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To keep writing, use a time log

“What did I do today!” you wail. For the life of you, wiped out at the end of the day and ready for binge TV, you can’t remember anything you did except overeat for lunch. Maybe you recall writing for eight minutes midmorning and half-heartedly pecking at your journal article in progress, but otherwise the day’s a blank. And paradoxically, you feel you’re always so busy, dashing from one thing to the next and never getting it all done.

Sound familiar? Where does the time go? Especially for academic writers, with the responsibilities of teaching, mandatory committee meetings, office hours, reading endless memos, emailing responses, and comforting a colleague who just got her article rejected—again—it’s an ongoing challenge to take hold and wrestle our writing time to the ground, or desk.

I found a remedy, though, that you may have read about: keep a time log.

“Oh no,” you wail again, “more to do!” True, but if you do it as you go, it’s less onerous. To put in more time writing and find out where all that time goes, I recently tracked my activities with a time log. Working at home in my editing and consulting business, I generally (aim to) write in the mornings and address client work, emails, and calls in the afternoons and evenings. Here’s that log:

Time Activity
6:30 a.m. Rise (a good day).
6:33-7:15 a.m. Dress, check TV guide, record 42 shows I’ll never watch.
7:15-8:15 a.m. Read, meditate, plan day with (ideal) time allocations.
8:15-8:45 a.m. Breakfast, talk with hubby (that is, listen to him talk).
8:45-10:00 a.m. Scan Internet news (read: gossip), check client emails, answer a few, wipe kitchen counter, take out something to defrost for dinner.
10:00-11:15 a.m. Work on novel (finally!).
11:15-11:30 a.m. Browse in a magazine (needed break).
11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Work on current client’s manuscript.
12:30-1:15 p.m. Lunch . . . .


As I studied this time log, I not only learned a lot but also saw many benefits. Here are eight:

1) Those first activities are very important to me to set the day, plan, and reconnect with my husband.

2) When I reviewed the log at noon, I saw how many things I really did. Never gave myself credit for the 8:45-10:00 a.m. activities, believing I wasted the whole time on Internet gossip.

3) My pattern became clear. Where could I improve? Obviously, less gossip. Maybe, less hubby talk (with explanations and promises for later).

4) I made more conscious choices. Wanting to get to my novel earlier, as you may want to get to your journal-article-in-progress, I resolved to browse the headlines less and answer clients’ emails later in the day (except for crises).

If you need to get up and out first thing, honor your inclination. A teaching colleague felt best getting out to the gym in the mornings instead of writing when she didn’t have class. She looked forward after dinner to cozying up with her research and writing.

5) I built in needed and non-guilt-making breaks. Between working on the novel and the current client project, I have to shift gears and air my brain. So, I set a timer for twelve minutes and do a little dusting or plant-watering or read an interesting article on innovative qualitative analysis methods I’ve had bookmarked for two years.

6) Following my allocation plan, even roughly, gives me permission and freedom to relax into the specific activity. Before the time log, I always felt anxious, rushing through one thing to get onto the next, and I’d berate myself for not working fast enough on anything.

But when I keep the time log, having allotted, for example, 75 minutes to my novel, I relax (incredibly). My goal is a minimum of 500 words a day (good enough for Hemingway), and the allotment and promise of time lets me breathe: I sit back, play with ideas, visualize the scene, hear the main character talking with others, even do a little research for equipment the character is using. And I luxuriate in that delicious feeling of time having vanished, with nothing existing but the writing.

I shared the time log idea with a client laboring over his dissertation as he cared for his two-year-old. He decided to use her nap time for writing the first draft of the third chapter. His report: “It was fantastic! Like the heavens opened! My mind was clear, I knew just what to do, and I produced a very decent fifteen pages!”

A professor I’ve known and corresponded with for several years periodically lamented over her monograph languishing for longer than she could admit. She started a time log three months ago, designating a modest half hour a day to the work. The other afternoon, blushing and excited through the email, she sent me her first draft!

7) I strengthened my resolve to do better or keep up the good pattern and go further.

Keeping my time log for a few days, I compared yesterday with today and saw my patterns more clearly. My Internet clicking certainly needed discipline. My dedication to the novel deserved a little praise.

8) I gained a great sense of control over my time. And saw how I could use the time choices to inch closer, and reach, my writing goals. 

You don’t have to keep your time log forever. A week or two, or a month, will probably show you how you’re using your time. You can experiment, reallocate your time (alternate mornings and evenings, weekdays and weekends, depending on your other obligations), establish patterns that really feel good, have revelations like mine, or make other surprising discoveries, and learn to use your time in different ways. With a time log, you’ll give yourself more credit for using time rightly and forgive yourself for wasting time. With conscious choices, you’ll feel more in charge of your time and will recognize (also miraculously) that you actually have more time than you imagined. And as you desire and feel impelled, you’ll choose more of your time for your writing.

© 2019 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.