac and PC that will turn off your internet while you work.  You can set the amount of time, and then no email will pop up, no blog posts will lure you from your appointed tasks, and you won’t be able to surf around looking for a cute pair of shoes for that party this weekend.

 – Some people work better with encouragement/competition.  There are sites where you can sign up to work for half and hour (or your choice of time) and compare with other people how much you got done in that time.  There are other sites that work by word count, and you can aim for 1000 words (or whatever) and see how long it takes you.  In both cases, you’re kind of working with other people.  (And of course I should have the links for those sites, but since I haven’t used them myself I don’t know which to recommend.  Readers, please feel free to chip in your two cents about such sites you have used and liked!)

 – List your priorities and divvy up your time accordingly.  Most of us would agree that our actual writing should come first, so the biggest chunk of time should be devoted to that.  Does your story or nonfiction work require research before you can write it?  Then that needs a high priority too.  Do you have a manuscript ready for submission?  Then you might need to prioritize time for researching agents or potential publishers, or writing a query or cover letter.  Different stages of the writing process demand different priorities – there’s no point researching publishers before you’ve written your manuscript.

– Experiment a bit and see what works for you.  Some people set aside a couple hours on Sunday afternoon and write all their blog posts for the week.  Then that job is done, the posts scheduled, and you can check it off your list and forget about ’til until next Sunday.  Other people would rather put in half an hour at the crack of dawn Monday, Wednesday and Friday writing their posts when the time comes so that they can talk about whatever is first and foremost on their mind that day.  Some people read and comment on 5 blogs a day.  Others read and comment on blogs for half an hour a day.  Others only read other people’s blogs one or two days a week.  What works best for you?

– There’s an old adage that says something along the lines of, “A job will take as much time as you have to do it.”  If you think you have 4 hours to read and reply to all the email in your inbox and catch up with the 12×12 group, it will take you 4 hours.  But if you say to yourself, I have one hour to read and reply and catch up, you will be more efficient, and when that hour is up, be firm with yourself and move on to something else.

– There is nothing like a good old-fashioned kitchen timer!  Set it for 15 minutes or an hour or whatever amount you need, and do whatever task you allot yourself until the timer dings.  You can use it for both work time and break time.  Write for a measured hour, and then give yourself 15 minutes to check email, or read a couple blog posts, or read a section of your craft book on writing dialogue, or play Words With Friends or walk the dog – but when that timer dings and your 15 minutes is up, it’s time for the next thing.

– Some people work well with lists.  Either first thing when you sit down to work for the day, or last thing as you’re finishing up and planning for tomorrow, make a list of the things you need to accomplish.  Make the items measurable and attainable in the time you have, for example, write 1000 words of MG novel, or read and comment on 2 new blogs, or study chapter on school visits in XYZ book.

– Other people are oppressed by long to-do lists that may seem insurmountable.  If you’re one of them, write your list backwards – that is, make a list of the things you’ve accomplished as you’ve done them, for example, wrote my Perfect Picture Book Friday post for this week, read and commented on 3 blogs, added 2 more possible agents to my list, wrote first draft of new PB.

Working at home in any capacity is difficult because of the setting with all it’s attendant distractions and the fact that you’re your own boss and set your own schedule.  If the work you’re doing at home is writing, it’s exponentially harder.  Writing is HARD work.  Creativity takes enormous amounts of effort.  Pretty much everything else is easier, so we all find ourselves tempted by reading blogs and studying craft and making pretty new bookmarks to bring on school visits etc…  But ultimately, we are writers.  Writing is our work.  If we don’t write, we have nothing else – no reason to build a platform, or search out agents or publishers, or query about school visits, if we aren’t producing the book we’re going to promote.  It takes a lot of self-discipline, and we probably all have some days where we do better than others.  But I think the key is figuring out how much time you can devote to your work each day, how you want to divide that time up so you get to all the things you need to get to, and how to arrange your tasks in the order that best suits you so that you maximize your productivity.

I realize that was long-winded – sorry! – and I hope it answered your question at least somewhat.  Now, if we’re lucky, all the other talented writers out there will chime in with tips and advice and ideas of what works for them, and maybe you’ll get some gems from them 🙂

Please, everyone, chime in! 🙂

57 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – How To Organize Time For Productive Writing?

  1. This Kid Reviews Bks says:

    Phyllis has had some great adventures! I really like reading about them!

    I have a calendar schedule that my parents help me make and that helps. I am a kid so I guess I have more time. The last two week were busy because I had projects due for school, so I didn't read as much (blogs or books) 🙂

  2. thefeatherednest says:

    Yes, I am doing the A to Z challenge. This year I decided to do a theme and that will be food. The hubs and I have quite a few dietary restrictions so feeding ourselves is a challenge .

  3. Dede Perkins says:

    Great post, Susanna. Thank you. I'm a list maker so that pretty much keeps me on track though I do thrive with encouragement and tracked progress (don't we all) so I'll check the sites you suggested. Great point about tasks taking as much time as we give them…a good reminder!

    Hope you have a wonderful day~

  4. Joanna Marple says:

    I am not doing the A-Z blogging challenge, either! I have a full time job so know that I have to squeeze in the writing/blogging/networking at night and weekends… I know I tend to be home late on Mon to Wed, so have limited expectations of myself these evenings. I have always been able to prioritize and don't have a problem with ignoring housework, but I have NO kids, which, I think, makes a huge difference!

  5. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    A calendar is another good idea, Erik. Thanks for adding that in. And you are also right that sometimes you have to let some things go for a week or two if other things demand more attention during that time. Excellent points.

  6. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    I'm doing the A-Z challenge, but have been organizing since January (and now last minute working) to get my posts written and ready in advance. I anticipate visiting a lot more blogs – the point of the challenge. If you can think of a way to work the A to Z posts into your regular schedule, it might make sense. I'm doing short memoir/personal essays for the A to Z, so I won't be writing about regular stuff (except I will continue to post a separate PPBF on Fridays). As for writing, I make mini-deadlines for myself and then work to the deadline. I have a rough editorial calendar for my blog, but many times another issue comes up and I change the day's post topic. If I can write several posts at a time — great. Sometimes, I write the post the night before. Earlier this year, I saw where a writer posted a note on the door asking something like “blood or fire?” (I tried to find the link, but could not) These were the only two reasons worth interrupting her work time. When kiddo gets older, I may use a sign like this.

  7. Coleen Patrick says:

    Great advice Susanna. For me the most important part is prioritizing and then I focus on number one first and so on. OH and I turn off the internet!
    Which reminds me . . . time to work!
    Happy Monday 🙂

  8. Kirsten Larson says:

    I set an hour a day for writing and revising (nap time). These are activities I can't do at night when I'm tired or with the kids running around. I turn off the sound that tells me I have new emails and go for it. I research, blog, etc. while the kids are playing quietly or watching their hour of TV. And sometimes I'll do these activities until 9 p.m. after the kids are in bed since it doesn't take as much mental energy. Or, if I'm feeling energetic, I'll write more. And I always give priority to the project that I'm trying to get out the door. I'll have plenty of time to work on other projects while that query is making it's rounds.

  9. Laura Anne Miller says:

    Susanna, you are awesome! It would seem going from a 'professional' work life to aspiring writer/illustrator I should be able to schedule work easily – but not so. Thank you for all the advice. I never thought of 'interviewing' myself to structure my day! That makes so much sense. Your input and comments are going to make a definite difference in my work day. I will feel more accomplished if I even get a half-day non-stop than a segmented full day of work. Thank you everyone! I'm a significantly humbled by Erik's comment. My daughter's baby was born last week – so now there is another distraction 🙂 but I will make diligent effort and let you know.

  10. Beth Stilborn says:

    Excellent advice, O Susanna!

    First off, yes, I'm participating in the A to Z Challenge, and have nearly all my posts written and scheduled (the only way I could see my way clear to doing it.) After setting myself a rather restrictive subject for my As to Zs, I discovered it was tricky finding things that would fit the letters, be about the arts, and also relate to writing (!) I managed it in most, but not all, cases. I'm glad I gave myself two months to prepare.

    For regular work, I now write nearly all my blog posts ahead of time and schedule them (and I plan ahead — I'm booking for May, June, September and October these days!) Most of that post-writing is done on the weekends, leaving the weekdays free for “real” writing.

    I am trying to treat my writing as a job that I must do daily — I still have trouble with the distractions. It's a day-to-day work in progress.

  11. Cathy Mealey says:

    I'm definitely a list maker! Usually I get great satisfaction from tearing up a completed list – that means there's 'me' time for doing something spontaneous!

    Recently I found an old list that I had neglected to shred, and it was pretty eye-opening. I think I will start to save a few lists, now and then, just to remind me of how I have prioritized my time, energy and commitments!

    No A to Z challenge for me either!

  12. Catherine Johnson says:

    I wrote a big comment earlier, it mustn't have gone through. Now my mind is blank lol. I love my playbook and now I have a mobile too, which is fab for checking email and blogs on the go. It would seriously eat into writing time if I didn't have them. I generally write afternoons, long hand and any long spells whenever they are, usually very early I will type up. Can't wait to read all the other comments and save this post 🙂

  13. Darshana says:

    Nope sorry not doing the A to Z challenge, already have too much on my plate. My time is severely constrained for blogging/writing/critiquing,networking as I have a full-time job and two young kids. Susanna, thanks for reminding me that my own writing should come first. Right now it is last, will need to fix that. I found that I am most creative in the morning, so I try to do my own writing then. Currently I write my blog posts the week of, which is a problem and is probably causing me to spend more time on blogging instead of my writing. Will need to try Beth's idea of just doing a bunch on the weekend. Thanks everyone for your ideas.

  14. Penny Klostermann says:

    This is a great question and a great answer. You had so many good suggestions that now I have NO excuses…I have to get my act together.
    I am not doing the A to Z Challenge. I feel like I have to prioritize if I want to head down the road to getting published. I loved the paragraph about divvying up…and that our writing has to come first. So for now, my A to Z must be:
    Author to “Zippeee, I'm published.”
    (Had to make up a “Z” word! But I like my “Z” word! “Zip! Zip! Zippeee!”)

  15. Jarmila V. Del Boccio says:

    This is such a struggle for me, Susanna!n but, you've given us food for thought. I home educate our two teens, so I don't have a solid block of time to write. I snatch bits of time throughout the day, and need to concentrate on what is absolutely necessary for that day or week. For instance, my mss are on the back burner, while I write my posts for the A to Z blogging challenge this week. Then, my next priority is to tweak my 12×12 ms by March 31st…and so it goes! Weaving in and out of those projects, are my Facebook, Twitter,
    Flipboard and email

  16. tiltonph says:

    This is a great question and an issue we all deal with. THink it is entirely personal. But, liked some of your ideas.

  17. Kerry Aradhya says:

    Great post, Susanna! I've been telecommuting (as a writer) for my day job for about 8 years, and I am still trying to figure out what works best! Juggling regular life and writing is always a challenge, and I tend to let my muse lead me along…but then I always end up getting behind on everything else I'm supposed to be doing! I like the suggestion that some of you have to turn off the Internet. I may have to try that one. Thanks for the great discussion!

  18. Tracy Bermeo says:

    This is all the story of my life and such a great question/topic. I've been working through my A to Z posts, and while my ms is done, I've been avoiding writing my query letters like the plague. It's so easy to get sucked in to what's out there, but I feel that when I can do my blog reading the posts are helpful. I find that between being mom, chauffeur, chef, tutor, wife and somewhere in there writer, I just write when I can. What does help though is that I keep a pad of paper and a pen around always. This way I can jot down ideas or an opening sentence, twitter post, blog post, whatever at any time and then come back to it later. I find that the easiest time for me to write is on a Friday night when my kids (and hubby) are vegging out in front of the tv (there is no television or video gaming during the week) and my house is quiet. As for the rest, if anyone finds the trick, stick it in a bottle and send it my way. I'll send it on to others- just like Phyllis!

  19. Leigh Covington says:

    I wonder if you have any idea how much I needed this today. I can't even tell you how much I did. It's amazing. This is beyond wonderful. Thank you so much for your helpful advice!

  20. Angela Brown says:

    Loving Phyllis's photo with the gang. Looks like she's the belle of the ball 🙂

    As for time management, my how this is such an individualized thing. I think I really made the move when I realized how much time I wasn't opening up for my Chipmunk. I knew I had to do something because she's the only one I got. So cutting back on some things happened. Not as many comments to as many blogs. Write fewer blogs in the week. Setting time aside to specifically spend with family and to household items then gating off time to spend on the computer with blogging and writing.

    I will be participating in the A to Z blogging challenge, but in so doing, I've chosen to make my daily blog posts my only ones. Each day will be about my A to Z blogging challenge theme. Admittedly, if I had the kind of posting schedule you do, Susanna, not sure if I would be able to do it. But if you do, then welcome aboard 🙂

  21. Saba says:

    I am definitely going to try to do the A – Z challenge. :S I have chosen my theme for the month, showcasing picture books that have multicultural themes. Most of the book will be from my TBR list. The main problem I foresee will be finding them in my local library. I hope so because I have found some really wonderful titles 😀

  22. Iza Trapani says:

    Great question and great answer! Working at home does require discipline. Prioritizing and compromising are key for me. I have learned to ignore the piles of laundry and my messy bedroom, but I know that if the kitchen is cluttered with papers and stuff, that it will bother me when I walk in there (which I do, way too often 🙂 and ultimately my creative flow will be affected. So I clean up the clutter first thing in the am or the night before and that helps. When I write, I either turn off my mail program or use full screen mode so that I am not distracted by e-mails. I write lists and it's satisfying to check them off, but I have come to accept that it's not always possible to complete them in one day.

  23. Julie Rowan-Zoch says:

    I use the oven timer, so I don't forget to pick up kids from school! (Don't tell my son but) I can get distracted from work by the 'ding' of a new msg too. So I turn off the internet completely to accomplish big projects, even when it annoys those looking for my address to mail me something! I might try making a list though, maybe I can benefit by prioritizing – thanks Susanna!

  24. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    The oven timer is my personal savior 🙂 And my kids will tell you I can be relied upon to be anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes later whenever they're due to be picked up anywhere – I am a bad time estimator – i think I can do anything and get anywhere in 5 minutes and it turns out that's just not true! 🙂

  25. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I think that's why it's hard to come up with a formula – everyone's challenges are different. Some people have kids, some don't. Some people work long hours outside the home, some don't. Some have kids AND jobs, so have neither. Some people are more naturally self-disciplined than others. That's why I think a list of ideas to think about it more useful than a formula. Thanks for adding your points to the mix. I hope they will help Three Days Late! 🙂

  26. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Blood or fire! I love that! And given that I didn't start thinking about A To Z seriously until Saturday, and hearing that you've been working on your posts for 3 months already, I don't think I'll be able to pull it off! 🙂

  27. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks so much for your input, Kirsten. I hope Laura (aka Three Days Late) will find it helpful! I do the same thing – tasks that require less energy and concentration I do when the kids are doing their homework and we're all working but also talking a bit.

  28. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Thanks so much for your input, Kirsten. I hope Laura (aka Three Days Late) will find it helpful! I do the same thing – tasks that require less energy and concentration I do when the kids are doing their homework and we're all working but also talking a bit.

  29. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    So glad if you're finding this helpful, Laura. I think something a little different works for everyone, and it's about finding what's right for you. And if you need an hour a day to spend with your brand new grandbaby (or on the phone with your daughter who is learning to be a mom :)) then spend that hour and enjoy it rather than trying to work through the hour fretting and not getting much done! Unto everything there is a season 🙂

  30. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Well, Beth, you and Stacy have about convinced me that if I want to do A To Z I'd better try for next year and start planning and writing my posts now 🙂 Thanks for sharing your work habits – I hope they will be helpful to Laura! I'm not sure if there ever comes a time that you don't have to battle with distraction. It might be different if writing was easier.

  31. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I think it's always kind of a work in progress, Jarm! The important thing is just what you're doing – making your priorities and getting them done at whatever pace you can. I am often guilty of the alternative – having so much to do I can't decide WHAT to do! 🙂

  32. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I keep saying I'm going to write my week's blog posts ahead of time, but I never seem to do it 🙂 I have at least gotten to the point where I usually write them the night before instead of the morning of. Glad you found the post helpful, Darshana!

  33. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Yes, I agree Pat – it's very personal. Hopefully people can pick and choose between the ideas mentioned, not just by me but my everyone in the comments, and maybe come up with some new ideas that might work!

  34. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I realize that tips like these are only so useful when you've got 4 youngsters, one of whom is a newborn! I should be giving you tips for how to get some sleep, but aside from “go to Hawaii and leave the kids with your mom” I don't think there are any 🙂

  35. Vivian Kirkfield says:

    Thank you, Susanna! Great post that addresses issues we all deal with. I work 4 days a week, do EVERYTHING (shopping, cleaning, cooking, bill paying) household related (did NOT train my husband of 44 years).:) So blogging, reading and commenting on other blogs, packing & mailing books, etc…my hours of sleep get less and less. 🙂 I am a list maker and that does help.

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