To Einstein, time was relative; to Lincoln it was his stock-in-trade. To a writer, it’s his most valuable resource. We talk about saving time, setting some aside, investing it. Yet, as ubiquitous as it is, we’re always chasing it, running out of it, or finding it in short supply. We are allotted a fixed, daily amount—24 units—a full third of which we use to rest in order to have the energy to manage the other two thirds. Of those, one half—another third—is consumed by efforts to generate the income needed to supply the basic necessities of life. So two thirds of our daily allocation of time is already committed by the time we face a new day; and from the remaining third we must subtract the time it takes to manage the non-employment duties and obligations to family, friends, and the maintenance of our lives. As a result, there isn’t much of the stuff left over to allocate to writing. Thus we should use it wisely. We don’t.
Writing demands a lot of time. It’s not just a physical act, but a contemplative and emotional time-consuming process. Writers read and deliberate, daydream and mentally play with ideas, brainstorm, draft, edit, write, rewrite, all of which eats away at our supply of time that we can dedicate to it. And writing isn’t some “automatonic” activity. Rarely do we sit down and connect our fingers to a keyboard and start an instant and unending flow of content. We frequently must spend some time to motivate ourselves and prime our creativity pumps before the physical process can begin.
We mistakenly refer to time as a commodity. It’s no such thing. The term commodity connotes an ongoing, if not endless, supply. And although time is everywhere, our individual amount of it is not. We pay lip service to the ideas of investing time and saving it, but we really can’t. Our individual bank account of time leaks like a sieve, dripping seconds and minutes and hours that are forever lost. Our account zeros out at midnight.
Time flows, evaporates, slips away, and leaves us wondering where it went. Because it is so much around us, it is easily taken for granted. As a result, we unwittingly waste and squander a great deal of this valuable asset.
Writers need to be sensitive to this evaporative nature of time, and its sensitivity to abuse, especially as they sit down in January to list their good intentions that we call New Year’s Resolutions (here, NYRs). What writers do is very time demanding, and the carburetors that that fuel our creative engines with time are not of the high-efficiency type. They gulp time like the old gas-guzzlers of the 1950s swallowed gasoline as we maneuver through the traffic of our lives.
Not understanding these characteristics of time is in part to blame for the failure of most of our NYRs. We write down a resolution giving scant thought to the time it will demand and where that time will come from. Lincoln’s “stock-in-trade” metaphor is misleading in that regard. Time cannot be inventoried and pulled from the shelf as needed. It constantly flows. Turn off the spigot and it flows to somewhere else. Everything we do consumes time; nothing we do generates it. We must use it or lose it. The trick is how to use wisely.
Time is neither shrinkable nor expandable. Thus we really can’t “squeeze” something into our schedule. Something else has to be deleted to make room for a new activity. A NYR is just another label for a new activity that places new demands on our supply of time. Because we can’t make time, we usually have to “borrow” or steal it from other accounts of existing activities. Ideally, we are able to identify and terminate one or more activities and transfer the time to other accounts.
There are several types of activities that consume our time. As indicated, employment and resting are two of them. But there is another category of activities that a resolution writer needs to consider—habits. They are the activities that we do automatically, without giving them much, if any, thought. They may be good—have a positive return to our lives—or bad—have a negative impact on our lives, but they can consume massive amounts of time that might better allocated, but only if we are aware of them.
The habits most deadly to time are those that serve little or no practical purpose but consume a great deal of time either individually or collectively. They are the entrenched habits, the ones extraordinarily resistive to retirement, modification, or replacement. Resolutions only work if they can become a habit, but it’s a law of literary physics that old habits and new habits cannot inhabit the same space. There isn’t enough time for that. Unfortunately, the old habits typically win, even though we do not realize a battle between old and new habits exists, because the old ones have become so entrenched and have sunk their claws and fangs deep into the ruts of routine and hide behind a camouflage of appeared usefulness.
Adopting a new habit is not like changing a pair of socks, but more akin to breaking in a new pair of shoes. Our feet like the comfort of the old pair. If you don’t throw the old shoes away and struggle through the process of breaking in the new pair, you inevitably find yourself slipping back into the old pair. It is the same for habits and routines. We are drawn to their comfort and familiar feel and as a result they become ingrained.
So here we sit jotting down our list of resolutions bathed in our can-do emotions of the New Year only to wonder what happened to them after a month or so when we realize the old habits have come back. The fact is the old habits never left; they merely waited in their ruts until our resolve to replace them weakened and faded as the old habits bumped the new habits off course and into the ditch.
But an even bigger reason why our NYRs fail is because we rarely invest much time in the how and why they became items on our list of resolutions in the first place. You have to be dissatisfied or unhappy about something to want to change or replace it. Change can only happen when its need is fully explored and a plan created to put it into place and implement it. Rarely do we afford an NYR such analytical investment. We list resolutions but not the reasons behind them and never work to fill in the old ruts to make a smooth, new surface for our new resolutions.
Emerson blithely wrote: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” What was the guy smoking?! To a writer the efforts of one day slop over into the next and must be dealt with before progress can begin on the next level, item, or effort. That is the very nature of writing. The limitations of time require that we come up with ways to make do with the time available or find ways to enhance the efficiencies of its use. To improve efficiencies necessary to make room for the adoption and implementation of a new resolution—e.g., to invest more time in writing—requires careful analysis and assessment of your current obligations and activities and habits, both good and bad. Resolutions fail because without more they merely reflect hopes not realities. Hopes can be used to define actions, but they are not the actions.
Pen a dividing line down a sheet of paper. In the left column list your resolutions; in the right itemize for each resolution the actions that will be necessary to adopt and implement them.
Absent a hard, objective identification and analysis of the realities behind what motivates the making of a resolution, and setting forth a plan of execution to implement it dooms it to inevitable failure before end of January.
Consider a resolution as a promise to yourself to do or not do something. You feel you waste too much time in unnecessary activities, so you resolve not to waste time. You just wasted some time making that resolution, if it doesn’t include a list of culprit activities and how you plan to avoid or overcome them. You need to understand a problem in order to find a solution for it. You have to pick it apart and inspect and analyze its constituent parts. So you waste time. How do you waste it specifically? Describe in detail each time-wasting activity or habit you engage in? Might the problem be a matter of inefficiencies or carelessly allocated resources? Do you wander off down avenues and alleys that have no value, return no benefits, and sidetrack your well-intended efforts? Are you secretly lazy or fearful and put things off because you are afraid of being assessed and/or criticized? (Writers famously lack confidence!)
The list continues . . .
It’s not just a matter of listing what you need to fix in order to write resolutions; you must identify what is broken and why it’s broken and how it got broken and why you want to fix it. Of course, it may not be that something is broken but merely underutilized because you have squandered your time on activities that do not serve the purpose of becoming a better writer. Remember, investing time in angst about wasting time is a good example of wasting time. The goal here is to investigate how you use you time that prevents you from achieving your goals set forth in your resolutions.
As indicated, time leaks away, evaporates. But there are worse activities—the ones that actually suck time away and quickly drain the tank so to speak. By listing all the activities in which you participate on a daily basis, you’ll be able to spot these real time thieves lurking amongst your activities, habits, and routines. Consider the exercise a cost-benefit analysis. What do you do that takes time? In you right hand column, leave space to rate each item by assigning it a value—plus or minus—as to what benefits each activity returns to you. Assets have pluses. Liabilities minuses. You need to delete the minuses.
But this exercise does not guarantee that you’ll end up with a bucket full of new time into which you can dip your ladle of effort. Likely you previously stole most of the contents in the bucket from other necessary or important efforts, which you need to pay back. It’s the time you seize from wasted activities that potentially gives you a surplus that you can more appropriately invest in activities associated with your writing.
This assessment of activities and objective measurement of their positive or negative qualities is no easy task mind you. In requires a hard-nosed look at how you “spend” your time. In my previous corporate world, many members of my team looked at e-mail as a job description when in fact it should have been considered a tool of efficiency. In a school system where I worked, I estimated that not less than 80 percent of the e-mails that entered my mailbox were a complete waste of time. So be objective in identifying, classifying, and assessing each activity and habit in your inventory.
To inventory and assess the sources of wasted and useless efforts and time stealers, you need also to consider what I call the “Creeps”—the expansion of an otherwise useful scope of activity into the realm of the “unnecessariness” if not downright uselessness. As writers we suffer from the Creeps constantly. They are the critters that take us down the wrong narrative paths or inject useless dialogue or inflict circular logic into our plots, to name a few. They are inevitable, however, so the trick is to spot them early and manage them. Remember, too, that we sometimes engage in “Creeps” to avoid other more demanding or distasteful obligations. Thus, you need to honest in identifying your “Creeps.”
An exercise that can help identify the Creeps and other time wasters is to go on line and find an image of a clock face. Print out several copies enlarged to fit onto a full sheet of paper, and then keep track of how you spend your time from when you rise in the morning until you bed down for the night. The exercise can be fun, interesting, and depressing, but is eminently useful to get a handle on where your time goes. It will provide insights into where to fix and trim and cut and save as well as to identify and kill the Creeps.
You will also learn not to take the making of resolutions lightly.
Keep in mind that there are other, less visible, forces at play in your efforts to find more time. Let’s take another look at the concepts of habit and routine. Here I’ll quote a pitch from one of the writing magazines that landed in my in-box: “The first Monday back to work after the holidays is always a sobering time of settling back into your routine. Maybe you’re at your desk [or] seeing the kids off to school or returning to your writing cave after a long absence. The good news is: 2015 presents each of us with a clean slate.”
The magazine’s editor goes on to advise that a good way to take advantage of that clean slate is to subscribe to her magazine.
Therein lies the trap of NYRs—that because of a change in the designation of a date we get to start anew and with a clean slate. To the universe, the difference between December 31 and January 1 is pretty much the same as between July 1 and July 2. If anything, January 1 can become the first day of your own personal Ground Hog Day—to dig deeper the ruts that have generated the dissatisfactions that have driven you to come up with some NYRs in the first place. It’s an invitation to start a new year of self-defeating routine. In one sentence this editor says you’re settling back into your routine and in the next tells you that you have a clean slate. Can’t have both. A clean slate logically requires the erasure of the old slate.
This sales pitch wants you to envision the negative ruts and routines falling away in the light of a new year—like leaves from autumn’s trees—onto new and smooth roadways that magically appear? Won’t happen. Routines are habits and habits can be as impervious to change, as stainless steel is to rust. You would be better advised to search the beaches for the lost Aladdin’s Lamp. When you “settle back into your routine” you destroy any chance to change it or improve it. Change is disruptive. It generates discomfort. It demands discipline and perseverance, words that to the non-committed writer are like a cross to a vampire.
That’s why I’m not going to provide a to-do list of how to change and improve your habits or routines. You have to come up with your own list after careful self-assessment. You need to know it’s not an easy task. But I will suggest that you put your resolutions into a more corporate-like form rather than make a list of dreams a third-grader might compile.
If you have belonged to any organization, you have likely encountered a resolution that comes at the end of a list of “WHEREASes” that identify the bases (reasons) for the resolution. The WHEREASes are the product of your objective self-assessment of what has kept you from achieving your writing goals or obstructed the pathway to them. They are followed by a resolution or statement of specific action(s) to remedy them. Here is a rough example to get you thinking and started:
Writer Resolution No. ____
I, [your name here], writer of a piece of fiction [or identified project] tentatively entitled [insert working title here], establish the following resolution(s): [You may make individual resolutions or incorporate a related group of them into a single document.]
WHEREAS I have failed to make consistent progress in writing [chapters or whatever] for my above identified project; and,
WHEREAS I have ascertained the reasons for this failure [this is such a negative term so consider softening it to something like “lack of progress”] include:
(1) Not identifying where I can acquire time that can be set aside for [writing, etc.] each week [you determine the schedule]; and,
(2) Not assigning realistic word length quotes, goals, or deadlines [be specific here] that assure an adequate production to complete my [name of project] by [put a future date here, but be reasonable and realistic]; and,
(3) Not [the list continues as needed to specifically account for activities and behaviors that need to be changed or modified]; and,
WHEREAS I have not maintained a notebook of ideas and assessments regarding the status of my efforts and steps necessary to move my project forward on a consistent basis; and, [spell out specifically what you would keep track of in such a notebook or diary where you give feedback to yourself]
WHEREAS I need to specifically address [alter, alleviate] activities that have been past time-wasters, which include: [give them names and labels; though this is slightly redundant, the list serves as a reminder synopsis of your specific intentions and actions]]
(2) B; and,
(3) C; and,
WHEREAS I have squandered valuable time allowing myself to get sidetracked by the above useless and/or unnecessary activities and need to create a routine that fits the time assigned for my project and matches what needs to be done in regards to research, outlining, and drafting,
I hereby resolve to do the following:
RESOLVED: Establish a written schedule that will allow me to sit down and focus without interruption a daily [or whatever] amount of time of [you allocated time in minutes] to write a minimum of ______ words [daily or weekly] on said project; [your schedule may need to be more detailed depending on other time demands; you may have only an hour one day and three another]
RESOLVED: Complete in draft form _____ chapter(s) each week [or every two weeks or each month]; [put you goals into two formats—the short term and the longer term in order to have a perspective]
RESOLVED: Determine and identify each week what additional research I need to complete in order to maintain my writing schedule;
RESOLVED: Maintain in a separate notebook an objective accounting of my progress and in which I identify the source of obstructions or interruptions that crop up and threaten to impede my progress and set forth specifically what I will do to alleviate or mitigate them;
RESOLVED: That, regardless of the above and foregoing, I shall complete an initial draft copy of [name of project] by the _____ day of 20__.
Dated this _____ day of _______, 2015.
To feel good about what you write, you first need to feel good about developing the discipline necessary to produce it. Good writing comes from creative thinking. Time to write comes from practical thinking. Improvement comes from effort, and effort has to be broken down into doable stages. Your resolution(s) will assist you in putting meat on the bones of your dreams and help you turn them into realities.
Yes, Emerson’s forewarned that “blunders” and “absurdities” will certainly creep in, but you will be forearmed to meet and defeat them by being more resolute in making your resolutions.