First Things First (Brenda Hiatt)

My 2019 was full of disruptive changes. Last spring, my recent-retired hubby and I came to the difficult realization that Key Largo, where we’d planned to spend our golden years, wasn’t actually the best fit for us after all. Our place here is gorgeous and relaxing, but very isolated. This works well (honestly, too well) for me, because I’m such an introvert. 

While there, I can easily go weeks at a time without leaving the property or speaking to another human being, other than my husband. Good for writing, but probably not terribly healthy. My hubby, on the other hand, is an extreme extrovert and the isolation was really getting to him after a lifetime of interacting with coworkers and friends on a regular basis. Then there’s the issue of climate change and sea level rise, and the realization that in a dozen years or so we might not be able to sell the Key Largo house at all (if, say, most of the island is underwater by then). 

These epiphanies sent us on a search for alternatives and in June we bought a house in The Villages, a thriving active retirement community (a city, really) in north-central Florida. There we have activities galore to choose from, which is making my outgoing hubby very happy. I’ve started venturing out of my shell, too, and discovering fun stuff I enjoy out of the house. Along the way, we spiffed up our longtime family home in Indiana and sold it, then moved wholesale from there to The Villages. 

Needless to say, all of this impacted my writing time in a big way. I found myself increasingly frustrated and torn between all the stuff I needed and/or wanted to do and the writing I love. How to fit everything into my increasingly busy life? 

Maybe you’ve seen or heard about the illustration where you have a jar, some rocks, some pebbles, and some sand. If you put the sand in first, then the pebbles, the rocks won’t all fit in the jar. But if you put the rocks in first, then let the pebbles work their way into the gaps between the rocks, then pour the sand in to fill the remaining space between pebbles, everything fits! The rocks, of course, represent your top priorities. The pebbles are things that need to be done at some point (laundry, errands) but are hardly life-changing. And the sand is all the other “stuff” that eats up time without any measurable benefit. 

I’d seen variations on this illustration numerous times over the years but had never really managed to apply it to my life. Somehow, things like email and social media, not to mention all the distractions mentioned above, continued crowding out what could be writing time.

But in the fall of 2019 I attended two different writer conferences and the same message kept hitting me at workshop after workshop: do the important stuff first. Then I read a book by Becca Syme (one of those presenters), Dear Writer, You Need to Quit. In it, she challenged writers like me to write first thing, before anything else could claim my time. 

Girding my loins, I decided to accept that challenge. I’d forego my years-long habit of eating breakfast in front of my laptop while checking my email and social media and would instead write before going online. It was a scary concept. I could barely remember the last time I’d eaten breakfast without my laptop, except once or twice when the internet was out. By now, though, I was desperate enough to make real progress on my book to try almost anything.

And guess what? It worked! 

Not only did I start getting to my desk a full hour or two earlier than usual, I wrote more pages, faster, than I had in many months. In fact, I was easily meeting my daily page quota by noon! That meant I had the whole rest of the day to do other stuff. Fun stuff, necessary stuff, all the stuff. And lo and behold, it all fit! One unexpected benefit: without the distraction of the internet, I started eating breakfast with my husband, something we hadn’t done together since….well, ever. Already I have a feeling this new schedule will improve my marriage along with my writing productivity. 

Needless to say, this is one lesson I plan to apply not only in 2020, but well into the future!
Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-four novels (so far), including sweet and spicy historical romance, time travel romance and, with her Starstruck series, young adult science fiction romance. 


  1. Ahhhhh!!!!! I love this. And I haven't heard about that jar or sand and pebbles before. While I'm (obviously) having my coffee and going through my online life as we speak, your realization has been creeping into my life and I've been putting time limits on my morning. Maybe I need to be stricter with myself. Thanks for the timely post. <3

  2. Great post! I was thinking about this very topic late last night (when I was on the internet instead of sleeping, as I should've been) and again when I woke up today.

  3. Becca is amazing! My chapter is hosting her in October and I can't wait.


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