Back in February (on the 12th, the 10th, who even really knows?), I had my 10th writing birthday.
A writing birthday is something I commemorate to mark the day I decided to take a professional attitude toward my writing, in pursuit of eventual publication.
To my knowledge, the writing birthday is something I invented. I’m not 100% clear on the actual date, but most years observe it on February 12.
To celebrate this year, I decided to give rather than receive by answering people’s burning questions about writing. I put out a call and got a handful of inquiries in response.
Lydia is a good friend of mine and a long-time cheerleader for me and my writing efforts. She’s even had the misfortune of reading a bit of a too-early draft of my WIP.
Lydia provided me with a couple of writing questions. The first of these is as follows:
As a writer, how do you manage your writing life with your work & personal life?
My knee-jerk answer to this question is “by not having much of a personal life”.
To some extent, this isn’t untrue. I work full-time, now in two distinct roles within the same organization, and often with periods of overtime.
I don’t have children like many other writers do. I live alone and cross-country from my family, so I don’t have any immediate family obligations either.
I do like to go out every now and then, but I’m also quite something of a homebody.
I don’t watch a ton of TV. I’m not a gamer or a huge user of social media. I don’t really have any other extracurriculars that monopolize my time quite the way writing does.
And yet, the two most productive periods of my writing life to date—the summers of 2016 and 2017—were times when I was back at home with my family, facing huge and hugely emotional family obligations, watching a fair bit of TV on the side for stress relief, and still working my day job remotely.
Plus, being summer, it was damn hot all the time, which only added to the pressure of it all.
A place and time for everything
So my real answer to the question of how to balance writing vs. non-writing comes down to a combination of scheduling and sacrifice.
Scheduling involves excavating undesignated time from my day, designating that time WRITING TIME, and committing to it.
I’m an unspontaneous, habit-forming sort of person, so the bulk of writing time occurs on a regular schedule from which I rarely deviate. This includes 8:00-10:30pm Monday-Thursday and Sunday evenings, as well as one or two early-morning hours on either Saturday or Sunday morning.
Because I’ve made this time WRITING TIME, that means I’ve sacrificed the myriad other things this time could be used for instead.
So there is no Netflix during WRITING TIME, no going out*, no posting memes on Twitter, and no going to bed early.
(It also means no doing the dishes, no working on my income taxes, and no checking my work email, so hey—it’s not all bad news).
There is time enough to do all those things, but WRITING TIME is not it.
The death (and birth) of dreams
As I get older, I’ve come to realize there will only be two or three things I achieve mastery in because there just isn’t enough time, both in my day and the remaining days of my life in general.
This means I’ve had to relinquish not only the pursuit of, but the idea of, what else I could be doing with my life.
This is true sacrifice, and it can be difficult for writers—for creative people in general, but especially writers, since the process of becoming an effective writer can be incredibly lengthy, with few (if any) tangible interim rewards.
Author, speaker, and business strategist Charlie Gilkey writes that for creative people, strategic planning (i.e. “big-picture planning”, or how you chose to allocate the time available to you for projects),
[C]omes with some sadness, frustration, and regret. Given the real constraints of time, energy, and attention, some projects will lose out when they’re in a project cagematch, but we’re often not ready to accept that we can’t do them.
Oftentimes, the thought of not being able to do everything prevents us from doing anything.
But once we’ve pared down our focus to one or two committed pursuits, knowing how to fill your free time—even if it’s only 15 minutes—becomes significantly easier.
Particularly when you’re brutally honest in your answer to the question of what, no matter how difficult it might be, will bring you closer to the fulfilment of your dreams. And also what you’ll be most happy and proud of yourself for having done after the fact.
A big part of time management is convincing yourself you actually do have time when you think you don’t. It’s almost endlessly possible to squeeze more time from your day, especially small intervals of it. From there, the challenge becomes how to find focus in order to maximize that time.
* Sometimes you may have to sacrifice your writing time at the expense of some other, more insistent obligation. This is a fact of life and not something to feel guilty about.
However, these deviations should be the exception, not the rule. They should not be happening on a regular basis. If they are, you probably didn’t choose the most effective time to devote to your art, and should look at re-evaluating your schedule.
How do you balance the various demands on your schedule to make time for creative pursuits?