The Work/Writing Balance: How to Effectively Use Your Time and Dropbox

Today I’m talking to writers. Readers, this may interest you, but…well, I want to talk to the writers for a bit.

Just us? Okay. Good. Now listen, unless you’re a Tom Clancy or a Stephen King (and if you are, hey, welcome to the site!) or…okay, some fortunate few who make a living at this, chances are that you hold a day job. Am I on track here? Anywhere in the ballpark? I suspect I am, and I also suspect you know that this balance thing is downright hard. One of my most-asked questions is just how the hell I fit all this stuff into my schedule. Well…okay, first, I do think you have to both be somewhat lucky and have an opportunity to tailor your schedule a bit. I have some advantages in that I don’t have children, which I’m sure eat up a good deal of your potential writing time.

Still, I do have a life, and I don’t just have writing time fall into my lap – I have to make it happen. I use a few different tricks, but even then some days just fall short. Plans change, work gets busy, I get stuck in training. These things happen, but I accept those setbacks and continue on as soon as I can.

My day job is, without a doubt, the biggest obstacle. It helps that I love the job and write for a living, but it still gets in the way. Thankfully, I can easily knock out half an hour in the early morning once I arrive as a way to “limber up” for the really hard stuff. These blog posts are typically a result of these tune-ups.

Then, throughout the day, I take a few normal breaks. Fifteen minutes here or there, nothing abusive, but enough to clear my head and ready myself to move on to a new topic. I read somewhere that you can only really sustain your interest in something for 45 minutes at a time, and that sounds just about right for me. Sometimes less. So, yeah, throw in maybe another half an hour. That gets me to about an hour.

I eat lunch every day, but they’re typically working lunches. It’s exceedingly rare for me to take a full hour break. The most I might take is half an hour, depending upon how busy I might be at the time. During that period, I also write. Of course, this time usually comes on days when breaks are sparse, so I’m coming out even on this.

I realize this isn’t possible for everyone. I have the good fortune to work a desk job and write for a living. This certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but if you have the desk job, you might still be able to squeeze out a little extra time here and there.

But this isn’t the real trick. This is more a way of looking at where I find time during the day. The bulk of my writing still takes place in the late afternoon/early evening, and I can get quite a bit done within a single hour thanks to one trick: dictation.

I have, roughly, a 45-minute commute in the morning. The afternoon commute can vary, taking anywhere between that 45 minutes and up to 2 hours. I spend a great deal of that time working on my Audible backlog, but I also work hard to get somewhere between 5 to 15 minutes of dictation a day. I keep a voice recorder on hand, ready to go. This is the voice recorder that I use, a Sony MP3 IC recorder:

Sometimes the ideas just pop up – I pause the book I’m listening to and start talking. I may also set a specific agenda for the day, emailing myself a list of points that I’d like to hit during that session. I double-check those on my phone before I drive off, keeping them in mind during the working session. This is the most important trick, one that I used to create this blog entry.

When I reach my destination, whether it be work or home, I plug the recorder in and put the files on Dropbox. For those that aren’t familiar with Dropbox, it’s a cloud file storage solution that also syncs to a PC or mobile device; for instance, if I upload that file at work (as shown below), it automatically downloads to a designated folder on an external hard drive on my PC at home. I can also access that file from my iPad or my phone. It makes that audio file – or any other writing file – near-universally accessible.

Uploading from a linked PC couldn’t be easier. Just drag and drop the file into your dedicated folder on the hard drive. If you’d like, I could create a second post showing how to set up your Dropbox account from scratch and properly link a folder – please let me know in the comments.

Uploading from a non-linked PC is easy. Let’s assume you’ve registered a file and logged in. Now, for me, I keep these files in a dedicated “writing” folder:

I then typically keep the voice files in a folder named after the relevant project (in this instance, Book 2 – City of the Dead). Sidenote: here’s a peek at some other projects, and yes, I also keep my Scrivener files synced to this account to prevent accidental loss.

Once you’re in the folder, click on the Upload button on the top command bar. The Upload dialogue box opens.

Click the Choose Files button. The Open File dialogue opens.

Select the voice recorder in the list of drives.

Locate the proper file and double-click it. Wait for the file to upload and then click the Done button.

Now you can locate the file. Done! This file will now sync to your linked PC when you turn it on next and can be accessed from mobile devices.

This seems simple, but it’s important: you have to keep every scrap of information that passes through your mind. Ideas, passages, etc. Some of my most effective writing comes by free-associating with the recorder turned on, which leads to new story ideas, which leads to dictating the story itself. Almost all of my Wednesday Fiction entries have been created in this fashion.

You also have to understand that the transcription process isn’t an exact 1-to-1. I never type exactly what I’ve said on the recorder, as there is always a difference between the spoken and written word. Some passages in The Corridors of the Dead suffer for my lack of understanding when it comes to this fact, but I think I’ve learned my lesson and am able to riff off of the original recording rather than transcribing it verbatim.

Of course, there are also services that will handle transcription for you. I’ve used SpeakWrite in the past, and have also used Dragon software with limited success; I think the road sounds cause some problems. Still, if you’re looking to speed up the creative process, these might be worth a shot.

Any further questions? Please, ask in the comments section. I’ll answer here and maybe choose some of the juicier questions for future posts.

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  1. I struggle with switching back and forth between work and writing. It takes me a few minutes to get my mind into a story, and then my break is over. Maybe your real key to your volumes of output is the ability to get into the flow quickly.

    And your self-discipline to not take an actual break. 🙂

    I bought a voice recorder, thinking I could capture those odd-moment thoughts, but haven’t had time to figure out how the dang thing works. Looks a lot like yours. Plus, I commute with my husband and I’m not sure he needs to hear the random thoughts that go through my head. He doesn’t need to know EVERYTHING about me 😉

    Still, I do need to start lugging the recorder around. I really need a waterproof one, though, for those shower moments.

    • Context switching between work and writing is a struggle for me too, Marie. I am getting better at it. I find that writing over my lunch hour helped teach me how to shift in less than the half an hour it used to take me… it has also taught me that I can tune out anything that happens in a public cafeteria – and that’s a great skill to have! 🙂


  2. This is fascinating, Jonathan. I have always wondered how you keep up with the constant stream of writing you produce. Constant stream of *quality* writing, I might add!

    I carve out time before I go to work, and make a lot of lunch dates with a brown bag and my laptop. I’m working on freeing up more weekend time, but weeknight evenings are out of the question. I’m not sure the voice recorder would work for me as I am not inclined towards auditory thinking/learning at all, but it might be worth a try. My commute is about 45 – 60 minutes each way, so I have (almost!) as much drive time as you. Definitely something to consider.

    I use git to store my remote/disaster recovery copies. Dropbox is probably a more non-developer friendly choice of tool, but I know git from work so… And so, I should “git” back to work! 🙂

    Thanks for posting this – you know I was curious. 🙂


  3. Dropbox is a life saver. I use it to back up / have easy access to all of my WIPs. Trying to get my wife to use it for her music, but I love it. Wherever I am, whatever device I have, I can get to what I need.

  4. Like you, the fact that I don’t have children is definitely a plus. It also helps that my only true responsibilities are work and writing.

    Most of the time I don’t have any problem with getting my writing done. Mainly because I have a “slow and steady wins the race” approach rather than a “do it all in one take” approach. However, there are times when I’m suddenly juggling more than one project. Such as when I have to write a novel, edit another, do a ComicAttack article, and put together an anthology. AND I have to work longer hours. That’s when things get tough.

    But time is like money. If something’s really important to you, you always somehow figure a way out to make room for it.

    Hopefully there will come a day when we all won’t have to work our day jobs because we’ll be successful enough with our writing careers. But until then, I suppose we’ll have to make due with eight hours less to get on top of things.

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  6. You can send audio notes to Evernote by just talking on your phone. Open the free Evernote app, touch the audio icon and speak. You can then access the recording from pretty much any smart phone or computer by logging in to Evernote online.

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