Time management for creative professionals

I just returned from the PENCON Christian Editors conference in Austin, where I taught time management. I want to share with you a little of what I talked about, because time management is as important to writers as to editors, if not more so. For most PENCON attendees, editing is our day job. But most writers have some other day job, and writing has to be squeezed into “spare time.”

Teaching at PENCON. Photo by Chris Maselli.

Teaching at PENCON. Photo by Chris Maselli.

Notice how we speak of time with the same words we use to talk about money. We save, spend, waste, and sometimes—more often with coinage than with minutes—we have spare.

The truth is, “time management” is a misnomer. We can’t manage time. It flows inexorably on at the rate of 60 minutes per hour no matter what we do, even though it seems to go much faster when we’re hanging out with our kids and much slower when we’re waiting in line at the post office.

Everyone gets the same number of hours per day, and every morning we get a new batch of hours to use. How productive we are depends upon how we use the hours we have.

Time management is really about managing our own behavior—how we invest time.

Kevin McCarthy, author of The On-Purpose Person, says we don’t have a time management problem, we have a priority problem. You will make time for the things that matter to you. If you’re not making time for your creative work, that’s because other things matter to you more. Which is fine. If you know your priorities, you will schedule around them.

Which brings us to another way time is like money. Most of the life coaches and executive coaches I’ve spoken to or read encourage some kind of time budgeting, either on a daily or weekly basis. McCarthy advocates an on-purpose day. Michael Hyatt proposes scheduling by the week. I have found that Hyatt’s system better fits my creative workflow. You can download Michael Hyatt’s ideal week Excel spreadsheet from his site.

Note that across the top he has themes, so each day has a different focus. That’s what the engineers call batch processing—grouping like items together. I do something like this by doing all my bookkeeping and other administrivia on Tuesdays.

OK, so how do you figure out what your time budget should look like?

priority grid urgent important

Most folks are familiar with the Urgent/Important grid, where things are either urgent or important or some combination thereof. The grid is usually presented as four boxes, as if you could sort all your activities into one box or another, but really it’s more like a continuum.

When we plot our to-dos on this grid, they could be all over the place. To put it in computer terms, urgency and importance are not binary, they’re linear: some things have an importance of two, and others have an importance that goes up to eleven.

priority spectrum urgent importantAnything that’s important to you—like your writing—deserves a slot on your schedule, even if it’s not urgent. Block off time every day to work on your important goals. One good way is to do them first, which is why so many writing instructors advise doing your writing early in the day. Another is to do them when you need a break from the urgent. The urgent things need to be addressed, but they also need to be corralled so they don’t take over.

And remember that not all distractions are negatives to manage. Distractions can be positive, too. Like a hobby, or a pet, or a neighbor who drops in to chat. It may not be important, but it could be a positive…depending on the neighbor. Just be aware that you’re distracted and make a conscious choice about whether to allow the distraction. The goal here is not to eliminate everything in the “Distractions” quadrant, but to correctly categorize them and protect enough time to take care of our Critical Activities and Important Goals.

Well, I could go on about time management all day. And maybe I will. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more posts on this topic. And if you’d like me to visit your conference or writers group to teach this topic or another, use the Contact page.

Related Post: Tomatoes and time management

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

6 thoughts on “Time management for creative professionals

  1. Great article Kristen. It is hard some days to know which way to turn first. We have to remember to stop and pray for guidance and remember to listen for His response, then act on it.

  2. Good job teaching at PENCON, Kristen. You gave us a lot to think about.

  3. […] those tasks — grouping like tasks together — and include them in your Ideal Day. You can see in Michael Hyatt’s spreadsheet (mentioned a couple of posts ago) how he does this by assigning a theme to each day, and putting activities with that theme […]

  4. […] Remember the “distractions” quadrant of the Urgent/Important grid? […]

  5. […] Go back and take a look at Michael Hyatt’s Ideal Day spreadsheet. Notice the gray hashed-out areas. That’s margin. We have to be as intentional with our leisure […]

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