Confession time: When it comes to keeping records about work done and work to do I’ve always been a bit… well, let’s be kind and call it dedicated. Yes, some people may use the word ‘obsessive’, but I put that down to jealousy. They envy my brightly coloured wall charts, my itemised calendars, and my spiffy spreadsheets. It’s envy, I tell you!
I like knowing how much work I’ve done on a given day and being able to tell at a glance how much I have left to do. On days when I’ve been less than productive, a skimpy chart can inspire me to do better over the rest of the week. I like seeing my word count go up, and my job done percentage approach the 100% mark.
I use several trackers each of which has a different function. I’m not saying you have to be quite as, uh, dedicated as I am, but I honestly couldn’t manage without…
THE TO DO LIST
If you only have time in your life for one tool, you poor deprived thing, I’d recommend the To Do list. In fact, I can’t imagine how you’d function without it.
Most writers have to squeeze their writing into odd moments through the day. If you have more than one project on the go at a time — I currently have four — then you don’t want to waste precious writing moments trying to figure out what’s next. With your trusty To Do list, you can tell at a glance what should be your priority.
At this point let me remind of the obvious: you should take a professional approach to your writing. Think of it as a job, not a hobby. I promise you it’s a job for all the editors, publishers, and agents you are hoping to dazzle. So, with this professional attitude in place, why wouldn’t you want to use all the professional tools at your disposal? There are plenty to chose from. You’ll find a wide range of apps available for your phone or computer; you can design your own on Word or Excel or whatever programmes you use; or you can return to the basics and dedicate a notebook to the purpose.
Organisational tools are a bit like brassieres…
Organisational tools are a bit like brassieres. (Sorry, boys, I can’t come up with an analogy for you. Jock straps?). Some women like sports bras, and others prefer delicate lacy numbers. Some like white and others prefer black or red or pastel. There are cotton bras, silky bras, and bras made of lace. There’s no right or wrong choice. All that matters is that it fits you and gives you the support you need. By the same token, organisational tools should suit the user. You may have to try a few on before you decide what you like best.
The bare minimum information on a To Do list is the date in which you’re working, the item that you need to do, and a completion due date. I mean, rock bottom. If you’re a minimalist, this might suffice, but let me suggest a few more bells and whistles:
- Use one master To Do list for everything, but break it down into daily, weekly, and monthly items. MS Excel comes with a variety of templates you can tweak to accomplish this, but a notebook with different coloured pages — yellow for daily, blue for monthly, green for the big picture stuff — will do just as well. I use an Excel spreadsheet. The first page contains all the big-picture stuff — projects that may take a year or more to complete; all the various tasks that require my attention, this goes beyond simple writing items, but includes things like research or contacts with agents or teaching assignments. I then have a page for each month of the year, and this is broken down further into weeks and, finally, days. No, I am NOT obsessive. much. I only work on today’s list. Things I didn’t get to today will go on tomorrow’s list, but if I’ve set up my projects well enough at the outset I should keep on track. I review the big picture stuff a few times a month, just to make sure nothing is being overlooked.
- Add a column for the project category. Although I would describe myself primarily as a novelist, I also like writing other things, too, such as short stories, articles, and the occasional play. By adding a category to the title of the work, you can track how much of your time is going where. If you think you’d like to write a novel, but you’re spending 90% of your writing time on shorter pieces, maybe you need to reevaluate your priorities or your goals.
- Speaking of goals… Every to-do list is dependent upon the goals you have for yourself and your project.
- SPECIFIC: The goal should be specific, “I will complete the first draft of my novel by the end of the year.”
- MEASURABLE: You should be able to measure the goal so you can tell if you’ve achieved it or not. Have you completed your first draft by the end of the year? It’s a yes or not answer.
- ACHIEVABLE: The goal should be realistic. If you start writing on December 1st and you want to complete a 100,000 word novel by December 31st of the same year, you’re probably kidding yourself.
- RELEVANT: If you want to write a novel, then your goals should help you achieve that. If you write all your goals around writing a poem instead, you’ll never get that novel written. Just sayin’.
- TIME-BOUND: The goal should have a date attached.
- Set priorities. If finishing the novel is the most important task, then this should be number one for you to work on every time you sit down to write. Of course, if you have a deadline for a smaller project, that will become more important, especially when the due date is looming.
- Break each big project into smaller, easier to manage tasks. For a novel, you will probably want to include your daily word-count, but you’ll also need to add research, writing the synopsis, writing the cover letter, and so forth.
- Track the percentage completed: Some electronic programmes come with this feature built in, or, if you’re techy-minded, you can do this yourself. But even if you’re using a notepad, it’s not rocket science. If your novel is going to run, say, 100,000 words and you’ve written 50,000 you shouldn’t need Stephen Hawking to tell you you’re half-way there.
- The ten and under rule: You really should avoid overloading your To Do list with a huge number of tasks. You’ll become overwhelmed and the tool is then self-defeating. The point in having a master spreadsheet, but breaking down the project into smaller, daily tasks is to avoid this sort of GULP! reaction.
- Use your minions. If you have them, that is. I don’t. The stuff on my to do list is mine alone to do. But if you do have people who are able and willing to help you, then make a note on your To Do list about who you’re assigning what task.
- Pretty it up! If your list looks inviting you’ll be more inclined to use it.
- Post it Prominently so you won’t forget anything or ignore it. Print a copy and stick it on the wall by your desk. Make it the first thing you see when you open your laptop.
- Allow yourself some flexibility. I know all of these suggestions probably sound a bit draconian, but they don’t have to be. A To Do list is a tool, plain and simple. You are its master, not the other way around. If it’s making you anxious, or if you aren’t getting any use out of it, then scrap it. Don’t give up too soon, though. It takes time to adjust to a new way of working.
MS Excel has several ‘To Do’ templates that you can download and modify to suit yourself. I’m a spreadsheet nerd so I like designing my own. I know. You’re shocked.
Good old fashioned calendars are also helpful. If you have one that gives you enough space to write in details for each day (or you could use a page / day diary), you can itemise what you need to do each day and check it off when the task is complete. These are great if you’re a visual sort of person. It can also be helpful to see a calendar on the wall where you can’t escape it. As with everything else, there are calendars on all computers and phones, too, so you might want to check them out and see if they can fit your purpose, or they might give you ideas for creating your own tool.
Mobile phones also come with task manager apps. Not only do these work well for daily tasks, but they can also ping to remind you when you are supposed to work on something. I have to admit, I find this annoying and so tend not to use it, but I know a lot of people find it helpful.
Next time we’ll look at some of the other tools you might want to use, such as marketing lists, submission trackers, and so on.
Write Wednesday’s blog. Done!