Writing a book is a big undertaking. Brilliant ideas can take seconds to formulate and months of labor to bring to fruition. But once you find your path, the work of hauling yourself over the mountain of the first draft simply requires putting one foot in front of the other. Here are the steps I use in my own life to accomplish the work I want to do.
1 Set your goals
If you’re like me, you are in a hurry to get to the fine-grained details of figuring out how you will spend your time. But it is worth taking a few hours to think through your overall priorities and obligations for the coming months or year. Where does your book fit into the picture? Which of your obligations are firm and which could bend a little bit, temporarily or permanently?
I spend time every December and January evaluating how I used my time in the previous year and setting my intentions for the coming year, but this is an exercise you can do whenever you need it. In fact, I think it helps to do it more frequently, and this year for the first time I’m reviewing my goals every quarter.
There are many useful resources out there on goal setting, so take some time to read about various methods before you get started to find something that resonates with you. When I was doing my 2017 goal planning, I drew on this video by Joanna Penn discussing the big rocks analogy of time management. If you imagine your available time as a container, you can only squeeze in so many big rocks – these are your large, core goals. You need to get these rocks into the container first and make sure they fit, before filling in around them with the pebbles and sand of your less important goals and obligations.
For my 2018 goal planning, I’ve relied on Michael Hyatt’s book, Your Best Year Ever, which I appreciate for its clear processes, emphasis on learning from the past, and focus on motivations.
2 Schedule the time
Once you understand your overall goals for the coming months or year, it’s time to figure out how you’ll accomplish them. The simple truth is this: what doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done. You have to find or make or insist on the time to work on your goals. I have a promising side project that has been languishing for over a year because I keep thinking I will get to it in available pockets of time that never materialize. Most of my time in the second quarter is already allotted to editing projects, so I’m going to have to weigh my priorities again and decide whether this project is important enough to me to proactively block off time for it in the third and fourth quarters. If it’s not, I’m going to just have to let it go or scale it down.
In this phase, you may need to go back and forth between your goal list and your actual schedule and make hard choices. There’s no point in sabotaging yourself from the outset by setting a goal to get eight hours of sleep a night and then scheduling your writing time for 5 a.m.
Unlike some goals, such as learning a new language, writing a book is difficult to fit into the little cracks and crevices of your day. In order to make substantial progress, you are going to need a solid chunk of uninterrupted time, preferably at a time of day when your creative energy is high.
Experiment with different times and places and see what works for you. I have one client who has completed two lengthy books and is well into a third, all written during a two-hour early morning period before his regular work day. Another client races through huge chunks of her novels during marathon late-night sessions when her house is quiet.
It’s hard to pull those hours out of the day, but look at your goals again and remind yourself why your book is important to you. If you set up a schedule and then can’t stick to it, take some time to step back and reevaluate. Consider using an online time tracking program (like Hours or Toggl) to track all of your time for a few weeks and then comb through it to see where you might find the hours you need for your book.
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work has helpful strategies for making the most out of limited time. Newport emphasizes fierce prioritization and organizing time in productive chunks. If you are lucky enough (or cursed enough!) to be a full-time writer, or otherwise in control of your schedule, this book will help you establish an effective routine. Particularly useful for authors are Newport’s ideas about using what he calls “productive meditation” to consolidate what you know, solve thorny problems, and define next steps.
3 Track yourself
Once you set your goals and define your schedule, you need to set up an accountability and motivation system to help you meet your goals and stick to your schedule.
You might set word goals, or you might set time goals for when you are doing real work and not just fiddling around on the interwebs. There are always going to be writing sessions in which you get stuck, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. You might be wrestling with a difficult plot point or realize that you have headed down an unproductive path. Taking the time to work through these problems, rather than just ignoring them, will result in a better draft and a better book.
Whatever tracking and accountability method you use, I think it helps to make it physical and visible. Put up a wall calendar in your writing space and schedule in your planned writing hours and then record the time you actually accomplish. Keep a running tally of your weekly or monthly word counts somewhere on the calendar, so you can see your progress.
I use a bullet journal for my time planning and goal tracking, and I find it surprisingly satisfying to fill in the little squares I’ve set up for Italian practice and yoga, two of the habit goals I’m focused on this year. Once you see those squares start to accumulate, you will be further motivated to keep going.
Deadlines are also very effective motivators. My clients know that if they miss the time slot they’ve booked with me, they may have to wait several weeks for another one to open up, and that’s an excellent motivator to get the work done. If you aren’t ready to work with an editor yet, you might commit to a deadline to get a draft to a friend or a beta reader – preferably the hardass kind of friend who will hassle you to get it done.
Accountability partners or groups are another way to publicly commit to a deadline and get support and applause along the way. Connect with other authors on Twitter or Facebook, or search for or start a group yourself by posting a message on Kboards. You can also leverage the group enthusiasm of Nanowrimo to get chunks of your book done. The main event is in November, and smaller Camp Nanowrimo events happen in April and July. You can find all kinds of in-person and virtual support here, including daily Twitter word sprint challenges.
4 Take time off
Most importantly, schedule some regular breaks for yourself – and not just when you are an exhausted, broken-down mess. Writing a book is some of the most intense brain work you can do, and writers, like editors, are also susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. Along with setting up your workspace correctly, taking regular breaks is one of the best things you can do for your health.
You also need to feed and nourish your brain by feeding it new things. At least once a month, take a day off to do a hike or go to a museum and get some sensory stimulation that you can’t get in your usual haunts. You need to schedule these sessions in on your calendar, just in the same way you schedule your work sessions.
If possible, try to also schedule a few weeks a year in which you are not doing much of anything at all. Don’t let your vacations turn into working vacations, especially if you are writing full time. If you want to dedicate a vacation to making progress on your book, then make sure your plans are conducive to writing, and give yourself a vacation from your daily writing schedule for a week at some point in the month before your vacation.
I spent an hour outlining this blog post during my own recent vacation, and another hour answering email in a Joshua Tree saloon, where I was hiding out from a wind storm with a beer and a basket of fried food. Except for those two hours, I didn’t do any other work for a full seven-day stretch, which gave me time to rest and reconnect with the inner life of my brain.
There’s plenty of evidence that slowing down and taking breaks can enhance your creativity and allow you to do not just more work, but better work. One of my inspirations this year has been Joceylyn Glei’s beautifully produced podcast Hurry Slowly. Have a listen if you want more inspiration and encouragement for occasionally choosing the slow lane.