This week’s episode features my conversation with multi-published mystery author and full-time technical writer Mary Sutton about committing to your passions and finding time for “your” stuff amidst the things you “have” to do.
Making time for your passions is an important part of making a life that matters
Writing under the pen name Liz Milliron, Mary Sutton is the author of the Laurel Highlands mystery series, starring a Pennsylvania State Trooper and a Fayette County public defender in the scenic Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania. She is also the author of the Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY in the early years of WWII. The series features Betty Ahern, a young woman doing her part for the war effort working at Bell Airplane while she nurses fantasies of being a private detective.
Mary is a past president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, as well as a member of International Thriller Writers and Pennwriters. In addition to all of that, she also works as a technical writer, which is a busy career in and of itself. Now an empty-nester, she lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a very spoiled retired-racer greyhound.
In college, Mary was an English major and always thought she’d write the “great American novel“. But then she got married, had children, and started a career, and the novel took a back seat to other priorities. At the time, she thought she was being productive but looking back on things, maybe not as productive as she could have been. For the last 10 years, she has finally been able to figure out what real productivity means to her, and how to go about achieving it. Mary’s children are now grown so she more has time to do things she didn’t have time for in the past.
How Mary balances her technical writing career with writing novels
It was initially difficult for Mary to switch back and forth between her career as a technical writer and her passion for writing mystery novels. Over time, though, Mary has learned how to compartmentalize the two and decide, this is the time to write the novel and this is the time to focus on the technical writing.
Mary had a former editor who introduced her to the concept of the sacred writing hour. This is time that is dedicated to only working on her novel. She doesn’t answer the phone, surf the internet, or let anything else distract her. Working on fiction is her sole focus. This hour is completed during Mary’s most productive time of the day, which is between 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm. After the hour is up, Mary returns to her technical writing. This habit and mindset has been the key to balancing the two types of writing.
A typical day
Mary’s most typical days often start with her dog waking her up at 6:30 am (he’s the best alarm clock). She feeds the dog and then has some breakfast herself. After that, Mary tries to spend some time doing mindful reading to get her in the right frame of mind for the day. Right now she is reading a book of essays by G.K. Chesterton. She also enjoys reading biographies and other non-fiction books.
From 7:00 am to noon, Mary focuses on her day job as a technical writer, which she does from home, thinking only about the tasks she needs to complete for work and nothing else.
At noon she puts away her work computer, gets out her personal computer, and begins her sacred writing hour. She may also have her lunch during this time.
After that, it’s back to her job from 1:00 until about 3:30.
In the afternoon, she might decompress by reading for pleasure, sit in her backyard and enjoy the quiet, or maybe attend to some personal business.
When her husband comes home from work, they have dinner and spend time together. During the evenings, Mary says her only priority is her husband and she deliberately does not work.
Biggest productivity challenges
Mary finds her biggest challenge is trying to not take on more than she can chew. As the oldest child, she has grown into adulthood always wanting to say yes and feeling like she was supposed to. So when she is asked to join a church committee or other project, she will commit to it and then discover she has over-booked herself. She hates to disappoint others but also doesn’t want to overwork herself. She has learned it’s okay to say no, especially when it doesn’t fit in with the life she wants to lead.
In order to get to where she is comfortable with saying no, she has had to go through trial and error. For example, there have been times she has committed to doing something because she did have the time, but was then miserable doing it.
She has learned to use lists and the calendar on her phone to keep track of her commitments and what needs to be done. If it’s not on a list or her calendar, it doesn’t exist. She can tell by her calendar and lists if she is actually available and able to do additional things.
In her day job, Mary has also been careful to not overbook herself. She discovered a neat trick in Microsoft Outlook where she can automatically shorten her meetings by 5 minutes. This gives her time between meetings to give herself a breather.
Resources and tools Mary recommends
Besides her lists and phone calendar mentioned above, Mary also has a whiteboard she uses to list family appointments and commitments so everyone can see them. She also adds her shopping list to the whiteboard.
For work, she uses Outlook to list to-do’s and tasks her co-workers have asked her to complete. Mary says one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is, “I don’t have to write it down, I’ll remember.” But she has found that she rarely remembers.
For her fiction writing, Mary uses an app called Evernote so she can jot quick notes and ideas into her phone as they come to her. She also uses Trello to help manage what needs to be done by month and week. Finally, she uses Airtable for planning and project management for the marketing and production of her many novels.
How Mary started as a fictional writer
Mary was first bitten by the writing bug in middle school. She wasn’t a popular kid and neither was her best friend, who was an illustrator. So they began making up stories together where they were awesome and the other kids weren’t.
Besides that, she always wished she could be a good writer. After getting married, she set her mind to writing a mystery book and decided it was something she definitely capable of doing. After having her first and second child, though, and also balancing a career, she put that dream to the side. After losing her job in 2011, her husband reminded her of her writing dream and that mystery she had started years earlier. Since her children were older now, she decided to take the rest of the summer to focus on finishing her book. It wasn’t the best, but by the end of the summer, she knew writing was what she wanted to do. She was determined to keep writing and began to make sacrifices to make time for it (since she was still raising her kids and working), such as skipping favorite TV shows or lunches with co-workers. Writing is part of who Mary is and it’s very important to her, which is why she makes time for it.
Making time for what’s important to you
If you are someone who has a full-time job and are perhaps also a caregiver or have other responsibilities and are wondering how you can make time for what you want to do, Mary says it’s not about finding the time, but making the decisions. We all have the same number of hours in the day and all have things we need to do. But where are you leaving time on the table? Maybe you’re watching a lot of TV when you could be practicing the piano or knitting. Mary often took her laptop along to her children’s extracurricular actives and wrote in the back of the room, just to be able to continuously pursue her passion.
Of course, there are things that have to get done and are non-negotiable. But if something is important to you, doing it is part of your self-care and if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. Even if you only have bits of time here and there throughout your day, those small pieces of time can add up to big results and you’ll be further along than you were yesterday. In Mary’s case, she may not be able to write 1,000 words a day, but she may be able to manage 500, or even one paragraph. This is still progress.
Challenges Mary has overcome in order to remain productive
In 2008, after losing her balance and undergoing multiple tests, Mary was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. At the time, she was just 35 with young children and it was a devastating diagnosis. Her first thought was that she didn’t have time for this. She had to admit that in order to continue doing what needed to be done and maintain productivity, she would need some help. As women, we are not supposed to need help-we can do it all. But MS taught Mary that she’s couldn’t do it all, mentally or physically. She needed help from her family with things around the house like taking out the trash, feeding the dog, or lifting things.
There were also times when she had to decline to do certain things, not because she didn’t want to, but because it was difficult for her. This didn’t make her any less of a person, though, it was just a limitation she was choosing to acknowledge. By acknowledging her limitations and declining certain activities, she felt better about herself and also had extra time to do things she really wanted to do.
Although MS is a horrible disease, it ended up being liberating for Mary because it forced her to stop trying to do everything herself and to ask for help instead. This was a huge mental shift for her. Today, Mary’s MS is being managed well and she’s doing great!
What do you do to get back on track on a day when everything gets away from you?
Mary often has these kinds of days. The first step for her is to stop feeling guilty about getting off track. Life happens and there is always tomorrow.
She then tries to relax and do something mindless, like read a book or watch some television. She tries to let things go.
Mary also enjoys a big bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce–that always helps!
Just remember, she says: you’re not superwoman. It’s okay if you didn’t get every box checked today. There is always tomorrow. Maybe some of the things you didn’t get done weren’t really that important anyway.
Mary’s last words for the listener
Find your thing–the thing that makes you feel whole. Maybe try a couple of things at first–writing, playing the piano, or riding a bike. Give a couple of things a shot and once you’ve found what you like, find your people. You don’t have to take this journey alone. It’s always more fun with other people because they will commiserate with you, encourage you, and hold you accountable to the commitment you’ve made to yourself. You are just as important as everyone you are devoting time to throughout your day.
What do you think? Questions? Comments?
Do you have questions for Mary or me? Please share them in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email
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