JUGGLING BALLS and SPINNING PLATES
(This post, Part II of my four-part series on succeeding as an author/freelancer, deals with time management.)
When I tell people that I am an author/freelance writer, most tend to think it’s a glamorous, low-stress, fun job…well, one out of three ain’t that bad. When I tell them exactly what I do during an average day and what types of things I write about on the freelance circuit, they usually crinkle their nose and back away. The truth is, the pay sucks, the hours can be brutal, and the work is often times dry and tedious. Don’t get me wrong; I love being a writer. In fact, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is not, however, glamorous by any means (at least not for me), nor stress-free. It is fun as all get-out though—most days, anyway. When all is said and done, it is still work. Like any job, it comes with its fair share of challenges and obstacles. One of my biggest challenges as a freelancer/author has been time management.
Any author/freelance writer knows that there are many balls to juggle and many plates to spin in this profession and more often then not, you are doing it alone. If you’re an author, the novel itself is probably a huge time hog. For instance, the actual writing of a novel requires hours of focus and discipline. It’s mentally strenuous and not something you can usually do (effectively) with a bunch of other distractions buzzing around. Once the draft is actually written, there’s an endless string of edits to follow, not to mention the drafting of various length synopses. After that, you will likely spend hours researching agents and publishers and sending out countless query letters and submissions. Of course, once the book is finally published, it’s a whole new ball of wax as you are baptized into the world of marketing and promotion.
While all this is going on, if you are also a freelance writer, you have to somehow find the time and energy to invest into those efforts as well. It takes time to join your chosen freelance forums, develop a profile and search their database for available jobs. It also takes time to draft and submit the necessary, well-crafted proposals. And, if you lucky enough to land a project., it takes time to do the job right. If you manage to land more than one project, then the time invested increases exponentially.
On top of all this, you still have your everyday responsibilities. Many authors and freelancers have "day jobs" to worry about—a means to support their writing addiction. Then there's the home, kids, spouse, pets and so forth. You can’t neglect those either—after all those windows aren’t going to wash themselves, nor will the laundry fold and put itself away. Your kids actually need to see their mother/father every so often and, unless you tie Fido's leash to the treadmill (yes, I actually have tried it—it wasn't pretty) he is not going to walk himself. Finally, there is you. Believe it or not, you still need time to take care of your personal needs, like bathing, eating, exercise, bathroom breaks…you get the idea.
The problem is this: although everything I’ve just stated (and it’s not even the full list) adds up to about a 26 hour workday, last I checked there were only 24 hours in a day (some of which are reserved for sleep). There have been times when I had so much on my plate that I simply lost my appetite and couldn’t do a damn thing. Those were the times that I just shut down, threw my hands up in exasperation, and spent hours in a Zuma Blitz stupor, not accomplishing anything worthwhile. With deadlines looming, that’s not usually the best course of action.
So what’s a writer to do?
It all comes down to effective time management. It’s a skill that is typically learned and usually learned the hard way. Believe me, I’m no expert, but I have developed two simple systems that have helped me budget my time and keep me from getting too overwhelmed to function. Of course, neither one is foolproof and should be molded to suit an individual’s preferences and personality, but the principles offer the structure needed to organize your time and get things done.
Time Block Management: This system revolves around organizing your schedule into designated blocks of time. For this to work, aside from patience and discipline, you need to have a daily calendar that divides each day into blocks of time (written, digital, it doesn’t matter—whatever works for you). You also need a timer, preferably with an alarm. You can use the timer on your phone, a kitchen timer, the timer on your stove—whatever floats your boat—but whatever it is you need to use it. The next thing you need to do is set your time parameters for the writing day (i.e. are you working 8:00 to 5:00, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., 1 in the morning until 12 noon, etc.).
Once you’ve determined the length of your workday, it’s important to make a list of things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Of course, this should all be done before the workday begins or you’ll have to include “making a list of things to do” on your list of things to do. Kind of self-defeating. It is crucial that you keep the list realistic! Don’t overachieve and don’t underestimate how long something will take to complete. This is the surest way to sabotage yourself. What I usually do is make a master list of all the things I need to accomplish and prioritize them by date and comparative importance. Then I choose my daily goals from the master list (it’s particularly satisfying at the end of the week when you get to cross a bunch of stuff of your master list).
Once you’ve chosen your tasks, you need to plug them into your calendar, making sure you allot enough time for each task. Don’t forget to schedule break time and lunch time and make sure you leave enough room for the mental transition from one task to another (it usually takes me about 5 minutes to stretch my legs, grab a cup of coffee, and get my brain ready for the next task). Now you’re ready to go. You have your day all mapped out. Make sure you start on time, and set your timer before each task. Most importantly, when that timer goes off, stop what you’re doing. Resist the temptation to keep on going, (i.e. you’re on an editing roll and hate to stop in order to write a 500 word article about the hand-washing habits of people in Nova Scotia). For the record, this is where I struggle the most. I always want to do “just one more thing” before I move on. If something is left unfinished, make a note of it and add it back onto your master list for another day. By the end of the day, you should have completed a number of tasks and will feel good about your productivity. If you find that you are not completing the tasks in the time allotted, then you have fallen into the overachiever trap. You need to modify your goals to fit more realistically into a given time frame.
Admittedly, I have a really hard time sticking to this type of time management plan because once I get into doing something, timer or no timer, I can’t seem to pull myself away and refocus. Consequently, I developed an alternate plan.
Daily Assignment Plan: For this plan to work, I recommend a monthly calendar (one that has a large block set aside for each day of any given month) and a master list. The master list should be divided into a number categories, one for each of the days during the week you plan on doing your writing thing. For instance, mine has five categories right now: Freelance tasks; Marketing/promotion goals; Writing/editing SENTRY'S RETURN: Veil of Reason; Other Writing (such as short stories and other projects) and Household/Personal tasks (grocery shopping, bill paying, miscellaneous errands, etc.).
Once you've fully developed your list, designate each day of the week as a day to focus on one particular category. For instance, Monday might be your marketing/promotion day, Tuesday might be your novel writing day, Wednesday might be your freelance project day, and so on. Then, on any given day, focus on only those tasks related to the category assigned to it. For example, if Wednesday is my Freelance day, I will focus on finishing my freelance projects due that week. If I have no projects, then I focus on finding them—kind of a job-hunting day. For each day, I still write out a sub-list of things I want to accomplish, but unlike the Time Block method, I don’t set apart a certain block of time to complete each task. I just prioritize and tackle them in order.
If you have more than five categories (as I have at times), then you may need to either work weekends or stagger your days so that one or more of your categories gets done only every other week. Also, I typically reserve some “extra” time at the beginning and end of each day for checking e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. I like to keep my Twitter feed fairly active, and I try to update Facebook at least once a day. I’m a compulsive e-mail checker, so I can’t honestly say I just check it twice a day—usually a lot more than that.
Which brings me to my final point. For this method to work, you need to be flexible. For instance, on any given week, I might have a huge amount of freelance work to do. If that’s the case, then I might take the day I would normally reserve for Marketing and Promotion and devote it freelance work instead. Similarly, doctors’ appointments, school issues, and the like don’t always fall on my designated day for household and personal errands. Therefore, I have to be willing to go with the flow sometimes and modify the rest of the week accordingly. But it helps me immensely to know that, all things being equal, when I get up on Monday, I’m going to spend the majority of my day scouring social media, promoting my book, calling on bookstores, etc. or, if it’s Thursday, I’m going to spend the day locked in my office, watching my latest novel unfold on the computer screen. As I've mentioned, it doesn’t always work out according to plan, but it works out a lot better than if I had no plan at all.
I’m sure there are other time management theories out there and experts who can show you other ways to effectively budget your time. But these are the methods that I find work for me. Not always, but at least I don’t get quite as overwhelmed quite as often and am a lot more productive…although my Zuma Blitz skills have suffered in the process.
Stay tuned for Part III in the series: "Show Me the Money!" a/k/a How to Find Work as a Freelancer.