5 Sneaky Ways to Steal Time to Write

by Sue Weems | 47 comments

Do you struggle to find time to write? Here’s how I steal time regularly and use the time I have effectively.

5 Sneaky Ways to Steal More Time to Write

Do you collect ideas? Me too. I have a few boxes of journals, each one filled to the brim with sketches, observations, napkins, and all manner of stories waiting to be written.

Every morning, my alarm rings, and I launch into the day, getting four kids off to three different schools before heading to my campus for a full day teaching high school. What do I write? Fourteen restroom passes.

In the evenings, between dinner and soccer practice, I argue with at least two children about homework or chores, and check that I didn't forget to pay the bills online. What do I write? A grocery list and my signature on reading logs or permission slips.

All the while, those ideas in my journals sit simmering, waiting to be told. Sometimes I get twitchy thinking about the stories I haven't told yet. I think about my drawer of stories waiting to be finished. There just isn't enough time in my day to get it all done and write. Right?

Wrong.

Is There Enough Time?

My writing falls into two categories: journaling and projects. I don’t schedule journaling time, because I compulsively make notes all day every day. For me, journaling is a way to collect ideas, observations, and seeds that might grow into larger projects one day.

I journal in notebooks, my phone notes, a voice memo app, and any scrap of paper I can get my hands on when inspiration strikes. In the summer, I usually go through the previous year's journals and notes, marking ideas that I'd like to revisit.

Once I commit an idea to project stage, I ruthlessly schedule and steal time to complete it. Writing projects include both fiction and nonfiction, and include anything with a deadline (even when self-imposed).

I schedule four to five hours a week for working time, but I bet I get closer to ten hours a week with the time I steal from the margins of my life.

It’s enough time (combined with a couple writing weekends) for me to finish a complete first draft of a novel and about thirty articles or short stories each year. This year, I’m figuring out how to incorporate more revision time as I edit a novel. How am I getting all that done with a full-time high school teaching job, four kids, a husband, and two needy dogs? Two years ago, I made some changes.

5 Sneaky Ways to Steal Time to Write

Here are the five ways I manage to steal writing time even when it seems like there's no time left.

1. I make an intention to write.

Two years ago, I had an epiphany: I realized I didn’t need more time. I needed more intention.

Some people say they don’t have time to write or that they don’t feel like writing.

For me, intention means I want to write so much that I sneak it like my kids’ Halloween candy. I don’t allow myself to even say the words, “I don’t have time to write.”

Sometimes, that thing is worthy of my time (caring for my sick child or watching a movie with my husband). Other times, that “something else” is not worth trading my writing time (watching SNL reruns for hours or staring into the abyss).

How much do you want to be a writer?

2. I set a production schedule and weekly goals.

Before you get scared by the words “schedule” and “goals,” consider how simple this step can be. If I want to write a novel in 90 days, and novels in my genre tend to be 70,000 words, then I need to write 777 words a day for that 90 days, or shoot for 5,444 words a week to hit my goal. Even an English major like me can do this math.

Do those word counts seem overwhelming? They seemed impossible for me too once. So start with 500 words a day. Or a page a day. Or fifteen minutes. Keep setting those daily or weekly goals and keep meeting them.

The other thing that helps with scheduling? A loose outline. I used to be a die-hard panster, but I found with just a few key sentences keeping the story on track and in genre, the writing went much faster. (And it saves a ton of revision time later.)

Some writers like daily goals, but with my busy family, weekly goals are working best right now. Some examples of my weekly goals include: finish a flash fiction piece, the outline for AB, and the article for The Write Practice; rewrite Ch. 1–5 of the novel; or reread Bell’s chapter on character motivation and apply to Act 1.

The simpler I keep it, the more likely I am to complete my work. Try setting goals in a variety of ways until you find one that works best for you.

3. I schedule and steal time to work.

Once you have those goals? Schedule the time you have available. Even if it is only a half hour three times a week, scheduling your writing makes it a priority.

Outside scheduled time, begin looking for pockets of time when you usually check your phone and steal them for writing.

When do I steal extra time? I sneak time at lunch, in the carpool line (when parked), during soccer practice, and waiting in the doctor's office.

Recently, I surprised my dentist when I thanked him for running nearly forty minutes late, because finding forty minutes of writing time midweek? Score!

4. I leave myself notes in the manuscript as I work.

Do you waste precious time trying to figure out what to write next? Hemingway famously stopped when he knew what happened next, or when he knew the next sentence.

Anytime I stop, I leave myself a note about what comes next, which lets me jump back into the manuscript faster. When the kids hop out of the car to head out to soccer practice, I open my laptop, look at my last note, and start writing.

(Don’t overcomplicate this. A note is simply one sentence telling me what to write next.)

This one tip has allowed me to steal more time than almost anything else.

5. I learned to sprint, especially in first drafts.

Look, some things take more time than others (revision, I’m glaring at you). First drafts? I fly through them.

During a writing sprint, I type as quickly as I can. Sprints keep me from overthinking everything. When I sit down to write, I work like my hair is on fire and my word count is the only way to water.

Set a timer and go for ten minutes if you are new to sprinting. I usually end up working long past the timer.

It’s even more effective when you use it with a partner or group. My students who struggle to get a couple hundred words down in twenty minutes are often surprised to find they can double or triple that amount when they start a sprinting habit.

Sprinting doesn’t work for every single type of writing, but if you are stuck and overthinking? Give it a try.

You Have More Time Than You Think

When I'm intentional about my time, I don’t feel guilty writing in the spaces when I'd be checking Twitter. I still make time for my family, activities I enjoy, downtime, and sometimes laundry.

My schedule gets interrupted by emergencies and illness, but I’m not after perfection. I’m after a consistent writing practice that over time adds up to satisfying work that resonates with my readers.

How do you steal time to write? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Which tip will you use to steal time today? After you pick one, tell us which one you are going to try out. Then open your work in progress, reread the last two sentences you wrote, and sprint for fifteen minutes without stopping. The delete key is your enemy. Don’t stop to look anything up (I often write TKlocation or TKcharactername as a placeholder that I can go back and find quickly later).

At the end of your time, share the tip you're going to try, your word count finished, or if you are really brave, share your practice in the comments!

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Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.

47 Comments

  1. Deb Palmer

    Sue
    Thanks for a great post on a rather tired subject. I am owning the “intentional” pose. It’s empowering. And I agree with the 10 minute sprint. I live by the motto “I can do anything for 10 minutes.” Like you, often that is enough to start a word frenzy.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Thanks, Deb! It’s amazing what ten minutes can start.

    • Alicia C.I.

      It the ten minutes sprint does work. I tried fifteen after reading 15 minute writer by Jennifer Blanchet I finished my short story that day. (of course not in exactly fifteen minutes but I would write fifteen minutes every hour).

  2. S.Ramalingam

    Nice tips to be hell bent on writing.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. Sean O'Neill

    Great post! I constantly leave notes for myself telling me what to write next and I agree it is one of the quickest ways of getting back into writing since I know exactly what comes next. I also outline now, although I used to be a pantser. Both of these techniques – note-taking and outlining – can take the joy out of writing if you’re not careful though because the element of surprise can be, to a large extent, lost. However, I find if I limit myself to short descriptions when taking notes or outlining, that still leaves plenty of room for invention.
    I think you’re right about there being plenty of time for writing, provided you prioritize it and are intentional about it.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Sean, I couldn’t agree more. I was a die-hard panster before and as I wrote my first novel. Then I had to outline to untangle it afterward in revision. Most of the manuscript had to go because it had no structure or arc. (SO painful) It was a terrific education, but now I always use beats (even if it is just a few!) to keep the story on the rails. There’s so much fun to be had between the major markers. Thanks for reading.

  4. Rag Mars

    Dear Sue! I adore YOU! You are so right! I even have much less time than you and I always steal the time I never have. My Writing is so much less important than yours, so I practice Automatic Writing with a pencil in my hand. The most exciting discovery is, when that scribble scrabble is total unreadable it becomes the most stimulating, as it means it is the best I ever wrote. As there is proven Life after Death, yes I will never have time even then, I prepared already my special Coffin with eternal Light and scribble scrabble stuff for eternal After Death Writing. When I may go to Heaven, I may have some time granted to decipher some of it and send it back to Earth. In case I must go the other direction – the scribble will reduce my eternal sentence to less eternal. Which will be quite a relieve. So thanks for your stolen Time scribble! My pal Hemingway preferred the better way; he stole most of his precious time for writing for better Drinking. He is so right. What good writing I still may do today, I may do it even better tomorrow. That is never so evident for the Drink…It is a way more lasting reward to steal time for Drinking,…

    Reply
    • Sue

      Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll keep telling your stories too.

  5. Rag Mars

    he just called its time to steal for the next Havana Daiquiri…

    Reply
  6. Rag Mars

    as I keep scribbling before the next stolen Time Daiquiri, Hemingway glances at my automatic scribble and wonders, what language it may be. Good question. Lets try some…

    Reply
  7. Rag Mars

    No way! WE Never get Drunk from those Daiquiris…

    Reply
  8. James Wright

    I laughed out loud when I read that you thanked the dentist for being forty minutes late. Seriously though, These tips will help me a great deal with my own writing.

    Reply
    • Sue

      My dentist chuckled nervously, like he was trying to decide if I was serious. Hope one of these ideas works to help you get the writing done. Thanks for reading!

  9. Grant McConnell

    My largest available pocket of time is at night. I have sleeping problems, and cannot sleep. My best ideas come at night, as well.

    Reply
    • Sam Vale

      I feel you on this. The other morning I woke up at 1:30 and wrote until the sun came up. Was tired the day ahead, but I have to sacrifice something

    • Sue

      I’ve been there too, Grant. Sometimes it’s hard to shut down the mind when there are so many ideas whirring.

  10. Sam Vale

    So what I need right now. I’m a SAHM with two small children, so it does take me some time management! I don’t want to write while they’re awake because I want to soak up all of my time with them, so I write while they are napping or I ask my husband to take over bedtime so I can meet a deadline.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Sam, I’ve been a SAHM several times over the years due to my husband’s moves, and I’m telling you– those were the hardest years to get the writing in, especially when the kids are small. Keep at it– it is worth it. Cheering you on!

  11. Alicia C.I.

    This was really useful. I write really early in the morning (I alternate this as some mornings I’m painting) and at night time while everyone is sleeping. I write random notes when I’m on the bus or train as my imagination runs wild during my journeys.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Hi Alicia, Your process reminds me of Toni Morrison’s quote: “Write at the edges of the day.” Thanks for stopping by and sharing a bit of what works for you.

  12. 709writer

    Ok so I like the “sprint” idea.

    The moon spilled light across the awnings in the alleyway, creating blocks of shadow beneath the awnings. She found shelter under one awning and huddled beside the dumpster, wrinkling her nose at the stench odor banana peels old bread stale coffee from the cafe and she swallowed as she struggled to quiet – and calm- her breathing.

    If only she could concentrate and focus and then maybe she could actually think of a plan, a way to escape this monster. The monster who looked like a man.

    Blood pounded so hard in her ears it was the only sound she heard. Tears swelled her vision. She hugged her knees, burying a sob in them.

    The man wouldn’t stop – he’d follow her forever. She was useless and powerless and there was no point in running anymore.

    But her sister…she had to keep fighting. For her sister.

    Thank you for the prompts, Sue!

    Reply
    • Sue

      Great tension in so few lines. Glad the sprints helped. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!

  13. Lorna Robinson

    I am learning every day which is so exciting. I find that writing rules at the moment and I spend every spare moment at it. Nothing at home is getting done. I guess this will pass but Ive had to put time limits on my writing. Its ten minutes writing, ten minutes washing dishes and tidy the kitchen. thirty minutes watering the garden, thirty minutes writing. I cant do much about when I’m at work but I liked what you said about writing while waiting at the doctors. Great Idea. I’m also practising the ten minute sprint, so please excuse the mess of my chaotic post and I hope it makes sense.

    Reply
    • Sue

      You’re off to a great start! Hope you’ll keep writing. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

  14. betty badgett

    So glad to know that there are others out there who like myself just can’t
    seem to find enough time in the day to accomplish our writing goals.
    I stole time to write just yesterday when I went to my doctors office for my
    annual physical. After being checked in I sat in the waiting room with a few
    other people who were watching the flat screen tv on the wall. I immediately
    took out a book I was reading “writing down the bones” by Natalie Goldberg
    and began reading. I then took out a pen and pad and wrote a slim outline
    for a short story I wanted to start. We have to grab moments when we can
    and I find the doctors office a great place to be productive and pass the time
    until they call my name! thanks for the post!!!

    Reply
    • Sue

      Betty, we are kindred spirits! Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is one of my favorites. I always read excerpts with my creative writing classes. Way to steal time! Hope your story turns out great.

    • betty badgett

      Thank you so much Sue!! Another book I love is “Bird
      By Bird” by Annie Lamott. . I enjoyed reading your article
      here at the write practice. Do you have a book out now?
      If so I would love to know where I could get it. I love to
      read, especially books that help me on this path of writing.
      Just signed up for the writing contest.

  15. Robert Ranck

    Now you’ve done it ! With your approach and attitude, you have sent me running to your blog. Next, with your sense and style, you have enticed me to the Winter Contest. Then, on to Kindle, for a copy of your book, “Shelf Life”. I’m half-way through it and encouraged and inspired to write – thanks.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Aw… thanks so much Robert. Appreciate the comment and kind words. Hope you’ll begin writing your stories, too!

  16. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you for this article! As a homemaker, I have quite some time to write. I just have to get a regular routine down.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Hope you find a routine that works well for you. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  17. J. S. Pan

    Set aside 10 minutes a day after lunch to write.

    Reply
    • Sue

      I hope it goes well!

  18. Jason Bougger

    Everything you said here is so true. And really, the fact that it only takes 777 words a day to write a novel in three months is an encouraging fact. I also like the idea of leaving a “what happens next” note so that you don’t have to hunt for ideas at the next writing session.

    Reply
    • Sue

      I had to check my math twice on that number, but yes! 800 words a day for a season. If only revision was that quick. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  19. Zaira Khan

    What about research articles which demand research prior to writing . It will take more time than usual .. Any suggestions ?

    Reply
    • Sue

      Research is tricky, because depending on the area, it can’t be rushed through like a first draft. When I worked on my master’s degree research, I blocked out specific time for specific topics to keep on track. What helps my students most is having a clearly defined problem and objective for the research. It’s when I don’t have a specific goal in mind that I lose time in research. If you are researching articles for paid writing, keep in mind that the longer the research takes, the less money you will make per “hour” upon the sale. (Not sure what kind of research you are referring to, but I’ve gotten caught in that trap before where I spent dozens of hours researching for an article that didn’t pay very much. It was a good learning experience about working smarter and getting specific to make the research time count.) I think the exception is research in your field or expertise, where the time invested both energizes you and makes you a stronger candidate in your field. Hope something there helps. Good luck!

  20. Jeffrey Pillow

    #1 tip: Buy a notebook. Attach an ink pen to its spiral bound spine. Keep it with you wherever you go. Write whenever you get a spare minute. (Buy noise canceling headphones if you must) Fin.

    Reply
  21. Epsy Edward

    “SPRINT WRITE” is a great idea!!!

    Reply
  22. Amber

    These are great tips! It opens your eyes to how much time in the day you actually have to achieve your goals!

    Reply
  23. misnaton rabahi

    Sue,

    Thank you for the sneaky ways 🙂

    I can claim to these two:

    1. I make an intention to write. Always. Whether I write or not, that’s another point.
    4. I leave myself notes in the manuscript as I work. (a) I type in the date at the last sentence completed, and highlight it to be removed when I am finished with writing. If I take breaks during the day, I would type in the time as well. As I review, I could see, how much or how less effort I have made during the day. (b) I put brief notes at any point in the writing piece, where my thought tends to fly, so that I know that I can always come back to it later. It may or may not be included finally, but writing it down help me to calm down about the many ideas that I thought ‘important’ initially.

    I am flexible on the other points. I am pretty convinced that I need to be more sneaky on these, to increase my productivity.

    misna

    Reply
  24. Sarojini Pattayat

    Thanks for such a great post.It inspires.

    Reply
  25. Courtnie

    I’m gonna do #3 stealing time to write.

    Reply
  26. Courtnie

    As Liza turns the corner . She froze in place her blood ran cold through her body. She could feel her heart breaking. She couldn’t believe what she saw. The man that she has loved for the pass 12yrs kissing and holding hands with another woman. Liza had lose track of time she didn’t know how long she had been standing there . When she finally unfroze she realize that her husband and the unknown woman were driving off in his car. Liza start to feel again and felt the warm tears running down her face. “Ma’am are you OK”? Liza focus to see the valet attendant standing in front of her. “No I’m not ok, I just watched my whole end”. Liza turned back in the direction she came from and walked back to her car. While sitting in the driver seat of her car she looked down at her wedding ring and the tears started to fall again. “How could you do this to us Gregory “! Liza just let out this blood curdling scream that shook the windows of her car. The scream was so loud people on the outside of the car heard it and started walking faster pass it. After she finished screaming she turned the car on and drove home. She had decide she would confront Gregory tonight when he came in. She wasn’t going to let him do this and get away with it. (What was liza gonna do next) to be continue

    Reply
  27. Grant McConnell

    Alright, so yesterday evening I was looking through my gray flash drive (I was bored and curious) when I came across the first few pages of a story I had begun for a project in school. I read through it, changed some dialogue, corrected tense changes, etc, then worked a bit on it, adding about a page. Today I told a friend about it, and he asked to read what I had so far. I’m pretty sure I’ll get feedback tomorrow, and I’m a bit excited as to what it’ll be.
    Also, update from my last comment: I’ve got about 3+ more hours to work each day! Huzzah!!!

    Reply

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