As you review your year, you may wish you had accomplished more in your writing career. Perhaps your mindset, schedule, or interruptions slowed you down.
How can you manage those hurdles so that next year is your best writing year yet?
We interviewed Susan May Warren to find out how to develop the critical mindset and plan we need in order to make next year the best writing year ever.
Susan May Warren is a USA Today bestseller. She’s won both the Christy and RITA awards for several of her more than 60 novels. She has four grown children and is married to her real-life hero, going on 30 years now! She’s a skydiver, scuba diver, an accomplished dancer, and she’s a nationally acclaimed writing teacher who runs a writing academy called Novel.Academy.
What keeps authors from accomplish their goals?
Thomas Umstattd Jr.: What are some of the things that hold authors back from accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish last year?
Susan May Warren (Susie): I’ve been in the publishing industry for 16 years, and when I was a new author, I was constantly worried about doing things right. I was eager to follow the trends and find out what was selling. After many years, I realized my biggest obstacle was worry. I was worried about doing it wrong, having the wrong book at the wrong time, not getting reviews, doing the wrong marketing, and many other things.
When worry gets into your head, it eats away at your creativity and time. Worry can cause you to make bad decisions about what to write or what marketing you’ll do. It can also cause you to spend money that you don’t need to spend.
When worry is a companion constantly saying you’re doing things wrong, invariably, you’ll start listening to it. Worry gets loud, and we stop listening to our joy. Worry starts to drown out the voices of people who can counsel us about good and wise ideas.
We also stop listening to our budget. We know we’ve got to spend money to make money, but there is also wisdom in saving money.
Over time, we really stop listening to our hearts and what our hearts say we should do.
If I’m following my joy, using my time wisely, minimizing distractions, utilizing social media and ad platforms that fit me and my personality, then those things will give me the best return on my investment.
The fact is, it’s all going to work out. We just have to do the best we can with the tools we have. We have to stop worrying about how much market share we have, how we’re ranking, and what reviews we have. When we let that stuff go, there is peace on the other side.
James L. Rubart (Jim): That’s powerful, Susie. I’m reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, and one of the rules is to stop comparing yourself to others. He says, “Compare yourself to yourself.”
Rather than looking at someone else as the ideal or chasing trends, we need to ask ourselves, “What fits my personality? What path do I need to follow?”
Susie: It sounds crazy because marketing is looking at what works and what doesn’t. But we often fail to factor in our own personalities and abilities. We feel obligated to do the thing we’re not good at, and we hate doing it.
For example, I’m not a Pinterest person. I like it, but I can’t pin anything to save my life, and I hate everything that goes along with Pinterest. It’s much easier for me to post to Facebook or Instagram. It’s very easy for me to whip out a short, cute, and fun newsletter to my subscribers.
My newsletter is good marketing because it comes from my joy. And since it’s easy for me, I’m much more apt to do it regularly.
So let’s stop comparing ourselves to others and stop worrying about what we don’t get done.
How do you manage your time?
Jim: Between your work, family, and hobbies we mentioned above, you are managing so many different things. How do you accomplish all of that without cloning yourself?
Susie: To some extent, I follow my joy, and I outsource the things I’m not good at.
I’m into the essentials. I like to ask, “What do you have to get done for your life to move forward?” You have to eat, clean the house, do laundry, maintain a relationship with your spouse, and parent your kids. Those are the essentials.
Then I ask, “What are the other pieces of my life that I need to accomplish?” I need to be writing marketing, running my business, and creating courses.
Then I assess my time blocks. I have five working blocks per day—two in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one in the evening. I fill those time blocks with different things. I might have three writing blocks and one marketing block in a day. I might have a friends and family block or a personal block.
I’m not a multitasker. I can only do one thing well at one time. When I have two hours to write, I don’t do anything else. During that block, I don’t answer emails, look at social media, or talk on the phone.
I plan it at the beginning of the week, and it allows me to show up for that block, do the assigned task, walk away from it, and do the next task. I actually create different spaces too. I do my writing in one place and my vlogging in another room. It allows my brain to shift into the next activity and to be fully present in that activity. Being fully present is one of the keys to being effective with your time.
Even on the phone, I’m not scrolling through my phone. I’m engaged in the conversation because that person is important to me, and I’ve planned for that phone call block.
Because you’re fully present, you’ll accomplish so much more. And when you’re at your child’s football game later, you can be fully present there without guilt because you’ve done your tasks during the rest of the day.
I used to write during the halftime of basketball games, but I realized I wasn’t enjoying my life. It’s like when people go to a concert and try to video the whole concert. They miss out on enjoying the live performance because they’re watching the concert through their tiny screen.
Be fully present. Carve out time blocks. Create reasonable space and goals to accomplish it. Then protect that space.
Jim: They say women are like spaghetti and men are like waffles. It sounds like you’ve gone a little waffle on us.
Susie: When I am spaghetti-ish, I don’t get as much done because I have six half-finished projects. I’d rather have two completely finished projects than six partially done. I guess I have become waffle-ized with age.
How did you get used to working that way?
Jim: Did it take you a while to get used to working that way?
Susie: The biggest challenge is to train your mind not to be distracted. You can make smaller time blocks of 45 minutes with a 15-minute break in between.
I’ll do shorter blocks when I’m writing. I’ll write for 45 minutes. Then I’ll get up and walk the dog. That helps break up my time. When you’re writing, those break times actually help your creativity. When you can walk away from your computer for a while, you’ll have other thoughts about your writing that you can take back to your computer during your next writing block.
You can also schedule a different task between your shorter writing blocks. Sometimes I’ll set a timer and clean my house for 20 minutes between my writing blocks.
Thomas: We all do this a little bit. Think about what you do when you discover you have company coming over in 20 minutes. You get more cleaning done in those 20 minutes because you’re 100% focused. If we apply that focus to every aspect of our life and we’ll be more focused people.
Susie: Yes. We can find joy in almost everything we do. We don’t find joy in being distracted, not finishing things, and feeling like we never get stuff done. Instead of letting all these things infect your time, carve out time for every task and get it done so you can move on.
For Christmas, I stop for four days, and I don’t even look at my computer. I spend time with my family. When they’re gone, I’m back to my work. It helps me enjoy moments and people. It also allows me to see the accomplishment of finishing something.
How do you discipline yourself not to look at your phone or computer during time off?
Jim: How do you discipline yourself to put your phone away or shut the laptop for four days?
Susie: First, I tell myself that no one will die if they don’t hear from me in four days. I use the do-not-disturb function on my phone. I also mark my favorite numbers so that if my family calls, they can get through. Otherwise, it’s on do-not-disturb.
I have an allotted time for television and social media that I allow myself, and then I’m done. I turn off notifications on my phone. You have to decide not to be distracted, to some extent. The world won’t fall apart. If the world is falling apart, I know my husband will call to let me know, and he can get through because he’s one of my favorites.
Sometimes I also put an autoresponder on my email so that people know I’m away for four days. If they know what’s happening, they don’t get upset. Inform people and take small actions to protect your time.
Your time is yours. You can let people into it as you see fit.
Jim: When you take time for your career and personal restoration, the work you get done afterward is of higher quality than if you’d pushed yourself through the exhaustion phase.
Susie: The other piece of managing my time is that I follow my joy. I look for the things I love to do. That doesn’t mean I don’t do things I don’t love (I still clean my bathroom). But I have joy in having a clean house. When I’m managing my time, I do what I’m good at.
If I’m spending time doing things I’m not good at, I investigate to see if I can delegate them to someone else. If I have to do it, I push through. But when we are operating in our joy, we look forward to those time blocks.
I’m blessed because I don’t dread my days. Even if I’m cleaning my house for Christmas, I can find the joy in making it smell good, and I’ve allotted time for it.
How do you evaluate the ROI of your goals?
Jim: You approach goal setting in an innovative way. Tell us how you’re setting goals for the next year and how you’d counsel others to set goals?
Susie: My goal-setting has morphed over the years from “This is what I want to accomplish because I think it’s a good idea” to “What opportunities are in front of me? What do I love to do? What have I succeeded at in the past, and how do those merge?”
I make a chart of all the things I did last year that worked.
- Books I wrote
- Marketing efforts I did
- Products I created
- Bible Studies I completed
- Events or Classes I took
- Writing Retreats I participated in
Then I assign each accomplishment a value number. My value categories are as follows:
- Joy: How much joy did it bring me?
- Time: How much time did it save?
- Ease: How easy was it?
- Revenue: How much financial reward did I receive?
The higher the number, the more value it gets. If a task didn’t take much time, that’s good, and I’d assign a high value.
For example, here’s how I scored my task of Writing Vacation Bible School Curriculum:
- Joy: 10
- Time: 5
- Ease: 4
- Financial: 1
TOTAL: 19 (19 ÷ 4 areas of measurement = 4.75)
Average Score for VBS Curriculum: 4.75
On the other hand, here’s how I scored writing a 90,000-word novel:
- Joy: 7
- Time: 2 (It took a long time.)
- Ease: 2 (It’s difficult.)
- Revenue: 7
TOTAL: 18 (18 ÷ 4 areas of measurement = 4.5)
Average Score for book-writing: 4.5
I look at the different values and put together a plan that brings me joy and revenue because I need both. Instead of writing four VBS curriculums in a year, I will write one or two novels. That way, I get joy and revenue throughout the year.
It’s an objective way to view a subjective issue.
Jim: I love how you can see it all at a glance and make an informed decision.
Susie: We also have to take into account the opportunities that are on the horizon. I can project the values I expect it to bring. How much joy and money will a future opportunity probably bring me? How much time and effort will it save or cost me?
Seeing all of those together helps me know where I should invest my time in the coming year. It has helped me make good business decisions based on the investment a project would likely require.
Why did you create a planner?
Jim: You’ve battle-tested these strategies and put together an annual planner for people. Why did you create a planner with everything else you have going on?
Susie: I’ve been using this system for many years, and I’ve refined it over and over.
About five years ago, I realized I was lugging around about five books. I had a journal for story ideas, a prayer book, a business planner with my goals, and a personal planner with my meal and exercise plan. It was so cumbersome, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if these were all in a single book?”
So, I created a planner for myself that had sections for time blocking and areas of my life where I needed to create goals for marketing, writing, and personal projects. I had a place for dinner plans and water consumption. In the front, I included a goal-setting space for the new year and monthly calendars as well. In the back, I made a place for story crafting ideas.
I started showing it to friends, and they wanted one too. So, I created a planner that comes with a course to teach you how to use it.
Where can people buy the planner?
Where can people buy the planner? It’s called My Brilliant Writing Planner. It’s a beautiful hardcover spiral-bound planner, and we’ve received great feedback. It’s dated and big, but your life is big too. You can buy your own planner Brilliant Writing Planner at Susie’s website.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. The Five-Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Set yourself up for success. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
Thomas’s Other Podcasts
Thomas’ one goal for the New Year: Not start any new podcasts! I currently have five!