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How do you write when you don’t have time to write? When your life is full and busy with job, school, family, and other obligations, it can be tough to squeeze in writing. But don’t give up—there are ways to keep writing even if you don’t have time to sit down with a pen and paper.

How to Keep Writing When You Don't Have Time to Write

When a writer voices frustration about not being able to write, often the advice given is some form of “you just have to suck it up and do it.” The assumption behind this well-intentioned reply is that the hurdle to overcome is fear of judgment or procrastination or an inability to do something that isn’t perfect.

While those are all real barriers to writing that some authors need to overcome through a combination of force of will and giving oneself grace, sometimes the barrier to writing is something more concrete, like a real lack of time. We might have all the will-power in the world, but if we don’t have time we will feel stuck and our writing will stagnate.

How do we keep moving forward with our work when we don’t have any time?

No Time to Write

I’ve faced the problem of a lack of time over the past month. With aging parents who need care and attention, five growing kids who need transportation to their activities, and a day job that is currently demanding every free moment, there is nothing left of my week for writing.

Please don’t hear this as complaining. I’m thankful for my parents, kids, and job. I’m happy to invest in them. I’m simply facing the hard truth that time is the only commodity we have that can’t be earned back or replaced once it is spent. When it is gone, it is gone. And right now, I have to spend the limited amount I have in other places.

To make matters more complicated, I’m in the middle of launching a new series. The first two books were published in early March and the third is outlined and waiting for me to put my but in the chair and write it.

Unfortunately, until novels are my full-time job, it will have to wait. My family and the work that pays the bills have to come first. Right now, they need me to spend all my seconds on them.

At the same time, I can’t just let go of the third book because I know that if I let it go dormant, picking it back up will be a thousand times harder.

It’s a pickle.

4 Ways to Write When You Have No Time to Write

On one hand, I have no time. On the other, I need to keep working on my book or I’ll lose the momentum and have to start over from scratch.

To ease the contradiction, there are four things I do to keep working on my writing when I have no time. My hope is that they will be helpful to you as well.

1. Practice Scenes in Your Head

I have a forty-five minute commute to work every morning. It kills me because I know that is forty-five minutes I could be writing, but instead I’m stuck behind the wheel of a car.

Even so, that time doesn’t have to go to waste. Often, I will turn off the music or podcast I’m listening to and instead use that time to imagine a scene from the book I wish I was writing. If I can get a scene visually in my head, writing it later is exponentially easier.

Start practicing imagining your scenes as if they were movie clips. When you have a moment alone, visualize the scene. Watch the characters interact and listen to their dialog. Enjoy the action as it unfolds in your mind. This mental work will pay off later.

I find the best time to do this is when I’m sleeping. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes if I go to sleep thinking about a scene, a will wake up with a clear vision of the scene in my mind. It’s great multi-tasking if you can get your dreams to cooperate.

2. Make Notes on the Fly

I carry a small notepad with me wherever I go because I never know when an idea is going to hit and I want to be ready. For example, I was waiting for a meeting to start at work yesterday and an idea about the plot of my next book struck me. I was glad I had my notepad with me to quickly jot down the thought.

Carry some form of notepad with us can be a helpful way to grab ideas as they come. In the pad, we don’t need to journal out complete thoughts. We just need to capture sentences or notions or plot points.

Often, I find I don’t even need to look back at my notes later. The act of writing them down solidifies them in my mind.

3. Look for Stand-Ins

One of the most difficult things for me to get right in a novel is my character’s physical description. If I’m left to my own devices, all my characters come out as weird blobs that have no exact form.

To solve this issue, I will look for stand-ins from the real world. For example, in an urban fantasy series I wrote, there was a giant named Rothman. Whenever I write him, I think about Dwayne the Rock Johnson in the movie Hercules. It helps give a face to my character.

Finding stand-ins is something we can do when we don’t have time to sit in the chair and pound out words. We can keep a list of characters in our heads and look for people to represent them in the world around us.

It will save us time in the future when we do have a moment to sit and write because we won’t have to waste those precious seconds debating a character’s appearance.

4. Get to Know the Voice Memo Feature of Your Phone

I was going through a similar season of busyness after publishing my second book. I wanted to work on book three in that series, but I could never find the time.

One day, while I was waiting for my car’s oil to be changed, inspiration hit. I didn’t have a journal or a laptop with me, so I whipped out my phone, hit record on the voice memo app, and started talking. In fifteen minutes I was able to describe several scenes that later became cornerstones of the book.

If you have a cell phone, it likely has some way to record audio messages. Spend ten minutes Googling your phone model and figuring out how to use it. Then, whenever something comes to mind, record it as a voice message for future you to write about.

The Problem of Time

Maybe your problem isn’t fear or procrastination. Maybe you are like me and your problem is that your top priorities are demanding everything you have. If that is the case, I hope some of the strategies above help you keep your project going even if you don’t have time.

Do you have other tricks you use to keep your writing fresh when you are busy? Share them in the comments below so we can all benefit from them.

PRACTICE

Take five minutes to write two thousand words based on the word “busy.” You could write a fictional story about a busy person, an essay about busyness, or a poem about overcoming your lack of time.

Whatever you chose to compose, share it in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Jeff Elkins
Jeff Elkins
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."
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