Five Time and Task Management Tips for Writers.

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I’m an IT project manager by day. For the past couple of months, I’ve started applying to my creative life some of the productivity techniques and principles I use at work. I thought I’d share some of my successes, with the hope that at least one of you may find them helpful. Please feel free to share your own tips, tricks and techniques as well.

My background: I’m basically paid to help some people meet goals, and to manage other folks’ expectations. My boss and I try hard to keep protect each member of our team’s work-life balance. Burning out one of our developers is not an acceptable cost of meeting a deadline. I’m applying the same ideals to myself. I want to be productive over the long term, while still having time and energy left to  to maintain physical and emotional well-being, and to be a good employee.

And creative success for me, right now, means the sale of short stories to professional and/or reputable specfic markets.

1. Work your schedule strengths. And weaknesses.

This manifests in a variety of ways in the office. Let’s take personal alertness. Because I’m a morning person, I try to tackle the priority tasks that take serious focus in the morning. I prefer to schedule meetings and email cleanup in the afternoon, when I’m less energetic.

In my writing life, this means my imagination is hyper and I’m magically verbose in the mornings, even before coffee. I generally get up before 6am and try to make writing the first thing I do every day.

Alternately, I feel pretty wiped out after work, so I save my reading and research for the evenings. As my morning writing time becomes more productive, I’ve started to protect and expand it by moving showers, lunch prep, social media, and email to the evenings. In a break with habit, I’m even composing this post in the evening–I have a story draft I hope to finish tomorrow morning.

2. Begin your writing session with writing.

I start my work day by writing my three most important priorities for that day. I try to get started on them before I open my email. Email is the productivity-killer!

So when I sit down to write, I try really hard to not start by checking my email or social media. Yesterday morning, I logged on to twitter to post “#amwriting” and didn’t close tweetdeck until 45 minutes later. One trick: when I do have to periodically check email (for urgent work or family communications), I use my phone instead of my laptop so that I’m less likely to get sucked in by less pressing messages.

3. Set well-defined goals for your sessions.

As I mentioned above, I start my work day by setting goals. I find that if I don’t set such goals, the meetings, phone calls, and urgent emails take my initiative away from me.

When I’m in the middle of a story, my goals are usually implied: “continue this scene, or move on to the next one”. But if I find myself staring at the screen, I find it helpful to set bite-sized, well-defined goals for my session. Examples:

  • “I will write the first half of the scene where Javert confronts the werewolf about the quality of its baked goods.”
  • “I will line edit three pages in the next 45 minutes.”
  • “I will spend 30 minutes sketching Ursula Gaiman’s past history, and another 30 minutes exploring with her voice.”

4. Finish things.

At my day job, projects often get bogged down in the transition between phases, or right before delivery to our customers. I have spreadsheets and kanban-style virtual boards to help me keep projects moving from phase to phase and finally to the customer.

The same seems to be true with my short stories, so I use a tool called kanbanpad to make sure that I’m moving each story from seed to sale, and not letting it get bogged down in revision or stalled submissions (I wrote a post about using kanbanpad and phases of writing last year). And duotrope is a great tool in many ways, but there’s nothing like the “Sent Past 12 Months” count (or a “Pending Submissions” of zero) to spur me into submitting more.

kanban full

5. Learn to estimate.

Each programmer has their own pace. I work with the developers to record the time they spend on each component, measuring these against their initial estimates. Better estimates mean that we can set realistic goals, and that we are less likely to miss deadlines or to burn out and produce sloppy work trying to meet one.

I track my daily word count obsessively. While this might also be a personal problem, awareness of my writing pace helps me to set realistic goals, which in turn reduces my frustration considerably. Between work, family and health commitments, I currently write about 500 first draft words per day. Also, I know that I need about two weeks for new ideas to percolate before I can start cranking out a draft at that pace. Finally, it takes me a week or two to revise and edit. If I include a week or two for someone to critique a story, I’m looking at a baseline of 6-8 weeks for me to complete a story without  without any major sacrifice (or asking someone to turn a critique around faster). I use this information to estimate which anthology or theme issue deadlines to shoot for, and how many to take on.

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My word count for the last desperate half of NaNoWriMo 2009. Scene descriptions don’t perfectly line up with word totals.

I present this all to you with that great inkpunk qualification: YMMV*. These are techniques and principles that have boosted my recent productivity and reduced my usual frustration. I’m excited enough about them to want to share them with you all. I’d also love to hear what works for you!

* Your Mileage May Vary.

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  • lunalindsey

    I swear by e.ggtimer.com. I set it to one-hour intervals, with Tweet Deck closed, and I am not allowed to use a browser during that time unless I’m doing a quick look-up that applies to my writing. At the end of the hour, I can check email, twitter, etc. But usually, I’m too immersed by then, so I hit refresh on the timer and start another hour. The hours will usually fly by in 4-6 hour sessions.

  • Dale Smith

    Great post! Getting into a habit of writing helps me, and being aware of my inner creative circadian rhythm is helpful, but I have to work against it somewhat. I’m a night person but a morning one by necessity.

    Writing first is crucial–and, like starting off with a healthy breakfast, can set the tone for the day.

    Freedom, an internet blocker, has helped me manage my web distractions in the past. I need to get back to using that.

    Tracking word counts on a spreadsheet has been a NaNoWriMo lifesaver in the past. Again, need to get back to that.

    One thing I’ve struggled with is tracking “ideation”/brainstorming and revision, since neither is as easily quantified as drafting, other than by time. Imposing limits through deadlines is probably the way to go.

  • Jennifer Mark

    Hmmm…..Good tips. What I think that how it would be if these tips can be improvised in a tool and then that is to be deployed.

    Yes I am talking about online task management tools where in multiple user access in the same can have a lots more to do with featured techniques on the tool.