Thursday, April 13, 2017

Time Management for Writers

JENN McKINLAY: Last week, one of our readers (I’m looking at you, Lisa Alber ) asked that I talk about time management for writers. I did some thinking on it, trying to figure out if I have any tips and tricks worth sharing and I’m not sure that I do, but I’m happy to break down what works for me in the hopes that it might work for someone else as well.

The Stats: I write four to six books per year in two different genres with varying page counts. Combined it adds up to approximately 2,000 pages or 487,000 words annually. I write three hundred and sixty-five days per year -- even weekends and holidays. Yes, I’m a badass or crazy or a crazy badass. LOL! So, who wants to go for beers with me? I’m just kidding, I don’t have time. Again, I’m kidding! It’s all smoke and mirrors, because when you do the math out a little further, I only have to write five pages per day to reach my goal. Easy peasy!

Now the full disclosure: I don’t actually write five pages a day. I write ten pages most days, as in Monday through Friday, and then I revise and edit on the weekend. If I don’t write every day, I start to go a little sideways. It’s sort of like brushing my teeth – I’m a compulsive brusher to combat all of the sugar I eat – I feel weird, out of sorts, off-kilter and otherwise all around wrong if I don’t brush my teeth every morning and night. Writing is the same way for me. I have all the same off balance feelings if I don’t write every day. Truly, it’s a compulsion but I didn’t start here from the get go. My style of working is years in the making. So, where did I begin?

I started writing with a specific goal in mind -- finish the book -- in 1995. I sold my first book in 2001. I was on deadline for four years, writing romantic comedies for Harlequin, until the market dried up with my last book coming out in 2005. I didn’t sell again, mysteries this time, until 2008. Afraid the market would vanish again (it has – but that’s another post), I decided writing five series at a time was a great idea. It was. I hit the New York Times, I made a nice living and was able to leave my part-time job behind to be a full-time writer. Yay...and ugh!

When the Hooligans were little, I got up two hours earlier than they did and wrote before I was in full on Mom mode. I also wrote when they napped, and if I could manage it, I wrote after they went to bed. Things I didn’t do were watch television, surf the Internet, or read (gasp!). I know. It is shocking but when you have finite time to achieve your goals, adjustments (hard ones) must be made. I have zero recall on what shows, movies, and books were popular during the aughts. Seriously, if Sesame Street didn’t cover it, I was lost.

Now even with the hooligans older and in school, the time management is still a challenge but that’s because multiple deadlines breathe fire like a many headed dragon and you can’t mess around while slaying them or they will eat you alive, so I still don’t watch regular television or aimlessly surf the Internet, but I do have time to read again, and I read everything, for which I am so grateful. In fact, that is my reward when the work is done for the day. I get to read. Big happy sigh here.

So, that is the journey that carved out the following time management rules by which I live. I hope they help.

      1. Writing time is sacred. There are no errands or appointments to    be made during writing time. None.

      2. Figure out your most creatively productive time of day (mine is late morning through early afternoon and again in the evening) and make that your sacred time and guard it fiercely with a sword at the ready if need be.

      3. If you can’t work during your best time, make another time your sacred time. Seriously, I hated getting up at 5 AM to write but it was the only time I had. If being a writer is truly important to you, you will make the time.

      4. Set a realistic page count to hit each day. Do not call it a day until the page count is done. I have fallen asleep and drooled all over my keyboard, trying to get to my page count. Seems daunting? Think of it this way, a 75,000 wd book can be accomplished in less than a year (approx. 325 days) by writing one page per day. ONE PAGE! Come on, you got this!

      5. Stop watching TV. Stop cleaning stuff that doesn’t need it (I used to clean my oven – a lot). Stop looking at other people’s phony lives on Fakebook. You’re a novelist! In a year, they’ll be looking at your book – and it will be real! If you can’t control your Internet surf time, install a Waste No Time app on your computer. Mine kicks me out of all social media after 30 minutes. Here’s a link to help you out: http://www.businessinsider.com/13-best-apps-to-stop-wasting-time-2015-10

      6. Find a buddy to encourage you along your way. There’s nothing like accountability to others to motivate. Try to find a pal that is firm but gentle or a mean one, if you really need it. You can also go full tilt and try to write your novel in one month by joining NaNoWriMo: http://nanowrimo.org 
    Those people make me look like a slacker!

      7. And this one isn’t time management so much as writing advice but it factors into time management, so here it is – lose yourself in your story. If your characters are scared, you should be twitching with nerves. If they are sad, you had better be crying. The opposite is true, too. If you find your characters are boring or the scene you are trying to write is boring – guess what? It’s boring. Flip it on its head until it’s interesting to you and it will be interesting to your readers, too. For me, after so many years, writing is like falling down a rabbit hole. I have worked through dinners, school pickups, and doctors’ appointments because I got swept up in the story and forgot where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. Oops!
Pro tip: Forgiveness can usually be had for a signed book or a chocolate milkshake.

So, how about you, Reds? What’s your best time management advice?





62 comments:

  1. I suspect that everyone, writer or not, finds that time is fleeting and the end of the day doesn’t necessarily mean reaching the end of that "must do today” list. And I suspect that the solution for this problem is different for each person.

    If it’s important to me to get it done, and I find myself in a time crunch with a “must do today” task, I make a pot of coffee and get busy.
    I ignore the Internet with it’s time-gobbling e-mail, instant messenger, and all other manner of distractions. I don’t answer the phone. I don’t text. I don’t check the mail.
    If the distractions are out of the way, I can devote all of my attention to the task at hand . . . .

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    1. Joan, being unplugged and caffeinated is definitely the way to start for me, too!

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  2. I worked from home before it became fashionable, writing grant proposals and newsletters for a major cultural organization in Dallas. Home has all the best distractions, including the Internet, the book I'm currently reading, beloved dogs that want to go for long walks, the garden, the dishes, the laundry . . . I set office hours. I was at my computer by the time the main office opened at 9 am, and I kept after it until 4 pm, when my contract had me heading home on my in-office days. I took lunch breaks and potty breaks, and sometimes breaks to let my brain sort out narrative problems, but basically, if I would have been at my desk in the main office, I was at my desk at home. It was my job. I went to it every day, Monday through Friday. But I also "went home" from it. I didn't work for my employer after 6 pm or on weekends. That was my time, family time, free time when I could watch TV, or go to the movies, or hang out with friends, or read. Having the discipline to treat writing as a job that I went to and stayed at during fixed hours meant I got to stay at home and enjoy the best of both worlds for many happy and productive years.

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    1. Oh, I love that, Gigi. I do feel that the writing intrudes on my off time because even when I'm not writing I'm thinking about plots or characters but I think that is the nature of the beast.

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    2. I often take my characters grocery shopping or out to run other errands. Hmmmm. Would she buy the yogurt or the burrito? They stay in my head no matter what I'm doing.

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  3. Boy, do I feel like a slacker, Jenn. I only write three series a year, and only half your word count! And I don't write on Sundays, although I often do other writerly things Sunday afternoon (blog posts and so on). Congratulations on figuring it out.

    I agree on all your points. I also make a daily list (in the notebook next to my keyboard) and a long-term list (on the whiteboard in front of my desk) and make sure the daily list is all checked off before I go to bed.

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    1. Edith - lists are critical. Also, there is no way three series can be called slacking!

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  4. This is great advice, Jenn. I have trouble producing a book every two years so I am in awe. I sometimes think the more you have to do the more you get done. AKA: work expands to fill time. Let's just say I was MUCH more disciplined about writing when I had a day job and kids at home.

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    1. It's true, Hallie. I was even more productive when I had the part-time job and the boys were younger. It's amazing what can be done when time is at a premium.

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  5. Jenn, I'm in awe. But you've given me hope that I can meet my new schedule of having "only" eight months to complete ONE book.

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    1. You've got this, Annette. I recently heard Stephen King say (paraphrasing) it should only take you one season (3 mon) to write the first draft and then it's time to edit.

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  6. I am in awe too Jenn! and when Edith feels like a slacker, you know you're productive. I guess you have a brain that constantly churns out ideas. I feel like that's my biggest roadblock. (Aside from Facebook LOL)

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    1. Oh, there's a future blog post, Lucy! How do you generate your ideas? I may have to write about this in June! FB is deadly - we've had an on again off again relationship for awhile now.

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  7. I love this, Jenn-- it's the only certainty in the writing world. You have to be finished. And it is so easy to get distracted. I have a evolved into my sweetest writing time which is, strangely, between two in the afternoon and six. I always wonder whether it comes from writing for the news, where the story has to be done at six, you know?
    I try to write in the morning, I really do, and sometimes I can't. But sometimes I just give up, and do administrative things, and then set my mental timer or two in the afternoon.
    Absolutely yes, I do a word count. At least 540 words, going for 1000 a day. And I absolutely do it.
    I still work at channel 7, although now not every day. It is a juggle that is becoming more more difficult.
    I set a timer, though, when I am working. I say: Siri set a timer for one hour. And I do not get on the Internet or do anything else, not anything, not even get the mail, for that hour. So silly that I have to be such a babysitter for myself.
    Jenn, congratulations on wrangling your life! I applaud you!

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    1. Thanks, Hank! Brilliant idea to set the timer - I am absolutely stealing that. All writers need keepers, I think, because we only have one foot in our actual world most of the time.

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    2. Siri to the rescue! I'm stealing this idea also.

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    1. Manikarnika, losing 23 pounds in 21 days is not a safe way to lose weight. I hope you discuss this method with your doctor before continuing with it. Losing two to three pounds a week is the maximum recommended by health professionals. I am only replying to your comment in concern for your health.

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  9. This is fascinating. You have spoiled all my illusions.

    I see each of you lying in a hammock in the garden, parchment and quill at hand, spilled inkwell on the table beside you, writing prose and poetry to satisfy the soul. And being fed peeled grapes by a soulful admirer.

    Once more I revel in being the reader.

    However, when I was working and had children at home, I managed to do everything I do now and then some. I never left a room without a task in mind. I could squeeze in a dental appointment, pick up the dry cleaning, sort out kids' schedules and still get a meal on the table every single night.

    Now that I am retired, it takes me a whole day to work around a doctor appointment or getting my hair cut. Hallie, you are so right. Work expands to fill the time available.

    Jenn, your productivity is amazing. I can't imagine having that sort of discipline. Kudos

    Ann

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    1. Finta - Having just watched the Thor trailer (10 times), I know exactly who my soulful admirer will look like. Chris Hemsworth as Thor - Mercy! As for the discipline part, I really just feel so darn lucky to do what I do, I never want to take it for granted.

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  10. Hello Jen, This was helpful and encouraging for someone who is trying to figure out how to apply productivity skills from a long busy career in the law to full time writer. I have had little to no time for television and sometimes wonder if I am in danger of becoming so culturally isolated my writing may lose a touch of reality. Do you worry about this?

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    1. Michele, yes, absolutely I do! This is where social media fills in my gaps. For example, I've never watched reality TV (working with the public for twenty years was enough reality, thanks) but I know the gist of the Bachelor, Survivor, the Kardashians - ugh - just because they are mentioned in social media so often, you'd have to dead to escape them. Sunday morning is devoted to reading the paper NYT so that helps, too.

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  11. Jenn, I love that graphic and I am in awe of your production.

    I get one dedicated hour a day because of life and day job. During that hour, I must write four pages. I usually get it done. Sometimes I get lucky and get more time later that day or on a weekend. But that's all bonus time.

    And I have done NaNoWriMo twice - both times hitting the mark (I won't say anything about the quality of the books produced during that month, although I'm still working on one of them, so who knows, right?).

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Mary, it sounds like you have got the commitment down. Four pages per day is fantastic when your life is already so full.

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  13. As to cleaning, I like the idea that dust does not spoil!
    Libby Dodd

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    1. LOL! It's true and I've been known to make editorial notes in the dust on my desk when I can't find a pen.

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  14. Honestly, I think my best time management advice will be to hire Jenn to finish my next book for me.

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    1. LOL! Your readers would wonder why there is suddenly a plethora of bad puns and I Love Lucy shenanigans in your book.

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  15. Wow. That amount of self-control and self-discipline amazes me. I just don't think I have it in me. My attention span on anything I have to do isn't that long. Now if it comes to reading a really good book, don't interrupt me.

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    1. I'm with you, Mark. If I'm reading back away!!!

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  16. Jenn, I am in awe. I also think you must be one of those people who doesn't sleep....
    If I were half as disciplined as you, I still couldn't write 4 books a year, but I might manage one:-) I have been on FB so little lately that that doesn't really even tempt me, but I am bad about checking email, most of which is total junk. But I'm going to take up Hank's idea. I have Alexa right here on my desk, and am going to start setting writing timers. I do try to have dedicated writing times, in the morning, and then from about 2 to 6.

    I also worry about being culturally out of it. I watch a little TV while I'm cooking (The Voice is my reality TV fix, and a couple of things on PBS, otherwise I am clueless.)

    And speaking of The Voice, have you seen Josh West, the kid from Glendale? He's 17. Graduated high school at 15, so that he could gig with his dad. He is amazing!!! And talk about dedication and discipline!

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    1. Debs, I've never watched the full show of the Voice but the Hub is tight with the drummer from BR549 so when Taylor Alexander auditioned and Blake Shelton referenced the band we all had to watch. LOL! And now, I just went and watched Josh West. OMG - the hair, the voice, the hair, and he's a homeboy! See? You just made me culturally relevant - for the moment! And now, I'll be watching clips of the Voice on Youtube to keep up - bless the Internet!
      Oh, and I don't sleep much. Six hours, maybe, on a good night.

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  17. I'm inspired by your productivity, Jenn! In addition to writing a huge number of pages each year, you also seem quite active on social media. How do you manage that? Do you set aside a specific time or dip into it throughout the day?

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    1. Again - more smoke and mirrors :) I'm a big fat cheater on social media. I spend one or two hours on Monday morning scheduling posts to pop up during the week on all the different platforms. Then I do drive by posts while standing in line at the grocery store, pumping gas, waiting on Hooligans, etc. I think this is why I meditate every morning for thirty minutes - it's the only silence I get.

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    2. Oh, gad. All that and you meditate, too. It's a really good thing I like you! :)

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  18. Hey Jenn! Thanks for diving into the question -- so glad you did. I love your creative process chart from the early years--it's hopeful. We can become more efficient over time. I like that. But still, MY GOD, you've got stamina! I have a day job, so when I'm really rolling on a first draft (which I'm not right now, which is why I was curious about your productivity), I get up at 5:30 AM. DETEST, but gotta do it to get it done ...

    So, here's my next question: If all your time is achieving word count and then editing, where does research, development (do you outline?), brainstorming new story ideas fit in? I'm a slow burn when it comes to new story ideas -- takes me awhile to be ready to write the next first draft. Are you one of those people who has a zillion ideas? (Enviable.)

    Cheers!

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    1. Lisa - I have to say I was so worried when I joined Jungle Red that I would have nothing of value to write about - you're giving me tons of material! I will most definitely do a future post on my outline process. When I write up a proposal for my publisher, I write a detailed 15 page outline for each book plus the first chapter so I know for myself that I have a map and the tone I want for the book ready to go. I don't do a lot of research before hand because I'm a librarian so I do it on the fly as needed as I'm pretty rock solid on my sources. So, research gets cobbled in during the writing process. As for the time spent proposal writing, I usually do that in a week in between writing books. So, I just turned in the third romantic comedy and spent the next week working on the proposal for the next three. Yeah, I'm writing a proposal for three more books in a series that hasn't even come out yet - weird. Right now, I'm writing the last cupcake mystery that I'm under contract for and have no idea if there will be more. I turned in the last library mystery and I'm not sure if I'm going to be writing any more of those otherwise this week would have been spent proposal writing for that series. There's a future post coming about the shifting sand of the cozy mystery market but I have to wait and see how it all rolls out before I write about it. I hope this helps. I'm a little over caffeinated at the moment and my dog is giving me stink eye because we haven't walked yet.

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    2. Fifteen page outlines -- three in one week! That nuts and totally impressive. The cozy world is interesting--does seems slippery slide-y. Will be interesting to hear more about this.

      P.S. I'd be worried too, joining JRW, but your posts (and Ingrid's too) have been great. (I'm been lurking rather than commenting more of the time.)

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    3. Well, I'm delighted you came out of lurk and gave me something to post about! I think I've been writing so much for so long that fifteen pages isn't as daunting as it once was. Usually, my ideas come from something random that happens in the world (this is why Sunday is devoted to reading the paper and some magazines like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair). For example, DEATH OF A MAD HATTER came from an article in Vanity Fair about an English nobleman who was married and had a family and then went to live in Italy for the next thirty years with his mistress. His wife pretended he was away on business and no one ever called her on it even though everyone knew he'd started a new family. Boom. Book.

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    4. Love the New Yorker! Let my subscription lapse because the growing pile of TBRs stressed me out so much. Couldn't keep up. :-) However, I used to tear out article that sparked my fiction brain. Miss that, actually ... Hmm ...

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  19. You either love love love to write or you are obsessed and we must get you professional help! Or possessed and we'll call the exorcist. Good for you Jenn!

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    1. I love it. Sometimes I think I'm absolute crap (most of the time) but I still love it. LOL. Professional help may be required.

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  20. Jenn, I thought I was the crazy one. I have three books coming out this year and I decided never again! But I do write every day. It's as ingrained as cleaning my teeth. Get up. Drink cup of tea. Go to computer. Check Facebook, Amazon Stats, emails. Write. That is every morning of my life.
    Not all days are equal, however. Some days those five pages fly along and I'm free by eleven. Other days it's put load in laundry. Write to do list. Make coffee. take load out of laundry. Make more coffee, recheck Amazon stats before I can get through those five pages. But if I know I can't quit until I do it, then they get done.

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    1. Your process sounds exactly like mine, Rhys. Today, for example, is much more fun to chat on the blog than work but it'll get done before I pass out tonight.

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  21. Jenn-

    Just popping in to say I discovered your Crafternoon books maybe six months ago and have since gobbled up everything of yours I can find, so I especially appreciate your dedication to your writing time. Thank you for being so prolific!

    I have been so pleased to find out that you're also just a genuinely amazing person! These tips are great. I'm just now getting to be a stay-at-home-mom with four kids under 10, but I'm still carving out that writing time.

    I have several books (three nanowrimo first drafts) that I'm working on. How do you decide which project to work on? Whatever sounds interesting? Which ever feels more difficult?

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    1. Charlie - Well, aren't you lovely and kind! Thank you. Good for you for having three drafts! Truthfully, editing is my favorite part. Taking the bits that I rushed or are dull and turning them into so much more - it's the best. If I had to choose between three, it would be the one that yells the loudest at me. In other words, the one you find yourself thinking about all the time, rephrasing dialogue, tweaking descriptions of emotion or setting. That'd be my pick. Do keep us posted on your process!

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  22. Jenn, I had some of the same questions as Lisa. How do you come up with new and creative ideas for books without some thinking time in between?

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    1. Not a big thinker here, Debs. LOL. I'm just kidding. I do so much of my thinking while driving that if I'm stuck on a plot or a twist or a motive, etc., I'll go for a long drive by myself through the desert. Then I start talking to myself, acting out the book, the scenes, the characters, the dialogue, until they all hash it out and I have some solution or plot point or twist that I never would have figured out just staring at my keyboard. Sheesh, I sound like a nutter, don't I?

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  23. Wow, Jenn! You are a dynamo! My daughter is a highly organized person, too, and it always amazes me how much she gets done. Being organized and sticking to your schedule really does allow you to get the most out of your day, whatever you're doing. I'm too easily distracted. And, I think the accountability to someone other than yourself is a great idea. Weight Watchers was my accountability partner back when I lost weight, and it made all the difference. I once again need to lose weight, and I'll be needing the accountability again.

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    1. You're so right, Kathy. Deadlines make for great accountability, too. If I mess up one deadline, they all fall like dominos. I really screwed up last year. When my father passed away in June, I channeled my grief through a book, natch, but it wasn't scheduled or planned or contracted -- no one except my agent and the Hub has even seen it -- and it threw off everything. But I had to get it all out, so I did. Thankfully, my publisher cut me some slack time wise and, hey, maybe they'll like if I ever decide to share it.

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  24. These are great tips. I think small, short-term goals can help you achieve the larger long-term goals. I don't have much difficulty with finding time or making a schedule/plan and sticking to it. My issue is with unexpected events. How do you keep from being overwhelmed or thinking negative thoughts when unexpected events interfere with your schedule/plan? Do you try to find a different time in the same day—even if you must push something else aside or go without sleep? Do you add more time to the next day, or do you pick up as you normally would with the next day? What do you suggest when the unexpected goes on for a long period of time?

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    1. Kelly,
      That's an excellent question. The past year has been the year of the unexpected. My father passed away, I had to revise a book for the first time ever - twice, and one of my sons has a condition that requires major surgery. I'm not going to lie - there have been some tears. Weirdly, my work became a refuge for me to process all of my emotions. I did fall behind on deadlines but I found weird little pockets of time that I utilized to help me get back on track. Also, I lowered my standards for cleaning the house, cooking, and every other chore that I thought couldn't be accomplished without me.

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  25. For me I use a calendar to plan out my work. While this is not a time management tip in the pure sense, it does save me time because I can SEE all the action steps I need to do. My diary tends to spend more time closed but my calendar positioned nicely on my office wall is always OPEN.

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    1. Just re-posted this under my author name

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  26. For me I use a calendar to plan out my work. While this is not a time management tip in the pure sense, it does save me time because I can SEE all the action steps I need to do. My diary tends to spend more time closed but my calendar positioned nicely on my office wall is always OPEN.

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    1. Hi, CT,
      I used to keep a work log. That's how I discovered my most productive hours. I like your calendar suggestion - it means commitment.

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  27. I'm late to this party (darned day job!) but these are GREAT tips! Especially the one with the TV. I've been considering cancelling cable. I could do a lot with the *hours* that I would get back.

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    1. There's so much good TV - I binge watch on Netflix to catch up when I can.

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  28. Amazing Jenn. Goes to show if you love what you do you find a way to do it. Creating chunks of time to be creative and being true to whatever schedule you establish has always worked for me.Thanks for reinforcing this golden rule.Now how about a game of pinochle. ..anyone?

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    1. LOL - I'm more of a poker playing gal.

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