Today’s topic is about a challenge that affects every single writer that I know. “How do you prioritize your life so that you can be a writer?” We’re going to go deeper than the “you don’t find the time you MAKE the time” advice that we usually hear when we’re struggling with this issue. While there’s truth to that advice, for sure, it’s not very helpful in real life.
Let’s face it. We’re busy. We all are. No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or how you prioritize your time. There’s just not enough of it. That’s just a truth about our modern culture. Jobs, commutes, families, hobbies, responsibilities, friends. There are only 24 hours in the day and they click by at the exact same rate whether we are binge-watching West World or pounding out words on our keyboards.
No wonder a massive industry has grown up centered around teaching us how to manage our time. According to an informal search done by BusinessPundit.com, the time management industry is actually bigger than the weight loss industry, at least in the number of books, DVDs, and products that are pitched as solutions. Over the years, I’ve bought and self-created dozens of different time management systems trying to get my life in order, and especially to make time for the writing life that I wanted to build for myself.
We’ve all heard the tried-and-true advice. Organize. Cut back on things that are less important. Get up earlier. Multi-task. Create a schedule. Buy an app. And all of these things can help, at least to an extent. But I think they miss the point. Most of them are about squeezing more into a limited amount of time so that you free up space to do all the things you love.
About a year ago, I came across a piece of advice that revolutionized the way I use my time, and it’s something I had never considered before. Since then, I’ve searched and searched for the source of the advice—I should have written it down somewhere—but I’ve been unable to find it again, so I’m unfortunately unable to give credit or point you to additional information. (By the way, if you happen to know where it came from, please shoot to me at [email protected] so I can let people know!)
Anyway, this piece of advice uncovered a fallacy that I had bought into for most of my life, a fallacy that goes something like this: if you are good at something, or enjoy doing something, it means that you were meant to do it. My guess is that this is probably something you’ve bought into as well. If you’re good at writing, you were MEANT to be a writer. If you are good at teaching, you were MEANT to be a teacher. If you are good at fixing cars, you were MEANT to be a mechanic. This thinking has a kind of feeling of “fate” behind it, as if there is some ultimate calling or career that you were designed specifically for and, until you find it, you won’t or can’t be truly happy—your life won’t fall into place like it should. Even though this worldview is kind of romantic and hopeful, it’s not very realistic. And it’s definitely not helpful! In fact, it might even be undermining the happiness and contentment you could have right now.
Let’s explore why that is and then we’ll connect it to how to prioritize your life to be a writer.
Here’s the simple truth: we can all be good at a huge amount of things, and we can all enjoy doing a huge amount of things. For example, I’ve always been fascinated by stop-motion animation, but I’ve literally never tried to sculpt a clay figure or shot even the shortest scene of stop-motion. But, if I really wanted to, I could dedicate some time and effort to learning how to do it. If it turns out I enjoyed it, I might pursue it with even more focus and get really good at it. Maybe even great. It might become something that I believed I was “meant” to do. After all, that’s how the things I used to believe I was “meant” to do came to be that way. I learned guitar over time, began writing some clunky little songs, joined a band or two, got better, and started to love it. Then I was “meant” to be a musician. I started recording those songs, buying sound equipment, learning studio recording skills, and, before long, I was “meant” to be a studio engineer. I read a lot as a kid and rediscovered a love of reading as an adult. I started writing a few stories and studying how to do it better. I improved over time and learned to really love the process, which means I was “meant” to be a writer.
If we subscribe to the belief that we are “meant” to do something because we enjoy it and are good at it, we’ll flood our lives with things we’re “meant” to do. So much so that there’s no way they can all get done.
Here’s where the radical shift came in my thinking about prioritizing our lives. Time management isn’t about getting rid of the things you don’t like doing. It’s about purposefully deciding which things you enjoy, or maybe even love, that you will never do again. Now, that’s a little extreme, to say you’ll “never do them again,” but it helps to get in the right brain space if you think about it this way.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, honestly. The process I’m going to describe to you will break your heart, and make you sad, could even make you feel guilty for all the time and money you’ve spent on something. Your emotions will kick against and you’ll try to justify why you don’t have to do it. I went through all these emotions, too. But I can tell you that life is remarkable better on the other side if you’re willing to do it.
So here we go: it’s really just a few deceptively simple steps, but each one requires some real thought and introspection.
Step One: Make a list of everything you feel like you enjoy doing and are pretty good at. My list started out really writing-heavy, but quickly expanded. It looked something like this:
- Write novels
- Write songs
- Write poems
- Write short stories
- Create book-folding art
- Create book-sculpting art
- Web Design
- Working on cars
- Watching sports (Not sure I’m particularly “good” at it, but it took up a lot of time, so I listed it.)
- Public speaking
- Recording bands and musical acts
- Performing music
- And on and on…
So there’s step one. Make an exhaustive list of the things you like to do and the things you’re good at doing. As I look over my list, I realize that I could convince myself that I’m “meant” to do any one of these things… or all of them! And that’s how I was living my life—with this massive list of things that I felt pulling at my time. Whatever mood I was in, I could find a “calling” that fit my mood. I realize now that it was a kind of “delightful delusion.” I could convince myself that I was getting a lot of good, productive stuff done, while really doing not much at all because it was so sporadic.
So on to step two: the really hard one. Pare your list down to two or three things. These are the things that are the most important to you. The things you really love. The few things that you want to excel at and spend your life doing. There will be a few easy entries to strike through. On my list, for example, I could line through working on cars and web design pretty easily because, although I am pretty good at it, I really don’t enjoy either one that much. They are more of a means to an end than a passion. Others will be really, really hard to line through. Paring the list down to two or three could even be traumatic, especially considering what we’re going to have to do in step 3:
Step three is to never do the things you crossed out again. In fact, they become the things you absolutely must NOT do if you are going to succeed at the two or three things that survived the culling. Here is the truth about time management: it is not the things we have to do that rob us of the energy and focus needed to excel at something. Instead, it’s having too many things we want to do or love to do. It’s the old adage “jack of all trades, master of none.” But it’s more than a flippant saying—it’s the heart of becoming truly great at something.
This is hard. Really, really hard. I spent years and years of my life believing I would be a songwriter. I learned to play piano and guitar, bought thousands and thousands of dollars in recording equipment. I started bands and played shows and recorded CDs. And I absolutely loved it. Playing live music in a band is a magical experience comparable to nothing else. There is a synergistic energy and bond that is unique to that experience. To be able to move someone with a song is a powerful high. But it didn’t make my list. I couldn’t bring myself to crowd out my two or three other things to make room for it. Music for me, now, is something I must actively NOT do. It breaks my heart–especially after seeing a film like Hearts Beat Loud like I did a few days ago–but I see it for what it is now: a distraction from what I truly want to excel in. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it. It doesn’t mean I don’t pick up my guitar every now and again and strum through some songs. But it DOES mean that I’ve divorced myself from the thought that I’m somehow “meant” to do it. It means I’ve made a deliberate choice about what I want to get really, really good at—what I enjoy the most. And putting your life in that kind of perspective is an incredibly powerful thing.
Writing, obviously, was at the top of my list, as was the teaching of creative writing through this podcast and in other ways. Now when I’m writing, I’m not distracted by the nagging feeling that I really should be writing a song or creating a piece of book-folding art or researching a piece of sound recording equipment. I know I am purposefully investing in the activity I’ve prioritized above all else. It even helps when I’m totally NOT in the mood to write. Before, it was easy to convince myself that working on a song was of equal importance and avoid my writing time. Now, this new prioritization gets me in front of the keyboard where I know I need to be.
I can feel some of you bristling at this advice even now as I’m recording this. We don’t like to be told to stop doing the things we love. And I’m not saying you have to. All I’m really saying is to be intentional about your choices. If you are doing one thing, you can’t, by definition, be improving at or excelling at some other thing. As soon as you make a choice, you’ve automatically chosen not to do all other things. Simple being aware of this can help us make better choices about our time. Now, when I think about how relaxing would be to sit down and work on an art project, I know it’s coming at the cost of working on what I’ve decided is my priority. I can still decide to do the art project, and even enjoy it, but I don’t get caught up in the feeling that it’s something I’m “meant” to do. In fact, some things I can enjoy even more because I no longer feel the burden of being great at it. I can write a little song now if I want without the pressure of it needing to be great or marketable or even something that would ever be heard by another human being!
Okay, so as painful as that process was, we’re not quite done. I’m going to make an assumption here, since you’re listening to this podcast an investing time to improve your craft, that writing is one of the things that made the top of your list (or will make your list if you do this after listening to the podcast). So let’s assume writing as a priority for you. You want to get really good. Excel. Get published. Develop a following. Be a successful author.
You’ll almost certainly have to do this process again with specific kinds of writing. Even after I identified writing as one of my top priorities, I found myself spread too thin. You see, I love writing novel-length fiction, but I also like writing short stories and screenplays and poems and creative nonfiction essays and informational articles and on and on and on. And while these are all related, they are not all the same kind of writing. They require different skills, different approaches, different techniques. In other words, we have the same problem of too many options that we had before we narrowed it down to writing. It’s time to repeat the three steps.
Step one: List all the kinds of writing you enjoy doing and are capable of doing well.
Step two: narrow it down to two or three
Step three: never again write the kinds of things you struck from your list.
Sure, we can point to a few examples of successful writers who cross genres and styles with ease and expertise, but most of them (if not all of them) got there by first excelling at one or maybe two forms of writing. We need to do the same kind of prioritizing of the type of writing we’re doing as we did with our huge list of general things we like to do, and for the same reasons.
One caveat here, though. As I’m sure you well know, certain genres of writing can support other genres. And I’m not using genres here in the sense of science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction. I mean genre in the sense of different modes or categories of writing. Like poetry or screenplay or creative nonfiction. For example, I’m a firm believer that a study of how to write poetry translates into writing better fiction because of its focus on detail, brevity, and concision. I think a writer can learn a lot about story structure in novels by reading, studying, and writing screenplays. The point here not that you never write anything but a single genre. The point is that your primary genre is always foremost in your mind and that you are writing in other genres as a way to support and build up your primary genre. In other words, I do not believe I am “meant” to be a screenwriter (at least not at this point in my career). But I still write the occasional screenplay. Why isn’t this a distraction from writing novels? Because I’m learning valuable lessons about how to write a novel as I write the screenplay–subtext in dialogue, succinct but powerful scene descriptions, compelling story structure and beats. When I sit down to write poem now–which I still occasionally do–I don’t get distracted thinking that I’m meant to be a poet. Instead, I’m conscious of what I can learn and translate from the poem-writing experience into my novel-writing priority. But if there’s not a legitimate connection to my primary writing focus, I’m not going to spend time writing it, even if I kind of want to.
What it boils down to is intention. What are you intent on truly excelling at? Once you know what that is, don’t let anything else get in the way of it, especially other things that you may even love but that distract you from your priority.
Our wise word for this week comes from Deepak Chopra and aligns with our topic this week. He says:
You and I are essentially infinite choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices
- Deepak Chopra
Our lives are shaped day-by-day by the choices we make from this myriad of possibilities. And they add up over time to become the person that we are today. By changing the small choices we’re making today, and making them consistently, we can’t help but change the person we will be in the future. You can excel at the two or three things that survived on your list if you make the choices every day that prioritize them in your life. It’s not even a question of luck at that point. Put in the time, put in the effort, and the results follow.
It’s time for our weekly challenge, and this week’s episode is essentially one big weekly challenge. In addition to actually working through the three steps to prioritize your life, I’d encourage you to do the same thing with the main character in your current work-in-progress. To make our characters well-rounded and feel like real, living, breathing human beings, we need to give them the characteristics of actual human beings. And what is more human than trying to do too many things at once? Take your character through the prioritization process that you just went through. What kinds of things do they like doing and are pretty good at? Then pare that down to a handful that are really important to them. Understanding this about your character can be a great source of tension and conflict in your story as your character–just like you and I–struggle to make the right choices about where to invest their time to achieve the kinds of things they want to achieve.
That’s going to wrap it up for this week. You can support the show by subscribing, leaving a review, checking out the Patreon team, and, most of all recommending the show to a writer friend or two. Our listenership is beginning to build up again after our long hiatus and we have you to thank for that, so thank you!
Until next week, remember the best way to improve your craft is by writing. That’s what I’m off to go do, and I hope you’re off to do the same. Let’s get some words on paper this week and we’ll meet up again next week for another episode of the Inside Creative Writing podcast!