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