January 18th, 2016

Tackling a Writer’s Greatest Challenge—Time Management

Heather Webb

Heather Webb SmilingAs I sit down to write this post, I’m racing the clock. I have an essay due for Writer’s Digest, pages due to my writing partner for a book we’re doing together, a full manuscript edit for a client, and my critique partner just sent me her novel for feedback. To say nothing of my children’s activities. Thank God I just unloaded my latest novel on my agent. Writers are busy. We’re stressed. We’re anxious. No matter how much time we have to write, it never feels like enough. So how do we survive it at all?

Below, I’ve shared a few tips that have helped me stay afloat over the years. Also? Drink coffee and wine. Lots of it.


There’s no doubt about it, having a full-time job takes up the majority of our waking hours, making writing a challenge. I would suggest making a list of priorities and how much time you’d like to spend on each activity. Once you’ve done that, create a writing calendar of some sort. (I use a separate planner from the family calendar to keep it all straight. Anything writing-related from blog posts to speaking engagements to actual writing, I fill in on this calendar.)

Treat your writing time as if it’s a non-negotiable appointment. If you tend to get home and want to crash with fatigue, try staying at work one extra hour in the evening, or getting in to work an extra hour early and spend it writing. This way when you come home, you’ve accomplished your writing and can shift into relaxation mode. Perhaps you prefer some down time first, and then write late at night. Set an attainable goal, check in with a writing partner, and get busy.

It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, it just needs to be effective, focused time.


I started writing with a two year old and an infant. Luckily, I didn’t work full-time on top of this, but I did do part-time teaching and tutoring, and had no money for daycare and no family nearby. This is a toughie. You’re exhausted from the lack of sleep and barely keeping up with regular routine chores. How in the world can you fit in writing time? Everyone says to write while the kids nap, but for me, that wasn’t possible. I needed sleep then as well. What worked for me was to find an hour or two every other day or so when my husband came home from work. But the bulk of my writing didn’t happen until the weekends. I committed to write every Saturday and Sunday morning from seven to noon. I left plenty of milk in the fridge, packed my computer bag, and parked my derrière at Starbucks. Every.Single.Weekend. It helped eliminate distractions, and my leaving the house became a routine the family grew to expect. Just like a regular work or school schedule.

The most important thing to do during this time is to be kind to yourself. This sort of survival existence won’t last forever, though it may feel like it at the time. Take the time when you can, knowing you plan to move into a more regular schedule when the babies either sleep through the night, or go off to school.


This type of schedule presents its own problems. With fits and stops dispersed throughout your day or work week, it can be tough to find your flow. But just like the others, it’s important to block off chunks of scheduled time that are non-negotiable. Also, consider setting up a strict routine that helps you shift your brain into fiction mode. Clear off any clutter on your desk. Make a soundtrack associated with the book that you play each time you sit down to begin. Light candles. Prepare your mind space with this series of signals that mean “fiction time!” This sort of repetitive practice has been studied at length and is proven to work. It may help you make the most of your truncated time.


Believe it or not, many who write full time wrestle with time management. It isn’t that they don’t have enough hours in the day, it’s that staying focused for long periods can be a challenge. For one, everyone is online during the week so Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are pinging like crazy. Your inbox is flooded with emails. There’s also this notion that writers don’t really “work” so friends want to meet for lunch, family wants to drop by, and so on. Distractions abound. Sometimes having less time means you’re more devoted to your writing periods. Isn’t there a saying about the busier you are, the more you accomplish? To you full-timers I say this: make a daily word count goal or page number if editing. Work in blocks of time, just like the others scrounging up time.

For example, my schedule looks like this:

7:00-8:00 is kids, coffee, and social media.

8:00-9:30 is some sort of exercise.

9:30-11:30 is writing time.

12:30-1:30 is lunch, emails, and perhaps a walk or some sort of movement.

1:30-3:30 is writing time.

3:30— Kid pickups. If you don’t have kids, take a break for an hour and then sit down for another hour or two, or until you accomplish your goal.


  • The studies show we stay focused better for shorter chunks of time and that three hours is the maximum quality time spent on a project at one time. Breaking up the day keeps productivity at a maximum.
  • Find a writer friend who shares the same schedule as you do. Check in with each other the same time every day and do sprints. You can sprint against each other for highest word count, or you can just set goals for the hour and check in once the hour is concluded to check each other’s progress. Being held accountable to someone is a terrific way to stay motivated.
  • Establish a routine to get your mind into fiction writing mode.
  • Set a timer after 30 minute or one-hour time periods so you feel the ticking away of valuable time. It’s this weird psychology but it works.
  • Use internet-blocker software to keep yourself off of social media.
  • Set up a system of rewards when small and large goals are accomplished. (ex: If I write 350 words this hour, I can spend 10 minutes on social media.)

What it all boils down to is HOW MUCH YOU WANT THIS. If you’re passionate about writing, you’ll make time, even in the smallest increments, to spend with your characters. If you find you’re constantly frustrated about how little you’re accomplishing, it might be time to reassess your priorities. Perhaps there are changes you can make to your schedule to maximize productivity. Above all, keep at it! Persistence in the face of frustration is the key to success.

What are your tips for maximizing your time? What challenges do you face when trying to write?

About Heather

Cover 1- hdHeather Webb writes historical novels for Penguin and HarperCollins,which have been translated to three languages and have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan magazine, France magazine, and Reuters News Book Talk. BECOMING JOSEPHINE follows the life and times of Josephine Bonaparte set to the backdrop of the French Revolution, and RODIN’S LOVER released Jan 27th, chronicles the passionate and tragic story of Camille Claudel, sculptor, collaborator, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. A FALL OF POPPIES releases in 2016.

Heather is also a freelance editor and contributor to award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com and RomanceUniversity.org. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

Twitter: @msheatherwebb

27 comments to Tackling a Writer’s Greatest Challenge—Time Management

  • Enjoyed your blog. I face challenges with time even though I am an older writer, retired from any formal job and often stay with my grown children. When I am at their houses, I have more writing time because I am not the sole person keeping the household going. But when I come back to my own house, wow. Every time there is some kind of crisis that occurred while I was gone. Triple housekeeping duties come then. As writers we all face time management problems, so thanks.

  • Great blog, Heather, It reminds me of Randy Ingermason’s 3 chunks. He postulates that you only have time and attention span for 3 big things in your life. For example: Day job, family and…hopefully writing. I’ve proven this to be true – when maintaining my weight fell to #4, the pounds came back on. It’s more than time – it’s attention.

    When I was working the day job, I got up 2 hours early and wrote before work. I also gave up TV (not a huge negative for me-I can take it or leave it).

    I’ve found that it’s all about my priorities – especially those top 3!

    • Randy’s hypothesis makes perfect sense to me. I agree. For example, I was a hardcore runner before I really entrenched myself in writing and the publishing world. That was the first thing to go next to my young children, writing, editing, and husband. I’m beginning to find a better balance, now, thank goodness. It’s tough, but I think what really counts is to keep giving it a college try. 🙂

  • A method I used when I worked and still use to control email and internet is to turn off the sound on my computer. Without the constant pinging that lets you know messages have arrived, I could manage my on-line time. I know email is coming in, I just can focus on the task at hand until I take a break and then check my email.

    • Yes! I do this as well on the weekends. During the week, I’m afraid to make myself unavailable in case the nurse calls with a sick kid or some such things. But turning off phones and notifications is really helpful! Thanks for the tip!

  • Holly Robinson

    Heather, you have offered up such sage and practical advice here–thank you! I especially agree with your note to make a ritual of it when you prepare to switch over from whatever else is filling your day to writing fiction. For years, I could only write at night after my work day was done and the kids were in bed, and my ritual was a cup of mint tea, a little bowl of M&Ms, and some good Afropop tunes playing in the background. If I had that all going on and was in my flannel pajamas, I could dive into my fiction. The funny thing is that I still do it now, even though my kids are old enough to take care of themselves and I’m a full-time writer. There’s a real mental switch that has to happen when you’re ready to write fiction, and you need to figure out ways to give your brain that signal that says, “Go go go!”

  • I’ve been using the “sound blocker” internet station http://www.brain.fm after seeing it mentioned over at Writer’s Digest and find it really helps my concentration while writing. There’s a free trial so you might want to try it – I use “focus/intense” setting and the pages seem to flow out better without all the distractions.

  • Thank you, Heather, for wonderful advice. Time management is a struggle for me. I find that I fritter away vast amounts of time–and if I am home, my family assumes I can be interrupted. I find my most productive time is when I work in the library before my writing classes.
    I plan to “steal” your daytime schedule as a template for this year and see if I can get more writing done!

    • Please steal away! It really helps me to pick up and go to a coffee shop, too. For some reason, it feels a bit more like “going to the office” and I’m less distracted by home issues, family, etc. Much luck to you!

  • Heather, I love your daily schedule! I am just now starting to work from home and I’m giving myself 2016 to build a decent income for myself with various forms of writing (blogging, elearning, ebooks, …).

    You’ve made me feel so much better about how hard I’m finding time management! I don’t think it matters where we are in our lives, there is always something that will pose a challenge and that “full time writer” scenario is me to a tee.

    I keep trying to write from the moment I get up until around noon. On good days, I manage it, but distractions abound. Regardless, by noon, I haven’t moved much and all I’ve had is coffee. It’s not good. I’m going to try your approach and move more first. It’s one thing to know it’s good for you (brain and body), but it’s another to make it a habit.

    Thank you!

    • It’s a pretty tough transition, actually, so give yourself time to adjust. I know a lot of people who don’t write full time roll their eyes, but the truth is, it takes incredible discipline to establish a routine to be productive. Few have that sort of discipline. Definitely try breaking your day up a little. You may find you’re much more productive that way. Also, I got a FitBit to help me track my movement (or you can do a simple pedometer or app on your phone). I get so absorbed in what I’m working on some days that I didn’t realize how little I was moving, until now. 🙂

  • sonjayoerg

    Hey, Obi Wan Webb, that’s a lot of helpfulness in one post. Thanks for taking the time from your packed schedule to give others a boost. I also believe it’s important not to discount the time away from writing as critical to the process. I get my best ideas when I’m focused elsewhere. Now that I’ve had my little break, it’s back to work for me!

  • I’m with Laura – I gave up TV when I had a baby. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family or my career, so it ended up being how I used my leisure time. Of course social media fills in at least half as much time as TV ever did…

    • I did the same. TV was easy to give up, especially since I’ve never been much of a watcher to begin with. There are too many great books to read and there’s far too much to do! Oh, and I hear you on the social media. lol. (As I sit here on my laptop at 8:30 at night. 😉 )

  • jamesr403

    What a great post! I remember when I was starting out. I had a full-time job, was taking two classes at USC and one at UCLA. I wrote whenever I could. Short blocks of time? The prof is five minutes late, awesome, I can make a note. And that was my first sale, a science fiction story to Analog. i tell this story because now that I am a full-time fiction writer to my dismay it hasn’t gotten easier. I use headphones and an iTunes playlist to keep out distractions. I think your tips are all good and plan on putting them into practice. Just as soon as Ii finish today’s editing . . . Wait, I probably should check my email first.
    All kidding aside, thanks for a really good essay.

  • thanks for this. The full time writer deal is me, and i get so distracted and find i need to move a lot more too and take more breaks. I can get caught up in social media, and need to find ways to block it out. I will try some of the ideas above. See what works.
    Thanks much!

  • Thanks for these great tips. I’ve been giving a lot more thought this year to time management, so I was happy to read through your suggestions. I think I’m getting a better sense of changes I need to make.

  • What I’ve often neglected in my writing is finding that supportive community. It’s online, sure, but IRL, it’s harder especially when you’re also shuffling two kids around. What I’ve realized is that we all feel so unique but we come to the Internet world and everyone is like me. This year I finally decided to make it a priority to write. It has to be something that you value above all else and until you make it a choice to ignore the laundry or the dishes because the words need to spill out, it’s a hard adjustment. (Especially if the writing is unpaid). I’ve started a 365 writing this year and it’s a major adjustment to my schedule (and my family’s). But we artists must persevere. 11 months to go!

  • […] Heather Webb on time management for writers. […]

  • […] There’s no doubt about it, having a full-time job takes up the majority of our waking hours, making writing a challenge. I would suggest making a list of priorities and how much time you’d like to spend on each activity. Once you’ve done that, create a writing calendar of some sort. (I use a separate planner from the family calendar to keep it all straight. Anything writing-related from blog posts to speaking engagements to actual writing, I fill in on this calendar.)  […]

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