In 2017, I was making my living speaking and writing about productivity when my editor asked if I’d like to write a book that—like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The One Minute Manager — teaches a business lessons through stories. There was just one issue. When was I going to find the time between work and caring for my four young children?
But I did write Juliet’s School of Possibilities, the tale of an ambitious young consultant whose life is falling apart until her mentor teaches her how to spend time well. I relied on these seven strategies, which I think can help anyone fit an unexpected opportunity into an already full life.
Try a “challenge”
I suspect Whole30 is a popular diet because it feels possible to do anything for 30 days. Likewise, if you want to take on a big side project, consider limiting the time frame. I aimed to write the manuscript of Juliet’s School of Possibilities during November. Why November? It’s National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of people attempt to write a novel draft in 30 days. While you could write your magnum opus in 15-minute spurts, it might feel more satisfying to promise your spouse an equivalent quantity of time off if he or she takes the kids for four days, and then you hole up for a long weekend and crank out something. You can always make it better later.
(I wrote the book in November 2017 and edited the following year.)
Use your mornings
Most people have more discipline and focus in the morning. Most people have minimal energy at night. You can use these truths, and little kids’ longer sleep needs, to your advantage. If your children sleep from 8:30 PM to 6:30 AM, you could theoretically go to bed at 9:30 PM, wake up at 4:30 AM, and have two highly productive hours available before the household starts stirring. My kids sleep unpredictably enough that this didn’t work for me, but I made use of productive morning time by nudging as many calls as possible to 10 AM or later, leaving 8:30 AM to 10 AM pleasingly open.
If you dream of becoming a writer, you have to eventually sit down and write. Whether you’re doing National Novel Writing Month in November, or you dream of being a writer “someday”, the first inescapable step is making the time to do it. Here’s a 15-minute exercise toward that end that you can do today.
Get unstuck fast
If you’ve got just four hours a week to paint your masterpiece, you don’t want to spend 3.5 of them standing in front of the easel wondering what you should be doing. Working artists develop cues to put themselves in a productive mindset: a certain mug of coffee, certain background music. You might also devise a go-to trick for coming up with ideas. I brainstormed most major plot points for my book while running around my neighbourhood. Fresh air and physical activity work so well for me that anytime I’m stuck I go run. I always come back with something.
Change your scenery
I wrote the bulk of my novel in my home office, but I find that going somewhere other than your workplace or your house can be helpful for turbo-charging productivity (and nixing laundry-related distractions). My local library has great workspaces. Coffee shops can work. You could borrow a friend’s house; you probably won’t do her laundry.
Pay for a little more childcare than you need
While you and your spouse no doubt support each other’s long term creative goals, extra space can minimise friction. Instead of bickering over whose turn it is to cover, you simply pay your after-school sitter to stay until 8 p.m. one night per week. You go work on your project and your spouse goes to the gym. Everyone is happy.
Build in accountability
The trouble with passion projects is that no one really cares if you do them. So find someone to care. As I was finishing my manuscript, I recruited several people through my blog to serve as “beta-readers” — people who’d offer critical feedback. Knowing these people were expecting to get their reading material in a reasonable time frame lit a fire under me to edit the manuscript into something I wouldn’t be mortified to share.
Treat it like a flooded basement
In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Juliet recounts how at one desperately busy juncture when she was running a hotel and caring for two small children, she despaired of finding time to work on the business she wanted to start. But the hotel housekeeper noted that in this frenzy, she’d found time to deal with a flood that ruined the basement carpets. Where did that time come from? She didn’t make more time. And yet if the basement hadn’t flooded, she would have claimed she was busy that week, too.
The time would have been filled with something else.When something urgent happened she chucked that “something else”—but she could have chucked it without the basement flooding. As she put it, “You can figure out what’s important to you and treat it like a flooded basement.”
I wrote those lines; I also know this is hard. I recall one morning that I had carved out to work on Juliet. I could see the stack in my inbox rising fast, including some messages about not-minor matters. But I realised that I could choose how to spend my time. So I shut my inbox. I did not respond to anything until 4 p.m. The earth did not stop spinning. My manuscript got done.