Finding Time to Write When You’re Crazy Busy

After I sent my “how to write well” article to my email list a few weeks ago, I got several questions about my writing routine.

I’m going to be honest, it’s not the most structured or meticulous. But I do write a lot, so here it is…

What to Do When You’re Too Busy for Routine Writing Time

Writing well is mainly a function of having something to say, practicing a lot, and using and incorporating good feedback from smart and good faith readers.

Of course, practicing a lot is hard. This is true for bloggers working on a new article, novelists working on a short story or first novel, or podcasters working on a podcast outline. Writing projects are hard and require time, effort, and a lot of critical thinking.

Most of us aren’t paid by the New Yorker to spin out essays monthly, though I do think the fastest way to learn to write well is under an incentive structure of speed and payment.

That’s why journalists rarely face “writer’s block.” They just hit deadlines.

In my own experience, writing long-form essays with a high quality bar at CXL twice or more a week “toughened me up” so to speak.

Currently, my schedule is wildly busy and mostly filled with non-writing activities. I’m working a full-time day job at HubSpot and trying to grow a small content marketing agency, so making time for writing is a challenge. Granted, I work remote so my lack of a commute is a hidden blessing – but I still want to make time for social life and free time, too.

How do I surmount that challenge and find writing time? In a messier way than you’d probably like (move over Tim Ferriss, there’s no miracle morning here).

My writing sessions prompted by ‘writing triggers,’ moments or moods that shift the momentum for me. I basically ride the waves that are set off by a good trigger point, and these waves usually keep writing both interesting and productive for me.

Here are some of those writing triggers.

I write when I’m under deadline

Parkinson’s Law says that the time allotted to a task is how long it will take to get done, so I use that psychology to my advantage: I set aggressive deadlines whenever possible, promising external parties that I’ll get things done before I think I can.

There’s nothing like a deadline to give you the inspiration you need to push through.

I write when I think

I spend a lot of time sitting on my balcony just thinking (sometimes while reading), and I always keep a journal nearby. I go for long walks to think as well, typically starting and stopping several times to write down notes on my phone or notebook.

I know this doesn’t sound like “Writing,” but believe it or not, this is where the vast majority of my ideas and breakthroughs come from (not only for writing, for business in general). There’s a great book called “The Road Less Stupid” that dives into this idea of “thinking time” and how important (and overlooked) it is for business leaders. Think more, write more.

Sometimes, if I have a lot of information to process, I just open an empty Google Doc and start writing. I find that helps me iron out my thinking.

I write when I’m stressed

When I feel overwhelmed, I can often let some of that pressure go by writing. To be honest though, stress usually leads me to vigorous exercise or a happy hour with funny friends instead, and not to the pen and paper.

I write when I’m angry

For better or for worse, I write a lot when something sparks my ire. This is usually something that annoys me about the business world, which you can clearly see in my essays on brand awareness and ‘free lunch’ in content marketing. Lots of good writing comes from frustration and anger.

I write when I’m procrastinating

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gotten a lot of high quality writing done when I was supposed to be doing something else. Whoops!

Marc Andreessen wrote about this (actually borrowed it from an essay called Structured Procrastination). He wrote“The gist of Structured Procrastination is that you should never fight the tendency to procrastinate — instead, you should use it to your advantage in order to get other things done.”

Here’s a paragraph from the original essay that I love:

“I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things.”

If you embrace structured procrastination it will change your life for the better. (Breaking the fourth wall, I’m actually supposed to be working on a workshop presentation right now).

I write when I have a cool idea

When an idea pops into my head – whether from reading, watching a documentary, a conversation with a friend, a random jolt of inspiration from the writing Gods, or feedback from a reader or a friend – I try to write about it as soon as possible.

Sometimes, I’m in a bar or cafe with friend when I have that idea, so I have to jot it down in an email to myself. But if I’m at home and in front of a laptop and inspiration strikes, I try to write immediately and as fast as I possibly can (no editing) to get my thoughts transmitted and out of my head.

This essay, here, was inspired by a question from an email list subscriber.

I write for social media

Even if it’s not working on my first book or even a first draft of an essay, writing for social media is great practice, too. I find there’s even less pressure if you write a quick LinkedIn post or even a Tweet. You can fire off a LinkedIn post or Quora answer on your lunch break, so a lack of time isn’t a concern.

Removing my perfectionist streak is really the highest leverage. On my own accord, I’ll spend months working on an essay with the word count quickly adding up past 3-4k.

Giving myself the excuse of imperfection and a medium that merits less chiseled copy is the perfect way to get in front of more people. The big benefit here, other than mere prolificness, is that I get great feedback on seeds of ideas. These seeds sometimes sprout into essays that I publish here or on my email list.

Loose vs Tight Writing Schedule

Now, I’ve buried the caveat: I thrive with minimal schedule, and in fact, if I can fully plan out my day on my calendar, I feel queasy and suffocated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in Antifragile“If I could predict what my day would exactly look like, I would feel a little bit dead,” and I’m totally on the same page.

Even when writing 2+ articles a week at CXL, I never had a set time of day that I wrote.

This isn’t ideal for everyone. I know my business partner David likes to plan things out on the calendar and adhere to that more strictly than I do. We’re all different, which is why advice typically says more about the giver than the receiver.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield makes the case for a set time and setting to get your work done. If that helps you battle “Resistance,” take that path.

In fact, my routine is really a blend of new Marc Andreesen (completely scheduled, everything on the calendar) and old Marc Andreesen (no schedule at all).

Of course, I have tons of requisite meetings for HubSpot and some for agency clients, so I still do carve out specific times and days to write.

One of these times is Friday mornings. I block out all meetings, wake up, read, and then write this email. Writing to this list is the provocation I need in order to ship.

I also carve out Saturday mornings to write for clients or do things like guest posts or essays. Essentially, I write until I can’t write anymore, then I go do other stuff. I never schedule anything on Saturdays until 3pm or so to give my brain sufficient space to be creative.

What I Do While Writing: Quick Hits & Tactics & Energy Boosts

Now, as for what happens when I actually sit down to write an article? It varies, but my writing life involves some common artifacts. These aren’t writing tips, just things I like to do while I write to get me in the mood:

  • Loud music played via high quality headphones
    • Almost always, this music is either 90s skate punk or Gangsta Rap, but recently I’ve been listening to more electronic.
  • Lots of caffeine. I overdo it on the coffee. Sometimes it’s a bulletproof coffee, but mostly just good locally roasted black coffee.
  • More controversially, sometimes I chew Lucy nicotine gum. This is an infrequent thing, but nicotine is a nootropic, you just have to be careful not to get dependent on it (plus it does have health tradeoffs).
  • I write well in a coffee shop, restaurant, bar, or an airport lounge – anywhere with other people and background noise. Still, I write a lot at home, too.
  • Sometimes if I write late in the evening, I’ll have a glass of wine or scotch. I try not to write late at night anymore, though, because it destroys my sleep (my dreams are basically invaded by the topic I was writing about). I used to be more of a night owl, but that’s changing.
  • All of my good writing comes when I have at least 4+ hours blocked off with no scheduled meetings. Scheduled meetings are the death knell of great creative work.

And that’s basically it! My writing routine 🙂

Conclusion

Even with little time, you can build a writing habit. It’s basically just a function of making it a priority. Writing for me is thinking, but it also fuels my business and has lifted my career massively.

New writers make the mistake of perfectionism, spending hours, days, months struggling over individual sentences. But if you want to write, you’ve just gotta write and find time for it.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

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