I was on our Facebook page recently and I came across a comment from a student about flagging motivation that made me recall a study technique I still use today. It was passed on by one of my writing professors, who knew a thing or two about time management: she taught full-time and still turned out full-length non-fiction and novels.
I probably shouldn’t say that she “passed on” this technique. It was more like forcing this technique by way of a class assignment.
The course was a study of the short story and it was full of aspiring writers. Given that, you might think we would all be happy to write, but we weren’t, and we spent a lot of time complaining about how much writing we had to do and claiming that we didn’t have enough time to write. And by the general quality of our work, it was pretty clear that many of us tried to avoid writing until the last possible moment.
At the beginning of term, the prof challenged the class to collaboratively write a short story. Over the course of one semester, the 30 of us were to contribute one paragraph of about 150 words, one after the other, until we had 5,000 words. We weren’t to spend more than 15 minutes on our paragraph.
I was assigned to write a description of the setting. The person before me had just had the character stop the car she was driving, so I wrote that it had recently rained. I seem to recall that there was a sidewalk, and earthworms, and mud. In other words, it was a dreadful paragraph.
At the end of the semester, we each received a copy of our patchwork story, and you know, it wasn’t half bad. Some of the writing was vivid and evocative and even the earthworms were a nice detail. But the point of the exercise was not the story: it was to prove that we didn’t need three whole hours to sit down and produce good stuff.
“If you have 15 minutes, you can write a 300-word scene,” the prof pronounced.
It was a minor revelation. Until that point, I’d always assumed to do good work you had to sequester yourself in a room for a day, and if you took a break it meant you were lazy. But in fact I had no excuse not to sit down for a focused half-hour and tackle a small element of a larger assignment.
There are 10,080 minutes in a week. Use ’em.