How Can You Keep Writing if You Work Long Hours?
This post was first published in August 2017 and was updated in May 2020.
“I work in excess of 60 hours during the week, not to mention what gets handled on the weekends. So my question is this: how would you balance that with a love and desire to write?”
That’s what a reader wrote to me … and I wanted to address his question on the blog, because I’m sure he isn’t the only person in this situation.
Maybe you’re struggling with something similar. It might be a 60-hour week … or caring for small children, or looking after elderly relatives, or working two jobs to make ends meet. As I update this post, we’re in the middle of the coronovirus pandemic. Here in the UK, we’ve been on lockdown for 7 weeks. Many families, like mine, are juggling work with having children at home full time.
And let’s be honest: there are no easy fixes here. If there were, you’d have found them already.
For the sake of this post, I’ll assume that you can’t reduce your working hours (or get help with other areas of your life).
And yet you really want to write.
A lot of the conventional, tried-and-tested writing advice simply doesn’t apply to you. You simply cannot write for an hour every day, or block out two evenings per week to write. You don’t have the time – and you definitely don’t have the energy.
When I asked other authors about this in the Alliance of Independent Authors members’ Facebook group, the general consensus was that:
- It is hard to write when working long hours – cut yourself some slack!
- You need to accept that you can’t write much, or for long.
- Use little scraps of time to write. Five minutes here and there add up.
Here are the two solutions I’ve found in my own life when time (or energy) has been at a premium:
Possibility #1: Write for Very Short Sessions
Finding an hour to spare might be next to impossible – but could you find 15 minutes?
For me, anything under 15 minutes makes it hard to get up any momentum, but some authors write for even less time. Katharine Grubb (who homeschools her five children) writes in 10 minute bursts, for instance.
A few years ago, when my son was a baby and my daughter was two, I used to write in 15 minute slots. It felt hardly worth doing – but when I looked at the new words and the editing I’d clocked up over a couple of weeks, it seemed much more worthwhile.
If you can write for 15 minutes on six days a week, that’s an hour and a half per week. If you can hit 1,000 words in that time and do that every week for 50 weeks of the year, you’ve got 50,000 words. That could be a full non-fiction book or a short novel.
Possibility #2: Binge Write for Long Sessions
If short sessions don’t work for you, or if you simply want to occasionally have a much longer writing session, then a binge-writing approach might be your best solution.
Even if your weekends are often busy with work or family, can you get away once every month or two? Pre-coronovirus, I used to do this about every 3 months: I’d book a hotel room overnight, and stay from 2pm one day till 11am the next. I got a heck of a lot of writing done!
I’d really recommend giving this a go if you’ve never tried it. You definitely don’t have to go anywhere fancy – just look for a cheap hotel with desks in the bedrooms.
If you wrote, say, 5,000 words on one weekend each month (I’ve hit as many as 10,000 words during my retreats) and you did that for 12 months, you’d have written a 60,000 word novel or book.
Of course, when you have very little time, making the most of it becomes even more vital.
How to Write Efficiently
These are some of the best tips I’ve come across over the years. I’m sure you’ve heard some of them before … but if you’re not already trying them, do give them a go.
#1: Turn Off or Remove as Many Distractions as Possible
One of the reasons I get so much writing done at the hotel is because my computer is too feeble to connect to the wifi there! I’d definitely suggest switching off your internet access while you write, if at all possible.
Set your phone to “do not disturb” or silent so that incoming texts or emails don’t disturb you. If you really do need to keep it on in case any urgent calls come in, can you at least put it across the room so it’s out of arm’s reach?
#2: Play Music or Sound that Helps You Focus
Some writers can tune out any background sound, but many find conversations or sudden, intermittent sounds very distracting. Others simply find that music helps them get into the writing zone.
When I began writing seriously, I always wrote in silence (or as near to it as I could get). These days, I almost always have music on. So even if you think you like to write in silence, give music (or ambient sound) a try. You might find it helps!
My favourite type of headphones are the in-ear ones: they’re much comfier than old-school ear buds, and they’re cheap and very portable. All the brands I’ve had have muffled outside noise, and very little noise “leaks” from them.
#3: Spend Five Minutes Planning BEFORE You Write
Whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction, spending a few minutes planning can save you a ton of time when you’re trying to write it.
I’ve always planned blog posts ahead of time (it usually takes me about 5 minutes to write a plan), but I’m still getting into the habit of planning scenes of my novel before I jump into writing.
Rachel Aaron, author of 2K to 10K: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love, says that planning scenes ahead of time is one of the biggest reasons she was able to go from writing 2,000 words per day to a whopping 10,000.
In How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day, she writes:
If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. I’m not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions.
(Quick confession: I bought Rachel’s book years ago, and I STILL have trouble remembering to plan scenes before I write them! I find it hugely helpful when I do take those extra five minutes, though – so it’s a habit well worth trying to stick with, even if it doesn’t come naturally for you.)
Ultimately, do keep writing. Regular very short sessions add up; so do occasional writing binges. Look for some way to fit writing into your life (enlist the help of family and friends if you can) … and stick with it.
It’s not easy – and you, like me, may have to resist the temptation to compare yourself to other writers who have fewer demands on their time. But even if you can’t write everything you want to write, you can write something.
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.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
I will try short sessions. I’m a teacher and when I get home I have very little time before supper needs fixing and/ or the dogs need a walk. This idea could help with the frustration I feel when another week rolls by and I feel I haven’t accomplished much.
A lot of my family are/were teachers … it’s a very tough job, and I know it doesn’t leave much time or energy for anything else. Good luck with the short sessions — hope they’re helpful for you. 🙂
yes it is really tough to sit in one place and write article for long hours..it really requires lot of concentration…I agree that their should not be any distraction like mobile phone, TV or song playing around…a very quite and peaceful environment is the best place to write good quality articles..great post..thanks for sharing…!!
Thanks Arvind! I actually write best with music playing, and I know some people can write with the TV on … but I think in general, the more distractions you can eliminate, the better. 🙂
I desperately, desperately needed this post.
I’ve just started trying to work full time and have started searching for a second job, due to dropping out for four years from college (mental health, Betsy DeVoss now handling school loans, and effort that will go into activism all contributed to me dropping out.)
I’ve been beating myself up constantly and randomly trying to do character development whenever I find myself waiting in life, etc.
Life hasn’t been letting up, but this. I was ready to give up writing for the same amount of time I was going to be out of college, because I wasn’t sure if I could invest the energy into it, especially with my depression going untreated.
I think taking a weekend off every couple months is a brilliant idea though. I’m definitely going to try that when my financial situation is stabilized, because writing in short bursts has never cut it for me.
All those other points on the post, for maximizing writing time – those do help a lot, was good to get a reminder.
Aw, so sorry to hear how rough things have been — I was thinking I’d not heard from you in the comments / Huddle for a little while. 🙁 Hope full time work goes OK and that you things get easier.
The writing binges work really well for me, and once you’re in a position to do those, I hope you find them really helpful too.
Sending lots of hugs. x
I am following option 1. It’s going well so far, and I am feeling less anxious about my writing progress.
Some great tips Ali. Sometimes it can be easy to get put off by saying to ourselves “It’s only five minutes, it’s not worth starting anything.” However, I once read a book on time management that encouraged the reader to use those five minutes, so I tried it and it’s amazing how much you can get done in just five minutes. Going to work on the train used to give me writing time in the morning although I could never sum up the energy to write on the way home – that was rest time!!! For me, it’s hard to sum up the mental energy at certain times of the day. I find mornings are when I can write most, so going to work half an hour early and writing in a coffee shop would set me up for the rest of the day! Bolero by Ravel works for me when I want to get creative. I find it really helps me to focus on the writing and block everything else out.
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You’re so right, Rebecca — those five minutes are very worth doing. I think having a really short amount of time to write can make it much easier to focus — it’s a bit like sprinting instead of running a marathon!
Hi Ali, very good advice for any one struggling to find time. I work a full time job and only write for couple of hr. 10 – 11 at nights after eating and seeing family. Then on weekends i able to go for longer.
Sounds like you’re doing brilliantly to get that time in at night — it’s very hard after a long day at work (and I never had to do it with a day job plus family). Keep at it!