As much as I would love the world to accommodate the fact that I’m a writer and a working editor and never throw the kind of curve balls that screw up my schedule, life isn’t like that for me. It’s not like that for most people.
Most of us live in the real word and have real lives full of the demands of work and family. So how do we go about making progress toward our goals to write novels in spite of it all?
Several months ago, I gave a presentation to the Idaho Editors Association. The topic was Time Management for Editors, though the principles apply equally to writers (or to anyone) wanting more control over their time and wishing to make more progress toward their goals.
I thought it timely (har har), to share this information with you today.
Have a Good Mindset
Everyone is different. There are lots of different ways to organize your time. Find out what works for you.
“I’m terrible at time management.”
Ever think this? It’s all in how you look at it. Let me ask you a question.
“Where do you put your spoons?”
In your bathroom? Scattered all over the house? In a big pile in the cupboard next to the kitchen sink? No?
I bet I could walk into almost any house in America and find their silverware in under 30 seconds. I bet you could too.
The fact that most people keep their silverware in a caddy in a drawer in their kitchen is not a law mandated by Congress. It’s a self-imposed rule that works because it’s logical and easy to follow.
We use self-imposed rules all the time. Time management is all about creating rules for yourself that work.
Making Smart Self-Imposed Rules:
Unrealistic expectations lead to frustration and a sense of failure. Don’t try to schedule too much into a day.
Allow time for breaks. Don’t try to do so much at once that you’re not working effectively. You need to be able to concentrate on what you’re doing.
Expect the Unexpected:
Don’t have your schedule so tight that the unexpected or interruptions throw you for a loop. You already know “life happens.” So plan for it. Time management gurus (and gurus in training) have blocks of unscheduled time throughout their day. It may be 15 minutes between meetings or 30 minutes between running kids from place to place in the evenings.
Build in cushions and room to breathe.
Allow cushions for bigger projects too. If I plan to be done with a job on Tuesday, I may tell my client I’ll have it to them by Thursday or Friday, depending on the size of the job.
Things will change. Life will change. A schedule that’s been working for you may suddenly be obsolete. You will have to rethink your schedule from time to time and periodically readjust. That’s normal.
When it makes sense. My kids go to schools pretty far away from my house. Every Monday I have an hour to kill between picking up two of my kids, because one child has an after school activity and the other one doesn’t. There’s a grocery store just up the street from the school. So I pick up one kid, we do our weekly grocery shopping, I pick up the other kid, and we go home. I never have to think about when I’m going to the store.
Routines that work save time and mental energy.
Make sure your time is going toward your most important goals.
Have a way to keep track of things you must do to stay on top of deadlines and commitments. If you said you would get back to someone on Thursday, that’s high priority. If something unexpected comes up, have a way to quickly look at your calendar and know what you HAVE to take care of. (I put an asterisk next to those items.) You can reshuffle the rest without breaking key commitments.
Also, think about what you really want to accomplish in life. What’s important to you? I don’t spend a lot of time on hobbies because after work, family, and writing, there isn’t time for much else. As much as I’d enjoy, say, taking a drawing class or making a quilt like I used to do back in the day, pursuing those activities would mean less time for writing. And I already feel I don’t have enough time for writing. Someday, when I don’t have a household full of munchkins I’ll have time to write AND enjoy other activities.
Until then, I prioritize my time for those things that matter most to me.
Break Larger Tasks into Smaller Ones:
I know you’ve heard this one before. I’ll give you an example of how I use this.
If I have a top-level manuscript evaluation that’s going to take me 11 hours to complete, I break that up into different sections: 7 hours reading time spread out over a few days, 3 hours to do the write up, and one hour for the meeting with my client. I like to have a few days between the reading and the write up so I can ponder the manuscript while doing other things. I like to spread the write up over two days; I write it up the first day and come back to it with fresh eyes the second day to make sure it’s thorough and carries the proper tone.
If I tried to cram all 11 hours of the evaluation over just a few work days, I’d be miserable and probably do a terrible job to boot.
Schedule big jobs in small chunks. Monitor hours as you go so you know if you’re on track or not.
Write it Down:
You can use a day planner, Google calendar, your Smart phone, a small spiral notebook. Whatever works.
Remember, these things are meant to be tools, not taskmasters. The kitchen drawer and silverware caddy are not dictating to you where to put your spoons. You’re the one making that decision. You decide how to use your time and use whatever tool helps you keep track of it.
If you’re sure you’re using a good tool but tend to get overwhelmed trying to track everything, only track what you need to. I don’t need to write down when I pick up my kids from school. I remember just fine on my own. I do need to write down when my 10 year old has scouts, because even though it’s every week, I will forget. Don’t ask me why. I just do.
Which leads to the next principle:
When are you most productive? Least productive?
Schedule heavy-duty work during times when you’re most productive. Schedule mundane or mindless tasks for when you’re less energetic.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
If you know you tend to get sucked into emails, which then leads to blog reading, which then leads to Twitter, work around it. Put in a block of time on work before you go to your emails. Or schedule blog reading time for the 30 minutes before you have to leave for a meeting, so there’s an unavoidable cap on your browsing time.
If you know you’ll be more productive on certain tasks if you’re working in a coffee shop instead of distracted at home, schedule yourself that way.
This will help you schedule yourself more accurately in the future. This is especially important if you consistently find yourself running behind.
Tracking time into a job or task doesn’t have to be a big deal. I use sticky notes on my computer desktop as a convenient place to note start and stop times. Once I have a better idea of how long it takes me to do things and I find I’m scheduling myself more accurately, I don’t need to track anymore. So I stop. Remember, it’s all about doing what works for you.
One Woman’s Eye-Opening Experience
I don’t remember where I read this, it’s been so long ago, but I jotted down the figures as a good reminder of the value of tracking time.
Based on her personal goals, this woman jotted down her ideal schedule. It looked something like this:
1 hour — meditating/praying/spiritual reading
3-4 hours — writing/revising
1 hour — historical research (working on a historical novel.)
1 hour — walking/exercising (preferably outdoors)
1 hour — emailing/blog writing and reading/Facebook
dinner break/family activities/meetings
1 hour — reading other historical YA or adult novels (before bed)
Then she tracked herself for a few days to see where her time was actually going.
0-.5 hours — meditating/praying/spiritual reading
0-.5 hours — writing/revising
2-3 hours — historical research
4-5 hours — emailing/blog writing and reading/Facebook
0-.5 hours — walking/exercising
dinner break/family activities/meetings
0-.5 hours — reading other historical YA or adult novels (before bed)
If you track yourself and find you’re as far off the mark as this woman, it’s not like getting sent to the principal’s office. You don’t need to be afraid of getting an “F” in time management. This woman is perfectly free to spend 4-5 hours a day emailing and reading blogs and checking her Facebook if she wants to.
But she doesn’t want to.
Tracking hours was a way for her to make desired corrections so she could spend her time in ways that helped her meet her goals. It can do the same for you.
Beware of Time Sucks:
- Social media
- Internet use in general
- Looking for things. (Remember the rule of spoons. It doesn’t matter where you put things so long as it’s consistent and it works for you. The same principle applies for documents. Files, physical and on the computer, should be well organized so you can find what you need quickly.)
- Perfectionism (If I’m not careful, I’ll reread emails more than I need to. I’ll obsess about a written evaluation. Tracking time helps me stay on track.)
- Being the “Yes” man. (Don’t be afraid to say no if you don’t have time for something, or to book out a client if your calendar is full.)
Do you have other time sucks? Track your time to find out. Your time is going somewhere. Know where it’s going and make adjustments.
Block Method or Time Map:
If you have a calendaring method that works for you, don’t change it. But if it’s not working, it may be because you’re over-complicating things, scheduling every task in your life down to the last minute. You may like the block method, or time mapping, better.
Before I explain, a reminder. Do only what works and keep in mind that what works will sometimes change. There are times when life is calm enough that I have general guidelines in my head (mornings are for writing, afternoons are for client work) and only need to write down actual appointments. Other times I’m barely keeping up, so trying to keep stuff in my head is just overwhelming. I’ll write down just about everything because that helps me focus on the current task and stay on track.
With the block method, you divide your tasks (or your life) into categories. Keep them broad and general. Don’t have too many categories.
Life categories may include
- family time
- physical health
- chores and errands
- couple time, etc…
Work categories may include
- client work
- client correspondence
- marketing, etc…
Much as I’d like to create a sample time map for you, I don’t have the time. I’ll give you a few links to existing ones instead. Notice they’re all a little different, so you can do what works for you. Also, you don’t have to create a fancy Excel spreadsheet. Grab a piece of paper, draw up a quick map to use as a guideline, and call it good if you like.
Benefits of a Time Map
- Helps you funnel activities into their appropriate slots. Less chaos, more control.
- Creates mental boundaries between work and play, which increases productivity.
- Helps you make sure your time is serving your larger goals.
- Offers the perfect blend of structure and flexibility.
That last one is a big one for me. I know what my work hours are, so I’ll fill up that time with work-related tasks, but not be bound to put them in order.
If I have 5 hours of work blocked out, I might give myself an hour for correspondence, 2 hours on one job, 1 to 1.5 hours on another, and 30 minutes to 1 hour for a cushion.
I work on what I feel like working on first, and use those times as a guide. I keep my eye on the clock, or use a timer, to stay on track.
To Do Lists, do you need them?
The key word is NEED. Just like with your calendar, do what you need.
I keep a to do list on my desk for small, miscellaneous activities that I can do in a block (scheduling a dentist appointment, ordering more bookmarks, whatever).
I use separate lists to keep track of small steps of a larger goal.
I use sticky notes on my computer desktop to track odd things that come up quickly and will be dealt with relatively quickly. Also for motivational quotes. Also for the mileage on my van the next time it needs the tires rotated. I’m not kidding. It works so that’s what I do.
We don’t use a hammer to drive in a screw, we use a screwdriver. It’s okay to use different tools and techniques for different tasks.
Some items on my to do list aren’t on a list. For example:
- I sort my emails by unread. Those unread emails act as my to do lists. I keep it 25 or under (or far less) so it fits all one screen.
- Mail or papers that need to be handled may be in a SMALL pile on my desk, to do when I have a few minutes. I sort them by order of priority.
Bag of Tricks:
- Force an end time. (Start a task you tend to overdo when you know time will be limited, i.e., before a client meeting.)
- Go somewhere without internet to do work
- Unplug your router
- Wrap up your day (At the end of the day, check the next day’s schedule to help prime yourself mentally.)
- Don’t procrastinate (When you’re procrastinating, ask if it’s because you’re suffering from perfectionism. If so, dive in. If not, find another task you can do instead and come back to it, but don’t do this to the same task too often.
- Honor boundaries (For the sake of your mental health, and general productivity, protect your non-working hours and space.)
- Be nice to yourself (No matter how organized you are, you aren’t going to be on the ball 100% of the time. If you consistently meet key deadlines and commitments, and if your schedule keeps you on track 80% of the time, you’re doing well.)
Be positive. This isn’t too hard to learn. You can do it.
What tricks do you use to organize your time?