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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 response?

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, we go."

Poynter has sage advice for the writer and his management of time.

Time-management tips from Time-Management-Guide.com. I do recommend this site if you want to delve into the subject further.

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 and sweet.

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 you.

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 to disappear.

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 the desk.

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.

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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 productivity.
  • 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 appreciation.

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 for yourself?

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David Eide
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David Eide
copyright 2000-2006