Last week a friend sent me this note, via Facebook:

So, I’m struggling to get myself on a writing schedule. I remember your Craft Seminar being really informative, any chance you could send me some of your notes on setting up a good writing schedule?

Notes. It made me laugh. My craft seminar notes are hundreds of pages (literally) shoved in a folder, at this point.

“No. I can’t send you any notes,” I told her, “but I can write a blog post with some thoughts about scheduling.” Killing two birds with one stone. It’s what good writers do, right?

But then, I started to feel hypocritical. I mean, if I’m being honest with you, blog reader of mine, I’ll have to admit I’ve been failing pretty spectacularly in regards to keeping my writing schedule. Not completely. Writing is getting done, but in a much more sporadic manner than I’m used to.

So, I’m writing this post as much for myself as I am for my schedule-weary friend. Hopefully, we’ll both benefit.

Take Stock of Where You Are

The first step in getting into a writing rhythm is figuring out where you are, today. What are you spending your time on?

This is how we start dieting (food log!!) and budgeting (spending journal!!) and, ultimately, how we start to come to grips with our time management. Make a journal for a few days, or a week. Jot down what you did, how long you did it, when you did it. Work. Play. Eat. Sleep. Family time. Alone time. Missing time from when the aliens landed in the back yard and whisked you away. Whatever. Be honest with yourself. If you spent thirty hours last week watching Game of Thrones episodes for the fifth time, write it down. If your biggest problem in the week was whether to play Angry Birds or Words With Friends, write it down. You can’t fool the clock, so don’t even try.

After you’ve written down where you are spending your time, make a “typical” schedule based on what you find. I used a computer spreadsheet: seven days, hourly. You can use pen and paper (a ruler would be helpful, but you can use the edge of a book you aren’t really fond of) or whatever. Etch-a-sketch for all I care.

Block out the things you have to do: work, sleep, eat, family commitments, volunteer or church commitments, date night, etc. We all have HAVE TO DO’s. Shade these areas in with a color. These are set in stone. (For now, at least.)

Now, before you add anything else, stop a minute and look at the areas where you have no set commitments. For some of us, there’s a lot of white space. For others, there is very little white space. But, either way, the white space represents your available space for a writing life.

Make TWO copies of this schedule. On one of those copies, fill in all the “extras” you did last week. Playing games. Watching TV. Napping. Reading a good book. Watching the neighbors try to build a fence. Facebook. Reading the National Enquirer. Blogging. Staring at that water spot on the bedroom ceiling shaped like Oklahoma. Hitting the snooze. Hitting the booze. Whatever. Fill up all that white space with what you actually did last week. Yes, there is a depressing, symbolic nature to this. You are, physically, filling up all the time you could have spent writing with all the things you did, instead. I’ve done this. Several times. It makes you feel like CRAP about yourself. (Don’t worry. We’ll make it better.)

Imagine Where You Want to Be

On the other copy of the sheet, you can start to make yourself feel better. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Imagine the PERFECT week for writing.

Now, this is the point where the “lots of white space” people and the “very little white space” people have to think slightly differently. If you have a LOT of extra space in your schedule, you have more flexibility. You can really get into dividing that time up with things that COMPLEMENT the writing life, not just setting aside time for writing. (More on that, in another post.) If you have very little white space, you’ll probably want to imagine almost all of it taken up with your writing time. In either case, you do have to be careful to be realistic. We do need down time, recreational time, and time for contemplation and reflection in our lives. You probably can’t, and definitely shouldn’t, fill every free moment with writing. It isn’t a realistic expectation. You will fail. Flame out. Give up. And that’s not what you want.

What you DO want is a reasonable time for writing, in two- or three-hour chunks, whenever possible. You want to set aside some significant portion of your week for writing. For some people, that may only be a few hours. For others, maybe it’s ten hours a week. You have to decide, but this is your dream week. Write it down.

Work In Increments to Get There

Now that you have your dream week in front of you, and your most recent failed writing week beside it, you can work out a plan to get from “failed” to “dreamed”. Likely, this will take an incremental approach. If you had the will power to make your dream writing week happen without easing into it, you probably would have done it last week. But, you didn’t. So don’t fall for the idea that simply writing down where you want to end up is enough. Work toward your goals. How? By tracking this week, too. And, next week. And, the week after.

I did it by making a little check box in my schedule. If I was scheduled to write at a certain time and I did it, then I checked it off. If I didn’t end up writing during that time, I wrote in what I did instead: “Watched Seinfeld for 1 kazillionth time.” Track your actual behavior compared to what you say your writing goals are. When you get it right, celebrate. When you don’t, you have a reason to do better the next day. You will win some, you’ll lose some. Just keep going. All of this will become second nature. When you sit down to watch yet another season of Survivor or Dancing With The Stars or Real Housewives of Southwest Birmingham or CSI: Muncie, you’ll say to yourself, “I’m choosing to use my time for THIS. Am I okay with that?”

Of course, sometimes, the answer to that is, yes. It is the very act of self-reflection and evaluation that is important here. And trust me, when another episode of Hoarders: Buried Alive comes on and you can say to yourself, “You know what, I’ve accomplished my writing for the day, and I’m ready to veg-out for a bit,” you will enjoy that mindless hour without the guilt of having not written hanging over your head.

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I realize this is one of my longest posts. It breaks several rules of blogging.

I HAVE talked about scheduling and tracking on the blog, in the past. If you want to read more, you can follow these links:

A Quick Word About…Tracking

One Week Down, A Lifetime To Go

Tracking My Writing: Week Three

Like a Snowflake: The Writing Process

Writing by the Numbers

Strategic Plan? For Writers?

Daily Tracking

More About Tracking and Creativity

What I Did With My (Wife’s) Summer Vacation

Create a Writing Schedule, Stick to It
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