Award-winning author Susan May Warren shares how she gets things done by using a time management approach that keeps rhythm, balance, and the big picture in mind.
Finding balance in a multi-faceted life
Susan May Warren is an award-winning author, a sought-after teacher, and the founder of Novel Academy, a school for aspiring novelists. She’s also a wife, mom, and football fan living in Minnesota.
Professionally, Susie says there are two of her in one body. First, she's a novelist. She loves writing and she’s been doing it since she was 14 years old, though she didn’t get published until she was in her thirties. Together with her husband and their young children, she served as a missionary in Russia for 8 years. During that time, she honed her storytelling skills through the newsletters through which she engaged the supporters of their ministry. She also started writing stories. In the evenings, when her husband was gone, there wasn’t much to do, so she wrote a lot. That resulted in her first book. Today, she has sixty published novels.
The second Susie is a writing teacher. A few years into her writing journey, she started working with people who approached her for coaching on writing craft, and she also taught at conferences as opportunities arose. She realized she really loved teaching people how to write. As the writers she worked with started to get published and reach commercial success, she decided to create some books and products and see if she could help more aspiring writers. That endeavor blossomed into a school. It's become her second love to help other authors find their voice, get published, and establish a career.
Then, of course, there’s a third Susie who is a wife and mom. That Susie emerges on the weekends and sometimes in the evenings, and definitely during football season. In her private life, she enjoys adventurous activities such as scuba diving, hiking, canoeing, and skiing. She is happily married, going into their thirtieth year of marriage, and she and her husband have four amazing adult children and one grandchild.
A typical day
Every day is a little different depending on what Susie has scheduled, but there are things she does daily. She gets up early and makes herself a protein shake. Then, as she drinks her coffee, she launches her Miracle Morning routine, which she put together based on Hal Elrod's book, The Miracle Morning. As part of her routine, she reads the Bible, writes down verses that speak to her, does an affirmation, reads from a business-related book and a devotional book, and then spends time plotting out the rest of her day.
Once she's finished with this routine, she goes for a half-hour walk with her husband, then jumps in the shower upon her return home. From the moment she begins her Miracle Morning routine to getting dressed for the day takes about an hour and half; she’s usually at her office desk by 9 am.
Once she’s at her desk, she takes care of email, phone calls, and other administrative tasks for about an hour, and then blocks on the rest of her day into chunks, depending on what she needs to get done for that day. She’s usually done with work by 6 pm, prepares dinner, and then spends the rest of the evening with her husband.
Biggest Productivity Challenges
Like all of us, Susie has her own productivity challenges.
Social time and social media
Susie’s biggest productivity challenge is that she can get derailed if she isn’t careful. She's a highly relational person and loves talking to people, which means she can chat for hours on a phone call if she doesn’t manage her time. She’s working on learning how to make that time productive for both parties so they don’t spend all their time on the phone.
Another challenge Susie has is Facebook, which is again relational in many ways when it comes to commenting on people’s posts and having little conversations, so she can get sucked into that. So she tries to limit those times.
Usually, when Susie gets off-track, it's because she's trying to meet someone's needs. For example, when someone sends her a manuscript, instead of limiting her time and reviewing just a few pages, she gets sucked into wanting to help them and finds she’s eaten away two hours of her time. So guarding her time is another important thing she's working on. She realizes that giving away her time is important, but she needs to get her work done too.
Adjusting and keeping the big picture in mind
Several years ago, a friend who's a life coach said something pivotal in Susie’s life. Up until that point, she always had a list of 5 things to do each day and felt like a failure if she didn’t get all of them done. They were having a conversation about balance and her friend asked her, “When you stand on one foot, are you perfectly still?”
Susie realized she wasn’t perfectly still, but instead constantly adjusting to stay upright. Her friend explained that balance doesn’t mean doing each task exactly the same each day, but rather it's about adjusting your life within a bigger vision so you can stay upright. For example, if it’s a “relational day” where Susie is making calls to people she needs to connect with, she may spend more time on those and not answer any emails.
Instead of looking at balance as a daily endeavor, she reviews her week to see if it is balanced because it's easier to gauge. A day is too finite because you only have so many hours. When she's editing her work, or facing a deadline, her church life may need to ease back, and the house won’t be cleaned as much. Supper may not be happening on the table, and phone calls may be made less frequently. But a week later, she may be pulling back from writing to go out to lunch with a few friends, or to connect with her kids, or to clean her house.
For Susie, finding that balance is about keeping things going, rather than being rigid about keeping a checklist every day. It’s about determining what area she needs to give more attention to, and which ones to leave for later. Plotting her life by weeks helps her to gauge whether she has invested in the right area over the course of the week.
There will be times when taking care of certain people will take precedence over other areas of your life, and vice versa. Susie thinks it's important to make sure to give the people who wait for you while you focus on other areas of your life their turn.
For example, three years ago, her mother was dying of cancer, and it was a hard year. But because of this mindset, she was able to take some things off her plate and focus on ministering and tending to her mother. It was a valuable year where she could spend time with her and soak into their relationship and care for her mother. Susie had communicated upfront to her friends that she was dedicated to her mother during this time, so they would hear from her less. She still checked up on them, but less frequently, and her friends understood.
Susie didn’t let go of her career either. When her mother was sleeping, Susie would write like crazy. When her mother needed her again, Susie was right there for her. She set different expectations of herself, so she stayed productive even though she had loosened up her deadlines. She leaned into spending valuable time with her mother and everything else waited a bit.
Thanks to this focused time spent with her mother, she had no regrets when she passed. Now, she's able to focus on her other relationships as well as her writing.
She encourages us to give ourselves grace, knowing everything has a season. Once the season passes, move into the areas that were put on hold and respect the people who stepped aside for you to focus on that area and invest in them.
Susie's time management approach – planning and balance
Susie is a prolific writer who has sixty books published but still manages to get other things done. Time management is key for her to be able to accomplish this. She thinks there are two keys in being able to manage one’s time well; the first is knowing how much time you actually have available to you for different things, and the second is knowing how long you take to do things.
Every quarter, Susie takes a look at her weeks and parcels out her time. By using time blocks, she determines how much of her time she can use for writing, for business, and for other areas of her life. Every day she has 5 time blocks: the Miracle Morning time block, the 9-11 am block, the 11 am-1 pm block, the 1-3 pm block, and the 3-5pm block.
On Mondays, she takes care of all marketing and email tasks. This may take up 2 of her time blocks. In the afternoon, she has two more time blocks left to schedule in whatever she sees fit, be it writing time, errand time, writing a Bible study, etc. If she decides to schedule in writing for one time block, she set a goal for herself like “I will write a chapter during this time block,” and turns away from all distractions. Once that block is finished and she comes up for air, she sees what else she has scheduled for the next block.
In regards to knowing how long you take for certain things, Susie knows she can write one scene consisting of about 2000 words during one time block. Since she usually writes 20-chapter books, with 2 or 3 scenes per chapter, she knows she’ll need 60 scenes to finish the book, and that equals about 60 time blocks. In the course of a week, she can write 5 scenes if she can schedule 5 creative time blocks. This way, it's easy for her to know out how long it will take for her to write a book.
Even if you’re getting started out and don’t have a good idea of how long you take to do things, she still recommends you to schedule in time blocks. When Susie first started writing, she scheduled her writing time in time blocks from 9 am – 12 pm on Saturday mornings. Her husband volunteered to watch the kids so she could focus on her writing. At the end of each writing session, Susie would evaluate her writing time, reviewing how many words she had written and what she accomplished. This helped her to mentally work on the next scene in her head during the week, and the following Saturday she showed up to work and was as productive as she could be. After writing, she would write in her journal again reviewing her work.
After 4-5 months, she had accumulated enough information to determine how many words she could write within a given amount of time, which then allowed her to figure out how much time she could devote to or would need to complete a project.
For people just starting out, she suggests that you give yourself one time block for a week on whatever project you want to devote yourself to, show up, and do as much as you can in that allotted time. Then, sit down afterward and give yourself a mini-evaluation; What did I accomplish? What were my challenges? How can I do it better? How can I be more effective? Then, rinse and repeat until you get a rhythm for how effective and productive you can be during that time, and then plan what to do afterward.
Susie also recommends time blocking because it frees you up to do projects that you might not normally do. We all have projects that we say we’ll get to someday, but we never actually get to it because we don’t budget the time for it. It’s similar to budgeting money. If you really want to buy something, you have to budget to save for it. It’s the same idea for big projects and dreams. If you budget time to do it and show up to do it, you can protect that time to work on your dream and feel no guilt.
If you’re a mom, and you have children knocking on your door, it can be hard to pull yourself away from them to spend time on your projects. Susie dealt with this by teaching her children to respect her time. They were allowed to enter her room while she wrote, but they weren’t allowed to speak until she looked up and asked them what they needed. Even her 4-year-old had to learn how to do that. Of course, if there was an emergency she would deal with it right away, but the point was for them to respect her time. Susie felt guilt-free about this because she already gave away lots of her time to her people, and this was her time. She’s a strong believer that creating time budgets and working from time blocks allows us the freedom to pursue something that we might otherwise feel guilty about.
Susie reminds us that while the world does need you, you need you too. When the people in your life support your dream and allow you to pursue the things in your soul that speak to you, you will be a much more contented person as opposed to feeling sapped all the time. This doesn’t mean you're being selfish; your unique desires and dreams are put in you for a reason and you need to nurture those so you can give to the world what you were supposed to give. Yes, being a wife and mom may be one of them, but you have unique gifts and talents as well, and you were put here to be productive in those ways as well. She encourages us to follow our joy, for we are better people when we respond to the nudges in our heart.
Tools Susie recommends
Susie likes to use pen and paper and doesn’t rely on technology. She does use Google Calendar to figure out what’s going on and Slack for inter-team communication, but that’s it. This year, she developed a planner. In the past, she carried around three different planners, one for Bible study notes, one for business, and one quarterly planner from the Best Self Company. But lugging around three planners became a pain, so she created one for herself and writers called “The Dream Keeper Planner,” and she uses it constantly. Having everything in one place is important for Susie, so she created sections for meditation and self-evaluation, for recording what she plans to accomplish, and various other sections that can be customized for various projects and interests.
At the beginning of every quarter, she sits down and asks herself what she’s going to accomplish that quarter based on her review of who she is and what her vision is. She then lays that out into a 3-month plan, and she further breaks those down into a 90-day plan separated into weeks. She admits it’s a big layout, but once she does it, it only takes her about 2 hours once every 3 months. When this is done, she has a daily to-do list, and all she needs to do is show up and do the plan.
She is working on developing something bigger and better for next year. This year’s version was designed with herself in mind as the user, so there are categories like writing, marketing, and craft (becoming better as a writer), but for next year, she plans to expand it so it could be applicable for any project.
Another resource Susie is enjoying is a book called The Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. It’s about how your past, your personality, your experiences created the person you are today, and it helps you understand why you do different things. It talks about understanding yourself, your actions, your motivations, moving towards healing, and utilizing those things to understand why you react differently, and becoming a better person by understanding your past in your motivations. Susie says the book has helped her as a writer, and as a human being. She understands herself, her husband, and her children better. It may seem like a book about personality type, but Enneagram is simply the system they use to put together a personality, and the book itself is much deeper.
What happens on a day when everything gets away from you?
On days like this, Susie gives herself grace and a day off. She tells herself, “Susie, you are normally a very productive person. You are normally right on task and go go go! So I give you a day off today. I give you a mental health day.” Susie usually tries to use Fridays as an overflow day, but once in a while she’ll use it to take the day off. Sometimes she allows herself to do nothing but watch TV for 6 hours, but she does try to turn the things she watched into plot ideas. She’ll also designate a shopping and spa day and get her nails done, but she tries to schedule those in ahead. Even though Fridays are left open, she ends up working a lot on those days because she’s catching up on overflow work. But when she is able to work ahead, she refrains from piling on more work to fill that time and gives herself that day off.
She reiterates that this is why time-blocking is such a great idea, because if you crash on one of the days and you’ve allowed yourself a free day, you can move everything over and take that day easy. If you haven’t crashed and you don’t think you need a free day that week, you can pull work from other blocks into that day and you’ve got your free day saved for another time when life does crash. For Susie, it’s not about a daily to-do list. It’s about finding the rhythm and balance in terms of the bigger picture.
What’s on the horizon for Susie?
In May 2018, Susie has a book called Storm Front coming out. If you haven’t read a Susan May Warren book before, this is a good one to start with. Though it is in the middle of a series, it introduces characters that people don’t have to know beforehand to enjoy the story. It’s a story about what happens when a tornado hits a small town and some kids go missing. A search and rescue team has to come in and find them, and the clock is ticking.
In December of 2018, there’s another book coming out, which is the finale in a series called Montana Rescue. She says it is a little bit like “Chicago Fire” goes to Montana and puts on cowboy boots. It's fast-paced, has cute heroes and smart women.
This year, she is working on a new 3 book series called “The Summer of the Burning Sky,” due to be published at the end of July 2018. It’s a smokejumper series set in Alaska, where a smoke-jumping team is sent to Alaska to put out a fire near a pipeline. Along with their crew, there is a prison crew working with them, and the prisoners escape, taking one of the smokejumpers with them. It's a fast-paced series and all three stories take place at the same time. It's kind of an anthology, so you get the viewpoint of three separate books as the story comes to a head.
Susie is not sure what next year holds, but she has some plans simmering. Once this quarter is done, she will plan the next quarter.
Last thoughts on making a life that matters
We never know when our journey is going to end, so don't live your life by to-do lists. Enjoy what you're doing whether it's investing in your relationships, your passions, or yourself. There’s got to be something about every single day that you enjoy. At the end of each day, tell yourself what you’re grateful for today. When we end our days with gratefulness and find joy in our days, we can put our head on our pillows at night and say today was a good day and tomorrow is going to be a good day, but if I don't wake up today was a good day. It’s important that we start enjoying the journey instead of looking ahead and think we’ll be happy when we get there. No. Be happy today.
What do you think?
Connect with Susie
If you’re a reader, check out SusanMayWarren.com. She gives away 5 books and lots of fun excerpts with each newsletter, so that’s a good way to connect.
If you’re an aspiring novelist, go to LearnHowToWriteaNovel.com. There are about a thousand articles for free on how to write a novel.
If you're a serious writer and want training, visit Novel.Academy That is where Susie teaches people how to write, get published, and have careers.
More about Susie
Susan May Warren is the USA Today bestselling, Christy and RITA award-winning novelist of over fifty novels. An eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, she’s also a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol Award. A seasoned women’s events speaker, she’s a popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation and the author of the beginning writer’s workbook: The Story Equation. Visit her author site at SusanMayWarren.com.
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