10 Things I Learned from Project-Based Work

How does my project-based work experience help me as a writer?

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.

Time & Project Management: #authortoolboxbloghop

I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards. At some point in grad school, I recognized my lack of organizational skills.

I used to work in a job so multi-faceted and complex that when I left, I was replaced by two people. I had dozens of projects on the go, several teams of people to oversee, and a huge budget to manage. There is no doubt I worked too hard and too long, and I left burnt out, but I also learned some very valuable lessons in managing time and projects that I still use today in my third career as a writer, editor and the coordinator of a small indie collective press.

I’ll throw in my usual caveats here: I’m in my 60s; no children, and this is what I do full time. I’m not balancing another job, children, elderly parents, house renovations, commuting…life. (I did, though, minus the children, and that’s why my first book took 12 years to write.)

I recognized my lack of organizational skills somewhere in grad school. I have ADHD, which has both its own challenges and its own rewards, the ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time on certain things being the most obvious positive feature (for me). But I needed processes to replace my poor executive function, because without them, it was and is all too easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of me. And if I get overwhelmed, I simply do nothing.

I won’t bore you with a list of the books I read and the methods I tried. Most didn’t work; they required too much time and focus. But I took bits from most of them, and now I have a system that works fairly well. It’s quick and it’s visual, both requirements for me.

As you can see, I use a series of checklists, and a forward-projection of the dates on which each project needs to be completed. This allows me to then subdivide the project into chunks, and schedule those, as well, working backwards from the completion date.

Then I use a daily planner. I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so between 8:30 and 11:30 is my intensive work time. That’s my time to work on my own book, when I have one in progress – and when I am actively writing, it’s nearly every day. I don’t wait for creativity to strike: most of the time, once I start, the words will flow. Perhaps not as well as I’d like, but as the saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.  

When I’m not actively writing, this is the time I use to learn something new or do in-depth research: whatever the big tasks are that the board shows me I need to complete.  I take a couple of breaks, for movement and coffee, usually sneaking in a load of laundry or some other household chore.

After lunch I’ll generally check emails & social media, deal with anything important (or amusing) and then work on non-writing projects (that includes editing other people’s work or doing video meetings with other writers) for an hour or two. Exercise next, a walk or cycling for at least an hour and then another hour or so on ‘little’ things, tasks that don’t take a lot of creativity, such as updating websites, checking analytics, filling out forms, sending information out. But even most of those – barring an urgent response – have been scheduled, again to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Then I settle down with a cup of tea and read – books for review and/or pleasure – for 15 minutes to half an hour.

A few nights a week I work between about 10 and midnight: that’s a different sort of creative time for me, the time I write scenes that never make it into the book, but teach me about my characters and their responses; the time I do mindmaps of the major themes and conflicts of the story, the free-flowing ‘right brain’ associations and lateral thinking taking over. I’m about half-way between the poles of pantser and plotter, and this time is completely necessary to my writing process, and very different from the task-oriented approach I use the rest of the time. I’ll likely have music on, songs that relate to my work-in-progress in some manner. I might read poetry, looking for epigraphs or just for the expression of emotion I too am looking to convey.

Of course, life gets in the way of any schedule. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was to not overschedule your day, so that there is room for the interruptions and minor ‘emergencies’. Friday afternoons are unscheduled, for catch-up, and my weekends look different from Monday to Friday: I may work for myself, but I still get weekends! Groceries and cleaning and movie matinees and dinners with friends (well, not the two last ones just now, in the middle of COVID-19 social distancing) are all part of the week too.

Does it work perfectly? Of course not. I have days when I’m just too scattered, and that’s likely a day I choose to do something that I know I will hyperfocus on – designing ads, doing layout, or very detailed editing on my own work  –  and sometimes I just need to walk away from everything. But when I come back, the structure is there to guide me as to priorities: I don’t have to reinvent them. It keeps my mind calmer, and when my mind is calm, I’m productive.

Oh, and I have one other necessary ingredient in all this: coffee!