Wendy Strain joined our July #BBchat to talk about planning and productivity tips for freelance writers.
To view the entire chat transcript, visit this link.
For the July edition of our #BBchat Twitter chat, we asked Wendy Strain, freelance writer, ghostwriter, editor, and author, for her thoughts on planning and productivity tips for freelance writers. Wendy prefaced this month’s chat with a post on the same subject titled “Planning and productivity tips for busy writers.”
If you’d like to be notified about future chats, please subscribe to our Facebook events. Below is a reformatted version of our discussion.
How did you get started working as a freelance writer and in professional writing?
It was a necessity for me. A medical condition keeps me out of the traditional office but I still had a lot to offer. I explored a lot of freelance options and found the ones that worked best for me and allowed me to serve the greatest number of people. Just because you encounter a limitation doesn’t mean you need to stay limited.
What is the AIM technique and how do you use it to organize your weekly activities?
AIM = Acute clarity (Air things out), Intense focus (Identify your goals), and Massive Action (Move your plan). By using this technique, each week I can celebrate my wins, clear out clutter, reassess my path, and refocus on getting it done.
Do you use this process to generate new ideas and goals as well?
I do in a way. I use it during my weekly review. As I’m clearing things out and reassessing my goals, new ideas come up and so I sometimes need to reprioritize them. When a new challenge comes along, I use it to determine the opportunities, where the blocks are, and generate ways around them. I keep a separate list of things that occur to me during the week and use the review time to figure out how to make them happen.
- First, Air things out. Look at your list from the last week and figure out what has been done.
- Second, have an Intense focus. What needs to be done that didn’t get done? What was on the list that could be dumped?
- Third, Move your plan. I have lists for everything: personal goals, business goals, etc.
What’s the best way to determine which tasks to prioritize?
That’s where the second step of AIM comes in – decide what needs to be priority on each list. Sometimes business needs have to trump personal projects, and sometimes personal time needs to be prioritized over business. It will always be different depending on your situation and needs. You always want to keep your clients at the top of the list. If you can, that is. The goal is to strive for some sort of balance. Time blocks are very helpful for that.
You have to look at your lists and decide which items will move you toward your goals and which are more distractions. The items that move you toward your goals get priority. The ones that are distractions are for free time and play. Keeping in mind that your goal could be to play more, but then you need to know what will give you that time.
What level of detail do you put into your smaller action steps for each to-do item?
I put in as much detail as I feel I need. Sometimes I get really nitty gritty just so I can cross off the list items. Ideally, you want them small enough that they can be done in 90 minute to 2-hour blocks. I don’t work well to a clock schedule, but I can usually fit 2-4 time blocks into a day of 90-120 minutes.
By deciding during the weekly review what must get done, you can plug them into time blocks through the week. Time blocks can move around the schedule, as they need to, so long as you make sure you fit in the right amount to get the work done.
How do you determine how long each task is likely to take to complete?
Studies indicate people work best in 90-120 minute increments separated by brief break periods. That’s mostly a guessing game, but once you have some experience, you get better at it. Maybe you know you can edit 4 pages per hour, so you need to schedule 8 hours total to complete an editing project, broken into 4 time blocks. Smaller things, like making a lot of phone calls, can be more difficult, but if you schedule 1 block for phone calls, you’ve made progress.
Another advantage of scheduling time blocks is that you have incentive to get moving on that task instead of putting it off. My days tend to be chaotic and never follow the same routine. With time blocks, I know I just need to fit in X number today.
How do you minimize interruptions from outside sources while you’re working through your time blocks?
Turn off the phone volume to reduce notification interruptions, turn off social media, and close your office door. Close down tabs too. It’s easier to do when you can say, “It’s just 90 minutes or 2 hours.” You can set a timer for that. People understand. Children not so much, but better than when there isn’t a time limit. It also gets easier the more you do it. Plus, as soon as the block is over, you can deal with the distraction better.
I also try to make a publicly available schedule for when I accept incoming calls. I need to do better with making it public though. If there’s a time of day that tends to get crazy, don’t schedule a block for that time. Instead, use it for busywork type activity. If you don’t have an office door to close, disappear into a corner of the library. Take the laptop to a quiet park.
What do your weekly review sessions look like, and how do you hold yourself accountable each week?
I schedule a time block for the review and start by celebrating the fact that I have my own business. That’s a good incentive. Then I clean out the physical space so I feel all organized and clutter-free. It feels great when I’m done with going through my lists and seeing everything I’ve done in the last week. It provides more of an incentive.
Finally, I decide what needs to be done in the coming week and plug it into time blocks for the next week. When I’m done, I feel in control of my business even if not in control of everything else. I know what needs to be done. I know when to do it and I know where I have wiggle room for random craziness that always comes up.
Do you use any online productivity tools or trackers to monitor your progress?
I use Checkvist daily. It allows me to keep all of my lists in one place and can access from computer, phone, or tablet. I have lists for each client project, my business, my personal goals, each creative project, and for anything else that tends to fester, I use Trello to share with my clients to keep track of tasks with them. RescueTime is also good for tracking project time.
I’m considering a few CRM tools that might combine some of these aspects with other important tools like when did I last talk to so and so? Nimble is the CRM I’m looking into lately. I also keep a personal Excel file with a list of my accomplishments of the day.
Do you have any recommendations for further learning about planning and productivity?
There’s a lot of great advice out there. Jeff Goins offered some just today actually in a post called “How I Get Things Done: A Creative Perspective.” The trick is to assess what works for you. Instead of trying everything out, decide what your life looks like, what’s important for you, and find a technique that works with that. I think Tony Robbins first introduced the AIM technique. There’s also the Pomodoro Technique, which I adapted.
Any last questions for Wendy Strain about planning and productivity tips?
Guest: How to be productive even if you’re feeling sluggish?
That one’s a hard one, but if you only have 90 minutes-2 hours to get it done, it adds a bit more motivation. Also, breaking tasks down into smaller chunks makes them feel less daunting. If things are really bad, you may need to reschedule your time block and work on something else. Make it something fun and promise yourself when the fun block is over, you have to finish up the block you’re avoiding.
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