How to Write When … You Have So Many Other Things to Do
This post is part of my ongoing “How to Write When…” series.
How do you write when you have so many other things you need to get done?
This comes up a lot for writers. I’ve been going through the results of the 2023 Aliventures survey (which closes today). A number of writers mentioned issues like
“I’m distracted by so many other things” or struggling with “motivation to complete my novel when I have very little spare time.”
Some writers have hardly any time to write because they work long hours in their day job. But for a lot of writers (me included), the problem looks a bit different. It’s not about having a 50 or 60 hour a week job … it’s about the many, many little things that take up your time.
For me, at this stage of life, a lot of my time goes on things like:
- Taking care of my kids: walking them to school, playing with them, monitoring their screen time, feeding them…
- Household chores: decluttering, tidying, cleaning, laundry, dishes, buying groceries…
- Life admin: booking appointments, organising vacations, sending birthday cards…
None of these tasks are huge ones in themselves. The school run takes me about half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. Laundry takes up perhaps 15 to 20 minutes a day. But when I look at the sum total of tasks I’m tackling on a daily and weekly basis … it adds up to a full-time job and more.
Perhaps your life looks similar, if you have kids at home. Or maybe your challenges are quite different from mine. You might be spending a lot of time caring for an elderly relative or you might have several volunteering roles. You may be facing a particularly busy or stressful life situation, like moving house and organising all that goes with it.
Whatever your situation, the result looks something like this: after you get through your to-do list for the day (or even half your to-do list on a bad day), it’s well into the evening. You’re low on time and even lower on energy. The last thing you want to do is sit down and write.
Some days, perhaps you do manage to get in some writing time … but the thought of all those other things you “should” be doing makes you feel guilty and unfocused.
So what can you do about it?
Is Your Busy Period Temporary?
Before we jump into lots of tips, ask yourself – honestly – whether you’re just temporarily busy.
It’s easy to think that “after this week, things will be quieter” or “once we get through X event, I’ll have more time to focus on writing”. I know I find myself thinking that a lot!
But if something else always seems to come along, then you may need to acknowledge that you’re in a long-term busy period right now. If you want to write anything over the next few months or the next few years, you need to figure out how you’re going to fit writing into life as it is.
On the other hand, if you truly are going through a temporarily busy period – say, you’re doing a lot more childcare than usual because your partner is on a business trip – then it may be a good idea to give yourself a guilt-free break from writing.
How to Fit in (Some) Writing When You Have Too Many Things To Do
#1: Use a Paper Planner for Your To-Do List
I’ve gone through various planning methods over the past 15 or so years. While I use apps to track some tasks, I find that using a paper planner works best to map out my day.
This is my third year using the Full Focus Planner and I find it perfect for me. I particularly like that each day had space for three big tasks then a list of small other tasks.
If writing matters to you, and you’re struggling to find time for it, give it a prominent place on your to-do list. I like to separate my “other tasks” list so that I have a section for freelancing/writing related tasks and a separate section for all the household/admin tasks. If I run out of space on the household list, any further tasks have to get listed for a future day instead.
#2: Block Out Time Well in Advance for Writing
All the little tasks of life could take up all day, every day, if you let them. It can be difficult to clear a few hours of writing at short notice – but if you plan ahead, it’s often a lot easier to push all the small things aside, at least for a few hours.
I like to book overnight writing retreats every month or two, so I can really focus on writing with all the distractions of home several miles away! It’s hard to get distracted by the dishes when I’d need to take a fifteen-minute train trip to get home to wash them. 😉
You might not be in a position where you can get away overnight … but could you schedule coffee with a friend so you can spend an hour writing together on a Saturday morning? Or arrange a babysitter so you can write undisturbed for an afternoon while your kids are being taken care of?
#3: Look for Windows of Focused Writing Time With a Fixed End Point
When my kids were little, I did most of my writing between 5.15pm and 5.45pm. That wasn’t some carefully chosen point in the day where my energy levels were at a peak (quite the opposite…) Instead, it was a time when my husband was always at home! I’d get the kids’ tea for about 5pm then head upstairs to write. At 5.45pm, it was time to run their bath.
Having a fixed half-hour meant that I needed to focus. I couldn’t spend 20 minutes just working up the energy to get started and then carry on for longer than originally planned. I had a fixed stop point, if we wanted to start the bedtime routine on time at 6pm.
Is there a similar bit of time in your day that you could use for writing? Perhaps you could use part of your lunch break, or maybe you have a window of time just before your kids get in from school.
#4: Try Not to Interrupt Yourself When You’re Writing
Interruptions from other people can be really frustrating when you’re writing … but how often do you end up interrupting yourself?
Perhaps you’ve got an hour to write and, after five minutes, you remember that you meant to switch your laundry over to the tumble dryer. It might only take you a couple of minutes to do so – but if you break off from writing, it could take a lot longer to get back into the flow.
If you think of something you need to do, jot it down in your planner or on a post-it note. That way, you don’t need to worry about forgetting it. Most tasks can wait for 30–60 minutes for you to be done with writing.
#5: Look for Ways to Stay Connected With Writing When You’re Doing Other Tasks
Chances are, at least some of your daily tasks don’t require your full focus. Perhaps you’re washing dishes or hanging laundry: your mind is free to wander! You could use this time to think about story ideas or the next scene of your novel, or you could listen to a writing-related podcast.
If you’ve got little gaps of time – maybe while waiting for someone or something – you might want to read a writing-related book (or browse the Aliventures archives). You could also keep a little notebook handy in your pocket or bag, so you can jot down any ideas that come to you.
By thinking about your writing – or writing in general – throughout the day, you’ll hopefully find it easier to sit down and write when you get the chance.
#6: Realise There Will Always Be More to Do
This isn’t, perhaps, the most encouraging of points … but I find it helps to remind myself that there will always be more to do than I can physically fit into the day.
I could plausibly put all my writing on hold for a month to fully declutter the house, organize all the kids’ toys and craft supplies, sort through years’ worth of family photos, arrange all the birthday cards and events for the year … but even once I’d done all that, I wouldn’t be free to write all day every day. There’d still be plenty of tasks to do.
If you put writing off until you’re done with everything else, you’ll never get the chance to write. There’ll always be more you could be doing. What matters is that you make time for the things that are important to you – like writing.
You don’t need to have lots of free time to write. You can carve out a little bit of time that’s yours for writing, even when things are busy. That might mean 10 minutes a day or one evening each week – and you may need a back-up slot in case something else gets in the way of using your planned time.
Don’t give up on writing when things are busy. Unless there’s a very clear end point to your busy period, figure out ways to push everything else aside for at least a few minutes so you can write.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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