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GYWD #1: The Back to School Crunch – Making Time to Write When Life Gets Busy

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The school year is right around the corner, and for many of us that means life is about to get crazier and there will be less time for writing. But it’s not just the back to school crunch. No matter who you are or what you do, you have to cope with times when things just get really busy. And that means that every writer has to have an answer to the question: How do you get your writing done when life gets busy?  In this episode I share four strategies that have helped me navigate the busy times without losing my mind.


Get the book by Trevor Thrall: The 12 Week Year for Writers: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting Your Writing Done (Wiley 2021)

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Hi, I’m Trevor Thrall, welcome to the Get Your Writing Done podcast, the school year is right around the corner. And for many of us, that means that life is about to get even crazier, and there’s going to be even less time for our writing. And that raises an important question all writers have to face. How do you get your writing done when life gets busy? In this episode, I’ll share four strategies that I think will help.

 So today’s episode is about the back to school crunch, and making time to write in a busy life. I’m a professor and I spend mid May to mid August every year, blissfully free, no classes are students, no meetings, plenty of time for writing. And then by mid August, when I’m recording this, the students start to come out of the woodwork, especially the graduate students wanting me to read stuff, why meet, it’s time to dust off my lectures and polish the syllabi by I have to go to faculty meetings, you know, the story, and my writing time starts to approximate zero. You know, and when my kids were little, they’re not anymore. But you know, the back to school crunch was even more intense because we were ferrying kids back and forth to school, to practices, music lessons, what have you, I’m sure most of you can relate to that. But you know, even if you don’t have kids, or your you know, post kids phase, or during a pre kids phase, you know, most of us have periods of our year that are predictably crazy, you know, accounts have tax season, maybe you’re in marketing, and every time there’s a pitch for a new client. It’s all hands on deck for several weeks.

You know, basically, life is busy, and all of us writers need to figure out strategies to make time to write even when things get crazy, or you know, the writing just won’t get done. Yeah, I’ve spent several decades now in a profession where my number one responsibility is to get writing done. And so I’ve had to figure out ways to stay productive even when the school year hits, even when things get crazy. And I’m not gonna say that I’m the world’s best or anything at this, but I definitely have some hard, I suppose hard learned hard won lessons. And so today’s podcast, I just wanted to share some of those observations, maybe my mindset, my attitude, share an attitude about making time to write, and a few kind of strategies that I think might help if you are trying to find strategies for making time in your busy life.

So first, I want to start with the first observation or I guess, General piece of advice is sort of a 30,000 foot piece of advice. And the reason I start with this is because I meet so many people who write who are really hard on themselves, when they don’t get things done, or when they don’t get as much done as they’d like to or think they should. And so here’s the first thing that I advise, and that is when you enter into the busy time of year.

 Respect, the catastrophe, right? respect the fact that life is busier now, right? That that has a meaning. And what it means is, you need to not expect that you’re going to get so much done. And my specific piece of advice, when you sort of enter the busy phase, is to really know your speed limit. And what do I mean by speed limit, speed limit, pretty simply just how fast you work under various conditions. So in the summertime, I, you know, have a lot of time every day. And so how much I can get done every day is pretty high. During the school year, I am a lot busier every week, I have way less time to write. And so my speed limit is much lower. So I have to respect the fact that I can get less done when I’m during a busy part of the other times.

Now, I admit right up front. This was not me as a young person. When I was first Professor ring. I had ambitious writing goals. And I did not care what time of year it was. My plans were ambitious regardless. And in fact, I think, you know, fall is sort of an exciting sort of invigorating time for a lot of us we you know, snap a falls in the air and you start thinking about how much you could get done. This is gonna be a big year. I think probably, I think got even more unrealistic when the school year started. And then other times when I was younger, and so I would make plans that I just I just couldn’t do routinely, I wouldn’t get done anywhere near, you know, half of what I had in my plans. And then of course, I would feel terrible about it, I beat myself up about it, and then I go right back. And I’d make another ridiculously unrealistic plan. You know, in part because I was trying to make up for the last one where I didn’t write didn’t, you know, get all my stuff done that I wanted.

But eventually, through enough pain and blood and tears, I realized that no matter how much I put in my plan, during the school year, I had a hard limit of about what I will call one major chunk per month, that’s about all I could ever finish, no matter what I thought I was going to get done, I could get one major thing done on a project each month and a few minor things, you know, sort of not major mine, right, these are technical terms, I described them in the book. But you know, a major chunk would be something like, if I had the notes in the data already, I could write a chapter or a draft or something like that, or I could do the data analysis, or maybe I can collect the data, depending on things, right. So roughly a major chunk, and just, it just kind of worked out the kind of stuff I do, that’s just about the pace I could do. And then while I’m doing that, I could do some other things like I could, you know, noodle on notes, or I could, you know, do other small things. But basically, for anything that took sort of sustained time, you know, uninterrupted time where you need three or four hours in a row, sort of a thing, in order to make progress. I only have enough time during the school year to do one major chunk a month.

And the big aha for me, was when I finally stopped getting down on myself about that, and I started using my speed limit as my ultimate planning tool. So as I adapted and finally adopted the 12 week year, I realized that my previous approach had been kind of ridiculous, I was just, it was a laundry list of to do’s unrealistic set of expectations, there was no way I was going to get through them all, I didn’t have them prioritize very well, and so on. And instead, what I started doing was saying, Look, I know I can get exactly this many things done a month that are going to be, you know, roughly four months in a semester three or four, whatever, I’m going to get three or four things done this semester. And then I can also plan a few minor things. And so I started realizing that if I did that, I could actually execute the plan. And then I would be happy at the end of the semester, instead of stead of being unhappy because I got seven things done, and I had 50 on my plan. Instead, I got seven out of seven things done from my plan. And I felt great about it.

Trevor Thrall  7:58 
 But you know, I will say the peace of mind that I got of, you know, feeling good about the progress I was making during a busy time was probably the best part of it all. Because it’s very easy to stress. When you’re in a job that depends on your writing, it’s easy to stress about getting it done. And so for me, that was a huge win. But I also got some other wins from from respecting my own speed limits from respecting the fact that I was doing work in a busy time. And that was first that I was more efficient. Because I didn’t put so much on my plate, I didn’t sort of zigzag between projects, and kind of Dart around like a hamster, oh, try to get this done, try to get that done. You know, if you’re trying to make progress on multiple fronts at once, it’s usually going to be frustrating. And, you know, I wrote a whole chapter in the book about managing multiple projects, because it’s such a bad idea. And I did learn that the hard way, still sort of learning that the hard way. And so instead, by focusing on just the few most important things, and as much as you can one project at a time, you really get better traction on that project. 

And so you’re more efficient, you’re more productive, you will get more done that way, even during busy times, then trying a different approach. And you’re also gonna get, you know, the benefit of not only just sort of generic peace of mind, but also you’re going to make progress on that project. And that buoys you right, and it helps propel you forward. So you know, because it’s easy during busy times to feel like you’re going so slow on things that you feel like you’re never going to finish and that’s it the moralizing nobody likes that feeling and so making progress, you know, in a predictable consistent way, which is much more possible when you know, your speed limit and you plan accordingly. Right set realistic expectations plan accordingly. I think you know, that, for me has been a key strategy for surviving the busy times. 

Now, I’ll talk about in a different episode, probably the the, you know, hey, I’m going to throw it on the pile for Summer, and then I’ll have a really unrealistic summer plan, I also had to learn that it was kind of a backlash lesson, but we’ll talk about that another time. Alright, so, so first key is, is to respect the busy know your speed limit, set realistic plans and expectations. The second big strategy is to make time for your writing during the busy period, by scheduling it. And, you know, that sounds the, you know, really obvious, but for me again, it wasn’t because I, you know, my graduate school years where, you know, all I had to do is write, so I never had to think about making time to write. And during the summers, professors schedules are super flexible. So you can always find more time to write, that’s not very hard, something comes up, you just write later, you know, switch from morning to afternoon or whatever, not a big problem. But, but when you’re busy, right, you need to be even more diligent about making sure that your writing is on the schedule and on the calendar, otherwise, it won’t, it won’t happen, you know that, right. 

And so the trick is, and it doesn’t matter, if you’re only able to schedule an hour a week, one session a week, whatever it might be, that’s great, right? If that’s all you have time, for, if that’s the crazy part of your life, You’re in no problem, do it. Right, if you can sneak a couple in great, do that doesn’t matter, you know exactly what the number is, what matters is that you are prioritizing your writing, even during the busy period, by saying, This is when, and this is where I’m going to write. And that’s, and that is, you know, really, I think the sort of the double keys, there’s number one, you need to find a when that’s going to work during the busy period. Because, you know, very likely, if it’s like it is for me, for you.

 The same time, I’m going to work, right, you’re going to need to find a different time during the day during the week to write because you’re busier than usual. So if you need to, you know, hide away at lunch, if you need to work earlier in the morning, if you need to carve out a time later at night or whatever. And the key to the to the win is really it’s got to be a time that you know, you can defend and I’m going to talk about defending your time in just a minute. But but it’s got to be a time you know, you’re gonna be able to get your work done without people getting in your way and and screwing up your writing session. 

So you got to have your when and that’s very closely attached to your where you also have to have a place that you’re going to be able to be productive. And you know, for me, like during the school year that is not on campus, usually, you know, on campus, I also have strategies to defend my, my space by like, you know, covering over the, the the window in my door with postcards, so no one can see I’m there and turning off the light making sure I’m very quiet. And so if anyone knocks on the door during a writing session, I don’t answer they just keep knocking until they go away. So anyways, not on campus, find a coffee shop where no one knows who you are, go to the basement, you know, put a curtain up and put a sign up says if you come past the skirt, now I’ll kill you, whatever you need to do to find a place that you can be, you can be free, right? Or is how to keep predators from destroying your writing sessions. And the devious part about this, of course, is that these predators are people like your loved ones, your significant other your partner, your kids, your dog, also not so loved ones, maybe like your boss, or your colleagues, and other, you know, commitments that you’ve made in life. 

And so one of the things that I really strongly advise you to do when you are entering into a busy phase and you are, you know, have even less time to write is that you make very clear with your significant others that you are not going to let them mess up your writing sessions, right that you are going to protect these from all comers. So this usually requires making various promises, compromises what have you, right? So you know, if you need to tell your spouse, hey, I, you know, my new schedule is a little crazy. So I’m going to take you know, seven to eight in the morning in the basement, and I don’t you know, I’m going to try it. I really have no interruptions because it’s hard for me to you know, whatever like that. Do that. If you need to tell your boss that you know what you told me I need to get this report done by whenever that means you guys are too bothersome. I’m gonna have to go to you know, the conference room on another floor. And I’m going to write for two hours every day after lunch there and don’t bother me. You know, whatever those sorts of things are that you need to do to let people know that I’ve got a writing schedule, and it’s important, and how exactly you do that, that’s part of the magic that you’re going to need to figure out for your own situation. But I definitely have had to do that, you know, with my wife, with my various work that I’ve had, and you know, you’re gonna be much happier if you know that, you know, you’ve got writing sessions that you can keep clean, as I think of it. And the second thing you need to do to defend your time is to kill distractions. 

I know we’re all at sort of different places on the distractibility curve. And, you know, sometimes I feel like I’m talking mostly to younger people, when I talk about social media and the Internet, and so on. But But wherever you are on this, right, we all know that, you know, dealing with your phone, dealing with your email, your smartwatch, all those things are just, you know, ginormous, attention sucks. And, you know, you need to do whatever you can to minimize the impact of those things on your writing sessions, right? This is when you’re busy, you only have maybe a couple hours a week to write, you don’t have time to waste. So you really can’t be looking at eBay, or Twitter or Facebook or whatever book, tick tock, all right, you need to put the phone on, you know, shut it down. If you need a social media blocker, or one of those website blockers, that doesn’t let you go online installed, if you are a person who likes the Pomodoro timer method or something like that, to keep you focused, do it, if you need to schedule co writing sessions, like online with people who will help kind of keep you accountable to focusing absolutely do that. Right, whatever you need to do to help you be focused. 

And, you know, for me, and and sort of part of the 12 week year system, one of the things for me that really helps is this concept of buffer blocks. So if you’re about to go into a writing session, and you’re someone who worries about missing something important for work, or you sort of have a social media withdrawal thing, whatever it might be, right, do this do schedule a little buffer on each side of your writing session, and check all your stuff that you need to check right before you go into your writing session, and then be comfortable that that’s going to rest for an hour or whatever your amount of time is, right? It will it will keep and then right after you’re done, you know, tell yourself, look, soon as I finished my writing session, pat myself on the back, then I’m going to go check my stuff, again, to make sure everything’s okay. And if you get in the habit of buffering, right, keep the distractions out, keep them in the buffer zones, keep them out in your writing session, 

I think if you can build up that discipline, it will really help and, and it may be that you want to start with shorter writing sessions and buffer on both sides and slowly build those writing sessions in length until you are happy with how much distraction free time you’re able to put in to your writing. So I think defending your time is one of the things during the busy times that you need to be especially good at, I think you always have to be good at you have to be especially good during the busy times. And then the last sort of general piece of advice is about what I think of as climbing back time from the beast. And by beast, I guess I probably mostly mean your work your day job. But I but also just the beast that is life, right that that the rest of your life really never feels shy about asking for more of your time. You know. So I say sometimes the best defense is a good offense, let’s go find some of their time and take it back for our reading. And so I have two is a two parter. And the first one is you might to use a sports phrase.

 I think of it well, I’ll use two phrases. One is what I think of it as as playing small ball. Another way you might think of it as gathering nuts and berries. And what I mean is finding small chunks of time in which you can be productive and move towards your writing goals. And, and so you know, if your week is anything like mine, you have a lot of kind of weird interstitial downtime. So maybe you have a commute, for example, that’s an obvious one. For some people, lunchtime time between meetings, like you’ve got two meetings at work, and there’s sort of one ends and it ended a little early. So you got 15 or 20 minutes before the next one and you’re like not even in your office now. So it’s like what do you do? Or you had to travel somewhere else in the city for a meeting you got to half an hour car ride, you know, taxi or Uber back, whatever, right? Most lives have these weird little chunks, right? And if you’re on the job, especially your your day is I’m guessing full of these things. And so my advice is to start climbing those nuts and berries, those small chunks of time and put them to good use. I think most people Most of the time, you know, don’t put them to, I would say, you know, productive use, not saying they’re not valuable always, but not necessarily productive. So what do we usually do during those times, we look at our email through the 1,000th time, we check Twitter or Facebook again, you know, we look at Airbnb to think about where we might go on vacation, whatever it might be, I do that a lot,

 But, you know, if you think about it, this is your busy time, and you don’t have enough time for your writing or as much as you’d like. One way to get some more is to claw back those little nuts and berries times. Now, you can’t use a nuts and bury time to do anything or everything, right, that’s not going to cut it, if you’re trying to, you know, if you’re doing a task that really kind of takes two to four hours of uninterrupted, deep thinking right sort of time, like, you know, writing a chapter in your novel or your, your, your book or whatever, or, you know, analyzing data or stuff like that that’s required for your writing, that’s gonna be hard to do in a 12 minute chunk, even if you need to get started. Right. 

But, you know, again, all writers, it seems to me no matter what genre, maybe poets are different, I’m not sure. But But we all have non writing tasks that are required to get our reading done. Could be, you know, background research of different kinds, reading different things, could be learning a little bit more like, you know, if you want to write a book about, you know, medieval, you know, Druids and something like that we need to read some stuff on Druid, you know, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, or something like that, so you get some research to do. Or maybe there’s other kinds of learning you can be doing about how to market your book or whatever, right. And so I, you know, I’ve, I think this might be one of my small minor superpowers, because I’ve gotten really, really good at making use of the nuts and berries time. For different periods of time, I’ve had long ish commutes, I’ve definitely have faculty meetings where I can do things during the faculty meeting, don’t tell anyone, you know, don’t need your whole brain for the faculty meeting, I’d be doing some other stuff too. 

But I have a lot of this, you know, interstitial time. And I’ve discovered that I There are a wide range of things I can do during those times, that move my projects forward. I can respond to emails, I can help my graduate students solve problems, I can read things other people have written even though I don’t have time to write it myself, I can offer you know, good kind, of course correction to other people’s work, and so on. And so what I what I figured out once I figured out this strategy, and I’ll share this, because it may not be everyone who can take advantage of this, but maybe this will, this will be useful to you, or help inspire you to think about how you might use nuts and berries time, but but it actually helped transform the very way I do my work at the university because what I learned was nuts and berries time is not enough for me. Yeah, I can’t use it to write a draft of a chapter, I can’t do that 10 minutes at a time or 20 minutes of time, I need to sit down and have a morning. Right. But, but again, I can collaborate very effectively, in bits and pieces like that. 

And so what I figured out when I, when I came to the University, where I work now, George Mason, I started working with PhD students. And I realized that if I, you know, give good guidance at the beginning of a project to a PhD student, and I co authored something with them, they can do a lot of this groundwork that takes sort of more unbroken time of which they have more than I do. And then I can land sort of high value, collaboration and guidance and leadership. But I can do that sort of without even needing the planet necessarily, because I can find this time all over my schedule to make a quick response, or what have you. And I don’t and I end up getting more done, than I normally did before on my own because now I can work with many graduate students at a time on a project or on a couple projects. And I don’t have to carve out as much time during the busiest times of my year in the school year to try to work on projects and get them done. 

It’s transformed the way I do my work. And I now pretty much write everything with graduate students has other benefits, but that a big one is that I actually can get things done during the school year on projects that I wouldn’t really be able to do anything on if it were just me working by myself. And so nuts and berries time can be really productive, not for the main task perhaps, but for all sorts of the ancillary tasks that are required for you to do your thing when it comes to sitting down and writing whatever it is, whatever it is you’re writing. Okay. And then the second clawback time from the beast strategy I will share is an advanced topic. So I want to start with a warning use this tool sparingly, I was listening to a note that listening, I was reading a Twitter thread the other day,

 a CEO who shall remain nameless, tweeted out that a good idea for ambitious young people would be to work on the weekends. And as you might expect, that touched off a heated discussion on Twitter about the wisdom of that statement, or storm or whatever you call it on Twitter when people blow up and get mad at each other. And I thought, you know, that’s a that’s a really good, that’s a really good, an important debate to have. You know, but I think, you know, obviously, on the one hand, if you want to get ahead, working more, that makes some kind of sense. But I think we’re all worried about burnout, we’re all worried about staying human, especially over the last year and a half and plus of the pandemic. We’ve all I think, who are working all of us have suffered, had, you know, have toed the line or moved past it. You know, working too much from home especially is so easy. So So I share this last stratagem advisedly. 

But sometimes, what I in my wife and I call the Hour of Power can be a useful strategy. And what the our power is, maybe pretty obviously, is just, if you’re having a period where you’ve gotten so busy that your normal writing schedule has just gotten obliterated, despite your best efforts, at defense, your best efforts to claw time from the beast, maybe your writing schedule, some week just got overrun, and you didn’t have time to get anything done. And you’re starting to, you know, maybe feel the heat a little bit because you need to make progress, maybe you have a deadline, maybe you owe something to a publisher, maybe you promised a co author to get your side of something done, maybe you just had a goal in your head, I need to get this manuscript done by time x, and it’s coming up, and I’m not there yet. If you’re having that sort of scenario, during a busy phase, one solution that I adopted was the Hour of Power. And, and this was something I did more when our kids were little because my wife, our read just crazy busy back then. 

But once in a while, I would just have a crazy week. And I’d be like, you know, what, if I don’t get something done on this, I’m gonna really get behind. And so I’d say to my wife, you know what, tonight, I’m so crazy. I’m going to need an Hour of Power tonight, if it’s okay. And you know, this is always a negotiation, of course, but, but she’s okay, you know, fine. And so after dinner, kind of get the kids dinner and all that, and then I would go up to a study, and I would hide for an hour or so. And I would just try to, you know, focus, nothing else going on maybe a little music, I would just go hide up in a room, little music. And just, you know, dive right in. And, and usually, because those times I was I was feeling pretty urgent, I wouldn’t have any trouble focusing. And I would, I would manage to get a little bit of traction. And I never did an Hour of Power more than a couple times a week. But you know, these things are all malleable, right? Your strategy might might vary. I know people who, who sneak off on a week, day morning, and because you know, their house is sleepy, no one’s really in the mood to go do anything yet. So they’re like, Well, you know what, I’m going to go do my hour, or two, or three, or whatever it is at the coffee shop on a Saturday morning while everyone else is in their slippers. And I’m playing Nintendo or whatever, you know, but now, I say advisedly here, because I think you know, things become habits if they’re done too often. And so what I, you know, want to encourage is that you consider this Hour of Power as a as a special, special tool. 

Now, if it turns out that you’re always going to use Saturday, and everyone in your life is cool with that. And that’s when your writing time is going to be that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s great. But if your normal is not to do work at a certain time, but you want to carve out a special exemption period to do an Hour of Power then be careful that you are always balancing your your life right between writing and everything else you have going on. I mean, the presupposition here is that this is a busy time for you. And you are adding to your business by writing more and having this hour of power. 

And so this is this is kind of a candle burning on both ends sort of thing. You don’t want to do too much of this for too long, because you will risk burn out and once you do that, once you burn out, the cost might be very large indeed. So I say advisedly the our power can Be very useful. I will say that for me, it helped me stay sane during times when I might have panicked a little bit about things, getting stalled things not getting done on time, you know, a few times just falling behind on things or having just too many things to do. Especially because, you know, for me during the school year, I, you know, there are so many urgent things that that, you know, I have to say, okay, is it more important to help the student who’s failing, you know, and desperately needs help for the next hour? Or should I kick them out of my office, so I can write on my article that maybe no one will ever read anyway, but I need for my job, it was hard for me to always say no to those things still is. And so sometimes my schedule would just be the place where I had enough of that would happen, that I would need to carve back clawback an hour or two a week, just to keep moving forward. So I didn’t panic. 

So you know, I offer that as another thought about how you might cope with the busy times. Okay, so those are my thoughts, just let’s summarize briefly, but where we’ve been, so all of us writers have busier times than others in our life, it’s hard enough all the time to get stuff done. But there are times during the year, maybe it’s the school year, maybe it’s tax season, whatever it is for you. There are times when it’s even harder. And we need strategies to help us, you know, plow through those hard times those busy times, but still get some writing done. 

And so my sort of four general strategies there first, is respect the crunch, right, respect that time crunch and know your speed limits, right? Know how, what a reasonable pace for you is going to be during this busy time, and set your plans and expectations accordingly. Don’t, don’t push so hard that you go crazy. That’s, that’s tip one. 

Tip number two is schedule your time. The only way anyone’s going to write during a busy time is if their calendar says right. So make sure your week, make sure you build a model week, put in all your other commitments, but make sure even if it’s just one slot, don’t let that writing die. Get your writing on the schedule in a consistent place in a place you know, you’ll be able to defend it in a place you know, you’ll be comfortable and free enough from distractions and other people that you can get your stuff done. 

Tip number three is defend that time make the right promises and compromises with your significant others, your boss your work, so that you can keep your writing sessions free and clear. And that you don’t end up losing them to other people want you to do other things, right? Your writing is the most important thing to you during your writing sessions. Not the most important thing to other people, you need to defend those sessions. Because they’re important to you. 

And then the fourth tip was climb back time from the beast. And, you know, I think if you think of your your work day, as a, you know, cup full of stones, there’s a lot of space in there still. And you can fill up that space with writing related tasks, little chunks of helpful progress, not maybe the big stuff, but the little stuff that can help you move forward during what would otherwise be just, you know, pointless parts of the day where nothing else was happening of any value, right. And so that’s kind of a way to get an extra boost. And then finally the Hour of Power. If and when you need a little bit more to either get you over the top get you finished keep you from falling behind. Once in a while it’s okay to click on the afterburner and and spend some time writing when you normally wouldn’t, again, with all the various promises and compromises that roll require, and being careful and thoughtful that you don’t burn out. Because gosh knows we don’t need that. 

So those are my strategies that I have kind of come up with over a few decades of doing this writing thing. But you know what, all Everyone has their own strategies. I would love to hear how you grapple with writing during the busy times love to hear what strategies you guys are using. And so we’d love to see those in the comments. And you know, in the meantime till we talk again, happy writing!

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