Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Protect the Important From the Urgent

I have a date with myself to write this column at 9 a.m. every Thursday. But guess what happened recently?

Someone else scheduled a meeting for me at precisely that time. I could have tried changing the date, but that might have angered the person I was meeting with. I didn't want to risk that outcome, so I rescheduled my blog writing time for later in the afternoon. Not ideal but feasible.

Then, when 9:15 a.m. rolled around (I was scrolling through email, killing time) and my appointment still hadn't shown up, I emailed the admin assistant. Turns out I had the date wrong. Argh. But did I start writing then, when I knew the decks were clear? No, I continued with email and other administrivia. I didn't get around to writing this column until very late in the afternoon.

Have you ever found yourself saying, "[X] is really important, but I don't have time for it right now?"

Or, more specifically, have you ever found yourself saying, "Writing is really important, but I don't have the time for it right now?"

You've doubtless already heard of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — in fact, so many people know Stephen Covey's principles so well that they are practically clichés. But Covey's distinction between the important and the urgent is vital to writers. Let me highlight it here.

My meeting (that didn't happen) was urgent. My writing was important. Why didn't I protect my time and refuse the meeting? (And if I couldn't manage that, why didn't I start writing as soon as I knew the meeting wasn't happening?)

We all have enough urgent jobs to fill up entire days, weeks and years. But if we let ourselves focus only on the urgent, we'll never have the energy (or the time) to address the really important tasks, the issues we care about and the actions that could change our lives.

So how do we change that behaviour? Remember that what makes tasks urgent is that they are associated with deadlines. This forces us to do them immediately. The reverse is also true: An absence of deadlines makes important tasks seem unimportant. We usually figure we'll get around to them, eventually.

But you can take three steps that will help make your (important) writing seem more urgent:

1. Make your deadline public

I publish my blog every Tuesday. That's a public deadline. I'd be deeply embarrassed to miss it, and that's what keeps me writing it every Thursday morning (and, occasionally, Thursday afternoon.) When you're publicly accountable to a deadline, then you can't fool yourself. My Get It Done program operates on the same principle of public accountability. Participants have to report to me with their word count, five days a week for three months. Many of them tell me that on many days, this accountability requirement was their sole reason for writing.

2. Give yourself some rewards…or punishments

I'm a big believer in rewards for writing. They don't have to be expensive — or high calorie. Permission to get a book out of the library might be enough. Or x number of minutes on Facebook or Twitter could do the trick. But if you're being extra-recalcitrant, consider a punishment. My suggestion? Give a friend a cheque for $50 and instruct them to pay it to a cause you really dislike (your least favourite political party is a good one) if you fail to meet your goal.

3. Give yourself plenty of reminders

Much as we think something is important to us, we often forget about it. Don't let yourself lose track of how important writing is to you. Put notes on your bathroom mirror. Have reminders on your cell phone. Put stickies on top of your computer screen. If you want to hammer home the point, make some of those reminders include references to your rewards or punishments.

A long-term client of mine once made a sage comment about how he treats his writing.

"Either I set aside the writing time and do it," he wrote, "or I purposefully and planfully do not write at all. As a great Jedi Master said, 'Do or not do. There is no try.'"

Some people spin a good story about how important writing is to them, but then don't get around to doing it. That's why I suggest you do your important task first, regardless of whatever tsunami of urgency is threatening to swamp you.

Stop trying and start doing.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.