What’s your favorite Groundhog Day phrase—the thing you repeat ad nauseum as if expecting life to change when it won’t?
Mine is: “Where did the day go?”
Or maybe: “I got two-thirds of my goals accomplished today.”
But I’d be even more lost if I didn’t track my writing and reading time, something I’ve talked about here before, because I believe that tracking and analyzing one’s work processes, including time management, is essential to thriving as a self-starting person who works with words.
(Not a writer but you are a reader? I cover that too. Scroll down.)
Here’s where my Toggl App comes in. There are other apps, of course, just find one that works for you.
As a book coach, I find it essential to track hours; I used to do this by hand in a daybook and found the app is much better for accuracy and cross-comparisons. As a novelist, knowing how long it takes to write X number of words—and even how long it takes to write or revise an entire draft—is really helpful information. At the very least, it helps me plan ahead and be more accountable when habits are slipping.
Some authors take thousands of hours to write a book, and some take hundreds. I won’t tell you how long I take, because it’s such an individual formula. But I’m usually surprised by how little time —in terms of total hours—is required.
I’ll often tell people that a “three to four” hour work session is ideal for me. But in truth, many of my work sessions are one to two hours. Facing that fact counters the delusion that I just “don’t have time” to write on a given day because my track record shows that an hour or two several days a week still adds up to a new draft in one to three years.
To the drip-drip of regular slow production I also add an occasional monsoon of writing, usually at the revision stage, two or three times a year, either at home or at a DIY hotel or vacation rental retreat. This year, I had a few all-nighters without leaving home; during one of them, I forced myself to outline an entire new book. It took some middle-of-the-night giddiness to allow myself to do this much advance plotting, knowing I’d toss over half of it once the drafting got underway. It was an oddly stimulating exercise.
Last month, I did my usual year-end perusal of work stats. To my surprise, I discovered I spent half of my work time on creative writing—half of that (25%) writing new material and an equal percentage on revising. Interesting to know the activities are so evenly divided. Often I feel that I revise much, much more than I write something fresh.
Last year, by comparison, I spent only one-third of my time on writing. This is not an increase I would have noticed if I hadn’t kept track. It made me happy, and maybe a little greedy, too. Can I spend an even larger percentage in 2024 writing? I plan to try.
I also worked for very short periods on five different new projects before fully committing to the novel I’m now drafting. Sometimes I worry about “wasting” time trying out new ideas, but now that I see how much time is actually spent—not so much—I’ll worry less. I’m learning to trust this as my process. When I have a new idea, I let myself noodle on it for a few days or weeks and then store the document; if it’s meant to be, I’ll return to it!
I spent slightly less time on my non-writing side jobs than last year. These jobs included coaching private clients, serving as a temporary MFA mentor, and teaching a really fun class online for 49 Writers. (Psst, I have another coming up soon.) What pleases me, in addition to the income, is the knowledge that I really enjoyed all of these side jobs.
I gave up a volunteer job I detested last year—it took 8% of my time. By chance, I added a new unpaid pastime to my life, writing a collaborative suspense fiction newsletter with Caitlin Wahrer—and it takes up…8% of my time!
Quitting the board work was a great choice and I should have done it sooner, because it was making me cynical and less creative. Co-writing a newsletter has connected me with many new writers, allowed me to support other authors, prompted me to read more, and resulted in possibly two new book ideas. It takes a chunk of time—as my Toggl app proves—but it’s also joyful and inspiring.
I spent less time on social media: Twitter, Instagram. I have been wasting much more time on Goodreads! Lord save me! (I know I need to stop checking Goodreads.)
That’s writing. Let’s take a look at reading.
I thought I was a terrible reader this year. Then I got caught up with my handwritten reading log and discovered I finished over forty books. It was fun looking back over at that list, thinking again about the better titles. Given how distracted I felt at times, how did I get through that number when it felt like I read very little?
Answer A: Audiobooks. Yes, of course they count!
Answer B: My book club! The group coaxed me into reading things I wouldn’t have picked up—including two novels that were among my year’s favorites: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lesson! With each book, I was determined to finish on time and I was so glad I did. (I was in an Anchorage book club that read The Golden Notebook years ago but somehow I skipped out. I’m so glad I had another chance.)
The takeaway: Use multiple formats for reading and find accountability tricks if you need them.
About the reading log: I have found no better way to learn as a writer than keeping a reading log. I’m quite sure it taught me more than an MFA. I started doing this in 2002 and for many years wrote out several pages of commentary per title, for my eyes only. I’ve gotten lazy and now I just jot titles and a 1-10 rating, underlining the books that felt extra important to me as a writer. Those are the ones I may re-read later.
I’m proud of how I spent my time in 2023, but that’s definitely not the reason I wrote this post. I offer it in the hope that you’ll be proud of—and maybe surprised by—how you spend your time in 2024, if you decide to track hours.
I hope I’ve made it clear that tracked time doesn’t force me to run harder on the hamster wheel of productivity, though it does help me understand the benefits of running steadily. In many ways, tracked time reassures me. I’m getting there. One hour or even just fifteen minutes at a time. It’s enough.
Tracking time also keeps me from overextending myself to other areas without knowing the real cost of that extension. For me this year, yes to activities that truly connect me with others. No to activities that simply have me attending dull meetings or staring at a spreadsheet more hours per week.
Do you track your time? Would you like to? If you’ve done it, what have you learned?
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach, creative writing teacher, and the author of six novels, including The Deepest Lake (Soho Crime, May 2024).