Productivity Part One: Time Management and Planning
Productivity. How much you do, when you do it, how you measure it. Put a bunch of writers together, and you can guarantee it’ll come up at some point. We had a great post about the Productivity Pyramid here on Pub Crawl by our own Sooz Dennard.
Do you write in the morning? Are you more productive at night? Do you have a daily word count? Do you count pages when you’re editing? How do you balance the demands of email, social media, writing and (hopefully) the rest of your life?
A couple of weeks ago, author Nova Ren Suma asked this:
Fellow writers & freelancers: How do you keep yourself organized and make the best of your hours and juggle a dozen things at once? Tips?
— Nova Ren Suma (@novaren) April 16, 2014
I started writing my response, but it got so enormous that I'm going to break it up over three posts. Today, I'm going to talk about time management. Specifically, to-do lists and the Pomodoro Technique. This may not sound sexy, but trust me, it can be a game-changer. The second post will talk about task types, social media and your working day. The third will talk about attitudes and approaches to work.
I find productivity advice a really interesting area, because a lot of it is for people who work in offices, with jobs where you actually know when you've completed a task. That's not always the case for writers. So the advice below is specifically for writers (and other creatives), and is based on years at a not-for-profit running a highly productive team, as well as my own experience studying, working full time, and writing two trilogies at once.
I'm not just talking about a regular to-do list here. Putting everything on one giant list is a guaranteed way to look at it, get overwhelmed, then voluntarily throw yourself down a Lizzie Bennet Diaries rabbit hole rather than doing any work. It's too big a chunk of information to be absorbed at once and it looks like more than you can ever do. But a good to-do list can change your life, seriously. It can help ensure nothing is forgotten, avoid last-minute rushes and actually reduce your stress. Promise!
There are lots of different techniques, and you should pick one that works for you, but I'm going to show you what mine looks like. The keys are:
Clearly outline each task
Allocate an achievable amount to each day
Leave room for the unexpected
I keep my list in a draft email, so I can access it from my phone or laptop anytime to add an item. When I acquire a new to-do task, I don't jump on it that day unless it's urgent. I assign it to a future day and forget about it until it's time to do it. I cannot say enough how much this reduces stress.
I list each day of the coming week and allocate tasks under it. I then have a heading for 'Coming Dates', a heading for 'Next Week' and a heading for 'Future Actions'. And then each day I hand write a list of what I'm going to get done, and put the rest of the list away. That way I only have to look at my bite-sized tasks, not the road stretching out ahead. My rule: if I can't fit my daily list on a post-it, there's too much on it to do it all.
Here's what goes under each each heading I use:
Daily heading: Only the tasks I will achieve that day. These should be clearly outlined, and there shouldn't be too many.
Coming dates: Appointments or commitments that I can't forget, that I'll want to enter into next week's list.
Next week: A list of things to do next week, but not yet sorted by day -- I won't do this until I know how the week's shaping up, with any requests from my editors or personal commitments.
Future actions: Stuff that's happening a while away, that I don't want to forget.
And here's an extract from my recent to-do lists. I've just listed two individual days for the week, since this is already turning into an epically long blog post.
MONDAY [These items will take up most of a day, but I've left an hour or two free in case of the unexpected. If I get ahead, I'll probably write.]
Write Pub Crawl blog post
Send email to (author friend)
Fill out author questionnaire [for Aussie publisher]
Crit read (CP's novel) - 100 pages
Crit Meg's chapter [of our WIP]
Email Jay [to make a time next week to catch up and plot for our WIP]
TUESDAY [This day is going to see me write at least 3,000 words, so I'm not counting on myself to have brain to do too much else -- I've allocated myself easy tasks aside from drafting.]
Write chapter [of WIP with Meg]
Send invoice [for a guest speaking gig at a local university]
Email agent [re a foreign rights offer]
Email editor [with a question about a timeframe]
Email (friend) [this person is a doctor and checking a few medical aspects of my WIP]
13th May - This Shattered World cover reveal
15 May - brainstorming with Jay
31 May - 1 June - Emerging Writers Festival (panel on Sunday)
Tweet for release of (book that's coming out)
Email (name), (name) and (name)
Finish crit read for (author)
Provide bio/headshot/interview answers to (conference name)
Email accountant [this one is there eeevery week, finances are confusing, yo]
[Note here about a story seed I want to work on.]
[Note here about a place I want to visit for research when I have time]
[Note here to buy and read some books in a particular genre that focuses on a skill I'd like to improve]
And that's how my to-do list works! Though it looks complex, it takes about sixty seconds to set up. For me, its main strengths are that it's easily accessible, easy to maintain, allows me to allocate a task to when I need to do it and then forget it, and means that each day I wake up knowing what I need to get done that day! Whether you decide to go with this format, an app or a more technical system, having a way to track all the balls you have in the air is vital. Your system should be flexible while still making sure you know what to do each day, and allow you to focus on a day at a time as well as seeing the big picture.
When it comes time to tackle the list above, I swear by the Pomodoro Technique. There are variations in the way different people use it, but I'm going to give you a brief description of mine -- I've shared this with other writers, many of whom have reported it really helps them as well. You can grab a free Pomodoro app for your phone, or do this with a regular kitchen timer.
The technique requires that you work for 25 minutes, followed by a five minute break. You do this four times in a row, then take a half hour break. The key for me is that I start my working time with a list of things to do, whether that's writing or admin or marketing. I jump on the first one, work until it's done, then pick up the second one. Under NO circumstances while I'm in my 25 minute period do I do aaaaaaanything other than the tasks I've set. Absolutely no social media, making cups of tea, daydreaming, etc. What I find is that the 25 minutes never seems insurmountable, so I jump on in, and the ban on other activities means I skate past that danger time five minutes in, when my fingers start to creep toward opening a new tab for Twitter. By pushing past that 'distraction point', I get a heap done.
Equally key is taking the five minute breaks -- the idea here is to rest up before you get tired, so you're ready to keep going for your next 25 minute run. In my five minute breaks I usually stretch, grab a drink, make a bathroom run or throw a three minute dance party with the dog, which has the added benefit of loosening up my back before I get sore from too long at the keyboard. When I hit my 30 minute break, I usually go for a walk -- it's important to leave the keyboard during that break.
I get a heap done when I use this approach -- if you're interested, try it!
What tools and techniques do you recommend for improving productivity? I'll be back next month to talk about task types, social media and your working day. I’d love to hear your suggestions (and I’m happy to answer any questions) in the comments.