Are you wasting your writing time?

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Time is the most valuable commodity we all have. But let me ask you if you’re regularly wasting your writing time….

If Superman, or the tooth fairy or Dumbledore offered you either $1,500 or a thousand minutes of your life back, which would you choose?

In our cash-obsessed society, many of us might be inclined to grab the money. We could use it to pay down debt, buy something fun or take a vacation. But, of course, we should all choose the gift of more time. Why? Nothing is as valuable as time. That’s because — short of tempting offers from Superman, the tooth fairy or Dumbledore — time can never be replaced.

I think many of us fail to be rational about time. Did you know that the average American watches more than five hours of television every day? And that U.S. workers spend 6.3 hours per day checking email?  And that the average US consumer spends 40 minutes on Facebook per day?

I don’t begrudge anyone their down time — and I’m just as guilty of the occasional Netflix binge-watch as anyone else. (My current guilty pleasure is the Australian comedy Offspring.) But if you have a goal, know that saying you don’t have the time for it is just an excuse. We can all make the time for things that are really important to us. (The only exceptions might be parents of very young children or people responsible for an elderly parent or a sick partner.)

People often ask me ‘how much time it will take’ for them to improve their writing. And frequently, they’re surprised when I tell them they can do it in as little as 15 minutes per day. Here is the secret: Make writing a habit. Foreswear the idea of six-hour marathon writing sessions. And, instead, spend a small amount of time writing, daily.

This is a better way to approach your writing from two perspectives:

1-It is less daunting. If the habit is really easy to maintain, you’ll be more likely to maintain it. (If, on the other hand, the habit is big, onerous and frightening, aren’t you more likely to run for the hills? I know I am!) I know it might seem ridiculous to imagine that you can write a book in 15 minutes a day, but you can. One of the clients in my Get-It-Done program, Ann Gomez, has just done it. The busy owner of a business and the mother of four children (one of whom was a baby when she started writing), Ann had very little time. Some nights, she told me, she wrote for five minutes before falling into bed at 11 pm. But now a copy of her very fine book, The Email Warrior,  sits on my bookshelf.

2-You will be more productive. I know those six-hour writing marathons sound strangely tempting, but we are less productive when we work longer. Consider, for example, the evidence in a 2014 paper by John Pencavel from Stanford University. After studying the work of British munitions workers, he demonstrated that the more people work, the more their output starts to fall. And, conversely, he showed that reducing working hours can improve productivity.

The same, I have found, is true of writing. If you write for 15 minutes you might be able to produce 150 words — or, 600 words per hour. But if you spend six hours at the job, there’s little likelihood you’ll be able to maintain that hourly rate.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine you manage 600 words for the first hour, and each subsequent hour falls by 25%. That works out as follows: 

Hour one: 600 words

Hour two: 450 words

Hour three: 338 words

Hour four: 254 words

Hour five: 191 words

Hour six: 144 words

Total: 1,977 words

While you might feel (temporarily) charged up that you’ve boosted your word count by almost 2,000 words, that feeling of energy will soon subside. You’ll be so burned out after your day of hard slogging at the writing factory, that you’re likely to take the rest of the week off.  In fact, I’d venture to guess that you might end up taking the rest of the month off because the six hours were so exhausting. (I’m not just making this up. I know clients who have taken this start-and-stop approach and stopped writing for as long as six months.)

The habitual 15-minutes-per-day writer, on the other hand, would take 13 days to get to the 1,977-word total. But he or she wouldn’t have any angst and wouldn’t feel the least bit burned out.

Small habits give us a way to manage our time so that we can fit in the goals that are really important to us. If writing is important to you, don’t shortchange yourself by thinking it isn’t feasible. It is! You just need to find 15 minutes a day.

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My weekly video podcast last week looked at how to improve your English grammar. See it here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever used small habits to help your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Nicole Deranleau, the winner of this month’s book prize, Authorisms by Paul Dickson for a Jan. 18/17 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/17 will be put in a draw for a copy of Around the Writer’s Block, by Roseanne Bane. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted February 7th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • thorn

    Wondering now. Is mindmapping writing? Where does reading fit in? And: does one place a question mark where more information is needed, and then do all research after the day’s writing is finished?

    • thorn

      (maybe a topic for a future blog-post? heh)

      • Let me know if you still think that’s necessary or whether my (brief) description above gives you enough to go on.

        • thorn

          No, that totally helps. I can maybe spend 15-25 minutes writing on one project, 20 minutes mapping another–or a different section of the current one, and 30-45 minutes reading, for a max total of 90 min a day, and adjust reading/mapping from there as needed.

    • I don’t consider mindmapping to be writing. Instead, I see it as a vital task to undertake just BEFORE writing. Reading, to me, is like “background noise” — something that occurs all the time. As for when to do research, I try to do it BEFORE writing. But when I discover the (inevitable) gaps in my knowledge, then I’ll do the extra research when I’m editing. Hope this helps!