Saturday, May 21, 2011

Time management for perfectionists

I started writing seriously in 2001, three years before my daughter's birth, but I really got into a good rhythm during the almost two years I stayed home with her after she was born. She was that rarest of infants, a good sleeper. She slept through the night from the time she was two months old, and would've done so earlier had the doctor not said we needed to wake her up for a feeding. And she took reliable naps from 1:30-3:00 every afternoon, which just happens to be the time I feel most awake and alert. (Don't envy me too much, though. I was on bedrest for the last two months of my pregnancy and had a four-day induced labor, so I paid my dues.)

So I wrote during my daughter's naptime. It was perfect. No interruptions, a long enough time slot to produce a respectable daily word count, and plenty of time when my daughter was awake but not needing 100% of my attention for other writerly activities like research reading, networking, and critiquing.

But then family finances dictated that I go back to work. I suddenly had far less time for writing...and I discovered I'd never learned to manage my time properly before because I'd never needed to. For five years now I've been struggling to find just the right balance between writing, day job, and family. I don't have all the answers yet, but I'm going to be giving a workshop on what I've figured out at the Emerald City Writers Conference in October.

All along I've been fighting against a tendency to make overly ambitious plans for what I'll accomplish on any given lunch hour, evening, or weekend. Then, when I fail to meet my rigorous schedule or get seduced into reading just one more chapter or watching just one more inning when I'm supposed to put down the book or turn off the TV, I think, "Oh, well, I've blown it today. Might as well just quit." Sometimes I'll let this insidious brand of perfectionism derail a whole week. I'll have vowed to take the bus to work or write on my lunch hour or stay on Weight Watchers EVERY DAY. Monday and Tuesday go great. But on Wednesday I oversleep and have to drive in, or something comes up at work and I have to eat at my desk, or I get desperately hungry at 3 PM and buy a bag of chips...and I've blown the whole week. Might as well not even try on Thursday and Friday.

Deep down, I know this behavior is just as stupid as it sounds. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop me from doing it, again and again.

But I think I've finally found a solution. About a month ago I sat down and made a list of everything I want to do that I could in theory procrastinate or avoid. Some of them are writing related--the two daily writing sessions I strive to achieve, research reading, blogging. Others aren't--exercise, staying on Weight Watchers, bringing my lunch to work, and cooking in the evening rather than ordering pizza or Chinese, to name a few. I assigned them all point values and set up a spreadsheet. Every time I do something on the list, I give myself the allotted points. Then, when I accumulate 100 points, I reward myself.

So far I've earned two rewards and have given myself lunch at the delicious Indian place near my office, complete with gulab jamun for dessert, and bought myself a book off my wish list, Kathleen Eagle's In Care of Sam Beaudry, which I'm going to read between George RR Martin books to give myself a break from Westeros (which is awesome but exhausting). And if I make 500 points in a calendar month (which ain't gonna to happen in May), I get myself a bigger reward. I think my first one is going to be a Duke of Wellington miniature to go with the rifleman and redcoat already standing guard over the markers on my dry erase board at work.

The beauty of this system is that it keeps me from tripping over my own perfectionism. So, I didn't ride the bus on Tuesday. That's OK, when I ride it Wednesday, that's 2 points. So I didn't write on my lunch hour on Thursday. That's no reason not to write late at night after my daughter is asleep, nor to skip reading a chapter in my current research book or working on a blog post, because I can still salvage a good score for the day.

It's elaborate and, I admit, kinda strange. But it's working for me, so I put it out there for other overscheduled perfectionists.


  1. Great post Susanna! I struggle with exactly the same thing, from overpopulating my to do list to piling on giant writing goals to accomplish before say... June 25 when I board a plane bound for NYC.

    I'm reading a book called Write by Karen E Peterson PhD who discusses writer's block from a left brain / right brain perspective. The key is exactly what you've hit on - pre-established rewards for meeting small, daily goals. So easy, and it forces you to take responsibility for every minute.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. I'll look for that book, Ava! Thanks for telling me about it.

    I know what you mean with the giant writing goals. I have two novel-length WIPs, one that's about 10,000 words so far, the other that I literally started TODAY. And part of me STILL wanted to sign up for an agent appointment at RWA, because if I really threw myself into it I could have one of them close enough to done to submit sometime in July, couldn't I? (It doesn't help that it's so cool and rainy here I keep forgetting it's late May.)

  3. OMG, You are my sister from a different mister. My weekly to-do chart is a thing of beauty, too. But POINTS. And rewards! Hey--I'll show you mine if you show me yours. Keri at

  4. If I showed you, Keri, you'd see just how much I've been slacking on the housework and Weight Watchers pieces the past two weeks!

  5. For me, motherhood has been one long lesson in lowering expectations. I had to let go of housework, exercise, and lots of other things during my son's toddler and preschool years (special needs child). Now I'm having a hard time reclaiming that stuff. The two things that have helped me the most in terms of writing consistently have been the GIAM 100x100 group and self-publishing. Now that I'm in control of my own work, I'm so much more motivated to get it done.

  6. Good on you for figuring out something that works for you. If that were my chart, I'd be fiddling with pivot tables and other techie stuff to analyze the results. And still get nothing done!