Let not advantage slip: Find the time

This isn’t about history, nor is it about writing historical fiction, exactly. But it’s near the start of the time_clock2year, so perhaps a post about time is timely. Besides, we humans spend a lot of time thinking about time so I might as well add my $0.02.

Francis Bacon didn’t write an essay Of Time, though he wrote one Of Dispatch. He meant what time managers mean when they teach us about managing time. The OED puts it thus: “Promptitude in dealing with affairs,” and cites Bacon’s essay: “1612   Bacon Ess. (new ed.) 70   Measure not dispatch by the times of sitting, but by the advauncement of the businesse.”

Meaning, don’t evaluate your effectiveness by how much time you spend in meetings, but by how much you actually get done in the way of actual work.

Time to create timeless art

time hogarth 1I don’t know what this print by William Hogarth has to do with time management, but when I looked up “time in art” in Wikimedia Commons, I found this and can not resist sharing it because it is so weird. I guess time is creating things out of the smoke from his pipe. I don’t know what the Greek at the top says, but the lines at the bottom say, “To Nature and your Self appeal, nor learn of Others what to feel.”

Meaning, listen to your inner self, don’t copy from others. For a painter, this is about how to create and perhaps obliquely about time related to acts of creation. And now I’m thinking Wm. Hogarth liked to smoke a pipe while he stared at his canvas thinking about his work for the day.

The mighty list, maker of time

I’m a doer of things. I finish things, many things, things to be proud of, like books and blog posts and even sometimes things like annual marketing plans. 

Every now & then I do something and someone says, “I don’t know where you find the time.” I come to recognize that that often really means, “I don’t want to do that at all.” But sometimes it’s an actual question.

The first answer is that this is my job, this writing & publishing books, so of course I have time to do my job. The deeper answer is that it’s all about the list: you make lists of things to do, you do the things, and then you check them off the list. This is a well-known time management strategy. You don’t have to be born with this skill. You learn it.


My desk in my little house in Backofbeyondia, Oaxaca. Note the calendar on the wall. Theres also a weekly diary on the desk.

Then today whilst walking the dog I realized that I actually attended a sort of list-making boot camp, my first summer doing fieldwork in linguistics. We had to make lists, or rather sub-lists of the professor’s master list. We had to work through our lists in order, checking things off one by one, noting our weekly progress on the master list posted in the meeting room. We got yelled at if we slacked off or lolly-gagged. Besides, everyone else was doing it and there wasn’t anything else to do, at this dump of a motel in Nowheresville, Veracruz.

You make a list of what you intend to accomplish during your two months in the field. Then you break that down into tasks and sub-tasks, estimating how long it will take to do each one. Use that to plan each week and each day. Then each day note down what you actually got done. So you start and end each day with a few minutes of work on the lists.

El Jefe said, “I do one thing until it’s done, and then I move on to the next one.” That’s great if you’re working your way through an enormous list of words and concepts, asking your consultant to translate them into his or her native language. “How do you say ‘chair’? How do you say ‘stool’? How do you say ‘bench’?” You can do that for eight hours at a stretch, if you must. Very hard work for the linguist. Very boring for the consultant. Mine used to make up little songs to entertain himself while I tried to figure out if two words had any common morphemes or not.planner

But creative work is different. I find 4-5 hours is about it for making up stories. Then I go to the gym or go work in the garden for a couple of hours. Then I’m good for an hour or so of business-type chores. I look at the master to-do list, pick something the right size, do it, and check it off. Ka-ching!

Lists, my friends, lists! It’s how you get stuff done.

That summer was like a Marine boot camp for list-making. “You call that a numbering system, Maggot?” Or, “Just because that morpheme is both a prefix and a suffix doesn’t mean you don’t have to run it through the verb-root master grid twice — Maggot!” (He didn’t really call us maggots. In fact, the yelling was only ever about the work, never personal in any way.)

Maybe someone should organize something like that for writers. You could charge them a couple hundred bucks, although yelling at them might not work. They would cry or throw things at you or plot your assassination. Flattery would work much better. “Wow, that is the most amazing list!!

This is the best we could do for a group photo that summer. Notice that only the paid consultants complied; none of the grad students, except for the woman in front. The guy in the red shorts is El Jefe, the one who trained us all to keep work logs for the rest of our lives.


Linguists and consultants in Veracruz, 1994

Categories: Writing

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