Learning about the craft of screenwriting is very important if you want to improve your craft and it’s usually a lot of fun. However, too often an emerging writer can get caught up in the excitement of creativity and neglect the more practical matters of managing time. More than anything, a screenwriter needs to know how to manage the limited amount of hours in a day to increase their productivity without neglecting other important commitments.
While everyone’s daily life can vastly differ, I’m going to go through three key recommendations that everyone can use to keep their writing career on track and prevent the onward march of time treading on valuable creativity.
Set Specific Goals
In school I was often encouraged to set goals for target grades. I hated this process as it didn’t make much sense to me. Why wouldn’t I want to do as good as possibly could?
The goals I was being asked to make didn’t make sense because they weren’t specific enough and targeted the wrong end result. In my screenwriting life I’ve found goal-setting to be an invaluable part of the process when I target my goals on tangible targets, not abstract ideas.
So, instead of setting a goal like “I want my screenplay to be great” try and set a goal closer to “I will complete the first draft of this screenplay within one month”. The first goal requires a subjective definition of “great” whereas there’s no wiggle room in the second. You either achieve it, or you don’t. I’m not targeting quality but output, something that any writer, even a beginner, can objectively measure.
I also set a strict time goal giving a ticking clock. Instead of indulging the abstract idea that I’ll complete the first draft “soon”, by specifically citing “one month” I have set a deadline. The length of time should be achievable but still challenging. It will force you to work hard and feel a sense of immense satisfaction when you reach it. Setting goals is the highest level type of time management, so let’s drill down into the different types of goals, sorted by how long they take to complete.
Long-Term, Medium-Term, and Short-Term Goals
Not all goals are made equal. “I want to write three pages today” is massively different from “I want to write four screenplays this year”. It’s unfair to put these goals in the same category, so don’t. Sort your goals into three broad categories, long-term, medium-term, and short-term.
Long-term goals always encompass the high level stage of writing. Generally, I would advise keeping these goals on the scale of months, if not years. These goals aren’t meant to be achieved regularly, but when they are achieved it feels fantastic. Think about how much writing you want to have completed by this time next year. That’s a long-term goal.
Medium-term goals are on the scale of weeks to months. These are your wider projects that make up a long-term goal. For me, the easiest type of medium-term goal is the completion of a draft. Other types of medium-term goals might be to read a book as research for your story, devising a thorough outline for your next story, or completing a new rewrite. While long-term goals are rarely considered in daily life, medium-term goals should be more present.
Which leaves short-term goals. These should be on the scale of a week, if not daily. The kinds of tasks that exist on a to-do list are short-term goals. For me, my daily short-term goal is to always write five pages. This is the basic building block of my goal system upon which everything else is built. Other short-term goals might be to send an important email, to read another writer’s script, or to redraft a single scene. More than anything, it’s important to be incremental in your short-term goals. These goals should be the easiest to achieve so don’t set unrealistic expectations. Keep things manageable so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
If you haven’t already, set some long-term goals, followed by medium-term goals, then set some short-term goals for tomorrow. This will give you a goal-oriented structure to your screenwriting life. Now that goals are taken care of, it’s time to get more granular.
Deciding When to Write
It’s easy for me to say “write every day”, but much harder to actually do it. Just like a weight-lifter needs to go to the gym regularly to train their muscles, the writer needs to write every single day to tone our brain muscles… so to speak. However, deciding one day to write every day isn’t going to make it happen. You need to figure out how you’re going to build that habit.
Luckily, Arc Studio Pro has an integrated writing schedule feature to keep you on track. You can set up your personal writing schedule in the software. If you haven’t written by a particular time on that day, the software will automatically send you an email to make sure you’re staying on track. This is a really helpful tool, but you still need to determine when you’re going to write everyday so you can use it properly.
Determining your schedule
Firstly, find a regular period in your day where you have time to yourself. I always write in the morning. It’s when I feel freshest, most productive, and well out of the way of any other distractions that might arrive in the afternoon or evening. I also know that I can keep my mornings free throughout the week to write.
If you’re a parent this probably wouldn’t work for you. Instead, many writer parents I know work in the evenings when the kids are in bed and you get some peace and quiet. Writing is a time for you, no one else, so make sure these distractions aren’t present when you decide to write.
Others write piecemeal throughout the day. If you’re a freelancer you might be able to squeeze 30 minutes of writing in the morning, 30 more in the afternoon, then polish off with another 30 at night. If this is conducive to your productivity, go for it. The most important thing is to make the time you write regular so the brain is ready and raring to go.
Before you go to sleep think about when you’re going to write the next day. Having a plan will mean that procrastination and distractions don’t get in the way. The last thing you want to do is be in bed the next night and wonder how you didn’t get any writing done.
Maximize Efficiency when Writing
Now that we’ve gone through the high-level of goals and the medium-level of determining when you’re going to write, we need to figure out how to manage time when we’re doing the all-important process of actually writing.
You sit down at the computer, coffee by your side, screenwriting software open… now what? How do you make sure that this important time is best spent getting the most amount of work done as possible?
First thing’s first, close all other tabs on your computer that aren’t directly relevant to what you’re writing. No news, no social media, nothing (although I make an exception for Spotify). You need to be accountable for your own productivity and cutting off potential distractions is an important first step. If you must have your phone in the same room, make sure it’s on silent and out of your eye line. The last thing you need is to have your flow interrupted by an errant text message.
Arc Studio Pro has a handy feature called Focus Mode.
By clicking the timer button at the bottom of the screen then the target icon you can set a period of focus to minimize distractions. If you start browsing the internet or otherwise get distracted, Arc Studio Pro will gently remind you to return to the script. This helps curb any bad habits when you tab away from the script without even realizing it.
Distractions purged, it’s time to engage your focus. This involves intentionality. Intentionality is a simple but crucial concept. Essentially, it is the act of intentionally doing something. Instead of slipping into writing whenever you feel like it, intentionality is the process of specifically saying to yourself what you’re about to do, why you’re doing it, and how long you’re going to do it for. Counting time, not pages increases productivity and can activate the flow state much quicker.
For me, the Pomodoro Technique is a great way of engaging this important intentionality.
The Pomodoro Technique
In the late 1980s a man called Francesco Cirillo was so sick of not being able to focus on his academic work that he set a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato for 25 minutes and told himself that he would not stop until the timer went off. After the 25 minutes was up, he would allow himself a five minute break before setting the timer for another 25 minutes of work. The Pomodoro Technique (pomodoro means tomato in Italian) was born.
This technique is deviously simple but incredibly effective. By setting the timer you are signalling to your brain that now is the time for work. After a while you’ll condition yourself to associate the setting of a timer with the beginning of work and you’ll transition into that state of focus so much easier.
If 25 minutes is too long, set it for 15 or 20 minutes and slowly work your way up. If you need more rest, take ten minutes between each pomodoro cycle. Starting work is always the hardest, but hopefully around ten minutes into a cycle you will enter that wonderful flow state in which the words come naturally. Keep yourself accountable and the Pomodoro Technique will work wonders.
Another method of putting intentionality into your work is time-tracking. Unlike the Pomodoro Technique, time-tracking involves starting a stopwatch when you start working and stopping it when you finish. Starting the stopwatch signals to your brain that the time for work has begun while stopping it when you feel finished gives you an objective representation of how long you were actually working while being accustomed to your natural cycle of focus. Science has taught us that productivity rituals are a fantastic way to get us working. Time-tracking is a great place to start.
Everyone’s guilty of overestimating the amount of work done. Time-tracking stops such delusions in its tracks. Popular software like Toggl allows you to organize these stopwatch sessions into separate projects so over the course of days, weeks, and months you can see exactly where and how you’re using your time.
This requires diligence, but those who use it swear by the process. You need to time-track every session of work or the report will be compromised. I’m too forgetful for this method but I still recommend it to those who are looking for a way of organizing their work and injecting intentionality into their daily productivity.
If you’re looking to take a deep-dive into the wonderful world of productivity this episode of the Cortex podcast is a fantastic place to start:
Whether it be setting a range of goals, determining when in the day you’re going to write, or how you engage intentionality when you sit down to write, these methods will help you get a grip on the ever slippery notion of time and become accountable for your own work. While it may feel unnatural at the start, these techniques work with each other to slowly increase your productivity to a level previously unimaginable. I can speak from experience.
The important thing is to not get too hung up on the minutiae. More than anything else you should customize these individual methods to suit your personal preferences. Experiment with each and see what works best for you. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover the next Pomodoro Technique!