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Keep Your Cool During Back-to-School

Although few people welcome the end of summer, no one dreads it more than parents—especially parents who are authors. Between too many trips for new clothes, school supplies, and haircuts; signing up for extracurriculars; and attending orientation events, parents are often left physically exhausted and mentally depleted. And every summer, the same question presents itself: Must we entirely sacrifice our writing practices (or sleep) to set our children up for success in the new academic year?

I’m responsible for the majority of caregiving for five children, toddler through early twenties, and for keeping our house up and running. As a parent and a person obsessed with time management—what I like to call “time Tetris”—I’ve developed my own hypotheses, experiments, and practices for taking care of everyone else without sacrificing my own health or dropping my writing.

The following techniques and approaches are what I’ve found to help the most with the work-life-parent balance this time of year. While I encourage you to experiment with the techniques I present, you can take what works and leave what doesn’t. You never know what little change might be the catalyst for a major breakthrough in productivity, stress reduction, or even experiencing joy amid the back-to-school season.

Schedule. Some find scheduling tedious, but it can mean the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling confident and on schedule with your family and your writing. Try sketching out your plans for the weeks ahead of the back-to-school rush. Start with the dates you have: the first day of school, holidays and travel plans, parties, and orientations. Even if you don’t have them all, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of where to schedule flexible activities such as shopping trips and haircuts. Once you have the big vision, dig in and plan your weeks on Sunday evenings to determine when and where you’ll commit to your writing around other activities. Knowing exactly what’s on deck for the next day could also mean better rest and therefore more energy for writing.

Leave Plenty of Margin. Be conservative when estimating your time and energy. Always overestimate travel time to account for increased traffic, especially in the week before school starts in your area; the time required for shopping, orientation, and the rest of your to-dos; and quality family time. You’ll also want to give yourself plenty of time to hit milestones with your writing. Treat your writing blocks like you would any other appointment, and don’t allow anything but a true emergency to encroach. The world will not fall apart while you’re at your desk.

Underestimate Your Energy and Stay Flexible. Yes, you read that correctly. Allow yourself to be tired after running around all day, and don’t beat yourself up about it. Know you may experience “low energy,” and stop expecting yourself to run like a machine. You deserve happiness and rest, and your needs are not the lowest priority. Also remember that all the plans and schedules you create are merely guidelines. They are not meant to be perfect, only estimates for tending to your top priorities—including your writing. Stay flexible as you move through your week, and take advantage of opportunities to rest or write more.

Adjust Your Writing Schedule Temporarily. All your extra activity may require reevaluating your writing schedule and practices while back-to-school events keep you on your toes. If you usually stay up late to write, you may have to switch to writing in the mornings, before the day starts. Although that change can be jarring for night owls, there is an immense feeling of calm and confidence that can result from hitting your daily writing goal while you still have energy. And it can keep you from falling asleep on your keyboard and adding a few hundred repeating Js to your manuscript.

Refill Your Well. Don’t think for a second that you can skip self-care. Remember: if you aren’t taken care of, you can’t give your best to others. Your favorite show, movie, game, fitness, or hobby can and should be added to your schedule, and will also help you demonstrate a healthy attitude about self-care to your children. During busy times like the end of summer, our well can feel empty, so it’s helpful to incorporate some creative rejuvenation. Consider using writing prompts and scheduling free-writing sessions to reignite your creative spark and overcome lulls in mental energy. These sessions can keep your fire fueled through any outside chaos and overwhelm.

Try Sprints. There’s never a bad time to sprint. Micro sprints, described in Chris Fox’s book 5,000 Words Per Hour as writing just five minutes at a time and tracking the results, are a great tool for priming the pump and keeping you writing through stressful periods. It can also help you mitigate any lag in your writing pace, as you can usually fit a few five-minute sprints into your day. Even if you only write a little each day, maintaining that practice can build your consistency and keep you satisfied with your progress. It also keeps your story top of mind, preventing long breaks that cause us to forget where we left off. Being social with other adults, especially other writer parents, can also help mitigate any sense of loneliness you might endure when life gets overwhelming. Meeting for sprints, virtually or in-person, can not only satisfy your social needs but also add new words to your work-in-progress and bolster your motivation in an otherwise hectic time.

Ask for Help. Remember to ask for help when you need it. If possible, reevaluate the labor division in your household, even for just the busiest weeks. Friends and family members may also be able to help, if you’re willing to ask. Most of the people in our lives love us, enjoy helping us, and want to see us happy and successful. Even your children might be able to help if they know where they can share the load. And you don’t have to be “perfect” to be the parent your children need during this time. Model the behavior you want to see in them—which definitely doesn’t include ignoring their own health and happiness.

Plan a Writing Getaway. Schedule a writing getaway for yourself after the kids start school. This can be a night or two in a hotel with no one but you and the characters in your WIP, or it can be a late summer or early fall writing retreat with a group of friends. Either way, if you have it scheduled, the knowledge of a writing-related “reward” can sustain you through the back-to-school rush.

Check Back in When the Dust Settles. After the back-to-school rush is over and everyone is settled into their routines, be ready to leap at the opportunity to reevaluate your daily and weekly schedules and your best writing time. It may change again, but that’s okay. Stay flexible, and bend with the wind of life to continue making progress to your most meaningful writing and publishing goals.

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