3 Lessons Learned from Tracking my Writing Time

I’m used to tracking my time. In my day job as a technical writer, I am responsible for reporting what I’ve accomplished in a given time period. Until this year, I never really thought to apply this concept to my personal writing life.

Why? Because I’ve always HATED tracking my time.

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So why did I start?

I actually can’t remember. I started tracking my time in January probably as a sort of exercise to see what I would get out of it. Also, when you’re working on a long project like revising a novel, it’s difficult to actually see progress. People ask you how it’s going and all you can say is “still working on it,” and sometimes you think to yourself, “well, how is it going?” Sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to that question. I think that tracking my time became a way for me to measure progress, and to measure effort.

Now, please understand that just because this worked for me, it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Writing routines are extremely specific to the individual and I would never suggest that this is the best or only way in which to conduct a writing practice. But as for my personal experience, the short answer to “Was it worth it?” is a resounding “Yes!”

I’m continuing to track my writing time because it’s become a valuable practice and an important part of my routine as a writer. Here’s why.

1. Looking at my tracked time made me feel better about what I’d accomplished.

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Instead of looking at all the rejections for short stories, or looking at the chapters in my book that I have yet to edit, I’m able to look at a long list of solid writing practices over a course of months, and I’m able to tell myself that I’m doing a good job because of this, no matter what other external feedback I’m getting. You know that thing about only needing to be better than the person you were yesterday? It turns out there’s something to that. But the catch is that it’s difficult to try to do better than your past self when you aren’t being really conscious about gathering data about what your past self has been doing.

I’m a working mom with a lot of responsibilities, so if I see that I’ve spent just 11 hours of my precious little free time in a month working on my book, I think that’s something to be really proud of. Nobody can take that from me. No rejection affects this.

2. It gave me an opportunity to chronicle and write about the writing experience itself.

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In my template for this, I included a Notes column for each time entry where I could express how I felt and what I was thinking during and after that session. This turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the entire process. It gave me a place to vent, a place to admit to the fact that I was avoiding things, and a place to complain/brag about the fact that all I wanted to do that day was to watch television or play video games but that I wrote anyway!

The entries in this little Notes column have started to form their own narrative over the course of the year. I love looking back at them, and it’s encouraging to see past times when I’ve struggled and overcome. I also noticed that I started writing to myself in an encouraging or motivating way, depending on what I needed, such as “I edited 5 chapters in January. Can I beat that this month? How bout EIGHT. Come on, girl,” or “Not as productive as I could have been. But it’s okay. I put more hope into my world with this query!”

3. Tracking my time helped me focus on what’s important.

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As many of us already know, we writers have many tasks, and writing is just one of many. If you’re wanting to be published, you might be spending time researching agents or publishers, working on your website or social media, networking, or any other number of activities that are often quite valuable. There are many aspects of my writing career that I want to fit into my schedule, but I want to make sure that no one single aspect steals the show.

With the spreadsheet, it was easy to see when I’d last submitted short stories or poems to markets, when I’d last spent time on querying agents, and, most importantly, when I’d last spent time doing the actual work of writing/editing.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be tempting to always go to one of these activities over another if you prefer one over the other, but it’s more difficult to do that when you are making conscious decisions about how you spend your time. Looking at 3 sessions of “social media networking” in a row can sometimes be a wake-up call that you’ve done enough of that activity for now.

4. Tracking my time helped me let go of some of it.

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I don’t know if you can tell by the fact that I began tracking my time outside of my day job, but I tend to be on the workaholic side of things when left to my own devices. Thankfully, I married a fun-loving guy who makes sure I take a breather every now and then, but I’ve also learned for myself what it takes for me personally to be able to take a break and feel that I’ve truly earned it.

If I’ve tracked my time for the week, and I see even a good couple of hours devoted to my project, I can justify some time for something enjoyable to myself. Sometimes my default, when faced with a large project with no finish in sight, can be to withhold all goofing-off activities until it’s completely done. But guess what? When a novel takes months or even years, you can’t just do that if you hope to keep your mental, emotional, and physical health intact.

There must be small, frequent checkpoints for success. This goes back to point #2. The tracked time makes me feel more successful, which makes me feel like I’m more entitled to the occasional break from working.

So, when I’ve tracked my time and I feel like I’ve made a good effort for me (nobody’s “good effort” will be the same), sometimes I can give myself a break and do something just for me that perhaps I would not have felt justified in taking otherwise. And I think this makes the long-term effort more sustainable overall.

Disclaimer!

Now, a disclaimer.

I’m not perfect. Nobody is. A lot of my entries that I’m about to report to you are near-estimates.

Did this method increase my overall writing time?

I don’t really think so. If you’re looking for an instant way to suddenly become prolific, you might want to stop reading here.

Here are the monthly totals. And please don’t judge my small numbers! Like I said, I don’t have a lot of free time. Most of this time is during my kiddo’s naps on weekends or when I have someone to watch him. Or on the occasional early, early morning*.

*I HATE early mornings.

January 12.5 hours
February 5.5 hours
March 11.25 hours
April 12.5 hours

Looking at these four months, time tracking did not seem to increase my writing time.

Yet.

It remains to be seen if this strategy would help me get more hours over a longer period, with practice.

However, it made me feel prouder of what I did accomplish. Additionally, it gave me a sense of peace. Except for February, when you can probably guess life happened and things got crazy, you can see that I was always getting about the same amount of work done each month.

That both brings me a sense of peace in knowing I don’t need to be constantly stressing about how hard I’m working, and also a baseline against which to compete when I feel emotionally able to push harder than normal. Both of those are hugely valuable to me.

It also makes me feel more professional. My husband walked into the room one day while I was inputting my time and my initial reaction was the embarrassment that he saw this crazy thing I was doing. But he just seemed really impressed by it (I know – he’s a keeper!), and mentioned that it’s cool that I’m taking my writing so seriously. And that’s another thing that I think time tracking gave me: the feeling that I’m finally taking my writing seriously as a business and not just an idle hobby.

Now, I also want to add that I did not personally set any goals while I was doing this. If I had set hour goals for myself and stuck to them, perhaps I could have increased my writing hours over time, but that wasn’t really what I wanted to get out of this for now. I may feel ready to do that one day.

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If you think you’re up for the crazy challenge of tracking your writing time, or if you’d just like to see if it helps you as much as it helped me, it’s easy to give it a try.  I thought I would share the simple table I’m using that you can recreate in pretty much any spreadsheet or writing software. This can be in a hand-written journal, even!

I filled in the first example with what I might write in regard to the time I spent working on this blog post:

Date Time spent Accomplishments Notes
5/5/20 8:00-10:00 (2 hours) 1 blog post written & posted to author website. I almost used this time to goof off, but I just felt like I wanted to post about my time tracking experience on my blog. Plus, it’s been forever since I posted something. This feels a little bit vulnerable for me to share part of my writing process and my hours written and I worry people will judge how few hours I have, but I think it could also help a lot of people if they decide to try it out! Now that I’ve written something on the blog, I guess I can go back to ignoring it for a while.. 😀

I hope you found this helpful or at the very least interesting! Would you ever consider tracking your writing time?

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