Note: This is a guest post by Lisa Hall-Wilson, she’s an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She teaches writing classes online and writes historical and speculative fiction. Visit her website at LisaHallWilson.com. You can also find her on Facebook.
I have been a stay-at-home mom off and on for eighteen years. For the last twelve years, I’ve also been a writer.
I went from knowing nothing to having my own freelance business and being a national award-winning freelance journalist and author. One thing I had to learn was how to carve out time for my writing career while keeping my family a priority. You can, too.
I think “balance” isn’t the right concept. I don’t balance my priorities, I set priorities for short seasons.
For me, trying to keep all the balls in the air all the time was exhausting and inevitably I failed at all of it.
By making writing and family a priority for a short season (I’m talking a few hours, days or a week at a time), it all seems to balance out. My kids understand that I have deadlines and wordcounts to make and will hang out later, and sometimes I don’t touch my laptop for four or five days because it’s family time. I never neglect one or the other for very long.
There are different seasons with raising kids, so I’ll try and point out the adjustments I made in each stage.
- Make use of empty time
Empty time is all those soccer practices, swim lessons, auditions, rehearsals, and music lessons that you’re stuck waiting around for. I’m not talking about games or meets where you need to pay attention – that’s family time. But, in those multiple hours a week where I’m just waiting it out, I bring a printed manuscript, my laptop, my phone, or a notebook. Whether I’m editing, emailing, writing, reading/studying, or brainstorming, making use of those 20 min to 1 hour time slots is a game changer.
Now my are older and are into different activities so I spend more time in the car waiting and working and make sure my devices are fully charged before I leave. In winter, (I live in Canada, it gets cold in the car) I look for a nearby library or coffee shop. Bring some headphones and music that drowns out the noise of the crowd and get to work!
- Make use of play time
When my kids were younger, we lived in an apartment so I had to go with them when they went outside. In these times I brought interruptible work, so what I mean by that is work that I could pick up and set down and still accomplish things. This works even if you have to sit by a window or on the deck while the kids play. I would do a lot of editing or reading/highlighting moreso than writing at these times. I made sure I set aside one play time a day where they had my full attention.
- Write while they sleep
Whether we’re talking about toddlers or teenagers, making use of quiet time in the house when you have it is essential. The times of day they sleep will change so you have to be flexible. I am more likely to stay up late than get up early, so I’ve done that lots.
There was a season where I would work from 10PM to 3AM, sleep until 8AM and get up with the kids for school, go to a part-time job, sleep for a few more hours in the afternoon, do the supper/hang out with the family until 10PM or so, and start over. When they were in bed by 7PM, I wrote from 7 – 9PM each night because I had to be alert during the day and then spent time with my husband. It’s important when you’re writing in the outlier hours to take at least two days off a week from that schedule. If I didn’t, I was miserable and so was everyone else.
- Set aside time for your work
You need to set aside dedicated time to write. If you have a spouse or partner, work out a mutually-agreed upon arrangement where they will take the kids or help guard the quiet of your workspace for a determined amount of time. I had a couple of hours here and there during the week where everyone was home, but I could shut myself in a room and get work done.
It’s important to take those moments like play time and sports waiting to plan your writing time. Nothing is worse than getting those two hours and then lose a half hour staring at a blank screen. What was it Churchill used to say? If you fail to plan you plan to fail. This is not time to reread everything you wrote the day before and edit, you have other times for that. This is dedicated writing time.
- Weekends away
This was a game changer for me. My writer’s group splits the cost of an Air BnB rental, we bring our own food, and write. We don’t eat meals together, plan side trips, any of that. This is not a social time for me, it’s writing time.
I can get 20,000 to 25,000 words down (original stuff – not editing) on a novel between a Friday evening and Sunday noon. But I also make sure I am prepared with an outline, character sketches, etc. to make the best use of that time.
- Office Hours
In the seasons where I’ve been home full-time, my office hours are school hours. This is not time to clean, volunteer, lead groups studies, spend time on Facebook. I treat those hours like an outside job as much as I can. I try not to work outside my office hours, but it’s hard if I’m neck deep in a story or facing a deadline – and there will be those seasons.
Summer holidays are hard because I don’t have a door on my writing space and I’m constantly interrupted. But at the end of the day, I’m OK with losing writing time because my kids want to talk with me. They’ll be out of the house soon, so I’m not going to rush that. Always make time for life.
- Go on an adventure!
I do my best to take my kids on “an adventure” a few times a month. When they were younger, we’d go for a hike and look for caterpillars. We’d collect leaves and see how many different ones we could find. We walked everywhere. We built snow forts and snow slides or went tobogganing (sledding). Now we go to the mall, a bookstore or movie.
When we get home, all they want to do is play quietly, rest, or read. We had family time, and now they’ll give you writing time usually without complaint. Setting priorities for a short season. This is how it works.
In the summer, I’ll take a whole day and go on an adventure (like the beach), and then they’re OK if I spend a couple of evenings writing. I focus on them entirely for that whole day, and they give me the freedom to focus entirely on my writing for a couple of evenings.
- Be kind to yourself
Sometimes life throws you a curveball and you have to step away from the keyboard. Someone gets sick, money is tight and you have to take a part-time job – whatever. Life happens. Resist the urge to feel guilty about this and sneak in time to write when you can. Write every day, even if it’s ten minutes while locked in the bathroom with a notebook. It all counts and keeps your passion for writing alive.
Also, take care of yourself physically and mentally. Go outside – fresh air always helps when I’m stuck on a story. Reliving traumatic events to write authentically requires that I take care of myself mentally and take breaks. Talk it out with a friend or spouse.
Some of these ideas may seem like they’re just a few drops in the bucket when you want to write full-time, but these snatches of time add up cumulatively.