Big Focus: The Calendar Trick That’s Saving My Bacon This Year

July 2013

July 2013 in all its Colour-Coded Splendor

I have to write 750 words a day between now and October 24th, otherwise bad things will happen. The kind of bad things where you end up emailing an editor and sounding like a heel, on account of the fact that you aren’t getting done the things you said you’d get done, and really that’s not the kind of email that any writer wants to send ’cause editors do neat stuff like pay us to write things and we’d prefer to seem reliable enough that they keep asking us to be involved in their projects.

Now 750 words doesn’t seem like much, but it quickly gets kinda hard to attain. ‘Cause at the same time as I’m doing this, I’ve got a bunch of full-day workshops that need writing. I’ve got at least three Writer’s Festivals/Conferences that I’m going too, which will involve chairing panels or similar activities that have associated prep-work that come with them. I’ve got that pesky GenreCon thing I’m running myself, right at the start of October, and it’s going to start eating my life about halfway through next month.

Basically, I have a major writer/travel/work event every two weeks, on average, between now and the end of the year. On one hand, totes awesome, ’cause I kinda live for this shit, but on the other hand it’s the stuff of chaos that leads directly to the I’m Busy response I wrote about on Monday.

Enter the Big Picture Calendar

So tonight I set up a big-picture calendar, just so I know what I’m meant to be focusing my attention on any given day. All my commitments are written in and highlighted a different colour, depending on what they are. This is petty standard for people using calendars to organise themselves, although for reasons related to the fact that I’m inherently tactile in my approach to things, I’ve elected to go old-school rather than relying on electronic diary software.

Having deadlines written into the calendar isn’t really the point, though. Having a record of deadlines has never really helped me, ’cause deadlines are just a single data-point, easily overlooked. Unless you’re the kind of person who can look at your calendar, see a deadline at the end of the month, and mentally extrapolate all the tasks that needed to achieve that thing, the deadline is just an indicator that you should panic a whole lot on that particular day.

I don’t do that. I see deadlines – especially a whole set of deadlines bunched together – and all I see is the massive potential for failure and an amorphous, unknowable mass of “work” that needs to be done by a due time and date.

So the thing I’m trialing – and this is the thing I’m really hoping will help me rock the latter half of this year – is colour coding some days before the commitment that are set-aside for the necessary focus and writing to get things prepared. In some cases the commitment gets an entire week blocked out, so I’ve got a visual reference that lets me know everything else can go hang for the next seven days and I’ll give my non-writing attention entirely over to the thing I’m working on.

I’ve got another calendar – electronic, highly detailed – that I’m using to track meetings and appointments and other things. This one’s purely about high-level thinking and focusing on the big picture, having some idea of what my months are going to be shaped like without actually getting caught on the details.

The advantage of breaking things down like this is that it lets me know that August, for example, is actually a pretty cruisey month despite going to Byron Bay Writer’s Festival as the AWM rep, and travelling to Perth for the Romance Writers of Australia conference. These things will eat days, but they won’t eat additional days of planning beyond organizing the logistics of getting there (well, Byron Bay will, but I’ll be doing that the month prior since it’s the first weekend of August, and they’ll be done at work besides).

Compare that to September, which has a workshop (one day, plus at least three days of prep) and a whole bunch of panel chairing (a couple of days, plus a whole lot of prep), and I know which month is better for catching up on writing projects that are lagging behind and scheduling social engagements.

It also lets me know when I need to jealously guard my free days for prep and planning, rather than assuming I have the time to catch up in the coming week. It lets me know which non-day-job days are actually free days, and which need to be given over to getting some focused thinking-work done.

The Writing Caveat

Since writing doesn’t fit neatly into this – that 750 a day habit needs to happen one way or another – it’s got a bunch of mini deadlines built into it. From here on, if I reach the 750 word mark, I cross off a day in purple and celebrate like a mofo. If I miss some days…well, I’ve got the mini-deadlines, and they’ve got a block of days marked out where that’s my primary focus, same as I’ve got blocks of days that are devoted to getting a workshop written or putting together a panel.

This too serves as a handy visual reference, since the big purple crosses let me know very clearly where I’m up to with the projects and how many days I’ve missed in a given month.

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