Almost six years ago, I quit my job to be a full-time mom and writer. I went from a having a predictable routine at the office to creating all my own structure, deadlines, and expectations. I also have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Lack of structure can spell big problems for me if I’m not careful. I had to learn how to keep myself organized and productive at home.
Since my last day at the office, I’ve finished one novel, started another, built a successful blog, and published a book. I didn’t have a boss to hold me accountable for any of this. Most of us writers don’t, at least early in our careers. If you self-publish, you’ll never have anyone to answer to but yourself. And that’s not always easy.
Here are a few of my secrets to an organized and productive writing life.
Write it all down.
Yes, your writing-writing, but everything else, too. The writer’s life seems to be a distracted one. I succeed by assuming I’ll forget pretty much everything.
You might think I’m talking about keeping good business records, and you’d be half-right. I have a spreadsheet where I keep notes about agents and writers I talk to at conferences. I keep detailed records of every query and submission I send out: who I sent it to, how I sent it, when I sent it, what the response period is (if it’s advertised), any personalized notes I receive on rejections, etc. This habit saves me a lot of duplicated work, regret, and embarrassment.
But you’ll also see me scribbling on sticky notes while sitting at a red light or waiting in the school pickup line. This is because I keep a pad of sticky notes in my car’s center console. I also stash them in a drawer in my dining room, next to my bed, and pretty much anywhere else I use my brain.
If you don’t want to forget it, write it down. Plus, traveling everywhere with pens and paper will make you feel so much more writerly!
Pay yourself first.
My husband said this to me recently when I let my office get overwhelmed with clutter and dust. The rest of the house looked fine, but I always left my space for last. It can feel heroic to put ourselves last. It’s also unhealthy.
For me, a quiet space equals a quiet mind. If I’m surrounded by mess and clutter, or my writing space is gross and dusty, I won’t feel welcome there. I won’t do my best work. No matter how modest it may be, take good care of the place where you go to write. If you don’t have a dedicated work space, make sure your laptop’s keyboard and screen are clean. It’ll encourage you — and everyone else — to take your work seriously.
Same goes for your time. Set aside time for your writing, even if you don’t always feel you’ve earned it. When my son is at school, I consider that my work time. I try not to do errands or household chores (and yes, this means my son participates in these jobs with me later in the day). Of course, I do make exceptions, but I do it with an awareness that I’m sacrificing some of my writing time. It can feel awkward to demand time for a pursuit that isn’t earning you a living (yet), but that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to achieve your writing goals.
Get to know yourself.
We all fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, and it can contribute to a really narrow view of what success looks like.
As a parent of a young child, I see other at-home parents contributing a lot to my son’s school. They chair fundraisers, start new committees, and volunteer in the classroom. It’s easy to let myself feel bad, like I should contribute more. After all, it’s not like I have a job I need to go to, right?
Except I do. I’m not just an at-home parent. I’m also a writer.
Meditate on your values and ask yourself what would make you feel successful. What kind of person do you want to be, for yourself and for your family? If you want to be a writer, you need to be kind of ruthless with your time. If you keep saying yes to other obligations because you think you should, you’ll end up starving your writing and living a life that doesn’t fit you.
Be realistic about what’s possible.
Once you really get to know yourself, you’ll develop a feel for what does and doesn’t work for you. Trust that self-knowledge. Be realistic about what you can do and how it gets done.
We’re fed a lot of images and stereotypes about what a writer is and does. You don’t have to stay up writing for hours after your kids go to bed, or write in that hip cafe down the street. If you can’t drag yourself out of bed for #5amwritersclub, that’s okay. Some writers can write 2,000 words per day, others write more slowly. You do you. Make peace with who you are. Encourage the writing habits and environments that nurture your productivity, even if they don’t support the glamourous writer image in your mind.
Most of all, stop pressuring yourself to be someone you’re not or spend time on things that aren’t a priority. Do whatever it takes — and whatever actually works — to nurture a daily writing habit that lasts.