Time Management – Calendars

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Hi, folks!  Remember me?  I’m the one who dragged in my day-job experience developing strategic plans, applying those techniques to my writing career and forever muddying the floor here at Magical Words.  🙂 I figured  I’d continue that theme today, looking at ways that authors can use calendars to best track their writing careers.

As an initial note, I use Apple’s iCal as my calendaring software.  The techniques I’m about to discuss, though, were developed using Outlook.  I’ve even worked similar systems using index cards.  The *concepts* are what’s important here, not the specific techniques.

Like all of us, I juggle a lot of balls in my day-to-day life.  To that end, I have created multiple sub-calendars on my main calendar.  Each sub-calendar is assigned its own name (e.g., “Writing”) and its own color (e.g., green – because that’s where my money is coming from 🙂 ) I share my entire online calendar with my husband, so that we don’t cross-schedule each other.  My sub-calendars and their colors are:

  • Mindy – blue:  This sub-calendar details personal activities, such as lunch meetings with friends, doctor’s appointments, and personal solo travel.
  • Joint – blue:  This sub-calendar details activities participated in with my husband, such as symphony performances, dinners with friends, and vacations.  (I purposely keep it the same color as my solo calendar because the activities occupy the same “mental” space as the ones I do alone.)
  • Husband – purple:  This sub-calendar details my husband’s personal activities, such as sporting events that I loathe.
  • Writing – green:  This sub-calendar details professional activities, such as deadlines for books, promotional engagements, and research expeditions.
  • Household – orange:  This sub-calendar details obligations connected to home ownership, such as changing the air filter in the furnace and weekly laundering of the bed-linens to murder dust mites.  (I’m primarily responsible for all home maintenance, shopping, etc.)
  • Celebrations – grey:  This sub-calendar details annually recurring events, such as birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Tentative – yellow:  This sub-calendar details all obligations for all other sub-calendars that may come to pass but are not yet certain, such as a friend visiting from out of town, attending Worldcon 2012, and taking a cooking class.

Of all these sub-calendars, the most valuable is the “Tentative”.  I regularly use it to block out stretches of time when I might not be available to friends or family.  At the beginning of each year, I typically place all major cons and several minor ones on the Tentative sub-calendar.  When I plan my actual attendance at a con, I place all mandatory events (e.g., panels where I am participating or meetings with my editor) on the green Writing sub-calendar, and then I add all hoped for events (e.g., panels that I want to attend, not-yet-scheduled-but-hoped-for dinner with friends) on the yellow Tentative sub-calendar.  As events firm up, I can change the calendar entry from Tentative to Writing (or delete it altogether.)  I find that the visual representation of the Tentative calendar keeps me on track, especially during very busy stretches.

The most important part of my calendaring system, though, is not an actual sub-calendar.  Rather, it is the “To Do” items.  I create and maintain a separate To Do item for every ongoing writing project and every freelance client.  I also maintain “catch-all” To Do items for Household Management (where I list recurring household tasks and their due dates), for Medical Matters (where I list recurring doctor’s appointments and related tasks, along with their due dates), and Paperwork Management (where I list recurring obligations such as shredding papers, performing annual credit checks, and filing estimated taxes.)  Finally, I maintain some To Do items without specific due dates.  I use them to list Getaway Weekends (places that I’d like to visit but can never think of on the spur of the moment), Restaurants (ditto), and Mad Money (what I’ll buy if an unexpected royalty check arrives.)

For each To Do item (other than those last list-keeping ones), I specify an “Attention Date” — the date on which that item will come to the top of my To Do list.  That date isn’t necessarily the date on which something must be completed (hence, my using a To Do item, rather than just calendaring the obligation in the first place); rather, it’s when I need to start thinking about taking some action.  For example, I know that I will post on Magical Words on the third Thursday of every month.  My Magical Words To Do item comes up on the second Thursday of each month.  If I’m too busy that day to attend to it, I reschedule it for the next free day.

Once I have paid attention to the To Do item, I record the next action that must be taken, and I re-set the Attention Date.  For example, I have an item for New Romance Series.  My To Do item indicates that I submitted a proposal to my editor on July 8.  My Attention Date is August 8 — I’ll give my editor one month to reply.  On August 8, I’ll query about the proposal, make a note to that effect on the To Do item, set a new Attention Date of August 22, and then forget about the matter until then.  Each To Do item, therefore, functions as a mini-log of activity for that specific matter.  If I need to follow up multiple times, I keep the record of each contact, so that I can review the chain of communication at one glance.

I have one To Do item called “Daily Details”, on which I list everything I intend to do the next working day.  That list includes domestic details (make my husband’s lunch, make my lunch, go to exercise class) and writing details (draft Magical Words post, complete new series synopsis).  My last chore each work day is to create the Daily Details list for the next work day.

(The To Do items could be maintained as calendar entries, keeping the log information in the “notes” field.  I prefer keeping the entries segregated on my computer screen.)

So.  Those are my calendaring tricks.  I live and breathe by my To Do items; if they were accidentally deleted and I couldn’t access my back-up, my writing career (and personal life) would suffer substantially.  Using these tools, I have never missed a deadline, and I’ve been able to stay on top of other publishing professionals who are not quite so … organized.

What about you?  Do you use an electronic calendar for your writing life?  Do you have other tips or tricks?  (Anyone who is interested in my analog index card system, let me know in comments, and I can explain how it works.)

Mindy, curious to hear how others use similar tools.

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21 comments to Time Management – Calendars

  • Julia

    Hi Mindy,

    Thanks for laying all this out. I would be curious to hear about the index card system. I haven’t really fallen in love with any electronic calendar system. I find it time-consuming and vaguely irritating to input all the information at my computer, for some reason.

    But I love using index cards for organization! The physical act of writing a to-do list in the morning often helps me get centered and organized for the day. But I’m curious how you use them for planning ahead, since I don’t usually do this. (I just note upcoming deadlines on a little pocket calendar that slips into my wallet.

    Thanks,
    Julia

  • Wow. That’s very, very thorough! I am deeply impressed.

    After taking a mostly 3-year hiatus from most writing, on account of Grad School, I recently got back to it – and I quickly found I wanted a way to track the writing I was doing. In December another aspiring author had posted a cool little Excel tool to track his wordcount progress as he was writing his novel, which he dubbed “The Novel Biographer“. Feeling inspired, I took the basic idea of his tool and took it one step further, creating a slightly more complex Excel tool for tracking my writing wordcount progress across multiple writing projects. I figured I’d be working on two projects at any given time – a short story or novelette and a novel – and there could be any amount of overlap between the end of one and the start of another, so I wanted to be able to track all of my writing and quickly view reports about my work habits and progress.

    The tool, which I called the “Writing Project Progress Tracker” or WPPT, got pretty complicated, but I’m proud of the finished product. Well, mostly finished. There are a couple small bugs I’ve had to iron out, and I haven’t released an update with those bugs fixed, but it’s still stable and pretty robust. I made it available on a Creative Commons license and posted it here.

    This serves a slightly different need than the calendar system discussed here, but I thought it was related enough to bear a mention. Let me know if you give it a whirl and if so what you think of it.

  • Wow. I do nothing like this and, perhaps as a result, live my life in a permanent state of panic and uncertainty. Not sure I could live any other way though. Will mull.

  • Mimdy, This is amazing. I just keep a calendar open on desk in front of my keyboard and check activities and deadlines once a month and then once a week. I’ve missed a *few* important things that way, but usually because I forgot to put them down initially, which I might do with any system. I tried to write important things in different color pens or pencils, but then the hubby makes off with them or I carry them away and set them down. You method is much more organized.

  • And that was Mindy, not Mimdy… Sigh… It’s gonna be onna them days.

  • I have a very underutilized calendar program called Vueminder Lite that I have on my computer. I really need to use it more. I’ve never been all that organized, but I’m good at sticking to deadlines…as long as they aren’t self-imposed. :\ I tend to give my wife the date or ask her if there’s anything else planned on a specific date. 😉

  • What? Calendar? Organization? Huh? What day is it, btw? What am I supposed to do today? Ah, well, I’ll wing it.

  • I absolutely suck at time management. However, systems like this (I use Google Calendar) are a big help. I’m actually running a series on my own blog that works with some stuff like this right now.

    I really like that tentative events idea, though. I may have to try that one. Assuming I can actually remember to transition the tentative to the actual.

  • marlenedotterer

    I’ve started using Google’s calendar so I can access it from any computer. I had Outlook, but it just didn’t do me any good unless I was at home. I also carry a paper calendar with me to make appointments when I’m not home. But I find I don’t use it as much since I closed my business. No clients or mileage to keep track of. But I still need it sometimes. For instance, when I meet with my critique group and we need to schedule our next meeting. I’m always forgetting to bring my calender. If I was really tech-savvy, I’d have a smart phone, right?

    Like you, I use colors to categorize my appointments. The problem is, I can never remember what color I’ve assigned to which category! It seems to be a mental block. So, my color scheme makes no sense at all!

    I’ve also never had any luck with To Do Lists. They aren’t obvious enough on my screen. I can set the calendar to email me a reminder about appointments, but I haven’t seen any way to do that with the To Do list. So I just enter tasks as appointments in my calendar. I don’t like it, but it works. Time management is a tricky thing!

  • Julia – For the index card version, I take an index card box, and card dividers that are labeled 1-31, plus additional dividers that are labeled for each month of the year. I use white cards for “daily tasks”, pink for “weekly”, blue for “monthly” and green for “annual.” I write one task on each card, then file it on the appropriate day of the month (or month of the year, for the monthly and annual tasks). Then, as I accomplish each task, I make any appropriate notes (e.g., on a card about a book proposal – “Proposal sent 7/21”) and file under the date when it needs to be followed up on. Each day, I can take out the stack of cards for that day, sort them in order of priority and do the tasks, one by one. Make sense?

    Stephen – Grad school is a great explanation for a 3-year hiatus! I don’t track individual word counts – my style is to set goals of scenes or chapters – but I know many authors who do, and your spreadsheet would likely be useful for them.

    A J – I feel that panic and uncertainty when I *don’t* keep a system 🙂 Seriously, everyone has a different level of “security” with scheduling. I worked with a woman who plotted her to-do list by the hour, which I found exhausting and of limited value.

    Faith – I used to use different colored pens, on my paper calendar, but that was mostly because of my ongoing love affair with office supplies 🙂 (As for “Mimdy” – I answer to pretty much all variations on my name 🙂 )

    Daniel – Maybe I’ll start to call your wife with my deadlines 🙂 Seriously, I find that recording the deadlines on my calendar makes them feel more other-imposed, and therefore more important to meet.

    Stuart – I used to be that way, way back when. Now, I wouldn’t remember my name if it weren’t written down. Actually, after I write down most things, I then remember them, but if I don’t do the initial writing…

    David – The great thing about the tentative sub-calendar is that, even if you forget to change it to a “real” sub-calendar, it’s still there on the tentative, so you don’t lose the reminder.

    Marlene – Your last point is the most important – time management *is* a tricky thing! I had trouble finding “to do” notes on the Google calendar. As for the paper and electronic… I used to keep my personal calendar on paper, and my business calendar online at the office. I would transfer over the handful of events that crossed time barriers, but it wasn’t easy to coordinate. I wouldn’t get a smartphone *just* for calendaring, but it does help to keep me on track (even if I’m so slow at entering new dates that I jot them on paper and add them with my all-thumbs fingers at a later time…)

  • …”if they were accidentally deleted and I couldn’t access my back-up, my writing career (and personal life) would suffer substantially. ”

    This is scary.

    Electronic equipment and software programs WILL break down sooner or later, and when they do its usually at the most inconvenient time possible. We like to think of them as ‘robust’ and certainly their manufacturers would like us to think so, however all it takes is a little moisture, a speck of dust, a ‘glitch’ in the program, ghosts in the machine,anything, and we receive a harsh lesson in just how fragile they are.

    What kind of back-up plan do you have in place?

    And I’m not talking about another piece of electronic hardware.

  • Mindy, You’re frightening me. Seriously. I’m like A.J. for the most part, a “permanent state of panic and uncertainty” sums it up quite nicely. My problem is that I set up systems to keep me uber-organized, but it seems like the minute there’s the slightest hiccup in the system, the whole train jumps the rails. And once that happens, it’s like I’m starting over from scratch every time.

    Anyway, that’s my therapy session for the day. I’ll shut up now.

  • Widdershins – It *is* scary to create a single system. I back up my electronic files on site and off site. I don’t take the time and effort, though, to transcribe them in multiple print formats; keeping them synchronized would be impossible. (I figure that if an EMP wipes out DC (my onsite storage) and the West Coast (my offsite storage) at the same time, I’ve got bigger things to worry about. And I don’t think I’m any more vulnerable than if I kept a print calendar that I could lose.

    Edmund – Perhaps I should start writing horror? 🙂 Actually, the system that I described is easier in implementation than it sounds – but creating it took years of experimenting. I regularly tinker with it. (E.g., Do I need a recurring reminder on the household sub-calendar to clean the litter box? No. A sniff of the air in my office is enough of a reminder!)

  • mudepoz

    LOT’S of Calendars. Tons. I have a huge perpetual calendar on the headhouse wall with all my scheduling for plants, ordering needs, vet and human appts. At home the TD has a calendar. I have two calendars, one on the fridge, one at my desk. Then there is the one for my dogs social activities.
    If one of my calendars disappeared I would be major screwed.
    However, if something is REALLY important, I write it on the back of my hand. That isn’t totally perfect, I made the mistake of using a Vis a Vis marker (water soluble) and watered it off in the greenhouse.

  • I have three main computers that I switch between (four counting this Crackberry), so it’s hard to know where I should keep track of things. So I don’t. It always seems like too much time wasted to put things in a calendar.

    I’d like to stick with one consistent calendar, but I don’t know what would be best. Even the phone runs out of juice quick.

    The only thing that tracks anything of mine with consistency right now is the automatic calendar in Facebook. 🙁

  • At work I use Outlook’s calendar and TO DO lists with almost compulsively – couldn’t survive a day without it. I don’t use sub-calendars, though. I use the Category feature, which allows me to color code appointments, events, and TO DOs on one all encompassing calendar (I support 4 very active programs).
    At home, it’s another story. I’m much more impulsive. Bills get paid on paydays, laundry is done on Sundays, and everything else is based on the TOIT system (which is why all of my son’s medical stuff is maintained on my work calendar).
    I’ve tried organizing my home life using calenars and TODO lists, and I do maintain a list of things I want to do (build bookcase; paint kitchen; finish back yard patio, etc.) but for the day-to-day stuff it just doesn’t work for me. Part of the reason is probably because I only check my home email once or twice a day.

  • Mudepoz – I laughed at writing things on your hand – that’s what got me *into* my online calendaring gig! I admire your ability to keep your separate calendars “bridged” – do you just remember conflicts from one to the other?

    Laura – We invested in some Apple-specific software that let us sync desktops (2), laptops (2), and iPhones (2). At first, I thought the software was a needless expense ($50), but then I scheduled a friend’s vacation for the weekend that my husband was recovering from minor surgery. $50 wasn’t a lot to save a marriage 🙂 As for the running out of juice – can’t help you there!

    Lyn – Aha! Another person who was lured into calendar management by Outlook and workplace needs! It sounds as if you’re working a system similar to mine – it’s just that a lot of the household routine doesn’t get “booked” for you (pay when you can, wash when you must 🙂 ) I’ve definitely trimmed my system over time – I used to keep entries for silly things that I really didn’t need to be reminded to do – it just felt good to change the To Do notice! (I do keep an undated To Do item with household things I’d love to get to … eventually.)

  • I’m way behind in technological progress and will finally be getting a smartphone next month. Any suggestions on the best and most flexible calendaring apps? I use a dry erase calendar for family activities right now so if I add my writing I’ll need a LOT of colors. I like the immediate visual cues using colors provide.

  • […] How to Manage Your TIme as a Writer by Mindy […]

  • Colette – I haven’t used any of the calendaring apps, at least not beyond downloading them, then deciding that they duplicate what I’m already doing… I hear good things, though, about Remember the Milk. If I recall (and I might be wrong…) it lets you color-code things, along with giving numeric rankings of to-do items, etc…

  • Thank you, Mindy. I’ll look into it. If nothing else, at least I have a place to start.