Organization: Keep Moving Forward

I had no idea what to blog about for today, so I went to Twitter and asked the hivemind. Amy Sundberg had a really good suggestion, of discussing SFF YA and why it rocks so very hard. Fellow Inkpunk Sandra Wickham had another really good suggestion, of talking about how I manage my hours in a digital fashion. I debated, but then I read this article on Managing Nerds and after I got over the unsettling feeling of having been watched by that guy (every single point he made had me saying “Oh holy Lord has he been following me my whole life?”) I decided workflow and organizations was to be my topic.

The SFF YA thing is so happening next month, though.

Me and organization is a funny thing. A big part of it comes from being a nerd. I study systems around me, process data against what I have learned to be true, and find ways to simplify processes and maximize output. It’s the only way I manage a full-time job, a master’s degree, and fearfully dipping my pinkie-toe in this writing business, on top of the other scattered things flying through any spare time I happen to accrue.

Staying on top of things and staying ahead of or at least along the curve both come down to a few points for me, which I’ll bold and number without priority for your convenience. I managed to keep it to five, which is pretty good, methinks, though one is kind of long.

I have a lot to say about organization, it seems. But if I’m honest with myself, I’m really only saying one thing a lot of different ways, and that thing is

Keep Moving Forward

It’s really the key point. And it took me years of moving forward and falling backward to get to where I am. I’ve listed five things that are important for my organization-ness. They are only loosely in order. But these things have taken me years to manage and internalize. From about 2005 to 2008 I was an unproductive mess. Eventually, things began to click together, but I spent three years floundering. It’s only recently, in the past few years, that I started really moving forward.

1. Write It Down

Organization starts with goals and achievements. When I started getting my act together, I wrote down the things I was already doing, and the things I wanted to be doing, both big and small. I sorted them under “long-term” and “short-term.” Finishing a novel, getting a degree, buying property, these are all long-term. Going for a jog, cooking a healthy dinner, reading a book, these are short-term.

A critical part here: I couldn’t think about how much work I would have to do for these things, be they big or small. The thought of this overwhelming wall of TO-DO left me so emotionally crippled I could do nothing but stare at the list and procrastinate. So I had to cast that from my mind. It’s just a list. It has no power over me.

Now, each thing I want to achieve has a duration and a process. Going for a run takes a half-hour or so, right? Well, I have to factor in changing clothes, and the warmup, and the shower afterwards, and all that jazz. Ever heard of the Planning Fallacy? (Go read that if you haven’t.) Whatever time I think something will take, I add on an extra 25-30% of time. For giggles.

Each thing I want to do has a process — especially the big things. Finishing a novel, buying property, getting a degree. I list these because I either have done (novel, property) or am doing (degree) these things. There was an intense, long process for each. So I broke them down into little steps. For buying my condo, I had to first study my expenses versus my income and see what I could afford. Then I had to research what I could buy and where I could buy it. And so on.

Sometimes, especially with novel writing and publishing, I didn’t know the process. That’s okay. “Research” is usually step one anyway.

2. Prioritize

(I was Googling for this matrix-thingy on how to organize your to-do list — priority on one axis, duration on the other, sort of like a Punnett Square of productivity — that I use in my sorting. Don’t know the name of it. If you know it, please say something in the comments, kthx.)

Once I had a list of things I wanted to do, how to do them, and how long they would take, I had to start organizing it. What was important? What could I do in parallel? What would make me the happiest? From here, I figured out what I wanted to do.

Then I chose one big thing and started that, and threw the rest away. (Hey, if I want them that badly, I’m not likely to forget them.) The first one I chose was writing. It made me happy, there was no pressure, and I could do it when I had the time, energy, and inclination. Outside of that, I focused on the short-term. Keep the place clean. Play with the cat. Eat. Sleep. Bathe regularly.

I had everything sorted. I felt ready to start being productive.

3. Analyze Methods and Gather Tools

This part is disproportionately long, but I feel like the topics are inextricably linked. So… yeah.

You know that initial high you get when you have a fresh organizer? That fresh, breezy moment of Armed With My Day Runner, I Will Conquer The World? That’s an epic feeling. It’s also one I’ve abused into exhaustion. I’d take my second wind and sprint until I fell apart, and then do it all over again. Things would get done, and I’d be worn down to nothing, then things would build up to become overwhelming all over again (see figure 1).

That method? That’s not really a good method.

The method that works for me? I pick three things to do in a day. Are there a lot of things to do? Yes, always. I pick three things. I write them down, with little check-boxes next to them. Then when I wake up, I see three things. That’s not a lot of things. I can totally do three things. And once I’m done with those three things, I pick tomorrow’s three things and enjoy the rest of my day. (Yes, I could do more in a day. But that’s not the point. Wait until item 5, then you’ll understand.)

Also? Sleep. Sleep. Go to bed at regular o’clock. Set the alarm for another regular o’clock. I don’t care if it’s 9p to 5a or midnight-thirty to brunch. Pick an hour. Go to sleep at that hour. Wake up eight hours later. Do this Every. Single. Day. I found that my productivity is inversely proportional to how many hours I stay up past my bedtime. If I sleep for 8 hours, the remaining 16 are so productive it’s astounding.

And the last major thing I do is Write. Down. Everything. Everything. I have so many things that I do, it’s general policy: If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t happen. Write it down, put a date on it, and move forward.

As I go, I gather tools. I try to keep on top of things via blogs. My Google Reader is indispensable for this. I search for new tools. I keep my ear to the ground. When someone says something is useful, I’ll give it a whirl. When something proves itself useless, I cut it.

I use Google’s Calendar, Tasks, Reader, Mail, and Docs. I use Dropbox. I use Duotrope. Within Calendar, I have five different calendars for color-coding ease (Social, Academia, Travel, Work, and Writing). Within Tasks, I assign completion dates to every single task I make, right as I make it. In Reader, I have nearly 100 blogs, all sorted by category. I very intensely label and sort and flag and archive and reply to all the mail I get. Every single document in GDocs is filed under a specific folder. Same with Dropbox. My usual method is WIPs go in GDocs, final, submittable drafts go in Dropbox.

And how useful is this whole mess? Well, let’s take for example GoogleDocs. I have an Agent Spreadsheet in there, for when I was doing my research. I’ve been building the thing for… probably a year now. Nearly 200 agents. All with detailed notes (whatever I’ve gleaned from AbsoluteWrite, WriterBeware, Publishers Marketplace, Preditors and Editors, Agent Query, Google results, following them on twitter, etc, has all been stored in this spreadsheet — because if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget it, utterly). It sounds ridiculous and horrifying and towering and unmanageable… until I realize I spent a year doing this thing. Snatches of spare time here and there, and a year later I have a wealth of data. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this as easily if I had to, say, keep a spreadsheet on a thumb drive. Or, sheesh, write it all down by hand.

The main point here, though, is that I have one point of contact for my things. Whether I’m on my PC, my smartphone, someone else’s computer, it doesn’t matter. I can see my calendar, manage my to-do list, handle email, and read and edit documents, anywhere I want. I open Calendar, and my appointments and my to-do lists are all on one page. I can manage my week, quickly and effectively.

One spot. One point of reference. One place to go to keep myself sane, keep moving forward.

Every so often, I’ll stop and look at what I’m doing. Is there something that I dread? Is there something I’m pushing away constantly? Why am I doing this? Is it because it’s simply uncomfortable (going to the dentist, anyone?) or is it because it’s draining and useless? If I have to do it, but I don’t want to, well, I have to do it. Sometimes life sucks, and teeth need cleaning. But if I don’t have to do it? Screw it. Life’s too short.

And if a tool doesn’t get used, or another, better tool comes along? I’ll change. It’s all about what works, and what works best.

If you try these things and they don’t work for you? That’s cool. Try something else. The point is you have to find what works with your particular mindset. Maybe you’re a pen-and-paper person. Go with it. And as you go, keep an eye out for what slows you down (maybe you prefer narrow-rule over college-rule? Don’t settle) and what speeds you up (maybe you like a specific type of pen? Buy them in bulk).

4. Push Yourself. Challenge Yourself.

Once I hit a stride, and feel like I have things under control, I add a little something to the list. I started with just “manage the household.” Three months of steady household management, I added “write a novel.” Four months later, I added “buy a condo.” Five months after I had a condo, I added “get a master’s degree.” I added “lose ten pounds.”

Every time I felt I could add something, I did. Never while things were precariously balanced. Never during, say, finals week. Never during a huge deadline at work. Not even immediately after. I always waited for the opening, and then took it. I made sure I was happy, rested, and enjoying the important things in life, like snowboarding, or my significant other.

But the point is that I keep moving forward.

5. Forgive Yourself. Reward Yourself.

Rewarding myself is important, and it’s simultaneously hard and easy to do. If I have a towering to-do list for the day (like I do right now) I want to just go go go move on get it done. But I can’t. I need to stop after a task is done, and take a moment to just enjoy it. I finished my reading for class tomorrow, and so I made a pot of lychee-flavored oolong (yes, it’s as good as it sounds, maybe even better) and let myself enjoy that sense of accomplishment. I’ll let myself wander around the internet for fifteen minutes or half an hour. I’ll watch a show I like. Maybe I’m energized enough to do more things. That’s not the point. The point is I did my things for the day, and I should enjoy it.

Because my brain builds on this. It gets addicted to that sense of achievement, and wants to do more. I let it enjoy those little chemicals of “Yay, I did it!” I train my brain not to see task-completion as simply the herald of more shit to do, but as the path to happy hormones.

Of course, I don’t always accomplish everything I want. Like right now. My list for today was too much. I won’t finish all the items. Several things will go unattended.

Forgiveness, I think, is the hardest part. Most of my issues with Things Are Overwhelming stem from emotionally beating myself up because I’ve let them get so overwhelming. I fail to do a task, and it’ll simply validate that dark little voice telling me how much I suck. Or I see the towering list of things and think, man, I’ll never do all those things.

Well first of all, maybe I will. And second of all, what if I don’t? What’ll happen?

The consequences of my, say, dropping out of my master’s degree is… nothing. Absolutely nothing. There’s no penalty. What if a thing I am doing stops bringing me joy? Then I stop doing that thing. What if I want to be in a band and write and be an engineer and bellydance and breathe fire and bake the most perfect cupcakes you’ve ever seen? Well, maybe I can’t do all those things all the time. But I can do some of those things some of the time. And the rest I will have to forgive.

And what if I fail to do a thing? What if I’ve accidentally overbooked myself? What if I just don’t have the energy or strength?

That’s okay. I’m human. I have limits. I just look at how much I planned, how much I achieved, and I adjust. I get up, dust off, and… yeah.

Keep Moving Forward

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  • Mic

    Interesting post – got turned on to it by my cousin, mr. prodigal punker. One problem: when I click on the subscribe link (upper-right corner), I just get a page with a massive chunk of plain text…like the original script or something…rather than an option to grab the feed with google reader or whatever.

    • Have you tried again? I just tried it and it seemed to work.

  • Re: 2. Prioritize

    Eisenhower box?

  • AWESOME POST!

    Thanks for all that. You made some great points about not trying to do too much and then feeling guilty about not getting things done. (that’s me!)

    I’m going to try Google calendar, tasks, docs and reader to better organize my online life.