Thursday, March 31, 2016

Writers: Do You Harness Your Day?

By Angela Quarles, @AngelaQuarles

Part of the Indie Author Series

Welcome to another installment in my Organized Writer series! I'm going to depart a little from my past two posts, which focused on getting more organized with OneNote, and talk today about the importance of harnessing your day. Back before Palm Pilots made an appearance, us dinosaurs used paper planners. I was a religious paper planner. And then, when I got my first Palm Pilot, I tried going digital. This kept on through my various Blackberries, and now Androids, but.... it just never stuck. I LOVED the idea of having it all electronically synced, but I found that it just never really gelled.

So, I've now gone old-school and keep a paper planner. I'm not alone in this. In fact, there is a whole trend now with folks going back to their paper drug of choice, and posting videos on YouTube showcasing their planners. However, just like with my other posts in which I used OneNote, this post isn't about my particular tool, but rather the importance of having one that's specific to your needs. So if you're an electronic devotee, this is still relevant. I hope.

The metaphor I'm going to run with on this post is to look at your day, and your time, like riding a horse. Just like with horse riding, there are different techniques, tools, and styles, depending on if you ride Western or English or bareback. I'm not a horse expert, so I'm going to apologize in advance if I get some things wrong, but just keep in mind the spirit of my metaphor.

Organize Your Writing Stable

Boy, I can already see I'm stretching this metaphor! Some writers are lucky enough to have a dedicated office while some carve out a corner of a couch in the family room. Wherever you write, it might be helpful to think about that space and how you utilize it. Your writing time is precious, so don't waste it looking for the right tool, or having it in a place or a condition that forces you to psych yourself up to go there.

Every New Years Day for the last decade it's been a tradition for me to clean my office and generally use that day to organize. However, in the past, the space itself rarely lasted past the week in staying uncluttered. Soon my desk would be buried under sliding stacks of paper, discarded post its, bills, books, and other items. Sometimes I'd do a mid-year purge (and be surprised at what I'd find at the bottom) but not always. I didn't like it, but it's just how my desk would end up. I'd also generally know what most of it was, though it was annoying to rifle through those stacks.

This year was different. Some writer friends recommended this book to me over the winter holidays and I highly recommend it: Organizing For Your Brain Type by Lanna Nakone. What's helpful with this book over many others on organizing, is that you take a quiz to find out your brain type, as well as your sensory type, and she gives suggestions on the best ways to organize your office space, and your time, for your type.

I took it and found out I was an Innovative Kinetic. Now I finally had a framework for why many standard ways of organizing didn't work for me. Like every year, I cleaned my desk on New Year's Day, but it's now the end of March and my desk is still clean and organized! It's a minor miracle, honestly. What did the trick for me was taking everything off my desk and then only putting things on it that I'd conceivably access on a daily/weekly basis. If it wasn't something I'd reach for at least once a week, I put it in a different spot in the office. There's a lot more to what I did, but it wouldn't be useful to you, since everyone's different. The important thing is to figure out what the most efficient setup is for your writing space and this book could help you with that. It certainly gave me ideas and motivated me to figure it out.

Harness Your Day

As a former paper planner, I'd look with envy on others who were using them, while I kept stubbornly sticking to Google Calendar. I did finally buy a planner last fall, but I never opened it. Over the winter holiday I took stock of my indie path and realized that if I wanted to take my career to another level, I had to up my game. Too much of my day-to-day existence was just me floating through it and doing things when I saw fit, or a deadline approached. Too much depended on my memory. And at forty eight, that's not exactly helpful.

How you harness it doesn't matter, but it's vital that you do. Whatever can make you mindful of the day passing and hold you accountable for what needs to be accomplished, do it. Put a bit in the mouth of your day and take command of it.

I participated in a management class over twenty years ago where the instructor had a large pickle jar full of sand and pebbles. Next to it, she had two oranges. She held the oranges over the jar, but they wouldn't fit inside. She then asked the class if anyone could fit the oranges in the jar. I volunteered. I had no idea why she asked, but my super power is spatial awareness (I'm someone my friends love to have over when packing a moving van). I emptied the jar, placed the oranges in the jar, and then poured the sand and pebbles back in. They all fit. The instructor then told us the point--imagine the oranges are the most important items in your day, including taking care of your health or making time for family and friends, etc. Whatever is most important but that we neglect because we think we don't have the time. Do it first or fit it into your schedule before all else, and the less important minutiae will flow in around them in your day. It will all fit.

So, yeah, I got it. But I never really took advantage of that lesson. I still just coasted along, riding the wave of my day, willy nilly. This year I decided to make a commitment to using a paper planner, and so I created a weekly layout that works for me, printed it, and discbound it. Then I printed some simple stickers that I placed on each day for things I neglect--cleaning!--or that I waste time with and so limit myself--hello, Facebook!

For instance, I'm a horrible housekeeper, though I do love a clean and neat house. It's a wacky contradiction, but that's me. So one of these stickers is called "Clean 15" with a blank line and I place one on each day except Sunday. Sunday gets a "Shiny 60". Now, each morning I set the timer for 15 minutes and clean some part of the house. When it goes off, I stop, even if the space isn't done. Sunday the timer is set for 60. This has made me so much happier, because now my need to be neat is actually satisfied because this forces my lazy butt to do just a little bit each day. The Shiny 60 has now seen me through a whole closet being organized, with another half-way done. These are projects I've had nagging on me that I keep telling myself I'll get to some day. That mythical day when you suddenly have time. Ha, ha, yeah, right.

What does this have to do with writing? I'm also way more productive now this year, because I'm capturing tasks and to-dos as I think of them and putting them into my weekly planner. No more relying on my memory. Plus, not having the guilt for being such a slob has made me happier, which feeds into feeling more productive, etc. I'm feeling like I'm adulting now...

This past week I witnessed what happens when I abandon this. I came back from being out of the country for almost two weeks, and my routine was off. I was also jet-lagged and made excuses for not getting back into the swing of things. In other words, I didn't go back to my paper planner. I coasted along. Which spilled over into my health too, as I neglected to also juice and make my smoothies. I went back to being a day-coasting blob. And have gotten hardly anything done writing-wise, which has put me into a funk.

So, yesterday, I whipped that planner out and marked out my week, and I'm starting to get my time harnessed again.

Again, how you harness your day doesn't matter. Just as long as you do. There might be the perfect app for you that totally makes sense for how you live your day. Or, like me, you might find blocking out time and keeping a weekly to-do list in a paper planner works for you. Or, as fellow author Lily Danes told me: "I basically have to stop myself every 30 minutes and ask 'Is this what you're supposed to be doing?' That's my fancy technique. Nothing else works." That's how she harnesses her day and it works for her.

Know Your Destination

Of course, it doesn't matter how you harness your day if you don't know where you're going. This post is already overlong, so I won't digress into goal planning, but I felt this metaphor cried out for taking it there. Even writing out your goals for the week can help tremendously.

Final Thoughts

I think where a lot of people can go astray who want to get more organized is in believing that there's only one way. They try a day planner or some type of organization system for their desk and it doesn't work for them so they give up, thinking it's pointless for them to be organized. Try the book I mention above for ideas. Experiment. Spend a day thinking like those efficiency planners some companies hire to tag behind their employees to see how they can minimize their steps and tasks. Bottom line--take control. You want to rock the indie world, right? Let's do it!

Also, if you're a paper planner and you're a writer, I invite you to join a wonderful Facebook group - Paper Planning & Publishing Peeps. We're your people. You'll find sticker addicts, washi hoarders, and more. We share organizing tips, peeks into our planners, pics of our Office Depot hauls... You name it.

Are you a paper planner? What do you find works best for you? What's your biggest challenge in trying to harness your day? 

Angela Quarles is a USA Today bestselling author of time travel and steampunk romance. Her debut novel Must Love Breeches swept many unpublished romance contests, including the Grand Prize winner of Windy City's Four Seasons contest in 2012. Her steampunk, Steam Me Up, Rawley, was named Best Self-Published Romance of 2015 by Library Journal. Angela loves history, folklore, and family history. She decided to take this love of history and her active imagination and write stories of romance and adventure for others to enjoy. When not writing, she's either working at the local indie bookstore or enjoying the usual stuff like gardening, reading, hanging out, eating, drinking, chasing squirrels out of the walls, and creating the occasional knitted scarf.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

About Must Love Chainmail: A Time Travel Romance

Trapped in the wrong time, she needs a knight in shining armor, but this damsel in distress might be the real savior.

A damsel in distress...

With a day planner attached to her hip, the last thing Katy Tolson wants is a romance that threatens her well-ordered life. She's set to marry the safe--but bland--guy, but something's not quite...right. A careless wish thrusts her through time into medieval Wales and into the arms of...

A knight in somewhat shining armor...

Sir Robert Beucol, half-Norman and half-Welsh, lives with the shame of his father's treason and vows to reclaim his family's holdings and thereby his honor. To prove himself to his king, he must be more Norman than a full-blooded Norman. What better way to show loyalty than to fight his mother's people? He has no desire to be sidetracked by the mysterious wench with pink toenails, peculiar habits, and passion smoldering behind her cool, collected exterior.

A rebellion that challenges both...

The Welsh uprising fits perfectly into Robert’s plans. Katy’s on the other hand? That’s a no. As they embark on a perilous journey through the heart of Wales, each passionate encounter pulls them closer together, but farther from their goals. When everything they value is at stake, can they save each other and their love?


  1. This post is just what I needed today! I too am all about paper planners. Last November I created a production plan for 2016, split it into quarterly and monthly goals, and printed it out to coordinate with my daily planning. It's made a huge difference in my productivity. I'm actually fitting in projects I previously "didn't have time for." That being said, I've been a sloth this week and skipped workouts and my afternoon fruit smoothies. Blech. I'm getting back on track today--thank you for the motivation!

  2. This post is great! I've tried digital planners too and it's never gelled either. I would love be able create a layout that works for me and love the idea of using those stickers. Am going to check out that "Organizing for Your Brain Type" and maybe that will help.

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this information.


  3. I decided I would never turn on the electronic device with the handy planner, so I kept my paper planner. I make and sell them anyway, so... I have several ways of planning: the year (as there are projects I do every year and can't do all at once) and by the month, and by the week. Not that I Feel organized! The time change made me feel as if I was losing ground--whether I was or not. Thanks, I enjoyed your post.

  4. I have used electronic planners for years and touted the superiority of them. Syncing everything across all of my devices, having access to my calendars, my family's calendars, my bosses' calendars, the school's calendar, the church's calendar... and having alarms. A paper planner can't ring an alarm to remind you of an appointment you have let slip from your consciousness. I even have a private 'habits' calendar that does not show up on my main calendar, but rings alarms at various points of my day to remind me of habits I am trying to establish.

    In December, I added a paper planner into the mix. Why?

    - integrating my annual goal planning into the picture
    - having a paper planner that is open beside me all day. No switching apps or screens, just a glance down to look at my day plan, task list, daily goals, measurements, capture list, journal, etc. Helps to refocus and fend off distraction.
    - monthly and weekly view/planning - My electronic calendars all have month and week views, but you know what? They are totally useless. The program doesn't know the difference between an appointment that is important that I need to see and plan around (special dinner, trip to see MIL, web conference, promo, etc.) and my daily morning check-in call with my boss. So it tries to put them all on the calendar. With a paper month-view calendar, I can write down only the "big rocks", I can highlight the days that promos are running for, I can apply a sticker for a big family or writing day. And of course I have a monthly goal planning sheet beside the month-view calendar.
    My week view, however, includes more information than I put in my electronic calendar. Which days am I running? When do I fit in my writing on a grocery shopping day? What time is kiddo available for homeschooling? I don't put all of the little daily activities into my electronic planner, only the out of the ordinary or in/out information I need to know when coordinating calendars with someone else.

    - the joy of checking everything off on my calendar, goal, and task sheets
    - committing to an event by writing it into my calendar long-hand. I'm not just glancing at the day's events on a screen, I am putting pen to paper and writing it down

    I still keep my schedules and task lists on my electronic devices, but the paper calendars have made a big difference to my day's organization and being able to keep on top of things.

  5. I'm totally stealing that Clean 15 trick! :)