One of my favorite things to do this time of year is fill out my calendar for the next 10 months, the period that coincides with my kids going back to school.
I’m a devotee of Microsoft Outlook so as soon as I know school holidays, sports practices and game days, dentist appointments, meetings, special events and other dates, into the Outlook Calendar they go.
There’s a method to this madness. The better I am at scheduling outside commitments, the more precisely I can calculate the work hours I have in a given day, week or month. I use that information to figure out how many hours or days I can devote to a writing or editing assignment, and that helps determine what I’ll make on a given project. It works the other way around too: if I have a handle on my work deadlines I know whether I can volunteer to chaperon a field trip, or if I have a deadline that day and chaperoning will have to wait until the next time.
Here are some other handy tips I’ve come up with for using the Outlook Calendar to manage my time:
1. Put everything in the calendar – and I mean everything.
A calendar system won’t keep you organized if you don’t put every single aspect of your life in it. That includes work, family outings, volunteer work, trips, going to the gym, church, date night, Boy Scout troop meetings, spring break, decorating the Christmas tree and anything else you can think of (within reason). As a freelancer, your life isn’t delineated between work and family and your calendar shouldn’t be either.
2. Assign a color to everyone and everything.
I enter work hours into my Outlook calendar in green and non-work appointments and volunteer work in yellow. Everyone else in the family has their own color too, including the dog. Even the house gets one, which I use to show when groceries are scheduled to be delivered, cleaners are coming or the window washer is due. Assigning different colors to different people or things helps me keep track of what else is happening while I’m working.
3. Plan your time backwards from due dates.
When I get an assignment, I enter the due date in Outlook, then estimate how many hours I think the assignment will take so I know when I need to get started. I estimate based on word count, anticipated research, my preferred hourly rate and what other work I have to do between the day I get the assignment and the due date. For example, if I get a 1,000-word feature story with multiple sources that I’m getting paid $1.25 for, that’s $1,250. If I’m shooting for an $125/hour rate, my goal is to complete the article in 10 hours ($1,250 divided by $125 equals 10). Every week, I write one or two posts for clients plus five WordCount posts, so I know I can’t devote one or two entire days to a single assignment. Instead, I divide those 10 hours into chunks of an hour or two per day spread out over a week or two, which is OK since it sometimes takes that long to schedule and do interviews. Counting backwards from the due date, I assign one- and two-hour blocks of time to that assignment over a one- or two-week period. Normally I include one large chunk of time – three or four hours – at the end for writing. On my Outlook calendar, my normal work day looks like a solid block of green chopped up into several multi-hour segments labeled according to what I’m working on during specific hours.
4. Set recurring dates and reminders.
If you do something over and over again, use the Outlook Calendar Recurrence feature to automatically set up all future occurrences of that activity. I use the recurring dates feature to remind myself of everything from when to submit invoices for clients who pay me a monthly retainer to when my son needs to be at football practice. I also use it for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Like other calendar programs, Outlook lets you set a reminder to “ring” a few minutes or hours before an event – a feature that’s saved me more than once from being late for the afternoon school carpool because I was lost in what I was writing.
5. Send meeting notices.
Outlook’s Calendar lets you schedule an appointment, then send people an invitation to attend. The first time I got a meeting notice I didn’t know what it was. Now I send them all the time. I use them to schedule interviews, set up phone call with editors or writers, and also to remind my husband of appointments and our kids’ games and school events.
What calendars or other systems do you use to stay organized?