Valuing your writing: making a time budget

Published by Dr Peta Freestone on

Remember back to when you wanted to make your first big purchase?

Mine was a bass guitar. As red and glossy as early summer cherries, it beckoned from the music store window. I’d stand on the pavement outside, palms pressed to the glass, day-dreaming like the protagonist in the opening scenes of a coming-of-age movie.

I’d just got my first job, which boded well. I’d be able to buy it myself! Only thing was, when I sat down to make a bass-buying budget—working out how many Saturday morning shifts it would take to save up the full purchase price—it was sobering, to say the least.

If this was the aforementioned film, we’d speed things up with a training montage for our plucky protagonist. But in real life? I wasn’t getting a bass guitar that month. Possibly not even that year. In your early teens, that’s essentially forever. Ugh.

Sometimes I wonder if my teenage self was more in tune with the value of time.

As adults, we know logically that time is our most precious resource. Once it’s gone, we can never earn it back. Yet many academic and creative writers I speak with have never sat down and worked out their ‘writing time budget’. Though those same people wouldn’t think twice about financial budgeting being a crucial step to avoid debt, they’re yet to embrace writing time budgeting as key to setting realistic goals and avoiding deadline stress.

What’s more, when it comes to planning major writing projects, we can fall into the trap of treating time as if it’s stretchy, or at least malleable. We roughly guestimate how long we’ll need to invest to reach our goal. We tend to bank on ‘best case scenarios’ being the norm, opening ourselves up to risk. And we can neglect to factor in contingency, as if there’s a time credit card we can whip out of our back pocket if we find ourselves overcommitted.

But would you take out a major loan without seeing how much you could spare in your weekly expenditure? No? Then why would you set deadlines for a major writing project without first establishing exactly how much writing time you have, as well as what you can realistically expect to achieve during that time?

Perhaps you’re thinking this is a very homo economicus way of conceptualising writing. Time is money and all that. If you don’t like the financial analogy, feel free to insert something else. For example, Christine Miserandino’s ‘spoon theory’, is a particularly powerful and elegant way of explaining the challenges faced by people with chronic illness. While you will have more ‘spoons’ (time as well as physical, mental and emotional energy) if you’re not living with disability, what’s crucial to recognise is that anyone has a finite number of spoons in any given day.

So, if you want to set realistic goals for a major writing project even half as much as teenage me wanted that shiny red bass guitar, I suggest you create a writing time budget.

When I’m running Thesis Boot Camps or any other writing productivity workshop, I provide participants with templates I’ve developed to help them swiftly work out their budgets.

But you can still create your own with the following steps:

  1. Define your ‘units of currency’

When you’re focusing on writing (or editing, or polishing), how much can you get done in a set, measurable ‘chunk’ of time? While I was writing up my PhD, I relied on the Pomodoro technique—writing sprints of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break. By tracking my output over time, I knew that in each ‘Pomodoro’ I could get about 250 words out on a bad day, up to twice as much on a really good day. Taking the bad day as my baseline (everything above that was a bonus and not to be relied upon), meant an hour of focused writing for me equalled 500 words. Thus, an ‘hour @ 500 words’ became my unit of currency.

Once you know what your average outputs are, you can establish your own units. Just be aware that your return may vary from project to project—in the same way my financial budget today is very different from when I only worked Saturday-morning-shifts. With some creative projects, for example, my outputs are much more unpredictable, so I set my baseline lower than I would for non-fiction or academic writing.


  1. Establish your spending habits

‘Financial Advice 101’ often recommends that you track and record all expenditure for a set period, usually a month or other duration that is long enough to factor in most billing and salary cycles. The rationale behind the exercise is that writing down every little outlay helps you see what you spend on what, rather than what you think you spend on what. These can be very different things.

So, do you know where your time goes on any given day? As an initial exercise, try noting down how each half hour or hour is spent (from waking to sleeping) over the course of a full week. Tedious, I know, but a little effort in the short term will pay dividends in the long run.

Once you’ve done that, ask yourself a few questions. When you factor in all your other commitments, how much time do you really spend writing? And were there times that had been reserved for writing but other things encroached? Does the reality match up with what you had convinced yourself you were investing in your writing? Or have you over- or underestimated?

  1. Balance the books

Now that you know the amount of time you actually spend during a week on writing, tally up how many units of currency that represents. This will give you a reliable estimation of what you can expect to produce each week (for my PhD-drafting days, 10 hours writing each week would have reliably yielded 5,000 words). Compare that with any existing writing goals or deadlines. This will give you a clear picture of whether it is realistic to achieve those aims at your current level of investment.

Looking good? Proceed with renewed confidence from your diligent data-gathering exercise.

Or does it now seem impossible to get that chapter done this month? If so, it’s time to revise your goals and set or negotiate new deadlines. Alternatively, assess whether you can invest more time in your writing. Go back to your week of tracked activities.  Are there any non-essential other commitments you could replace with writing?

  1. Factor in contingency

It’s now time to finalise your budget. Because life always throws unexpected things at us, factor in contingency before you set things in stone. I recommend assuming you’ll get between 10-25% less done than you’ve calculated, depending on your project and life circumstances.

Et voila!

Dear reader, you now have an accurate writing time budget. Spend it wisely (you’ll find some tips for how to do so in my post on getting in the writing zone), and not only will you be able to set realistic writing goals, but you’ll consistently achieve or exceed them.

One final note—just like household expenses, you’ll need to track your writing budget over time to make sure it stays relevant and continues to serve its purpose. But that’s a topic for another post.