How to Find Time for Creative Work

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!

If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

One of the biggest challenges facing many creative people is simply finding the time to pursue their creative interests, in the midst of the demands of everyday life. Strictly speaking, lack of time doesn’t qualify as a creative block – but when we say we “don’t have time” for something, it’s often an indication that we aren’t making it a priority.

This is a very common issue, so I wasn’t surprised when it cropped up in a comment from Sholeh Johnston when we invited you to tell us about your creative blocks:

Hi Mark,

While my 9-5 job is quite creative (arts manager) I struggle to find time to write outside of work hours, writing being what I consider my first and favourite creative pursuit.

When I get home there is always something else to do – housework, seeing friends, spending time with my partner, catching up the news etc. Or else I’m “too tired”.

Suggestions and strategies would be great! Aside from “STOP PROCRASTINATING” 🙂 )

Sho

Hi Sho,

OK, I promise not to say “STOP PROCRASTINATING”. 😉

Here are some suggestions that have worked well for many of my clients (and me!) facing the same challenge. Treat it like a menu – choose the items that appeal to you and try them out. As with all good meals, you’ll probably need to combine several elements to get the balance right.

Mark

Build on Your Achievements

Before we look at what you could do differently to create more time for your writing, I’d like to know more about how you have already done this in the past.

You see, when I look at your blog, one of the first things I notice is that you’ve been blogging regularly since 2004 – longer than me, and longer than many other bloggers. That tells me right away that you are capable of a lot of dedication and persistence in pursuing your writing. So the first thing I’d suggest is that you pause for a moment and give yourself a little credit for it. 🙂

Now, I don’t know all the details of your situation, so it’s possible that your work and other responsibilities have become more demanding recently, so maybe you haven’t been under the same time pressure for the past 6 years of writing.

But even if that’s the case, there must have been many times when other things were calling for your attention – and you somehow managed to tune them out long enough to get on with your writing.

How did you do that?

Can you recall a time when you were tempted to give in to distractions or outside pressures, but managed to ignore them and focus on your work? How?

Whatever it was you did – supposing you start doing more of that?

You Can’t Do Everything

It sounds like you’re confronting the fact that you can’t do everything in life. Whatever you choose to do, there’s “always something else to do”. This is why the stories of great creators often involve hard decisions and sacrifices – at least at the beginning.

Like the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. His day job in the Post Office meant he had very little spare time in which to realise his literary ambitions. His solution was to get up at 5.30 every morning and write several hundred words before breakfast. He also wrote on trains while traveling for work. Eventually, he earned enough from his novels to give up his job – but most of his 37 novels were written while he was a full-time employee.

A few years ago, I was in a similar situation: I was studying for a Master’s degree, running my coaching and therapy business, editing a poetry magazine and getting married, all of which required a lot of my time! And the middle of all of that, I decided I wanted to start a blog.

Reluctantly, I took Trollope’s route, and decided to sacrifice some sleep by getting up to write at 6.30 every morning. This was pretty hard for me, as I had always struggled to wake up early in the mornings. But the blog was important enough to make it worth the effort. (If you want to know how I did it, read How to Become an Early Riser by Steve Pavlina.)

I’m not saying you necessarily have to get up and write in the early mornings; that may not be the best time for you (see the next section for how to find out). But it sounds like you need to cut down on at least one activity in your life if you’re to find time to write.

Here’s the list of things you say are getting in the way of your writing:

  • housework
  • seeing friends
  • spending time with my partner
  • catching up with the news

Which of these would it be easiest to cut down on?

How much time could you create for your writing by doing so?

Write When You Have Most Energy

You say you’re often “too tired” to write. I know how you feel. To write properly, I need to be very alert – which means I need to make sure I write at the times of day when I’m naturally most awake.

All human beings have circadian rhythms of arousal and rest during the daily 24 hour cycle. For most people, this means they have plenty of energy and mental focus during the morning, feel drowsy at some point during the afternoon, and get a ’second wind’ of energy in the early evening.

So I always try to keep my mornings free for writing, when I know the words will flow easily; and I don’t even try to write after lunch. But some writers are able to work better during the evenings than the mornings.

If you’re a ’morning person’ then you’ve basically got two choices to make the most of your optimal writing time: get up early to write on weekdays; or keep at least one morning free for writing at weekends.

If you’re an ’evening person’ then it should be easier for you to write in the evenings after work.

Whichever your natural preference, you’d be only human if you felt too tired to write after a long day at work. In that case, if you really want to make the most of your evenings, you could try having a power nap for 15-20 minutes when you get in from work. According to neuroscientist John Medina, this will ’reset’ your brain and boost your productivity by 34%!

Even though I’m a morning person, I find that a power nap can work wonders if I really have to crank out some writing in the afternoon or evening.

Ring-Fence Time for Writing

One of the things that makes it hard to prioritise writing (or a similar creative activity) is that most of the other tasks demading your attention have someone else ready to fight for them: your boss wants you to do your work; your family want you to do your share of the housework; your friends will miss you if you disappear off the social scene.

But who is there to champion the cause of your writing? Only you. So you need to stand up for it!

Here’s how:

  1. Set aside time for writing. For example, 2 hours on a Saturday morning. Mark it in the diary! And tell your partner and/or anyone else who needs to know you’ll be unavailable (and who can encourage you to keep you promise to yourself).
  2. Write down all the excuses you could give yourself for not doing your writing at the appointed time.
  3. Now write down all of the genuine reasons you could have for not doing it. E.g. if my kids need urgent attention, that trumps writing for me. But not much else does.
  4. When it’s time to write, switch off your phone, e-mail, internet etc. Close the door. And write.
  5. If you do miss a day’s writing, give it back to yourself.

Make the Most of Odd Moments

You can take another leaf out of Anthony Trollope’s book, by copying his habit of writing on the train, in ’dead time’ between his other tasks.

I live in London, where lots of people complain about the time it takes to get anywhere by Tube train. Not me. Whenever I head into town, I take a book or notebook, and look forward to an hour’s reading or writing on the journey. Another bonus of the Tube is that no-one can ring me on my mobile while I’m down there. And of course, as this is Britain, there’s no danger of my fellow passengers trying to engage me in conversation. 😉

Where are the odd scraps of time during your week?

Could a notebook (or netbook) transform them into blissful oases of writing time for you?

Get (More) Organised

Another big change I made in my life at the time I started my first blog was to get more organised in my working habits. This meant I became much more efficient – and freed up extra time for important things like writing.

You may already be super-organised, in which case feel free to ignore this suggestion. But if not, then improving your time management skills will reduce your level of tiredness, as well as creating more writing time.

You’ll find plenty of advice on how to fine-tune your daily workflow for maximum creativity in my e-book Time Management for Creative People. It’s free to download and share, so you’re welcome to pass it on to anyone else who might find it helpful.

What Solutions Can You Think Of?

Have you ever successfully made time for your own creative projects in the midst of a busy schedule? How?

What advice can you offer to someone who’s struggling to find time for creative work?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

  1. Tell Us Your Creative Blocks – and We’ll Help You Smash Through Them!

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

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  1. Never Enough Time | January 22, 2010

Comments

  1. I have to say that you writing about creativity, and the “lack of time”, is extremely clear and on target! I have applied many of the solutions you suggest to refocus myself on my painting & drawing. I leave two hours in the morning to work before I leave for my work because that is when i have the most energy. I also carry a sketchbook virtual as well as paper for the odd moments available. I am constantly reorganizing to make better use of my time. From your suggestions I see that I can work more on focusing rather than multitasking in my head…I review all of those items that I should be doing and am not. I will also be interested in reading your post on “Fear of getting it wrong”. Thank you for the tangible suggestions!

  2. Hi y’all,

    I have to agree with Mark. When I lived in London for a year, I found that I had much more time to be creative & productive, because I either took a bus or the Tube to wherever.

    It’s more difficult now that I’ve returned to the U.S., since I drive to/from work and to most places I go.

    I’m working on recapturing moments to be creative, because I’ve found myself in a rut since my return.

    Interestingly, I participated in a small group experiment where we kept an on-line diary of our daily activity for a week. It was a group of creatives & it was fun to read how/where people spent their time.

    Sho – I’d suggest doing that task for about a week. It might help you to see if there are any gaps (even 15 – 20 mins) where you could write.

    I was able to post my entries nightly (and I’m fairly long-winded as you can tell), yet I haven’t been able to commit that time to my blog, or any other writing activity.

    One thing that kept me writing, once upon a time, was being part of groups – storytelling and poetry. Even when I didn’t have to prepare anything, I did and found myself with lots of writing to edit.

    I’ve started seeking spoken word artists for a show I produce 2x a month and that’s given me somewhat of a reset creatively. It’s been slow-going, but some activity/creativity is far better than none.

    Thanks Mark et al. for these great articles! They’ve given me much food for thought in the new year!

    Paula

  3. Marge Piatak says:

    Thank you, thank you for this series! After 30+ years in HR mangement (& losing my job), I’m transitioning into a completely different field & my real passion – working with animals. Creating a blog, website, related business, etc are all part of my new day-to-day reality (along with creating income in the meantime).

    Your post on making time is perfect! My struggle with creative blocks is much more apparent now, but I’ve come to realize they were always there – just not as “in my face” as when I was working 50-60 hrs a week & could make excuses more easily.

    It’s also nice to know these challenges are shared by many and all part of the creative process. Having ceativity-related challenges are much more welcome than juggling the politics of a cubicle oriented office environment.
    Looking forward to future posts!

  4. I know a couple of people who feel guilty taking time for themselves. They do tons of things for others, and they have a hard time saying no, all at the expense of their own creative practice.

    I emailed two image files for them to print out: one says, “NO” and the other says “OUT OF ORDER,” with instructions to post them where they’re most needed (even if it’s only in their imaginations). I don’t know if it worked, but they got a good laugh out of it.

    The intention isn’t to abandon everyone and everything, but rather to buy a little time. It’s more of a shift in thinking, to give yourself permission to take the time for your own creative practice.

  5. Thanks for another great article, Mark! I’m loving this series. One of the things I have found to be helpful is to get out of the “I need a big chunk of time to write” syndrome. Sometimes that just isn’t possible, especially if the person is juggling a stressful full-time job, kids and a partner. The solution is to start thinking small – small bites of time, that is. Maybe an hour or two of writing is simply impossible, but are 15 minutes? Maybe the rate of progress won’t be the same, but with discipline and consistency, those 15 minutes will amount to much more than one would think.

  6. Hi there,
    Love the creative blocks series.
    ONe solution I have found to be eye-opening and which gave me SOOOO much time was to just stop watching television.
    It’s only then that you realize the time you waste and could use more creatively.
    I still watch the occasional movie or report on tv, but my evenings are now filled with creative moments.
    M

  7. Mark,

    “Have you ever successfully made time for your own creative projects in the midst of a busy schedule? How?”

    That’s an easy question for me to answer. I wanted to start a creative website to cure writer’s block (click my name to see it), but didn’t have the time to design, promote, etc, even though it’s a simple concept. Work, kids, etc find a way to get in the way.

    Solution? I partnered with two other people and bang, within 2 days the site was live. If you’re having problems finding time for creative projects, partner with someone. It’s more effective and more fun, too.

  8. I honestly think you hit on a really good solution here – write before you get tired.

    I used to reserve writing for the afternoons, when the ‘work’ was cleaned up and everything was humming smoothly. Mistake. I was exhausted. The coffee’d run dry, my energy high was gone and I felt like Granpa needing a nap.

    One day I started to pay attention to when I felt most alert, most rockin’. And I realized I’d wake up at 5am, do some email and have coffee to settle in the rythym, and high gear began at about 6.30am.

    I’d churn everything out – whatever it was – until about noon… and begin to crash.

    So why not take advantage of that high? I rearranged my days so that I was doing more ‘brainless’ work in the afternoons, stuff I could take my time on or didn’t have to think much about, and saved my high time for writing.

    Works like a charm… but then again, I’ll grant that I’m a freelancer and set my own hours.

  9. Totally agree with all these pointers (and they are the foundation to any road to success or changes in your life). To gain what we truly desire, we usually have to sacrifice something (hopefully it is something as small as just less sleep 🙂 but in the end, as we dedicate and commit ourselves to these changes, we also become more efficient – and maybe in 6 months or so, we’ll only have to wake up half an hour earlier to get our best creative effort down on paper (or canvas or whatever your calling).

    Thank you for putting this in such a great perspective!

  10. I, too, have trouble finding time to write. Just like Sho, I run a business, I’m a mom and a wife, and I work out to keep my girlish figure. That leaves little time for writing.

    What I started doing a year ago is waking up 2 hours earlier (ugh, it’s hard!). But, I write best in the early morning, when the house is quiet and my mind is relaxed.

    It’s been a sacrifice, but I’m doing it. Sometimes I’m really tired the rest of the day, but this routine is the only one that works.

    I found that if I waited until the end of the day to write, it never happens, because too many other things would pop up, or I’d just be too tired.

    I’ve read about people who have written novels just by writing early in the morning before work. It’s inspiring, and if they can do it, so can we!

  11. @ Beth – “From your suggestions I see that I can work more on focusing rather than multitasking in my head”. Yes, we’re resolutely anti-multitasking round here. 🙂

    @ Paula – Interesting to hear how important groups can be in prompting us to ‘find time’. One of the reasons I’m attending a poetry workshop is that I know I’ll write more poems when I’m part of a group of others doing the same. Something to do with accountability and shared enthusiasm.

    @ Marge – “It’s also nice to know these challenges are shared by many and all part of the creative process.” Good, that’s one of the main reasons why I’m doing this series.

    @ Stacey – “I don’t know if it worked, but they got a good laugh out of it.” Me too! Great idea.

    @ Marwa – And the thing is, the first 15 minutes are often the most difficult – once you get started, it can be hard to stop…

    @ Mimi – When my wife and I first got married, we didn’t have a TV for 6 months, and we didn’t miss it. Of course, we HAD to get one for the World Cup! 😉

    @ Shane – Maybe partnering is similar to Paula’s groups – mutual encouragement/accountability. E.g. I tend to write my Wishful Thinking blog as and when I have time, as it’s only down to me. But I’ve told Tony and Brian I’ll make sure there’s something new up on Lateral Action every week, and hey presto…!

    @ James – Yes, I used to do it the wrong way round too! i.e. feel I should ‘clear my desk/inbox’ so I could concentrate on my real work… then found I’d run out of time/energy to do the important stuff. Probably my biggest ever productivity boost was when I reversed that pattern.

    @ Pia @ Maria – The good thing about doing the early morning sleep sacrifice is it gets it (and the important work) done and out the way, so you can enjoy the rest of the day, without it hanging over you…

  12. I used to also complain about not having enough time to write in the past. What i did that helped was to start a group on facebook that made it kind of compulsory for me to send out messages to members on a periodic basis. So I picked a schedule of sending them out fortnightly and ever since, because I know someone is out there counting on me to send a message, I create time to write down something, compulsorily.

    And guess what? It made me a better writer and now I always want to write even though it’s not yet time to send out new messages, I write ahead!

  13. Mark:

    I’ve had good results from following circadian rhythms and “ring fencing” time for writing.

    Thought I’d share this link to a great PDF about a little-known efficiency technique called Tabata: http://bit.ly/jksvHW It’s used for speedy gym work outs, but, as you’ll see, the author suggests it for efficiency in getting mundane tasks done.

    The basic idea is that if we become speedier at things we have to do, we’ll have time for things we want to do.

    Also, I’ve had some pretty good success with varied applications of Tabata. As for writing, I’ve figured out that early morning is my best time, so I block out 2 hours to do absolutely nothing else but write (I do mean early, i.e. 5:30-7:30am, when there’s almost no possibility of interruption).

    Knowing that a timer is set (I actually set one) makes me mindless of time and helps me get into “the zone.” I work faster and better because I get really focused. When the timer goes off, even if I’m on a roll, I go do a short work out, and then go forward with my day as planned (which almost always includes more timed writing).

    There’s something about timing – and a timer. 🙂

    Very helpful post. Thanks.

    Susan

  14. It all boils down to disciplining yourself, I know it’s not easy and these guidelines you have are useful to stay focus and determine to getting the things done. Thanks