Writers and Time Management

Paul Graham has an essay up here about why managers seem to like meetings whereas programmers – and writers – don’t. Writing, like programming, means creating abstract contraptions that one then have to laboriously debug/ edit until they actually fly. For this purpose, one needs multiple-hour blocks of interruption-free time, a scarce commodity for the writer who has a day job and/ or kids. Which is not unrelated to why so much perfect prose was produced by people who lived in the nineteenth century and had servants.

In another essay Graham writes,“I’ve wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they’re just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there’s no one to interrupt them yet.” This essay provides a justification for my putting off cleaning my apartment in order to hack through another draft of a novel — postponing cleaning up is actually a crucial time management tactic, one moreover at which I excel.

But for writers there can never be enough time, because ultimately there’s no such thing as a “final draft” – I’ve never read through any supposedly-completed manuscript of mine without making some improvements, however minor. A computer program can also, in theory, be improved indefinitely, until you run into diminishing returns on your time investment, and like Achilles say, “I nearly reached the tortoise, I’ll go chase another one now.”

A sentence I once heard attributed to a CEO — “Anything that can be done can be done in two weeks.” Whereas Samuel R. Delany, in About Writing, mentions what a short time a decade is, from the point of view of a mature writer mindful of posterity…

Challenged to name a helpful idea by Stephen Covey, one of my readers cited the principle that people don’t spend enough time on tasks that are important but not urgent. A writer could perhaps be defined as someone who spends too much time on tasks that are important but not urgent…
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  • dannielo

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    http://www.Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

  • James Warner

    Lydia Millet, How The Dead Dream — "In the wild, he thought, there would be almost no waiting. Waiting was what happened to you when you lost control, when events were out of your hands or your freedom was taken from you; but in the wild there would always be trying. In the wild there must be trying and trying, he thought, and no waiting at all. Waiting was a position of dependency. Not that animals in the wild were not watchful, did not have to freeze in place, alert and unmoving — they must do so often — but it would hardly be waiting then. It would be more like pausing."

    In terms of Millet's distinction, a writer or programmer who's writing or programming is trying: in a meeting, he or she is waiting… and most likely performing what a zookeeper would call stereotypic movements… but a manager in a meeting is trying.

  • Bly S.

    Very trying.

  • Yamamoto Tsunotomo

    Every decision should be made within the space of seven breaths.