One of the biggest challenges facing a self-employed writer, editor or blogger is how to make the best use of your time.
If you’re a one-person shop, you’re responsible for marketing and sales (pitches and contract negotiations), creative (research, reporting, writing, editing), billing (sending invoices), collections and promotions (Twitter, Facebook et al).
Not only is it difficult to figure out how to divide your time to cover all those aspects of running a business, you also have to resist giving into to a myriad of potential distractions – after all, you can’t exactly turn off email and Twitter if you use both for work, right?
During the Feb. 23 WordCount Last Wednesday live chat we used the hour to talk about time management for writers. Close to a dozen freelancers shared their biggest frustrations and the steps they take to stay organized and productive. They also shared tech tools they use to keep on top of work.
In this recap, I’ve included the very best parts of the chat, which I’ve structured in Q&A form:
What are writers’ biggest time management struggles?
Writers’ obstacles to using time more effectively fall into these categories:
- Balance – Meeting current deadlines and marketing to existing and new clients to keep work coming in.
- Focus – Switching from task to task or project to project without getting distracted.
- Expectations – Creating realistic expectations for how much can be accomplished in an an hour, day, week or month – so you don’t take on too much and feel overloaded or too little and not be able to pay the bills. “I yo-yo between saying yes too much or too little,” says Boston freelancer Susan Johnston. “Things fall through so sometimes I end up with the right workload.”
- Flexibility – Staying loose enough to deal with the unforeseen circumstances that inevitably crop up while maintaining enough structure to finish projects on deadline. “Someone asked, ‘What’s your typical day like?’ San Diego freelancer Louise Julig says. “I said, ‘What’s a typical day?’”
- Multitasking – Working on multiple projects simultaneously, a normal part of a freelancer’s life.
What strategies do writers use to stay productive?
Writers say they use a wide range of strategies to stay productive. Here are some suggestions they made during the chat:
1. Turn off distractions. Disconnect the phone. Don’t check email. Turn off the Internet. Don’t answer the doorbell. If you absolutely must stay online, close all but one tab on your browser.
2. Use a timer. Set an egg timer or an online timer for 30 minutes or another specific period of time and don’t do anything but write. Give yourself a short break, then set it again, and again until you finished what you’re doing.
3. Use a goal buddy. Some freelancers team up with a writing partner they check in with on a regular basis to keep them accountable for how they’re using their time. Some writing buddies check in with each other every hour, others once a day, once a week or once a quarter.
4. Set goals. Laura Vanderkam, a New York freelance writer and author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, says she writes out big priorities for week. It’s a short list, “but they have to all get done. Schedule ‘em in. Leave floater days open for flotsam,” she says.
5. Reward yourself. Many writers say they set daily or weekly goals and reward themselves for finishing tasks or meeting deadlines. Rewards don’t have to be big – a walk with the dog, an afternoon nap, coffee with a friend, a glass of wine. The point is to treat yourself for getting the job done. Other writers say the only reward they need is the one that counts the most – the paycheck that comes after they’ve filed a story.
6. Break your day up into chunks. “I try to block out my time and schedule 1-2 hours dedicated to each project, and not do work for anything else during that time,” says Denver freelancer Nicole Relyea. “I use a whiteboard that has sections for each day of the week,” says Portland freelancer Jennifer Willis. “I map out my daily activities for the week, and try to stick to it.”
7. Follow a formal productivity regime. Some writers swear by productivity regimes such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, The Artist’s Way or Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Work Week. Others say they’re turned off, especially by Ferris, who suggests only checking email twice a day. “I felt like it was based on a faulty premise. Some emails DO require immediate answers,” Johnston says.
8. Use a to-do lists. Some writers swear by to-do lists (including me), and are hooked on the immense satisfaction that comes with crossing things off the list once they’re finished. “I stick with a to-do list that I accomplish in any order. I’m not restricted and feel accomplished at the end of the day,” says Florida writer Sakura Chica.
9. Work when nobody else is. Some writers get up early (me again) or work late, so they can write without interruption.
10. Work when you’re “on.” Use the time of day when you have the most energy to tackle the hardest tasks on your to-do list.
11. Tackle the hardest stuff first. Pick the one thing you’re dreading and do it first – getting it out of the way can be enough of a psychological boost to carry you through the rest of the day.
12. Hire help. Use a virtual assistant to take care of administrative tasks, or off load non-work chores such as housecleaning, yard maintenance, grocery shopping to carve out more time for work. “I hired a virtual assistant to handle some of my administrative tasks, freeing me up for big picture thinking,” Johnston says. “She proofreads, researches, formats guest blog posts, searches for images on Flickr, etc.”
Next up: tech tools for time management - In my next post, I’ll recap the different software programs, browser apps and other tech tools that writers use to manage their time.
You can see the entire transcript of the Feb. 23 WordCount Last Wednesday chat here, or look for it on Twitter by using the hashtag #wclw. For another take on the chat, read writer Amara Levine-Reich’s recap, The Wisdom of the Twitter-sphere.
What tips can you share for better managing your time? Please share by leaving a comment.