Three Principles to Completing Great Work in Your Spare Time

This is a guest post from Sam Mahlstadt. Sam is a graduate of the University of Iowa, where he studied English and Religious Studies. He writes the blog, and recently wrote his first book, Creative Theology. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa with his wife and two daughters.

When I set out to write my first book, I had to figure out how one writes a book outside of their full-time job. Since I didn’t have the luxury of quitting my job, there was no way around it.

Work in Your Spare Time

Throughout the process, I learned a few critical principles that can be applied to anyone who is attempting to complete a major (or minor for that matter) project in their spare time.

A warning: If you are to pull this off and actually ship, you must re-define spare time, and become intentional with every minute of your day. This, of course, requires discipline.


I am not a disciplined person. I struggle to keep a routine, and have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time. Although I’m not a disciplined person by nature, I had to force myself to develop disciplines to take my book from concept to product.

As I mentioned, I wrote the book outside of my full-time job. I typically work between 7am-5pm each day, so my writing had to be done outside of those hours. That meant, for me, late nights and short bursts as time presented itself. I didn’t write much in the early mornings, but rather made the choice to go to work early in order to be home with my family before dinner. This will be different for everyone, but you need to figure out what works for you and stick with it. Since early writing sessions weren’t an option for me, I used my break time at work to write and edit.

I gave myself a goal when I had 15 minutes to an hour to work on the book. For an average lunch break, I could get 30 solid minutes of work done. After a few editing sessions, I knew I could knock out 2-4 pages of content in one break. This helped me pace myself, and helped avoid the frustration that creeps in when you aren’t accomplishing as much as you’d hope. You must have a schedule and a realistic goal.

My wife also helped keep me honest when it came to taking on other projects. I had to say no a lot, especially to myself. As someone who tends to say yes to everything, this required an incredible amout of discipline.


I worked with 2 designers to create the book, and nearly all interaction was done online.  I had to become much more efficient communicating through email. I realized throughout the process how vague I tend to be when discussing expectations. When working with people, especially remotely, clear and direct communication is the only way to survive.

Also, if you’re trying to go at it alone…stop. There are talented people around you. People who probably have dreams stuffed into the overheads of cubicles just like you. Reach out to some people who may be a fit for your project and ask for their input. Creating great work is always more fun with friends around.


I self-published my book because I didn’t have the preexisting platform to make a publishing company confident they wouldn’t lose a bunch of money on me. Truth be told, I didn’t/don’t and they would have.

I knew I wanted to have the book in print. Because the book needed to be hard cover (another non-negotiable for me) there was a minimum amount I could order, and the cost per book was fairly high. Once I had the total cost, I knew how many books I needed to sell to not lose money. I didn’t write the book to make a killing, but financially, my goal was to at least break even. Tip: know, to the penny, what your cost is before you start.

When I had my total cost number on paper, I knew my platform wouldn’t cut it. I needed more people to be exposed to the book, and better yet, encouraged to buy the book. I began to reach out to other people who were respected in the areas of faith and creativity.

This required many moments of baited breath as I hit “send” on emails asking for reviews and endorsements. This is the step I have wrestled with the most, and to this day, I am the horribly uncomfortable with the process. As one writer friend recently told me, you have to give yourself a timeline (e.g., “I’ll only talk about myself/my work for 2 months after the launch, and then I can be done”). Then suck it up and go for it. The thing that has helped me the most in this area is engaging friends and kindred spirits who genuinely believe in me and the book, and who are happy to share it. Find those people, and allow them to help you.

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