Thursday, September 23, 2010

Time management, creative productivity and multitasking

I've had a growing number of people ask me how I manage all the projects that I do. I don't really consider myself that much more productive than others out there, really, especially those of you with young children. I'm always in awe of how you parents manage to juggle both parenthood AND family life.

For the focus of this post, however, I'm going to talk about time management outside of any parenting and family issues. Right now, I have about six book projects on the go, in various stages. One has a contract, two are being looked at by publishers (I'm in discussions with one publisher), one is with my agent and about to be sent out to a publisher, one is a graphic novel collab with Beckett Gladney, and one is an illustrated middle grade novel that I'm working on now.

Plus I have various blog projects and social networking that I try to do on a daily basis. How do I find time for all this? I don't believe that my time management tips will help everyone since each person's situation is different, but here are some of the things I do and don't do:

- We don't have cable tv. As in ZERO channels available on our television set. When my husband and I want to watch something, we buy (on iTunes) or borrow. This helps avoid the "let's channel-surf to see if there's anything on" time vampire situation, or having the television be distracting audio background wallpaper. Yes, I know I end up missing some good tv but for me, the sacrifice is worth it.

- I get up at around 6:30 a.m. every morning. I've always been a morning person, and I very rarely set my alarm -- I just get up at 6:30 a.m. (often earlier) because that's my natural wake-up time. I'd love to say that I write all morning without checking my e-mail or browsing the Web, but I'd be lying. I did try that for a while, but fell off the wagon after only a few days. Part of this is because I write a daily publishing industry news column for, so like to browse publishing industry news sites first thing in the morning so I get the most relevant news before writing my column. I usually work until around 4 or 5 pm each day, with several breaks throughout the day.

- I go for a walk every day. I used to run, but knee problems forced me to go for brisk walks instead. Not only is this a way for me to get some exercise, but I find that getting outside is a great way to clear my head. Of course, my brain often isn't able to block out work-related stuff...but that's okay. I find that I come up with my best writing ideas while on these walks (I use the Voice Record on my iPhone). This is also the time when knotty writing problems work themselves out. I am positive that this daily walk saves me many hours of wasted time sitting in front of my computer, frustrated and being unproductive. Sometimes being -away- being computer can make you a better writer.

- Get an accountability partner. I met Rilla Jaggia at the SCBWI Summer Conference in 2009, while we were both waiting in line to get our books autographed by an author. I don't remember which author, but I DO remember that conversation. We talked about our projects and motivation, and agreed to check in with each other once a month by e-mail to share our goals for the upcoming month as well as an honest update about whether we met the previous month's goals.

- Find a support network of writers. It's important, I think, that this group be small enough that you're able to keep up-to-date with what the others are doing and feel like the others CARE about your progress. It's one thing to be part of a group but another to feel like an important member. I feel very lucky to be part of the MiG Writers: not only do the six of us critique each other's work, but we also encourage each other on a regular basis. I meet once a month in person with the Toronto Middle Grade and YA Author Group. And I've just recently become involved with the SCBWI Illustrator Mentees Group, where we share info about our illustration projects.

- Get inspired. I know this sounds all touchy-feely but I've found this is such an important factor in my productivity level.  The more inspired I am about my work, the more productive I am. Deadlines are a source of inspiration, of course, but I'm talking about sources of inspiration for projects which don't yet have deadlines. Where I find inspiration, in addition to the sources mentioned above: reading books by authors I admire, writers' conferences like ones hosted by the SCBWI, reading inspirational posts about the craft of writing, reading about how hard other writers are working.

In the end, I believe that it's not so much about how much time you have, but how you use that time. I know some parents (my sister is one of them) who have become experts at taking a smaller amount of time than many full-time writers/illustrators and managing to squeeze SOOOOO much more out of that time. They don't have the luxury of being able to ease slowly into productive mode, or needing to have the ideal conditions or inspiration to work. In terms of time management tips, I consider myself an amateur in comparison to these super-productive creative parents who manage to be productive AND still make quality time with their spouses and children.

What about the rest of you? Any time management tips to share?

-- Debbie Ridpath Ohi


  1. This is so tremendously inspiring. And thoughtful and thoughtprovoking. Hmm. Where can I add time/pinch time...

  2. Great post! You're so right about the walk/exercise being good for sorting out troublesome plots (I cycle instead).

    I currently have 5 projects on the go at various stages of completion with several more waiting in the wings. Whichever one attracts a paid contract first will obviously become my priority, but at the moment I try to give each project equal attention to avoid having all my hopes/dreams in the same basket... also to avoid getting bored!

  3. Oh, what a great post! Thanks for sharing those ideas ...

    I'm rethinking my relationship with the treadmill now. Maybe I should use it or at least walk around the neighborhood on breaks. Hmmm.

    I'm a first-time visitor to this blog but read the cartoons for writers and tweets.

    Quick background: I work full time at an online digital media company, where I write and edit. Plus, I'm the mom of four kids and a wife. But my creative writing urges just have to be indulged or else I'm a crabby, unhappy person. I need to be creative. And somehow, I am. My activity book of crafts and doodles is coming out October 15. Plus, I have a novel that a publisher is considering. (We're at the first stages with it.)

    So, where am I getting the time to do this?

    I do some of what you do. I wake up at 5 a.m., though. I also stay up late. So, I skip sleep. Probably not great from a doctor's point of view, but good from a creative one.

    I also keep track of my projects in a spreadsheet. I've got a lot of ideas, so the first tab has a list of the names of the projects, then I have my goal dates for certain stages in another column. Then each separate tab is where I track where I'm at with the project.

    And I highly recommend having notebooks everywhere. I've got one in my purse, in the car, in the baby's diaper bag, in the kitchen, in the sofa. Whenever I'm thinking of something related to my writing, I jot it down. I'd rather have a 3-page conversation between characters written in a peanut-butter stained notebook in the minivan than not have it written at all. Then later, when time permits, I just collect the notebooks with the bits of writing in them and type it into the right document.

    Again, great post!

  4. I find that I need to keep a notebook and calendar handy every single day- I write down lists of things that need dealing with, both mundane and creative, as well as keeping a running log of the things I've been working on during the day and the week. I also am keeping my sketchbook handy so if I have a few minutes, like sitting with the boys supervising homework or whatnot, I might just sketch something, and that helps me feel like I'm not just doing stuff for everyone else and not getting to do anything for myself. Multitasking is my friend.

    I have to force myself to schedule time carefully since with the boys and all their activities I don't have much uniterrupted work time and I have to fit it all in somehow. I'm naturally a sort of go-with-the-flow sort of person, but the lists help me stay on task.

  5. Debbie: Can I ask what time you go to bed at night? And do you find that your work spills over into the evenings and every other time too? Or do you just have a strict cut-off time? Thanks for a fantastic post. Really enjoyed it. Love the cable TV idea and I'm not a big TV watcher but I do love me some Jon Stewart and Chelsea Handler.

  6. Debbie, this is so awesome and generous of you to share. I'm always fascinated by the variety of ways others accomplish what they do. No TV and a daily walk are the best tips. I'm NOT an early riser but make up for it at the end of the day when I'm most productive (like 11 pm-3 am!) In your case, the axiom "Ask a busy person..." applies. Thanks for this!

  7. I could identify with all your points. I too have no television service - haven't had it for years. I love to walk, and to get up early. Great post. Like Veronica I love spreadsheets for project tracking. I have a spreadsheet that serves as a daily to-do list... it keeps me on track better than any other method I've tried.

  8. Great post. I have always been honed to deadlines as a designer ... now I am working on projects that do not yet have a deadline, it is so much harder. Connecting with other like minds is the biggest help to me, and without the SCBWI and FB I would be floundering. My to do list is my biggest motivator, because I like crossing things off. My worst thing is getting out of the studio. It is such a true statement that taking 1/2 hr to go for a walk can totally make you 50 million times more productive when you get back. (Note to self: follow that advise ;-))

  9. An Amazing post. I really enjoyed reading your post and thank you for sharing. I'm thinking about my self and how i'm killing my times. To me, deadline is the only inspiration. : (
    You inspired me. Keep your hard work and I might be able to follow your steps. Thanks again.

  10. I'm not particularly good at managing my time to use big chunks of available time to its fullest, but I am adept at snatching moments here and there. Twenty minutes on the London Underground, forty minutes on my lunch break, ten minutes idle daydreaming about a plot problem while stood in a queue, a few minutes re-reading material while eating my dinner...

    Time is there, ready to be used!

  11. Fantastic post. I like how you pointed out each idea and explained them!

  12. Not watching TV is huge for me. I'm not a morning person but I stay up late at night. However, I never thought of tracking all my different personal projects on a spreadsheet. It's funny that it never occurred to me, but I guess I never had such a hard time deciding on what to work on next.

  13. Wonderful thoughts and definitely know you're right about using time wisely. I recently did a challenge to get more writing done in just 10 minutes a day--the idea comes from Leo Babuata at Zen Habits site and also more information can be found at the site Really wonderful ways to manage time and discover that we do have more of it than we think! Thanks for this great post!

  14. Great post! I'm terrible with time management myself, so I have to force myself to do things by setting the timer on my stove for 15 min. increments. I can do ANYTHING for 15 minutes.

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