A Basic Guide to Time and Task Management

Freelance writers live and die by their time and task management skills. This is especially true of freelancers who write for sites such as Demand Studios. Demand Studios gives writers at least one great advantage. Writers don’t have to spend time marketing themselves and landing clients. They have thousands of assignments to choose from at any one time. Writers can focus on content creation rather than marketing and publicity. That is a great advantage, but there are also challenges that come along with that advantage. The key challenge is time and task management. As a writer you will be juggling multiple assignments and you will have to complete these assignments quickly and efficiently if you want to make a living.

To begin with, we should define exactly what time management and task management are.

Time management

The process of scheduling and organization time to determine how much time is required to complete multiple direct and indirect tasks, and when such tasks are required.

Task management

Task management is the process of managing a series of tasks or projects through their life cycle, including planning, tracking and reporting.

Time and task management are very similar concepts. The main difference is emphasis. In time management, creating and sticking to a schedule is the primary goal. In task management, the completion of projects is the primary goal. These two types of organization can be used separately or combined together.

Using time management for your projects

Step One: Make a realistic assessment of how you spend your time

You can choose to use time management for just your work day, or for your whole life. For freelancers, who generally work at home, work and life tend to merge together so it is a good idea to assess your whole life. How do you use your time and how can it be improved? Tom Johnson of I’d Rather be Writing had this to say about how eliminating one thing has improved his life.

My biggest time sink by far was television. When you look at statistics for the amount of time people spend in front of the TV, it stacks up to about the same as a part-time job.

Why do we watch so much TV? Usually we think that the only way to relax or decompress is to turn on the television and escape the world for a while, but it’s not true. You can relax and decompress in more productive ways, such as tinkering around with your website, playing a sport, or reading a book. I wrote about this here: http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/10/16/forms-of-play/.

We recently started an electricity fast at my house, which means we aren’t watching any more television (no more hulu.com, basically). We’re about 5 days into the fast. At first I dreaded the absence of television, but now I appreciate the quiet. When I need to zone out and escape, I read, write, or fall asleep. I wake up earlier and I am more refreshed. I really didn’t need that TV zombie time to rejuvenate at all. Without all that time spent watching TV, I have more time to work on other projects.

Take a look at how you spend your time, especially your work time. Do you tend to spend time on frivolous items such as checking email, FaceBook, and Twitter every few minutes? Do you wander to the kitchen whenever you start to lose focus? This not only subtracts from your time but adds to your belly. Try to identify the ways you waste time, both little and big, and resolve to cut them out of your work day.

Step Two: Create a Schedule

A schedule can be general or very detailed. At the bare minimum, you should be setting deadlines for your writing projects. Sometimes your client will have a specific deadline for you. Claimed assignments at Demand Studios, for example, have a deadline that you can check in My Work Desk. When your deadlines are not set by clients, it will be up to you to set reasonable times for yourself.

There are many tools that you can use to track your time. A good desk calendar or organizer will do the job nicely. Computer based tools such as Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook are also good.

Beyond just listing deadlines, you should use your organization system to plan out your day. Set aside time for specific projects or for related tasks. For example, you could schedule an hour to write a specific article, or you could schedule an hour to do research for multiple articles. You can also set aside specific breaks in your day to relax, exercise, eat or do other non-work tasks. Having that time scheduled can help alleviate the feeling that you “should be working”. As long as you are following your schedule and working when you are supposed to, there is no reason to feel bad about the non-work items that you have scheduled.

Step Three: Track your Time

Once you have a schedule set, you need to stick to it. Sticking to a schedule can be a challenge. Track your actual day and see how close you come to your schedule. When you stray from the schedule, be sure to note the reason why. When you accomplish a task (whether you did it on time or not) note that as well. It is good to keep track of your accomplishments. Knowing you have completed something helps clear your mind for the work that is still ahead and a feeling of success is always a good thing.

As part of the time tracking process, try to identify whether or not you are devoting the appropriate amount of time to various tasks. If you are allotting an hour for projects that take twenty minutes or for projects that take three hours, you need to adjust your schedule.

Some time management tips

  • Use Tomorrow + 2 planning. At the end of each day, plan the next day and make preliminary plans for the next two work days. This allows you to make plans before the panic of a new day and makes it easier to sleep at night because your brain won’t be so busy reminding you what to do the next day.
  • Batch similar tasks. Jobs such as research, email, writing, and editing can be grouped by their similar nature, allowing you to stay in one “mode” longer rather than switching back and forth.
  • Learn to say no. Avoid time-wasting activities. Don’t over schedule yourself. Look for assignments and tasks that make the best use of your time.
  • Figure out what your prime time is. For most people there is usually a time of the day when they are the most effective. The reasons for this can be a combination of energy, enthusiasm and a lack of interruptions. Schedule your most difficult tasks for that time. Schedule the easier to accomplish, less taxing tasks for the periods of time when you are generally less effective.

Randy Pausch Lecture: Time Management

Long but worth it.

Using task management for your projects

As I mentioned earlier, task management is focused on mapping out the actions that need to be taken to complete a project. Setting time goals and deadlines is more in the area of time management. Task management is about tracking the actual actions that you and others need to perform in order to successfully reach a goal. Many people forego time management in favor of task management, while others combine the two. Personally, I focus more on task management than time management. While I schedule and track items such as appointments and deadlines, I don’t schedule most of my tasks. Instead I try to choose the most appropriate task based on my current energy levels, resources, enthusiasm as well as the task’s priority level.

If a calendar is the key tool in time management, the to-do list is the key tool in task management. Creating a to-do list can be a very straightforward activity. At its most basic, you only need to write a list down on any sheet of paper or any word processing file. There are, of course, much more sophisticated tools. I personally use gtdagenda.com to create my list, but there are also plenty free resources such as iPhone apps. Even Google Calendar has an integrated task list. What I like about gtdagenda.com is that it follows the principals of Getting Things Done, my favorite book on task management. I also like that it automatically emails me a daily to-do list that I can either print out or view online.

Step One: Assess the task / project

According to the principals of Getting Things Done, simple tasks that can be done in five minutes or less should be done right away. There is no need to track a task that you can just get done and forget about. Real task management comes in the form of projects. Projects are tasks that require multiple steps and may take from a few minutes to several months to complete. Most writing projects fall into that category. A typical Demand Studios article should take from a few minutes to perhaps a couple of hours to complete. The same task management principals, however, can be applied to larger projects such as books, manuals and web sites.

When you assess a task you want to determine the following:

  • What is my priority for this task? (Low? Medium? High? Someday/Maybe?)
  • Is there a deadline I need to work with?
  • What resources do I need?
  • Can any part of this task be delegated?
  • What are the actions I need to take? (Be specific and detailed)
  • What is the very next action I need to take?

Step Two: Add the next action to your to-do list

Your to-do list functions as a list of the next actions you need to take on each of the active projects (leave the someday/maybe projects off of your to-do list). You should also keep a list of things you are waiting for such as feedback from an expert or an email from a publisher. For people who are practicing time management as well, you should schedule those tasks on your calendar. For those practicing only task management, keep the to-do list handy and pick your next task based on priority, energy, enthusiasm and resources. Your resources often vary according to your location. For example, there are actions you can probably only do when you have an Internet connection and others you can only do if you have transportation or office equipment.

Step Three: Track your progress

The best part of a to-do list is crossing things off of it. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment. When it comes to task management, however, it is also important to assess on a daily or at least a weekly basis to determine what actions need to be added, deleted or delegated. I recommend that you follow the same basic rule as with time management. At the end of the day (either the work day or the actual day) go through your list and make sure that the list reflects what you need to be doing over the next few days.

Some task management tips

  • Avoid multitasking. Do one item on your list at a time. Splitting your concentration generally means you will be less effective as a whole.
  • Process the items on your desk (and in your email) as if they are potential tasks. Determine what actions are needed to remove them.
  • Review your someday/maybe list about once a month to determine if any task is now important enough to take action on.
  • Don’t get your heart set on completing every item on a to-do list. New items will always be coming in. The key is to capture them and accomplish as much as you can.
  • Don’t feel guilty about taking time off or adding fun things to your to-do list. Life is meant to be enjoyed.

David Allen: Getting Things Done

If it’s good enough for the folks at Google, you should probably pay attention.

Below is a sample GTD style task management system:

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