A 10-Step Solution for Creatives Who Struggle with Time Management

She's no Superwoman. Neither are you. Credit: Sascha Pohflepp

How many of you have had managers storm in just as you’re hitting your stride, inducing an agonizing bout of post-storm writer’s block? How many of you have watched an entire afternoon’s work go to pot after an impromptu “meeting” or “urgent” email?

All of you. I know it. I’ve been there. I’m actually writing to you from the depths of that special hell, where the to do list becomes your personal King Kong. And the work? The work suffers.

You’re inclined to blame others, or the clock itself, a handy excuse on the order of religious denial. But somehow, other people are managing their time just fine. And you need to imitate them.

Are You as Guilty as I Am?

If you’re guilty of any of the following bullets, you need to read this post — and then you need to make these changes.

Do you:
• Answer 95% of emails within one hour of their receipt?
• Respond to “urgent” emails and “911” texts or meeting requests with a feeling of, well, urgency?
• Does a meeting throw off the rest of your schedule?
• Do you agonize over your to do list, but have a tendency to put off the bigger projects because you need a block of time you can’t seem to find?
• Do you accomplish less overall when you’re trying to meet multiple small benchmarks (vs. one or two large benchmarks)?
• Do you find yourself pulling a lot of late-nighters to reach deadlines, beating yourself up for leaving big, important projects until the last minute?
• Do you fear that the work you’re turning in is mediocre? Does the feeling intensify after one of the late-night sessions?

You don’t have to feel this way. In fact, working MORE can help purge that perfectionism that sometimes freezes you in your tracks, as Lorraine Thompson correctly notes. But as far as time and task management go, you need to get better at it. Creative work takes time, and deadlines require advanced management skills you may not have — yet. A little discipline will help you get there.

Micromanaging is Never the Answer

Creative professionals are notoriously handicapped when it comes to managing schedules well. I worked under a tyrannical art director who tried to get me to manage my team of designers by scheduling their work into 20-minute segments. Not only was this completely demoralizing, but the designers were paralyzed. Their options were gloomy.

They could either turn in shitty work, or ask to further segment a project (to better suit the 20 minute markers), OR get in trouble for going over the allotted time. They also found it time-consuming to monitor the sessions, because 20 minutes in a maker’s vocabulary is close to nothing. (Science of the mind supports this. Our brains are vastly complicated, but notoriously incapable of “true” multi-tasking without error.)

The end result of micromanaging the creative team’s time was mediocre work, angry designers, and a furious art director. And angry clients. In other words, a useless business.

The problem is never time. It’s how you manage it, and how you find ways to piddle it away.

Even the designers would say, “We just don’t have time for all of this work.” I didn’t agree with that assessment, and neither did the art director. But I did agree that time, in one way or another, was the issue.

Take Back Control in 10 Steps

These are the steps I’m taking to change my life and my business. I started this week, and I’m already feeling the difference.

  1. Admit that all good work takes time. If you’re a manager, resist the urge to tell someone that the new task you’re putting on their desk is a 20 minute task – even if that person is not a creative professional. If you’re the one doing the work, be realistic about your estimates — and your priorities. It might really take only 20 minutes, but if there’s a three hour project that’s more important, you need to be clear on when those 20 minutes will become available.
  2. Don’t forget to schedule administrative tasks ahead of time. The burden of the micro-business owner is time management, especially when it comes to itty-bitty but key tasks. I wasted two hours playing catch-up on social media and printing out promotional gift certificates the other day. I hadn’t bothered to schedule either task, and then I realized I was late getting them both done. How can I really be “late,” though, if I don’t set aside the time? Find good, workable content management and automation systems for your admin tasks.
  3. Remember your personal obligations need to fit in there too. When you work on your own, or run your own business, you develop a problem very quickly: when does the work stop? Why should it ever, if all time is potentially billable? Well, for one thing, you have to breathe sometimes or you’ll put out subpar products. Burnout is real. More importantly, if you don’t maintain your relationships, your support system will be depleted.
  4. Delineate physical procedures. Meaning: have a place where the unopened mail goes. Keep your workspace tidy. Have strict guidelines to follow about where you will do your work, especially if you work at home. (Bring the laptop to bed with you at your own peril — and the peril of your sex life. This is my #1 no-no personally.) You will find that the actual habit of things having a “place” will help organize your thinking.
  5. Impose the discipline of the office. In your own way, of course. You don’t need to wear pumps around the house, but getting dressed in the morning is a really good idea. I once conducted a phone interview partly in the bathroom because I’d stayed up too late and drank too much. That was a bad idea, and it reflected in my work — I neglected to ask obvious questions. A contributing writer on iGrad, Nikita Mitchell, wrote a great article about exactly this topic.

    Credit: Peter Kaminski

  6. Make a schedule. Just like managers do. Except you shouldn’t slice up your time into even, half-hour pieces. You need to have a two-tiered structure (future deadlines vs. weekly tasks) with bigger time blocks for creative work. In what may be the single most helpful blog post I have read all year, Cal Newport talks about blocking out time for creative work and treating it as sacred: “To-do list creatives advance in their careers based on the quality of their creative output. Our logistical responsibilities, however, fight against this goal. Most to-do list creatives cannot drop everything to spend days lost in monk-like focus. But the result of instead squeezing creative work into distracted bursts is mediocrity.”
  7. Pick one day a week for scheduling. Stop fu%&ing avoiding it. Whether you’re a “to do list creative” or someone who moans at the prospect of a calendar (maybe even a clock), you need to pick one day a week to look over your benchmarks and make a schedule for the week ahead. Just one week. The only thing you should schedule months in advance are your office hours (see below) and actual due dates.
  8. Set boundaries. No, set them. Set them now, and don’t let urgent emails throw you off track. This is where my hatred of the smartphone comes in. I tend to think it keeps me on task and on top. But I have lost hours of my life gazing into my (five plus) inboxes, clicking links, and writing “quick responses” to put out “small fires” that cost me real (billable) time. You must make the blocked-off time known to others: your subordinates, your clients, your colleagues, your husband or wife. Tungle and Google are two free ways to do this virtually. Or try a chalkboard or whiteboard.
  9. Schedule pre-determined office hours for clients and colleagues. It’s so tempting to have an “open” schedule, letting people call, knock, text, email and otherwise step all over you. If you work in a consulting capacity, or as a freelancer (I do both), you justify it by saying your clients “deserve” this freedom. But I’m willing to be a million dollars that if you’re a contractor, EVEN on an hourly retainer, you don’t count “quick emails” as billable.  Those 5, 10, 15 minute chunks add up. On the front end, they cost minutes; on the back end, they cause you to break concentration. See, even Paul Graham is doing it.
  10. Stop lying to yourself. These are the lies I tell myself most often:
  • That only takes 10 minutes.
  • I’ll work that night even though it’s a loud national holiday. Meeting a deadline the following morning is A-OK.
  • My clients need me. I haven’t gotten dressed yet, but I should check email first regardless.
  • My clients need me. Let me drop what I’m doing to answer this email. It’ll only take 10 minutes.
  • I can make dinner, clean the house, do the laundry, and finish my other domestic chores in a single hour so I can work longer tomorrow.
  • I can’t be late to this non-work obligation. They’ll never understand that my livelihood depends on me meeting deadlines.
  • I’m not going to bill him for this. It really only took 10 minutes.

The thing is, even your clients have lives. And the world keeps spinning.

Admit the Real Truths:

  • You need to take off a couple of loud national holidays. It’s really hard to work while your neighbors are outside pounding Jell-o shots.
  • If it only takes 10 minutes, it can wait until you have 10 to spare.
  • It probably doesn’t take 10 minutes. Block out 30 in advance and make them billable if possible.
  • Your clients are getting their nails done, hanging out with the dog, and enjoying their awesome (website – copy – business card – press release – etc.) you hand-made for them. They’re writing, calling, and SMSing you at 10 p.m. only because that is when it’s convenient FOR THEM. Nowhere in your contract does it say you need to be available then too, and if you are, your client will learn to assume you are their personal slave. Again – try office hours.
  • IMPORTANT CAVEAT: Have a contingency plan for client emergencies. Be explicit. Say, “Normally when you email me with a request I can promise a two business day turnaround. But if something urgent happens, like your site goes down, call my direct line at xxx-xxxx.” Then they know there are two ways to get in touch, and one is for emergencies only. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals have emergency vs. routine procedures for their customers. Why wouldn’t you?
  • Be realistic about other parts of your life. Everyone needs down time. If you’re like me, living check to check, down time feels like time you could be earning money. But burnout is deadlier than skipping the third expensive cocktail, trust me.

Will You Treat Creative Production Like a “Real” Appointment?

Will you stop lying to yourself and undervaluing your time?

If you don’t, you’ll never get to the next step in your business — you’ll be spending so much time on maintenance and administration in a slow drip format that you’ll wind up making less money than you should. Instead of seeming like a hero, you’ll wind up a schmuck. Chris Brogan says so.

But seriously. You’ll only be disappointing your clients and colleagues, in two very major ways: one, with mediocre output; and two, with crappy boundaries and confusing over-communications.

It’s up to you, of course. But you’re in this business because you’re good at what you do. You’ll never get better by making inaction and poor communication your business model.

9 Comments

  • Lindsey, great post! I used to work as a project manager, so I like to think that I’m pretty good about managing my time (and I’m certainly not as bad as some creative types). Still, I’m guilty of some of the things you describe, like putting off administrative tasks in favor of tasks that directly generate money. That’s one of the reasons I hired a VA: so she can handle some of the administrative tasks and free me up to focus on the creative work. However, we’re still getting used to a work flow, so sometimes things take longer than she or I expect.

    • Thank you Susan! I have always thought of myself as a good time manager, and “better” than many of the creatives I worked with. But I quickly found when the onus for TM was shifted entirely onto me, regarding my own business and freelance work, that I wasn’t as good at it as I thought. Or perhaps, as Graham and Newport both suggest, that I was simply taking the wrong approach and not scheduling my time in the most efficient way.

      After I read that you hired a VA, I turned that into one of my goals in 2011 — a VA who can help me muddle through, especially on the admin end!

  • Thanks for the mention.

    So many good points, I don’t know where to start.

    The phrase that resonated most strongly for me: “It’ll only take ten minutes.” But in my case, it’s always 15 minutes. I actually bought an hour glass that measures 15 minutes worth of dripping sand. I use it to time myself for those “15-minute tasks.” Naturally the sands always run out before my tasks are completed.

    The truth? Nothing in my work day has ever taken only 15 minutes.

    And by the way, I believe there’s a special ring in hell for that dastardly minute-chopping art director…

    I like Susan’s suggestion of hiring a VA. I would also add a code monkey to my virtual dream team. I need to let go of my fantasy that I actually accomplish anything messing around the back end of my blog for hours on end.

  • You’re welcome, Lorraine. After Cal Newport’s article clicked with you too, right at a time of year when I’m struggling with what feels like “too much,” I sat down and thought about my bad habits. The 10 minute excuse is a big one, and it derails me constantly. I have to say I love that you actually have an hourglass!

    I agree with your idea about a coder too. Luckily, my husband deals with my web dev issues — but since he and I are partners on projects for other clients, it isn’t always optimal for him to be fixing and tweaking for me, either. So we could use one of those, plus a virtual assistant, plus… let’s see… someone to entertain the cats, cook dinner, and do the laundry. Now that would be fantastic.

    In the meantime, I’ll suffer the idea of getting better at scheduling my own time. Making sure I have enough of it is mostly a matter of discipline and self-honesty.

  • [...] idea to write in bed. As successful copywriter Lindsey Donner points out, writing in bed may also ruin your sex life. Considering this, a good lap desk would be useful for most writers. You could use it on the couch, [...]

  • Another incredibe post Lindsey. I love your ideas. Things always take longer than we think they will and it’s best to have a schedule, however….. As a writer, working at home sometimes I want to yank the phone off the wall because folks just don’t understand the time one needs to work/write/create. A VA on the admin end would be great.

    • Thank you Denise! I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a challenge for us to step up to the plate and “own” our time, but it’s the only way folks will believe “writing” is a real career… :) As you have learned, and so have I, it’s so much more than just that. But we still need to block out the key thought time and get serious about it to succeed.

  • I always particularly dislike the “urgent” emails because I am aware that by answering them, I am usually having to put on a backburner work for less demanding clients, who by being less demanding probably deserve the better treatment since they are easier to work with.

    It’s a real catch-22. Hopefully some of your tips will work!

    • Richard, can I quote you on this: “…who by being less demanding probably deserve the better treatment”? You just summed it up. THAT is the bottom line. Amen!

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