Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How Busy Writers Can Stay Productive & Keep Their Sanity

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Daniel Darling. Dan is a pastor, author and speaker in Chicago. His latest book is iFaith: Connecting With God in the 21st Century. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, the Washington PostCrosswalk.com, and elsewhere. You can follow his blog and connect with him on Twitter @dandarling. He and his wife, Angela, are the parents of three children.

When I was in high school, I dreamed of the writer’s life.

I envisioned a cabin on the side of a mountain, a cool stream rushing by, and the multicolor sunset painting a masterpiece on the canvas of the sky.

I thought anyone who wrote professionally must get paid lots of money, work in the perfect environment, and feel a surge of inspiration from dawn till dusk.

That was until I actually started writing professionally.

Busy Writer

Photo credit: Daniel Morris (Creative Commons)

I quickly learned that the snapshot scenes of inspiration are few and far between and that real writers find ways to be prolific in the midst of a busy life.

Today I’m a husband, father of three (with one on the way), and pastor. It’s safe to say that I’m busy. Yet, I have found this to be my most productive season. How can that be?

Productive Writing for Busy People

Here are my six keys to writing in the rhythm of a busy life:

1. Give up the ideal workspace

My workspace is the 1100 square-foot town home I share with my wife and three kids. I typically write late at night or on days off while the kids are napping.

But sometimes I write while they are jumping on the couch, listening to Dora the Explorer. Or while my wife is asking my opinions on school uniforms and baby formula.

I’ve learned to edit out the noise and get words on paper.

2. Don’t sacrifice your family

Bestselling author Jerry Jenkins told me that he wrote all of his books (over 100) while his kids were in bed. I’ve tried to copy this model, writing during the late-night hours, between 10 pm and 2 am.

This takes discipline, sacrifice, and a lot of 5-hour Energy Drink. But no book project is worth missing the important moments with your family. So keep it all in check, and find time to write in between those special moments with your loved ones.

3. Use the “write, edit, write” method (for longer pieces)

With long projects (i.e. books), I begin by editing what I wrote the day before. This stirs the creative juices. Then, I push through and write until I can’t possibly write anymore.

Then I go to bed.

The next day I begin where I left off. This method enables me to write in short, manageable chunks and still maintain a flow.

4. Self-edit (for shorter pieces)

Years of writing on deadline for a magazine taught me to write quickly and edit as I wrote.

Some say it’s important to turn off the internal editor, but with short pieces (i.e. articles) it’s vital to maximize your time by producing professional content in short bursts.

5. Know your limits

When I began as a writer, I wrote for anyone who offered a byline. As life became full, I grew more selective.

Ironically, I produce more content now than ever before, but I write only in my wheelhouse, which means guest posts, columns and articles flow out of current projects.

I also say “no” to anything that steals time and delivers no net benefit to my overall writing goals.

6. Enjoy the season

It’s easy to whine about how much you have to get done and how “nobody understands.”

I’ve found this attitude only feeds negativity, which cuts off the flow of creativity. When I begin each day with fresh inspiration and a spirit of gratitude, what needs to get done gets done.

***

How do you write when you’re busy? Share your own anti-insanity, productivity tips in the comments.

Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links.

*Photo credit: Daniel Morris (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Fantastic. As you can see, I’m up at 5am pushing through my own process, though I’m recently finding that the evenings might once again be my most productive time for spitting out words.

    Life doesn’t stop spinning its wheels just because you have stories to tell … determination with balance is my motto.

    • Well done, Brett!

    • Brett, I’ve never been a morning guy–beat myself up about it for a while–then realized that I’m more of an evening guy. Keep going. You can find great inspiration in those late-night hours. 

    • Brett, I’ve never been a morning guy–beat myself up about it for a while–then realized that I’m more of an evening guy. Keep going. You can find great inspiration in those late-night hours. 

      • I hear you loud and clear, thanks Daniel. Definitely starting to lighten my morning load a bit.

  • I love this list.  I am currently working two jobs, so finding time to write is something that is becoming a discipline in my life.  I find that scheduling what I am writing about a couple days out is really important for me.  If I can be thinking through my content days before I write it, I can be more focused and purposeful in my writing when I do have the time.

  • Like Darrell I also work two jobs. Life is busy and I mostly write at night. I have had to learn to edit out the noise a lot, but I also have to learn to balance this life and my family life. I don’t think my writing would come through at all if I didn’t protect my life as a husband and father.

  • I love all of these suggestions! I find that I utilize most of them myself, though I never even realized it!

    It has been a struggle with my kids home for the summer. Last month we had blocks set aside for mommy’s work time when the kids were given a variety of methods to entertain themselves, one block they would do school workbooks to keep all that knowledge fresh in their mind and the other block would be determined by what else they accomplished for the day. (for example, if they had completed their chores, friends could come over.)

    This month is gonna be a completely different animal as I have volunteered for both my children’s summer camp programs. Dealing with 40 kids for five hours a day is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I’ll get it figured out probably at the end of the month and then it will be time to re-write the schedule!!!

    But my passion for writing will carry me through all the hectic changes in schedule, feeling pulled fifty directions, the pull to write will always bring me back to it!

    • Heidi, 

      If I can encourage you, I’ve felt that same frustration. But if you can find little manageable chunks of time to write and then begin with editing. This will help you get into the creative flow. 

  • Kate

    This was a timely post for me. We’ve just spent one week at a family reunion followed by one week of company with an adorable two year old at our home. I haven’t been sure how to find time to write in those circumstances….late night was a little hard considering I felt exhausted.  Guess I’ll try a 5-hour Energy Drink!

    Thanks for sharing your helpful hints.

  • I laughed at the beginning of this post.  I think most people- writer or not- envision a writer living in those picturesque conditions.

    This is a well thought out list and very timely.  Working more than one job, with kids, and sometimes only one parent is commonplace nowadays, so we need more productivity related posts, like this one.

    Thanks for this.

  • This was really helpful!  I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve had many of the obvious misconceptions.  (Except, I refuse to drink vodka and be promiscuous…)  I do feel myself getting into a rhythm, which is good.  I just can’t figure out the business part…It sounds as though you’ve had good mentors.  You are blessed!

  • This could easily be titled “Six Keys to Hustling”. I hear the underlying mentality of good, honest hard work. Plus it’s not out of control (respect family time and enjoying the season) – that’s a great way to do life.

    My anti-insanity, productive tip is not binding myself to a over-detailed routine. There will be time to be creatively productive during the day, but it’s not always clear cut. It’s a balance between purposefully scheduling free time and being flexible when the creative “zone” hits and I need to stay in it.

  • Daniel Darling

    Chris, you are totally right. I have to remind myself of that truth often. If you neglect your family, you’re books won’t be as successful. You just have to do, as Jon Acuff says, “hustle” and write in those pockets of the day you are given. 

    Darrell, I’ve found this to be true–schedule pockets of time to write. 

  • Daniel Darling

    Chris, you are totally right. I have to remind myself of that truth often. If you neglect your family, you’re books won’t be as successful. You just have to do, as Jon Acuff says, “hustle” and write in those pockets of the day you are given. 

    Darrell, I’ve found this to be true–schedule pockets of time to write. 

  • Pauline Scott

    Daniel makes me feel better about how I write. I also tend to do better concentration later at night and find it is the time to do serious writing for me. (I’m not a morning person.) I didn’t start writing until my daughter was in college. We home schooled. So, when she left home to go to college, I could give more time to something new.

  • Anonymous

    Daniel, I love all of your suggestions! The “write, edit, write” method resonates with me especially. That has been a really successful method for me, too.

    One thing I would add is that I try to make my less-than-ideal workspace a little more ideal with really simple additions. Coffee, for example. Or a good candle. Or my favorite music. It helps me be productive sometimes if I can set the tone for whatever it is that I’m trying to write.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Absolutely allyspots! For me it’s coffee, diet mt dew, and/or somethng to munch. And definitely Pandora cranking the tunes.

  • Thank you for this outstanding post. For way too long I wanted to recapture a time in my life when I was first married and my husband worked nights – I had 4 hours of uninterrupted quiet time each night  and I wrote and recorded songs like crazy! I did that for 2 years and have pined for time like that ever since. Guess what? It never comes and I’ve wasted way too much time craving something I can’t have.

    Darrell is absolutely right and it takes some serious growing up to adulthood to take on the discipline of writing (or any creative venture). I keep a couple of blogs and write on the fly, whether it be slow times at work, a quiet Saturday or Sunday morning, etc. I haven’t yet learned how to screen out noise (didn’t think it was possible) but now I’ll have to give that a try. Darrell makes me think anything is possible!

    • Stupid me! My apologies to Daniel Darling for getting your name wrong. 🙁

      • no worries, susan. you can edit your comment, i think.

      • Susan, no problem. I’ve ben called worse! And you’re right on the money. You’ve got to accept your life where it is and make it work.

  • I need to shut out distractions and outline AWAY from the computer—and sometimes away from home.
    I love the feel of actually writing on paper. I love the physical activity of writing. In order to keep this practice, I journal, but I also hand write ideas, mind maps, and outlines for articles.
    Being a stay at home mom, it can be very hard to write in my home environment simply because I am constantly looking around at things that always need to be done. There is always a never-ending to do list. In order to focus better, I escape for a while to Starbucks so I can think clearly and focus. This is done while the children are in bed or are getting ready for bed. My husband is very supportive and helpful. 🙂

    Thanks for this article. Lots of great insight here.

    • So hard to get away, but so necessary.

  • These are some helpful tips. I think writing is especially hard when you have a family. I don’t even have kids yet but it has taken me a year of marriage to learn that I am still an introvert!  And I still need to make time to write. Luckily, my husband encourages me in this 🙂

    Something else I do is if a thought strikes me during the day but it’s not the time to drop everything and enter a stream of writing, I jot down key words, ideas, phrases, and return to it later. But I need to discipline myself to do it later that same day…or I lose my train of thought and the momentum of the idea. 

    • Jon Acuff writes about this in his book Quitter. I can’t relates, as it’s just my wife and me, but I found it compelling that he didn’t write a book before he had kids. While I’m sure it’s hard, he kind of debunks that as a myth. I like some of Dan’s tactics mentioned in this post.

      • Jeff, I agree. It’s a paradox. Before I was married and had kids, I didn’t have a very deep well from which to write, but I had tons of time,which I always wasted. Now that my life is full, I have no shortage of material. Plus I’m older and hopefully wiser.

  • I actually find it easier to write when I’m busy than when I have a lot of free time. For me, that means early morning. When I have a lot of time available, I tend to focus on big projects, or just procrastinate. My best tip is to single-task for 48 minutes (close off everything else) and then take a 12 minute break. Repeat as necessary.

    • Me, too. I waste time when I’m not busy.

    • I’m the same way. I write best with a deadline. I’ve never been a 5K words a day writer. But now I have lots of deadlines. So it keeps me writing.

  • Right now my blog is my main writing outlet. My strategy for writing in my free time while living a busy lifestyle is to get ahead of the curve. It’s something I’m working more and more towards. I publish 3 times a week and I’m in the process of trying to get about 3 weeks ahead. This will give me time to edit and refine and free me from the tyranny of the urgent.

    • Wow! I love how intentional and disciplined you’re being, Tony!

  • Anonymous

    I put my headphones on and write away. I work from home also, so when my door is closed during the day, that usually means leave me alone. I usually work with the door open, but when it’s closed it means “concentration.” 

  • This was really encouraging.  I’m surrounded by 5 kids, so finding time, and peace & quiet is hard to do.  I’ve started getting up a little earlier and putting headphones on so I can tune them out while they get up and eat breakfast, but it’s still frustrating.  This is a good encouragement to keep on plugging away at it and if other people can do it, I can do it.

  • kimanzi constable

    I work crazy hours (10:30 pm to 9 am) so I can totally relate to this post. I do a lot of the things that you do, writing in the living room while all the craziness is happening around me. I think it’s important that as a family member were “around”, just our presence is better than writer in some other room or the basement, our family needs us to “just be there”. 

    One idea I take advantage of is when inspiration stikes me (most of the time when I’m working) to make sure I write it down (on my IPhone) so I can use and build upon that idea later.

  • 2. Don’t sacrifice your family

    Yes. Writing is an act of passion and it is so easy to get consumed by good things… by our God-given passions.  This is a great reminder for all of us and we need to be reminded of it often.  When I was ordained the pastor challenged me not to let the church become my mistress.  I think the same could be said for so many other things but in this context we could say, “do not allow writing to become your mistress.”

    GREAT POST!

  • Anonymous

    Love this post! 
    I am a husband, pastor, marketer, blogger, and soon to be dad. I work about 80 hours a week and have a desire to start and improve a hundred different projects. I get the privilege of working with many incredible people who are masters at getting stuff done. I am learning many tools along the way but mostly it comes down to merely getting things done in the moments you have rather than procrastinating to ideal times. I wrote a blog not to long ago on this topic at https://bit.ly/iWlx0K
    I’m excited to read more from Daniel! Thanks Jeff for this great post.

  • I like the “write, edit, write” technique. Ernest Heminngway said he would not write everything in his head at the end of the day. He would leave just enough in his head that he knew exactly where to pick up the next day instead of trying to start on a blank page.

  • Charlie Chang

    Good advice.  Thanks!

  • Having just completed a 2 year MBA program this really resonated with me. Definitely had to make sacrifices, but I tried to minimize the impact on family and do most of my studying after the kids were in bed. And yes, energy drinks and coffee flowed like “milk and honey”.

    One thing I’m struggling with now is the drastic decrease in productivity in other areas of my life now that the MBA is over. It’s like I need the stress to be creative and produce.

  • Great post.  I’m a husband, father of three (all under 7), pastor and full-time health insurance company employee.  My writing time comes at a premium.  I fully realize it’s on me to make that time, too.

    You talk about not missing family/kid stuff, but if you’re staying up until 2am writing, how fresh are you for it?  That’s my problem.  I LOVE staying up late and writing, but I feel it the next day for sure.  I feel bad when I’m yawning through my day-time life, ya know?  Have you experienced that, too?

  • Love it Dan!  Every point really hits home.  I’m currently blogging while working on a second book so the different editing styles are helpful.  I’m also trying to remember how important it is to make time for my family now- in the midst of the chaos.  I can’t make up for the time later!  And I want to be thankful for the opportunity to do what I do every single day- even when it’s difficult.  It’s a privilege to influence others through writing.  Thanks for sharing Dan and thanks Jeff for sharing your platform.

  • FreddieTeague

    Great guest post! I, too, burn the midnight oil in my writing. It definitely takes discipline. Thank you for the great info!

  • Hi Dan, Good Points! I have recently started a part-time day job and work mornings, which has always been my prime time for writing. I have, much to my surprise, trained myself to write in the evenings and late a night and anytime, which I didn’t think I could do. Will I see you at Write-to-Publish? Hope So.

  • Faseeha Harthim

    I write the whole night with the power of coffee. So it doesn’t matter how busy I am in the day, I get my writing done. Just three hours of sleep in the eve is enough for me…