Time Management: Or, Tricking Yourself into Working at Home by Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr

In one of the seminars that I hosted last year, one of the participants was most concerned not with editorial questions, per se, but with the issue of how to manage one’s time as a freelancer. This got me thinking about how I get things done, or perhaps if I get things done in my busy life of editing, research, and teaching.

It is true that working from home has many distractions. Five of my distractions have fur and two are just hairy. (Translation: five cats, a husband, and a teenage son.) There’s also the laundry, the dishes, the infernal ringing of the phone, etc. etc. But I manage to get things done somehow. I did, after all, manage to squeeze a PhD out over the past several years.

I once collaborated on a project with a young, unattached man who said he just sits down to edit and starts his timer to keep track of his hours. As soon as I sit down to edit, the gray cat comes to show me how cute she is by rolling around in front of me and pushing on the space bar. If she moves off, the tortoiseshell baby moves in and lays down on my mouse-moving arm for a nap. Keeping track of my hours has never worked for me, so my editorial estimates are all project based and done by word count. Sometimes this goes very wrong… all words are not created equal!

One method for big projects, like writing a book, is to form a project-oriented support group and meet once a week or so for breakfast. Every week you are accountable to your group for some progress, at least a smidgen, on your project. I modified this method once and teamed up with my friend Trish who similarly has more to do than she can handle. We nagged and goaded each other for a couple of days and both got a tremendous amount done. Somehow this was more motivating than being nagged by my husband to “bill something, for heaven’s sake!”

Although I am haunted by my friend Gillian’s story of finding a ten-year-old To Do list only to discover that she hadn’t done ANY of the things on it, my favourite motivational method by far is the To Do list. My standard To Do list covers a month at a time, one page, double column.

First I sort the items by type: Reading, Writing, Editing, Household/Gardening (not that I garden), Friends/Appointments, Knitting/Crocheting/Sewing, Phone/Correspondence, Miscellaneous, and Regular Gigs. This helps me to remember what I need to do and to set goals for the month – read four novels, finish a baby quilt, editorial deadlines, remember to pick the rhubarb, etc.

Then I ditch those categories and sort the items into weekly lists. This helps me to figure out exactly WHEN a task has the best chance of getting done, considering all the other To Dos. Actually, I’ve had to conclude that every week is two days short of the number of days required to do everything, but it seems I can’t change that.

Since it is intimidating to look at a whole month of To Dos at once, my latest strategy is to list daily To Dos in my Day-Timer. I do this by hand, as it is so satisfying to cross them out. But the trick is not to pick too many, or nothing will get done. I’ve decided that ten is the right number. It just isn’t satisfying to write down ONE thing, especially if it is so big that it might not get done by the end of the day. If you are tackling a big project, then break it down into its component parts.

On good days, the list looks like this: 1. Find dog fabric for Diane; 2. Edit OLBI; 3. Write Post doc application; 4. Read Royal Commission report, etc. But even the most unproductive days look good on paper if you’ve been able to cross off ten things: 1. Pee; 2. Feed cats; 3. Eat breakfast; 4. Sudoku; 5. Brush teeth, etc. Actually, there have been periods (usually post-partum) where I was happy if I managed just to brush my teeth…

Whatever method of self-motivation you choose, make sure also to take advantage of your high-energy times. I used to have those. I miss them. Good luck!

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