I was at lunch with a writer friend of mine the other day and she asked how I organize my work day. Whenever I get questions like this, I assume they’re rhetorical. Or I’ll give the most basic answer: I write in the mornings, then do all the non-writing things.
But we had been talking about how it can be difficult to know what to work on when we sit at our desks, and how that can often lead to just doing the thing that happens to be at the top of our inbox and then realizing three hours later that the thing we meant to get done, didn’t actually happen. So I asked her: do you really want to know? She did. Here’s what I told her:
All The Things
Over the years I’ve developed a pretty systematic way of doing things that helps me get a lot of shit done. To give you a taste, I’m working on my second novel (3-4 hours a day), I manage A Very Important Meeting, I write this blog (almost daily), keep my freelance clients happy, run the 6-Week Mindful Writers Challenge, publish my newsletter (which I just this week moved to Substack – check it out and subscribe here), post meditations for writers on Insight Timer and do my best to keep everyone I know up to date via social media (mostly via Twitter and Instagram if you’re curious). Oh yeah, and I also have two kids, so at 2:30 every day, I close my laptop to drive the mom taxi for a few hours then make dinner.
When I list it all out like that it actually looks like a lot. It is a lot. And I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t interested in working through the night. So how do I stay focused and make time for it all? Hang onto your hats, dis about to get nerdy.
Part 1: File Everything
The bedrock of my whole system is my two-part filing protocol (you were warned!) which I put into place years ago after reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. Here’s what it looks like:
In the top bin are 12 tabs (one for each month) and manila folders number 1-31. This is where I keep track of things that I’m going to need on any given day. For example, if I have a freelance assignment that I intend to work on next Tuesday (the 3rd), I put a printout of the email from my editor into the file marked 3.
On May 3, I’ll open the file marked 3, pull out the papers I need for that day, then put the empty 3 folder behind the June tab (where 1 and 2 already are because I did the same on those days).
The bottom bin is for project-based work. You’ll see there’s a folder for things like “Novel 2,” “Writing Contests.” “AVIM” (short for A Very Important Meeting) and “6WMWC” (6-Week Mindful Writers Challenge).
These are big things that I’m kind of constantly working on, so it’s hard to say “on May 3 I’m going to write chapter 3 of novel 2.” My brain just doesn’t work that way. This is where the second part of my system comes into play.
Part 2: Schedule Everything
Every Friday I have a half hour blocked out to schedule the week ahead. I go through the file marked IN – this is where I put anything that that lands on my desk during the week that isn’t urgent and can’t be taken care of in less than 5 minutes. On Fridays I decide when all those things are going to get done.
For example: Last week while I was writing I realized that my anniversary is coming up and it’s my turn to plan it. I jotted a note to myself on a scrap of paper, shoved it in the IN folder, and kept writing. Then, last Friday, when I opened the IN folder and found that note, I looked at my google calendar and dropped a half hour window on Tuesday. That’s when I’ll take the time to research anniversary plans. And I won’t be plagued by the feeling that I should be doing something else, because I literally schedule everything.
(BTW – if, on Tuesday, I get to the end of the half hour and haven’t finished the task, I schedule another half hour somewhere on the calendar to continue working. This system does require some foresight. I almost never do anything (work-related) last minute. It’s simply not how I work.)
Same for the bigger projects. Every Friday I start by blocking out my writing time. This was my major take away from Gary Keller’s The One Thing. Writing is my most important thing so I block it out first, in big chunks, every morning starting at 8 and going until 11 or 12 depending on how busy the week is. Then, and only then, I block out an hour to work on AVIM stuff, a couple hours for freelance work, an hour (or more, usually more) to work on my website/blog/newsletter/social media.
When I look at my calendar and see it’s time to work on AVIM, I pull out that folder and look over all the things on the AVIM to do list, chose the most important/pressing item and get started.
This system works really well for me as long as I don’t forget that I need time to eat and that things come up unexpectedly. You have to have a way to deal with the unexpected. I have a system for that too.
If something has to happen at a certain time I put it in my calendar in orange. These are meetings, workshops, appointments, reminders to pick up the kids from school, etc. I intentionally leave a lot of space on the calendar every week, knowing that it will fill up (if it doesn’t I take a lunch break in the hammock – this rarely happens).
Things that can be moved get blocked out in blue. For instance, if I’m blocking out an hour for freelance work that isn’t on an immediate deadline, I put it in blue. Then, if something comes up (say a kid comes home sick from school), I know in a glance what can be moved and what can’t.
Someone is always going to be disappointed. Make sure it isn’t always you.
And that’s it. That’s the organizational system that keeps me on track and doing all the things I love to do. If you’ve got questions, drop ’em below and I’ll do my best to answer them.