10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

A writing friend, who will remain unnamed (but he knows who he is) suggested the idea of an anthology of novellas the other day, an idea which immediately intrigued me. But I have a book to finish, and a lot of other projects and responsibilities: editing for a client, reading for blog tours and a review site, marketing (my own books plus our press’s), research, the community newsletter for which I’m the chair, a local writers’ group, and then all those things that are not work but life. How do I fit in a novella?

Most of the work I did in my previous professional lives, which spanned roughly thirty-five years, was project based. As a research associate, I juggled lab and field research for several professors and graduate students. As a special education consultant for our school district, I was responsible for special education services to 15 schools, K – 12; two teams of itinerant teachers, and the entire design and implementation of assistive technology services and training for the whole district, as well as many other required responsibilities. I had to visit my schools regularly, consult with and train teachers and educational assistants, liaise with parents….the list was endless. And yet, somehow, it all got done.

Reflecting on all those years of project-based work, what did I learn that now helps me? 

  1. Taking time to plan is a necessity. Not only that, plan backwards from hard deadlines. If I must have X ready on Feb 28th, what do I need to do to be there?  How much time do I need to do it? Schedule that time plus 10%. Plan yearly, monthly and weekly, and revisit your plans every morning to tweak as necessary.
  2. Be firm with yourself. If you schedule 2 hours to work on something, give it the two hours. At 1 hr 45, stop. Write the notes you need to pick up on it again, but that’s it. Move on to the next thing.
  3. Have a system for notes, so when an idea for project X pops into your head when you’re working on Y, record it, in whatever way works for you, and go back to project X.
  4. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do whatever rituals you need to get yourself out of one space and back into the new one (for me it’s a 10 minute break to do a chore or two, then coffee and a read-through of the last thing I did on the project) and get to work. It may not be the best work you’ve done, but it will be a foundation, and, as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
  5. Schedule down time, when your brain can just ponder on things. In my scientist days, that was either the walk between home and the university, which took about forty minutes each way, or the time spent driving out to research plots.  In my special ed days, the schools I was responsible for were anywhere from a half hour to an hour’s drive from my office. (I drove a lot.) Good mulling-over time.  Now it’s my daily walk, or my weekly get-out-of-the-city drive, or just my armchair in the late evening with a whisky and music.
  6. Do what’s most important first. I write between 8 and 10 in the morning: I may write more, but I get those two hours in at least 5 days a week. Then I work on other things scheduled by deadlines and importance. And don’t forget to schedule exercise and meals!!! (For a more detailed look at this, see this earlier post.)
  7. Be realistic, and do not spread yourself too thin – that way lies burnout. Say no to things, both to things your own writer’s brain offers you, and external things. Do they fit right now?  If marketing and branding matter to you, do they increase your exposure and promote your brand to the right market?  If they fit, but you don’t have time for them, take an hour, write some notes, and file it for when you’re finished what you’re doing now.
  8. Know when you need a break. For those of us who work full time from home, either as a result of COVID or because that’s what you always did, it’s really easy for the days to just blur and to work every single one of them. I mentioned my get-out-of-the city drives; I do these alone, with a packed lunch and a thermos of coffee in these COVID days, and I’m gone for 4 – 6 hours. Just me, the road, and music. If I don’t do this, I get very, very grumpy.
  9. Ask for help. No one else can write for you, but can they take something else off your plate to give you a little more time? Or give you feedback on a plot point or structure?  I’m blessed with a husband who’ll do all these things. If the project is externally driven, ask for extensions, or submit drafts for feedback before you get too far into it.
  10. Build in time for emergencies. This was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me. They will happen, whether it’s as simple as a jammed printer or as serious as a visit to the emergency room. Nothing ever goes as planned. Equipment breaks, someone phones, a child or pet is sick, you’re unwell. Effectively, this means I leave one full day in my week unscheduled (separate from my driving day) – a catch up day if I need it, a day to do what I want if I don’t.

Gods, you may be thinking, I just like to write. What I’m reading here feels like a JOB. I write when I can, or when inspiration strikes, and I’m happy with that. If you are, that is wonderful, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I know my situation – my time is my own, without pressing family responsibilities just now – isn’t everyone’s. But if you’re struggling a bit with getting everything done, perhaps what I gleaned from decades in project-based work can help.

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