Well, That Took Longer Than I Planned

A Guest Blog by Kimberly Napoli

One of the big keys to managing our time effectively is to be able to estimate how long tasks take to accomplish. The real trick is anticipating the Hidden Time Costs (HTC), the time spent on unanticipated tasks related to an activity. It’s tricky because sometimes you don’t see them till it’s too late. Then you need to be secure enough in your routines and habits to make adjustments.

When I was reading the Sept. 12th post by Shonna Slayton I was reminded of my current battle with Hidden Time Costs.

My husband wanted to get a dog for our son. I insisted on certain criteria; after all I knew in the end I would be taking care of the dog my son got to play with. I really was trying to think conscientiously about my time and how much of it I could give.

The dog had to like walks, but not need walks. Enjoy playing but prefer sleeping. Be big enough to not need bathroom breaks every three hours but small enough to be happy in my 800 sq. ft. home. Basically I want the doggie version of ME.

We found an English bulldog named Goose. I fell in love, but hid it well. I may write fantasy, but I live in reality. I asked lots of questions. He smelled funny but he was one of 12 dogs in the house; everything smelled funny. I loved him. More importantly, he loved me. I was his goddess.

Spoiler alert – major HTC about to hit me. That funny smell was a skin infection covering his whole body. He would need a lot of long term medicated grooming.

In the spirit of time management I timed it from beginning to end. ONE HOUR a day, every day. My routine was going to need tweaking. I didn’t panic, much. I had a routine and that meant I had something to tweak. Imagine no routine, just adding chaos to chaos. Or not recognizing this Hidden Time Cost and just doing it not knowing why my day was overwhelming.

Your writing is full of these HTCs. Hypothetically: When you first started you thought, I am going to set aside an hour a day and write. Then you started researching craft issues and reading articles. You discovered writing groups, the groups promoted online classes, your favorite classes were with a local chapter and if you joined you could make other writer friends, hear great speakers, and get a discount on the online classes. You loved you new friends, and when they asked you to volunteer you couldn’t say no. Does some of this sound familiar? Weren’t you only spending an hour a day writing? These Hidden Time Costs can cost you more than you planned. Now what?

If you have a routine, know what your priorities are, and how you spend your time it’s easier to evaluate your situation and adjust accordingly. If you are struggling with this issue or would like to share how you battled Hidden Time Costs, leave a comment. Let’s get a discussion started.

Best to you,
Kimberly Napoli
Online Class Instructor on Productivity and Organization

If you want a more in-depth look at this topic and others like it, check out my November online class “Get It Together- Write Now! Managing the Time to Write” offered by the Orange County Chapter of RWA.

Changing Times

Ok. I’m taking back what I said last week!

Well, not exactly. I stand behind the core message of what I said, that when you (or at least I) have a scheduled time to write, you can spot time wasters a little more easily. Sometimes, though, what looks like a time waster isn’t one. Sometimes, as I realized last week, it’s you trying to tell yourself it is time for change.

Yep. After telling you last week that I had a certain time I forced myself to write (or flogged myself with guilt if I didn’t), I am changing that routine. For three weeks I’ve been trying to maintain my established habit of writing fiction on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and non-fiction on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was a good plan. Establishing it helped me get lots written (and some things even finished!).

All that changed recently and my no-brainer routine became a thing I fought with several times a week. One day I would have a deadline (real or self-imposed) that forced me to write off-schedule, another day I would get inspired and want to write fiction when I was scheduled to write non-fiction or vice versa. Whatever it was, I’ve been struggling for three weeks to maintain my past level of productivity and getting frustrated and discouraged as I consistently lost focus and momentum.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this “time-management monster” appeared at the same time as this blog! It wasn’t a monster after all. It was me telling myself the routine needed to be changed. It no longer makes sense to force myself to write on my fiction projects when I’m so easily distracted by my own blog (and, to a lesser extent, Shonna’s and Kitty’s entries). Why not use that distraction to fuel whatever related projects I’m working on?

So that is what I did. I made a new schedule. I’m hoping this change will address the gremlins that have plagued my writing time the past few weeks. My new schedule is:

Monday: blog related writing. This could be comments on this blog or others, writing future blog entries or related articles, anything that seems related to the blog in my mind. (And knowing my mind, that could be a pretty wide and oddly shaped net. LOL)
Tuesday: fiction
Wednesday: fiction (and responding to the blog comments during breaks)
Thursday: non-fiction
Friday: choice, usually to include any polishing of upcoming blog entries.

Is there something you need to adjust in order to adapt to recent life changes? Go for it (and tell us about it!). Be careful, though. Establishing routines, certain ways of doing things, and schedules, times allotted to do those things, won’t be successful if they are in a constant state of flux. It’s a fine line and it’s important to stay on the productive side of that line. For me, this time, change was warranted. Now it’s time to get busy working the schedule.

My Top Three Time Wasters

1. The common cold. Fall is here and so is cold and flu season. I’ve lost five days to my current cold and today will be spent playing catch up. My sweet daughter was first to get sick and was so happy to learn I was sick too (someone to watch cartoons with, I guess). My husband was not so happy about it. So just a reminder to wash your hands, eat right, exercise, etc. Do all the tricks you know how to do to stay away from those germs. It’s hard to get much writing done when your throat is on fire, your brain is mush, and your hands are needed to hold the Kleenex.

 

2. Indecision. You can waste so much time not knowing what to do next. I’ve got two endings for my novel right now and I’m trying to decide which I like better. The choice I make affects the “logic” of the story. Same when starting a new project. NaNoWriMo is quickly approaching (more on that in future blogs) and I’m down to two book ideas. I’m pretty sure which one I’m going to write, but still, the other keeps floating around in my mind. Indecision might be what people call writer’s block—you just can’t decide what to write about.

 

3. Avoidance. It’s amazing all the things you can find to do when you are avoiding writing. My local library had that book Kitty was talking about a few blogs ago: Write is a Verb by Bill O’Hanlon. He has a great quote leading into Chapter 2. It’s a quote that needs to go up on my computer and any other location where I’m tempted to waste time! Here it is:

 

“It’s amazing how long it takes to complete something you’re not working on”—R.D. Clyde 

 

Time Wasters and How to Avoid Them

I might be one of the only writers I know who does not waste time playing computer games like solitaire. However, I have a boatload of other time wasters! Here are some of them:

  • Shopping in the morning to avoid the crowds and traffic
  • Checking email during my writing time
  • Working on writing that isn’t part of my focus
  • Running errands every day instead of grouping them together once or twice a week
  • Too much TV and movie watching
  • Staring at my to do list, moving stacks of papers and books on my desk, and in a variety of other ways trying to get more organized without actually accomplishing that or anything else!
  • Planning for the future too far in advance
  • Driving to a store to buy something I might not even need because I have a coupon that’s going to expire today

The question for me soon became – how do I know when I should feel guilty for doing one of these things instead of writing? None of them are bad, per se. But when I can find a way to narrow down what needs to be done and when, that will help me know when to push myself and when to back off without wallowing in unnecessary guilt.

Three changes have helped immensely – 1) creating routines, 2) figuring out what my time wasters are (and where possible, finding ways to avoid them), and 3) figuring out what I really want to write and making sure I stay within those bounds.

So 1) my new routine is to write from 9am to noon, five days a week. 2) I can’t do anything else during that time, especially any of my time wasters. As you can see, I actually made a list of them so I can be forewarned and forearmed before I lose too much time. 3) I made a list of about a half dozen topics I want to stay focused on, whether for fiction or nonfiction.

When a writing opportunity came up last week, I compared the topic to my interest list. It wasn’t on there, and couldn’t easily be angled in one of those ways. I immediately declined the opportunity. Boom! Done! No wasted time trying to figure out how I could make it work. And no guilt! When I got a coupon for my favorite store, I figured out how much the savings would be. I’d created a strategy to avoid wasting time by not making a special trip if the savings was less than $10. Boom! Done! I didn’t leave my writing early that day.

Which brings me back to the connection between guilt and wasting time. The above lists and strategies have helped me to recognize when I am wasting time out of laziness, when I need to stop and take a breath and ask myself what’s wrong, and when I just need to relax and realize life interrupts our schedules sometimes. For me, I only need to allow guilt to exist in the first scenario because that’s what guilt is for – to get us to change what we’re doing. In the last two scenarios, there is nothing to feel guilty about. And with set routines, you can hit “restart” immediately!

What about you? What are your time wasters, and how do you – or can you – avoid them?

Wasting Time

This week we are discussing time wasters. Unfortunately, I know a lot about those. A time waster for me is anything I do when I’m supposed to be doing something else, like writing. Trouble is sometimes I don’t recognize something as a time waster until it’s too late. Like after I’ve spent an hour playing Bookworm or frittered away prime writing time on a bunch of household chores.

That’s the beauty of establishing routines and regular times to write. Those time wasters are easier to spot. In my case, I’ve scheduled 10 am to 2 pm as my writing time. If I’m doing anything other than writing or lunch, I’m off my routine. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wasting time, but I’m certainly not using my time wisely. I’ve learned that it is not nearly as productive to try to fit writing into other times of the day. That may or may not remain the case. Just a few short years ago my prime time was after everyone else was in bed. My days were so full of other responsibilities that I had to defer my writing time. Night owl that I am, it wasn’t a hardship. For now, though, 10-2 is the best time for me to write.

What about you? Can you set a time that is only writing time? Even if you can only manage 30 minutes a day, you will have spent at least two hours writing each week. Those time wasters, whether it is legitimate chores or mindless games, are much easier to recognize when they infringe on established routines. Try it. Set aside a certain time each day that is only for writing, even if it is only 15-30 minutes. Spend that time writing. Only writing. And watch those time wasters fade away.

Focus on the One Thing

These tulips were all focused on the sun until I turned them for a picture.
These tulips were all focused on the sun until I turned them around to take a picture.

My routine gets upset at least twice a year: the start of school and the end of school. It seems I just get the routine down of balancing all my mothering, teaching, soccer-momming, and writing, then school is over and we’ve got extra time. A few weeks of getting the kids to stop saying, “Mom I’m bored,” and then the summer is over and we’re transitioning back into the school schedule.

These transition times can drive me a little crazy. If I’ve learned anything, it is this:

Focus on the one thing.

I recently had the revelation that since my LIFE is all about multi-tasking right now, my writing needs to be focused. I need to do just one thing at a time or I’ll end up with a bunch of half-finished manuscripts.

Take this blog, for example. It was my summer project. Kitty and Stephanie are already online with their own personal blogs, so I volunteered to work on the technical side to register the domain name, get the hosting, choose the blogging software, etc. It was something I needed to learn and it took up my writing time. I temporarily put my novel on hold so that I could work on skills I need for marketing my book one day. Now that the blog is up, my focus can swing back to my novel.

Hmm. As I’m typing this I’m remembering reading about a software program that helps you maintain your focus. It was on Randy Ingermanson’s blog…Let me go find it for you….Okay, here’s the deal. Almost a YEAR ago on the Advanced Fiction Writing blog they were discussing time management. Randy Ingermanson was talking about this idea of focusing on one thing. So, I guess it has been in my subconscious for about a year and I finally got it! Thanks, Randy! Click here if you want to learn more about the software (I’m more of a paper and pen planner so I can’t help you there) and you can read the part of the discussion I liked best.  

Back in the Saddle

Every September loads of people try to get their head out of their vacations, to stop thinking about the beach or the woods or the water, and get back into their “usual” routines. For many people, this includes school for someone in the family, and the strange dread/excitement of having to get back into your work knowing that you’ve got at least one holiday a month for the next few months.

As a full-time writer without children, I would think I’d be immune to this issue. But because I spent almost my whole life using this schedule – 17 years in school plus a lot of years in the work force before quitting my day job – it’s ingrained into my DNA!

So here I am in September thinking about the homework I need to do for my two Bible studies that start up again this week, planning for my husband’s birthday next month and our trip to Phoenix to see old friends over a long weekend, worrying about a project I have to finish for a favorite charity, wanting to drive 100 miles to see a new baby in the family, needing to visit some friends who had health issues or family deaths lately, figuring out what needs to be done for our move to Australia next summer, and – oh yeah, I’m out of dish soap and spoons, so I need to buy one or the other today.

Welcome to my brain in September! Looking back, I know this is what happens every September, whether I was juggling band practice and track practice in high school or planning after marriage which family and friends we would visit on which holiday for the fall and winter. Once you see a pattern, you can learn to use it, to work it. Or you can choose to change it.

For me, I need to use this September pattern I’ve developed. This month is a natural time for me to do a bit of long-term planning, in life and in writing. So for this fall, I’m planning on finishing the final draft of my current book in September, plot out the second book in October, write the first draft in November and be done with it by mid-December, then actually enjoy the Christmas season without stress this year. (I say that every year, and some years I even make it!) During the next ten months I need to be very careful with my planning because I need to work, but I also need to spend quality time with friends and family before we move out of the country. Knowing my priorities will help me keep my routines in place.

I’m reading a book called WRITE IS A VERB by Bill O’Hanlon. The subtitle is “Sit Down. Start Writing. No Excuses.” He gives lots of tips on how to get started, how to keep going, how to work in small increments of time. He’s very encouraging and upbeat – check it out.

So what is your September like? How can you either change it or make it work for you? What do you need help with? Let us know, we’d love to help you brainstorm some better routines!

Times of Change

Some of the hardest times for a writer to hang onto writing routines are what I call transition times, those times when something in the normal schedule changes. It can be as simple as adding an evening activity, as big as a cross-country move or as life-changing as having a new baby. It can be the transition between summer or holidays to daily work and school days. Whatever the change, the routines we’ve struggled to put in place often shiver and shake and fall apart leaving us to dig our way out of the chaotic rubble.

How do we keep that from happening? What can we do to make sure writing doesn’t get lost in the minor and major upheavals of our lives? How can we stay in control even during the hectic times of our days and lives?

Shonna touched on it last week when she talked about establishing automatic routines, especially routines that happen even we’re not focused on them. Well-established routines can add stability to the disorder that comes with transitions.

I implemented one such routine in my own life at least fifteen years ago and it has remained a constant through several major moves as well as tiny schedule tweaks. Until today, it never really had a name. I’ve decided to call it my Redeem the Time Cache because that is what it does. Whether on a holiday schedule, a normal work week or in the midst of a cross-country move, my Redeem the Time Cache helps me productively use time that would normally be wasted.

Whenever I know I’m going to be somewhere with nothing to do but wait, like a doctor’s office or waiting for a child to finish a class or in the passenger seat during a cross-country move, I take my Redeem the Time Cache with me (or a selection of items from it). At any given time, I have a pile of papers, magazines or books to read, letter writing supplies, a folder with items relating to a current project, anything that can be done in the little bits of waiting time that fill my day. When I was still homeschooling, that pile often included things I needed to plan lessons or assignments to evaluate. Now it includes “fun” books to read as often as it does work that needs doing.

Sometimes I don’t even need my Cache with me to redeem the time. Sometimes I find myself waiting without my Cache. Standing in a check out line, for example. After years spent using my Redeem the Time Cache, my automatic reaction is to mentally search for something to do. I might run through my list of errands. Other times, I’ll brainstorm names for a new character I’m creating or try to unknot a plot problem. Or, if I need a vacation from reality, I’ll read the headlines of all those pseudo-news magazines. With my Redeem the Time Cache, I can redeem those otherwise unproductive, wasted minutes. And that brings order back into the chaos even during the most hectic transition times.

Routines—Make Them Automatic

 

 

 

3 month old Snickers
3 Month Old Snickers

On this blog we are going to target a number of areas in the writer’s life that need routines. My overall philosophy about creating routines is to make them as automatic as possible. If left to my own devices, I’d never get anything done. Well, at least nothing productive, save rearranging the furniture. Again.

 

 

This also holds true for when you have unexpected life changes, say a new puppy.

 

I’ve suddenly found that much of my day is consumed with following around our 3-month-old-and-not-housebroken shih tzu/terrier to see if she is about to make a deposit on the floor. I’ve gotten no writing-related work done except for the items that have firmly established routines. Aha!

Here is an example of something simple that I do. I am finishing up a middle grade novel and will be looking for an agent soon. But before I do that I have to analyze the market and research agents. This can be time-consuming (even with a market guide).

One way to track agents almost automatically is through my email subscription to Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf.  It arrives in my inbox every Thursday. That night I open a Word document where I am tracking agents and copy/paste any new information into a table that shows the agent’s name, agency, recent sales, and contact information.

I don’t have to go out and find the info. It comes to me automatically.

I’ve put together a nice list of agents along with a current list of books they have sold. This took me just a few minutes each week.

Anyone else have ideas for making your writing tasks automatic? I’m looking for some more good tips!  (Especially ideas for that write-every-day thing Stephanie keeps talking about.)

Kitty’s Routines

If there is one consistent through-line in my writing routines, it is that they change to fit my life at the moment. I used to look at this as a weakness, as proof that I couldn’t keep to a schedule. Now I see that allowing myself to be flexible to life’s needs helps me to be more productive rather than less so.

For instance, right now my daily routine goes something like this: wake up and run (my husband and I are training to run a half marathon), shower and eat breakfast, then I have 20-30 minutes of flex time to do whatever I want or need to before the writing day begins at 9am. (Thank you, God, that I no longer have to commute! ☺ ) I write from 9am to 1pm – write, not research or any other almost-writing activity. Then I break for lunch and check email, and in the afternoon I do my almost-writing activities like research, reading, writing non-fiction articles and blog entries, more email, etc. The last few hours of the late afternoon I try to get household chores done, pay bills, run errands, whatever else is on my to do list for the day.

That’s the routine I shoot for and often accomplish. That is not the average day!  LOL! I have a tendency to think and work in a project-oriented way. Once I get writing, I find it difficult to stop while I still have something to say. That would explain why my husband asked me yesterday why we had no groceries. I kept meaning to go to the store, but I’ve been in the flow for the last two weeks and haven’t wanted to stop!

In the same way, once I get started on email, I find it very hard to stop while there are still emails that need to be answered. In fact, I’ve found that if I don’t literally close my email program, I’ll keep checking it every time it dings at me – not good for getting writing and other work done. Same with my to do list. If I start working through it first thing in the morning, I’ll get tons of stuff done – except for writing.

And that’s why I write in the morning now. Apparently, whatever I get started on first thing is what my energy is going to be focused on, not just for the hours I’m working on it, but on and off for the whole day. I used to try to “get everything else done so my afternoon is free for writing.” But all that meant is that somehow I didn’t get much/any writing done!

I don’t look at these frequent changes to routine as signs that I “failed yet again.” That is, I no longer look at it that way. Now I see it as changing my routine to meet the changing needs of life. Plus I suspect that my creative brain needs to do things a little differently every now and then, shake things up to keep it interesting.

What routines have you tried? What worked? What surprised you? Jump in and share your experiences!