How I Crammed My Life Full of Books -- in 9 Steps

The professor who supervised me in my college days of working at the university writing center recently wrote me with feedback on Rumpled. She said that she wasn't sure how I managed to find time to do so much reading and writing. I wanted to laugh, because what I find time to do is so much less than what I want to be doing that I feel as if I'm never doing enough. Still, I have arranged my life to fit increasingly more reading and writing into it, and I decided to share my "secrets" here rather than in an email.

  1. I do it first. Writing first-thing in the morning is daunting, but back when I had a full-time office job, it was always a relief to come home and know I'd already done my day's writing. Now, I do three Morning Pages every morning, and more "serious" writing at night. After my Morning Pages, I read for half an hour. This is different from my "old" system of reading before bed, or squeezing in a few minutes here and there. The truth is, I would spend the majority of EVERY day reading and never get anything else done if I could get away with it. Because of this, for many years I wouldn't let myself read until I had taken care of "everything else." But everything else will NEVER be taken care of. And believe it or not, I'm more productive when I read for half an hour every morning. Why? Because reading is the one thing I love enough to make me get out of bed earlier. If I succumb to sleeping in, I know that it will be straight to work when I wake up, and missing my reading time is punishment enough that I don't fall into the habit.
  2. I keep a schedule. The bedrock of my reading and writing schedule is that hour I take for it in the morning. I also have a more complex schedule for my more "serious" writing, which consists of blogging on Mondays and Tuesdays, writing fiction on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, doing promotional work and development exercises on Friday, and writing book reviews on Sundays.
  3. I live simply. Really, this might be the single most important thing in carving out time to read and write. Even back when I lived paycheck to paycheck and qualified for reduced state healthcare, I was always able to pay for my basic needs (if you don't consider dental and optical care "basic" :)). If I have food, a home, and utilities, I have most of what I need. Writing and reading come very cheap. This means that I spend less time working than people who have more expensive tastes do, and I feel less a slave to my earning potential. The goal, of course, is always to make more money for fewer hours, and when I meet it, I use those extra hours to write and to read--not to work and increase my income. I'm lucky to have found a mate who has a similar philosophy when it comes to material wealth. I won't lie -- having two incomes has made it MUCH easier for me to do this. There were times in my life when I literally could not afford to work less. But that brings me to ...
  4. I made it a goal. I knew that what I wanted more than anything was a life in which I could devote as much energy as possible to learning and creating. So even when there was no escaping a 40+ hour work week, I had this dream on the horizon, and I made choices accordingly. When opportunities came my way, I would weigh whether they would bring me closer or further to a life focused on books. A series of small decisions with this goal in mind opened up, little by little, more and more time for what I truly love.
  5. I ask myself: how will this affect my writing and reading time? when faced with a life transition, new opportunity, or potential commitment. This has made me say "yes" to starting a spiritual writing group at my church, and "no" to joining the choir. This is also one of the main reasons we don't have kids yet.
  6. I read in every possible format. At least half the books I "read" every year are audiobooks. With my trusty MP3 player and my library's subscription to Overdrive, I transform dog-walking, dish-washing, bathroom scrubbing, and myriad other mindless chores into "reading" time. I listen to another book on CD while I drive. I have the Kindle app on my phone, which I read while I'm waiting in line or the doctor's office. This means I'm always reading at least four books at once: 1 MP3 book, 1 CD book, 1 e-book, and 1 paper book.
  7. I track my progress. I have a spreadsheet that I use to record my freelance projects and income every day. This spreadsheet includes daily slots for "writing" and "exercise." Filling those slots is just as important as all the paid work that the spreadsheet records. Having to fill in "NONE" for the writing and exercise columns more than two days in a row induces major guilt. Filling them in gives me a sense of accomplishment similar to turning in a timecard. As for books, I track everything I read on Goodreads and Booklikes.
  8. I have unattainable goals. I always want to do more writing or reading than I can actually accomplish, so whenever one project is finished, I waste no time in starting on the next one.
  9. I ignore the dishes and the laundry waiting to be put away. I'm ignoring them right now as I write this. I do work best in a tidy house, and I'll do them eventually -- but not until after a day's writing quota has been filled.

I know I'm incredibly lucky and that I have luxuries many, many people don't have. I have a flexible work schedule. I have a supportive spouse. I live the proverbial "two-incomes-no-kids" existence. But this is only partially luck, and partially a series of very conscious choices. I hope that by sharing mine, you might also look at your own life and the ways that you might bring more writing, reading, or whatever you are passionate about into it.

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Comment by Pat Sabiston on May 7, 2014 at 2:27pm

Especially am fond of #9! :-)

Comment by Patti Hall on May 6, 2014 at 10:25pm

This is one of the best, precise and inspiring articles about writing that I have read! I'm just starting on scheduling my blog posts and other writing, so the timing for these tips is perfect for me. Thank you.


Comment by RYCJ on May 6, 2014 at 2:27pm

Ha! This great.What's funny is when I hear someone ask, "is that all you do," meaning reading, writing, etc., I think about how those playing pro ball, the entertainers, and even those working the corporate jobs in that lean in fashion, you know... not because they HAVE TO, but because they love what they do, despite when the fun is downright work!

Way to go! Or rather, this is the way to go!

Comment by Mardith Louisell on May 6, 2014 at 1:06pm

Love the timer. It's so strict but so needed.

Comment by Lacey Louwagie on May 6, 2014 at 12:29pm

I'm with you, Mardith -- I like reading even more than writing, but I find that if I don't write the words start piling up inside and making me cranky. So regularly writing keeps the pressure relieved. :) I also hear you on being able to limit yourself! I have to set a timer to limit myself to a 1/2 hour in the morning -- once it dings, I have to finish the page or paragraph, stick my bookmark in with a sigh, and set it aside to get started on some paid labor. :)

Comment by Mardith Louisell on May 6, 2014 at 12:18pm

This is a fantastic post. Several items I will print for myself - or maybe the whole damn thing. Being pulled out of bed to read is like being pulled up for a croissant! - the problem is limiting the time reading! I too would prefer to do nothing but read if I could, even prefer it to writing, but regardless, the reading informs the writing constantly, consciously and unconsciously, even if I don't realize it. Audio-listening is wonderful, not only for the sheer pleasure but for the experience of the sentences. George Eliot, Henry James, are thrilling. formulaic mysteries not so much and one can hear the by-rote writing and understand for oneself how it might have gone wrong or been better. I write something about every book I read but hadn't thought to do it on GoodReads. Will check it out. Thanks for thinking about your techniques and meticulously passing them on to us.


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