Ringfence your writing time

Martina Tyrrell
June 26, 2024

Creating clear and impenetrable boundaries around your precious writing time is key to overcoming procrastination and getting the job done. As a book doctor, I can help you to establish clearly bounded writing practices and routines in your day.

The irony is that last week I completely failed to respect the boundaries around my own writing time, which is why I’m two days late in getting this newsletter out. To be fair (and here I am making excuses), for the past nine years (Covid year 1 excepted), the second last week in June has always been the most hectic week of the year. The combination of daily end of school performances, excursions, events, the excitement that accompanies the end of the school year, and temperatures in the high 30°Cs always makes it feel pretty full on. But here I am at last and here’s what I have to say about ringfencing your precious writing time:

How often do you put off cooking dinner or brushing your teeth or reading a bedtime story to your kid or running your regular 5km? You wouldn’t forsake cooking dinner because your neighbour wants to chat at the gate. You wouldn’t miss brushing your teeth because you’re caught up in The New York Times games app. You wouldn’t miss your daily exercise routine because your partner needs help with their gardening project. So many of our routines in life are second nature. Sure, we’ll chat to the neighbour, but we’ll politely tell them we’ve got to go cook. We’ll help our partner out, but only after we’ve been for our run. So why do we not approach our writing practice in the same way? Why do we let our writing slide so quickly because something else crops up?

Procrastination is a big part of it. Psychologists agree that procrastination is driven by feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, causing us to avoid tasks for which we lack self-belief. That avoidance is compounded by a lack of structure. Creating structure where none is externally imposed is an important step in overcoming procrastination and achieving your writing goals.

Creating clear and impenetrable boundaries around your writing time will make it clear to others and to yourself that this time is as important and essential to your day as your work and chores time, your family time, and your self-care time. There are two types of boundaries that you need to create: those for others and those for yourself.

Keep out – work in progress

A lot of my friends and neighbours are retired ex-pats. When I moved from a house up a steep hill to my current house in the flattest and most accessible part of the village, the number of visitors who came knocking on my door increased dramatically. My retired friends would drop in, usually during my dedicated morning work hours, sometimes just for a chat, but often with problems. Most don’t speak Spanish, so they’d ask me to call their bank manager on their behalf, or book a hospital appointment, or solve a problem with their car insurance. This drove me crazy at first. Until I learned to gently but firmly set boundaries. Of course I’m happy to help my friends out, just not right now, at this very minute when I’m in the middle of my working day. I’d explain that these are the hours that I work and suggest a time later in the day or the next day when I could help them tackle the problem. These days, most people have got the message and know not to come knocking between the hours of 9 and 3, or to send me a text message rather than come around unannounced.

Whether it’s your neighbours or your kids, or anyone else in your life, if you want to devote time to your writing, it is important that you set clear boundaries around that time when you are not to be disturbed. Perhaps it’s during a certain time of the day or when you are in a certain part of the house. If you live with other people, then maybe some of them need to take on certain roles so that during that time you can be both physically disengaged and, critically, emotionally disengaged. You can’t concentrate on writing if you can hear your kids in the next room crying or if your partner disturbs you because they don’t know what dose of medication to give to their elderly mother. Make your writing needs and expectations clear to those around you. Put a sign on your door. Buy a good set of noise cancelling headphones if need be. Go write somewhere else. Make that boundary impenetrable, whether you intend to write for 15 minutes or four hours each day.

Seize the moment

Often, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to making time for writing. Therefore, creating boundaries for yourself is just as important as creating boundaries for other people. Remove distraction. Ban your smart phone from your writing space or, if you absolutely have to have it there, keep it out of sight. If you write at your computer, close (or don’t open in the first place) all distracting windows and notifications (messages, news, social media, etc.). Set a timer for your writing and do nothing but write during that time. (There are these things that people used to use in the old days, called alarm clocks! I bought one two years ago, after I banished my phone from my bedroom forever. It’s great). I’ve heard of people who go so far as to work at a desk with no distractions at all – no books, no pictures on the wall, no window to look out of.

Some people like to mark their writing time in symbolic ways – maybe by lighting a candle before they start, wearing a favourite sweater, making a cup of tea. Like religious symbols and rituals, these mark your passage into a sacred space, mentally preparing you to enter your writing zone.

Whatever you need to do, make every second of your precious time inside your writing boundary count. You have created the structure. The only way to overcome your writing anxiety and self-doubt is to move your hands across the keyboard or your pen across the page and write.

Re-entering the world from your bounded writing zone

Consider how you will mark your re-entry to the world beyond your writing refuge. Make the time for those who are on the outside. Sit and have a cup of tea with your neighbour, give your kids 100% of your attention, help your partner with that gardening project. Or reward yourself by going for that 5km run, doing your daily crossword, watching the next episode of your streaming series. Such reward bundling – both for yourself and for those close to you – will make the routine of ringfencing your writing a welcome part of everyone’s day.

What I’m working on this week

Some years ago, I worked part-time for a company selling plus size underwear. How I got into that line of work is another story but, for about a year, I worked a few days each week seeking out influencers to review the products and trying to get free advertising in traditional media. I couldn’t have imagined that I would one day be calling on that experience to help a couple of complex systems analysts publicly disseminate their research findings. Yet, that’s exactly where I’ve found myself this past week, researching traditional and non-traditional avenues for spreading the word about their research and then writing suitable press releases for different forms of media.

Meanwhile, I’m down to my last two days of proofreading my 60,000-word ghostwritten manuscript. After almost two years of work, I’m about to end this chapter of my working life and I look forward to my collaborator sending her book out into the world. Exciting times!

What I’m reading this week

I’m not having a good time with books at the moment. I’ve struggled through the first 120 pages of The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston. I finally realised that I just don’t care. It pains me to give up on a book, but it also pains me to waste my time on something that is bringing me no joy. So, I started Vilnius/Wilno/Vilna, a collection of three short stories by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (unfortunately, I can’t access the author’s website and I can find little else online other than a Wikipedia entry). The first story is confusing but I’m willing to persevere because the book was a gift from a friend. Let’s see how I get on with the second and third stories in the collection.

In other news…

The great Irish Gaelic games radio commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh died yesterday, aged 93. To say that he was a part of my life and a part of the lives of the people nearest and dearest to me as I was growing up and into my 30s would be an understatement. He unmistakable voice, his knowledge, his wit and his humanity made him a member of every GAA household in Ireland. Long after we could watch matches on the television, we continued to listen to Mícheál on the radio. Since I heard the news yesterday afternoon, I’ve been listening to tributes pouring in to the great man on Irish radio (naturally). It’s hard to do much of anything when my eyes keep tearing up.


Feature photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

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