I’m constantly juggling the writing deadlines I set for myself with the deadlines I need to meet for other people. When others are relying on me to get their work done, my projects always seem to take the back burner. How do I learn to treat my writing with the same importance as the work I do for others?
Conflicted in Columbia
My dear, yours is a common affliction. Many reading this letter will recognize themselves in your question. I will let you in on a little secret if you promise not to tell anyone else. I suffer from the same disease.
It may come as a shock to my beloved legion of fans, but I too struggle to put my own needs before others. It is a condition I have worked on for decades. I have lost count of the time management and self-help books I have devoured to get some insight into this problem.
I am still a WIP (work in progress), but I am willing to share what has worked for me. These tips come with a health warning though, like any good medication. Taking control of your time and putting yourself and your priorities first can have serious side effects. Regularly saying “no” to others’ demands can lead to the loss of friends, contracts, and excuses.
Let me elaborate because knowledge is power, dear Conflicted, and forewarned is forearmed. Knowing about these potential side effects can help you prepare for them when they happen.
Let’s begin with one potential side effect: loss of “friends.” These so-called friends—and I am talking about managers, colleagues, associates, partners, spouses, and children as well—have grown used to you doing stuff for them. They may not deliberately take advantage of your good nature, but they most certainly have become accustomed to relying on you to deliver.
Am I saying they are all blood-sucking leeches and you should cast them off like dandruff on the shoulders of your black velvet jacket? Absolutely not. But when you start to reevaluate how you manage your priorities, something will have to give. And these “friends” may not like your decisions.
You mentioned how your projects get put on the back burner. You have decided to prioritize other people’s work and, as a result, yours has taken a step back. But there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and you are only human. And unless Hermione Granger is willing to lend you her Time-Turner, they are facts you have to deal with. Once you decide your projects are a higher priority, you will have no choice but to tell other people you can’t do something, or you can’t do it right now, and that is going to cheese many people off.
I would argue this may well be the reason you have trouble saying no. We’re all conditioned to please others. It’s not a bad thing. Helping each other makes the world a kinder place to live. But it is easy to lose perspective and balance, and quid pro quo conversations can turn us all into Hannibal Lecter. As you weigh your priorities, you have to decide what value your arrangements hold. If working on your own projects has greater value, consider what else is on the table. It’s a business decision. Look at the facts and take the emotion out of it. I am not suggesting you morph into a selfish Billy-no-mates, as there are enough of them in the world already. I am saying you have to review constantly and understand that some things may need to be renegotiated.
This may be harder when it comes to your contracted deadlines. Again, you need to determine the value of those contracts. Are they unrealistic? Are you being fairly recompensed for your time and expertise? If not, can you rework your agreement? Sometimes we cling to things out of fear. And a loss of income is scary. In the current climate, it’s arguably worse than losing your “friends.” But sometimes you must take a leap of faith. I am not going to counsel you to give up the day job because only you know your financial position, but if you need the security of a salary or are committed to a series of low-paying freelance gigs, then until you are in a position to break away, other things in your life may need to take a back seat so you have time to write or market your own books.
Once you have evaluated your time sucks, the only things left to lose are your excuses. And dear Conflicted, this is the hardest loss of all. Imagine a life where there are no obstacles getting in the way of your genius. A clear path freshly weeded and newly paved for you to stride along. Nothing to trip you up; no one to hold you back. You are Usain Bolt lining up for the hundred-meter sprint. The finish line is in your sights. Are you going to visualize your end goal and run toward it, or are you going to faff around, retying your shoelaces for the tenth time?
The expectations of friends and the requirements of contracts are reasons you have to put your project aside until later. There may be other reasons, like ill health or lack of resources. Maybe you took a wrong turn in Bogotá and are currently waiting for a garage to fix your flat tire, and there’s no Wi-Fi for miles. But everything else is an excuse.
Let me tell you, I am the queen of making excuses. I’m a veritable Empress of Procrastination. And the secret I have discovered to beating excuses is to slay them one by one, over and over, like a lifelong game of Whac-a-Mole. In every precious moment you have negotiated back to yourself, you need to write.
Everyone has commitments. Everyone has responsibilities. Everyone is busy. But successful people value themselves and their time. They honor the minutes, hours, and days by filling them with activities that propel them forward. They understand that, in every moment, they have a choice. And they always aim to do the right thing at the right time. Sometimes the right thing is to do something for others. Sometimes it is to do something for yourself. And sometimes it is to do nothing at all.
The key word is balance. Balance in all things. Achieve that, and yes, you might lose stuff along the way, but think of all you could gain.