ABOUT THIS WEBSITE: I created WritingInOverdrive.com to help writers discover how to “write in overdrive” — that is, how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. Here I will share with you the superpower I discovered by accident. I hope this revolutionary approach to writing will become your superpower as well.
ABOUT THE BIG YELLOW BOXES: I put those yellow boxes here because I HATE POPUP ADS. I especially hate those popups that jump up and block the page until you click them away. I believe in the Golden Rule, and I would never inflict on you something that aggravates me. So there are NO POPUPS on this site. I hope you’ll click the yellow box, sign up for my FREE newsletter, and enjoy your download of my FREE PDF-format ebook, A Writer’s Superpower.
ABOUT MY NEWSLETTER: Do you hate a cluttered email inbox as much as I do? I promise, I won’t barrage you with email. I’m only going to send out a dozen or so newsletters PER YEAR. Each one will be packed with information you can use, information that will motivate and inspire you to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. Yes, I’ll announce my latest books, and yes, I hope you’ll buy one. But whether you buy or not, we’ll still be friends — and those newsletters will still be loaded with information and insight that will make you a faster, more creative, more confident writer.
“Every day I try to be in communication with the universe in an unconscious way.” —Paulo Coelho
Writing faster and writing better is not a matter of techniques or shortcuts or writing secrets. Sure, there are a few tricks you can learn that will increase your writing speed at the margins: You can eliminate time-wasting habits, use voice dictation software instead of typing, and so forth. I talk about these tricks in my books, and they can help you become a faster writer. But these tricks won’t make you more a more brilliant writer.
There’s only one writing insight you can learn that will make you a faster and more brilliant writer: You must learn to write unconsciously.
In other words, you must learn to write in flow or in the zone. Great writing does not involve thinking. Great writing comes from a deeper part of us than the conscious intellect. It comes from the unconscious mind.
John Steinbeck, in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” Steinbeck warned the young writer not to stop and edit or rewrite while in the creative process. “Rewrite in process,” he said, “is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” as I prefer to call it), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely and quickly and without inhibitions, you tap into the writer’s most powerful engine of imagination, the unconscious mind.
Ursula K. Le Guin has described her writing process as “a pure trance state. … All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”
In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are aware of it — ”The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.”
Brande underscores the fact that this faculty is the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is low and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, Brande says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. . . . The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”
One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous disciples, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought is poisonous to the creative process, and that true creativity springs from the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years, now, which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ That’s the enemy of creativity. . . . Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down!”
What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit — a human reflection of the creativity of God?
I don’t know. No one knows. The term unconscious mind is a convenient label for a phenomenon we can’t explain. We don’t need to know where the unconscious mind is located or how it works, but I can tell you this from my own personal experience:
The unconscious mind is the key to unlocking our incredible creative powers.
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” —Ernest Hemingway
Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”
In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”
Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.
Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”
Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”
Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:
If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .
A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.
Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)
E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”
Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:
The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.
Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!
For more insight into how to write freely, powerfully, confidently, without inhibition, read my books for writers. Learn to tap into the incredibly powerful source of creative inspiration, “the Muse” or unconscious mind.
“You don’t want to think when you’re writing. You want to stop thinking and just go on inspiration.” —Garth Stein
Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist and a science fiction writer. He is best known for his Galactic Center Saga, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1977). Benford says that, though he is a rational scientist, he relies heavily on unconscious intuition when writing fiction. When he began writing In the Ocean of Night in the summer of 1975, he followed an unconscious, unplanned process that, he said, unfolded as “a series of revelations.”
Benford had written his way to the midpoint of the novel when a stunning plot twist came to him out of the blue — a shocking surprise that was exactly what he needed at that point in the story. It was brilliant — and completely unforeseen. As Benford pondered the plot twist, he realized he had unknowingly planted clues throughout the first half of the book. The plot twist would be absolutely fitting and would play fair with the reader by being set up beforehand — yet the reader would not see it coming any more than Benford had.
How had he managed to plant those clues when he wasn’t even conscious of where the clues were leading him? Answer: Benford’s unconscious mind knew all along. But he had to write half the novel in order for his conscious mind to catch up to what his unconscious mind already knew.
“It was that kind of assembly work,” he later said, “in which you slowly understand what is going on. . . . This seems to be the way that I have to write books. It takes a long time to put together the ideas and figure out what it means.”
As we learn to rely on the power of the unconscious mind, we discover a completely new way of imagining, creating, and writing. Our stories, scenes, dialogue, and emotions spill forth with compelling energy from the depths of the uninhibited, unconscious mind.
This doesn’t mean the conscious mind — the intellect — is unimportant. The conscious mind is the critical and analytical part of us, not the creative part. Creativity springs from the Muse. To write truthful and compelling fiction, we must understand the role of the unconscious mind — and allow the unconscious to drive the process.
Don’t try to analyze what the unconscious mind is doing. “The unconscious more than anything hates being dragged into public,” observed science-fantasy writer C. L. Moore, adding that the unconscious “can’t work under the inspection of the conscious mind.”
Great writers understand that art (as filmmaker Jean Cocteau observed) “is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, explains how the conscious and unconscious work together. “The trick with writing,” he said, “is that there’s an art to it and there’s a craft to it. The craft of writing is all the stuff that you can learn through school, [going] to workshops and [reading] books. Learn characterization, plot and dialogue and pacing and word choice and point of view. Then there’s also the art of it which is sort of the unknown, the inspiration, the stuff that is noncerebral.”
As you write, don’t think. Fantasize. Daydream. Play with ideas. Let your unconscious mind take control of your story. Let it give life to your characters. Let it plan the hidden twists and turns of your plot.
“The best thing to do is to loosen my grip on my pen and let it go wandering about.” —Machado de Assis
For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:
I like to hear writers talk about how and why they write, and how their creative process works. So from time to time, I’ll feature interviews with highly creative, highly productive writers, beginning today with Jacci Turner.
As a novelist, Jacci has written mostly middle grade and young adult fiction (her book Bending Willowwas selected by Nevada Librarians to represent Nevada at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C.). Her first novel for adult readers, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening, will be published March 28, 2017, by Harper Legend, an imprint of HarperCollins. You may pre-order it here. Now, meet Jacci Turner:
Jim Denney: Jacci, is there a single thread or theme that runs through your books?
Jacci Turner: Yes, I’d say I’m a bit of an optimist so, even though the world can be a really difficult place, I think there’s good and hope in it. My tag line is “Infusing Reality with Hope.”
Jim: You call your new novel The Retreat “a tale of spiritual awakening.” What inspired the story?
Jacci: This story is based on a real experience I had. I was sent to a monastery in Nebraska by a friend who raised the money for me to go to this retreat. The first night I was walking around, wondering what I was doing at a monastery in Nebraska and this book sort of downloaded into my brain. The exercises in the book are some that I did at the retreat, as well as some from other retreats. Of course, the characters are made up, but they’re a compilation of real people.
Jim: Do you write primarily to express what you already know, or to explore questions and find answers through the writing process?
Jacci: I think I write to clarify what I’ve gone through. I like finding words for my experience. Even if I’m writing fantasy, I’m trying to understand my world.
Jim: What have you learned about writing that no one ever told you, even in writer’s workshops or books on writing? In other words, what have you discovered about writing simply by writing?
Jacci: I’ve learned that your characters can take over a story. That was a surprise to me. And I’ve learned that a story can come to you and you can choose to ignore it until it goes away, but some are stubborn and insistent and nag at you until you break down and write them. It’s a more mystical experience than I ever knew.
Jim: It’s been said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. Who are your literary heroes and heroines, the authors who inspired you?
Jacci: Ah, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. I love so many. . . . Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gail Carson Levine, Madeleine L’Engle, and of course J. K. Rowling, for a start.
Jim: What is the hardest part of writing for you? What’s the easiest?
Jacci: Writing is easy, editing is hard. I have a friend who loves to edit. I hate her.
Jim: Hah! I’ve got one of those friends, too. I hear you. I love the process of creating. I do not enjoy revising and editing. Speaking of the creative process, do you have any writing rituals or habits that help to prepare you for a writing session?
Jacci: I write on Tuesdays. It’s something I started when I began writing about eight years ago. Tuesday was my day off and it has worked for me. I’ve written thirteen books (two aren’t yet published) on Tuesdays. I get to the library about ten and write until two or three. That’s it. I think that authors telling other writers that they have to get up at four a.m. and write every day are doing us disservice. I mean what is four a.m. anyway? I’ve certainly never seen it.
Jim: That’s fascinating! I don’t think I’ve ever met a Tuesday writer before. I’m a “write every day” writer, but I’m also a “whatever works for you” writer, and everybody’s creative process is different and unique. I’m sure there are people reading this who can only write one day a week, or fifteen minutes a day, and they’re tired of hearing writing instructors telling them they’re doing it “wrong.” There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing, and you are proof, Jacci, that you can be amazingly productive writing one day a week — especially if you use that day to the fullest.
Now, some writers outline or “pre-write” their stories. Others — so-called “pantsers” who “write by the seat of their pants” — leap into their stories and write without an outline. Which type of writer are you? And why does that approach suit you?
Jacci: I’m a “pantser.” Maybe it’s just my personality, but I’ve never outlined a book. I do mull, though. I mull over a story line sometimes before I write, so maybe I’m just outlining in my head. Maybe I’m a closet outliner! Oh no!
Jim: How do you imagine scenes?
Jacci: I’m very visual. I see and hear it in my head, like a movie. Because of that, I have trouble writing in enough description. That’s what my editor always says: “I don’t know where we are. Where are we?” I mean, I see it. Why can’t she?
Jim: Do you experience writing “in flow”? How do you get into “flow”?
Jacci: There are only two places I’ve experienced losing time, one is while writing, the other in prayer. I love to get in the flow of a story, especially during my once or twice a year get-away-to-write weekends. I love to be alone and just have time to write and write and write. Those are the best. I have friends that let me house-sit in the summer on their little farm. It’s such a privilege to have time and just get lost in it.
Jim: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Jacci: Read. Write. Jump out of an airplane if you feel stuck. We need to live life if we are going to write about it. Join a critique group and a writing group. We need all the help and support we can get! Never stop learning.
Jim: Thanks, Jacci, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process. You’ve shown us that creativity is more than artistic expression. It’s deeply connected to our spirituality and to our uniqueness as individuals. I wonder how many other “Tuesday writers” (or some-other-day-of-the-week writers) are reading these words. You’ve given them excellent affirmation today. Keep infusing reality with hope!
I recently discovered that Ray Bradbury made an appearance with Groucho Marx on the 1950s quiz show You Bet Your Life. At age thirty-five, Ray had two novels and a short story collection to his credit (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and The Golden Apples of the Sun), as well as the screenplay for John Huston’s motion picture Moby Dick. It’s an entertaining TV appearance from May 24, 1956. Among other things, we learn how Ray Bradbury met his wife. Ray is on-screen during the first eight minutes of the program. Enjoy.
In Part 1, we looked at how to put more time in our lives through organizing our priorities. Now in Part 2, we’ll look at a concept that I believe is going to revolutionize your writing life and speed you to your writing goals: The Grab 15 Principle. But first, we’ll look at how to keep your writing time safe and sacred from intrusions by other people:
Second: Don’t let other people hijack your time. You have a right to set your own agenda for success in life. Others will try to entice you or even bully you into setting your priorities aside so you can meet their priorities. They’ll use guilt and manipulation to pull you away from your goals. Don’t let them.
As J. K. Rowling observed, “The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books.”
When someone asks you to take on a task, immediately decide (1) whether it is something you choose to do or not, and (2) what priority this task should have (if any) on your Things to Do list. If you agree to take on that person’s task, put in the appropriate category — Priority 1, 2, or 3 — and accomplish it according to the priority it deserves. Just because someone is clamoring the loudest doesn’t mean his wishes should be your command.
It’s okay to say “no” without making excuses or offering any reasons. It’s okay to say, “This is my time, and I choose to spend it another way.” You don’t have to make up a lie or justify yourself. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Most people will respect your polite-but-firm refusal — and if they don’t, that’s their problem.
People will chew up your writing time if you let them. They’ll phone you or knock on your door and refuse to hang up or leave. When that happens to me, I find it helps to be polite but direct. I say, “I’m on a deadline,” or, “I’m short of time right now,” or, “I have to hang up now, my appendix just burst.” A good friend of mine simply says, “I’m going to hang up now.” If you want to be diplomatic about it, you can say, “I’m glad you called, let’s do this again real soon.”
Third: Follow the Grab 15 Principle.I learned this principle years ago while partnering on books with Bert Decker and Dru Scott Decker. Bert is the author of You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard and founder of Decker Communications, Inc. His wife, Dru, is a popular business speaker and author of such books as Stress That Motivates and Women as Winners. Dru originated the Grab 15 Principle, and Bert and Dru both promote it in their writing and speaking. It has changed my life by putting hundreds of extra hours into my schedule.
Here’s how it works:
You’ve got a project you want to accomplish, but your schedule is so full that you just don’t have the time. It might be that book you want to write, the exercise program you want to start, the new language you want to master. You’re saving this project for that mythical “someday” when you have “more time” — which, of course, will never happen.
But, thanks to the Grab 15 Principle, it can happen. Most of us are unaware of how much priceless, irreplaceable time slips through our fingers like sand through an hourglass. The Grab 15 Principle salvages that time and uses it to make our dreams come true. This principle is amazingly easy to follow and incredibly powerful:
First, select the project you wish to accomplish.
Next, make a commitment to “grab fifteen” minutes every day without fail to work on it. Come rain or come shine, come hell or high tide, you will devote a minimum of fifteen minutes of every day to your dream. Promise yourself that your head won’t hit the pillow until you’ve done your Grab 15.
Sounds too easy, right? But there are a number of good reasons why this principle works.
First reason: All those fifteen-minute snippets of time quickly add up. Let me ask you this: What could you do with an extra 78 hours a year? Because even if you take Sundays off and only “Grab 15” six days a week, that works out to 90 minutes per week — or 78 hours a year. That is time that would otherwise just fall through the cracks. You’ve magically, effortlessly added the equivalent of almost two 40-hour work weeks to your life.
Second reason: The Grab 15 Principle boosts your creativity, concentration, and retention. This is especially important if you are writing a novel or play. The Grab 15 Principle keeps your head in the game. Every day, you’ll spend at least fifteen minutes concentrating on your project. This provides reinforcement and continuity from day to day.
Without Grab 15, you’d be starting from scratch every few months or years, whenever you happen to get around to your project. You’d lose tons of time just saying to yourself, “Now, where was I?”
With Grab 15, you never lose your place, never lose your momentum. You remain focused on your goal day after day, so ideas and insights come to you in the shower, on your commute, and while you exercise, because your project is never far from your thoughts. This magnifies the effectiveness of each fifteen-minute session.
Third reason: The Grab 15 Principle keeps you disciplined. It imposes a daily requirement and keeps you moving steadily toward your goal. It creates a daily habit in your life that soon becomes hard to break. If you go a day without keeping your promise to yourself, you really miss it — and you make sure to get back on track the next day.
Fourth and most important reason: You find it hard to stop at fifteen minutes. You put in your fifteen minutes and discover you’re on a roll, and you just keep going. That’s even more bonus time to carry you toward your goals.
I use the Grab 15 Principle every day. This idea works.
Spend your life doing what counts
Dru Scott told me the story of her friend, Margaret. At age forty-two, after suffering a series of unexplained headaches, Margaret went to the doctor. The doctors diagnosed her with an advanced and inoperable brain tumor. She had one week to live.
Margaret’s husband phoned Dru with the shattering news. Dru had seen Margaret only days before, and she had seemed healthy and vital. Margaret had a happy marriage, a rewarding career, two fine sons, and everything to live for. Why did she have to die? And why so cruelly and suddenly?
Two days before Margaret’s death, Dru talked to her on the phone. Though the pain medication slowed Margaret’s speech, it could not quench her spirit. “For some reason, during these past six months,” Margaret said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time. I always thought of myself as career-oriented, but lately I’ve realized that my family is the most important thing in my life. These past few months, even though I had no idea I was about to die, I’ve spent much more time with David and the boys.”
When Margaret said that, Dru recalled her last visit in Margaret’s home. “I should feel guilty about that mess,” Margaret had said, pointing to a messy desk in one corner, “but there are a lot of things more important than a clean desk. Lately, I’ve been concentrating on more important things — on my husband and my boys, on building family memories. It’s so much easier to face what I am facing now because I’ve spent my time doing what really counts.”
Are you and I spending our time doing what really counts? Or are we just “killing time”? Let’s use the gift of this present moment to do the things that matter.
When you pick up a paycheck, you are making a life-and-death transaction. You are trading a chunk of your life, your finite mortal existence, for a medium of exchange called “money.” Over the span of your lifetime, you will have only a certain number of heartbeats, a certain number of seconds, a certain number of years. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
Ever hear someone say, “I’m just killing time”? What are they really saying? “I’m killing myself.” Because time is all you have, and when it’s gone, you’re dead. When you kill time, you kill yourself, moment by moment, second by second, a little bit at a time.
“People with a keen sense of the preciousness of time are a valuable resource,” my friend Pat Williams once told me. “They are the leaders, the go-getters, the entrepreneurial spirits. They’re the people you can count on to get the job done. People who understand the value of one tick of the clock are the ones who make the world a better place.”
Pat, the co-founder of the Orlando Magic NBA franchise, offers this basketball analogy. “In our game,” he said, “time is everything. You’ve got four twelve-minute quarters to get the job done — forty-eight minutes to shoot more baskets than the other guy. As soon as the ball is inbounded, the shot clock starts ticking. You’ve got just twenty-four seconds to shoot, or the ball turns over. And you don’t have the luxury of taking a nice, leisurely shot. Usually, you’re double-teamed, and you’ve got to find some way to force the shot while that clock is ticking down. It’s not easy — but there’s no finer feeling in the world than beating the buzzer and making the pressure shot. It’s the same way in life.”
Time is irreplaceable, life is precious. We don’t have a moment to waste.
The myth of “when I have more time”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Someday, when I have more time . . .” I used to say that myself. Now I know better. I’m never going to have more time than I have right now.
People always think there’s a magical “someday” out there when they will be less busy, when there will be fewer responsibilities and demands on their time, when the pace of life will slow down to a leisurely crawl. But if you truly want to make your dreams come true, you can’t wait until “someday.” You have to do it now.
My friend Phil Brewer, a counselor and leadership trainer, told me about a trip he took to Europe in 1977. “I went to Switzerland and interviewed several writers and thinkers, including Paul Tournier, the great Swiss psychiatrist,” he told me. “And there is one statement Dr. Tournier made that had a profound impact on my life.
“He said, ‘People are always looking for the right time and the perfect place to write, to paint, to accomplish some goal. They say, “I have to be in the mountains, I have to be on the coast, everything must be just so.” But if you look at all the great achievements of history, you’ll see that they have largely been done in cold, cramped, unpicturesque conditions.’
“Those words hit me right between the eyes. It took me years to fully absorb the great truth that Dr. Tournier had given to me. I’m still absorbing it. I think he saw in me a perfectionist streak that so often keeps me from starting a project until ‘just the right moment.’ I want a cup of coffee, but I want to drink it on the beach in Maui.
“The point is this: If you’re going to write the Great American Novel, then write it. Don’t put it off until everything’s just so. Do it, and do it now.”
Practical tips for putting more time in your day
Effective time management begins with personal responsibility. You and I are each responsible for the way we invest our time. We can’t expect anyone else to organize our schedules or remind us of our goals. You own your own day, and I own mine. You and you alone are responsible for how you invest your time — or how you squander it.
In this two-part blog post, I’ll offer some tips for magically putting more time in your day. Here’s the first one:
First: Organize and prioritize. In order to achieve your most important goals, you must prioritize your time. First order of business: Make a list. Call it a “Things To Do” list or a “Priorities” list. I keep mine on a clipboard that hangs on the wall next to my computer. Every time I think of a new priority, I add it to the list.
I break my list into three categories:
Priority 1. Long-range dreams and goals.
Priority 2. Urgencies and emergencies.
Priority 3. Nonessentials.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these priorities and how to manage them:
Priority 1: Long-range dreams and goals. This is the category where you list such things as that dream house you want to build or the novel you want to write — whatever it is that will take you where you want to be in life. Priority 1 items are essential, but not necessarily urgent. It’s where you put your grand dreams, your hopes for the future, the projects you want to accomplish, but which tend to get crowded out by urgencies and emergencies.
Priority 2: Urgencies and emergencies. This is the category where you list the things that need to get done right away, like preparing for that presentation at the office next week. Or renewing your driver’s license. Or filing your 1040. Or scheduling that root canal. Or cleaning out the garage so you can put your car away at night.
Priority 2 stuff doesn’t really enrich your life or move you toward your dreams and goals — but not getting your Priority 2 stuff done can really make a mess of your life. These chores may not enhance your life, but they are always urgent and necessary.
Priority 3: Nonessentials. This is where you list things that need to get done, but which are medium to low priority. Often these tasks are the smallest and most easily accomplished, like “Email Joe and Mandy” or “Take down Xmas lights” or “Call Congressman Fogbottom, give him a piece of my mind.”
Once you have your list of priorities, allocate time accordingly. If you know you have nine hours to spend today, then allocate the appropriate amount of time to each priority. You can allocate it in any way that makes sense to you. Personally, if I had nine hours to divvy up, I’d probably do it this way: Five hours to Priority 1 tasks; three hours to Priority 2 tasks; and one hour to Priority 3 tasks.
Break down big, intimidating projects into bite-size, non-threatening chunks. For example, instead of putting “Write the Great American Novel” on your list, break it down into smaller component tasks: “Outline plot,” “Write character sketches,” “Research background and setting,” “Write Chapter 1,” and so forth.
Group together activities that are logically related, and do them in batches for maximum efficiency. If you have a half dozen letters to write, write ’em in a row. Maximize effectiveness by minimizing transition time, decision time, and down time.
Don’t procrastinate. Start now. Do one thing at a time, finish it completely, then move to the next item.
Organizing your priorities is essential to putting more time in your day. A surgeon was once asked what he would do if he only had five minutes to perform an operation to save a patient’s life. His reply: “I’d spend the first two minutes planning the operation.” Time spent planning and organizing your priorities is time well invested.