Have you ever found yourself opening up a file to write and before you know it, you’ve been at the desk for three hours without anything productive happening? Yeah, that’s a real thing, and planning your time will help eliminate that issue.
Before we look at time management, let’s eliminate a common misconception that writers must wait for inspiration. Inspiration happens when we sit down to do the work, the infamous “butt-in-chair” method.
The human brain is lazy. At first, it will resist the work. Your creative brain is trying to skip out on the work (picture it sitting at the desk with arms crossed like a petulant child), but if you sit down at the same time every day and focus on putting in the work, eventually your lazy brain will get the message that this is writing time. THEN the inspiration will appear.
During the pandemic and associated lockdowns, many people were putting in ridiculous hours because there was no work-life balance and because there was so much work to do. This led to people re-evaluating their lives, their careers, and the time they put into the things they love.
At the early parts of the pandemic, I was putting in 19+ hours a day and was told “that’s normal.” This made me re-evaluate my work, because anyone who thinks working 19 hours a day is normal needs a psych eval.
Just as your laptop needs to recharge after 5-7 hours of work time, so does your brain. Borna Bonakdarpour, a behavioral neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, says,
The "main culprits behind our limited ability to focus are cognitive overload and energy use. When you increase the metabolism of the brain, it comes with byproducts that need to be cleared out and cleaned… The brain needs to rest” (Wigington).
We only have a set number of hours a day where we can be focused, and when we exceed that, we experience brain fog and an inability to focus.
In “Your ability to focus may be limited to 4 or 5 hours a day,” Keri Wigington explores the connection between rest, focus, and overworking our brains. Productivity researchers found that,
“Rather than working super long hours, [highly successful people] maximized the amount of depth of focus time they had per day… and organized their day so they could put in about 4 or 4½ hours of really intensive deep work” (Wigington).
So in our discussion about building a work schedule, it’s vital to understand the needs of the human brain and creativity. For instance, Bonakdarpour’s research suggests that for every 2-hours of focused work, “you need about 20 to 30 minutes to break.”
Some writers and workers ascribe to the Pomodoro method, which is setting a timer for 25-minutes, focusing on one task, like writing, and then enjoying a 5-minute break. Repeat up to 4 Pomodoro’s (2-hours). After 2-hours, proponents suggest taking a longer 15-30 minute break.
One of my coworkers does this with lesson-planning and grading, even following a playlist that follows that cycle.
Breaking into my writing time every 25 minutes would mess with my writing mojo, so even before I knew the productivity research, I did writing sprints with fellow writers (although you can do them alone).
Writing sprints vary between groups. We started with smaller times, like 30 minutes, and eventually settled on 45-50 minutes of writing and a 10 minute break. Here’s how it typically works.
We spend a few minutes connecting (we need a social life too!), and then we set the timer for :50 minutes. We write nonstop. No checking email, answering the phone, research, or social media. Once the timer goes off, we compare word count. Not everyone does this, but honestly, I’m a highly competitive person, so this aspect holds me accountable and gives me a reason to strive for a higher word count.
When we first started, our word counts were much less, but like running sprints, writing sprints help to build your stamina. We can now put in 600-1000 words each 50-minute sprint, and occasionally rise to over 1000-words.
Then we take a break. We check social media or email or talk about our work or our social lives. And then we set the timer again.
Most writers attribute sprints with increasing their output significantly. It’s also one way to stay social while living the writer-life.
Now that you understand how to best use your focused time, examine your schedule and determine how and where you will fit writing into your life. Some people will manage one Pomodoro or writing sprint per day. Some will sprint for three hours twice a week. Let your real life determine your goals, not someone else’s writing plan.
Ask yourself the following:
Day 4 Homework
Take some time to write your brainstorm answers in a notebook, calendar, or digital document.
Bring your answers to the brainstorming to Day 5 where we will put it all together.