For the better part of the past decade, my wife and I have both worked out of our home. This is a great setup if you can get it, especially in Los Angeles, where the perpetually logjammed freeways have been known to erode the sanity of many a daily commuter. During business hours, we essentially treat one another like cubicle mates, pausing to chat every so often over coffee, but basically respecting one another’s need to prioritize work—something made easier owed to the positioning of our desks at opposite ends of the apartment.
After her company was recently acquired, however, the wife started working out of a central office again. It’s a reasonably short subway ride away, so at least it isn’t a “killer commute,” though it has been an adjustment—for both of us. Speaking strictly for myself, I discovered in short order that many of the domestic duties we’d shared—be it walking the dog, making the bed, running laundry, buying groceries—were now falling, to a necessarily greater extent, on me. This isn’t a complaint, mind you—I still had the better end of the deal in that I continued to work from home, with all the freedom and flexibility that entails. But there’s no doubt I found myself in the throes of a time-management crisis, as days and sometimes weeks would pass without any appreciable progress—or any progress at all—on my manuscript. I was overwhelmed by all the shit that had to get tended to just to keep the household running.
Quick digression (and I promise it’s relevant): Anyone who’s followed this blog for any amount of time knows I’m a guy’s guy. I’ve written odes to 24, Rambo, Heat, the Dark Knight trilogy, Rush (the Canadian prog-rock band that, by its own admission, doesn’t inspire overwhelming female devotion), mob movies, and the cinema of horror maestros Wes Craven and John Carpenter, the latter of whom trades in tough guys like Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken and James Woods’ Jack Crow. For that matter, my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is populated almost entirely with alpha males, inspired in part by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Price. Hell, at my last checkup, my doctor informed me I have the testosterone of an eighteen-year-old. Like I said: guy’s guy—now medically validated.
I’m secure enough, then, to confess I have a softer side, too. I’ve waxed analytical about Katniss Everdeen and Jane the Virgin and the addictive melodramas of Shonda Rhimes, as well as professed my undying love for Dirty Dancing on more than one occasion (like here and here). I’m hooked on Fixer Upper and the interior-design wizardry of Joanna Gaines. And my favorite show of all time—seventeen years and running—is Gilmore Girls, and it doesn’t get more girly than Gilmore—“Girls” is right there in the title! Last year, the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo didn’t hold a candle, in my view, to the overdue encore of Lorelai and Rory; I would willingly and happily trade every future Star Wars movie for more Gilmore.
So it was for that reason I picked up a copy of Lauren Graham’s new memoir Talking as Fast as I Can a few months ago. I’d hoped to get insight into the development and production of the Gilmore revival A Year in the Life—and the book doesn’t disappoint in that regard—but the last thing I expected was a practical, step-by-step solution to my time-management problems… though that’s exactly what I found.
Graham, who has become over the last few years an accomplished novelist and screenwriter in her own right, describes how she herself was wrestling with the issue of time management during periods of acting employment, on Parenthood and then A Year in the Life, as well as unemployment, where the lack of a rigidly structured day made finding time to write even more challenging. As fate would have it, during the production of A Year in the Life, she reconnected with her old boss Don Roos, screenwriter of Single White Female and Marley & Me, as well as creator of Graham’s pre–Gilmore Girls series M.Y.O.B., who shared with her his revolutionary yet simple method for being a productive and efficient writer—in ten easy steps!
Roos calls his customized program “Kitchen Timer,” and I can testify that since I’ve put it into practice, I’ve been able to reclaim (highly productive) writing time for myself on daily basis and take care of the household errands, without having to resort to an all-or-nothing approach to my personal and professional obligations. Since Roos is known to share this document with the writers he mentors, I trust he’d have no problem with my reproducing it here. For my writer friends out there, I suggest you read it. Digest it… and reread it. Then try it for a week on a trial basis, even if you don’t think you need it. It’s so simple and commonsense, but it is exactly the kind of transformative advice I needed… and I’m nearly twenty years into my career! Let me know what you think.
The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and doable way of being and feeling successful every day.
To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. We set up a goal for ourselves as writers that is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and, above all, fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.
HERE’S HOW IT WORKS:
1. Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes. Or use a timer app. Or tell Siri to start a timer for 60 minutes.
2. We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day, but a half hour is also good, or twenty minutes. Some of us make appointments in our calendar for these hours, as if they are lunch meetings or business calls.
3. The Kitchen Timer hour:
· No phones. No texts. We silence ringers; we turn our phones facedown. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. “I was on an hour” is something they learn to understand. But they won’t respect it unless we do first.
· No music with words, unless it’s a language we don’t understand. Headphones with a white noise app can be helpful.
· No Internet, absolutely. We turn off our computer’s Wi-Fi.
· No reading.
· No pencil-sharpening, desk tidying, organizing.
4. Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don’t have a project we’re actively working on, we just open our journal.
5. An hour consists of TIME SPENT KEEPING OUR WRITING APPOINTMENT. That’s it. We don’t have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen or the page. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, what we ate for dinner, even “I hate writing” typed four hundred times.
When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.
The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don’t take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.
IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it may rarely happen that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it’s fine, good, and right if it does. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.
6. It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half or quarter hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.
7. When the hour is up, we stop, even if we’re in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again—to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours (the old “I’m sorry, I can’t see anyone or leave my house—I’m on a deadline” method). Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.
8. If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write two hours and didn’t make it, we schedule a shorter appointment for the next day. We don’t add an hour to “make up” or “catch up.” We let the past go and move on.
9. When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.
10. A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, the stilling of that hectoring voice inside us that used to yell at us that we weren’t writing enough—all this opens us up creatively.