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Balancing the Budget

April 23, 2011

Life is busy.

Between the day job and it’s attempts to steal my soul, the kids and their busy social, sports and school schedules, the yard work, the housework and the occasional need to eat and/or sleep, there’s hardly any time left to stop and drink the coffee, let alone do anything else.  Every day is a delicate balancing act—an attempt to do all the things we have to do while also saving some time for the things we want to do.

As a writer, I’ve struggled to find that balance for years now.  Partly it is because of the sheer volume of things I’m required to do; partly it’s because of the large number of things I want to do.  What this has netted out to for me is a severe lack of writing time because I cannot find ways to prioritize writing over other demands.  Yet, I see other authors I admire putting pen to paper and churning out fantastic [Fiction] Friday or Friday Flash stories each week. I often wonder how other people have managed to balance their time and put a priority on writing when they clearly have at least as much going on as I do.  I’ve tried forcing myself to write when I’m too tired or too stressed to do it willingly, but all this has done is make the writing un-enjoyable – just another chore I am angry for having to do – and ultimately it is just as stressful as anything else I might have on my to-do list.  I don’t know about anyone else, but when I resent the time I spend writing, the bitterness and anger shows through in the words that get onto the page. While I might have used this negativity to my advantage when I was writing performance reviews, it is not usually something I want coming through in my fiction.

Thinking about this as I often do, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  1. There is not enough time in the day.
  2. I do not know where all the hours go.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time pondering these two seemingly-simple items and I’ve determined that there is nothing I can do to resolve the there-is-not-enough-time-in-the-day conundrum – thus far, I have found no practical, sustainable and environmentally-friendly way to increase the available pool of hours per day beyond the current arbitrary limit of 24.  So I’ve set my mind to working on the second item.

Many of you may know that my day job for the past 14+ years has been writing and supporting budgeting and financial reporting software.  I’ve helped countless businesses figure out and manage where their money goes.  And since “time is money” as the saying goes, I should be able to apply much of what I have learned about money over these many years to my problem with time.

To approach this issue, I have started keeping a chart of how I spend my time.  I am currently using Microsoft Excel to keep track of this data because that’s the kind of geek I am, but eventually I hope to use the new planning and reporting product I am designing and implementing to do the work, thereby combining a work-related “have to do” item with a personal “want to do” project – after all, it’s all about efficiency and finding myself a few minutes for an extra cup of coffee each day!

Basically, I’ve been attempting to put together a general list of what I do each day, from the mundane “go to the gym” or “drive The Girl to dance class” to the more broad-based “hours spent on the day job”.  My goal, of course, is to find a few hours per week to dedicate to writing without taking away even more time from tasks I hate but must do anyway (sleep, for example).

I’ve only been working on this for a few days but what I’ve found already via my pretty charts and graphs is interesting:

  1. I spend less than 5.5 hours per day sleeping
  2. I spend 1 to 2 hours per day watching television
  3. I spend at least an hour per day (on average) driving the kids to and from school or events.
  4. I spend 9 to 12 hours per day on the day job.
  5. On average, 1 to 2 hours per day is spent on household chores such as laundry, dishes, pet care, etc.
  6. I spend, on average, less than 1 hour per week dedicated to writing.
  7. There are, on average, 2 hours per day that I can’t reasonably account for.

Looking at the above items, it is clear why I’m not getting enough writing done – less than one hour per week is not enough time! It would be easy to say “well, just cut the television time and write instead.”  But the problem is that I am a daylight-hours kind of person. Once the sun goes down, I am essentially a useless excuse for a human being and it takes an exorbitant amount of effort to do anything that takes thought.  I only watch television at night because it takes little-to-no mental activity to do so.  The bit that bothers me, though, is the 2 hours I can’t account for – just like when you’re tracking money, anything you can’t account for is bad.

Clearly, this is only a first, tiny step toward conquering this problem by starting to build out a budget and a plan.  My plan of attack is to find those two missing hours and beat them into submission.  My second step will be to re-arrange the tasks and order them such that mindless activities, such as dishes and laundry, can be put into the evening hours. Ultimately, I hope to end up with a balanced budget for my time and, hopefully, more time in the day.

I am very interested in how other writers find ways to balance their need for sleep, food and family with their need or desire to write. Do you schedule time to write?  Do you budget your time like I’m describing?  Do you have other tricks or tips?

  1. April 23, 2011 6:41 am

    Rob, I don’t see any time allocated to exercise. Everybody’s different, of course, but one of the things that made me dead dead DEAD in the evenings was being woefully out of shape. I also drank too much coffee late in the day, so my energy was messed up by caffeine rebound.

    Here’s a thought: take the first of the television hours and use the first half hour for some simple stretches and light exercise – jogging in place or something. That doesn’t take much mental effort, so while you’re moving your body around, you can think about what to write.

    Then use the second half of the hour to write up whatever you thought of. Half an hour will let you get down perhaps a couple of hundred words, perhaps more. If you’ve run out of words, you can go watch TV with a clear conscience. If they’re flowing, though, keep going through the second TV hour. After all, the TV will always be there for you tomorrow.

    I don’t mean to be preachy, or completely off-base if you already exercise, but it’s surprising how the state of our bodies affects the state of our minds.

  2. April 23, 2011 7:30 am

    That’s a great comment, Tony. And it points out a flaw in my post in that I didn’t mention exercise, even though it is a daily routine. I’m at the gym every morning for about an hour. I arrive there around 5:15 am, just as they open (15 minutes earlier than their posted time… just for us door-busters).

    But I think your point is important for me to internalize beyond just the working out part. When I’m at the gym, I have music playing on my Zune and I’m practicing my lip-reading skills as I watch the muted televisions while lifting weights or running on the treadmill. In other words, I’m not alllowing myself to think about anything more complicated than what the next retro-rock song on my workout playlist might be or imagining what the mouthpieces on the morning news are really getting on about. Similarly, when I’m doing yard work, I’ll have music playing or sports talk radio blathering on about how bad my favorite teams are.

    Perhaps what I need is to make some of that exercise time “quiet” and more meditative. I listen to the music or whatever just because that’s what I’ve always done. Maybe a half hour of stretching in the evening, with less noise coming in will help get the words (and noise) to come out. I think I’ll give that a try.

  3. April 23, 2011 7:43 am

    Doh! Here I am, preaching exercise to a guy who goes to the gym everyday!

    The quietude is important. I’ve got an iPod, but I don’t use it much at all. I treasure the quiet moments in the car, in the shower, mowing the lawn, etc. as a way to think about characters, work out plots, etc. Once it all gets worked out in your head, the words flow onto the page pretty readily.

    Good luck, Rob!

  4. April 23, 2011 9:31 am

    Hehe–I like the ‘2 hours per day I can’t reasonably account for’. So many options.

  5. April 23, 2011 12:16 pm

    What a wonderful article. I am an avid scheduler of my time, but have issues with keeping it sometimes. For example, I had off of work yesterday and planned on working on my writing for the better part of the day. The closest I got was actually thinking through some plot ideas while I shampooed my carpets. Being a scheduler doesn’t necessarily mean you are producing any more writing, just feeling more guilty about not meeting your scheduled time.

  6. April 24, 2011 6:52 am

    @Jacqui: Well, I’m doubting those two hours are anything all that exciting… that would be out of character for me. I am hoping, though, to find that the missing time is something X-Files-like. That would be cool.

    @Beverly: There is always something that comes up. It becomes a matter of finding ways to balance that all out and prioritize the writing time over the other things. As for scheduling, your comment about it really just making you feel guiltier for not writing is very true for me. So, I don’t bother with the official scheduling of “I’ll write from 8 to 10”. For me, I’m finding more success with saying “I will budget 30 minutes to an hour to write at some point today”. This way I am hoping to get myself writing by allowing it to be a priority over something else that is on the schedule.

  7. April 25, 2011 8:28 pm

    Rob (and others):

    I may write about this sometime soon here, but Betty Flowers, in 1981, published an article in Language Arts about the four types of writers we become when we’re going through the writing process. I’ve taken it a step further, and I suggest that we are dominant in one type or another.

    Briefly put: the four types are Madman, Architect, Carpenter, and Judge. For the purpose of this comment, we’ll assume they are pretty self-explanatory.

    You, my friend, are the through-and-through Architect when it comes to building your schedule, which is taking you away from being the Madman and the all-necessary Carpenter every now and then.

    You were right when you said that Life Is Busy. It absolutely is for all of us.

    I’ve been in your situation numerous times. What I discovered, EVERY TIME, was that it was not a problem with time, it was a problem with facing my writing. Something was stopping me from having the courage to face a particular scene, a certain chapter, the introduction of a new character. As soon as I put my writing first as the Madman and faced whatever demons were waiting for me on the page, everything else fell into place.

    Sometimes, it’s not about the characters or the story. It’s about the Writer. Is it fear of succeeding? Is it fear of failing? Is it having to face some truth that you have been avoiding for many years? Again–I’m guilty of this time and time again. When I realize it, though, when I really see the signs, I face it. I take a personal day. I skip lunch with the gang and hit my daybook a little harder. I do whatever I have to do to keep words flowing on the page and sort things out.

    Facebook became too much of a drain to me and a distraction to my writing, so I left it. Cable became too expensive and a mindless distraction, so I canceled it. I still am married, I still have three kids, and they still participate in competitive sports that demand hours and hours of support-time every week.

    But as writers, we keep writing inside of us when we can’t make it to the page. We take our kids to the playground and scratch out ideas on napkins and discover a little something along the way. We ride the train and start playing games with the strangers around us, wondering where they just were, where they are heading to, what heavy things they carry, what hopes and dreams still burn deep within them. We see potential stories grow from these what-ifs, and we memorize them and jot them down on little index cards when we get into the office.

    We do all of this as writers. It’s not just about sitting and charting, it’s about experiencing and playing, pondering and discovering. It’s about being a Madman at times, an Architect, a Carpenter, a Judge. As writers, we need to recognize that we are all these things, all the time. We write about the busy-ness of our lives, capture the impossible and throw it on the page before the soup burns on the stove.

    Tell the Architect to take the afternoon off and invite the Madman over for a few hours. I guarantee your writing will be off the charts in no time!

  8. April 26, 2011 8:02 am

    I know what it’s like when you realise you have missing hours! I probably don’t have as many requirements on my time as you, but it sometimes feels like the things I need to be doing (PhD prep etc.) require a lot more time spent on them than going to the gym would. All I can really suggest is that if you know you work better in daylight, see if you can combine required tasks and fit the writing in while the sun’s still up.

  9. April 26, 2011 12:09 pm

    Rus: Thanks for the great comment and advice! You are correct that I am definitely an architect… It’s what I do in my day job, it’s what I do in my home and family life, it’s what I do for hobbies (gardening, for example, requires a lot of planning and scheduling). And you have absolutely captured the fact that what I need to do is put the architect on furlough for a bit. I don’t think I’m avoiding anything in particular, no scenes have me stuck, no issues within the writing itself of which I am aware are blocking me. It really feels fundamentally about giving myself permission to just write. But as you’ve said, this is what has to happen at some point if not immediately.

    Icy: Yes, it is a battle of the “have to do’s” versus the “want to do’s” all the time. I am actively combining some of the tasks now. Hopefully this will help, too.

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