6 Ways to Make Time to Write: A Guide for Busy Parents

6 Ways to Make Time to Write: A Guide for Busy Parents

Four years ago, I felt busy.

I never seemed to have enough time to get everything done. I loved my work — writing and working with writers — and I worked on fiction projects sporadically.

Then, just over three years ago, my daughter was born.

I realized everything I thought I knew about time management no longer applied.

A lot of the great advice I’ve come across on things like procrastination or time management seems to be aimed at twenty-somethings with no kids.

As a parent, a huge amount of time is taken up not just by children (feeding them, playing with them, getting them to sleep) but also by child-related chores (washing bottles, endless laundry and mopping up).

I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love my kids.

But I also love writing — and I’m not willing to put it on hold for years while the children grow up.

Quick note: Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a working parent, life with kids is manic. I’ve worked everything from almost-full-time to not-at-all over the past three years (depending on my husband’s schedule) and finding time to write has always been a challenge.

Why all that great time-management advice no longer works

I’ll admit, to my slight shame, I wrote my fair share of posts on time management when I was in my 20s and — in retrospect — had few responsibilities or commitments.

Lots of good advice doesn’t really apply when you have children. Here are some common tips I see over and over again (and these days, I want to scream “but you don’t have any kids!” every time I read them).

  • “Become an early riser”: Sadly, my one-year-old has taken this advice to heart, and normally wakes at 5:30 a.m., derailing any plans I might have to get some work done first thing in the morning. 
  • “Switch off the TV and save 2-3 hours every evening!”: my husband and I normally collapse on the sofa with our dinner and watch an episode of something. But the rest of the evening is taken up with household chores and actually having a chance to talk to one another without two children shrieking over us. 
  • “Get a full 7-8 hours sleep, you’ll be more productive”: I’m sure this is true; sadly, it’s also quite often impossible! Our kids supposedly sleep through, but it’s pretty common for one of them to be up for an hour or more in the middle of the night.

I’m sure you’ve come across your fair share of time management advice that’s pretty useless for parents. Share the best — or worst! — of it in the comments.

Of course, plenty of writers do have kids and it’s perfectly possible to write when you have a family.

Here are a few things that can work:

1. Get in the habit of writing in short bursts

Pre-kids, I thought I only wrote well when I could spend an hour or more working, especially if I was writing fiction.

These days, most of my writing is done in 30-minute bursts. When I had a newborn and a toddler, I used to write for just 15 minutes while their midday naps overlapped.

Although writing for very short periods of time might feel weird if you’re not used to it, you can clock up words surprisingly quickly if you write daily.

I’ve made more progress on my current novel in the last four months than on almost anything I’ve written previously, writing for just 30 minutes every day.

Here are some ways you might fit short writing bursts into your day:

  • 6-6:30 a.m.: A 30-minute slot before everyone gets up (if your kids sleep later than that!) 
  • 12:15-12:45 p.m.: A 30-minute slot during your lunch hour, if you work full time 
  • 5.30-6 p.m.: A 30-minute slot between the kids’ meals and bathtime, while your partner plays with them (this is when I normally write) 
  • 9-9.30 p.m.: A 30-minute slot once you’ve had a chance to unwind and relax in the evening

If 30 minutes is too much of a stretch for you right now, start with 15 minutes or even 10.

You might want to check out Write a Novel in Ten Minutes a Day by Katharine Grubb, who homeschools her five children and still finds time to write!

2. Use plans, systems, templates and checklists

Once, you could probably sit down and write uninterrupted for three hours (even if that only happened on the weekend). As a parent, there’s a good chance you’re forever being interrupted.

If you don’t have any sort of writing schedule, you probably spend a fair amount of time trying to remember what the heck you were going to write next.

I’ve always been a fan of plans, templates and checklists, but as a parent, these are becoming even more valuable. For instance, I no longer decide on a blog post topic on the spur of the moment: I plan my content calendar a month ahead of time — and I’ve been blogging more consistently than I ever did pre-kids.

Here are a few examples to help you implement systems that work for you:

It’s well worth coming up with your own templates and checklists for tasks you find yourself doing on a regular basis.

Note: Planning isn’t just for writing. Having a meal plan for the week or having a checklist of household chores can make parenting go much more smoothly. Check out Planning with Kids for lots of great tips and ideas.

3. Don’t try to write with kids in the room

I’ve tried a few times to write while looking after the kids (usually while they’re watching TV) and … it just doesn’t work.

It’s incredibly hard to focus or get any sense of flow when you’re constantly being interrupted by small people — or when you need to keep glancing up to check they’ve not climbed on the windowsill, again.

If your children are happily occupied, use the time to get on with something mundane — like washing dishes or sorting laundry or going through emails — so you cut down on the chores you need to do in the evening.

That way, you can have child-free writing time later on.

4. Swap time off with your partner

One fairly straightforward way to get some extra writing time is to ask your partner to take the kids.

Chances are, for this to seem fair to both of you, you’ll need to take the kids to give your partner some free time at some point.

For instance, you could take the kids out to the park for two hours on Saturday mornings, and your partner could take them for two hours in the afternoon. You both get some much-needed time to yourself — but you also get plenty of time together as a family too.

If you’re a single parent, kudos to you — I have no idea how you do it! Can you rope in a friend or family member to help out once a week? Or if that’s not possible, can you swap childcare with a friend each week?

5. Book a writing retreat

While this can seem more like a dream than a realistic prospect when your kids are small, a writing retreat can be a brilliant opportunity to boost your progress and motivation.

A retreat could be anything from an informal half-day spent in the library to a weeklong escape to another city (or even abroad). As a parent, you’re probably going to be looking at the shorter end of the retreat spectrum.

I went on a great one-day retreat hosted by Lorna Ferguson, who blogs at Literascribe, at the start of March. I looked forward to it for weeks beforehand, got loads of words written, and felt enthusiastic about carrying on.

6. Let go of perfectionism (as a writer and as a parent)

I think all writers have at least a little bit of a tendency towards perfectionism.

We often carry ideas around in our heads for ages before daring to set them down on paper, because the act of doing so inevitably makes them real, rather than perfect.

As a parent writer, you can’t possibly live up to some “perfect” standard – not when it comes to your writing, and not when it comes to your kids.

And frankly, it doesn’t even matter.

A good blog post — well-structured and clearly written — will be infinitely more useful to your readers than a perfect blog post that only exists in your head.

And when it comes to your children … well, my kids watch more TV than they ideally should. I definitely do not create balanced, organic meals every day from scratch. My house could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called “tidy.”

It’s not perfect. But my kids are happy and thriving and I get to carry on with the career I love.

Whatever writing and parenting challenges you’re facing right now, I wish you the very best of luck.

It’s not easy to juggle both. But it’s definitely worthwhile.

Parents, tell us your secrets to successfully juggling family and writing!

Filed Under: Craft

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44 comments

  • Thank you SO much for this post. I am learning to be a mom currently to a 9yo little girl, my boyfriend lost his wife 2 years ago (I am also widowed and lost my mom young… How’s that for a story?). I often feel so lost with how the hell to balance work and family.

    Prior to this time in my life I was very free of responsibilities, so its a huge change. She adores me, and I her, and I’m working to let go of perfectionism, but this shit is SO NOT EASY! Lol. Your post gave me some well-needed permission not to try for perfect, and some ideas to shoot for on the days I cannot have hours of uninterrupted time… going to try short bursts! Thank you Ali!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Oh my goodness, that’s definitely being thrown in at the deep end! I’m sure you’re doing a fantastic job in really difficult circumstances (with a lot of grief all round, I’m sure). It’s wonderful that you and your little girl have such a strong relationship.

      For me it’s more a juggling act than a balancing act, I think … and giving yourself permission to be less than perfect (and to screw up occasionally) is very sensible.

      • Hey Ali! Thanks for your reply. I thought I’d drop back in and leave an update! Since reading your article I’ve been making more efforts to write in shorter bursts and working on accepting that I may not always be able to write the way I WANT to anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still possible. Mindset shift totally helping.

        I’m discovering I can work well in just 30 minutes to an hour, and for 3 weeks I’ve managed to keep on task with writing one lesson plan a day for my upcoming ecourse on grief and creativity. It feels so good to be openingup to new ways to write, and not trying to fight it so much.

        Thanks again!

    • Mary says:

      Why the dirty words?

  • I believe #1 is a tremendous piece of advice to any writer, with or without children. Everyone goes through periods when life seems to sabotage every effort to dedicate large blocks of time to writing. When that period comes, it’s great to have the skill of quick, focused composition already in the toolbox.

    Years ago, I learned to polish that particular tool with a daily exercise I call a “writer’s sketch,” a very brief timed writing session kicked off by some type of prompt, such as a title or a provocative opening sentence. I’ve found that five-minute sketches are especially powerful. Because there’s no time for self-censorship, they often tap into the depths of my being in surprising ways. I have at times found myself writing a passage I would not have thought I had within me if I’d tried to produce it over a period of hours.

    Of course, the exercise also serves as rehearsal in the art of concentration. A five-minute timer leaves not a moment for distraction, so razor-sharp focus becomes a habit. I find that when the time comes to apply that focus to an ebook to be sold or a project for a client, I can squeeze more productivity out of whatever work period is available, short or long.

    When I started working as an editor, I decided it would be helpful for writers if I made my collections of sketch-starters available, so I offer them through an online shop. It’s been very satisfying to see people benefit from them.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com
    epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

    • Ali Luke says:

      I spent a while doing five-minuted timed “sketches” when I was getting back into fiction-writing (a fair few years ago now) and was always surprised how much I could get written and what interesting material came out of it. Your comment has reminded me I should probably get back into that..!

  • Carol Tice says:

    GREAT tips, Ali — I’d add “Look into babysitting co-ops and parent swaps.” When my first was born, I found another work-from-home mom and we each took the babies a half day a week. Babies adored staring at each other and crawling around together, and we both got tons more done.

    I had to laugh at the ‘do you spend all day trying to remember what to do?’ SO me. When I started writing tomorrow’s schedule before leaving work the night before, my productivity exploded.

    • Ali Luke says:

      What a great addition — thanks, Carol! I’m hoping that once my two are bigger, it’ll be practical to take it in turns with a mum friend (also with two kids) to have all four after school occasionally…!

  • Elke Feuer says:

    Great tips, Ali! I built a schedule around my kids (one is at school and one is at home with me), and find I get more done. It’s not perfect, especially with a three year-old, but it works at the moment until my daughter starts school.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Thanks Elke! I’m a big fan of schedules and routines — I’m happiest when our days follow a consistent pattern, and the kids definitely seem to like the predictability too.

  • Great post and it’s nice to see comments from people I can relate to. Our kids are 1,2, and 4, and it’s terrible hard to keep up with the writing goals at times. It pretty much comes down to one of us watches the kids for two hours while the other works on our side projects, and then we switch. So we basically take turns being single parents.

    But it’s like you said, this writing this is way too important to take an extended vacation from it while you wait for the kids to get old.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Yikes, mine are 1 and 3 and I can’t imagine having a third in the mix..! We do a fair bit of solo-parenting too (my husband’s taken the kids out for a walk right now while I catch up on work).

  • Abria says:

    Short bursts work for me. I use the 30/30 app to build a series of timed writing blocks, interspersed with breaks and other tasks. It’s so much easier to push through when you know you only need to write for 5 more mins, vs. 5 more pages.

    • Ali Luke says:

      I agree! And I find that when I’m coming up on the end of a short burst, I tend to write faster (especially if I’m near to finishing a blog post / newsletter article / chapter / etc).

  • This post came at a perfect time for me. I have six boys, ranging in ages from 18 to 1 year old twins. I am so very frustrated because I can’t find time to write. My day consists of kids, laundry, meals, baths, groceries, bills, etc. I’m exhausted in the mornings and collapse at night. My husband works long, late hours, and has his own stuff to do. What I wonder is, if you are having a hard time finding time to write, how do you find time to plan for writing? I think if I had a minute, I’d skip the planning and jump right to writing?

    • Ali Luke says:

      Oh my goodness, that sounds incredibly manic! And I can see why it must be really frustrating not to get any writing time.

      I’m always tempted to skip planning and jump straight into writing, but usually I need at least a couple of minutes of planning to organise my thoughts (otherwise I end up writing on a massive tangent, or I run out of steam).

      Have you come across the blog Planning with Kids, by Nicole Avery? She has 5 kids aged 7 – 17. (If you dig back in the archives, you’ll find posts from when the younger ones were toddlers.) She’s got a lot of tips on assigning chores, getting older ones to help out, etc.

      Hang on in there, hope things get easier!

      • Thank you! I will check out Nicole’s blog. And thank you for sharing that you end up on a massive tangent – I too, do this! I set my timer yesterday for seven minutes and tried to plan out my writing for the month of June. When the seven minutes was up, I jumped right in to writing. It worked! It feels good, knowing what I am writing now and giving myself deadlines. I have a plan!! 🙂

  • Great post with strong message. Thanks

  • you are a super woman Ali! Hats off!

  • Kayleigh says:

    Lucky me, I’m still twelve.

  • Marina says:

    This was such a great post! Thank you!
    I have a 2 and 4 year old and balancing my writing life with my home life has been incredibly challenging. Checklists and a babysitter helps. Sometimes you have to do the bare minimum on word count and be okay with that. Easier said than done.

    • Ali Luke says:

      You’re welcome! 🙂 It is hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do as much as you want … but anything is so much better than nothing. I’m starting to use more checklists for household things (morning routine, chores) too so that I spend less brain-power trying to remember everything that needs to be done!

  • Wonderful post, Ali, thank you!
    I have two children: one 5 and one 1,5 years old.
    Some ideas and experiences from my side:
    – practice awareness and be where I am: so if I am with my children, then enjoy being with them and not think how much I have to do or write. And on the other hand if I write then write and not think that I should be doing something else. Just be with the task at hand. Huge inspiration here are Ariel and Shya Kane and their approach of instantaneous transformation.
    – shorter writing chunks work as well. But not less than 5 min.
    – treat this as a game. I have written recently a small e-book structured as a board game description and in it I suggest for the reader to play a game with her/his procrastination. Do actual work every day for 5 min, one month long. Talking, research, don’t count. The research can and should be done, but you get a point in this game only if you do the actual work (for a writer, this is writing in your work-in-progress of course). At the end of the month you count the points and the words you have written. I was astounded when I found more than 6000 words in my second book of a series after just working 5 min on average a day for a month.
    – Treat also other concrete projects as games. Call the notebook you use to record tasks, call it Game Book. This is a brilliant way to trick out your brain from creating dramas around the projects you need and want to pursue. It is so much easier to play a game that do what we must.
    – Record you every move, that is what you have done and then record what to do in the next move. Then work the next day (time) on this next move. In such a way you will not have to remember all the details, because you will have them recorded.
    – Keep these next moves’ descriptions simple and only record one action/step for a move (eg. finish the scene in the restaurant, or similar). If you need a “plot” for a project then write it somewhere else. This could be your game’s map. 🙂
    – Remind yourself and become aware of the fun you are having while pursuing your dream. If you follow your fun detecting antenna then also your writing will be more fun for your readers.

    • Marina says:

      Here’s to awesome writer-moms. You are all amazing and it’s good to know I’m in good company. I sense a writing book for moms in this thread. Whose up for the challenge? Just kidding but I do know the Miracle Morning for Writers was just published. Steve Scott who is now a new dad will have hopefully added some useful tips for parents. Just a thought. Keep writing, just keep writing.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Thanks for all the great additions, Victoria!

      “practice awareness and be where I am: so if I am with my children, then enjoy being with them and not think how much I have to do or write”

      — I definitely need to work more on this (I often start thinking about my novel…!)

      I love the gamification approach you outline, too. There’s no reason work needs to be too serious!

  • Fiona says:

    This is the first truly useful post I have read about making time to write, I have a crazy 2 year old and I run a daycare, when people give the tip get up earlier, it drives me nuts- my fitbit records an average nights sleep for me at 4 hours-I would have to wake up at 4am to be up before my kid!!! so this really spoke to me-thank you!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Aw, thank you! This is the post I’d have liked to read a year ago… 😉 I know people mean well, but some tips are useless when you have small children.

      I can’t imagine running a daycare. Yikes! Hang on in there, hope your 2 year old calms down a little. 🙂

  • Tes Christiansen says:

    Thank you for the fine post. I especially liked #6 and agree with you on that. I’ve been struggling on the thought of not being able to produce results which are unfortunately, not up to my writing standards. So coming across your thoughts on letting go of trying to be perfect in every way doing it made me realized there’s much more to do if you just set your mind to relax, hehe.

    Again, thank you 🙂

    • Ali Luke says:

      Aw, glad to help! I’ve definitely found that parenting is fixing my perfectionist tendencies. 😉 I realised this morning that hey, the kids are still alive (and doing pretty well to be honest!) despite our “perfect” days numbering at precisely zero.

      With my writing, I’ve decided that “published beats perfect”. Just put up a blog post that I’d have liked to work on longer (I wanted to put in lots of images) — but made myself let it go.

  • Kari Edwards says:

    When my daughter was a baby I’d sit with her until she fell asleep at night. I often used this time to write and would usually get in half an hour of writing even though my daughter usually only took 5-10mins to fall asleep. I found that it was a good place to escape where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Now that my daughter happily goes to sleep without me in the room I have found it a lot harder to fit in writing time.

    • Ali Luke says:

      It’s funny, isn’t it, how a change (even a good one!) can have a knock-on effect on writing. I’ve got more help with the housework recently, which is lovely, but means I don’t listen to podcasts much any more..!

      Is there another good chunk of time you can use to write? For me, after teatime and before bathtime works — I get about 30 minutes then while my husband has the kids.

  • I am a retiree and I too have to balance my time. Persons call on you because they all think that you have got the time for any random thing. I am trying to establish myself and this takes discipline to read then write so I understand you as a young mother with the many chores to be done. The bug for writing began. Anyway, I aim to tell you that your post has nuggets for persons like me. I was able to extrapolate different resources from the post for example ideas from Micheal Hyatt. Thank you very much.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Glad this wasn’t just helpful for parents! When I started working for myself, rather than working a 9 – 5 day job, I found that people often expected me to be around for lunch / coffee / chatting in the middle of the day. It is frustrating! Hope you can set some good boundaries with your constant callers.

  • Miriam says:

    I’ve been writing my book on paper and then putting it on the computer, so this makes it easy to get up and go. My kids are old enough that they don’t need constant supervision, so if we go outside to play, I’ll try to get some writing done while they play. Our library had a special by Myself story time for 4-5 year olds, so while my daughter was in there I had about 30 minutes to write, edit, whatever. Just gotta find those small moment to squeeze things in!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Ooh, good for your library (and well done you on squeezing that time in).

      I am looking forward to the day when I can sit and read/write while the kids dashing around the playground — right now, I have a very adventurous 18 month old who alternates between trying to climb everything his big sister can climb, and trying to escape out the gate!

  • Ani says:

    Thanks Ali. This was a very inspiring piece. I have a 3-year-old who loves to sit on my laptop whenever she can. I quit my full time job to be with her. Now I am working on my first book and was doing some research on blogging. This is how I came across your post and found it is more meaningful to me than the ‘how to blog’ guides. Finding time to write is more difficult than setting up a blog when household chores and kids take up most of our energy. Its kind of fun though, when I explain to her what mommy is working on. A sense of involvement makes her give me less trouble than usual when she sees me writing. Looking forward to more such great stuff from you. Ani.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Thanks Ani! My 3-year-old daughter loves to “help” when I’m writing too. Sometimes she tells me, “Mummy, shut the laptop!” or “Mummy, put your phone away!” when she thinks I’ve done enough work. 😉

      Best of luck with your book — it’s so manic around kids, isn’t it?

  • Ellen Seltz says:

    This is so true! Especially the part about wanting to scream at child-free productivity experts (or those who leave primary caregiving to their partner and act like work-life balance is easy.)

    My kids are old enough now to understand a timer. I have, in moments of desperation, put the timer on for 20 minutes and told them, “I’m closing the door now. If you have a problem while the timer is running, solve it yourself. If you can’t solve it yourself, wait until the timer goes off. Do not open the door, call me, or knock unless something is on fire or someone is bleeding.”

    It helps.

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