Monday, April 20, 2015

Thoughts on Balancing a Day Job, Family, and the Writing Life

Do you need twenty-seven hours in your day to do everything? Sorry, I can’t give your day extra hours. What I can provide are some of the lessons I’ve learned and techniques I employ to make the best use of my time.

Maybe like a current television commercial’s characters you are stupid rich. That is where you can pay someone to handle your pitches, contract negotiations, research, reporting, editing, billing, collections, Twitter, Facebook, and personal website. Stupid rich allows you just to write. If you are stupid rich, this article isn’t for you. However, if you don’t have a housekeeper that does the cleaning, a nanny taking care of the kids, and a virtual assistant, read on.

My guess is you are more like me. You have to do it all. You would add to the above list driving the car pool, church and community goings-on, and your children and grandkids school activities. You might also be caring for aging parents as well as having a time-jealous spouse that cannot figure out why you are driven to write. They view your writing as just a hobby.

Like me, you have to figure out how to manage your writing time. Like me, you work a day job to support your writing habit. Like me, you struggle keeping the spouse, children, parents, and world happy.

You may find your life so interconnected with others that you can’t can’t turn off email, Facebook, and Twitter. You rationalize, it’s okay, after all, you use them to promote your writing. And the iPhone or Android smartphones have to be on all the time for instant access to voice and text communication.

Okay, go ahead, take a deep breath. I find all live similar lives. I won’t kid you; it is hard to write, stay organized and productive while balancing a day job, writing and family. We all know there is no silver bullet or magic formula to handle these conflicting demands.

Here are some time management tips I’ve learned over the last thirty-five years of freelance writing. During that interval, I’ve been writing while working and changing careers three times. I’ve been a United States Army officer. I admit I learned lots of discipline and time management skills from Uncle Sam. Next, I was a full-time Christian educator holding such job titles as Minster of Education, Associate Pastor, and Day School Headmaster.

For the last nineteen years, I have worked in the information technology field as a technical documentationalist, support engineer and systems engineer. It has been the never-ending on-call, long hours and weekends that go with an IT job. Along the way, I raised a family, worked a day job, was active in my church, managed staying married to the same lady for forty years, and carried for aging parents and parents-in-law. It’s not easy, but you can do it.

How have I done it? I learned finding time for writing requires five things. It requires balance, focus, understanding expectations, flexibility, and the ability to multitask.

I learned a writer needs balance. Balance means meeting writing deadlines while marketing to existing and new clients to keep work coming in. An editor at Lifeway Christian Resources told me thirty-five years ago others wrote better than me. He also added I wrote to specification, met deadlines and was easy to work with, so I was offered assignment after assignment over the better writers. Professional writers balance the writing life with the rest of their life. It isn’t either or, but both and.

I learned to maintain my focus is critical. What I mean by focus is being able to switch from task to task or project to project without getting distracted. I learned to do this by viewing writing as a professional job. Just like showing up at the day job and beginning working when my shift start, I do the same with writing. I have an appointed time and then just write.

I learned to manage my expectations. Creating realistic expectations for how much can be accomplished in an hour, day, week month or year took time. It helped where I didn’t take on too much work. I learned the balance needed to meet deadlines and not be overwhelmed. It helps you end up with the right amount of a workload. Clear expectations allows you to have time for your family and friends.

I learned to be flexible. In freelancing for trade journals and magazines, I have been called at three PM on a Friday and asked if I could have them an article by the beginning of business on Monday. Why such a short deadline? The person with the original assignment missed their due date. I say yes only when I can deliver. Flexibility is staying loose enough to deal with the unforeseen circumstances that unavoidably crop up while keeping enough structure to finish projects on time.

I learned to multitask. I hate the word and concept. I can only work on one thing at a time, but can work on several projects. I just think about multitasking like when I had six of seven classes in high school or college. I would have homework in more than one class. I learned how to handle it. Working on multiple projects simultaneously is a regular part of a freelancer’s life. For example, you may blog, Tweet, be working on your novel, and coordinating the church social all the same week. Somehow we do it.

Well, I hear you thinking about now, “Where are those time management suggestions?” You guessed it, here they are. I call them approaches for managing time. Ultimately, better time management should equal higher productivity.

 I have a regular place and time to write. It doesn’t matter if it is first thing in the morning, after lunch or in the evening. I have found when I do that The Muse will eventually show up because The Muse knows where and when to find me. I write most mornings at Starbucks for an hour before going to the day job, longer on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Writing at Starbucks removes my interruptions. I also write for the last thirty minutes of my lunch hour four days a week. Never forget, writer’s write. You have to make time for writing.

I avoid interruptions. Here is where you disconnect or turn off the phone. It’s where you don’t check email, Facebook or Twitter. You write. If working from home, don’t answer the doorbell. It is the time to write, not the time to research. If you are writing and need to research, make a note, but keep writing. You can research later. I actually write many times with the Internet turned off or using software that limits the time I can be on the Internet. Avoiding interruptions helps you make writing a priority where you can write. 

I write to the clock, not for a word count, though I try to write at least a page a day (about 250 to 300 words). Because of working about 50 hours a week at my day job, I don’t have the luxury of writing until I reach a certain number of words each day. I have to stop and go to work. 

It is amazing how many words I write just by having a regular schedule. You can use the timer on your phone or one from your kitchen to track the time you write. While writing, I always get up every hour to stretch and clear my mind, etc. Monday through Friday, I write from 6:00 AM to about 7:05 AM. On Saturday, I write from 6:00 AM until 10 or 11:00 AM. Sundays I write from 6:30 AM to 8:00 AM before attending church. Again, I take a short break each hour and then keep on keeping on. 

I set goals. When working on a novel or an article I use what was called the backward planning process when I was in the US Army. Backward planning means first identifying your goal. Next you select the actions that are most likely to help you to arrive efficiently at your goal. For example, if I plan on writing an 80,000-word book on speculation, I know I can write a first draft in 320 days if I write on average just one page a day. I write the date I want to have the deadline and then plan the steps to get there. I outline, so this helps. You build in catch up time. Remember flexibility? 

I reward myself. I get excited when I write one page or more in the morning. When making my goal, I may treat myself to a second cup of coffee or a walk in the park. Sometimes reaching a goal gets me the reward of a new book to read. I know several writers who set daily or weekly goals. They reward themselves for concluding tasks or meeting goals. Remember, the rewards don’t have to be big. I do something bigger when a project is completed like celebrate with friends and family. 

I schedule time for my spouse. We spend time together. Sunday we attend church and Bible fellowship class together. We go out to eat lunch on Sunday. It is our “standing date.” Any major family or household management issues are handled Sunday afternoons. We often walk together in the park or mall as well as attending a movie or watching a favorite DVD or DVRed movie on Sunday. 

I use a to-do list to keep me on track. I know many writers hate them, but I us them help keep me on track. 

Last, I keep track of what I write and submit. You must submit what you write. I have used an Excel Spreadsheet and a paid service to help me in this area. The paid service I used is Duotrope. What I like about Duotrope is it is my personal submissions control panel. Like Writer's Market, it has marketplace information and how to submit. It has an online submissions tracker that allows me to record and track submissions. 

Duotrope has the average number of days it takes to get a reply and the acceptance to rejection ratio on over 5,000 markets. It allows me to search publications and publishers by how they pay, acceptance ratio, and average days to get a reply. It tracks my submissions by category: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and an overall summary. It lets me keep track of my pending submissions, how many I have sent in the last 12 months, how many I have sent this month and my acceptance ratio. It allows me also to manage my list of pieces, my saved searches, my tracked deadlines, my favorite markets, shows me ignored markets. 

The two photos are screen captures of my two monitoring systems. One is a simple Excel Spreadsheet I made. It shows my submissions this year. The other is the Duotrope Dashboard. If you look closely, you will see how often I submit. I found when I track my writing I submit more, sell more and resubmit more quickly. It keeps me from sending the same piece twice to the same market. As you can glean I have been rejected by some of the best: The New Yorker, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Poetry Magazine. I also get my share of acceptances. 

We may not have twenty-seven hours a day, but we can write on a regular schedule. We can also plan and keep track of our work. Writer’s write. Writer’s submit, rewrite and resubmit.



My Submission Tracking Excel Workbook

Duotrope Submissions Dashboard




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1 comment:

  1. Great post, Jimmie, and filled with super, doable ideas for staying on track. Thanks!

    Blessings,
    Deb

    ReplyDelete