How To Build A Writing Schedule

One of the big obstacles facing writers is managing time. Before we can even talk about “knowing what to write” or “knowing how to write”, we have to take a look at whether or not the person has made time to write. 

And this is a particularly frustrating topic for me because I so often run into people who want all the successes but don’t do nearly enough of the work consistently to obtain them, all the while questioning why things aren’t coming together the way they should.

To be clear – yes everyone deserves a shot at success, but the path to that success is not easily linear and does require effort. No one is going to hand you anything, so it’s in your interest to do the work. 

Imagine two people. Let’s call them Alice and Sally. They’re both writers. They’ve both decided to commit their 2019 to writing after navigating NaNoWriMo 2018 and they’ve been interested in writing and reading for most of their lives. Alice and Sally are going to be our two examples throughout this post. 

Alice is a busy mom with 3 young kids, all of whom are active in extra-cirricular activities that require Alice hauling them around to practices and games. 

Sally is a recent college graduate, up to her elbows in debt, recently moved into her first apartment with her partner Hannah, who is supporting the both of them while Sally figures out what she’s going to do with herself. Hannah has given her 3 months to “do something” with her life. 

How would these people make schedules? How would they fit writing into their lives? 

Well, they could both just sit on social media all day, following hashtags and reading blogs in between running around and other life stuff. That would make them at least writing-adjacent, but that’s unlikely to scratch the creative itches both example-people have.

Where do they start? They’d start in the same place you would – To fit something into your routine, you have to know what your routine is first.

Step I: Write out your routine

Alice and Sally each grab a piece of paper, or a spreadsheet, and start writing out how they spend each day in 1-hour increments. 

Their Mondays look like this:

And then you realize you forgot a whole hour off the schedule….

This is a one particular Monday for both women. One day does not highlight any patterns, so take this scheduling one step further and write out a whole week for each of them. Yes, include the weekends.

Step II: Look for patterns and places to change

We’ll start with Alice’s schedule:

Seems like a really full week…

What we’re looking for is patterns. Things that repeat themselves. There are quite a few here in her week. She goes to the gym at the same time. Her kids and family occupy the same chunks of time, she’s at a day job with a set schedule. 

With a schedule that full, what we’re looking to do is reclaim and repurpose some of the time to turn it into writing time. What Alice wants to do is avoid the excuse of “I’m too busy to write.” 

We can’t really touch her weekday mornings or her day job. The lunch hour is one viable candidate, as might be one or two of the “Family Time” entries.

If she were a client, I’d ask her the following questions:

  1. How do you spend your lunch hour? Does it really take 60 minutes to sit down and eat?
  2. What is “Family Time” and how are the responsibilities divided between you and your spouse?
  3. What does “Get the kids to bed” mean, and how is that handled?

It would be totally unreasonable for me to come in and squash Alice’s routines and her family life for the sake of her creativity. Yes, writing the book is important to her, yes she wants to leave that day job and write about corporate sexpionage, but that can’t come at the cost of her family and other responsibilities.

Suppose she answers that her lunch hour is spent out of the office at a small coffee shop where she uses the free WiFi to catch up on the news and social media. She brings her lunch from home and probably spends ten minutes eating and fifty minutes staring at a phone screen. This immediately makes “Lunch” one spot of her day where she can write. 

The next question people ask is “Should she write everyday at lunch?” and my answer is somewhere in the neighborhood of “Ideally, yes, but sometimes that’s not going to be possible because ….

Life finds a way.

Let’s give Alice a little flexibility and say she’s willing to commit to writing on 3 of her 5 lunch breaks, with an option to do it daily “if she sees she’s making progress.” 

This, Alice, is a great way to make sure you don’t see any progress. “If she’s making progress” means what, exactly? How is she measuring “progress”? What happens if she fails to meet this vague benchmark? 

If Alice has just gotta have a benchmark let it be this – After she sat down to write, is there more on the page than there was before she sat down to write? If so, then there’s progress

But what about getting the kids ready for bed? It turns out that what Alice does is periodically check in on the kids to make sure the twins are actually brushing and flossing and to make sure her eldest daughter didn’t leave the wet towel on the floor. These specific activities take maybe 5 minutes total, counting all the walking and talking, and the rest of the hour is spent having a glass of wine with her spouse. 

Funny thing about glasses of wine, they’re portable. She could ask her spouse to check in on the kids and they could relocate their wine moment else, say to the craft room that Alice wants to use part of as a writing space. 

These are not huge changes. No one needs to mortgage the house or sell a kidney. This is about understanding her time, the choices that created the results she’s getting, and Alice being willing to change things in order to make room for something new in her life. 

Before we move onto step 3, let’s look at Sally’s schedule:

We all know “look for job” includes “watch Netflix”, right? 

The significant issue with Sally’s schedule is that where Alice’s schedule had so much structure built in, Sally has barely any structure at all. So instead of squeezing writing in, we can build a new schedule around writing. 

Let’s make Hannah a really nice example partner and say she’s hired me to work with Sally to help get Sally going in the right creative direction (this happens …. a lot, especially lately). 

With Sally as a client, my first question has to be, “How serious are you about looking for a job?” because the schedule says she’s doing a lot of looking, but is she really? If the answer’s no or something sort a wishy-washy then that’s gotta be a conversation she and Hannah have. For the sake of this example, let’s suppose that Sally sends out 5 resumes a day in her search and the other hours are really passively staring at the screen. 

My next question to Sally is, “What do you do on social media?” and I’m actually hoping the answer is something to do with a large friend circle or on-going conversations. 

Here’s where Sally actually has a leg up on Alice. Sally’s frequent social media use means she’s more likely to be have the early stages of an audience – people who have invested in her to some degree that she can offer her book to later. 

But for now, let’s just look at the number of hours she’s staring at her ex on Facebook and working on her Snapchat filter game as time she can repurpose to write. 

With a bucket of encouragement, Sally agrees to get up at the same time every day and spend 1 hour NOT on social media, using it instead to write. 

It may not seem like 1 hour a day and waking up at the same time are huge deals when you’re trying to build a writing schedule, but they’re massive. 

Structure helps creativity. Structure is not the arch-nemesis of creativity. Structure provides necessary constraints and architecture to whatever you’re doing so that you can singularly focus as needed towards getting things done. 

She sets up her phone’s alarm clock and commits to writing every day from 8 to 9 in the morning. 

With those basics in place, we move to step 3.

Step III: Stick to it

One of the most disheartening parts of helping people create schedules is finding out that they’re not sticking with them. When I build a schedule with a client, it’s tailored to them, for them. It’s designed to help give them the time and space to write, counting on their commitment to actually doing the work, and not just saying it’s important to them.

In our example writers, Alice agreed to change her lunch breaks into writing time, and after a week, she found that 3 lunches spent writing wasn’t enough. She’s bumped up to 4, giving herself Friday off. And at home, her spouse has agreed to check on the kids so that three nights a week, Alice has an extra hour to write as well.

So we went from 0 hours of writing to 7 hours of writing a week. Still with a dayjob. Still with family responsibilities. Still going to the gym. Still having that glass of wine. 

How long does Alice have to stick to 7 hours a week? Hopefully long enough to realize that she can claim even more time if she applies the same strategies to her weekends. 

This brings up an important point – If someone says something is important to them, they’ll make the time to do it

Let’s go look at Sally. Her lack of structure was putting her into 

After a week of getting up early and resisting the urge to do what she’s used to, she’s found herself asking, “Is this really how I want to spend this hour?” before she gets into whatever it is she wants to do. 

Getting up at a set time and writing has gotten Hannah off her case about doing something, while also somewhat alleviating that guilt and anxiety that she’s not good enough or doing enough. But it’s also brought something else to her day – she’s got something to talk about now when she goes and hangs out with her friends. She’s got something to be proud of, something to think about when she’s bored, and she’s starting to find that maybe the lengthy solo-binges aren’t the best way for her to unwind from the stress of job hunting, so she’s found 14 hours of writing across 7 days, more or less 2 hours a day.  This is huge. 

While both example people have found results from changes to their schedules, they’ve also found one of the most significant obstacles for creatives – discipline.

It can be hard as hell to calm down and write. To shut off the distractions and the other stuff to worry about and just create. For some people that’s accomplished by leaving the house and working not at home. For other people it means putting in earbuds or closing a door. 

Discipline is what makes a schedule stick. Discipline is what separates the writers from the people who “this one time tried writing” or the writing-adjacent. 

There are no easy ways to build discipline. There are loads of ways to heap guilt on yourself for not having enough and loads more ways to rationalize a lack of it. But building it is tricky. One of the best things I’ve found is accountability, which means turning to another person and giving them an accurate accounting of what you’re doing and what’s up next. 

In our examples, each writer has their significant other and me to help hold them accountable, with regular meetings and conversations scheduled to keep the creative engine firing as it should. If you’re someone who thinks they could use more accountability to help them reach their creative goals, I want you to find 30 minutes in your schedule and click here.

On we go to our last step.

Step IV: Don’t give up

It seems like everyone has some stat they bring up when they talk about people pursuing their dreams – 60%, 80%, 85% of people who get started give up, etc etc. I don’t have a particular stat to offer you. Instead, I have a question.

If ____ is important to you, what are you doing today to move one step closer to making your goal a reality?

The best exercise to build discipline that I’ve ever found is consistent progress. Yeah, on some days you’ll make more progress than on other days. You’ll be tired, or distracted, or something will come up and today won’t be as good as yesterday. But don’t feed that idea that every day has to be substantially better than the last because you’re just going to end up disappointed as the hoops to jump through become harder and harder. 

Make some kind of progress, make some kind of conscious choice to put creativity in your schedule and follow through with it as regularly as you can, and you will find your dream one step closer. 

And it starts with a schedule that you’re honest about, and one that you’re willing to alter for the sake of doing something important. 

Don’t give up. Keep going. Happy writing. 

Posted by johnadamus