Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Time Tracking: Or 'At my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near'....

My good friends over at the appropriately brooding and philosophical Darkstuff Towers started a conversation last month about Time.  Specifically they asked where does it all go?

As I live with a physicist you can imagine time is something we talk about quite a lot:  Does it exist? How does the space-time continuum affect us? Is time-travel really possible?  When will dinner be?

But I've been thinking about time in a more pragmatic and self-reflective way over the past couple of weeks and specifically in relation to how much time I spend writing.

When I started out on the path to freelance freedom last October I made a commitment to myself that I would start each day by spending an hour creative writing.  I was conscious (based on what I know of my literary heros) that I needed to develop a writing routine and I felt the only thing standing between me and said routine had been 'having a proper job'.

I failed on day two.  Starting that day in particular by writing would have meant I had to get up at 5:30am *shudders*. A form of trauma for a morning sleepyhead such as me.

I decided therefore to move the goal posts ever so slightly and commit more simply to writing 'somewhere' within the day, everyday.  Guess what? I failed in that endeavour too. Creative writing (unpaid) got squished out most days by copy writing (paid) or by uni work (external deadlines) or bar work (yeah, money again) or the need to sleep (damn the human body for its sleep related weakness).

In no time at all I was back to my old pattern of fitting writing in, in fits and bursts wherever I could, daydreaming about islands of time in which I could muse and scrawl at will and beating myself up about not being disciplined enough.

About a fortnight ago, I decided to go slumming in the self-help section of my local e-book store.  I was specifically looking for an answer to the question 'how to get a daily writing routine'.  I came across a bundle of websites and blogs filled with advice about writing a thesis (duly passed over to the mad scientist in the house) but more importantly (for me!) I found Cathy Yardley's 'Write Every Day: How to write faster and write more' which turned out to be exactly the ebook I needed.

Yardley is a commercial writer who has published seventeen (let me repeat SEVENTEEN) books, two of which she wrote in one year whilst holding down a 40 hour a week job.  Fortunately she is also human and, despite having experienced some heady heights as an overachiever, she has hit some rather painful writing block lows too.  In combatting those lows she has tried and tested pretty much the full gambit of self-help lore.  Moreover she's boiled it all down into a handy and digestible set of exercises to help get the writerly person get writering again.

It's not just relevant to writers though.  I mean how many of us can actually answer the question 'where does all the time go' with any level of precision?  Knowledge is of course power therefore the first exercise Yardley recommends is time-tracking - writing down or recording by whichever means/device you fancy, everything you do and how long it takes you to do it.  Simple? Yes.  Obvious? Yes.  Done before?  From work point of view, yes, but never applied to my whole life.

The results were revelatory.

Time it turns out really is relative.  Tasks that I became absorbed in like sewing or reading and 'felt' like I'd only spent 20 minutes doing turned out to have eaten closer to 45 minutes or an hour;  other necessary-but-irksome tasks like washing up or tidying the house 'felt' like they'd taken at least half an hour or 40 minutes but were in fact more like 15 - 20 minutes in length.

Because I was measuring myself I found my behaviour changed.  I accessed social media a lot less for example.  I also became more focused on what I was doing.  Each time I scrawled down that I had finished one task I had to make a conscious decision about what I was going to do next which meant I had an increased clarity about the task I was undertaking.

In all areas, as a result of scrawling my actions in a notebook (carried around with me like a life support system) I was much more effective in all the tasks I did.  Total win.  Totally recommended.

Yardley quite sensibly explains it's only by knowing precisely how we're spending our time that we're able to figure out whether we've got issues with time (how we manage it), energy (over-subscribing ourselves), fear (being blocked) or  process (knowing how best to do what we need to get done). Or a little bit of each of these.....

Reading the book and engaging in the exercises I've come face to face with some inner monsters.  I've realised for example that I measure myself against one particularly hyperactive period in my life when I rocked a 16-hour-day corporate lifestyle, sat on three or four local committees, performed in plays, was teaching myself guitar and learning to surf, whilst also finding time to write poetry, read a book a week and go on regular hikes around the countryside with my dog.

I will never be that active again.  Never.  And actually I really don't want to be.  So I need to stop saying 'Yes' to everything in some belief that my superwoman alter ego self of five years ago is going to resurface in my life.

I also learned however that I have actually succeeded in developing a writing routine.  My blog.  I turn up at the page and write once a week every week and have done for nearly five months now.  I've learned a ton about my writing process and I'm as committed to blogging now as I was when I started.  Reading Yardley's book helped me recognise that my success in this area is probably because 'writing a weekly blog' is a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely (e.g. SMART) objective, as opposed to the much woolier 'write every day' one.

So having spent a week time-tracking I'm now moving into defining my time into 'containers' - not building a to-do list from hell (at least I hope not) but being really specific about what I need to get done, including EVERYTHING that needs to get done (including having good buffer zones around activities) and scheduling in time to write. Every day.

I'll let you know when the first novel is out ;).

(Gosh is that the time??? Better run.....)

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you mentioned buffer time etc in this. I have tried to schedule my life before and I have always found that although technically you can fit a lot in to a 16 hour day later on you are going to be tired and may slow down, and after a day at work plus grocery shopping, and study for example, I really really really don't want to clean the house in an hour. And I think you have to give in to this. I also l know that on a high level of activity and alertness, my 8 hours sleep becomes 3 as I stare at the ceiling thinking 'go to sleep now!! you're late!'