"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Time: The Writer’s Best Collaborator By Kenneth Atchity

 Managing your work doesn’t work for a simple reason: work is infinite. Good work only creates more work; in fact, bad work creates more work too. So the more you work the more work you will have. It’s basic common sense that you can’t manage an infinite commodity.

               What can you manage? Time. You not only can, but must, manage your time because time is all too finite.

               They say, “If you want to get

something done, find a busy person.”  The busy person succeeds in getting things done because he knows how to manage his or her time. We all have the exact same amount at our disposal: 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours each day, 168 hours each week, 8,736 hours each year. If you put one hour into a project each day for a year, you’d have worked on it for 365 hours—more than enough time to write a book, and a screenplay, and a treatment or two.  “If you place a little upon a little,” explained the ancient Greek almanac writer Hesiod in his Works and Days, “soon it becomes a lot.”  

Where do you find the time?

One memorable day in Manhattan I was delivering a broken antique wall clock to my favorite repair shop. As I completed my drop off and turned to leave, I noticed an ultra-modern stand-up clock constructed of shiny pendulums, a different metal each for hours, minutes, and seconds, all enclosed in a sleek glass case. It was simply the most beautiful timepiece I’d ever seen.

Then I realized: it had no hands. At first I thought, No wonder it’s in the

shop. It’s broken.
But I studied the clock more closely.

No. It was designed without hands. It was a timepiece that Salvador Dali would have been as thrilled with as I was. Time moves in its own way unless we somehow capture it.

It reminded me that time is a free force. It just happens, whether you do anything about it or not.  It’s up for grabs. It doesn’t belong to your family, or to your friends, or to your day job, or to anyone but you! What you’re working on at any given moment is how you control it.

The trick is where do you find that free time?—a question busy people are asked regularly. Here’s their secret: busy people make time, for the activities they decide to prioritize. One good way to wrestle with the problem they’ve solved is to ask yourself, “Where do I lose it?”  You’d be surprised.

I ask writers to make a chart of their weekly hours and use it to determine how many hours they devote to each activity in their cluttered, over-stimulated lives. Maybe you’d be surprised--or maybe not--that most people have no idea where the time goes. They come back to me with a grand total of 182, or 199, or 82 hours of activity—until I remind them that they, like every other human, have the same 168 hours each week to spend. Then we get serious and analyze exactly where they’re lying to themselves about the time: forgetting about the endless phone calls with friends, or the true amount of time in front of the television, or the accurate time devoted to the daily commute, or the time doing absolutely nothing but staring out the window. When we get the time inventory accurate most people are surprised at the truth. But truth is the first step to freedom, and managing your time effectively is the greatest freedom of all.

               I call it “making the clock of life your clock.” I believe in this philosophy so much I haven’t worn a regular watch for nearly thirty years, despite owning a vintage wrist watch that belonged to my father and an even older pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather. The only chronograph I carry around with me is one that allows me to make life’s clock my clock:  a stopwatch.

The stopwatch makes the Spanish proverb, la vida es corta pero ancha (“life is short but wide”) come true. You can get a free stopwatch app on your cell phone!

The stopwatch method of time management

The stopwatch method of time management is simple. You use it to capture time, to make sure that your Priority Writing Project is getting the amount of attention you want to give it to move it—and your career success--ahead with certainty. You know that the wall clock, or the one on your wrist or displayed on your cell phone, has a way of running away with your day. You say you’ll work on Priority Writing Project from seven to eight a.m. and something is certain to come along to disrupt that hour almost as though life were conspiring against you.

What’s really happening is that you’re letting life interfere with your personal time management. Of course when the interference occurs, you tell yourself  I’ll catch up later,  or  I’ll start again tomorrow and this time protect myself from interruptions,  but over the years we discover that  life runs rampant over any and all such resolutions.

               The stopwatch method works best in a life jam-packed with stimuli and distraction. It allows you to steal time.  While clocks on wrists and walls record public time, your private prime time happens only when your stopwatch is running. The stopwatch allows you to call “time out” from the game everyone else is engaged in.

 Simply promise yourself you won’t go to sleep at night until, by hook or by crook, you’ve clocked one hour (sixty minutes) of working on Priority Writing Project on your stopwatch. Turn the stopwatch ON when you’re working on it, and OFF when you get interrupted. Your stopwatch minutes may be gleaned over a six-hour period, or over a twenty-four-hour period. You steal them when you can: waiting at the dentist’s, commuting on the ferry, when your lunch appointment hasn’t shown up yet, when your cell phone dies and no one can reach you until you’ve replaced or recharged the battery, when your date for the evening calls in sick. It takes a few days to get used to this process, but once you do you’ll recognize the power it gives you over time.

Optimum Attention Span (OAS)

How do you know how much time to devote to Priority Project—or to any activity, for that matter? That’s a function of what I call Optimum Attention Span (OAS). For some activities, like watching your favorite sports event or shopping, your OAS might be extremely wide; for others, like listening to your boss complain or to your domestic partner nag, it might be miniscule. The trick is to determine what the OAS is for that Priority Project. At the start of any project, OAS tends to be smaller; as the project gains momentum and begins to appear reachable, your OAS expands. So planning to write that report, give yourself 30-45 minutes on the stopwatch during the first week. But reassess OAS at the end of each week because, like everything else worthwhile in life, OAS changes and evolves. By the fourth week you may well be up to an hour and a half—ninety minutes on the stopwatch.

Don’t forget “Linkage”

               Isn’t it hard to work in fits and starts? You might very well ask that very good question. The answer is that it’s actually easier to work that way than it is to work without stopping if you employ my time-management technique of linkage, what Hemingway referred to as “leaving a little water in the well.”

Here’s how linkage works. The phone rings, so you have to turn off your stopwatch. But you let it ring one or two more times, taking that time to make a mental decision about what you’ll do when your stopwatch is running again—that is, in your next Priority Writing Project session. And here’s an interesting secret: it doesn’t matter what decision you make. The minute you make it, as you answer the phone and go on from one activity to the next, your mind starts thinking of better decisions than the one you made; in fact, your mind becomes increasingly motivated to get back to that Priority Writing Project because it knows exactly what it will do when the next session begins. You’ve created an automatic linkage--that makes restarting when your stopwatch is next running no longer an occasion for blockage. Instead, you’re fully ready to jump in and get as much out of that next session as possible before it’s interrupted by life’s next distraction. 

And, yes, have a desk drawer filled with stopwatches so you can employ a different colored one for each major project you’re engaged with.

The stopwatch method will truly make the clock of life your clock.



Dr. Kenneth Atchity (Georgetown B.A., Yale Ph.D.) has been teaching time management throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe for decades. His twenty books include A Write’s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision (ebook: Write Time); How to Quit Your Day Job and Live out Your Dreams; Writing Treatments that Sell (with Chi-Li Wong; ebook: Write: Treatments), Sell Your Story to Hollywood: Writer’s Pocket Guide to the Business of Show Business and, with Ridgely Goldsborough, Why? Marketing for Writers. Dr. Atchity’s more than thirty films include Meg, the Emmy-nominated Kennedy Detail, Hysteria, Erased, Joe Somebody, and Life or Something like It. His companies serving writers include www.thewriterslifeline.com, www.storymerchant.com, and www.storymerchantbooks.com. His most recent novel is The Messiah Matrix (messiahmatrix.com) and his teaching sessions can be accessed at www.RealFastHollywoodDeal.com, Master Class in Achieving Your Dreams, and Master Class in StoryTelling. For updates on writing, visit Ken Atchity’s Blog



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