Every November, several hundred thousand people sign up for a crazy goal: They want to crank out a 50,000-word rough draft of a novel in 30 days. National Novel Writing Month, or "NaNoWriMo" for short, was started by Chris Baty in 1999 to provide support for fellow writers trying to cross "write a novel" off their bucket lists. The stunt has produced a lot of novels, but beyond that, it’s taught participants some important time management lessons. Here are seven that can help you achieve big goals of all kinds, even if you're not trying to write a novel this month:
Writing 50,000 words in a month requires writing just under 1,700 words per day. Grant Faulkner, executive director of NaNoWriMo, will be participating for the sixth time this year. He’s figured out that 1,700 words requires writing for about two hours. "Now when I think of the month, I think of doing two hours per day, or 60 hours for the month," he says.
The good news is that 60 hours over a 720-hour month isn’t that much. "I feel like it’s very doable," he says. Many big goals have similarly limited requirements. If you’re already a runner, you can train for a marathon in fewer than 10 hours per week over 16 weeks. These are numbers you can get your head around.
So how do you find two hours a day? Faulkner advises people to "go on a time hunt." For a week, write down every single thing you do (you can download a spreadsheet from my website; for a list of 10 time-tracking apps, see this post). "Get a really good idea of how you spend your time. Most people really don’t know," he says. You putter around with the mail pile for 15 minutes while dinner is cooking. You lose 30 minutes following links your friends post on Facebook.
Sure, you may have to give something up, but it may not be something important. Divya Breed, an engineer and writer who attempted NaNoWriMo a few years ago, tells me that the month did "prove to me that Life Without TV wasn't going to destroy my morale."
In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, journalist Brigid Schulte claims that for many working parents, free time comes in bits of "time confetti"—a few minutes here and there. But time is still time. Says Faulkner, "I’m very inspired by the story of Toni Morrison." As a single working mom of two, she carved out a few minutes to write before bed. She cranked out The Bluest Eye in that time.
Few of us have the Nobel laureate’s talent or drive. But "it’s about finding those nooks and crannies of time," Faulkner says. If he told himself "I will write when I have those two hours of uninterrupted time in my peaceful office," it would never happen. But he can wake up 15 minutes early, or sit in a parking lot for 10 minutes and write. The ten minutes between conference calls are completely usable if you’ve got big goals, even if most people just check email instead.
Divya Breed made it to 37,000 words by the end of November, which was a longer work of fiction than she’d ever created before. Alas, at 13,000 words short of the NaNoWriMo requirement, she didn’t feel elated. But then a year later, as she contemplated trying again, she read her mostly-written draft. "For a first draft, and a rushed one at that, it wasn’t half bad," she wrote in a guest post on the KreativeHaus blog.
"Huh. Maybe this whole ‘shut the inner critic up and just write’ attitude really worked. Maybe it wasn’t a wasted effort after all." That kick in the pants helped her finish some short stories, and she’s now been published (see her short story, Strange Attractors, at Daily Science Fiction).
Nothing comes of most NaNoWriMo novels, but that’s not a bad thing. "I view it as a great time to experiment with creativity," says Faulkner. "I have one burning novel idea each year. This is a really efficient way to test that idea." In 50,000 words, you can tell if a novel is worth pursuing to completion. If it isn’t, "it’s only a month out of my life," he says. That’s better than spending five years tinkering with something you’ll never be happy with.
Jennifer Bowden did NaNoWriMo in 2013. She and her husband both worked full-time, and he was in graduate school, "so our evening hours and weekends felt off-limits so we could spend some time together with our kids," she says. "I ended up doing most of my writing in bed after the kids went to sleep. I bought a cheap plastic lap desk at Michael’s and left my laptop on the bedside table, and I absolutely refused to go to sleep until I’d written 500 words. This was a ridiculously small goal for each night but I found that this was my own personal ‘hump.’ If I could get to 500 I could usually get to at least 1,500, and there were quite a few nights that I felt really inspired and just kept writing until my eyes blurred." She ultimately hit 57,000 words by the end of the month.
When you have a big goal, you may need to turn down opportunities or invitations, or let go of a few responsibilities. Sometimes people feel guilty about this, but people who care about you will likely support you, especially if there’s an end in sight. Says Faulkner, "We always tell people to tell your friends and family you’re going to do this ahead of time. You set expectations: I’m pursuing one of my creative dreams in November, and I really need your help."
Even good habits can be bent for a while. Bowden says "I usually get nine hours of sleep a night so a whole month of late nights was hard. But I found that because I was losing sleep over something that I loved and wanted to be doing, it didn’t seem to hit me as hard physically as it would if I were doing something I really didn’t want to, like studying for an exam." It wasn’t sustainable long term, "but 30 days felt like something I could handle." And in the end, if you have a novel or completed another big goal, it will all be worthwhile.