Writing Against the Clock: 5 Tips For Writing When You Have No Time
Monday, April 13, 2015 Time
Before I had my son, I often felt like I was just a child pretending to be an adult. I would pay the mortgage, do my job, clean the house—but I never really felt like an authentic grown-up. However, becoming a mother has changed everything. Another human being depends on me completely. He needs me to feed him three square meals a day (plus snacks), ensure he is entertained, comfort him when he is hurting, and make him feel loved and supported each minute of his life. In addition to navigating the demands of caring for a child, I am still responsible for working 40+ hours a week, teaching writing courses, keeping the house clean (or at least presentable), and working to maintain some level of personal fitness. Now, when I can carve out 5 minutes to think, I frequently laugh at my former self for having reflected on something as ludicrous as what makes one an adult.
In my current life, the answer seems so simple—responsibility is what makes a grown-up. The pressure of ensuring you can wear all of your hats—parent, employee, breadwinner, student, spouse, maid, dog walker, exerciser—throughout your day without melting into a puddle of “I can’t” or “I’m just too tired” can be overwhelming.
I recount my own coming-into-adulthood story not to elicit sympathy from readers (although if you want to give me some, please feel free…), but to simply say I understand that being a grown-up is really hard. We have an already-full plate of responsibilities, so when we add working toward an advanced degree, scheduling the time to complete assignments or write capstone sections/chapters can feel impossible. As a result, most of us find ourselves writing against the clock, trying to get submissions in before final deadlines. After our eleventh hour submissions, we feel rushed, tired, and frustrated.
To help combat the stress of busy schedules and last-minute writing, I’d like to offer you five important tips that have helped me keep writing when I have no time.
1. Determine your golden hour of productivity
Whether you consider yourself to be an early bird, a night owl, or more of a mid-day thinker, you know that there is a certain point of each day when you are most productive. (If you don’t know, it’s worth it to spend some time figuring it out.) As someone who has very little time, you want to capitalize on this productivity. However, as adults who have responsibilities outside of writing, often our most productive times are spent being parents, employees, etc. What I am suggesting is that you find the sweet spot, or what I call the “golden hour.” This golden hour requires you to balance your own productivity with current responsibilities. For example, if you work best in the morning, get up an hour earlier to complete assignments. If you are a mid-day thinker, take your lunch break to really focus on writing. By writing when you are most productive, you will get more out of a single hour of work.
2. Develop a routine and stick to it
Think about some activity that is nonnegotiable in your life, something that you have no choice but to do daily—like work or parenthood. Categorize your writing as this same must-do kind of activity. If I say that I am going to write every day from 5-6 a.m., I do it….no questions asked, no days off. The discipline of creating a routine and sticking to it will make completing assignments, and your life in general, so much easier. You won’t dread coming home from work to a looming 5-page paper because you’ve already done the writing in small increments over the course of five mornings during your work week.
3. Create a larger schedule and break work into manageable chunks
When I was writing my dissertation, I created a Table of Contents before I started writing. I knew I would be responsible for 5 chapters. I set an end goal of when I wanted to be done with my writing. After having a final due date, I worked backwards. I first planned when I needed to be done with each chapter, and then I determined how many pages I needed to write each day to get me there (Ellen will talk more about this strategy in her blog post next week—stayed tuned!). I made room for critical reading days, outlining, and drafting—as these are all elements of a successful writing process. By having a clear goal and by breaking that goal down into manageable chunks (e.g., read and take notes on two articles, outline paragraphs 4-9, write three pages), it made the process seem much more doable.
4. Use a reviewer to hold you accountable
For many of us who have failed to follow our own disciplined rules in the past (I think here of the yo-yo diets I tried and failed to adhere to throughout most of my 20s), counting on ourselves to keep a schedule might elicit some personal doubt. So, I always encourage writers to find a reviewer to hold them accountable. This person can be your spouse, your friend, a professional copyeditor, a writing center instructor, or a co-worker. The idea is that this person will regularly expect work from you, read that work, and discuss your ideas/progress with you. This person does not have to be a skilled writer or editor. Instead, he or she just needs to be a taskmaster, holding you accountable for the work you’ve promised you will complete.
5. Settle for good enough the first time around
I used to be obsessed with writing perfection. I would sit down to write, and I would stare at a blank computer screen for longer than I’d like to admit. Because I held myself to this impossibly high standard in the first draft I wrote, I often just chose not to write at all. The fear of not writing something clear, concise, and flawless made it hard for me to start writing. So, I decided that I would settle for good enough the first time around. I would do the work of critical reading and outlining, and then I would just write. Even as I write the first draft of this post, I continually remind myself that editing is an easier process than initially drafting, so getting words on the page is the most important first step.
This month, we're talking about topics related to writing and time. Need to catch up on what you missed? Check out our latest WriteCast episode for Beth and Brian's discussion of favorite (and free!) apps you can use to save you time when you write and Beth's reflection on what she learned from writing her master's thesis.As always, we welcome your questions, suggestions, and thoughts below in the comments section!
Dr. Sarah Prince is a writing instructor and coordinator of embedded writing support and design. Sarah's favorite thing about working with Walden students is helping them develop the confidence, clarity, and unique critical voice it takes to become effective and articulate scholarly writers.
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