“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
The year 2014 was one of the most difficult years of my writing career.
That was the year we moved for the first time in more than twenty years. The sale of the house and the moving process occupied at least eight weeks of my life. Also that year, my father — a good and great man who was always a hero to me — died unexpectedly. So it was an emotionally wrenching year as well.
I had a number of books lined up for several different publishers, plus an assortment of short-term projects. After the move in March and the death of my father in May, I found myself falling behind on deadlines. After I delivered one book late, every other book on my schedule became a race against time.
I wasn’t used to being so far behind schedule. I wasn’t used to asking editors for deadline extensions. I wrote quickly and worked productively, producing more than half a million words for publication that year, averaging almost 1,500 words per day — and those averages included the two months during the house sale and move, when I got almost no writing done at all.
How did I get so much writing done during that year of adversity? I adopted a schedule that was insane and almost suicidal. I don’t recommend it. In fact, I offer this account not as a brag, but as a confession. I think I scheduled my writing year very stupidly, and I have vowed never to do that to myself again. More on that in a moment.
Let me share some time management principles that I knew, but lost sight of during that difficult year. Here are some ways to be a productive writer while maintaining your sanity, your relationships, and a balanced perspective on life:
First, change the way you think about time. People have strange ideas about time. We tend to think (especially when we’re young) that we have all the time in the world, that time is an inexhaustible resource. But time is a finite and precious resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of us knows how much time we have. As Joan Didion reflected after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
You cannot buy time. You cannot save time. You cannot stretch time. You cannot make up for lost time. You must use each moment to the fullest; there’s no guarantee you will ever have another. Whatever you want to accomplish, do it now.
Wise King Solomon offers this insight into the true nature of time: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 KJV). This is your season. Writing is your purpose. Now is your time.
Second, commit yourself to living a balanced life. I paid a heavy price to re-learn this lesson. During 2014, I stacked my writing projects and deadlines too close together, and I didn’t leave enough cushion in my schedule to allow for the unexpected. And it turned out to be a year of unexpected events. There was a period of about six months when I averaged four or five hours of sleep per night, seven days a week.
It was a nightmarish existence, in which I sometimes found myself dreaming (perhaps even hallucinating) at my computer. I found it hard to stay awake during the day, hard to get to sleep at night. I soon realized that my overtaxed brain was acclimating itself to this ungodly schedule, because I was regularly waking up a minute or two before my alarm went off, after only four hours of sleep.
I consumed the elixir of more than a pound of coffee beans per week. My judgment suffered. My friendships suffered. I was so immersed in sleeplessness and stress that, following the death of my father, I delayed the full onset of the grieving process. When my deadline stress finally subsided in the summer of 2015, grief over my father’s death began to hit me harder than ever, more than a year after his death.
Throughout 2014, I produced a lot of words, a lot of books, but I mistreated my brain and neglected my family. That’s no way to live. And that’s no way to write.
So, from now on, I’m committed to living a balanced life.
Clearly, I have accumulated regrets from that difficult year. But here’s something I don’t regret: No matter how many mistakes and poor choices I made in 2014 (and they were legion), I made sure I left nothing unsaid, no unfinished business with my family. I made sure I said “I love you” to the people I love.
The night before my father died, I called my Mom and Dad on the phone and we talked for about forty minutes. My dad had no major health problems, and I had no reason to suspect that this would be my last conversation with him. We laughed and shared memories. It was a good talk, as so many of our talks have been.
At the end of that conversation, I said, “I love you both.” And they said, “We love you, son.” That wasn’t unusual. We often said those words to each other.
None of us knew that those were my father’s last few hours on earth. None of us expected that he would be gone the next morning. I’m glad we spent that last conversation laughing and remembering and saying “I love you.”
This life is all too short, and time is a nonrenewable resource. Invest each day wisely.
“Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV
For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:
Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]
And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]
Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]
These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.