One of the realities of the writing life is that not many people can succeed in living entirely off the proceeds of their words. The majority of writers – even some very successful ones – make a significant amount of their income from other activities such as teaching, or public speaking, or criticism, or various other side hustles. This issue is very much more pressing for those people who are launching a writing career. Aside from the lucky few with wealthy partners or patrons who can bankroll their apprenticeship, most aspiring writers have to support themselves with paid work. This leads to a double blow: the main job saps energy and time, both of which are essential to successful creative work. How can this be managed?
Well one immovable reality is that time is limited. Everybody has the same number of hours in a day, and they can’t be bought or sold or traded, so we better be sure we are using them wisely. Many refer to time as the most valuable resource for this very reason (I’d say Sebastian Marshall is a leading contemporary champion of the idea), but equally, most people are careless to the point of neglect about how they use their time. Taking a serious look at time is the most important step towards achieving more. There are lots of clever technological tools and time management strategies that can help you be more productive, but how you prioritise your time is the foundation of success.
We all make assumptions about what we do with our time, and how full each day is. However, many business and psychological studies have proven again and again that we are really bad at assessing what we actually do in our days. The scientific way to demonstrate this is to record when you start and stop each activity, for several days or weeks, until you build up a dataset of information about what you really do. Data junkies might like this approach, but let’s be honest, most people aren’t going to bother. That’s fine – it’s often impractical – but the most important result when these studies are done (and one we all know deep down if we are honest with ourselves) is that we don’t spend our time doing the things that we claim are most important to us. Our subconscious mind is a lying liar that wants to preserve our self-esteem by exaggerating the time we spent on important things and minimises the time we spent procrastinating or on trivial tasks. What we really do is spend our time on the most emotionally comfortable things, and then rationalise and make excuses about why we couldn’t do the Thing We Should Be Doing.
When I first read about time audits, I felt an uncomfortable creeping sense of being confronted by an undeniable truth. So, I decided to try it. Although I only carried it out for a couple of weeks, and estimated the time spent on each task at the end of the day rather than starting and stopping a stopwatch in real time, the results were exactly as the psychologists would have predicted.
For me as an academic scientist, writing experimental papers and grant applications are my most important tasks, hand’s down. Carrying out experiments, generating data, and thinking, are the methods by which we discover new things about how the world works, but that knowledge is worthless unless it is communicated clearly to other people, and used to make a case for why the work should continue to be funded. So writing is my most important task. How much of my day, on average, did I spend on that task?
Less than 10%.
How is that possible? Well partly it’s the weight of other demands on an academic’s time: teaching, administration, pastoral care, reviewing, examining, conferences, etc., etc. but all jobs have lots of other things to do. The key point was that I was filling my day with less important tasks that were squeezing out my most important one. Faced with this reality, I decided I had to change. In both 2016 and 2017, I published a single paper a year. My plan for 2018 is to write and submit one paper or grant a month, and I’ve managed it in Jan, Feb, March and April. I have the paper for May outlined too. Time will tell if I can keep it up until I run out of data, but the single most effective method that has made this step-change in my productivity is…
Do your most important things first
My previous daily routine consisted of dragging myself out of bed, making breakfast for the family, driving to work, opening my email, and starting to deal with all the queries and demands that had arrived in my inbox since the previous afternoon, while drinking my first cup of coffee of the day. I would then look at my calendar and see what meetings, lectures, tutorials and “miscellaneous” I had to deal with in the day. I would work through this with varying levels of enthusiasm and then drive home tired, and no nearer to achieving my key goals. I was busy. There was lots of busyness. But my primary goals were fitted around the demands of others.
The most important change I made to this routine, was to start the day with my own priorities. I now cycle to work (free exercise) and, after briefly checking my email for crises, start to write a manuscript or grant application. Once I’ve made 1-2 hours of progress (by which point my creative energy is starting to flag), I reopen my email and start to deal with the rest of the day’s chores. That’s it. So bloody simple it’s embarrassing.
This idea – start with your most important task – is the bedrock of productivity. I’ve heard it explained in many different, colourful metaphors, which help illustrate the point. Some say the day is like a empty glass jar, and your tasks are like stones of various sizes (pebbles, gravel and sand). If you start by adding the biggest pebbles to the jar (your most important tasks), you can then add the gravel, shaking it into the space around the pebbles, and then add the sand, shaking it into the last of the empty space. But that doesn’t work the other way round. If you start with the sand and gravel, there will not be enough space in the jar to fit in many pebbles.
Another great discourse on this principle is Eat that Frog! by Brian Tracy. The curious title comes from a Mark Twain quote:
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long
Tracy’s point is that the most important task of your day is likely to be the biggest and ugliest thing that you psychologically don’t want to do. By starting your day by “eating your frog” you can be sure of doing the difficult and worthwhile things that will make a measurable difference to success, rather than filling the day with easy trivia.
What does this mean for writing? When it is part of your daily job (as for me) then clearly it is straightforward to change your schedule. But when writing is a side line, or new career that you want to develop, how do you prioritise it when paid work fills your day? Well, the same principles apply; just to the time outside of work.
You have to be clear that if writing is important to you, you must assign specific time in your day to it as your primary task. Precisely when that time-allowance falls will depend on your other responsibilities, but it often helps to anchor it to a daily event so you can get into the habit of writing at that time. If you are an early bird, rise an hour before everyone else and make writing the first task of your day. You could focus on the weekends, and forego the lie-in for a couple of hours writing on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Four predictable hours of productive work a week will make a big difference. Alternatively, you could assign an hour as soon as you get home from work, or after dinner, or after the kids have gone to bed, or before you settle down to watch Netflix/Youtube/TV. Leisure is important, of course, but is it more important than your writing dreams? No? Then prove it, by doing the writing first.
Even after reading the evidence, and accepting the plausibility of it, the actual impact of taking action and doing my writing before anything else in the day has been startling. You will never have more time gifted to you. You have to do your most important things first.