If you missed yesterday’s post by Kay Cassidy detailing the first of three fabu tips to help organize your space and rejigger your mind to improve productivity, click HERE then come back. Kay is not only a writer (her first YA novel, THE CINDERELLA SOCIETY, will be coming out in the spring of 2010), she has an MBA and was previously a corporate trainer. Now, she travels the country to teach marketing and business workshops to writers. We’re thrilled she took time out to guest blog with us. Enjoy!
Tip #2 – Organize Your Projects and Tasks
Once you’ve organized your space itself, it’s time to turn our attention to the projects and tasks that fill up our days and, sometimes, stress us out with worries of missed deadlines and letting people down. Being a professional writer means being in business for yourself. You need to keep up with the business of writing just like you keep up with your book deadlines.
Just like with organizing your work space, there’s no such thing as The Way to organize your projects and tasks. I use a combination of hanging file folders and a computerized To Do/calendar system. The key to it is to keep everything in one location. Productivity guru and New York Times bestselling author of Getting Things Done, David Allen, recommends three strategies that I think are awesome.
Create your master task list
First… do a brain dump of every task you can think of. I’ve found it’s best to do this in rounds because it’s kind of like peeling an onion. When you sit down with a notebook and write down everything you can think of that needs to get done, you’ll probably fill a notebook page with ease. Then set it aside for a day or two and do it all again. Once your mind has cleared all of those immediate To Do items from your memory banks (because it knows it’s all safely on your list now and won’t be overlooked), it’ll unleash a whole slew of new tasks that you’d probably forgotten about.
When I first did this a year ago in my quest to get better organized, I kept my notebook with me for about a week. I’d be washing dishes and think “Oh, I need to remember to send that anniversary card to my parents” or “I need to renew my blah blah membership.” Things will come to you at the most unexpected times. Keeping your notebook with you is a great way to make sure you capture all of those extraneous tasks.
Btw… my original task list was several hundred items long! And it was a huge relief when I had all of the tasks in one place and could begin organizing and prioritizing them. I no longer lived in that zone of “Am I forgetting something? I think I’m forgetting something…”
Organize your master task list
Second… with your trusty notebook filled with To Do lists in place, decide where you are going to put all of your To Do lists from now on. Everything must go in one place – business tasks, personal tasks, family tasks, etc. If you’re responsible for it, it all needs to go in one location. That’s the only way you’ll be able to see the full picture of your responsibilities and be able to prioritize them effectively.
I love Microsoft Outlook for this. Outlook 2007 has a brilliant color-coding feature so you can make each kind of task a different color. I use orange for household tasks, green for family tasks, purple for fiction, red for business tasks, yellow for personal tasks, etc. I chose these colors because they coordinate with the color-coded hanging files in my lateral file.
If you’re using a computerized system, enter all of your tasks, get them organized by category, and then assign any due dates that you know of. You can also set up reminders, so you’re prompted, say, a week or two in advance for a guest blog you’ve agreed to do. That way you’ve got enough time to write the guest blog and get it to the host before they have to nudge you. (That’s a wonderful way to develop a good reputation with people who are gracious enough to host you on the web!)
Organize your task list documentation
Third… and probably the most overlooked… you need to organize the items associated with those tasks. Sure, most of us have folders set up for expenses, manuscript fodder, etc. But what about the invitation to a friend’s book launch party that has the directions printed on it? You’ll need that the day of the signing, right? So in addition to the lovely filing system (or hat box system or wall pocket system… whatever you’ve chosen for your long-term files), you also need a way to organize the odds and ends of your tasks. My absolute favorite item for this is Smead’s Desktop File Sorter, 1-31/Jan-Dec. I’ve been using this since my corporate days and it’s a Godsend. (It’s not pretty, I’ll admit, but you can always cover it with an attractive contact paper if it too horribly offends your aesthetic sensibilities.)
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’ve got that invitation with directions to the book launch party for your friend. The party is coming up later this month on the 27th. You simply flip to the 27 tab in the sorter and slip it behind the tab. What about the new patient forms they mailed you to bring to your first allergist appointment on the 10th of next month? Since it’s not this month (Jan), you flip to the Feb tab and slip it in there. And the renewal form for your AAA membership that’s due in March? Just tuck that behind the Mar tab.
Everything you need this month is ready at your fingertips behind the 1-31 tabs. On the last day of each month, simply go to the next month’s tab and pull out everything you’ve filed there. File each item behind the corresponding number tab for the date you’ll need it, and you’re good to go for the next month. Easy peasy, right?
I’ve even come up with a code for this: if a task has documentation associated with it, I’ll put *FS* (for file sorter) at the end of the task name in Outlook. That reminds me that there’s documentation I need for that particular task or appointment. When the day comes, I see the *FS* and remember to go to that day in my trusty Smead file and grab what I need. No more getting to appointments without the forms you need or getting on the highway and realizing you forgot the shopping list or directions. Life is SO much easier and more relaxing when you’re organized!
Tip #3 – Boosting Your Productivity
Now that you’re all organized, it’s time to look at productivity itself. The two biggest enemies of productivity are interruptions and fear. Both can be managed, but you need good strategies in place to keep you on the right track.
Interruptions are a fact of life. No writer operates in a bubble, no matter how blissful that may sound some days. We may not be able to avoid interruptions entirely, but we can learn to manage them more effectively. For instance, if you’re writing at home with young children in the mix, it’s not uncommon to get interrupted every 7.2 minutes with mission-critical questions like “Why won’t Sally share the pink sparkly Barbie dress?”
But even children as young as two or three can be taught that when the red bell is hanging next to Mommy’s office door, that means Mommy is working. Unless there is bleeding involved, she will come see you at her next 20-minute break. In that case, you may want to set a timer to remind you to pause every 20 minutes and check in with the kids. You may be surprised at how quickly they learn to honor this system, particularly when there’s a reward in it for them at the end of the day!
Another standard interruption is the phone. Email falls into this category too. To combat those non-essential interruptions, here’s a straight-forward way of looking at it. If writing is your job, think about your work time as a regular work day. Would you be checking your personal email or taking personal phone calls from your neighbors at work? Of course not. You’re being paid to do a job and that’s not in your job description. Same goes for your writing work day.
This one took me a while to adjust to, but I’ve gotten pretty good at letting voice mail pick up when I’m writing. And I don’t allow myself to have my email up at all when I’m writing new pages. I know all it takes is one email to suck me in and, next thing I know, 35 minutes have gone by and I’m now surfing Facebook wondering why Maureen’s cat keeps throwing up on her blue suede Hush Puppies. No email means NO EMAIL. That’s my reward when I’ve gotten the day’s scene written.
Fear is also another big productivity showstopper. If you’re afraid the story isn’t going the way you want… or that your editor is going to hate this whole idea… or that you’re really not a talented writer and why is anyone paying you to do this for a living anyway… it’s easy to chuck it for the day and say “I guess I’m just not in the zone.” The truth is, the zone exists only in your mind. If you allow yourself to think you’re not in the zone, you won’t be in the zone.
Most of the time, that fear crops up for a reason. Sometimes it’s a personal thing we have to work through to start treating ourselves with the respect we deserve as professional writers. But just as often, it’s because something really *is* wrong with the story. Chucking it might be tempting, but if you’ve ever chucked it one day… and then chucked it again the next day when nothing felt different… you know how easy it is for one day of procrastination to turn into a week or more. Procrastinating out of fear is the coward’s way of falling short of your goals. Life intrudes enough; don’t let your fears take you down too.
A better approach to that fear is to face it head on. Step away from the area, grab a notebook and look that fear straight in the eye. Ask yourself, “Am I afraid of something here?” Write down your answer. Don’t edit yourself or berate yourself, just be honest. You can’t deal with it until you get it out in the open. If no fears come to mind (and you’re being totally honest), ask yourself what isn’t working in the story. Force yourself to write down five reasons why this part of the story may not be working. Then ponder those reasons for a few minutes. If nothing pings your brain saying “Hey, I think I’m on to something here!”, write down five more reasons. Ponder again.
If you still aren’t getting pings, spend 30 minutes doing something else related to your story and then come back to your list of 10 reasons. As Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel, the thing that will fix your story or make it great is very often NOT the first thing that comes to your mind. Or even the third or fourth. Dig deep and see if you can glimpse what’s holding you back and causing the fear. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can brainstorm ways to fix it and move forward.
The bottom line
Writing is not for sissies. I just took a wonderful class from Allison Brennan and she made that comment early on. If you’re in this to become a well-respected professional writer, you need to treat your writing like a real career. That means getting serious about getting organized, staying on track with your goals, and meeting deadlines consistently. Develop a reputation as the kind of professional people know they can count on, and it will serve you well for years to come.
Now here’s a question for all you Writer Unboxed fans: What is your favorite productivity tip? It could be about organizing, time management, managing information overload… anything that makes you more productive in your life or your career. What keeps you on track?
Here’s to a happy and productive 2009!
Thanks so much, Kay, for a wonderful post!