Tuesday, March 02, 2021

It’s About Time. Make the Most of the 24 Hours We All Get

By Shanna Swendson, @ShannaSwendson

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: Managing time is one of the more difficult things about being a writer. Shanna Swendson shares tips on how to keep writing, and how to stop the things that distract you from writing.  

Shanna Swendson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas but decided it was more fun to make up the people she wrote about and became a novelist. She’s written a number of fantasy novels for teens and adults, including the Enchanted, Inc. series and the Rebel Mechanics series. She devotes her spare time to reading, knitting, and music. Her newest novel is the paranormal mystery Interview with a Dead Editor

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Take it away Shanna…

A lot of productivity, whether it’s used for writing or other tasks, comes down to how we use time. Productivity gurus are fond of telling us that we all get the same 24 hours. The difference is in how we use them. While that’s true on one level in that our days are all the same length, some people have more demands on their time than others, so they have less time available to use for other things.
Writing a novel takes time, a lot of it, so carving out as much space as you can get in those 24 hours is essential. That’s why a clock can be your friend, helping you know where your time is going. Better yet, there’s the clock app on your smartphone, which contains the tools you need to manage your time: a timer, a stopwatch, and an alarm.

Timers don't always work as intended.  

One tip I’ve seen for productivity is the “Pomodoro” method, named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Using this system, you set a timer for 25 minutes, focus on your work until the timer goes off, then take a five-minute break before starting again. After 90 minutes, you take a half-hour break, then start the cycle again. Presumably, 25 minutes is about as long as you can productively focus on a task.

While I’ve heard from writers who love this system, I hated it when I tried it. Invariably, the timer went off just as I was getting into a groove, and it broke my chain of thought. I’m on more of a 35-minute focus cycle, so the timer interrupted me at the peak of my focus. I don’t think it’s a great idea to set a timer on an activity you want to encourage yourself to keep doing. An alarm might be good if you have a hard stop to your writing session, such as having to pick up your kids or make it to an appointment, but if you have time and could keep going, why would you want to disrupt that?

Keep the writing momentum going.  

What I use instead for writing sessions is a stopwatch. I’ll give myself a goal of a certain amount of time I want to work before I take a break. If I pause to glance at the watch and I haven’t reached that time, I get back to work and keep going. If I come to a natural break and look at the watch and see that I’ve passed that time, I stop the watch and take a break. That way, nothing interrupts me. I break when my brain is ready to pause, but I’m still working a certain amount of time between breaks.

If I don’t think to look at the watch, I keep going. I generally find that starting is the hard part, so if I tell myself I just have to work for half an hour and then I can stop, once I get going, I find myself writing for at least an hour or so. My body usually tells me when I need to take a break and move around.

I aim for writing a certain amount of time each day and track that daily by project. That helps me know how long it takes to complete a project and also works to keep me honest about how much time I’m really working, since I’m only counting the time I’m actually writing, not the time I’m in my office and doing somewhat work-related tasks or the time during a planned writing session when I’m making a cup of tea. It’s also good for keeping track of your work when you’re in a phase of a project when it’s hard to see your progress by word or page count, like proofreading or editing. It’s satisfying to see the hours add up as I meet weekly, monthly, and annual goals, and wanting to reach those goals motivates me to work a little more.

Keep your short breaks short.

Where the timer comes in handy is with activities you want to limit or interrupt. I set a timer for social media time or breaks. It’s amazing how long that “five-minute” break lasts when you aren’t paying attention, and it’s easy to lose track of how long you get lost on Twitter if you don’t set a timer. 

I find the Pomodoro method works best for non-mental tasks, like housework, where you can make it a game to see how much you can fit into those 25 minutes and you aren’t likely to forget what you were about to do when the timer goes off and startles you. The timer is great for helping you manage non-writing time better so you have more time to write.

The alarm is good for starting and stopping work. As mentioned before, you can use it when you have a time you must stop, but it’s also good for the start of a writing session, letting you know it’s time to stop other things you’re doing and get to work.

You can set also a special piece of music or ring tone on your phone’s alarm to tell you it’s writing time. I don’t do that as often as I should. I may set an alarm to tell me it’s time to get up from the breakfast table and get to work when I linger over the newspaper. The sound of a piece of music I associate with the book might help me get going.

How do you manage your time and activities?

Worst Job Interview Ever!

Alexa “Lucky Lexie” Lincoln has always had a nose for news and a knack for being first on the scene whenever there’s a big story. Now her luck seems to have run out. First, she loses her reporting job. Then she gets an interview for a job at a small-town paper, only to find the editor dead on the newsroom floor. That makes her a suspect in the eyes of local policeman Wes Mosby.

To make matters worse, someone sabotages her alibi, and a freak ice storm strands her in town. That’s when she learns that this idyllic little town right out of a movie set is full of secrets, including people with uncanny abilities and the ghost who really runs the newspaper.

To clear her name (and get the job), Lexie will have to find the real killer—a killer who seems to think she knows a lot more than she does. If she’s not careful, she could be the next victim.


  1. Good article. Makes me think about how much time I waste doing other 'things' instead of writing my stories.

  2. Ooh this is great! My phone has them all, so I'm gonna use my timer for social media, stopwatch for counting how long I'm writing/editing, and alarm to remind me it's time to write. Thanks so much for the tips!