How Do You Find Time to Write?

From time-to-time, I get asked how I find the time to write. I supposed this is, in part, because of my consecutive-day writing streak (which now stands at 576 days). But I think part of it comes from the fact that I manage to write while working a full time job, while blogging, and while raising a family. The question comes in various forms but it all boils down to the same thing: how do you find time to write?

I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a post on it exclusively (I could be wrong–with more than 6,000 posts it’s hard to remember everything I’ve written). So I thought I’d try to answer this question here. Keep in mind that the question I am answering is how do find time to write. Your mileage may vary.

1. I challenged my assumptions about the time I needed to write

When I started to write every day, nearly two years ago now1, the first thing I did was test my assumptions of what I needed to write.

With respect to time, I used to think that I needed a chunk of time–a minimum of, say, 1 hour, better yet 2 hours–to get any decent writing done. In the past, I’d tried to carve out an hour or two during the day to write. Usually it was very early in the morning, and while it worked for a time, it eventually failed. It fail for several reasons:

  1. I might be able to get up at 4 am a few day a week to get in some writing, but the long days wore on my, and eventually, I’d fail.
  2. When I did fail, I felt guilty for the rest of the day.
  3. Failure one day led to failure another day.

So the first thing I did in February 2013 was challenge my assumption about how much time I needed to write. I decided to experiment. My experiment was as follows:

  1. I would write every day, even if it was only for a few minutes.
  2. I would not schedule a specific time to write, but writing would be a priority for any spare time that I found.

This experiment required that I be able to write from anywhere, which is why, beginning in February 2013, I moved my entire writing infrastructure into Google Docs. Using Google Docs meant I could write from any device, wherever I happened to be. It meant I didn’t have to worry about moving files back and forth across devices. That meant I could spend what little time I had writing instead of copying files and managing versions.

2. I challenged my assumptions about the environment I needed to write

I used to think I needed a quiet, secluded environment where I could do my writing. But if I had to write whenever the time was available, as opposed to setting aside blocks of time, then I needed to challenge my assumptions about the environment I needed to work in.

I decided to try to write in whatever environment I found myself in, so long as the time was available. If that meant writing at the library, fine. If that meant writing in the quiet of my home office, fine. If that meant writing in the family room, with the TV blaring and the kids running around screaming, fine.

3. I collected data about my behavior in order to provide a baseline

I wrote a set of scripts for Google Docs that automated the tracking of my writing. This meant I could focus on writing, rather than tracking, but still collect the data I was looking for (how much I was writing each day). I also began using a tool called RescueTime which tracks how much time you spend on various applications and documents across your computers. This gave me real numbers for how much time I was spending writing each day, which I could use to see if my assumptions were good or not.

4. I wrote every day

With my challenges to my assumptions, and my automated scripts and data collection, I started to write. I wrote every day. Sometimes I’d only write for 10 minutes. Other times, I’d find 3 hours to write. Sometimes I was exhausted, but wrote for 15 minutes anyway. Sometimes, I knew what I was writing was terrible, but that the practice was important, so I kept at it.

Sometimes my day got thrown off. I adjusted as best as I could. When I knew my schedule would be crazy in advance, I’d plan ahead, and try to get a little writing in early in the day. At least then, it was done. If there turned out be time to do more later, I’d do more.

I found that over the course of 721 days, there were only 2 days that I could not manage to get any writing in. Both were unusually long, busy travel or conference days. I learned lessons from both, and haven’t missed a day of writing since July 21, 2013.


What the numbers told me

Over the course of my 576 consecutive day writing streak, I’ve written over half a million words, and sold 11 stories or articles. Here is what the data looks like for the duration of my streak so far:

Writing Streak

I started using RescueTime to track my writing time a year ago, so my time data goes back only a year, but it is enough to learn from. So returning to my initial assumptions…

How much do I really write each day?

On average, based on actual data: about 38 minutes per day.

How much can I write in 38 minutes/day?

On average, based on actual data: about 850 words/day.

What does that mean in a practical sense?

If you do the math I wrote about 250 words in 10 minutes, consistently. This is regardless of the environment in which I am writing, or the time day, or the amount of time I spent. Given 10 minutes, I write 250 words, which, as it happens, is about 1 manuscript page.

Given that I write nearly 40 minutes per day on average, tells you that I write about 4 manuscript pages per day. Not much, but every day is progress.

I should point out that not all of those 38 minutes are consecutive in a given day. Often, they are, but sometimes, I’ll squeeze in 5 minutes of writing before a meeting, and another 25 in the evening while the kids are watching a cartoon.

Take this month, for instance. So far, in February 2015, here is an aggregate look at when I write during the day, based on data for every day in the month, weekends included. The green lines represent the times that I tend write:

RescueTime_-_Daily_patterns__All_Activities_by_week

From this you can see that I tend to write in the afternoon/evening (at least in February), but I occasionally get some writing in earlier in the day. This is pretty representative of all of the months I’ve been writing. What it illustrates is that I really do write when I have time available, as opposed to blocking out a specific set ahead of time. This has worked very well for me.

So how do I find time to write given everything else I do?

What I learned over the years was that I really only need 10 minutes to get in a page of writing. Rare has been the day (twice in more than 700 day) where I haven’t been able to find 10 minutes. Usually I can find a good deal more.

This won’t work for everyone. Someone people need a set time of day, or a set duration, or a specific environment to work in.  I thought I needed these things as well, but I challenged myself and learned that I did not. Challenge your own assumptions and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

  1. Although my consecutive writing streak stands at 576 days, there is a larger overall “streak” beginning late February 2013 during which I have only missed 2 days of writing. That is, I have written on 719 out of the last 721 days, the last 576 of them consecutively.

9 thoughts on “How Do You Find Time to Write?

  1. A few things I didn’t mention that occurred to me afterward:

    * I pretty much gave up on regular TV a few years ago, so I don’t have that as a distraction. In fact, when my kids are watching cartoons in the evening is when I tend to have my biggest single stretches of writing. So one question to ask that I didn’t address is: what are you willing to give up to make time?

    * I genuinely enjoy writing. It has become a way of relaxing at the end of a long day. On the days I don’t get much writing in, I don’t feel quiet as relaxed as the days when I get in, say, 500 or 1000 words. It wouldn’t be worth the time to write every day if I didn’t enjoy it.

  2. I went through a slightly similar process at the end of last year. I’d finally been forced to admit to myself that writing during whatever time was available to me in the evenings wasn’t working, which meant I had to make time to write. Moreover, if I wanted to be serious about my writing, I needed to make time to write regularly.
    There was only really one option: getting up early. Unfortunately, I am in no way an early bird so the mere thought of getting out of bed an hour or so earlier than usual to took a bit of getting used to.
    But, in the end I did it. I can’t claim to write every day, but the ‘morning shift’, as I call it, is definitely my time to write. I even track my word counts and jot down a monthly report on my blog: that small degree of accountability really helps, but nowhere near as much as being able to see the quantitative evidence of how much my writing output has increased over the past several months 🙂

  3. hey jamie,

    first of all a great homepage.

    I have to tell you, that I am from Germany. So hopefully all I write is understandably for you.

    I have made the same experience as you did. In further days I tried to force myself to write 10 sides a day. Badly I failed but nowadays I just let it flow.

    And surprising the most time I got more write as I wanted to. 😉

    kind regards
    Matthias

  4. Good article and blog! Ever since I was 14 I wanted to be a writer, but I had some grand image of what a ‘professional author’ was suppose to be. I always felt short of that image. Through years, and marriage, and kids, and stress etc. I wrote sporadically and soon realized my archetype was a little off. Now, at 32, I’m taking the challenge and learning tips to juggle life and writing. So far, your blog is wonderful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and keep them coming!

  5. The urge to write generally overwhelms me at the most inopportune times — for example, when I’m trying to sleep. Some of my best work has come from grabbing my smartphone and tap-tap-tapping out my frantic thoughts on a small screen. I wish I could harness my creativity into a disciplined routine, but I don’t see that ever being the case.

  6. Great post, thank you.

    I often find that I’m most able to do some writing when I’m travelling or out and about and having just stopped at a cafe. I’ve tried tap-tapping away on my phone but it’s a really frustrating typing experience.

    I’ve just ordered one of these miniature bluetooth keyboards: https://waytools.com/products/textblade/1/trailer
    Quite pricey but I’m really hoping that that will enable me to write wherever I am.

  7. I’ve tried once or twice but the result is something far less focused and coherent than when I write. I also found dictation tedious, and not nearly as much fun as typing.

  8. Jamie, thanks for the great post and the fascinating stats! I’m impressed that you’re not only writing, but keeping track of what time of day and how many words in each interval, etc.

    I’ve been obsessed with increasing my productivity in the last year or so, and have managed to do so recently by adopting a similar attitude about not worrying about when or where or for how long.

    I’ve found that two things have helped me double my average daily productivity (from about 1k to about 2k words):
    1. writing an outline and honing it as I go
    2. writing more than once a day

    I have not managed to write more than 7-8 days at a time, although it is a goal of mine to be more consistent.

    I’m curious about what you count as writing–do you count editing/revisions or do you write on a different project when you’re revising another?

    Stephanie Queen

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