Tips for When You Need a New Time Management Plan
Or, Getting Things Done Even When You Feel Like This
I intend for this blog to offer helpful strategies for writers (and, eventually, to offer exposure for authors’ newly-published books!). What I’m offering today, however, is the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and side-step some unnecessary stress. I’ll tell you the moral of this story without delay: If your time management plan isn’t working, change it. (As you’re about to read, this is a “do as I say, not as I did” situation.) That may mean trying new strategies or reviving old ones.
Within weeks of starting this business, I found myself googling “time management tips for freelance editors” (nope, I’m not joking). I was swamped with tasks that all felt equally important (and therefore hard to prioritize), and, as is true for many writers trying to work around the margins of their daily responsibilities, I found myself squeezing business and editing tasks into every spare moment of the day. My go-to strategies weren’t cutting it because I felt too overwhelmed and busy to use them. Because living in a constantly frenetic state isn’t sustainable, I had to take a deep breath (not technically a time management tip, but always a good idea) and reevaluate: what skills do I already have that I need to prioritize, and what skills do I know that I should try? I am still swamped and that probably won’t change for a while (which is great, by the way! I want to be busy reading and editing great writing), but these strategies have helped me go from frantic and ineffective to swamped but productive:
1. Tackle the most important task first (even if it’s too big to finish in one sitting and even if it’s the task you’re dreading). I love crossing items off a to-do list. Love it. Sometimes, however, you have to put aside the easier, “cross off-able” items in order to tackle the bigger, more important stuff. Completing smaller tasks gives you the short-term satisfaction of crossing something off your to-do list. It can also mean that you never get to the important work, either because completing the smaller tasks gives you enough of a sense of satisfaction that you don’t get around to the important stuff, or because you simply run out of time. The most important task will differ by person and by day. Some days the writing or editing may be the most onerous task. Other days it may be writing a marketing post for social media or crafting a delicate reply to a confrontational email. In every case, starting with the most important task first is a great idea.
2. Focus on one “chunk” at a time. Breaking big-ticket, complex tasks into smaller pieces makes it easier to tackle the hard stuff first (see item #1) and simplifies the decision about where to start. If crafting and sending a query letter is the task, the chunks might go something like this: “jot down the names of agents with whom I have a personal connection; compile a list of agents who work with authors in my genre; search for their email addresses and create a list; check my total word count; brainstorm the most important elements of my biography; brainstorm what to include in summary,” etc. That list isn’t complete but hopefully it give a sense of how to take a large task and make it a series of smaller, more palatable tasks. It also helps to start with the easiest jobs (researching agents’ names) and work your way to the harder stuff (writing the 3-sentence summary of your 90,000 word book).
3. Be specific and concrete with the items on your to do list. Nope, I’m not kidding about this either; I listed it as one of my favorite time-management tips two weeks ago, and then had to remind myself to use it. It’s one of my favorite strategies to teach clients because it works for almost everyone. At one point, my to-do list had no fewer than 25 items on it and was covered with arrows and sticky notes (think on-wall mind map in a detective drama). Meanwhile, my planner said “work.” Having an unprioritized, 25-item to-do list plus the instruction to “work” doesn’t lend itself to actually getting anything done. Instead, it equates to a whole lot of stress and wild-eyed casting about while trying to determine where to start. Now my planner prescribes a specific task to a specific time, e.g. “Mon, 6:00-8:00 am: first pass of sample edit, and highlight areas to revisit,” and “Tues, 8:30-10:30 am, proofread contracts and email to lawyer.” Both tasks are scheduled early in the day, but for different reasons. I want to edit early because it’s a big task that will take many sittings (and my thinking is clearest and most efficient in the morning). The contract task is there because I don’t want to do it. Tackle the most important or the most dreaded work first, and be specific about it.
4. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Perfectionism can be a major cause of procrastination, and striving for perfection can be paralyzing. Practice is great. Preparation is great. What isn’t great is being so worried about a perfect outcome or product, that you never get started. I found myself feeling like I had to do everything before I could do anything—take every class, listen to every webinar, perfect the contract, publish the website, create every template, know every marketing strategy, etc. That’s a recipe to never get started (and to never feel a sense of accomplishment). If you’re the conscientious type, it feels uncomfortable to launch a new venture or send off a newly-completed manuscript (or, ahem, publish the blog post you’ve been writing and revising for days) if you’re not sure it’s perfect. Do it anyway. Do the work you can reasonably do and then understand that there’s really only one outcome you can guarantee: if you don’t start, you can’t succeed.
So, there you have it. These strategies may help you, or you may discover that they’re not a good mesh for your personality or lifestyle. What I hope does help you is the reminder (from recent, personal experience) that new challenges may require new solutions. Don’t let stress prevent you from pivoting and trying something different!