If you multitask because you feel you have to in order to stay on top of things; if you’re overwhelmed with too much information and an inability to sort though it all; if you’re losing momentum on your writing projects because there is just too much on your plate… This post is for you.
It may be that you have a 9-5 job and are writing for yourself whenever you can, juggling several projects. You might have a book about to launch and another in the works. Your inbox, your desk, and your mind are in a constant state of chaos. I often have people ask me how I stay on top of things–family, WU, my writing career. Well, sometimes I don’t. But I do use strategies to maximize my time as often as possible.
Declutter your mind with a few basic but key steps every day.
- Keep a to-do list. Keep your to-dos either on a physical piece of paper, a set of index cards (one task per card), or in a digital file. Keep your list in front of you, and add any stray thoughts that try to derail you as you work through your day. “Write down all the chatter, like ‘pick up milk on the way home’ and ‘don’t forget to call back your friend Alan’ and ‘property tax bill is due today,’ ” said Daniel Levitin, PhD, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and bestselling author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “That way, your creative time is pure creative time, not intruded upon by the necessities of life.”
- Keep your writing and personal lives organized with a digital calendar. iCal is a favorite among my author friends, while Dr. Levitin names Outlook calendar as his all-time favorite app. “Everything that is time-bound goes in there and it shows up automatically on all my devices,” he said.
- Apply the two-minute rule to email and other small jobs. That means if you can do something in ~two minutes, go for it; you’ll ultimately save yourself time. Clumping these small tasks can be efficient, too. “If you’ve got a bunch of little things that only take 2 minutes each, do them all in a marathon block of 20 or 40 minutes,” said Dr. Levitin
Mono-Takes & Multiple Mediums
Smartphones, laptops, iPads… Just because they’re separate things doesn’t mean they can’t work together to create a streamlined experience for you via programs that sync across platforms. A few golden notables that work with multiple devices:
- Meet Diigo: a powerhouse resource every author should try. If you’re anything like me, there’s always an article to read, either on the industry or for book research, but saving your thoughts on a resource can be a pain. Should you print out and highlight every article? Then what? Where will you keep them? With Diigo, you can highlight, tag, and annotate articles online; you can take screen shots or archive single photos; you can even bookmark articles to read later. Diigo stores all of that in a personal online library—a huge time-and-paper saver. And it’s free.
- Digital note-taking programs like Evernote and OneNote can help you manage and organize your thoughts. Like Diigo, they can also save clippings found on the Internet and store photos.
[pullquote]Why should you tag? Using tags as you file things online will make them so much easier to access later via a search for that tag. Conversely, not using tags is the equivalent of having a giant filing cabinet stuffed with wads of paper. You can apply this idea to email, too. If you use gmail, take the time to add labels. If you use Outlook or something that doesn’t have the labeling function, try adding a unique hashtag to your reply. Later, simply do a search using the hashtag you need and you’ll find all emails relating to a project.[/pullquote]
- Pocket articles to read later. While I use Diigo to save articles relating to novel research, I use Pocket for everything else, including articles on the industry. (This is one time when it works for me to have separateness built into my tools.) Because I can access Pocket on my phone, too, I never sit in a waiting room without reading material I really want to spend time with. Pocket can become an unruly mess, though, unless you take the time to tag your articles as you go.
- Dropbox enables you to pass electronic info like Word drafts, PDFs, and pictures between devices easily. Who needs a flash drive?
4 Quadrants x 2
You can’t recall the last time you worked on your manuscript. Your characters are pulseless, your word count coated in dust. What is happening to your hours?
You can’t improve your efficiency without first understanding where things are slugging down. Try Stephen Covey’s quadrant approach: What sorts of activities define your days?
Pay attention to your behavior over the next week. Then ask yourself:
- In which quadrants do you dwell?
- Which do you neglect/avoid/ignore?
- Where is “time to write”?
- How often do you make “time to write” less of a priority than you’d like for it to be?
- How often do you make unimportant activities more important than “time to write”? (If you find a lot of time lost to the unimportant, you may want to read my last post: Snakes on a Brain.)
Now use the quadrant a second time, marrying it with your daily to-do list.
- What activities can fall away, to make time for the things you want to do? Cross them off the list.
- Can you break your writing tasks into smaller tasks that you can wedge into a busy day (e.g. research what it would take to dislodge a body from a lake; increase tension in chapter 17; respond to critique partner)? Add them.
- Can you include one “to do” that involves asking another person for help in tackling a larger task? Do it.
- Once you’re finished, rank the items on your list. “Prioritize your tasks every day so that you know that whatever you’re working on at any moment is the most important thing you could be doing at that moment,” said Dr. Levitin. But don’t forget the all-work-and-no-play rule. “Make sure that you get break time, staring out the window time, listening to music, going for a walk, etc… every 2-3 hours,” he said.
Porter Anderson’s Time-Finding Strategy
I know few who are as busy as our own Porter Anderson, currently in London covering three events in quick succession: Publishing for Digital Minds, The London Book Fair, and IndieReCon. How does he do it? His tips:
- Work while the world rests. “Give yourself as many hours before dawn as you can,” said Porter. “The world is asleep and doesn’t need you. Your mind is settled, and you can think so much more easily.”
- Try RescueTime, which keeps you honest by tracking your online behavior, and even lets you block distracting sites during the hours of your choosing via FocusTime. (Porter has offered that all of us can experiment with it using his free trial via this link. Thanks, Porter!)
- Find an off-desk filing system that works for you; Porter uses a rolling hanging file cart. A cluttered desk is both distracting and causes wasted time as you hunt for lost notes.
- Porter also swears by Campari. Go figure.
There is no global best way to stay organized, or keep a to-do list, or manage your time. But you can make small changes that’ll make a big impact, and have more time for the things that are important to you.
Your turn: How do you stay on top of things? What tools do you use to streamline your time? What are your favorite productivity apps?
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