When my triplets — now 24-year-old college grads — were babies, I designed feeding charts for them using an Excel spreadsheet. Friends and family rolled their eyes at me, but they helped complete the forms which I insisted be filled out daily. In retrospect, I think they knew better than to mess with my raging hormones and my irrational fear that one child might be left unfed. But it’s entirely possible they did it because they suspected my middle names were “highly organized.” (Either that or “don’t argue with her if you value your life!”)
I push a lot of work through my office every day and that’s not because I’m smarter than most people. I’m not. Nor is it because I’m more talented. I’m most certainly not. It’s not even because I’m a fast writer (which I am, now, at least.) I get a lot done because I was born with the ability to look at systems and figure out faster ways of working.
Here are five tricks I use to help keep myself utterly productive as a self-employed writer and editor:
1) I am obsessed with timers. I have a low-cost timer called Action Enforcer on my iMac to record how much time I spend on client jobs. I enter the total for each client onto a monthly spreadsheet at the end of each day. But do I stop there? Oh, not-by-a-longshot, no. I also have two or three kitchen timers scattered throughout my office. The main one is always set at 25 minutes for my pomodoros. I find the pomodoro a little bit of writing magic that helps keep me focused and off email and web surfing when I need to push out the words. It even helps when I don’t feel like writing. The other timers govern my five-minute breaks at the end of each pomo. I also use them for timing my various back exercises (which I often do two minutes at a time.)
2) I use software to track my deliverables. For the past few years, I’ve relied on a no-charge app called Wunderlist. I enter all my tasks (including things like paying credit card bills), link them to a deadline and then when I open this software each morning, anything due that day appears, like magic. Also, anything that I failed to do the day before appears in red. It’s deeply motivating.
3) Just to prove that I’m not consumed by technology, I also rely on the Plexiglas clipboard that sits immediately to the right of my computer. It contains my 10-item “first things” list with which I begin every morning. It takes me about 30 minutes to get through them each morning, but saves me so much time and it feels marvelous to begin each day by checking off a bunch of boxes that are, truthfully, incredibly easy to accomplish.
4) One of the 10 items is preparing a daily “to do” list, which I do every morning except Sundays. I divide this list into “Important” (these are items that have no deadlines attached and will help me grow my business) and Urgent. I sub-divide the urgent lists into “Urgent pomodoros” (jobs that will take at least 25 minutes) and “Urgent short” (jobs like phone calls or emails) so, at a glance, I can see how I’m doing. I’m constantly working to persuade myself to do the important things BEFORE the urgent ones. (This is much harder than it sounds.)
5) I track my accomplishments each day. I have an “accomplishments” file on my hard drive and in it I write down three things I accomplished that day. Funnily enough, I never go back to reread this. It’s just enough to write it down daily and briefly bask in the tiny glow of accomplishment.
Bottom line? I regard deadlines as sacred. Perhaps this is genetic — my parents owned a small weekly newspaper — or perhaps it was inculcated by years of working as a journalist, but I would no more miss a deadline than I’d shove one of my kids in front of a speeding car. You might want to think about how you can organize yourself to approach deadlines with a similar passion.