It's that time of year again -- the point at which I realize that while more than half the year is behind me, I can't say the same about my project goals. I wrote about this last July in the editorial Goals and Resolutions: Mid-Year Course Adjustments, and began this editorial with the goal of saying something meaningful about time management.
At the same time, lurking in the back of my mind was a guilt-inducing phrase many of us have heard: "If something is really important to you, you'll find a way to make time for it." The corollary, of course, is that if you haven't found a way to make more time for writing, it must not be "really" important to you! And the obvious follow-up is that if writing isn't "that" important to me, perhaps I'm not cut out to be a writer in the first place!
But is that true? Consider "time management" as a pie chart. Start by blocking out the hours allocated to sleep. Then block out the sections devoted to work (if you have a day job), childcare (if you have kids), education (if you're in school), home maintenance, meals, cooking those meals, errands, etc. Those are the necessities. Sometimes we can trim and prune the hours allocated to those necessities, but we can't remove them from the equation. What's left over, after we've blocked out all hours for required tasks ("required" being a key word) is the time available for "everything else." That's the part of the pie we have left for recreation, socializing, exercise, learning -- and writing.
As I sketched that chart in my mind, it struck me: Writing is a luxury. I know, that sounds terrible. It sounds sacrilegious! But for most of us, it happens to be true.
Unless you are actually earning your living by writing (and statistics indicate that fewer and fewer of us are doing so), writing is a luxury. If you earn your living by writing press releases and business brochures, writing your novel is a luxury. "Necessities" are those tasks that keep you and your family fed, clothed, and healthy.
So let's look at that mental pie chart again. Start by blocking out the hours of each 24-hour period that are given to sleep -- let's assume an average of 8 hours. Add another hour divided between preparing for bed and "getting up" -- the sort of peripheral time-consumers that are easy to overlook.
That leaves about 15 hours for other purposes. If you have a full-time job, that's another 8-9 hours. Even a relatively short commute can consume an hour each day, and many commutes are much longer. Meals are something of an essential, and most of us eat three of them -- requiring additional prep time. Shopping, picking up the dry-cleaning, getting gas, dropping packages at the post office, filling prescriptions -- all of these eat up our non-optional hours. Keeping house (even if, like me, you wait until you can write your name in the dust) takes another chunk of the pie. As for taking care of kids -- well, I don't have any, but I'm reliably informed that those tasks consume at least 12 of your remaining 8 hours.
These necessities are tasks you can't put off until you're "in the mood" or "have a bit of spare time." They're daily requirements. Anything left over is what we laughingly dub "leisure time." Most of us, I suspect, use very little of it for "leisure." No matter how many hours we have in a day, we'll find ways to use them all and beg for more.
Writing is one of those tasks that can, and is, relegated to those "free" hours that are left over when the daily requirements are fulfilled. And that's why I say it's a "luxury." Unless your writing is actually putting the bread on the table and keeping the roof over your head, it is not part of the necessities that claim the bulk of your hours.
I'm not saying this to trivialize the importance of writing. Rather, I am saying it to minimize the burden of guilt we feel when we are unable to budget as much time to writing as we wish, or feel it deserves. That guilt multiplies as the year winds down and our projects remain unfinished, our goals unmet. Statements like "if it's important to you, you'll find time for it" just make us feel all the more guilty.
Recognizing that writing is actually an option is the key to less guilt and more effective time management. Once you've realized that writing is a luxury, you realize that you're not somehow a failure for not having carved out more hours to devote to it. The only slice you have to work with is that slice labeled "free" time -- the time available for "optional" rather than required tasks.
Now here's where it gets sticky, because we live in an age of luxuries, all competing for a piece of our time. Free time is a precious commodity, and not just to its owner. Another popular adage is "time is money," and it is. Your time is in hot demand because it makes money for other people. Thousands of businesses are trying to capitalize on that thin slice of your time pie. Every app, every web game, every video, every music download, every TV show that clamors for your attention is seeking to turn your time into someone else's profit. Did you catch that latest celebrity gossip? Bet you saw half a dozen ads on the screen when you did. Did you see that cute video about the playful armadillo? (I'm not making that one up!) Quite possibly you had to play an ad first. Social media has its place, but Facebook and Twitter don't want you to spend hours on their sites just because they love you.
Writing is a luxury, and real luxuries are precious. They are valuable. True luxuries are sought after and cherished. That should be true of our writing time. The first step in developing a realistic understanding of how precious that time is lies in realizing just how limited it is -- because it IS limited to our "optional" hours. Recognizing this fact is the first step in time management -- and the second is deciding which of the many "luxuries" competing for our time should have the top priority.
I'm not suggesting that one give up entertainment, toss out the TV, block YouTube, cut off all your Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and vow to never play another computer game. But as we weigh the options competing for our "free" time, I think it helps to consider which options contribute to our personal or professional gain -- and which options line the pockets of others. Free games, apps, videos and what-not aren't really free if they rob us of the opportunity to create something worthwhile. I can use my time to put money in the pockets of some hungry corporation -- or I can use it to create something that might put more money back in my pocket, and possibly make the world a better place at the same time. Writing may be a luxury -- but it's one that deserves to be indulged in as often as possible!
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