Recently I’ve been focused on goal setting and planning. It’s down to lockdown I think and the need to be realistic about what can be achieved. One of the things I’ve not mentioned is time. In particular, writing time. I like the approach to writing time developed by the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel in his book The clockwork muse: A practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books.
Zerubavel, who studies time and memory among other things, suggests that before setting writing goals, we should think about time. Fit the goals to the time available rather than struggle to find the time to achieve goals, he says. Zerubavel nominates three kinds of time:
- Time when you absolutely cannot write
- Time best suited for writing
- Time when you might be able to do something writing-related
Zerubavel’s proposition is this: When planning your writing, first of all work out how much time you actually have available. Start with the times you don’t have.
Block out all the slots in your diary when you know you can’t write. This is all of your meetings and appointments. But it also includes time for exercise, walking the dog, having meals, doing housework, getting people off to school/work, supervising homework, talking with loved ones and so on. It also includes the times when you know that you really can’t write a word (for me this is every night, as writing late is guaranteed to produce insomnia.) You also need to include admin time – time spent emailing, marking, preparing for teaching for example.
Once you have blocked out busy time, then you can see how much is actually available for writing and for other writing-related tasks.
The next step is to divide the time that is left between ideal writing times and less good writing times. You probably already know your ideal writing times, morning or evenings are common. It’s not hard to see how much of this best writing time is available in your schedule, and block these slots out. But there is also an opportunity, now you can see your diary, to move from finding available time to making time for your writing.
It is helpful to see how much of your blocked out, already occupied time is actually your best time for writing. Too much? There is an immediate opportunity to see if there is any way you can reschedule any of the things occupying your best writing times. But there is also an opportunity to set up new patterns – trying not to set meetings in your optimum writing times. ( I try to leave the first part of at least three mornings available for writing. And most people I work with now know that I prefer meetings to start around lunch time if it’s at all feasible. Teaching times are harder to arrange as they are involve juggling entire timetables.) When setting a new pattern it is also helpful to ensure that optimum times occur fairly regularly, so that you don’t lose touch with your writing.
Once you have blocked out your writing time and the unable to write time, you will have little pieces of other time scattered throughout the week. This is time that could be used for writing related tasks. It is also time that we often ignore when we are planning for writing. Yet these bits and bobs of time can be very valuable. You can use apparently loose moments for writing-related tasks such as endnoting, organising files, chasing missing or additional references, backing up files, catching up with the latest journals, getting the library to order the books you need.
You may also like to add into this flexi-time a few non-urgent tiny targets, like reconsidering a title, revising the first sentence of the introduction, drawing a diagram and so on, writing a paragraph – and so on.
There are real benefits from using Zerubavel’s time centred approach. For starters, you have optimum writing time reserved in your diary, and anything you get done in open slots is a bonus. It doesn’t matter so much if you are interrupted, or have an urgent email to attend to in these flexi spots, because you still have protected writing time. So the added benefit of using Zerubavel’s trio of time-slots is that if you really do follow your scheduling, you won’t let writing-related tasks eat away your optimum writing time.
And there’s more to gain. By using three kinds of time as the way to approach planning, you will also be able to ensure that you do something related to your writing – either optimum writing or writing-related – just about every day. In other words, you will have found a way to see and use time to help establish a regular writing practice.
Finally, of course, trying to write a big text, a sustained project, really does depend on you finding enough time in your schedule to do all the work required. Zerubavel’s three time slot-driven approach might be just what you need to go the distance.