Too busy to write? Here’s what to do

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You may think you’re too busy to write, but first ask yourself whether you could build a writing habit…

Are you too busy to write right now? I know I am.

I’m dealing with a bit of a family emergency and I spent the past hour on the phone with FedEx, trying to get an important package from Vancouver to Manchester, England.

I’d planned to spend that hour writing and PFFT, the time has dissolved, disappeared. I’m frustrated, and to be a bit honest, exasperated. But I know I’m not too busy to write. I breathe slowly and try to clear my mind of the annoyance I’m feeling from having to deal with a particularly ill-humoured FedEx clerk (to be fair, I spoke with five of them and only one was unpleasant. But five different people to solve one lousy shipping problem! Really, five!)

I’m taking slow, deep breaths and reminding myself that I need to finish this post today. And because I have a many-year habit of always writing this post on Thursday mornings (yes, five days before you read it), the habit is clicking into gear, just as my habit of putting my dishes in the dishwasher after eating and brushing my teeth before going to bed also always clicks into gear. Without me having to think about it.

If you think you are too busy to write, I suggest you start to reclaim your life from the concept of busyness.

Busyness can devour our values. You may want to be a thoughtful, reflective person and you might hope to express those values through your writing. But what happens? You end up being CFO, which doesn’t stand for Chief Financial Officer, by the way. Instead, it means Chief Firefighting Official.

Yup, you’re the sucker who has to deal with the supplier who failed to meet an important deadline. Or the employee (or child) who is unexpectedly sick. Or the major report that’s written badly, or doesn’t have enough photographs, or that’s still awaiting the CEO’s message, which is already three days late. Or, like me, you’re facing a package that just can’t seem to be shipped.

As the CFO, your time is not your own and you seem to spend a good chunk of your life repairing problems generated by other people and not able to do what you really want to do. Which is to write.

This is where having a strongly-ingrained habit can help keep busyness from derailing your writing.

In a 2014 book, Overwhelmed, journalist Brigid Schulte, addressed how our society prizes busyness. “So much do we value busyness, researchers have found a human ‘aversion’ to idleness and a need for ‘justifiable busyness,’ ” she wrote.

Whenever I hear the phrase ‘justifiable busyness,” I’m reminded of advice I received many years ago when I first started working at a large metropolitan daily newspaper. Daily newspaper offices were, in those halcyon days, large rooms with more than 100 people in them. (Today, they might be lucky to contain five people) 

Anyway, the advice went like this: “Carry a Manilla file folder and a pen and walk around the room looking busy and purposeful.” Fortunately for me, when I actually landed the job, I was so busy that I didn’t need to pretend. Some days I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom.

But if you feel too busy to write, look at your schedule and try to identify a time that’s your own, that you can protect. I’m not going to suggest you get up at 5 am (unless you’re naturally a morning lark.) Instead, figure out a time that will work for you. Mornings are great if you can manage them but, if not, no problem. Consider your lunch time. Could you spend 15 minutes of that writing? (Even if you have to go hide somewhere so that no one distracts you.) Or your after-work time, maybe before you head home to the demands of family life?

Make a deliberate choice to protect some writing time in your life. And note that this means more than just time, it also means the mental space to feel easy enough to generate the words. Words won’t come if you’re feeling stressed and worn out.

Keep the deliberate choice to somewhere between five and 15 minutes, so that it’s easy to accomplish. Then, when you’ve maintained your writing time every day for somewhere between 18 and 254 days — or, on average, 66 days — you will have a habit that will sustain itself.

As for me, I’ve just done my most important writing of the day and I’m now heading downtown to a FedEx office so I can fill out the wretched customs forms that will help get this package off my desk.

At least I did my writing first….


My video podcast last week aimed to help science academics add more stories to their writing. Or, see the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.  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.


How do you find time to write?  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 Emily Agnew, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer for a June 4/19 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. 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.