Being productive without a deadline

One thing about freelance writing is that it tends to go in spurts. Some days you have no assignments pending; other times, you don’t know which story to tackle first.

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out how to stay focused and productive when a deadline isn’t looming. Working at home means there are a lot of distractions. It’s easy to delay work because you know you can go back to the computer after throwing in a load of laundry, or cooking a pot of soup, or cleaning out a drawer, or running an errand, or… the list is infinite.

I love the flexibility of freelancing. I like being able to work coffee dates, appointments, and household tasks into my schedule no matter what time in the day they take place.

So I’ve resisted scheduling consistent work hours. I know there are advantages to having them. Family and friends will be less likely to interrupt your work, and scheduled hours impose discipline. Productivity is bound to go up.

I was relieved to learn at the most recent meeting of my freelance writing group that I’m not the only one who struggles with time management.

Yesterday, I decided to try something new. Not only did I slot “writing time” into the calendar on my phone, but before I left the computer at the end of my two-hour morning session, I slotted a second session for the afternoon.

It’s like going to the dentist. I book my next check-up before I leave. That way, I don’t lose momentum, and I don’t leave it too long.

I had a very productive day, and I’m back at the computer this morning. Could it be that simple?

Sometimes you just have to plow through

Some articles seem to write themselves, and others just… don’t.

It’s not always a matter of how interesting the subject is, or even how dense or complex the information that needs to be sifted through.

Sometimes there are competing demands on your attention, or something else on your to-do list is more time-sensitive. Or, once in a while, you accidentally have caffeinated coffee the night before, and it throws you off the next day. Groan!

I find it helps to break the task down into chunks (the Swiss cheese method of time management, from the 1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life).

Fifteen minutes here, 100 words there, and at some point – often after two or three “chunks” – momentum builds, and the rest proceeds smoothly. Here’s more on the Swiss cheese method and writing – a blog post I just found by author Gail Gauthier.

Sometimes you just have to plow through.


Writing groups, and finding time to write

I read an interesting blog post this morning from the New Hampshire Writers’ Network (“Live to Write – Write to Live”), about the benefits and logistics of a writing critique group.

Someone suggested to me last year that I find such a group, where writers share and critique each others’ work. It sounded like a great idea, but I still haven’t felt a need to search one out.

So I was curious about the subject of the post, but what I found even more interesting was the addendum about the blogger, Diane MacKinnon – “a writer, blogger, life coach, mother, stepmother, and doctor.”  Almost as an aside, she adds that she writes in “small pockets of time” that are beginning to add up.

I know that small chunks of time and effort add up, but it’s nice to have it validated.

Last month, I started freelancing, and recently I added a new project into the mix. There’s also my blog, my book, and the non-writing parts of my life. I *rely* on small pockets of time.

Designated writing hours… or not?

Every week, Friday is food day on my blog, but I half expected that I would have to call every day “food day” this week. The week before Passover, every day is food day. Shopping yesterday, cleaning the oven today, getting a head start on my cooking as soon as I can!

So far, though, prep work hasn’t superseded my freelance writing, blog, or social time. I wrote this post while I was waiting for my car to be ready, because today was also snow tire removal day for me.

I’ve had three lunches out in the last week, and now that I have freelance deadlines, I’ve been thinking more about how to structure my time.

After I was downsized and started blogging and working on my book, a few people asked if I had designated hours for writing. I wondered if it made me less organized or productive that I didn’t… aside from specific blogging days, when I usually write in the morning.

But my schedule seems to have evolved, just like my post-downsizing path in general. I blog Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and I work on my book more regularly now that I’ve joined an online group that holds me accountable each week for the number of words I write.

The book-writing hours are still evolving. I try to start earlier in the week, although I still don’t have designated days. At first, I thought I should be writing more, and more often, but now I’m content to write my self-imposed minimum, and sometimes exceed it.

Because of the subject matter (the year I lost my dad, and said Kaddish for him), I think it might actually be better to write the book in small doses, even though it’s not all sad. Parts of it are funny, parts are just interesting, and some parts have broader implications (I hope other people will think so too!).

Now that I’ve adding freelancing to the mix, it would be easy to spend most of the day in front of my computer.

It was good for me to get out of the house and spend time with friends this week. I like working on the things that are most time-sensitive before I head out, and catching up with the rest of my writing later.

Maybe I do have designated hours now. Sort of.





A busy week

This week, I took on a freelance assignment – a big step forward after being downsized last summer – and I’ve been working more consistently on my book. I also had coffee with a former colleague, two lunches with friends, and a family dinner out. There are a couple of appointments on my calendar as well, and I’m  fitting in three small projects that are, more or less, writing-related too.

Coincidentally, I came across an article yesterday – which I can’t locate now, groan! – that talks about getting more done by giving yourself less time.

I guess it’s another way to encourage people to focus, or to take advantage of the 80/20 rule (which I blogged about here last August). If 80 percent of the work gets done in 20 percent of the time… then just give yourself 20 percent of the time to start with.

When my kids were small, sometimes we’d have a “five-minute cleanup” after dinner. With three or four of us cleaning up, that was equivalent to 15 or 20 minutes of focused work. It always amazed me how much we could get done.


My time-management experiment

A friend of mine said to me the other day that she sees I like to be busy.

It’s true, up to a point. I’m very happy to be busy. When I was first downsized, I worried that I wouldn’t know how to fill the hours as I transitioned to whatever was next in my life. That was part of the reason I started to blog.

But being busy without being productive doesn’t feel satisfying. I’m still trying to fine-tune the balance between productivity and downtime, as well as working in all the other things that foster productivity – eating well, and getting enough sleep, exercise, intellectual stimulation, and meaningful connection with friends and family.

Sometimes I wonder where the time goes, when I’m busy but not as productive as I’d like to be. Yesterday – in an attempt to figure that out while I was home waiting for a delivery – I decided to write down everything I accomplished, and how long it took.

That lasted less than an hour, because I had too many small items to tackle before working my way up to “bigger” tasks.

It occurred to me that it might make sense, instead, just to list what I was accomplishing hour-by-hour. Maybe it would tell me something about what time of day is most productive for me, too.

But I think it told me more about the effects of recording all this information on paper, in my little orange notebook.

Even though I was the only one who knew about this experiment, the act of recording what I did made me accountable, and motivated me to make better use of my time.

Dividing the day into hours made a difference too. Every hour, I was able to make a fresh start. I assessed what I’d accomplished the previous hour, and used that information to help me decide what to do next.

I hadn’t planned it that way, but I guess I was using the “Swiss cheese” method of time management. The concept – from a 1973 book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life – involves breaking down an intimidating or labour-intensive task into manageable chunks.

I tried to alternate small tasks with larger ones, and computer time with non-sitting activities.

I was busy all day, I was reasonably productive, and best of all, I gained insight from my experiment. I guess that means it was productive, too.




Lessons from my new front door mat

In last Thursday’s post, I wrote that I miss my paper to-do list, in part because I knew at a glance which items were older.

The truth is, I still know at a glance if an item is new or old… although now I have to scroll down to see all the items on my iPhone list.

Sometimes I end up inputting the same item a second time, or literally moving it closer to the top of the list, so that it won’t fall through the cracks.

Recently I deleted a couple of longstanding home-related items on the list. They weren’t “major” tasks in terms of difficulty or how they would affect my life, but removing them from the list felt like a significant accomplishment.

Probably the most symbolic one for me was finding a new front door mat to replace the ratty old one. In addition to all the work-related things I wanted – and still want – to accomplish, I needed to tend to things in the house. I thought I would start at the front door, and work my way in.

The new mat didn’t make it to the top of the list for a long time, and it was nagging at me. I felt I hadn’t properly “started” to work my way through the house.

Now, when I think about my new front door mat, it reminds me that:

1. Sometimes things loom large psychologically, but don’t really take a huge amount of effort.

2. The payoff can be disproportionately large, compared to the amount of work involved.

3. Starting at the beginning – taking one step – makes it easier to get to the next step.

4. Little things can make a difference.

5. Sometimes, little things turn out to be big things.

Yesterday I set the timer on my phone for fifteen minutes, and worked on the book that I’ve been neglecting for the past couple of weeks. Just a little effort, and I feel like I’m back on track.




Time management – “work” vs. “non-work”

I remember reading an article years ago that said it’s harder for women who work part-time – compared to their counterparts who work full-time – to fit their non-work-related activities into their schedules. You would expect the opposite to be true.

I don’t remember the details, but I think the reason had to do with the perception of the amount of free time available to part-time workers. Part-timers took on more, because they (and others) figured they had more time than full-timers. They ended up overextending themselves.

Even though I’m not employed right now, I find that writing, investigating work opportunities, and attending work- or writing-related events constitute the equivalent of part-time “work” for me. The rest of my time is devoted to “non-work” – day-to-day errands and tasks, and time with friends and family.

But with my work based out of my dining room, and considering that I blog about food two days a week, there’s a fair bit of crossover between work and non-work.

I also have a lengthy to-do list, and some items have been on it for a long time.

I’ve been wondering in the last few days if it might be more efficient to minimize the crossover – perhaps devoting blog days to “work” and non-blog days to “non-work.”

But I think that little experiment may be over before it begins. I already have lunch with a friend scheduled on a blogging day this week, and I don’t want to reschedule it again.

It’s probably more realistic for me to make my blogging days “work-heavy” days, and use non-blogging days to focus mainly on the non-work part of my life.


Writing time: flexibility versus structure

Lately, I’ve been wondering how other writers structure their time.

I was intrigued to learn that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent about 15 minutes a day working on his new book A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & The Rise of Professional Hockey, which is being released today. (More info about his book in this Globe and Mail article.)

I’ve been hearing about other writers who have designated writing hours, during which they don’t schedule anything else.

I’m still figuring out what works best for me.

Since I began my blog, I’ve enjoyed the combination of structure and flexibility. Blogging four days a week, usually in the morning, provides the structure. That  leaves a lot of time for flexibility, which is the part I’m still figuring out.

I’ve begun working more seriously on the book that’s been percolating in my head, although I don’t have designated writing hours for it.

To create momentum, I added “work on book” to my daily to-do list. It seems like a small thing, but the reminder to be consistent is helpful to me. I might miss a day here and there, but the daily reminder means the book never drops off my radar.

I like having the flexibility to work on it at whatever time of day I choose, and I  find that the minimum time I set for myself often turns into a longer stretch once I get going.

I also like to stop at a point where I know what I’m going to write next, so that it will be easy to pick up where I left off.

I’d be interested to know what works for other writers.



Order from chaos

Yesterday, I started preparing for Friday night dinner at my house. There will be 13 of us, which means we’ll be eating in the dining room, aka my home office.

I’ve been away twice in the past month, once for four nights, and once for three. I’ve also attended a job fair and a few other work-related events where I picked up literature and other paraphernalia that have accumulated on the dining room table. I’ve been referring to some of the items in my writing, and would like them at hand for follow-up.

In the months since I was downsized, we’ve had some meals in the dining room, but this week the amount of stuff on the table this week seemed more daunting than before.

Yesterday I decided I would focus on two things – preparing for the dinner, and working on an article. I checked off a few other items on my to-do list, but they were tasks that didn’t take long, and needed to be done. Everything else, I decided, would wait.

It was a productive day, and my dining room table looks much more manageable now.

I like making order from chaos.