Welcome to the next installment of “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m responding to a question about prioritizing writing:
“Everything else [is] taking priority over my writing. How [can I] prioritize my writing and get others to understand the priority?“
Setting priorities and seeing them through is an ongoing struggle for writers, particularly for those of us for whom writing isn’t (yet!) our primary source of income. Life has a way of getting in the way if we let it, and it’s up to us to change that, though it requires some mental and logistical shifts to make it happen.
First, let’s talk about what prioritizing writing means, where we run into trouble, and then how to prioritize writing.
What does it mean to prioritize writing?
Prioritizing writing means putting it high on your list for action taking.
It means making space for it in your life and schedule. It can include making investments in your time, energy, personal bandwidth, focus, and money.
It often also involves some sacrifice on your part, whether that looks like spending less time on social media, with friends and family, or pursuing other endeavors (or sleeping!). It can mean pushing yourself to reach higher than you might otherwise do.
Ultimately, prioritizing writing boils down to a collection of choices we make about ourselves and our lives that are reflected in our goals, actions, attention, and intentions.
Why writers might not prioritize writing.
When we want to write, but we don’t prioritize it, there’s most likely something called resistance underlying the choice. Much like the way we procrastinate, we avoid prioritizing writing because it means facing fear or other uncomfortable emotions. This manifests as resisting doing the work.
The clever distinction around prioritization is this: Rather than simply resisting or procrastinating with mindless activities, we find ourselves taking on other Very Important Tasks instead.
This is an excellent out for what would otherwise be easily spotted as pure procrastination. Some call this variation “productive procrastination.” And it is. Productive. It is still also procrastination.
Going through the mail, getting up to date on paperwork, filing taxes, clearing the house of clutter, handling kids’ school requirements and activities, paying bills, taking care of family members, earning an income, handling day job commitments if you have them — it’s all real work you’re responsible for. In other words, unassailably important and work that must be done.
Arguably, it’s good to “clear the decks” of these kinds of obligations (or work to keep them clear) so you can focus more fully on writing without open loops of decisions, tasks, and distractions nagging at you. And sometimes your stories are percolating while you’re tackling these other tasks, which can be a great way of letting them develop between writing sessions.
But here’s the problem: These activities can and will fill all the available time and space you have, given the opportunity. And they become remarkably attractive when there’s even a whiff of fear, dread, or doubt about writing (even subconsciously).
Which means — drumroll — we have to put writing first simply to make space for it at all.
How to Prioritize Writing
We’ve talked about what’s going wrong. Now let’s talk about what to do.
Think of writing as “important, not urgent,” aka something you invest in.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you may recall his four-quadrant grid (the table below is excerpted from an earlier article I wrote for ScriptMag) where he lays out two categories of tasks along each column and row: Urgent and Not Urgent, Important and Not Important.
The goal — in order to become more effective — is to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant 2, the Important, Not Urgent category. Notice that this category of tasks includes life-fulfilling, meaning-generating, valuable activities that feed us as human beings. Writing easily fits in this grouping. Notice also that this category is considered leadership.
In a sense, in Covey’s framework, prioritizing writing is a way of being a leader in your own life.
Quadrant 1: Important, Urgent
Quadrant 2: Important, Not Urgent
Quadrant 3: Not Important, Urgent
Quadrant 4: Not Important, Not Urgent
Craft a (workable) writer’s schedule.
When it comes to prioritizing writing, I recommend designing a writer’s schedule that works with your life. Not an idealized, perfect schedule, but a schedule that lets you get in decent, regular chunks of writing.
Some writers find that working a few times a month for longer stretches of time works for them as a place to start. Others who struggle with procrastination find that writing in small increments of time five to seven days per week is more effective, because they’re better able to stay connected to their stories and keep up their momentum.
Give thought to time of day too. Some writers find that writing first thing in the morning works best for them. Others like to write at night before bed. Some writers have the flexibility to write during the day. Find what works for you.
Here are some possible starting places:
- 15 minutes daily
- 60 minutes on weekdays
- 120 minutes on weekend days
(My “Making Writing Happen” course helps you create a regular writing practice.)
Set writing goals for yourself.
Once you have a schedule designed, set writing goals so you have a plan for your writing sessions.
This might sound silly, but sometimes writers avoid writing because they aren’t sure what to do with their time.
Learn or create a process to develop your scripts and write them. Use that process to identify and act on clear, attainable goals.
For example, in my next writing session, I’ll spend at least 60 minutes developing my second stage outline for my current script. I know exactly what I’m working on so it’s easier to start.
Set boundaries with others.
Another aspect of your question is about how to get others to prioritize your writing. Whether they’re infringing on your writing time with texts, phone calls, invitations, and requests, dismissing your writing as foolish or unimportant, or dropping off their kids for you to watch them because you’re “just writing,” these are among the worst kinds of boundary tramplers.
At the end of the day, however, prioritizing starts with you. When you take it seriously and set firm boundaries around it, so will they. (If they still don’t, some relationship prioritization may be in order too.)
Tell your loved ones and anyone else who might be attempting to stake a claim on your time when you’re writing. And stick to it to show them you really mean it — and to show yourself too. While you’re at it, make yourself much harder to reach — turn off notifications and phones, etc., at least while you’re writing.
Match your attention, intention, and action.
With a schedule and goals in place, match your attention and intention to your actions.
What are you paying attention to?
What intention are you setting?
Did you say you were going to write and then pay bills instead?
Were there uncomfortable feelings coming up that led you to make that choice instead?
How might you handle those feelings and redirect yourself to writing?
Ask yourself, “Am I being the person I want to be?”
If your attention and your actions don’t match who you want to be, make changes to bring them into closer resonance. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just bring them closer, bit by bit, till you’re where you want to be.
The fallback way to prioritize writing.
If all else fails, try this: To prioritize writing, put it first in the day. Get up early and write, even for just a few minutes a day. Don’t worry about writing “enough.” Just write. Then do all the other stuff. Voilà. Prioritized. Gradually increase to more writing over time.
It’s simple, but it really works.
That’s a Wrap
Prioritizing writing is a choice, not an accident, though it can feel like we keep “accidentally” putting other things first. Saying yes to writing is ultimately about saying “Yes” to yourself. You have to want it, believe you deserve it and know how much you need it to be happy, fulfilled, strong, and whole.
Thanks for asking, and I hope you find this helpful.
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Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or email directly to email@example.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.