Schedule Activities and Downtime

We talk a lot about scheduling time for writing. But here are some other things to consider building into your schedule so you can save time and increase productivity:

Morning devotional or meditation.

All my life I have risen regularly at four o’clock and have gone into the woods and talked to God. There He gives me my orders for the day.—George Washington Carver

You don’t have to get up at four, but talk to God or meditate before you start your work day. Feed your brain with Scripture or other inspirational writings before you clutter it with workday minutiae. This will help you focus and stay centered on your goals and can improve your emotional and spiritual well-being.

Exercise. This is where most of us — including me — are most likely to make cuts, and we can least afford to do so. You’ll be of no use to your family or readers if your health fails because you’re not taking care of yourself. You’ll be more productive if you’re fit. Make working out part of your autopilot schedule.

schedule time

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Menu planning and grocery shopping. If you do this on the same day every week , you won’t waste time (and money) on restaurant meals or going to the store multiple times a week. This is another one to put on autopilot.

Winding down. Studies have shown that staring at bright glowing screens tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daylight. This disrupts circadian rhythms and can cause sleeplessness.

Bright Screens Could Delay Bedtime
Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep

Allow at least a half-hour to unwind before bedtime, and during that time, do something that doesn’t involve a bright glowing screen. Kindle devices that don’t have a backlight are OK, as are paper books.

Sleep. It sounds silly, but allow enough time in your schedule to get enough sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours a night. Yet this is another area we tend to cut back on when we feel we need to accomplish more.

Margin. Go back and take a look at Michael Hyatt’s Ideal Day spreadsheet. Notice the gray hashed-out areas. That’s margin. We have to be as intentional with our leisure time as with our work time. If we fill every hour of every day with something, we leave no room for unexpected pleasures.

Dr. Richard Swenson, the author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, put it this way: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. … Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”

Don’t suffocate yourself with work.

Review Your Progress at the End of the Day

One time management practice I advocate is this: When you do a thing that wasn’t on your to-do list, write it down anyway and cross it off. This helps you assess what you actually did.

Often when we get to the end of the day, we feel as if we haven’t accomplished much. But this feeling can be deceptive. At the end of the day, review your to-do list. Take time to appreciate what you did accomplish. If unplanned items are there, you’ll have a better sense of what you finished. And if for some reason you failed to accomplish the thing you meant to do, assess why. More importantly, decide whether it’s important.

to do list

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For example, one item on my to-do list for Sunday was to write 2500 words. That’s way higher than my normal daily word count because I’m behind and I needed to get a lot done on the weekend or overburden myself Monday and Tuesday to reach my 10,000-word goal for the month. That was a partial success, but I only wrote 1500 words, so now I have to do an additional 500 words on Monday and Tuesday.

What I did Sunday that was not on my list was knit a sweater. Is this a problem? I decided it’s not a big problem, because finishing this sweater is one of my goals. But I could have written first and knit later.

So at the end of each day, review what went right and what went wrong and why. Prioritize what needs to be done the next day. Clear out your inbox. Go through your brain dump collection points and sort by importance and deadline. Write your Post-it Note for the next day.

Review at Longer Intervals, Too

Charles E. Hummel, the author of The Tyranny of the Urgent, recommends not only a daily but also a weekly and a monthly review, not only for practical purposes but spiritual ones. He warns that as we get busy, we can lose sight of what’s really important. He writes, “Frenetic service for God can become an escape from God.” Prayer and perspective and planning can keep us from becoming frenetic.

One hour spent planning is worth four hours of execution.—Crawford Greenewalt, former president of DuPont

If we fail to plan, our time can be taken over by the urgent. But it is possible to spend so much time on calendars and to-do lists and apps that we fail to get the work done.

I once had a free three-month trial subscription to a monthly magazine called Time Management. It only took two issues for me to figure out that no way was I going to subscribe to this magazine. Each issue took more than half an hour to read. You see the problem.

Don’t let your tools or your planning get in the way of doing the work.

A time and motion study can show whether you’re spending too much time keeping track of your time. An app called Rescue Time can also help. It runs in the background on your computer, and sends you a report at the end of the week telling you how you did on your time management goals. You can adjust the settings as needed to classify various apps and websites as productive or not. Rescue Time runs on Mac, Windows, Android, and Linux but not iOS, which is unfortunate for those of us who do a lot of work on an iPad. Upgrading from the free to the paid version will allow you to manually enter that kind of time.

Periodic reviews like this help you take time to appreciate your major milestones and small wins. And the day-end review will help clear your mind and wind down. It also lets you hit the ground running the next day.



Choose the Right Time Management Tools

The tricky thing about choosing the “right” time management tools is that the right tool for me may be the wrong tool for you. And the tool for one task may be inappropriate for another. So I’ll give you some options. Test them out and keep looking for others.

Cal Newport of the Study Hacks blog makes an interesting observation:

  • High-tech and highly-structured solutions are best for capture.
  • Low-tech and loosely-structured solutions are best for planning.
Stack of Sticky Note Pads over a white background.

Photo by Chris Dorney • Fotolia

Continue reading

Get Your Info Out of Your Head

You’re very smart, but you can’t rely on your brain to keep track of all the things you need or want to do. To stay organize and on track, you must get ideas out of your head and into writing. Your brain is full of creative ideas, and some of them could get lost in there. Get them out here where you can keep track of them.

This is what David Allen calls “the mind sweep.” I call it brain dump. There are two ways to do it.

You can write down everything as you think of it. This is great for those of us with short attention spans. The very act of writing the thing down—make appointment with optometrist—relieves you of the burden of thinking about it and frees your head space for your creative work.


Illustration by esignus • Fotolia

Alternatively, or maybe in combination, take a few minutes before you start on your creative work to just brainstorm all the things that are floating around in your head. Continue reading

How to minimize distractions

Remember the “distractions” quadrant of the Urgent/Important grid?

priority grid urgent importantDistractions are the grains of sand in our rock jar. Usually they’re small, and they take time we’re unaware of. A time and motion study can help you identify them.

Allowing other things to impinge on your writing time may seem practical in the moment, but Laura Vanderkam warns us that it’s the “little mistake that kills your productivity,” and it is way too easy to make. We must guard those blocks of creative working time jealously. Continue reading

Celebrate Your Small Wins

It’s good to have big hairy audacious goals. And writing a book certainly is one of those. The problem is, it takes a very long time to accomplish. If you only focus on the end goal and not on the incremental achievements, you’ll feel like you’re hiking up a mountain forever without taking a breather to look at the view.

Incremental achievements, like your weekly or monthly writing goals, will help prevent that feeling. Knowing you’ve achieved your goal is a boost.


Illustration by Makkuro_GL • Fotolia

Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer found that “What motivates people on a day-to-day basis is the sense that they are making progress.” Here are a couple of articles about their research:

Small Wins and Feeling Good
The Power of Small Wins

So mark your milestones. Continue reading

Decide How Much Time to Allocate for Writing

Francesco Cirillo, inventor of the Pomodoro technique, says break tasks into 25-minute increments.

Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, says you need a 90-minute working session to do great work on a high-intensity task.

So which is it? How much time do you really need?

It depends on the task, and it depends on you. Continue reading