Nearly all the writers I know are working on multiple projects. Maybe they aren’t drafting three novels at the same time, but they might be writing articles or blog posts, submitting short stories, or drafting one novel while editing another. And, most authors today, whether traditionally or indie published, are responsible for a significant amount of their own publicity, marketing, and scheduling. Time management can feel daunting and sometimes overwhelming, especially to creative types!
My pre-writing career as the admissions director and Latin teacher at a private school helped to prepare me for the business side of the writer’s life. My days were filled with planning events, communicating with families, paperwork, writing ad copy, serving on multiple committees from HR to development, and teaching middle school Latin. Multitasking and switching “hats” from teacher to administrator to colleague became second nature, but my varied responsibilities definitely required a high level of organization and meticulous attention to my calendar. Many techniques from that career are useful now as I try to structure my time in this more creative, yet equally demanding, field.
Here are a few tips on how I work with my calendar in order to meet deadlines, manage multiple projects, and find the space I need to imagine and create:
Start with broad strokes. Define your goals and major deadlines, and then back into the details.
I begin with a yearly overview. Looking at 2016 as an example, I had to complete the draft of a novel if I wanted it released by summer 2017, I’d committed to working with a non-profit organization on an extensive series of human-interest stories, I had continuous submissions due for BCB, an online book review and interview site, and I was in the process of creating a new web-based business with a friend. There were also several conferences and conventions I wanted to attend. Once the major deadlines for all my projects were in place and travel dates blocked off, I was able to see which things needed the most attention, and when.
I have a habit of sitting down each Sunday to plan. During that time, I scan four weeks ahead and add more detail to my calendar. A month ahead of time, I know which blog posts are due and what interviews I have scheduled, and I can clearly see any approaching deadlines. I’m then able to refine my tasks and priorities even more for the short term.
On Sundays, I also create a detailed “to-do” list for each day of the coming week. I’ll mark off chunks of time for particular projects, and look at the overall balance of the week to make sure I’ve scheduled enough time for the most urgent things.
Structure your work life to honor your personal rhythms.
Step one is recognizing you have a rhythm. A friend of mine, who works a full-time job in a different field, writes during his train commute to and from work. He plugs in the ear buds and hits an impressive daily word count. Another friend works late into the evening, when the house is quiet and everyone else is asleep.
Writing, in one capacity or another, is my full-time job now, and I’m learning a great deal about rhythm. For example, I’m productive with task-oriented items like scheduling social media in the morning, but I couldn’t solve a plot tangle before noon to save my life. Likewise, I have to keep things simple on Fridays because I’m pretty worn out, but I can often get some solid creative writing in over the weekend.
When I’m drafting a novel, I need several uninterrupted hours for my creativity to flow and to hit my daily word count. It’s tricky for me to work one hour without interruption never mind four, but I know this is what I need to do. Draft weeks wind up with a unique rhythm, and I’m often hiding at Starbucks to make it work!
I’m also noticing a rhythm to the year. Summers are busy with cons and conferences, so I can’t plan to draft a novel, but I can write blog posts and short stories. In the fall, when everyone is back to school and out of the house, I’m ready to find those uninterrupted hours and renew my affection for chai lattes.
There’s no right way to schedule your time, only the way that works best for you. When I respect my natural rhythms and organize my work life around them, I find I’m much more productive, and certainly much happier.
Leave space for the unexpected. Equally as important, know when to say no.
Your calendar will help you do this! When deciding to take on a new project, I think about two things. First, does the project resonate? Even if I’m excited and want to say yes immediately, I always sleep on it. Either my creative energy and enthusiasm will grow or it will dissipate. If I’m still interested, I have to assess the time commitment and consult my oracle, um calendar.
In general, I’m tempted to say yes to everything, but one glance at my calendar, with my current commitments highlighted, sets me straight. Either there is time or there isn’t. And if there isn’t, and I still want to do it, I have to consciously reorganize my priorities and be honest with myself about what that means.
Use the tools available to you to increase efficiency.
Because I’m actively involved in the business of my career, it can be difficult to carve enough time and space for creativity. It becomes urgent to streamline the task-oriented side of my work. Using tools like Hootsuite or CoSchedule to manage social media and content is almost essential. There’s a learning curve, of course, but in the end, the time saved is worth the investment.
I’ve also learned to use Quickbooks for my accounting. I schedule time every month to review my records and financial transactions, and once per quarter, I make an appointment with my accountant. We spend a few hours reconciling the books and assuring that everything is in order.
Of course, I’d rather be thinking about how to extricate my main character from a deadly interplanetary battle, but I have to attend to these things. If I plan them into my calendar rather than letting them sneak up on me or have them unintentionally hijack my day, I feel more in control of my time.
Schedule downtime and time for self-care. Put this on the calendar.
In my daily planner, I make sure to block off time for the gym or a yoga class every day. I hike one morning a week with a group of friends, I belong to two book clubs, and I get together with a group of neighborhood moms once a month for dinner. All told, this works out to about two hours per day to myself, and one night a week out for fun. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much time.
When deadlines loom or the “to-do” list is jam-packed, it might seem practical to bump one of these things. But, I find when I do this I’m actually less productive. I need time to clear my head, time to breath some fresh air, time to laugh with my friends, and time to let go of whatever I’m working on and get some perspective.
My downtime doesn’t take last place, penciled in only after all the “work” things, but rather it holds equal importance. It has to. Much of the writer’s life is solitary. We’re alone in our own minds for a good bit of the day. This isn’t necessarily good for my mental health, so I have to be mindful to step away, seek out the company of others, and take care of myself.
Maintaining control over my time is the single most important factor impacting my productivity. When something unexpected happens – I’m sick, my kids are sick, my computer dies – I do what I have to do to get through, and as soon as possible, I sit down to re-work my calendar. My organizational habits may seem a bit obsessive, but I have more freedom to work once the infrastructure is in place. If I’m proactive as opposed to reactive with regard to managing my time, I feel less stressed, more productive, and in general, satisfied with my work-life balance.