I started reading time and project management books a few years back, when it became apparent that my ability to manage my studies was fairly limited. I ramped up my reading in 2011 when I found myself working in an organisation with multiple people for the first time, since I was pretty much used to working on my own or in small groups.
Over the years I’ve tried a bunch of systems and kept stuff from each of them, but this list collects together three of the quick-and-dirty time management hacks that have been particularly useful to me as a writer. All are part of larger, more complex systems that have their own strengths and weaknesses, but I am pretty ruthless about keeping the things that work for me and searching for new options when something doesn’t.
HACK ONE: PRIORITISE THE TASKS THAT UNLOCK OTHER PEOPLE’S CAPACITY TO WORK ON YOUR BEHALF
I picked this one up from Dan Charnas incredible book about chefs, time management, and mise-en-place, Work Clean, and it remains the advice I turn to every time I found myself paralysed by indecision about what needs to come next.
One of the base-lines of Charnas’ approach is simple: the action you take now is infinitely more valuable than the action you take in the future, because the action you take now can trigger next actions. The action you might take later, even if it’s a slightly better call, cannot start follow-up actions until then (and sucks up psychological resources while you manage your own inaction).
In this system, the optimal use of time when all other considerations are equal is doing a task that unlocks someone else’s capacity to work on your behalf.
It’s easy to see the importance of this principle when you’re working in a larger office, particularly if you’ve ever worked in a place where management approval is the black hole where all projects stall and die.
It’s harder easy to grasp the importance when you’re writing, and everything seems equally important in your little office of one, but there is actually hundreds of small tasks that it’s easy to downgrade until you think about them in this way. Here is just a small handful of tasks I’ve noted over the last few years:
- Reading and signing contracts unlocks publishers ability to work on your behalf, as does filling out an invoice for work done and mailing it off (which unlocks the capacity for people to do one of my favourite things – pay me).
- Answering an email about taking part in an interview, or responding to a guest-post request, unlocks the capacity for other people to promote you. So does actually doing the work when such things arrive.
- Researching a new market for that story that got rejected may take ten minutes, but it immediately unlocks the capacity for slush readers and editors to work on your behalf.
- Filling in grant and scholarship applications unlocks work in all sorts of ways, particularly if it’s the kind of thing where you’re going to need to ask questions. Reading Charnas book is one of the reasons I got a PhD scholarship, ‘cause if I hadn’t I would have left the application process too late to get advice on many of the things I needed help navigating.
- Editing your existing story so you can submit it will get more people working than writing a new one will. Similarly, getting your story out to beta readers will mean more than the ten minutes you’d gain working on something new.
- Dragging your feet on a shared project that needs you to do something before other people can do their part has obvious delays built in (although, I’ll admit, I still struggle with this one).
When time is short I used to struggle with prioritizing any of this stuff over creating new words. Now I dedicate a portion of my day solely to the process of unlocking other people’s capacity.
HACK TWO: SPEND A HALF-HOUR PLOTTING OUT YOUR COMMITMENTS OVER THE NEXT THREE MONTHS IN ADDITION TO YOUR PROJECTS
This one is lifted from The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and I’d actually recommend doing his whole Quarterly Checkpoint if you’ve got the time and inclination. If you don’t, I recommend this single step as one of the things that helped me start being more in-control of my writing process.
The theory here is simple: it’s easy to overlook the impact things will have on your life and available time, which means you’ll frequently overestimate how much you can get done in the coming three months. Taking a few moments to list the hard and soft commitments you expect to see happening every quarter will shape your expectations in advance, and allow you to plan accordingly.
For example, if I look at the period from November through to January, I can see that I’ve got a series of huge deadlines for the PhD, plus a number of weeks where I’m going to lose work time due to holiday commitments. Even if I don’t take said holidays myself, there will be days where my family and partner have time off and want to spend time with me. January is also heavy with family Birthdays and similar events, which means I’ll need to factor in both birthday celebrations and purchasing gifts during one of the busiest times of year.
If I just planned out my quarterly projects right now, this week, my perceptions would be informed by the fact that I’m largely commitment free and capable of fitting in additional project time. it would be easy to overlook these events and simply assume that the majority of the week will be blissfully free of things that will pull my focus away from work.
Doing this three months out gives you plenty of time to adjust your expectations and plan around the interruptions, whereas a one month window tends to put more pressure on you.
HACK THREE: NUMBER AND INDEX EVERY NOTEBOOK YOU USE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT IT’S USED FOR
This one is straight out of the bullet journal process put together by Ryder Carroll, but it remains the single best idea I’ve seen for keeping track of what’s in a notebook. Even if you don’t intend to use the full bujo method, getting into the habit of numbering notebook pages and indexing their contents saves countless hours of trying to remember what note you’ve put down where. I use this with bullet journals, but also pocket notebooks used for quick notes and shoping lists, larger notebooks where I write story drafts, and the various notebooks I use for tracking what’s going on in gaming.
There are thousands of systems out there for adequately filing your notes online and in filing cabinets, but this is the closes thing I’ve seen to keeping things manageable in books themselves.