14 Do’s and Don’ts of Time Management for Writers (from a Recovering Over-Achiever)

For many of us, writing is one of the most important things in our lives. And yet, it can be all too easy to let that “most important thing” end up at the bottom of our to-do list. If yet another day has passed in which you haven’t been able to write—or a day in which you did write but getting it done was a struggle—you’re not alone. Time management for writers is possibly one of the key skills of the lifestyle. This is true whether you write full-time or write around your full-time responsibilities.

I’ve always been a schedule hacker and someone who tries to make every minute count. I’ve also always been someone who constantly laments that there isn’t just one more hour in the day. Time management is something of an obsession for me, probably because it’s a game you never completely win. In years past, I’ve gone down the overachiever path of absolutely flying through my days and trying to cram in as much as possible. There are seasons in which that is effective or even unavoidable, but eventually it becomes unsustainable. I’ve also gone through seasons in which circumstances dictated I do as little as possible, but that too is unsustainable over the long term.

Inevitably, the sweet spot is found in balance. Each person’s balance is different, depending on personality, health, goals, obligations, and other factors. No matter what your lifestyle, the demands of the modern day keep us busy and distracted. This can be especially challenging for a creative who needs downtime to breathe and think and wander, as well as concentrated go-time in which to enforce discipline and actually get words on paper.

Recently, I received the following question from reader Joan Arc:

I enjoy reading your blog posts and I like the fact that you like suggestions from your fellow writers. But as I am engaged in school and trying to balance life whilst I study, I find it is becoming more difficult to devote the time to read them. I was wondering if in the near future, you could give some helpful hints about time management and how to balance a writing schedule that will stay even when life takes priority. This is a thing that I, along with many aspiring writers struggle with, and consequently, I lose inspiration for my book. Do you have any suggestions for this?

In today’s post, I’m going to review some of the do’s and don’ts of time management that I have found most supportive throughout my writing career. First, however, I will say a word about consistency in general. I’ve written before about the pros and cons of writing every day, ultimately landing on the view that it’s not important that you write “every” day. What is important is consistency—whatever that means to you—since consistency is what staves off that loss of inspiration Joan references.

8 Do’s of Time Management for Writers

The following eight “do’s” of time management for writers are all practical steps to take in aligning your daily schedule to your vision for your writing life. Note, that it’s important to start with your vision. Start by getting clear on your own goals, not just for writing but for other areas of your life as well. This will help you identify your ideal schedule, as well as what is achievable at the moment.

1. List Your To-Dos So You Can See Them All in One Place

If your day is anything like mine, then it is made up of a bazillion little to-dos. Many of them are so infinitesimal (emptying comment spam on the website) or ordinary (brushing my teeth) that I don’t always think of them as “to-dos.” And yet, they add up fast. When trying to get clear about how to streamline your schedule and create flow states throughout your day, take the time to analyze everything. Time management for writers isn’t just about writing. It isn’t even mostly about writing. It’s about optimizing the entire day so the writing time comes as easily as possible.

2. Create “Batches” of Related Tasks

Once you’ve created a list, group your tasks thematically. A personal motto that serves me well in some instances and not so well in others is “do whatever is in front of you.” Sometimes this is the single best method for moving forward through a large task or for creating momentum when you feel stuck. Other times, it just ends up scattering your focus all over the place. Instead of eating the elephant one bite at a time, you eat a little of the elephant and a little of the giraffe and a little of the hyena—and you end the day feeling you haven’t accomplished anything.

Batch your tasks, so you can focus on one thing at a time. For example, don’t check email throughout the day. Reserve a slot at an optimal time of the day when you can sort through and respond to all emails at once.

3. Multi-Task (With Care)

Multi-tasking is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can undeniably help you move through multiple projects at a quicker rate. On the other hand, the growing amount of research on the loss of productivity associated with multi-tasking is sobering. Even though all that busyness can make us feel super-productive, the actual metrics don’t always weigh out. Use caution and consciousness when adding multi-tasking to your schedule.

That said, there are times when multi-tasking takes everything to 2.0. For example, you might plan to listen to an audiobook or podcast whenever your hands are busy elsewhere (e.g., commuting, doing the dishes, or, for me, designing weekly social media graphics such as the Pinterest image at the top of my posts).

4. Schedule Downtime Relentlessly

When we think of time management for writers, what usually comes to mind are all the tasks we want to do. But particularly if you’re wanting or needing to cram a lot into your daily routines, one of the most important things you can schedule is downtime. Make downtime your priority. Except in situations in which you have no choice (e.g., your paycheck is on the line, your child has an emergency, etc.), the downtime on your schedule should be the last thing to take the hit. I’ve learned this the hard way. These days, I adamantly schedule “downtime” and self-care first thing in the morning. If I don’t do it first, I don’t do it, and because it is the most important part of my day, I prioritize it relentlessly.

5. Make a Commitment With Yourself

Making schedules is the easy part; sticking with them is where the road can get rough. There are two key pieces to sticking with a schedule. The first key is creating a schedule that works. This often requires trial and error, some degree of flexibility, and self-forgiveness.

The second key is discipline. Think of your schedule as a commitment to yourself. Not only are you committing to do all the tasks you’ve laid out for yourself, but when you show up to one of those tasks, you’re going to give it your full attention. This is true for every task on your list, but as a writer, it’s the writing time that should be particularly sacred.

It can be so easy to carve out an hour or two in your day for writing… and then spend half or more of that time twiddling it away. Now, sometimes twiddling is really just creative lollygagging or even dreamzoning, both of which are part of the creative process. But other times (and you know when those times are), the twiddling is just procrastination.

6. Schedule Writing Tasks and Writing-Related Tasks Separately

People often ask me if outlining, researching, and editing count as “writing time.” In my view, they do. However, when it comes to time management for writers, it can be valuable to schedule them separately. Depending on your preferences, the temptation to do a little of everything during “writing time” may end up being counter-productive. For example, if I’m trying to get myself into the headspace of flowing with a scene I want to write, I don’t want to interrupt that with the sudden urge to go research some tidbit. I try to schedule myself out of my distractions by penciling in a slot for researching or editing or whatever else at a different time from my writing.

7. Create a Quick Warm-Up Routine

After zooming through all the to-dos that fill the rest of your day, it can be tough to sit down at your desk and suddenly turn on your inspiration and creativity. And yet, you only have an hour, and you can’t afford to waste any of it!

One of the best tricks I’ve ever used for transitioning into my writing time is a personalized warm-up routine. At certain times in my life (when I’ve had more time), I’ve scheduled warm-ups as long as 30 minutes. These days, my warm-ups are usually quite short. I choose tasks that help ground me, pull me out of a mental space and into my deeper, body-oriented imagination—such as a quick grounding meditation, lighting a candle, breathing some essential oils, or taking a bite of chocolate or a sip of coffee. I may also read over what I wrote the day before or read a quick section from my research or character notes, to help pull myself back into the mindset of my story.

8. Write in Fifteen-Minute Spurts

There you are, sitting at your desk right on schedule, ready to write. And… the words just aren’t coming. The urge to twiddle is strong. You look at the clock and suddenly this precious hour seems like for…ev…er. Before you know it, fifteen minutes have passed and you’ve rewritten the same sentence a total of three times.

The brain hack I like to use is writing in fifteen-minute spurts. I tell myself I’m going to write 500 words (or whatever) in fifteen minutes. Writing 2,000 words in an hour seems overwhelming, but 500 in fifteen minutes? I can do that! Then… when the fifteen minutes is up, I take another drink of coffee or a bite of chocolate, and do it again.

6 Don’ts of Time Management for Writers

1. Don’t Create a Unrealistic Schedule

One of the chief reasons people struggle with time management is that they set unrealistic schedules. I get it. There is just so much we need to do in a day, on top of everything we want to do. Except in rare circumstances, we simply can’t do it all. The key to success with scheduling is to get realistic on what is actually feasible and sustainable—and enjoyable. This requires that you know your own energy: how much you have, when it peaks and ebbs, etc.

To the degree you require cooperation, you also need to understand other people’s energy and to work around it when necessary. It’s one thing to create the kind of schedule that might work on an ideal day, and another to create a schedule rugged enough to flex around the demands of life, including relationships and holidays.

You also need to be realistic about how long your writing time should actually be. What fits into your day—and your energetic limitations—in a way that nurtures your creativity rather than stressing you out?

2. Don’t Dismiss Your True Priorities

Successful time management is about scheduling the big stuff first. What’s “big” for you will be entirely personal. This might be your job; it might be your kids; it might be writing; it might be self-care. Get real with yourself about your true priorities. Sometimes our priorities aren’t always what we think they are or even what we want them to be. If you’re struggling to make time for your writing, it may be because writing is not currently your top priority. There is nothing wrong with this. However, the struggle could also be because your schedule is currently arranged around something that really isn’t a priority. Get real with yourself, and when you do identify your top priorities—whatever they are in this season of your life—honor them.

3. Don’t Guilt Yourself When You Don’t Get It All Done

Schedules are there to serve you. You are not in service to the schedule.

Let me say that again: Schedules are there to serve you. You are not in service to the schedule.

Rewriting this pattern is a challenge for many of us. When we set up schedules and (inevitably) fail to adhere to them perfectly, we can sometimes experience an unrealistic amount of guilt or even shame for our “failure.” For schedules or time-management tools of any sort to be effective, they need to help us and not hurt us. Rewriting your schedule into a routine that is realistic for your lifestyle is a good start. But if you ever feel beleaguered by your to-do list, make space to work with and heal those old patterns.

4. Don’t Say “Yes” When You Want to Say “No”

Something I was told early in my career was “say yes to everything.” Although that mindset certainly allowed me to take advantage of many opportunities, it is ultimately a perspective I have happily hurled into the trash bin. Learning to say “no” can be a long journey for many of us (especially women), but it is the foundation of a successful schedule. Ultimately, this is the same thing as getting super-clear on your own priorities. If you truly want to hold authority over your own time, then don’t schedule what isn’t true for you. And don’t change your schedule later on because you feel obligated to say “yes” to something when you’re really a “no.”

5. Don’t Let Others Disrespect Your Writing Time

Along with being able to say “no” comes the skill of creating boundaries around your schedule, particularly around your writing time. Although there will, of course, be times when flexibility is important, start creating the habit of expecting that others will honor the commitments you’ve made for yourself throughout your day. Ultimately, this is about nothing more or less than you radically honoring those commitments yourself. I realized very early in my career that if I didn’t respect my writing time, no one else would do it for me.

6. Don’t Constantly Check Email and Notifications

Finally, just say no to the notifications. Internet brain is a real thing. Largely, it is inescapable, but you can manage it. Minimize email and phone notifications to whatever degree is feasible in your life. The only push notifications I allow on my phone are texts and appointment reminders. I don’t allow notifications for email, blog comments, social media, apps, or anything else. I schedule times in my day to manually check all of those (an example of “batching” from “Do” #2, above), so that my attention is not fragmented throughout the day and I’m not tempted to detour off my schedule for who knows how long. More than that, I keep my phone in airplane mode most of the time and check it purposefully a couple times throughout the day so that my interactions are at my discretion rather than the other way around.

***

Time management for writers can make all the difference not just in how productive we actually are but in how fulfilled we feel at the end of the day. Learning to create realistic goals, to schedule tasks to match our energy flow, to make plans to control and avoid unnecessary distractions, and to create flexibility and grace within ourselves for when things inevitably don’t go according to plan—these are all skills that greatly enhance the quality of our lives and our writing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What have you found is the most helpful tip in time management for writers? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your tips! I’m curious to know if you use any apps to support your time management. Personally, I find it incredibly helpful to have a convenient note-taking app. Throughout my day, I can quickly jot down ideas for different aspects of my story as they come to me. I also use it to record small details that I need to add to each part of the story or tips I come across online. By organizing these details in the app, I can then sit down at my desktop when I have time to write. I go through my notes, checking things off once I’ve incorporated them into my story. It has become my go-to tool for simplifying and organizing my writing process! I wonder if other writers do something similar.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t use any apps in particular. I keep my to-dos and other notes in the Sticky Notes program on my computer. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it’s user-friendly and uncomplicated. The older I get, the more I appreciate that!

      • I also put sticky notes on my computer, usually names and places, so that I don’t have to continually scroll back in my text to refresh my memory.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Just to be clear, I’m talking about the program Sticky Notes that comes pre-installed on Windows computers. But I love me some paper stickies too 😉

  2. Thanks for posting this! I especially like #7, the warm-up routine. We do it for sports and the gym, why not writing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly, right? And it helps so much for getting into the writing mindset and making the most of that time.

  3. Lisbeth Mizula says

    Thank you for this–needed it today.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I didn’t plan it that way, but it did turn out to be good timing during the holiday season, didn’t it? 😉

  4. Thanks. I think you may actually be more of a “to do” person than I am, and I’ve been at it for 40 years! I think my most important tip is to periodically think about your todo lists, particularly anytime you feel like they are in charge of you rather than the other way around. They should help you push yourself, and create some pressure to do the things you want to do, but if you feel harassed by them – remember whose in charge!

    • I make use of various apps to help me with time management. Cold turkey to lock me out of the internet on my laptop and tablet, appblock to lock me out on my phone.
      Cold turkey also curates which sites are banned so i can go on wikipedia but not cnn or housing sites or you tube. I use a pomodoro app to time writing periods and breaks. I use write or die to gamify writing to word counts. Im trying to use dictation to speed up the writing process. Sometimes when im very distracted it can actually be more efficient to write with pen and paper. Often i will get myself started by giving myself 5 minutes to write the first 100 words, telling myself that is only 5 sentences. Frequently if i write the first 100 words in my notebook, then type them up, im ready to write more. I fibd it is less stressful to start in a notebook but more efficient to do most of the work typing hence the 100 word limit.

      • My tools are pretty basic. Microsoft Tasks to track my todo list – I’ve looked at other tools because Microsoft sometimes does unfortunate things with their apps. I do sometimes time my writing periods, and I just use my phone clock when I do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. That is something I’m always examining in my life. I have a tendency to go into automatic robot mode, which can be very productive, but I can also end up doings tasks on repeat long after they’ve outlived their efficacy.

  5. Bryon Richards says

    Great Stuff! I think over time I have developed those same type of Do’s and Don’ts. It is ever a process and I think once it is mastered, time managment can be the greatest tool. It is hard! At the very least you have comfirmed some of my similar practices. THE WARM UP! I have never thought of that before. And just like Jason P. says, you do it for the gym but also cooking and getting up in the freakin’ morning. I’m sure there is more. Some days that I plan to write, I sit at my desk and stare. My fingers laying over the keys but refusing to type. Maybe I just didn’t warm up properly. You share in your link some of yours. Thank you so much. This could be one of those little things that helps me out tremendously. Cheers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m beginning to think time management isn’t something we ever completely master. Every time I think I’ve got my schedule licked, something in my life changes, and I have to reexamine it. :p

  6. H. E. Willis says

    Hi, KM! How I needed this! With my busy schedule beta reading, working on college assignments, tying to find a job and start my teaching business, I find it hard to write sometimes. Lately I’ve been procrastinating. I give myself an hour or so to write in the morning and evening, but I’ve found myself searching for other things to do instead. Writing is work, and if we don’t treat it like it, as in creating a schedule for it, we won’t get anything done. I especially like your 8th tip, writing in fifteen minute spurts. I try to write constantly for an hour. Sometimes it works and I’m in writing heaven, but most of the time I’m grinding trying to do it. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with the grind. Although writers need to be careful about burnout, I think there can also be a damaging misconception that writing should be easy, should just flow–and that just isn’t the case 80% of the time.

  7. My mom told me the “make yes your default” thing when I started college, and it’s such a relief to hear that’s not necessarily always correct. 😅 Thanks for the great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Every bit of advice is right in certain instances. The trick is figuring out which instances those are. 😉

  8. I used to tackle the small, easy things first but I learned it’s more productive to tackle the priority tasks first as you can always fit the small things in at some point. But if ever I get overwhelmed by what needs to be done I stop and do something mundane like tidying out a drawer as it allows my brain to settle . As for writing, I write for an hour almost as soon as I wake up (and when I was commuting to the office I used to get up an hour earlier to make sure I could achieve this). I make a drink, take it to my desk and write; all before washing or dressing or even talking to family. Often I will return to write some more later in the day but if I don’t then at least I know I have achieved some writing that day. Even though I’m not really a morning person I find that during that first hour my mind hasn’t had the chance to become cluttered or distracted.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It can be a tricky balance. I like to get the big things in first, because otherwise I’m cramming by the end of the day, but sometimes starting with a big thing seems too overwhelming. I need something smaller and more automatic to let me ease into the brainspace.

  9. Colleen Janik says

    Thank you for all the great tips! The ones I think I will find most helpful are on creating a quick warm up routine and respecting your own writing time. Very inspiring. Thank you!

  10. “Making schedules is the easy part; sticking with them is where the road can get rough.”

    TRUTH

    Thank you for this post. I’ll try to use this advice to better manage my own time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think Time Management is a ship we’re all sailing in together–and hoping we’re not going off course!

  11. All great tips. I tend to stare at a piece of paper for about ten minutes and then it just all comes together and I go on a 15 minute writing tangent. I have finally realized that writing is more important than playing Forge of Empires and even my guild members in that game agree. Support from others is also a great help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, when all else fails (or before), accountability is a huge aid, in just about any area and pursuit.

  12. This is so good, thank you! I’ve been so frustrated lately because I feel like I’m being pulled mentally in different directions. This is a perfect reminder that I have control of my time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, I think that what we’re often seeking when studying “time management” is just a way to feel less distracted. With Internet brain these days, distraction is a high hurdle. Simplify, simplify, simplify–it’s easier said than done, but it is the answer.

  13. I have not found any time management advice helpful, writing wise or other. At one point, my day job was so overwhelming that I was combing through any time management book I could find. They all said the same thing, and I felt like I was broken.

    For example, everyone says some form of “put it on your calendar.” I can’t do that. If I do, it’s very painful and difficult, and then I ignore it completely (and please don’t tell me I lack discipline. I was in the Army for 11 years). Nor could I do things like set word count or production goals—I’d just ignore the goal entirely. I was so frustrated with time management advice that after I did a lot of work on during COVID at my day job, I wrote a book on it (currently in StoryBundle). As it turned out, I discovered Clifton Strengths and took the test. For those who know what I’m talking about: 1. Intellection, 2 Ideation, 3 Input 4 Adaptability and 5 Futuristic.

    It explained a lot because the strength for using typical time management advice is my bottom 10. My #4 strength is why I can’t do goals or schedules. I went to a writers conference a few weeks ago. At a mastermind meeting, everyone started talking about themselves–mainly goals or wanting a production schedule or word count goal. I was the only one there who said, “I can’t do goals.” My adaptability is very much in the now, though it makes me the one you want in an emergency.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s so important for each person to understand themselves, their true goals, and the unique challenges presented by their circumstances and especially their biology and personality. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy. Even for a single person, the target often keeps moving, creating the need for evolving solutions.

  14. Patrick Burke says

    These do’s and don’ts of time management are sparking a lot of resonance for me, and yes, it’s my job. I’m a chauffeur and the hours I work are only a part of the hours I work. If I have three one-hour jobs scheduled for a day, there is the almost two hours that I take, showering, dressing and driving to work to pick up my vehicle for the day (which may become two or more vehicles by the end of the day). At the end of the day I must bring the vehicle back to the office, make sure it’s cleaned out and often lock up the company lot as I leave. then there are the hours between each of those three jobs, and maybe another job added to my schedule (or even one job that gets unexpectedly cancelled). I often see three job days become 10-12 hours.
    Still, I am working steadily on my thriller novel and have been for the past five years. At this moment I give myself to December 31 to finish the story arc, end to end. Add to this, I am 74 years old and this is my retirement gig. Retirement for me is a vague and elusive concept. I love it.

  15. Thank you for this. After 20+ years in academia, you’d think that I’d be good at scheduling research and writing time… but Noooooo. I’ve never thought about batching tasks and I really like this idea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha, I think it gets harder the longer we live, just because there’s more to manage. Even just the number of emails saved in folders on my computer is way higher than fifteen years ago.

  16. Timers! My writing lives and dies by timers. Thanks to Joseph Michael and his Unchained Writers group, I write for three timed hours every day. It’s changed my life.

  17. Great tips! I think time management for writers could be a whole book. I know it’s been an issue for me for years. I’m always amazed at people who have day jobs and still manage to write two or ten books a year.

  18. That “dreamzoning” thing you said is interesting. I’ve never heard that before. But after reading what you had to say about it, I agree that I’ve done it before. When I’m staring at my monitor, yet I’m not seeing anything. I’m “seeing” the scene that’s going through my head. It’s pretty neat now that i think about it. The mind is cool.
    Thanks for the tips here. I feel like time management is one of my biggest problems as a writer.

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