Cover for Time Management for Fiction Writers: What No One Tells You

Companies were slowly moving towards telework for several years before the COVID shutdown forced them into it. Before then, there was a lot of resistance from managers and senior leadership in companies.

A lot of managers didn’t trust their employees to work at home, envisioning that they would put their feet up and loaf.

Instead, according to Cal Newport in On Productivity and Remote Work, IT professionals are working thirty percent more, though productivity itself didn’t improve.

I believe this results from two areas. The first is that we assume “more is better.” This is all over our culture. Just look at commercials encouraging you daily to do more, more, more. Eat more snacks, buy more of this product, and do more exercise.

Telework played into this because suddenly the time to commute was freed up. In the Washington, DC area, that can mean as much as four hours a day. It deceptively looks like we have more time, so it makes it easy to jump on early in the morning and knock out email.

Which plays into the second problem.

We never learned how to telework.

Wait? What? It’s take your laptop home and repeat what you do on the plant site, right?

No, not exactly.

I grew up in a household where telework was adapted around 1982. My father was a computer programmer, and he purchased a Heathkit H-89 computer.

This was a computer that preceded the 384 personal models that came out. The H89 was one piece, consisting of a monitor with an attached keyword and two floppy disk hard drives. To boot up the operating system, you turned on the computer and inserted a disk.

My father used the computer for his personal research, a side hustle to discover fusion or harness ball lightning. He thought he could get more programming done at home without interruptions and suggested working from home.

The company agreed. He worked full time at home, driving into the plant when he needed to attend a meeting.

At the end of each day, he closed the work files and switched over to his research until dinner time. He didn’t even get up out of the chair (and occasionally had a dog in his lap).

Eventually, he was laid off when the aerospace industry in Los Angeles tanked following the end of the Cold War. He became an independent contractor and continued working from home much in the same manner until he retired.

To this day, he associates home with the day job. He leaves it to get away from work, even though he’s no longer employed.

I think there are many people who are going to find this is also true for them.

For our fiction writing side, that’s deadly. The place where we live must be a welcoming place for creating, not be associated with work.

I didn’t realize it for years, but that’s one of the reasons I never merged my calendars as time management gurus recommend. It meant that when I looked at my calendar for writing, I would see the day job stuff as well.

It might also be one of the reasons people are finding it a little too easy to do additional work.

Laura Vanderkam in The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home says that learning how to telework is an actual skill.

But what are those skills? In searching online for answers to that question, I found skills like teamwork, communication, and collaboration. Mostly, they’re for managers, just like everything else, and don’t address any of the basic skills.

I’m guessing everyone assumes those basic skills are obvious. Judging from what happened with my father, they aren’t.

Skill #1

At the end of the day, you must log off your computer and power down. If it’s a laptop, close it and turn your cell phone face down on top. Don’t touch anything until the next day when it’s time to go back to work.

The lack of a commute robbed us of the ability to have a physical shut down. We had to turn off the computer and leave the building. We couldn’t turn on that computer until we drove back to the plant site the next morning.

Telework makes it easy to access the computer because it’s still in your house, waiting for you. So you have to make it more inaccessible by shutting it off.

Skill #2

When you telework, front load your heavy-duty tasks in the morning. Your brain power will be better during the mornings.

Meetings are unavoidable, but if you can select the time, choose it wisely so it doesn’t interrupt your heavy-duty tasks. If you have a meeting, don’t multitask on work during the meeting just because no one can see you. It’s impossible to focus on two things at once, so something is going to suffer. That might be your writing in the evening because you’ve drained your energy too far.

After lunch, use it for the kinds of tasks that aren’t going to tax your energy. This might be anything from reading the company strategic plan your boss sent you to knocking out mandatory training. I’ve used this for downloading files, a necessary thing in my job, but pretty tedious for me.

As you get near the end of the day—about ninety minutes out—start winding things down. Block the time on your calendar with a private recurring task to make sure nothing else gets scheduled there, and to remind yourself.

This is like when you write the ending of your story, which is called the validation (climax occurs before the validation). The validation wraps up your story and tells the reader it’s done. So your work validation wraps up work and tells you that your work day is done.

This might be cleaning things up or going through your downloads and filing everything. You might double-check your tasks and see if any of them are done and you forget to remove the flag. You can also review your calendar to see what you have for the next day. If you have a meeting that requires files, you dump them into a folder.

The goal, though, is—where possible—not to hit the end of the day putting out fires. In my days of chaos, I spent all day putting out fires, right until I left the building. Even though I was cutting things off by leaving the building, I couldn’t stop the critical voice from ruminating because it was still in firefighting mode.

So firefighting at the end of the day will be even worse when you telework because you won’t be able to quite get away from it, even if you shut everything down. Once your critical voice has a foothold, it’ll bully its way into your writing.

Which leads to the next skill…

Skill #3

Learn how to avoid firefighting as much as possible so you don’t pollute your home environment with it. It’s not unavoidable, since some things happen like software breaks or the boss calls with something urgent.

However, most firefighting is just the same as writing a book sloppy. We skip parts of the story—or work—that are hard or will take time, planning to fix them later.

In fiction, it requires revision, and those changes break the story and require more revision.

In your work? It turns easily into an avalanche. It’ll be when you’re racing to finish a deadline for your boss and suddenly get hit with this thing that has to be done now.

One of the best things I did for me was to schedule four tasks, two on Monday and two on Tuesday. If I do these particular tasks every week, it slashes the emergencies I get at the end of the week. Moreover, they take less time to do on these days, than they would if they turned into an emergency.

Skill #4

Take breaks, including lunch.

These days, employees often see breaks as places to—guess what—catch up! Employees will even work through lunch, grabbing a quick sandwich. Worse, the gurus encourage any opportunities for a few minutes break as an opportunity to do more work!

Breaks are essential to balancing your energy and keeping from burning out. During the days of chaos, I barely took time away from my desk. And I was exhausted coming up, where I could only flop in front of the TV and watch the shows go by.

Breaks can come in any form. Try at least one or two walks for a few minutes outside so you’re getting sun and fresh. And also getting physically away from the computer.

Anything where you have to wait, like on hold, for software to load, a report to run, can turn into a mini-break. Use it to get a glass of water. Or doodle.s

Ideally, you probably want to get up about every hour and move around. From my own experience, when I didn’t take breaks at all, my back ached at the end of the day. Moving around helped a lot. But it was hard in the beginning. I had to put a slot on my Outlook calendar with a reminder. Once my body discovered it liked getting up, I do it automatically.

I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I broke my foot. I was on crutches, no weight bearing for part of it. Getting around was very challenging, and I was afraid I would fall and make the injury worse (the doctor told me it was close to the ligaments and would require surgery if I tore them). Chair aerobics were very unsatisfying because it wasn’t a whole body move.

If you’re on the phone for a meeting, use that to walk around, do squats, or even stretches. Don’t use it to catch up on other work.

Finding creative ways for breaks can be something fun to hand off to your creative side!

Skill #5

When I was in the Army, I was the only one in the headquarters platoon who lived in the barracks. On Saturday, one of the line platoons would say, “We need this person for a mission.” But that person was on twenty-four-hour duty watching the front desk. So they said, “Get someone from headquarters.”

Bang! Bang! When I answered the door, I was tagged for twenty-four duty on my day off! And the guy who was supposed to have it? He did the hour mission and got the rest of the day off!

Worse, because I answered that door every time, the line platoons took advantage of that.

So I made myself not available. The next time I was awakened by a “Bang! Bang!” on the weekend, I didn’t answer. It was hard because my critical voice screamed, “But what if it’s an emergency?”

Eventually, the line platoons stopped using me as a default for when they wanted to pull their person.

This is the same principle as not answering your work cell phone after hours. Remember, if other people can give you their work, they will!

Resist the urge to answer the work cell phone before or after work hours, or during your lunch. There might be the rare exception of an emergency (a real one, not one manufactured by someone else still working), but stay away from the phone.

This is probably what sucks a lot of people into that thirty percent more work. Once other people see that you’ll answer the phone and do work, they’ll do it again.

Skill #6

This one comes from Dean Wesley Smith, but it works well for both fiction writing and work. For writers who want to be professionally published, he recommends having a writing computer and an everything else computer.

The writing computer just has tools to write stories, like Microsoft Word or Scrivener. No internet. If you need to look up the difference between a meteor, meteorite, or meteoroid for a story, you go to the everything else computer, then return to the writing computer.

For those of us teleworking, we’ll have a third computer, the work computer.

Key is to have the work computer in a dedicated place for it.

This is an area I think a lot of people didn’t really do when we went to all telework. They plopped it on the dining room table and done. I did that initially when everything shut down, but I migrated it to an expensive Ikea desk.

Having a separate workspace for work is a fundamental way to keep it separate from your writing side.

All of these are relatively simple to implement, but they’ll have a huge impact on keeping your day job separate of your writing.