Once again, you’ve planned out your perfect writing routine. Maybe it’s a detailed spreadsheet, a list of writing appointments on your Google Calendar, or maybe you kept it old-school with a paper planner and colored boxes.
Once again, you’re excited to get started. Surely, this time, you’re going to hit your self-imposed novel deadline or finally write consistently for your blog.
But, once again, your routine falls apart.
Maybe you didn’t even get past day one. Even the thought of rescheduling your writing into your week makes you feel disheartened—because there’s no way you can fit in as much writing as you want and no way you can write at your best time of day.
All the advice in the world on constructing your perfect writing routine can fall flat when your life is packed full of other commitments, and prioritizing your writing feels like an impossible task. Before learning to use your un-ideal routine as a strength, you must first learn to let go of the ideal, as I’ll show you in this post.
My ideal writing routine would look something like this: Get up out of bed around 6.30 a.m., get ready for the day, then start writing by 7.30 a.m. I’d work on my novel all morning, knock off for lunch, and write a freelance piece or two in the afternoon.
Sounds great, right?
Well, there are just a couple of small snags.
I’m a morning person. I’m definitely at my best from about 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. It would be easy to simply hold my hands up in despair, decide that there’s no way I can write while raising kids, and shelve my novels-in-progress until the kids are grown and flown.
Instead, I’ve recognized that—like pretty much every other writer out there—I need to find a non-ideal routine that works well enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
For me, that means writing 500 words of fiction every day, usually at some point in the evenings. Yes, I’m often tired then. Yes, it can be an effort to sit down and write. Yes, it’d be nice to have hours at a time to focus, rather than writing as fast as I can for 30–45 minutes.
But you know what? In a month and a half of doing this in 2022, I’ve already written more fiction than I managed in six months during 2021.
For me, in this season of life, 500 words a day of fiction is what I can realistically stick to 95% of the time.
So what might work for you in your own un-ideal routine?
Your perfect routine might be unrealistic—or so unachievable it seems laughable. But you can still write. Here’s how.
Some points in your day will be fixed, like your hours at your day job, dropping kids off at school, client meetings, attending appointments, and so on.
But other parts of your regular schedule might be susceptible to some tweaking so that you can fit in at least a little bit of writing during the times that suit you. For instance:
The key takeaway here is to accept what you can’t change but modify your schedule where you can. That way, you can make time to write without compromising on other important things.
What if you can’t tweak your schedule very much? Another option is to ignore your “best” times of day and simply look at your daily schedule to figure out where you might be able to squeeze in a writing session.
For instance, when my kids were small I usually wrote from 5.15 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. My husband was always home at that point in the day, and the time slot fitted neatly between the kids’ dinner (5 p.m.) and their bath (6 p.m.).
Perhaps you have a similar time slot in your day: Even 15 minutes is long enough—so long as you can keep it up (most) days. Depending on your season of life, that might be in a gap between classes, while your baby is napping, during your lunch break, after you’ve prepared dinner and while it’s cooking—or anything that makes sense for you.
Moreover, remember that you don’t necessarily have to write at the same time every day. If your time slots work out so that you’re writing from 6 a.m. to 6.30 a.m. three days a week, from 5 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. two days a week, and from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the weekends … guess what? You’re still writing. And that’s what matters.
Have you ever had a week where every day went nice and smooth, exactly according to your plan? Where you checked off task after task, watched your word count stack up just as you’d imagined, and never encountered anything that derailed you even for a moment?
The nature of life is that unexpected things come up. Some are lovely things—say, a friend is in town and you want to meet them for a coffee. Some are annoying things—you got stuck in traffic and made it home an hour later than usual.
This is where backup slots come in handy. Plan some “extra” writing times that you can use if you need to. It usually works to have these toward the end of the day, or near the end of the week. That way, if something interrupts an earlier writing session, it doesn’t matter; you can use the backup time instead.
I know writers who’ll talk about pulling regular all-nighters to write. Or who’ll be sticking to punishing schedules to publish book after book. Or who publish an incredible number of blog posts and email newsletters each week—despite having small children.
It’s easy to end up feeling like you need to be superhuman, too. Maybe you think that you need to work harder, sacrificing sleep, friendships, and family life for the sake of your writing.
But that’s a fast track to burnout.
Getting your writing done—over the long term—means accepting that you may have to go more slowly than you’d like. But a small, realistic effort really does add up: Writing just 200 words per day might not sound like a lot. It may not even seem worth bothering with. Keep it up for a whole year, though, and you’ll have 73,000 words. That’s a whole novel draft.
For years and years, I thought I simply couldn’t work well at around 4 p.m. At that point in the day, my energy levels are low, my focus is terrible, and I’m pretty grouchy, too.
Then I started taking occasional writing retreats, checking into a cheap hotel at 3 p.m., and writing for the rest of the day.
Guess what? I could write at my worst time of day, without even noticing the effort. Sure, it might not have been my most focused time of day—but in a room away from home, with no distractions, I could concentrate just fine.
Like me, you’ll have times of day when you’re not at your best. But you might well find that your writing environment makes far more difference than the time of day. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean escaping to a hotel: Try a coffee shop, local library, or even a park. And if you’re writing at home, try to arrange your writing space for maximum focus.
I find that I write best when:
Your ideal writing conditions may be a little different. Next time you write, keep a scrap piece of paper handy and jot down anything that has a negative effect on your focus. What could you do to reduce distractions next time?
As a writer, it’s easy to get sucked into perfectionism—not just when it comes to our writing itself, but when it comes to how we do our writing. Perhaps you feel like you could write a masterpiece if only you could write for three hours at just the right time of day. Or maybe you’re sure you could achieve your goals if only you had a whole room set aside for your writing.
The reality is that most writers have to compromise. We get on with our writing around the messy business of life—and our writing is, arguably, all the better for it.
If you had the perfect ivory tower to write in—but no experience of holding a job, having a family, or spending time with friends—then it’d be very hard for your writing to reflect the real world. All the “not-writing” time we have is important.
Your un-ideal routine may not be as easy as you’d like. There will almost certainly be times when you have to grit your teeth, get yourself in the chair, and force out those first few sentences. But there will also be lots of times when you look forward to writing. When it’s a little oasis in the middle of a busy day. When adding another checkmark to the calendar gives you a real sense of pride: You can do this.This week, stop trying to force an “ideal” routine that just doesn’t work. Instead, find your un-ideal, far from perfect routine that actually fits into your life. You might be surprised just how much writing you get done.
Ali Luke has been freelancing and blogging since 2008. These days ,she juggles freelancing, blogging, novel-writing and two young children. As well as blogging for a number of large sites (ProBlogger, Daily Writing Tips and more), she writes about the art, craft and business of writing on her long-running blog Aliventures.com. If you'd like to spend more time writing, download her free ebook Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now -- it's a short read, with ten practical tried-and-tested tips.