Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Importance of Schedule and Routine

I'm a writer. I could be considered an author, as I have authored several short stories and one novel. I could even be considered a published author, as - to date - one of those short stories has been published.

So far, I haven't really spent much time discussing writing on this blog. I'm certain there are far too many blogs about writing that one more isn't going to matter much. So, I'd rather spend the time blogging about other things - things that are important to me, my points of view, my life stories.

However, today I am going to use the world of writing as a springboard into a different topic: routine.

There are as many different writing practices and techniques as there are writers in the world. Several common questions seem to be repeated over and over again to authors by fans hoping to become as good as those authors. "What is your process?" "Do you outline, keep notes, or otherwise logic your story out first, or do you just go with it?" "Did you go to school for writing?" "Where do good ideas come from?"

These questions are pretty much a joke, as any good writer will tell you that the answer is, and always will be, "It depends." It depends on the particular writer, and one author's techniques or process isn't going to be the same for another author. Everyone is different and comes to problems with different perspectives.

There are several universal truths that almost every author will agree upon, however, that have nothing to do with the individual.
Any author you meet will tell any aspiring writing that you must read. Reading is key. Read everything. Read anything. Read good writing. Read bad writing. Just read. Analyze the craft of writing. Be familiar with the words, the rules your teachers spout all through high school, and how, when and why to break those rules.

Authors would probably also agree that any aspiring writer must write. There's only one way to get better at something, and that is to actually do it. Anyone can have innate talent for something, but it still takes years of practice doing something to perfect a craft (and those whom other see as having perfected their craft would still suggest they know very little). Write. Write. Write. It's simple. To do something well, you actually have to do it.

Finally, most authors would probably also agree that a writing schedule or routine is invaluable. Everyone knows that it takes time to accomplish the first two items on this list. If you're like me, reading a short novel can take over two weeks. I'm a slow reader, and my daily schedule is jam-packed with things to do. And don't even get me started with writing. Anyone who has sat down at a blank sheet of paper or an empty Word document and attempted to fill that space with meaningful words understands how long that can take.

Our minds are always full of shit when we sit down to first write. Did I empty the trash? I should set an alarm so I'm not late picking up the kids from practice. What are we going to have for dinner? Did I eat lunch? Maybe I should call Bob back about our meeting next week.

Hell, it could take almost an hour to empty our mind of all of the daily bullshit running through it.

This is why so many authors lecture on having a writing schedule. Set aside an hour, two, three or four hours that are dedicated for nothing other than writing.  And then stick to that schedule every day. Some would say, it doesn't matter if you don't type a word and stare at that empty monitor the entire time, as long as you haven't done anything else, you're doing okay.

The reason for this is need for routine lies in repetition. Doing something often enough makes it familiar, and things that are familiar allow our brains to loosen up, not be afraid of this overwhelming work called writing. How many of you park in the same parking space at work every day? How about when you go to the grocery store? Same general area of the parking lot? What about when you go see a movie? Sit in the same seats as often as you can?

Humans thrive on routine and repetition. We become less anxious about doing something that might seem scary if we have something familiar to hold onto.

I move regularly. I moved out of my parents' home on my seventeenth birthday, and never stopped moving. I think I average a move every three years. Some moves are just across town, some moves are across the entire country. Every single move, but one, was easy and exciting, and actually fun.

That one move, however, I nearly lost my mind. I moved from the familiar - a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara (and for any of you who have been to Santa Barbara, you understand how beautiful, peaceful, and relatively safe it is - despite recent news that would suggest the contrary), to a slightly larger one-bedroom apartment in Oakland.

It wasn't that I was terrified of the extreme contrast between the clean and idyllic Santa Barbara and the filthy ghetto that can be parts of Oakland (and was, in fact, the part of Oakland I was moving to; I was able to land the apartment I got for a deal because the entire building moved out following a gang shooting of one of the tenants).

No, the area didn't frighten me as much as the unfamiliarity. So what made all those other moves so easy? So much fun? I made them with my wife. She was there with me, a piece of the familiar in an unfamiliar world. My move to Oakland, I made first and my wife was going to follow me out a few months later.

All I wanted to do was curl up in the corner of that apartment and hibernate until she got there. I was terrified of the unfamiliar. But, I eventually forced myself to leave the apartment, find a job, and start school again. She eventually showed up and I knew I was able to be there for her in that unfamiliar world that frightened me at first, too.

The point to all of this is that familiarity in things is a comfort to the human mind. It allows the brain to relax. And when the brain isn't focused on assimilating the unfamiliar, it can spend its time working on other tasks.

This is why routine is important. It's okay to allow certain upsets to a daily routine, but if one truly expects to accomplish anything, setting aside time to do that is the first (and I would argue, most important) step.

Dave Ramsey, that Total Money Makeover guy, talks about setting aside the money you need to save first. From each paycheck, put that money aside before you pay bills, and then don't touch it. This will insure you have a good savings built for emergencies, and that you aren't spending every dime you make on other things. The same concept applies to time management. You need to schedule time to set aside to do the things you want to do. Schedule it every day. Treat it as a job you cannot say no to. If you skip a day, you could be fired. There are consequences.

Do you want to get into shape? You need to go to the gym every day (there are other theories on this I might get into, but for more information check out Mike Matthews' blog). You can't skip a day or your body will fire you. Want to be a writer? You need to set aside time every day to write. No skipping.

The excuses, "I didn't have time today," or "Today was just so busy," don't cut it. You have to do it. If you worked at Burger King, do you think your boss would take kindly to you telling him you didn't have time to make a customer's sandwich? No. You'd be fired. That applies with any job. The difference is, with things like working out, writing, or any other self-improvement action one could take, you have to be accountable to yourself.

It's the only way to succeed in life. You are your own boss. President Obama said that we needed to be the change we wanted to see in the world. Those aren't just pretty words. They are true fact. If you want to see a change, you need to implement that change. You need to start with yourself. Take baby steps at first, if that's what it takes, but you have to do the work, because if you don't you will never accomplish your goals.