"I Need Coffee" is a monthly column on Huffington Post Books. INC (the initialism is deliberate) covers all sorts of writing topics, with an eye toward how to make a living writing. INC's audience includes both authors and aspiring authors, and authors who are both mainstream and independent.
Do you remember that song "Respect Yourself" by The Staple Singers? No?
Good gracious go listen to it right now. That song is like the writer's anthem. Here's a link to it on Youtube. Starting at 2:21, your life will be changed forever.
Writers have a hard time respecting themselves. We give away our work for free. We fumble when people ask us what we do, worrying if it's okay to call ourselves "writers." (Answer: Yes, it is.) We're basically the most neurotic group of people this side of a Woody Allen character.
We could use a little self-respect.
I'm going talk about one way that you can show respect to yourself as a writer. You can schedule your writing life.
I get a lot done in a day. I also have two small children (ages 5 and 6--don't ask) and a husband who works long hours in another city. I don't have a choice but to run a tight ship. Heck, I run a nuclear submarine. The only way I can get anything done is to schedule my work down to the minute.
I bet many, if not most of you, are just as busy as I am.
Even though I don't punch a clock or show up at an office at a designated time, by scheduling my work, I show myself, and the world, that my time is valuable. I respect myself by scheduling myself.
Here's how to do it.
(1) Pick a scheduling method and use it
Here's what I use to schedule my work (and home) life. I use a calendar software that syncs between my laptop and phone, and I use a to-do list software that does the same. And, I use them together.
When I was searching for calendar software, I knew it needed to have certain functions in order to work for my household and professional life. It needed to sync across devices, it needed to accommodate multiple calendars (one for my work, one for my husband's work, and one for our home), and it needed to be able to be edited by multiple people (i.e., by my husband and by me).
Here are some other nice features about our software: I'm able to decide which calendars are visible at any given time, which means that I don't have to view his work calendar all the time. But if I do want to view his work calendar, I just have to check a box and it appears, letting me know if he and I have a conflict, or if he's going to be out of town or working late. He's able to do the same with my work schedule.
Using this calendar software, I schedule my work days down to the minute. (I'll get to that technique in #2 of this list.)
Now, to me, a calendar doesn't make sense without a to-do list. Some people use paper for their to-do lists. I use software. The to-do list software I use syncs between my laptop and my phone. It allows me to create "projects," and each of those projects has its own to-do list. Each of my books is a project, plus each of freelance article I write, plus other freelance gigs, plus writing coaching and editing projects, plus "home"--being a parent is a job after all--and more. I can assign each task and each project a due date and a priority.
Next, let me explain how my to-do list and calendar work together.
(2) Schedule everything
Items on the to-do list won't get done if you don't make time for them to get done. Therefore, you must schedule to-do list items on your calendar. The trick, though, is to schedule small, doable tasks in small chunks of time.
Let's say you, like me, are working on a novel. You can't put on your to-do list the following task:
That's ridiculous. Instead, you need to break the writing of your novel into tasks that can be done in two- or three-hour chunks. You can even go smaller than that. Try breaking writing tasks into a certain number of words. Or a scene, or a chapter. Or an outlining task. Or the writing of a character sketch.
There are many 2-3 hour tasks that go into writing a novel. Put those tasks on your to-do list. And if you use software, you can add them all (and there are many), and the to-do list won't get unwieldy. That's because good to-do list software only shows what tasks you have to do today.
You can handle today.
Now that you have your tasks created, it's time to schedule them. Here's how I do it. I create a one-, two-, or three-hour block of time on my calendar and type a task into it. Then, I schedule the next task, and the next, until my day is full. Plus, I always set alarms to go off at the start of a scheduled task so that I know when it is time to wrap up the task I'm working on and move on to the next.
(The alarms also help me not get sucked into a Twitter vortex once I complete a task. They keep me focused on my work.)
I tend to schedule my tasks for an entire week, or for at least a couple of days in advance. I do leave some open time in the afternoons for last-minute meetings, but not much time. I have a full-time job (i.e., writer), just like everyone else. I'm not always available just because I write full time. I have deadlines to meet.
When someone asks for a meeting, and I have that time blocked out for writing, I tell her I'm not free. Because I'm not free. I'm working during that blocked out time. I have a job to do--I'm writing.
I respect my writing, and myself.
Because I respect myself, I have learned to buffer my time.
I learned the concept of buffering when I was a full-time professor, a mother of two toddlers, and a writer on the side. I never had a enough time for anything.
I ate while running (literally running) down the hall to class. I removed all chairs from my office because I never had time to sit down, plus I was tripping over them because I wasn't looking where I was going. I was in a constant state of needing to pee because I never had time for that either, which made me very crabby and also made me talk really fast.
It wasn't a pleasant existence.
A wise professor colleague sat me down (she got me to sit down!) and told me that I needed to buffer my time. I hadn't heard of buffering before, so she explained it to me. I've since searched the term on the internet, and lots of people use it.
Basically, buffering means leaving small cushions of time between scheduled events so that you have time to pee, time to eat, time to take a break, time to check in with the people you love, time to do anything but work. Sometimes, it's nice just to go stand outside for a few minutes and stretch.
So, as you schedule your tasks on your calendar, leave 15 minutes between them. If you're feeling daring, leave 30 minutes between them. I leave 30 minutes because I like to live on the edge, and also because that gives me some spillover time for the prior task if I misjudged how long that task will take.
And then you have to use that buffer time as it's meant to be used.
Buffering is part of respecting yourself, too. Don't just push through buffer time and keep working. Stretch, walk, eat, breathe.
Then go write some more.
An earlier version of this column first appeared in Underground Book Reviews, an online magazine run by indie and small-press authors who are passionate about writing.