Staying on Track

So I get Randy Ingermanson’s “Advanced Fiction Writing” newsletter, and there was one section which really struck me as both appropriate and very do-able. I’ve started to follow his example using my daily planner, just making a list and expectation of time, crossing them off as I get them accomplished. On the sort of neat side of things, in another year I will be able to look back on the dates in the book and remember the journey just based on what I have listed as my tasks for the day.

There isn’t going to be much else posted by me today…I’m doing historical research on the French Revolution, and then there’s also groceries to buy and a cake or two to make. Then I have a short story series I’m working on about a young wizard (age yet to be determined) having adventures with his kangaroo rat friend. It’s told from the rat’s point of view, so the rat is almost as much of a narrator as a main character. It’s still a new idea, so the details aren’t worked out solid.

Anyway, I’ll turn this post over to Randy’s e-mail of wisdom.


Organization: My #1 Secret For Being Productive

People ask me all the time how I get so much done.


There’s an easy answer, but it’s not very helpful. The easy answer is that I “put the big rocks in first.”


I’m sure everybody has heard the parable about the guy who puts a bunch of big rocks into a bucket. The bucket looks full, but it isn’t, because he then pours in a bunch of gravel around the big rocks. The bucket now looks full, but it still isn’t, because he then pours in a bunch of sand around the gravel. The bucket now looks really full, but it isn’t, because he then pours in some water that soaks into the sand. And now the bucket is finally, really full. The moral of the story is to put the big rocks in first.


Yeah, yeah, sure, nice parable.


But how do you do that, in practical terms?


I actually discussed the basic idea here in this e-zine back in October 2012 and again in July 2013, but I’ve gotten a bit more polished since then. When I first started doing this, I considered 5 hours of productive work to be a good, full day of work. But now I’m usually getting in 8 hours of productive work each working day.


Here’s what I do:


1) Every morning, my first task is open up my Business Journal and make a list of the Big Rocks for the day. These are the main categories of tasks I’ll be working on. Typically, these are things like the following:

  • Admin
  • Writing
  • Web site
  • Marketing
  • Day Job

Once I’ve listed the Big Rocks, I format the list into outline mode in my writing tool (I use Scrivener, but you can do this with a couple of mouse clicks in most any word processor).


2) If any of the Big Rocks have some obvious smaller subtasks, then I list those subtasks. Since I’m working in outline mode, these subtasks are automatically indented beneath their main task. In rare cases, I may need to break down the subtasks into even smaller tasks, but generally there’s no reason to go that deep.


3) I write down an estimate of how long each task or subtask should take. These are not binding estimates. They’re reasonable targets.


4) The day’s schedule is full when the time estimates add up to 8 hours, which is my goal for the day. (There’s nothing magic about 8 hours. That just happens to be a full day’s work for me right now. I used to consider 5 hours a full day’s work. Then it grew to 6, then 7, then 8.) I always try to schedule a full day of work. Not less, because then I’d be planning to waste time. Not more, because then I’d be planning to stress myself out.


All of the above takes me 5 minutes. It’s very simple and it shows me at a glance what I think I can do in one day of effort.


But I don’t stop there, because plans are cheap. What matters is reality.


Over the course of the day, I track my time. As I finish each task or subtask, I mark it with the notation in red, “(Done in X hours)”, where X tells me how much time I actually spent. I put this right next to the original estimate, so I always know whether the  estimate was good. It’s an easy way to learn how to estimate better for the future.


Of course, there are always interruptions in the day. There will be e-mail. Phone calls. Skype conversations. All fun stuff, but not what I consider productive work. I log these, but they don’t count toward my goal.


At the end of the day, I add up the number of hours of actual productive work I put in. These are the hours I worked on the original set of tasks and subtasks. Nothing else counts.


The goal is to put in 8 hours every day. If I reach the goal, then the day is a win. If I don’t, then it’s just a partial win.


As I said, when I first started, 5 hours of solid, productive work was a win for me. That was my daily goal. But now a win is 8 hours. I’ve gotten more productive. My theory is that just by tracking things, my subconscious mind is more focused on staying productive.


I also like doing non-productive things. Reading. Hanging out on e-mail loops. Skyping with friends. Watching Netflix. Once I’ve hit my 8-hour goal for the day on the productive stuff, I’m free to spend the rest of the day on the non-productive things. No guilt, no worries.


Some people will say this all sounds too simple, so it can’t possibly work.


Others will say it sounds too complicated, so it can’t possibly work.


I’m pretty sure it won’t work for everybody, but I know it’s working pretty well for me. Take it and run with it. Or ignore it. Or tweak it to suit your taste. I’m just jiggling your neurons to get you thinking about how you can be more productive and still have time for doing the fun things you like.


I should add that I have days occasionally when I refuse to schedule anything productive. Monday was a case in point. I caught some wretched virus last week and wound up with a horrible cough that got worse and worse until it was keeping me awake all night.


So on Monday, I wrote off the entire day, went to the doctor, got an inhaler and some meds, and spent the day resting (which included watching the finale of Downton Abbey). I’ve also written off fractions of the rest of the days this week. There’s no point in trying to be productive when you’re sick. You have to be reasonable.


The main point is this. You can be productive without feeling like you’re a slave. You just need to put the Big Rocks in first.


And then keep score so you know how you did.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it,

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