How to Manage your Time – and Stay Sane
I suck at Scheduling
I don't mean I can't define tasks, then assign them a date and time when I'll do them. I can do that. Anyone can.
If you're a self-published author, you'll know this particular pain well. There's something authors do well, right? Write, right?
We authors write, and we write good. And anything that has to do with the creative parts of our job, like working with editors and cover artists, or writing guest blogs, or being interviewed - anything that relates directly to our work, we do that pretty well.
But if you want to be self-published, that isn't all you have to do.
You also have to manage your social media to build your list. You have to manage your promos, your giveaways; you have to do regular content for your list and for your own blog. You have to keep producing original, interesting, engaging stuff that you can use to drive traffic to those all important landing pages.
And that is on top of organizing and managing the writing itself, and all the palaver of preparing a book for publication.
And for most self-published authors, all that is also on top of your day job, your kids, your husband, your dog, your cat...
I feel your pain. I suck at scheduling.
Not because I can't get stuff done. Not because I can't find the time for it, or work out in advance when I can do it.
Because I just can't keep to a schedule. And neither can you.
Why it's impossible (and why that's okay)
It's impossible to keep to the schedule, no matter how carefully worked out it is. And because you can't keep to it you get behind. Because what you didn't have time for yesterday, you try to do today, because otherwise it will get out of order as well as late and then... and then where will you be?
It's impossible to keep to the schedule because, yes, all those conflicting demands on your time are all subject to being thrown off track by new demands. Your priorities can change from one day to the next even when your not relying on, or being relied on, by other people. You have new ideas. You have days where you hate everything you wrote.
It's impossible to keep to the schedule because some days, you just don't feel like doing the task you've scheduled for that day.
It's okay. A lot of what we do requires an effort of concentration. It requires us to be in the right frame of mind.
There are days when it would be crazy of me to go on twitter because I'd come across as a total flake (rather than a bumbling amateur - which seems to be acceptable); and when I better keep of Facebook or I'd rant endlessly and aimlessly in the comments of someone else's great post.
There are days when I start, and delete, the same blog post five or six times.
There are days when I have an awesome idea for a newsletter for my mailing list.
There are days when I see a new way of explaining something.
There are days when I just want to spend hours going through my old notes to see if there's new content to be found.
In Short, You Know ...
...when the time is right to write, and when the time is dead wrong.
I certainly do. If I have a list of tasks to do, and I assign a day or a time to them, when that time comes I've no guarantee that I'll be able to do the task.
This means that the calendar actually works against me. The more I have scheduled, the less I can do. So even though when I'm really overloaded with all sorts of different tasks, planning out everything over the next couple of weeks so everything has it's dedicated day makes it all look doable, and leaves me feeling reassured that it will get done, usually about a quarter of the tasks still don't get done.
Which means I need another solution.
Kanban, my research told me, is the technique of the moment. I didn't know it at the time, but Trello - which many people swear by, but which I find worse than useless - is inspired by a procedural organization system for teamwork called "Kanban."
Systems like Trello claim to be inspired by Kanban, but basically use a set of virtual boards to which virtual stickies can be affixed, each of which represents a task. Kanban works very well in agile production where there are many small teams. For one person alone... let's just say it didn't work for me, and leave it at that.
Kickstart your Control Tower?
I was taking some down time, and one of my particular pleasures is to scoff at the absurd ideas in the "Design" category on Kickstarter - some of which are, frankly, brilliant, and others less so. There, I came across this delightful madness:
This is the desktop ATC Board - 45 days to go (at time of writing) and it's already funded. What is it? It's the system historically used by air traffic control to stack em, pack em and rack em.
The air traffic control strip rack has three huge advantages over every other organization system:
- you can see how many tasks there are to do at a glance
- you can see the details by just looking a little closer
- it takes moments to take one task and move it elsewhere - to a different place in order, or onto a different rack
One Task Leads to Another
Any freelancer has all sorts of different tasks to do; admin, production, promotion, communication... and most of these tasks are only weakly interdependent. Some are repeating, but in most, there is some elasticity in the delivery date. There's little harm being late, and a small advantage to being early.
So an ideal allows you to list your tasks, categorize them, assign hard deadlines, a few dependencies, but most of all
allows you to choose which task to do according to what sort of task you feel like doing
The ATC board does this... but it's not very portable, and has certain notable limitations.
My Ideal Solution
Before I started looking for the ideal system I scribbled a drawing.
This here is me, sitting in front of my Tasks Cabinet.
In the green drawers are tasks that either have no deadline, or have no urgency. Some of them are just ideas.
In the yellow drawers are tasks that either repeat, or will take a longer time to carry out.
In the red drawers are tasks whose deadline is fast approaching or (let's face it) is already past.
Each day, I can consult the list of tasks to be done today, tomorrow, this week or just soon and I can decide which ones to do, based on my state of mind.
This has three major advantages:
- Nothing ever gets forgotten
- I'm only stressed if a task is actually late - rather than every time it's not done on schedule
- I do everything better because I do tasks when I'm in the best state of mind for them
Once I'd worked all that out, I spent two days trying out various systems and software for task management.
My Weapon of Choice
Nothing was absolutely ideal. But one thing comes very, very close.
ASANA is an online task management system, that can be used by teams or by individuals.
It's simple task management, with some sorting and planning and organization. With alerts, notifications, integration with Google Calendar, and apps for your mobile device of choice.
I find that especially useful as I often have ideas for content or courses, or just advice to give to my authors or my mailing list, and all I have to do is create a new task on the Asana app on my phone.
Workflow Analysis & Good Sense
A long, long time ago, I worked in business process analysis. I mapped processes to turn them into online workflows during the dotcom bubble, when online for most people still meant dial-up. It was fun... people say it was kinda like the Wild West which is, y'know, a romantic exaggeration i.e. a lie.
But it did teach me the secret to organizing any individuals work.
You have to select, or create, a workflow that matches how you work, not try to fit yourself into a workflow you're convinced ought to work.
People beat themselves up over "being disorganized" when in reality, they're trying to squeeze themselves into a workflow that doesn't suit them.
TL;DR: you don't suck at scheduling. Scheduling isn't the system for you.