Day Four of Readers’ Questions – Let’s Get Practical

cbdtta_tiny[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]

Readers’ Questions – Day Four.

After yesterday’s delving into storytelling advice followed by pipe dreams of Hollywood productions, today’s questions are bringing this blog back to earth. Today is going to be all about organisation, project management, and time management – the very bread and butter of this blog.
…The blogger wrote, as she started the Thursday post on Friday afternoon. Moving on!

Oh, and I also already answered the following questions, earlier this week, so go have a see:

1) Day One Questions (Day Job vs. Art; Pen&Paper vs. Keyboard)
2) Day Two Questions (Length of Idea Pregnancy; Boundaries of Realism)
3) Day Three Questions (Driving Through Story Roadblocks; Movie Adaptations of Stories) 

Question Seven: Too Focused vs. Easily Distracted – the Freelance Balance.


Natalia Kyrylova of Bu-Bu.Toys, financial analyst and maker of soft toysasks:

One of the things I enjoy the most about freelance is working out of a comfortable home office, where everything is made to suit my tastes and needs – rather than in grey office walls, stuck with lots of people (whose ideas of comfortable climate control settings are very far from yours…). And yet, working from the “home heaven” has other risks. On one hand, your beloved work can consume you entirely, to the point where you look up and find it’s late at night. On the other, there are plenty of distractions at home that can sidetrack you from your main task.

With the above in mind, here’s a three-fold question.
1) How to avoid working yourself into the ground when you get consumed by the work you enjoy?
2) Do you have any secrets for avoiding distractions, staying focused, and not procrastinating?
3) Where’s the happy medium between being too focused and easily distracted? Any tricks you could share?

Alright, let’s have at it. *cracks knuckles*

...and I have a flowchart and I'm not afraid to use it!

…and I have a flowchart and I’m not afraid to use it!

When it comes to time management, I don’t use any complicated methods. It’s sometimes fun to play with pieces of software and fancy charts, feeling like you deserve the nametag on the left. But in practice, one of my golden rule is: if an organizational tool requires me to use EXTRA effort, rather than making my life simpler – I need a different tool. I also strongly believe that the only way to acquire a time management system is to build your own, from the ground up. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the experience of others – in fact, you should always check out what they’ve got to offer (or else you wouldn’t be reading this blog, right?..). But everyone works differently, and there is no one-fits-all solution.

Some of the methods I do use come from a book that Natalia herself once introduced me to. It’s called The Muse and the Beast, authored by Yana Frank also known as Miu Mau, a freelance designer, artist and writer. (At this time, the book is still only available in Russian. Among my plans for 2015 is to write to Ms. Frank and offer my translation services.) It was a great read, and, naturally, I tried adopting several techniques at once, and naturally, dumped most of them fairly soon for some reason or other. But here’s an important principle I took out of it.

Neither time nor your job is a monolith. Divide both into chunks of reasonable size.

It’s been proven (by numerous, easily googlable studies) that the longer we stay focused on a certain task, the further our concentration drops. If we’ve been doing a job for three hours straight, chances are, we’re being much less productive than we could be – even if we still feel like we’re on a roll. Keep working further, and you’ll start working against yourself, reaching the point where drawn pages get ruined, written scenes stop making sense, stitches get dropped, and files get saved and overwritten under wrong names.

Email subject:  Re[179]: website finishing touches

Re[179]: website finishing touches

(Fun fact: when coding websites, I would always make the same type of mistake upon hitting a certain level of tired. I would edit the wrong file, and get increasingly frustrated at things not working. Over time, I learned to quit for the night as soon as I hit that point, as I would do more harm than good after it.)

Do I hear someone waving a tomato-shaped egg timer at me, chanting Po-Mo-Do-Ro? Yes, let’s address the big red elephant in the room. The Pomodoro Technique, which, to my mind, is a fancy way of saying ‘take regular breaks, dumbass’. Consider the following excerpt from the wiki page:

I always say, never trust a ticking tomato.

I always say, never trust a ticking tomato.

The stages of planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing are fundamental to the technique. In the planning phase tasks are prioritized by recording them in a “To Do Today” list. This enables users to estimate the effort tasks require. As pomodori are completed, they are recorded, adding to a sense of accomplishment and providing raw data for subsequent self-observation and improvement.
~ The Pomodoro Technique wiki

I’m sorry, it just sounds far too pretentious to my ear. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the technique, in fact, I think it’s sound – but dang, there are enough big words there to scare people off.

When I adopted my own time management method, I haven’t even heard of Pomodoro, and was building on the ideas I find in Miu-Mau’s book above. She advocates using 45-minute work segments, and frankly, I’m more on board with that than the 25-minute chunks suggested by Pomodoro. Sometimes, when I start writing, I can spend 25 minutes just staring at the page planning the next scene, so if I take a break right after that, I’ll lose half of what I was thinking about.

My 45/15 method is straightforward:
45_min1) Do a task for 45 minutes. Set a timer – an alarm on your phone, an actual kitchen timer, or use a tracker (I use Focus Booster, a super-simple piece of software which lets me set my own length of work and breaks, and does absolutely nothing else).

2) Take a break for 15 minutes.
In the break, get away from your workplace if at all possible. Do something that requires moving around – cleaning, doing dishes, you name it. If you don’t want to be productive during the break, you don’t have to.
Step outside or onto the balcony, close your eyes and listen to music, you name it. I actually once wrote a list of things you can do with 15 minutes.

3) Repeat until task is done or allocated work time over.
NOTE: If you’re planning to work for more than four hours, insert a full-hour lunch break somewhere in there. The four-hour mark is a good place to stop and eat.

Looks simple, doesn’t it. Well, yes. It is. All you need is the internal discipline to avoid distractions during those 45 minutes. I found that all too often, I’ll be in the middle of a work segment, and suddenly I think of something I simply MUST go see right now (like, that notebook I’ve wanted for ages; or that cat video someone sent me a link to; or, what WAS that song lyric, if I don’t look it up right now, it’ll be bugging me forever…). Well, the trick for dealing with that is to write it down.

Don’t laugh, that actually works. On one hand, you got it out of your head, because things are much easier to forget once written down. On the other hand, it’ll still be there once the 45 minutes are up, so you won’t have forgotten something important.

I really enjoy the 45/15 method, and find that it works rather perfectly for me. When I’m working on a task I’m not enjoying, I can always see the 15-minute light at the end of the tunnel. When I’m working on something I like, it keeps me from losing track of time and keeps my brain focused. In fact, I’m using this method right now, and I can say that it took me 45 minutes to write from the beginning of the post to this paragraph. Yesterday, I barely had half of that writing speed, having spent roughly four hours on a 2,000-word post.

An important thing I want to point out is that taking breaks is as important as staying focused during the 45 minutes. There’s a saying that goes that silence in music as important as sound is. This is a similar case. Without the breaks, your concentration will suffer, and your work stretches will become less and less efficient. You may feel like you’re not getting anything done during your breaks, but you are. You’re letting your brain switch over and refresh. I’ve been told, ‘If I can’t do something before I take a break, I won’t magically become able to do it after.’ In my experience, I often found the case to be exactly the opposite.

Now, on to the second half of this question… procrastination.

Avoiding procrastination 15 minutes at a time.
We usually procrastinate on tasks we don’t want to do, because they’re difficult, scary, or boring. And even in your creative work, there’ll always be tasks you don’t look forward to, whether it’s answering e-mails, updating your website, or organizing your desk.  Besides, the longer we wait before doing those tasks, the more daunting they become.

Sometimes, things get REALLY drastic.

Sometimes, things get REALLY drastic.

When taking organization advice from FlyLady (who mainly advises stay-at-home-mums and work-from-home people), I took on board the belief that you can do anything for just 15 minutes. Therefore, when dealing with a task I find particularly grueling, I approach my 45-minute work segment as a trio of 15-minute chunks.

The first 15 minutes are dedicated to the most unpleasant task I’ve got. If, these 15 minutes later, I’m still struggling, and it doesn’t look like the job is going to be done in the next 5 minutes, I switch to something for the remaining work segment. (But to be honest, more often than not, I find that once I actually started on the thing, I’m just glad to get it over with, and hack away at it until it’s G-O-N-E-gone. In my experience, starting is the most difficult part when dealing with procrastinated jobs.)

To sum up:

Question Seven (1): Too Focused vs. Easily Distracted – Where’s the Balance?
Answer Seven (1): 45 minutes of work, 15 minutes of break. Lather, rinse, repeat. Don’t forget to eat.

Question Seven (2): Procrastination’s a Bitch, Ain’t She?
Answer Seven (2): Tackle it 15 minutes at a time. Start with the worst tasks.

Question Eight: Organizing Projects?

Lynn E. O’Connacht of Little Lion Lynnet’s, author and blogger, asks:

Best or favourite way to organise projects?

Can I drift off into the dreamworld for a moment? I organize my projects in cardboard files, stored in filing cabinets. Each project has a file or multiple files, filled with printed or typewritten pages, notes, pictures, charts, and whatever else it required. So that when I’m actually starting work on a project, I pull a file out of the filing cabinet, place it on my wooden pedestal desk (preferably, topped with a green leather inset), then spread the papers around said desk… Please excuse me, I’m having a moment.

Yes, you got me. I’m a stationery addict born at the wrong time. If I were to picture my perfect office, I would go with this shot from L.A. Noire:

la_noire_officeIn lieu of the above office, I’m forced to be much more simple and digital. However, recently I found that I like making organizational notes on paper much more than using any software, be it a fancy productivity tracker or the simple Notepad.

Most of projects I work on are between one week and one month long. Anything smaller than that I tend to not qualify as a project; anything longer than that is usually a novel, and therefore, a whole different story. The method I describe below applies to short- and medium-term projects. I’m going to use a real-life example, from when I was making my main website. This isn’t going to be rocket science, though. My approach is very straightforward.

0) Determine what the outcome of the project is.
…The outcome is my website. Duh.

Rather obvious, but I’m putting this here just so that I don’t get called out on ‘missing the most important step’. I mean, if you don’t know what you’re aiming for, why are you even starting?

1) List the main jobs you need to do to complete the project.
I like to keep my project to-do list general, but not so general that each task looks like its own project. But that’s a personal preference. Some people want to make it as general as possible, at this stage. Consider this:

Example of very general to-do list Example of moderately detailed to-do list
Select a design;
Organize content;
Upload content;
Test website.
Set up a WordPress-based site on owned domain;
Transport selected blog posts from The Coffee Clef;
Prepare short stories as downloadable PDF files;
Upload short comics for display;
Write a short About page;
Click on everything!

You can see that all of the more specific points on the right are basically an expansion on the more general points on the left. Basically, the left list could be used as instructions for anyone working on a website; whereas the right list is specific to my project.

2) Split each job into separate tasks.
For example, the task ‘Transport selected blog posts’ can be broken down into:
– select the posts I want to display on my website;
– copy each of the posts from the blog to the website;
– format each post to fit the rest of the design.

The purpose of this step is to further split the jobs, down to the smallest self-contained element. In the case of my website, each piece of content was such small element.

Look familiar? (Cartoon by John Cox)

Look familiar?
(Cartoon by John Cox)

3) Put the small tasks on the To Do list for the day. (Write To-Do list in a yellow legal pad.)
Since I usually work on several things at a time, my daily To Do lists tend to contain tasks from several projects, and may look something like this:
– translate Such and Such Contract (for the paid job);
proofread and send Some Other Document (for the same paid job);
– edit newspiece for the Volunteer Media Project;
– write 1000 words of the next chapter (for current novel);
– transport posts from The Coffee Clef to main website:
-> Post A;
-> Post B;
-> Post C;
– prepare synopsis for novel submission (of finished novel);
– write cover letter for novel submission;
– print cover letter and synopsis;
– buy envelope;
– send novel submission package to Big Important Agency Ltd.

You may argue that splitting each task into micro-tasks, to the level of separating preparation and printing a document is silly – but if you look at the sample To Do list above, you’ll notice that not all tasks are split like that. In truth, the more daunting a task is, the smaller pieces I will try to break it into, so that I can check off items as done as frequently as possible, and feel encouraged along the way. (And if you’ve ever submitted a novel, you’ll agree that it was rather brave of me to stop splitting tasks before I got to the level of ‘put novel into envelope’, ‘lick envelope’, and ‘walk to post office’.)

5) Do each item on the list.

6) … No, I think that’s it.

So, if I have to summarize my favorite approach to organizing my work on projects, I’d say:
– be specific in outlining jobs;
– split jobs into the smallest tasks practical;
– keep several projects in the pipeline.

All of the above may seem painfully obvious to you. But an important thing you should remember is to split your tasks. There were times when I would keep a task on my to-do list and never get to it because in reality, it wasn’t a task, it was a small project that required a whole bunch of tasks. An item saying ‘Submit novel to publisher!’ is terrifying. A small list of tasks, from writing the synopsis to buying the freaking stamp, makes approaching an otherwise-insurmountable problem a lot easier.

Remember, kids, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. (Image courtesy of LeanKit)

Remember, kids, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
(Image courtesy of LeanKit)

To sum up:

Question Eight: Favorite Way to Organize Projects?
Answer Eight: split jobs into small tasks, as specific as possible, as small as practical.



Filed under Cried But Did The Thing Anyway

3 responses to “Day Four of Readers’ Questions – Let’s Get Practical

  1. Pingback: Readers’ Questions – Day Three. Roadblocks and Movie Rights | The Coffee Clef

  2. Thank you for such overall answer. And I’m glad, that you enjoy book by Yana Frank.

  3. Pingback: Readers’ Questions, Day Five – Time for Some Real Talk, Guys | The Coffee Clef

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