When you turn your writing into a business, you need productivity hacks. That’s just what happens when your fluffy dreams get smacked by the damp trout of reality.
When writing is still a hobby you indulge in when you feel like it, you imagine what it would be like to be granted the freedom to do it all the time. You see yourself, crafting jewel-like prose while at the beach / porch / wood-paneled inspiration nook / comfy bedroom.
Instead, you grow paranoid and schizophrenic. You find you have developed a number of characters. You’re on the assembly line churning out prose. You’re the managing editor, keeping track of stories flowing to and back from magazines, agents, and/or publishers. You’re wearing an eyeshade while going over the financial accounts. You’re playing guru and psychologist, with you on the couch, monitoring your mental and physical health and staying aware of disruptions in those systems.
That’s not counting your real life with family and friends and the demands that they create. Pleasurable chores, of course, but still things you need to keep track of and tick off when accomplished. (For example, I need to send an email to M. regarding lunch this week. We have lunch every month.)
To keep track of everything, you need productivity hacks.
Trying to remember everything doesn’t cut it anymore. Not if you want to be really good at it.
Your Long To-Do List
Your to-do list can be broken down into several areas:
* The things you have to do, right now. Depending on your calendar, it could be to pay your taxes, or vote, or go to the dentist.
* The things you want to do, right now. Write, of course, but it could be to take your spouse out to dinner, or read a bedtime story to your children.
* The things you’re going to do, but not now. Some of these tasks will have chores that must be checked off before you get to the task. If you want to attend Bouchercon, the annual convention for mystery writers and fans, you’ll have to find out where it’s being held and when. You’ll have to buy a membership and make hotel reservations. You may have to get the handle on your overnight bag repaired, or make sure you’re packed in plenty of time.
* And then there are the things that you might want to do, but not sure. Should you take a vacation this year? What’s the next book you want to write? The house could use a coat of paint: Do you want to do it or hire a crew?
Try this: Write down everything that’s on your to-do list. Keep it handy for the rest of the day, because as you walk around the house, look at the calendar, discuss this with your spouse, more tasks will crop up. Be sure to include all the things you want to make a decision about, but haven’t. No task is too great or small to go on the list.
I’ll bet that you could come up with at least 50 items. If you’re married with kids, you’ll have double the number of tasks. I know I do.
How do you keep track of all that? If you’re like most people, you’ll do things as you’re reminded to. You’ll let some things slide, sometimes to your disadvantage. And some things, like repainting the house, will keep getting put off and put off until you see the termite damage, and then it’ll be too late.
Productivity Hacks: Calendars and Ticklers
The system I use is suggested by Dave Allen in his “Getting Things Done” book. Although you should look into using his whole system, this one subsection can be used by itself to keep track of tasks that you don’t want to forget.
I made some modifications to it to adapt to my scattershot memory. Simply put, I can’t keep complicated procedures in mind. I have to have checklists and notes. I also can’t keep anything in desk drawers. Out of sight, out of mind. It has to be on the wall in front of me and easily findable.
That’s the sweet thing about the calendar and tickler system for keeping track of certain tasks. It does the hard work for me.
There are two parts to this system: the calendar, and 43 folders.
I use an ordinary desk calendar (I also use a year-at-a-glance calendar, as well as monthly calendars I create using Microsoft Publisher, but I won’t go into them now). Because I love comic strips, I get one featuring one of my favorite comic strips. It’ll be “Dilbert” one year, “Get Fuzzy” the next, and “Pearls Before Swine” after that.
I don’t rotate them or keep track; I just buy the one that appeals the most to me when it’s time to order.
Then I get 43 file folders. Thirty-one of them are marked in numerical order, and the rest have a month printed on them. I also bought a file rack for my desk that holds them.
This way, I have a 12-month calendar on my desk that can store notes. The numbered folders are used for the current month only. Anything beyond the current month that has to be filed goes into the folder for that month.
For example, suppose I need to remind myself to pay my state sales tax bill on July 10 (in Pennsylvania, I have to keep track of my direct sales and pay the sales tax twice a year, after June 30 and Dec. 31). I could write it on my year-long calendar on the wall, and in fact, I do. But I could also use my tickler to remind me. Since I can’t put the note in the “10” folder–because that’s for the current month–I’ll write a note (“Pay state sales tax on July 10”) and put it in the July folder.
On July 1, I’ll arrange the numbered folders property and open the July folder. Even though I had forgotten it, my past-self had arranged things so I’ll be reminded that on July 10, I’ll pay the state the money they’re owed. I’ll move the note to the “10” folder where it’ll wait for me.
All I have to do is remember to check each day’s folder to see what I need to do.
To get myself in the habit, I’ll use my desk calendar. I have a small Post-It note that says “check tickler”. When I tear the page at the beginning of the business day, there it is, waiting to remind me. Checking the folder takes but a moment, and I move the Post-It to the next day’s page (making sure not to look and see what Dilbert and the gang are up to).
Reminders At Any Time
Here’s the beauty of the system.
1. It plays into my desire for pleasure. I like reading comic strips. It’s a lifelong habit. Even though I don’t get a daily paper (not my decision, the Newhouse family decided Harrisburg didn’t need a daily paper and cut it back to three times a week), I have 20 bookmarks set for my favorite (and not so favorite) comics. I follow The Comics Curmudgeon website faithfully.
Because I read comics every day, I’m guaranteed to read the one of my desk calendar. The best way to remind me to do something is to write it on one of those pages. It’s about as foolproof a way for me to keep on top of tasks as I can invent.
2. The calendar pages double as notepaper. The backs of most of the pages are blank, or mostly blank. They are stacked below my monitor. Sometimes, I’ll have a dozen or so of them, but that’s all right. Whenever I need to keep track of something, they’re at hand.
3. I’m not fazed by unexpected events. Suppose I’m at my desk and I get an email from a convention, wanting me to give a workshop. It’s in November, nine months from now. Do I want to attend?
Sure! I dash off an acceptance, and mark the date on my wall calendar. Then I think: I’ll need to take along books to sell. Will I have enough? Make a note for the October folder to check my inventory and order new copies if I need to. I’ll grab another calendar page (Heh, that Wally is a card!) and remind myself to check in with the organizers (add the email address in case I lose it). Drop that into the May folder. Then, I pull it out again, add “think about what I’m going to say there” and return it.
Now I can go on with the day, secure in the knowledge that my tickler will be there to remind me of my upcoming appearance.
4. It’s adaptable to any need. I’ve used my desk calendar to remind me that a fellow author’s holding a Facebook Live event. I’ve pulled from a new month’s folder items that I added 11 months ago (that, it turns out, I no longer needed to do). Because the folders and the calendar hangs around in front of me, I can use them for any purpose.
It’s productivity hacks such as these do more than keep me on track. They remind me that I’m in a business. I’m the owner, boss, and peon, and I’m responsible for everything that goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect and get everything done, not by a long stretch. But I stand a better chance of succeeding because they’re here to help.
Plus, I get to enjoy an extra dose of my favorite comic strip.