Time Management

Rachel asked: Do you have any tips for managing your time? I know you have kids and other responsibilities. I’m always interested in how other people manage to keep being productive with those competing interests in play.

Well, Rachel, I wish I had some great advice based on my own fabulously successful time management skills. The truth is that I’m a “take it one day at a time” kind of gal, and I never really feel like I’m on top of things. I piece it together each day.

I think other people like Nathan Bransford and Chip MacGregor are probably more structured than I am, so by all means, ask them your question! For me, the most important thing I do is work hard everyday to prioritize my priorities. That is, I concentrate on making sure my schedule matches my stated priorities in life and work. I review this almost everyday.

I informally live by Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix, which categorizes tasks into Urgent/Non-Urgent, Important/Non-Important (from the book First Things First). I use it to help me prioritize the tasks on my to-do list. There are so many things that seem urgent but are in fact unimportant. A key to successful time management is being really good at identifying whether things are important, regardless of how urgent they seem.

Another thing I do is guard my “work time” closely, sometimes fiercely! If I don’t insist my family and friends allow me to work, they won’t. I have to be assertive about this. Writers need to do the same. It’s sometimes hard because you don’t feel like anybody’s taking you seriously, especially if you don’t have anything tangible (like a contract) to show for your long hours at the computer. But here’s the secret: YOU have to take yourself seriously, whether or not anyone else does. You have to plan your work time, put it on the calendar, and stick to it.

I guess another big secret to my time-management strategy is the list of things I DON’T do. I’ve dispensed with a lot of non-necessary things in life… things I’d like to do if I could! But the path I’ve chosen means I’ve had to let go of some things. For example: I don’t scrapbook. I don’t knit. I don’t separate the whites from the colors… don’t clip coupons… don’t grow a garden… don’t make jam… don’t bake my own bread… don’t go to PTA meetings… don’t make my kids’ Halloween costumes… don’t homeschool… don’t remember everyone’s birthday… don’t run marathons… don’t go for manicures or pedicures… don’t watch Oprah. I don’t even vacuum or dust (I delegate those tasks).

Here’s another secret: I have a husband who’s a true partner. We share the household and kid duties. I could never do what I do if I were also 100% responsible for home and kids.

I also make sure I prioritize my health by exercising regularly, trying to eat right and getting enough sleep. Sounds strange, like maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with time management. But it does, because I couldn’t handle this busy schedule if I weren’t healthy and well-rested.

Another thing: I start nearly every day by getting up an hour before my family. I drink coffee and hang out with my yellow lab, my Bible, and God. I get centered and focused for the day before the chaos sets in. That may not be for everyone, but it works for me.

Finally, I take the approach that time management is all about being realistic, not trying to do more than is humanly possible. It’s asking yourself what the most important things are, and prioritizing them. You have to keep the “urgent” under control and try, as much as possible, to do the “important.”

That’s about all I can offer. Readers? Any time management advice for writers?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Céline Arave on September 10, 2014 at 7:24 AM

    Hey Rachell, proofhub.com is another tool that I’d recommend you to give it a try. Has awesome features like time tracking, gantt chart, to-do”s, group chat and lots more that makes this tool very useful for tracking time as well as managing projects.

  2. Amisha Ekaant on November 13, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    Great Post! Many of us know that we could be managing our time more effectively, but it can be difficult to identify the mistakes that we’re making, and to know how we could improve.

    When we do manage our time well, however, we’re exceptionally productive at work. I use Replicon’s ( http://www.replicon.com/olp/online-time-recording-software.aspx )software for time recording, to manage my time and tasks more perfectly. After started using this software, my stress level has completely decreased and currently, I’m leading a stress-free lifetsyle.

  3. Time Management Link Roundup | Emily M. Akin on September 10, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    […] Tips from literary agent, Rachelle Gardner. […]

  4. JStantonChandler on June 3, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    >Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post!

    The entire post is chock full of wisdom, and most of it I desperately need to do for myself, but the one statement that really stood out to me was "YOU have to take yourself seriously, whether or not anyone else does."

    Long story short, this is a lesson I have recently had to discover for myself. Unfortunately, most people do not take writers (or anyone who works from home) seriously. Though I have an outside job, when I get back from work, I have to jealously guard my writing time. My husband and I live with his parents right now, both have work at home pursuits and they don't understand this.

    It's been hard to justify turning down dinner offers or not answering the knock at the door or the constant ring of the cell phone because "it's just editing" or, in my husband's case, "it's just a photoshop tutorial". If we don't let others know by our actions that what we do IS important, they will never realize that when we're working, we are working! Sadly, there are those who just never will understand but we have to be confident in what we have been called to do. Obedience to God is more important than having everyone like us.(I hope that didn't sound mean!) 🙂

    I really needed that boost of confidence. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

  5. Roxane B. Salonen on June 2, 2009 at 10:48 PM

    >Rachelle, I recently wrote a parenting column for our local newspaper on mismatched socks; i.e., putting things in perspective. I don't think any less of you knowing you don't sort your clothes, in other words. I've pretty much given up TV as well, and honestly, don't miss it. On occasion, I'll tune it, but it's rare. As for getting in my reading time, I read while walking fast on the treadmill and riding stationary bike at the Y two days a week (agree with you about taking care of yourself physically/emotionally through exercise). I also bring a book along whenever I know I might be waiting a while, like at a doctor's office. I've come to love my time in waiting rooms because it's time to catch up on reading. In fact, I'm disappointed when they call me in too early. Thanks for the great thoughts.

  6. Anonymous on June 2, 2009 at 7:35 PM

    >Here's my typical writing day. If it helps even one writer manage his or her time better, well, then it was worth the ten minutes it took to make it up.

    3:01 a.m – wake up from amazing dream with brilliant idea for solving plot problem in novel.
    3:02 a.m. – fall back asleep without writing down brilliant idea.
    6:43 a.m. – crawl out of bed with some vague recollection of having had a brilliant idea during the night.
    7:44 a.m. – wonder where the previous hour went, shower, sit down at computer to start writing.
    12:19 p.m. – realize i just spent more than four hours reading about other people's lives on twitter and facebook, eat lunch.
    1:49 p.m. – read previous chapters in w.i.p. so i remember what i've already written.
    4:11 p.m. – finish unnecessary ocd edits of previously-written chapters.
    4:12 p.m. – write three new sentences for w.i.p.
    5:55 p.m. – fade in and out of consciousness.
    7:22 p.m. – remember brilliant idea from dream.
    7:23 p.m. – reluctantly accept that the idea wasn't brilliant after all.
    7:41 p.m. – eat a bag of peanut butter m&ms and drink a diet coke, read someone else's novel.
    9:11 p.m. – wipe tears inspired by particularly well-written scene in other author's novel.
    9:27 p.m. – get inspired to really work on my own novel.
    11:19 p.m. – finish making notes about three other novels i want to write after this one is done.
    12:09 a.m. – write one more sentence in w.i.p. (that makes four – progress!).
    12:10 a.m. – fall asleep to movie score for legends of the fall.

    rinse. lather. repeat.

  7. lynnrush on June 2, 2009 at 4:40 PM

    >Great post, and the responses were helpful as well.

    I agree, get the most dreaded done first, then move on. **smile**

    I get my exercise/prayer time done first thing in the morning, then the day seems to start out right. I sure can tell when I fall out of this pattern, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for sharing, everyone.

  8. Merrie Destefano on June 2, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    LOVE your blog!

    I agree with everything you said except: don’t separate the whites from the colors.

    That’s a must for me.

    : )

  9. Lell on June 2, 2009 at 3:49 PM

    >I have married friends who only do two sets of things, those they like to do and those they absolutely must do to maintain a household with two children in diapers. Their lives are full of stress that is added because they do not have the discipline to do the things they dislike, unless they are under serious time constraints.

    I have a similar problem. My problem is that I am not a self-starter. I have always perfered to have a corporate career with set times and goals and external expectations. Working as a writer at home changed all that. This career plays into my weaknesses instead of my strengths. Now I need the self-discipline to set my own hours and goals.

    I have two quotations that I look at almost every day that have helped me get past my weaknesses. The first one says “Today matters. Make good choices!” The second one says, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.” (I don’t know who said the first one, but the second quotation is from Aristotle.)

    These reminders help me to stay focused and to resist the temptation to pretend to write instead of writing, to study instead of day-dream and to spend time with God instead of sleeping. In my opinion, self-discipline is the catalyst that makes everything else work together.

  10. Rachelle on June 2, 2009 at 2:44 PM

    >Correction to my post: My husband is my “true partner” like I said, but I didn’t mean to imply that ours is the only kind of arrangement in which we are “true partners.” I recognize that all married couples have their own division of labor, and each constitutes a partnership that works for them.

    I meant to say that I don’t think it would be feasible to work a full time job and also be responsible for 100% of household and childcare duties; if you are someone who DOES have 100% responsibility for home and kids, be practical and acknowledge that you already have a full-time job; you won’t be able to also be a full-time author. Your goal should be to write part-time.

  11. Jana on June 2, 2009 at 2:27 PM

    >About prioritization: I periodically review my “lifelist” which is a matrix I set up to stay on track with what’s important to me. There’s a column for me, my husband, my son, my parents, church, my WIP, my remodel project, etc.

    I update it about every month or so with the most significant events/goals related to each column. Its enough structure for me without being too much. And … I don’t watch much T.V.

  12. serenity on June 2, 2009 at 2:09 PM

    >Oh how I love the list of things you don’t do. That’s definitely a big part of my time management plan, which like yours is definitely day to day.

  13. Julie Gillies on June 2, 2009 at 1:20 PM

    >Like you I start my day with Bible reading, worship and prayer. It’s then that many of my priorities are established or shifted.

    I use a customized to-do list that I created (with my hubby’s technical expertise) to organize my days. It helps me to see everything on paper; not only do I actually remember what I need to do, but at the end of the day I have proof that I somehow managed to stay focused. 😉

    On my work desk rests a mini white-board easel. Across the top I’ve written “On the Horizon” and I jot down writing assignments and writing goals to keep that portion of my life on track.

    Oh, and thanks, Rachelle, for the tip from Stephen Covey. What a fascinating chart. I’ve already printed out a copy.

  14. Angie Ledbetter on June 2, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    >The busier you stay, the more productive you’ll be, or at least it’s always been true with me. Quarterly retreats help with goals and centering also.

  15. Lori Benton on June 2, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    >This looks like great advice to me. In fact, it’s a little scary how nearly it mirrors how I structure my day and manage my time.

    Except my dog isn’t a yellow Lab.

  16. Matilda McCloud on June 2, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    >I love your list of things you don’t do, Rachelle. I never do most of those things either and I don’t think my kids suffered.

    From the perspective of a recent empty nester, I advise guarding your time as much as you can. I spent SO much time when my kids were young doing things I didn’t enjoy–mainly out of guilt.

    Analyze your motivation, for example, for your volunteer activities. I would avoid doing things just to show you’re a rah-rah mom (school) or a committed saint (church). Ask yourself, Is this really going to help my kids? Is this really a fulfilling way for me to contribute?

    If it isn’t either, then rethink how you’re spending your time. I wish I had done that!

  17. Anna on June 2, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    >I don’t watch TV until after the ‘workday’ ends, and I try to structure lunch as my break; time to eat, read a chapter of whatever fiction sits on the table, get to the store.

    previously I spent all my free time writing/editing/etc but have recently gone to a M-F, 7 AM-4 PM kind of schedule that has plenty of room for flexibility. right now eldest daughter is home from college, and I work while she sleeps. fortunately she can really pack in the ZZZ’s, and I have a solid block until around 11.30 or when I finally rouse her. it’s a matter of seeing what needs to be accomplished, working with that, around it if necessary, and knowing what is mean to happen will occur. this is truly out of my hands… :)))

  18. Marla Taviano on June 2, 2009 at 10:07 AM

    >Great answer! I especially like the part about what you DON’T do. I have a big DON’T list too

    Love your response to Ellen.

  19. Rachelle on June 2, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    >Ellen —
    I find transitioning very difficult and always have. When I finally recognized this, my life became easier. I’m often running a little bit late, not because I’m lazy or can’t keep track of time, but because I find transitions so difficult. There’s a whole psychology around this, and obviously I can’t go into it now, but I find it helps to (1) remember my difficulty with transitions, and (2) plan for them by setting boundaries for myself ahead of time. If I know I’m going to have to stop work at 6:30am, I’ll set a timer to buzz at 6:20 so that I can begin my transition.

    Interruptions from husbands and kids can’t be helped or planned for, and I found I was treating them passive-aggressively, i.e. only “half listening” to my child when she interrupts me with a question. I decided that when an interruption comes, I will not resist it. Instead, I instantly wrench my attention from my work to the person who needs me, and give them 100% attention. After a few minutes the interruption is over, and I go back to work feeling better knowing that I’m really trying to give 100% no matter what I’m doing. Sometimes the quicksand feeling is actually lessened by forcing myself to instantly transition.

    I don’t think you’re going to get rid of the “wrenching and painful” feeling altogether. Some things just hurt, you know? But you CAN learn to handle these situations more effectively if you accept the pain but decide to push through anyway.

  20. Kim and Adelaide (Roddie) Zahren on June 2, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    >I believe the best stuff shows up early in the morning just like manna. After the sun comes up it all melts and the day gets busy. I’m often waiting at Starbucks when they open and I know everyone’s name, their story and the car they drive. I read my bible, savor my Grande Verona, then plug in the laptop and get to work. Two hours later it’s time to take brother body out to the gym and only then is time to get the day’s to do list.

  21. Ellen Painter Dollar on June 2, 2009 at 9:22 AM

    >Oh boy, did I need this today. Every day, actually! I don’t have any great time management tips, but I do have an emotional tip that I’m working on myself and I think many/most women need to work on: giving myself a break. You modeled that, Rachelle, with your list of things you don’t do. You’re not apologizing for not doing them, not calling yourself a bad mom/wife/housekeeper/person for not doing them. Just saying it like it is. I’m reading Ayelet Waldman’s book of essays, “Bad Mother,” right now–it’s full of great stuff that mostly boils down to “let’s give ourselves a break.”

    I do have a question particularly for the other writer/editor moms: I’m great at multitasking in most areas of my life, but when it comes to writing, I have to give it 100% of my attention. I find writing so mentally and emotionally consuming that moving on to something else–answering a child’s question, closing up the laptop because the school bus is due to arrive any minute–feels like clawing my way up through quicksand. That’s why I’ve never done the early morning thing, because quitting writing at the stroke of 6:30, when my first child usually wakes up, or earlier on one of those days that a toddler decides 5:45 is a perfectly acceptable wake-up time, is so painful. Evenings, after kids’ bedtimes, offer less chance of interruption, but if I’m writing, I’m not talking to my husband who is at work 11 hours a day, making the kids’ lunches for the next day, etc. Here’s the question: Do other people experience that “all-consuming” feeling when they are writing, and have you figured a way to transition out of writing into the next thing in a way that doesn’t feel quite so wrenching and painful? If I could figure that out, I think I could try the early morning routine.

  22. Kim Kasch on June 2, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    >I told my daughter, “If I could just give up the one addiction in my life, I could get so much more done.”

    She turned to look at me, “WHAT addiction?”

    “Sleep,” I told her. “It’s such a waste of time–but something I love too much to do without.

  23. Teri D. Smith on June 2, 2009 at 9:02 AM

    >Some great tips for us, Rachelle. I’m with you on the “things I don’t do”. I’d rather write!

  24. Rachel on June 2, 2009 at 8:38 AM

    >Thanks so much, Rachelle. Sometimes it is more helpful for me to ask a woman about time management because children and family concerns require elasticity–and I believe–more self-control to reboot the day after interruptions. There can be a lot of intertia as work-at-home person. I’m going to check out First Things First, and I’m also going to consider building a “Not To Do” list this summer. Thanks again!

  25. Sheryl Tuttle on June 2, 2009 at 8:20 AM

    >Thanks for some great tips. Perfect timing as I wrote an article seeking time management advice that is posting to my blog later today. I’ve added a link to your wonderful post. You’ve made me aware that while a good time management tool is great, it’s the actual act of prioritizing that makes it work. Thanks!

  26. Jody Hedlund on June 2, 2009 at 7:51 AM

    >Rachelle, I really like your “what I DON”T do” list. We live in a time and culture when we’re busy beyond the point of sanity with extra activites. Even our children are involved in way more activities than they probably need.

    As a busy mom of a large family, I’m constantly asked how I find the time to write. My answer: I have to sacrifice a LOT of great activities and hobbies in order to guard my writing time. My “what I don’t do” list might not look exactly like anyone else’s, but the point is, we have to sacrifice in order to make time for the things that are truly important.

  27. Krista Phillips on June 2, 2009 at 7:46 AM

    >write=right. Geez, you think I could type! But then, I guess I don’t prioritize proofreading my blog comments. *grin*

  28. Krista Phillips on June 2, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    >Ugh, God is pouring on the guilt this morning because I rushed out of the house withOUT taking time to read my bible. Obviously he skips the lightning with me and goes write to my blogging.

    Time management, I just want to echo EVERYTHING you said. I work full-time as well and have three kiddos, AND am writing books. Somedays I wonder if my sanity has up and wandered off.

    The biggest thing I have learned lately is that 1.) Procrastinating does not = prioritizing and 2.) I CAN say no to people. I really can!

    I’m not perfect and have a long ways to go, but these two principles are revoluntionizing my personal/professional time management.

  29. Marybeth Poppins on June 2, 2009 at 7:40 AM

    >So in delegating your tasks, who have you set off to watch Oprah and run the marathons for you? Just curious 😉

    I’m HORRIBLE at time management, but now that Summer Break is starting, I am going to be forced into making a routine. It’s so much easier to go with the flow when you have only one child home all day and not 3!

  30. Yunaleska on June 2, 2009 at 7:19 AM

    >Time juggling – I’m slowly improving! Like others, I make sure priorities come first. I have one day a week where I don’t write – just so I can catch up on all my hobbies. I tend to make before bed time my personal religious time, nice way to end the day and prevents me worrying about everything.

    I’m learning just how much you can actually squeeze into 15/20 minute time slot – quite a lot!

    Some things need longer time slots: writing (I use a computer), editing (ditto), video gaming, sewing, language learning

    Some, have time limits (anime/film watching).

    Others can be fitted in free moments: reading, knitting, etc.

    It’s all a case of working out what can be done in the time available. To keep on top of my reading, I carry a book with me everywhere. I even have one in my work bag, so if I’ve got a pile of photocopying to do, which needs watching because it is confidential, out comes my book. I may put it down every few minutes, but I get some pages read.

  31. pam on June 2, 2009 at 7:16 AM

    >The only way I’ve found time to write regularly is to schedule it in, and do it first thing in the morning. Once you do it for a few days, like going to the gym, your body expects it and it becomes a habit. Plus, doing it first thing in the morning, for me, gets it done. Other wise I’m the queen of procrastination and next thing I know the day is over and the writing didn’t happen, unless I did it first thing.

    My best time for time managing the rest of the day is to use blocks.

    I suspect many people are distracted by the same things I am, incoming e-mail and the lure of interesting non-work related news/blogs on the internet.

    What I do is to plan my day and prioritize what needs my attention. Then allocate an hour or two to each thing.

    And during that hour or two I am only focusing on the dedicated project for that block of time…no internet surfing, no responding to email (unless emergency, but those really are rare).

    When I do this focused blocks of time, it’s amazing how productive I can be.

  32. Jill Kemerer on June 2, 2009 at 7:09 AM

    >Well said. My favorite time of the day is when I snuggle under the covers with my Bible first thing in the morning. It makes waking up a delight instead of something to dread.

  33. Katy McKenna on June 2, 2009 at 7:00 AM

    >Great advice here! Thank you. As my natural tendency is to get a little more involved in OPS (Other People’s Situations) than they actually need, I try to repeat this motto (which I found somewhere, and I don’t remember where…) as often as necessary:

    “I spend half my time doing my stuff. I spend the rest of my time making sure I’m not doing your stuff.”

  34. Anonymous on June 2, 2009 at 4:03 AM

    >Do the hard thing first – that thing you’ve been dreading, whether making that difficult phone call (and please, make it at least voice-to-voice instead of email) or tackling that hard bit of writing or editing. When it’s done you’ll have such a sense of freedom.

    I engaged with a personal coach a few years back, and one of the tools she had me use was the Clean Sweep (maybe it’s on the Internet)? It has 100 questions in four areas, such as personal finance, relationships, etc. The 25 questions in each area are very specific, and the goal is to cross off each of the statements. They are things like, ‘I floss my teeth every day,’ ‘I’ve told my parents that I love them in the last month,’ and ‘I have no ill-fitting or unbecoming clothes in my closet.’ This is not so much time management, I know, but is great for setting goals and getting through the niggling things that can use up our energy.

    Amy Boucher Pye

  35. Adam Heine on June 2, 2009 at 2:55 AM

    >In addition to Rachel’s tips, I’ve found it helpful to make a list of daily goals.

    At the beginning of each day, write down 3 or 4 things that you want to have done that day. The goals should be measurable and attainable – small enough to do, big enough to be worth it. They should be things you want to do on top of things you have to do (like eat, shower, go to work, pick up the kids, etc.).

    It takes practice – not just to do it, but to do it well. But it has helped me a lot (when I do it).

  36. writer jim on June 2, 2009 at 2:39 AM

    It’s GREAT to hear that you get up an hour early to “seek” God.
    The more we truly seek Him…the closer we can draw near to Almighty God. I hope my personal example helps other readers in some way. maybe?
    Once I had a hobby I enjoyed immensely; plus it was a proven excellent investment. For years I steadily put money in it for retirement. One morning I awoke and my first thought was about my beloved hobby. Instantly, I realized my hobby came to mind before God came to my mind. I was stunned, upset…so grieved in my spirit, that in about ten seconds I decided, “I’ll rush-sell all those hobby assets today; even if it means a hefty financial loss, and no retirement nest egg.”
    Now, I could have retailed things over a few months, and made a big profit. But I sold it all at sacrifice prices that very day, and lost thousands of dollars: My swift stringent action was meant to SHOW God how sincerely I seek Him.
    Believe me: God RESPONDS to such as this in mindboggling ways. writer jim