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It’s about time to change your work habits

By Tom Huggler
marchdeskorganizerIf, indeed, time is money, no wonder many outdoor writers are hovering near the poverty line. We waste time – lots of time – because either we don’t see our profession as a serious livelihood or don’t approach it for the business it is.
All too often, we fail to focus on the task at hand. We procrastinate. We get caught up in a myriad of distractions. We don’t discipline ourselves. For one reason or another, we have allowed these and other behavioral traits to dictate our shabby work methods.
We can do better, and we can start by managing our time more efficiently. Here’s how:
Prepare a Positive Working Environment
Do you jump from bed each day eager to get writing again? If not, why not? If you’re not excited about your work, why should anyone else care?
A clean, well-lighted place with proper ventilation can set the tone for producing good work. Although no one but you may ever see your work space, it’s still important to keep it organized. If you don’t think neatness matters, try cleaning and shaping up your office one time, top to bottom, and see if you don’t feel better about it and the work you do there. Here are some common sense tips for organization:

  • Catalog all books and reference materials according to subject.
  • File all paper into categories that make sense to you: correspondence, contracts, queries, story leads, accounts payable/receivable, expenses, etc.
  • Do the same with your computer files: e-mails, digital images, stories sold, stories pending, travel notes, etc.

Take it from there. Then, at the end of each work period, put everything away in its proper place. Everything includes notes, pens, paper clips and photos. This habit will assure a fresh start each time you go to work.
Organizing thoughts and writing coherently is a challenge for all writers. You will make the task easier and save time by lining up reference materials for your story and providing a clean, neat place to work.
Choose a Place and Time for Work
Where you choose to work is far less important than having a free, uncluttered place to work. A spare bedroom, an attic, basement workshop, walk-in closet, remodeled chicken coop or granary or a spot above the garage rafters are just as good as the local library or office rental space.
Where are you most comfortable?
Some writers want to look outside a window for inspiration. Others look to interior landscapes and prefer a blank wall in front of them.
Regardless, the important thing to remember is to have a door to close. A door not only provides privacy, it lets you end your work period. Walking away or driving away from your “office” when work is over provides closure.
Use your designated work space for…work! Don’t play games on the computer, listen to the ball game, or make social chatter on the phone or Internet.
Discover the most creative hours of your waking day. Set aside that time for work, and be rigidly disciplined about it. Your body’s natural rhythms will dictate the best time, although occasionally we can reprogram the circadian clock.
Example: For many years, an outdoor writer and his wife ran a campground for their day job. They programmed their schedule this way: from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., the writer slept while his wife oversaw the campground. From 3  p.m. to 10  p.m. the writer handled campground management while his wife tended to other duties or had personal time. This was also time for them to be together as much as daily circumstances allowed. Quiet time at the campground began at 10 p.m. That’s when the writer began writing and his wife went to bed. On productive nights he worked until 7 a.m. the next day.
Whatever work time you choose, schedule breaks every hour or two. Do some stretches, get a cup of coffee, or return that important phone call. If writing more than one piece daily, provide transition time between projects. Take a walk or a nap. Take yourself to lunch. Get in some training time with your bird dog.
In summary, time management for any profession is little more than developing good work habits and sticking to them. Most of us use time for gain or loss and never give the minutes and hours any consideration beyond fleeting thought. Clearly, though, the following are missed opportunities:
Time Wasters

  • Don’t answer the telephone during working hours unless you need to do an interview or fact check something. Caller ID lets you screen calls. Do not stay online while writing unless you must simultaneously research the Internet. Mute and either minimize or eliminate the “You have mail” icon. Being creative types, most writers can’t multitask while working. Most of us are too easily distracted by NPR or CNN or the cell phone going off. Reduce or eliminate all incoming distractions.
  • By all means, follow the little rituals that get your juices flowing, such as doodling (if you write long-hand), stretching exercises, or drinking a cup of coffee. Then get to work. If nothing comes to mind after 10 minutes, stop staring at the blinking cursor. Read your mail or scan the daily headlines. Try some mental gymnastics like working a crossword puzzle for a few minutes. If you still can’t break through the momentary writer’s block, leave the office and come back later.

The following suggestions will help you regain some of the time you may be losing, even if you’re unaware of the loss:
Time Savers

  • Know what you’re going to write before you turn on the word processor. Practice your lead and try to perfect the first sentence while walking the dog or showering or doing your daily exercises. If you literally need a digital warm up, write a letter to someone or answer your e-mail.
  • To help develop your story idea, lay out images first. This practice will also save time later when writing cutlines.
  • Apply the RFT formula to all paper that crosses your desk: respond, file or toss. Ditto for e-mail. Except in the rarest of circumstances, never handle paper or wrestle with e-mail twice.
  • If you mail tear sheets as a courtesy, prepare stamped envelopes at the time of research when the person’s address is right in front of you. File the envelopes with your story notes. When the piece appears in print, all you need do is photocopy it, seal it in the envelope and mail it.

In conclusion, be highly protective of the time you have allotted to your work. Fellow professionals (including editors), friends and family members will soon learn when you are available and when you are not. Deviate only in event of fire or other life-threatening emergency. If you respect your time, others will, too.
It’s about time. It’s about you and your freelance business. ◊
A fulltime freelancer since 1982, Tom Huggler is a past president of OWAA. He lives in Sunfield, Mich. with his wife, Laura, and their two young children.

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