Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Balancing Time

I may not be online for most of the rest of the week, so there may or may not be any posts, and Friday's Virtual Vicarious Vacation will likely be posted late (if at all) because I'll be out of town and away from the photo CDs.

I still have writing posts about research and editing in the planning stages, but this one came to me, so I went with it. I originally wasn't planning to address this topic in a writing post because I thought the appeal wouldn't be wide enough for all writers, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought there might be something useful. How do you balance all the various aspects of a writing career? It's not just something for published authors to think about because there are different things to balance at different times in your career -- learning, writing, networking, marketing and so forth.

A rule of thumb that's widely used for allocating resources in the business world is the concept of 80/20. Eighty percent of your resources (time, money, effort, etc.) should be devoted to the most important 20 percent of your business, while the remaining 20 percent of your resources should go to the remaining 80 percent of the business. It's hard to quantify percentages in the writing life (in the business world, you can put hard numbers against the most profitable parts of the business or the biggest customers to have a clear 80/20 split on priorities), but I would translate that as the most important one or two, three at the most, priorities. You can't really put more than three priorities in that top category or you're diluting it too much and losing the 80 percent effect.

For a writer, writing will almost always be one of those top priorities that you focus 80 percent of your time on. There may even be times when it's the only priority in that 80 percent. Under "writing" I would include all activity directly related to producing a book -- research, brainstorming, thinking (and this does include staring out the window time), plotting, planning, writing, revising, proofreading and then if the book sells you'll have editorial revisions, copy edits and galley proofs.

Other priorities may come and go at various times in your career.

When you first start writing, one of your top priorities may be learning. You'll still try to write a lot, but you'll also focus on reading books about writing, going to conferences and workshops, taking classes, etc.

When you're writing your book, that may become your sole priority, with all other activities like studying the market, learning and networking falling into the bottom 20 percent.

As you move forward and have a completed manuscript, one of your priorities may be to get an agent or get the book published, so in your 80 percent of time you'll do stuff like research the market, find names of editors or agents and write and send query letters.

When the book sells, marketing may become a major priority, as you get your name out there by blogging, having a web presence, doing interviews, etc.

You may do all these things at all parts of your career, but at times when they're not a top priority, they fall into the other 20 percent. That beginning writer may do some networking by meeting editors and agents at conferences, but that's not her focus. The writer who is submitting manuscripts may start doing some marketing by putting together a web site and starting a blog, but it's not her focus. The published author may still keep learning the craft by reading books and going to workshops, but it's not her focus. You get the idea.

The balance of how you allocate the 80 percent of your time may vary, depending on what else is going on. An approaching deadline may shift it all to writing for a while, as will one of those "here are your copy edits, we'd like them back in three days" situations. On a day you have to do an interview, your writing may take a back seat. In the weeks immediately before and after a book release, even your writing may have to move to the lower 20 percent while you do blog tours, booksignings and other activity to push the book. When there's nothing specific happening to force your priorities, I suppose you could apply the 80/20 principle for prioritizing your top priorities, with 80 percent of 80 percent of your time focused on your very top priority, then the remaining 20 percent of 80 percent of your time on the secondary top priority.

I have to admit that I only recently thought in terms of applying this to the writing business, and what I like is that it simplifies things and forces me to focus. It's very easy to fall into the trap of busy work, so that you're doing things that need to be done and that count as work, but they aren't really your priority, and the important things aren't getting done. When I analyzed how I spent my time, I realized that the most important task for me -- writing -- was getting a small percentage of my time. I was spending more time reading industry blogs and staying on top of what was going on in the market than I was writing. I've tried various time management methods, like considering various tasks "clients" and tracking time the way I did when I was working for an agency, but I never seem to stick with that for long, and it's time consuming. Just focusing consciously on what's important seems to be working for me.

I aim for a 6-hour workday. That's because I only count time I'm actually working, and as I found when I went to part time and telecommuted in my last job, there's a lot of wasted time in a regular day at the office. I also don't count activities like morning freewriting, the time I spend thinking about a book while doing other things like taking a shower or taking a walk, or the time I spend reading for pleasure, which kind of counts as work because reading is essential for writing and may also count as market research. I figure that if I add up all the time that isn't really work but that ends up being applied to my work, I'm working more than a full day, so I think that 6 hours of dedicated, quantifiable working time is fair.

That means I should be spending almost 5 hours a day on my top priorities. For me at the moment, that's writing and studying. I'm studying not only writing how-tos but also things like time management, creativity and psychology. That leaves a little more than an hour for everything else, like publicity, staying on top of the industry and administrative stuff, like record keeping.

Instead of trying to time absolutely everything I do, I just keep a running record with a stopwatch of time spent on my top two priorities and make sure I hit my goal. I don't worry about timing other activities. It may end up being more time than I have designated, but at least I'm devoting more time to my priorities. Incidentally, that's why my web site needs updating and I only seem to hit Facebook once in a blue moon. Publicity isn't a priority for me right now. When I finish the book I'm working on so that writing is taking up less of my 80 percent and when I give myself a break from studying, I may temporarily move marketing up in the priority list.

Of course, you have to be flexible. There are days when a lot of admin tasks come in. There are conventions, which mean spending the whole day on publicity activity (I usually don't try to write during conventions). This isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast rule, just a guideline. Everyone's going to have a different "work day," and you may even have a different length of work day for each day of the week. You may choose to think in terms of weeks or months -- how many hours you want to work in a week or month and count it that way instead of on a daily basis. That may even be more sane than trying to meet that goal each day. I may move to that once I'm in the habit of a certain amount of work, but for now I'm keeping an eye on a daily goal.

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