|Making Time an Ally, Not An Enemy
Oh time, please go away. I often say this silent prayer but
it never seems to work. Time is always there, pounding at me
with a hammer as strong as Thor's. It's always that drumbeat
that has me running all over the place to please someone other
than myself. It is that clap of thunder that announces I'm
not doing enough, I'm not there, I haven't arrived yet.
Even in dreams time is simply an interesting compression that
makes things illogical and, at times, pleasurable. But then we
wake up and time is waiting for us like a killer.
More writers lose weight sweating at deadlines than all the
jogging they may do. Both freelance and staff writers are
under the intense, unusual pressure of deadlines. Things go wrong.
Choas erupts in the center of a mundane day. A trusted link in
a chain of resource a writer depends on breaks and the whole
thing is transformed into a noose around his neck.
Often it's simply the writer's lack of structure that gets
in the way of using time to her advantage.
As in a writing style, the rhythm of working belongs to each
individual writer. Experience is a good teacher here.
Somewhere between over-planning and not-planning a writer
finds her rhythm.
It's important to know how long a project is going to take
to complete. And an experienced writer will anticipate the
X factor that throws a small bomb dead center into the best
laid of plans.
- How long does it take to get into a research database and
find what you want?
- How long does it take to contact a potential interviewee,
get a response, set up the interview, and then execute it?
- How long does writing a rough draft take?
- How long does the revision take?
- How long does proofing take?
- How long does it take to make queries to editors and get a
These questions and more go into making a decent plan of
time-management for writers. Get at least one project under
your belt and then deconstruct it so that you can see the
discreet aspects of the project. You don't need a precise
number of seconds each part takes, simply get a feeling
for it. Put a number down as a general rule of thumb and
adjust it as you get more experience.
This is good to do for two distinct reasons. One is that
it creates discipline and helps make time an ally. And
second it enables the writer to know how much a potential
project is truly worth. If a project is offered for $200
and you know you can do it in two hours, then you will
know you have a pretty good gig. If you take the project
and it ends up using ten precious hours, was it worth it?
* * * * * * * *
Ten effective tips from Michael Pollock. "It's not time
management. It's self management. You can't control time and
so, you certainly can't manage it. You get as much time as
anyone else. You CAN control yourself - what you be and do
in each moment of time. In the words of English poet, Austin
Dobson, "Time goes, you say? Ah, no! Alas, time stays,
Poynter has sage advice for the writer and his management
Time-management tips from Time-Management-Guide.com. I do
recommend this site if you want to delve into the subject
A U.K. group has a neat summary of this skill of managing
time. It's not rocket science and nearly all the experts and
their systems say the same thing. Identify time-wasters,
prioritize, have a plan, monitor yourself, and execute.
Tips for the home-based freelancer by Jean Hanson. It's
almost as though you have to hear the same advice over and
over until you finally make it your own practice.
Books can be helpful but then the books are usually written
by people who are selling their time-management systems and
you either buy into their system, their buzz words, or you
don't. The most effective time-management books are short
By the time you start to consult them you are completely
fed up with your slovenly ways and want an "expert" to
tell you what to do. The experts are there, waiting for
Almost all of them say the same basic things.
The book I consult is by Robert Moskowitz called, "How To
Organize Your Work and Time," published in 1993.
One thing he mentions is especially true of the writer. That
is, you can increase your effectiveness when the desk is
free of clutter. "You don't have to live with your relations
to remember who they are do you? Why believe you must
constantly view all your projects to keep it in mind?"
It's one of the generic topics of time-management experts:
Keep the desk clean of clutter! And I look at my own desk
while writing this and see nine (9) binders piled up
haphazardly, printed out schedules, sections of three-day
old newspapers, unopened mail, a pair of sun glasses, a cell
phone, pens, CD's, and a few more odd items that never seem
I'm not proud of this and the only thing that saves me is
that I do so much work on the computer that faces away from
And it's no shock I find this same problem creeping up on
the computer desktop. Everytime I turn the beast on there
are the files and folders telling me they need attention.
Letting things pile up is a bad habit like smoking. It's
hard to break. But, working to break the habit makes life
good. The skies open up to new possibilities.
A writer likes to believe he is not a corporate manager
where "time-management" smacks of Haliburton or ATT.
But the reasonable question to ask is, "why wouldn't you
want your projects to be as successful as ones at Haliburton,
especially if you have no cronies in the White House to
help you along?"
As with most simple human problems, it is stupid pride that
gets in the way of doing the right thing.
* * * * * * * *
According to T.L. Stanley, "Time management is a process
directed toward analyzing work and the time it takes to
complete various assignments."
Simple enough Mr. Stanley. But writers are in a special
category for two reasons. One is that they work irregular
hours on a variety of projects and, secondly, they are usually
exposed to vastly more information than average people.
One of the attractions to the writing life is that the
writer doesn't check in at eight or nine in the morning,
work a straight eight-hour day, with break and lunch, then
goes home free of the burden. A writer is usually working
all the time, especially the contract writer who has a
business to run. Within that twenty-four hour period the
writer has flexibility about the ways her time is used. If
she is most productive working between three in the morning
and six in the morning then she will find that spot and keep
it as her own.
Writers are experts in sorting through information and
making it work for them. This too is part of time-management.
Unfortunately, the Web has introduced the clutter of e-mail
spam and pop-up ads. However, the real problem is if the
writer doesn't have the discipline to cut away all the rich
resources he encounters on any given writing project to
focus on only the essential. That is important to establish
before the start of a new project.
Limit the searching on the Net to a precise phrase you
write at the top of a clean sheet of paper!
[S o m e T i p s]
- Leave 20%-50% of your time unscheduled. In other words,
don't overplan. You know what you need to get done. Don't
drive yourself nuts.
- Work to a firm deadline. "Deadline" comes from the practice
of shooting military prisoners who used to cross a
well-marked line. We like to think we are writers and not
prisoners but it is good to treat deadlines with respect. I
use a simple sheet of paper that I print out each month
labeled with the things I need to get done and the dates,
1 -31 along the left column. I know that at the end of the
month I have to produce Sunoasis X, among other things. The
deadline is an effective goad since I can mark my progress
as I go.
- Reverse engineer your projects to figure out how to move
from the finished project back to the beginning of the project.
This can initiate a spurt of creative energy.
- Break up the day. Just a few minutes will do it. If you
have a grove of trees nearby simply walk in them for
five minutes. It will feel like five hours and allow you to
feel refreshed. Or, take a short cat nap of fifteen minutes.
It's amazing what this little activity can do for your
- Make a boundary of time by doing something "all your own"
every day. In my case I always write in a file called "The
Writing Life," about my early days of writing. It is not a
writing project, it simply throws against the screen some
thoughts and impressions of a time that would, otherwise,
disappear. By doing this or writing in a daybook, one has
said, "professional time will not enter into here." Such
small acts can save a person.
- Clip interesting articles when you read them and throw
everything else away.
- Designate two or three times a year to re-think your
system and toss out old files and paper.
- Prepare templates for common kinds of correspondence.
- Hire a part-time assistant. Check out how to hire an
intern from the local college.
- Learn to use free time productively.
Some of these tips were suggested by a 1995 article in Home
Office Computing by Don Wallace.
[ CODA ]
Time can be divided between the sacred and the profane.
Even while working we can niche out little shrines and enter
for brief respites. Think of a shrine as a boundary constructed
on a modest path in a glint-shaded meadow. It is quiet and
while in it you reconnect with who you are and where you want
to get to.
You reconnect with that secret to happiness, simple
Even in the world of writing, time-management is often the
skill of moving from one world to the next and back again.
We are in the flow of time and the more we know it and
make it an ally, the better off our efforts will be.
"If you can manage your time without a boss looking over your
shoulder, then your chances of succeeding in a home business have
just improved. If not, don't quit your day job. Yet." So says
Patrice Lewis in Countryside Journal. That's the nexus of it.
Everyone has twenty-four hours. Can you manage those to your
advantage so that you end up with the sort of life you envision
If you have any questions about careers in freelance writing
don't hesitate to ask!
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