Time equals life; therefore, waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life. – Alan Lakein
Time is precious. I say that and it reads like a cliché. Time is valuable but most people aren’t willing to pay us a fraction of what our time is worth. I know what the government says the average wage is—currently that would be about £26,000 per annum—but I’ve never earned anything like that. In fact when I was on £15K I thought that was good money, about £7.70 per hour before taxes. So what is you spare time worth?
I am going to die. Not soon. At least I hope not soon. But we all die. If I live as long as my parents that means I’m two-thirds done. If I read a book a week until the day I die that means I have time for just about 1200 books. I’m two-thirds done and I’ve not read 2400 books. I’ve not read 1200. 600, maybe. As I write this I feel very, very guilty that I have wasted decades of my life. From a scholarly perspective I have and I have to live with that. But I’ve lived an interesting (if not exactly an exciting) life that I’ve been able to draw from. Living takes time and if you don’t live what have you to write about? I met a girl once—androgynous-looking thing she was—a Canadian, who was visiting the UK with her fiancé who was a family friend with latent gay tendencies—an odd couple; let’s put it that way. She just finished university after doing two degrees back-to-back and although she was clever—Christ, was she clever—she was also completely ignorant about life; all her life up till that point had centred around academia and her fiancé was literally the first boy she’d dated. I wonder if they’re still together.
My dad told me that when I got older time would speed up. Now I’m the first to admit that I’m no science geek but I knew that that wasn’t going to be the case and yet the older I get the more time feels as if it is speeding up; weeks scurry past as if they were days and I am always—always, always, always—always behind in my goals. Milligan and Murphy came out three months behind schedule and yet when I look back on those three months, although I know I was busy for every single day of them, I still have this huge list of things to do. I had planned to do another mass submission of poems and stories like I did in 2010 but it’s now 2012 and I only sent out a handful of things last year. What have I been doing? And more importantly was the return on my investment worth the effort involved?
Time management, at least according to Wikipedia, “is the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase efficiency or productivity.” I’m clearly very bad at it. And, despite the success I’ve had in every job I’ve ever done—shop work, office work, training—I don’t think I’ve ever been especially good at it because I’ve always put in extra hours in all of them; it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to maintain my own personal standards. That’s always been the problem with me. I’ve never been content with ‘good enough’. Good enough was never good enough.
Now I only have my writing to worry about and, unlike so many writers—hell, I used to be one of them—I have all day every day to be a writer. Luxury. Ab-so-lute luxury. And yet I hardly write and it’s starting to annoy me. Honestly I wrote more when I was working sixty hours a week. Writing has never been a job for me. I can’t treat it like one. Not the creative side of my writing. I can sit down—I do sit down—faithfully every day and hammer out articles like this and book reviews no probs—1000 words a day average which is perfectly respectable—but I am finding that I can’t do that when it comes to my fiction. And I think that’s because I see the art of writing as something quite different to the craft of writing. I can sit down any day and write on any subject you give me and it will be competently done, possibly even entertaining and informative but I won’t care about it. Many people say about what they do to earn a living, “Oh, it’s just a job.” And I’ve had just jobs. But my fiction-writing doesn’t feel like it could ever be just a job.
It’s easy to identify where all my time is going. It’s gobbled up by reading blogs, newsfeeds and Facebook entries and I’ve been thinking about a lot of the stuff that I’m reading and it is a complete, total and utter waste of time. Facebook is the easiest to illustrate. In some of the groups there are people who will say something like:
While writing, do you ever find yourself making the same facial expressions your characters do? Like furrowing your brow?
I picked that one purely at random and no offense to whoever posted it if you happen to read this; I could have chosen from a couple of dozen easily. It is actually a fair question. I’d never thought about it before. And I’m not sure I can say categorically that I don’t but I suspect I don’t. So far eleven people have stopped what they’re doing to answer that question. Who knows how many people have read the question, taken a minute to think about it and then decided as they couldn’t think of anything witty to say they’d not say anything at all and they probably spent more time trying to think of something witty that those who actually left a comment. The thing is on its own that question will have only wasted a minute or two of anyone’s time and so you could say, “Where’s the harm?” It’s a cumulative thing though, isn’t it? Ten questions like that will waste ten minutes and then there are the cute photos—which I am guilty of posting—and the blogs telling us what they did on holiday last week and once you add it all up an hour of your life has vanished that you will never get back. I easily spend an hour every day just weeding out the stuff I’m not even going to bother reading. It’s probably more. I should really time myself.
Just before Xmas I got a Motorola Xoom tablet to replace my Kindle which I’ve not been happy with since I got it. Kindle is supposed to read PDFs and it does read them but not very well and, as I have hundreds of articles saved in PDF format (most about Beckett in case you wondered) I really was looking for something that could handle them. That was why I bought the tablet but I discovered that it had other uses that I had not anticipated: I could use Google Reader, e-mails and check Facebook on it and so that’s what I’ve started doing, often while watching TV or while taking a break for a meal or a snack. I scud down the list, identify the stuff I actually want to read and pass on. Most things get my attention for about a second. It seems very harsh but it’s practical because I don’t have time to waste and—and I’m being deadly serious here—if I can’t organise my life so that I’m in a position—clear-headed and refreshed—to do some real writing then I’m going to take an axe to all these other things I’m doing to try and keep up my public profile. If I could see the benefits of putting in all this time—i.e. I was starting to sell a few books—then I might feel that it was justifiable and it’s okay not to write for a couple of years while I attend to this but that’s not the way it’s going.
Why do we do what we do? Before I started blogging I spent a long time—weeks, literally—reading about how one blogged. I knew it was never going to be enough to write and readers would miraculously appear, eager to read what I’d written, so the question was: How was I going to attract them? I found several approaches, different places to list my entries, places like Digg and Stumbleupon, and the fact is after religiously listing my blog I can now boast hits exceeding 8500 per month which works out to about 1400 per individual post since I only post six times a month. That said, only a fraction of those stay on the site for more than a few seconds; it’s terrifying to see how many don’t even hang around long enough to read more than a couple of sentences. I wonder why because, without being cocky about it, I write good stuff most of the time: well-researched and pondered over. The problem is not me. It’s everyone else. We are all so acutely conscious of how little time we have that we quit on things before we give them a chance and I think that’s a terrible shame.
A lot of people, like me, have a regular blogging schedule and that’s recommended. Some hardy souls post daily, others weekly but the frequency isn’t really as important as the regularity. That’s what people say. What I say is that there’s only about two blogs that I subscribe to (out of a total of about 250 currently) that I actually look forward to and both of those individuals (who I will not embarrass by naming) only post once a week. If I didn’t see a post by them in my feedreader by Sunday night I’d go and check to see if there was a problem with the program. Most people could stop posting for weeks and have done and I’ve never even noticed. I feel bad about that but the bottom line is that so many people don’t post stuff that really matters. We post because it’s time to post. Because we think people expect us to post. And they don’t. They really don’t.
The old adage says: If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all. I say: If you don’t have anything meaningful to say don’t say anything at all. Don’t waste my time. Don’t waste your time. Time is precious, especially if you’re a writer, especially-especially if you’re a 21st century writer who has to do all the ancillary crap that, in the good old days, other people did for you like arranging promotional material or reading tours or posting out review copies. We don’t have time to waste. So you really need to ask yourself if you’re investing your time wisely. What is the return on investment? Return is a hard thing to measure but let me illustrate. I belong to a Facebook group for self-published writers and for a while there the group discussions were being clogged up by incessant promotion: Read my book! Read my book! Will someone please read my goddam book? And a few times I chipped in and pointed out that these people were all frittering away their time marketing to the wrong people. As you all know I do regular book reviews. Mostly I review books by traditional publishers but if I get an interesting offer I’m game to plug anything I think is worthwhile; it would be hypocritical of me not to and I do often feel guilty that I don’t have more time to review some of the excellent independently published material that crosses my path, but there you go. The thing is most of the people in the group do book reviews and all of us have more books in our to-read piles (or shelf in my case) than we can ever get through unless we do nothing bar read those books for a straight year because that’s how long it would take me to read my pile. So why market to people like that? It’s a waste of time. The people we want to locate are those who are looking for something to read. And that’s the hard thing. That’s where investing time in a site like Goodreads is probably a better idea because there will be people there actually (and possibly even actively) looking for stuff to read.
I think all of us would do well to step away from the keyboard for a few minutes and just have a wee think about how we fill our time but especially how we might be guilty of contributing to the burdens of others. My mother had a favourite expression (it’s not new but she liked it): You are what you eat. I have another one: Rubbish in, rubbish out. If we fill our minds with crap what are we going to produce? More crap. Crap begets crap.
This post will fall on deaf ears mostly as is usually the case with good advice but if I get even one of you to stop and think then this post has been worthwhile. That’s me said my piece. I have an hour and a half left this afternoon and I aim to use it wisely. Starting with a fresh cup of coffee if only to stretch my legs.