Monday, 25 November 2013

Too Busy To Write?

I am lucky enough to write for a living. It’s my full-time job. So that means I have at least thirty-five hours a week when I can be sitting at my lap-top turning out stunning prose with which to impress my readers, right? Wrong!

Firstly I have to make time for the other writerly activities like research, editing and reading (and yes, reading is definitely part of a writer’s working day). Then there are the business-related activities like writing proposals, preparing invoices, paying bills and doing the monthly accounts. There’s that huge millstone that is marketing and sales (one that all writers, especially indie authors, will recognise). And all this is before I even think about the personal, home-related and community-related activities on my monthly To Do list. If I manage to reserve twenty hours per week for new writing, I feel I’m doing well.

Please don’t think I’m complaining. I love my job; I love my lifestyle - and I know I have it far easier than anyone who’s writing while holding down a ‘proper job’. But I wanted to illustrate the importance of yet another aspect of a writer's Business Skills Toolbox: time management. I’ve talked about time management previously, but this time I'm going to discuss a specific tool: the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

When I was studying for my MBA at Cranfield, many years ago, it used to amuse us how many things could be expressed in the form of a 2 x 2 matrix. But it is a great way to illustrate concepts easily.

Like all organised people, I have a detailed To Do list (well, several actually) which rules what I do each month. However, sometimes the number of items on the list can become overwhelming and that’s when I turn to the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

All tasks can be categorised in terms of their degree of urgency and their level of importance to the individual. Something is Urgent if it needs to be done now; something is Important if it contributes to a long-term goal. The two are not necessarily synonymous. Once tasks have been categorised, the strategy for deciding in which order to do them is relatively easy to determine.

Urgent and Important: A call comes in from an editor looking for an article NOW to fill a hole that’s just appeared in this week’s paper. It’s a paper that pays well and could provide lots more commissions in the future. Strategy: Do It Now

Non-Urgent and Important: The corrections for the latest manuscript arrive with a request from the publisher to complete and return them within two weeks. A conservative estimate shows there is two days work required. Strategy: Schedule It For Later On

Urgent and Unimportant: A friend or relative makes a habit of phoning during the mornings ‘for a chat’ even though this is prime writing time: Strategy: Delegate It (in this case by use of an answering machine)

Non-Urgent and Unimportant: A new game is doing the rounds on Facebook and a number of writing buddies are sending invitations to compete with them / feed their cows / send them gifts. Strategy: Don’t Do It

This tool is variously attributed to Stephen Covey and to Dwight D Eisenhower. Covey certainly formalises the tool in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People but it is predated by the well-known quote from Eisenhower: What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

There are a number of formal methods for employing this tool, including templates and apps; personally, I just use the spreadsheet on which my To Do list is prepared.

I'd love to hear how other people find their way through a To Do list that threatens to overwhelm and inhibit. What tools and tips do you use?


  1. This really makes sense to me - especially on a Monday morning! Thanks for the tips, Elizabeth!
    Regards, Marilyn

  2. You are welcome, Marilyn. I've got to the stage where I tend to do the analysis intuitively in my head rather than on paper, but I'm going to go back and do it formally next time I update my TD list.

  3. Ooh this was helpful!! as an inveterate waster of time..look, I'm THINKING about the next bit of plot, OK, it made me stop and readjust!! Thanks,

  4. Not sure we should categorise thinking as a waste of time, Carol, but maybe schedule it? I write in 25 minute bursts and then break for 5 minutes, and do my thinking then!

  5. Time management is so important for everyone. It helps you get the most out of every single day. Some great tips here, Elizabeth, thank you.