Hi Manuscript Workers,
Let me preface today’s newsletter by saying that I’m not a time management expert. I don’t typically offer advice on this type of thing, because I really don’t feel qualified to comment on what will work for other people who aren’t me, and I’m not particularly interested in the idea of “productivity” at the moment. But I thought I would share what works to keep me from feeling overwhelmed and directionless when I’m juggling a lot of different kinds of projects, some of which are long-term (like writing a book about scholarly book proposals) and some of which are more short-term but always repeating (like running my Book Proposal Accelerator, doing one-on-one consulting on clients’ proposal drafts, etc.). I’m not an academic anymore, but academic labor is a lot like this too, so I thought my system might work for some of the people who read this newsletter. Of course, your mileage will definitely vary, so just take what’s useful from this post and ignore the rest (evergreen caveat for everything I write here, really).
I somehow wrote a lot of my book during the first shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic, while looking after 2 small kids full time (fortunately with a supportive co-parent who actually does his fair share) and keeping up the rest of my editing and consulting business. The actual process of finishing the book is a blur to me, but I know that I did it—and I know exactly how many hours I spent on it—because of something I’ve been doing for the past year: tracking and categorizing all the time I spend working.
Both elements are important here. The tracking—documenting every minute I spend on work tasks—is key because it allows me to see how much I’m actually working. When you’re doing intellectual and other forms of immaterial labor, it can feel like you’re always working. But by keeping track of how much time I was really spending devoted to my work tasks, I could see that in fact I was working a reasonable number of hours per day and week.
Tracking can also be helpful for showing when you’re working more hours than is really reasonable. You may have an exploitative employer or colleagues who take up more working hours than they should, and unfortunately I don’t have a solution for that (other than labor organizing), but at least having the receipts can be helpful so you don’t get gaslit into thinking that you aren’t doing enough at your job. Knowing how much time you’ve spent can also help you properly recognize and value your own labor, even when you haven’t yet produced a finished object (such as a publication, which may take years of ongoing work before you have something to show for all the effort).
The other aspect of my system—categorizing—is also really crucial for me, for two reasons. The first is that it helps me mentally organize everything I need to do, which keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by all of it. In my current business, I’ve divvied up the working tasks that I do into 8 categories. When I think about what I need to accomplish in the day/week/month/year ahead, I can think in terms of categories of work rather than specific tasks.
Categories feel less overwhelming to me because they’re fixed and ongoing; specific tasks swim around in my head and make me feel instantly behind if there are too many of them coming up. (Back when I was still in academia, I think I had about 4 categories: teaching, research and writing for publication, the journal I worked for, and job market stuff. Before going to bed at night I’d think about what I was going to do in each category the next day, if anything. It helped me feel less vaguely stressed out about the day ahead.)
Beyond helping me stay mentally organized, the categories are helpful for seeing how I’m balancing my work time and whether anything is out of balance based on my own priorities. The categories also help me see how amorphous activities—for me it’s administrative tasks like billing and paperwork, for you it might be meetings and service work—take up a substantial chunk of my time. It’s time I have to spend in order to keep my business running, but if I wasn’t tracking it I could easily underestimate it and try to schedule in too many other activities, setting myself up to fail at all of it.
You don’t need fancy tech to track this stuff for yourself, by the way. I started out using printouts of Jane Jones’s Pomodoro Tracker calendar (which you can download from her website). I tracked my time spent in 30-minute blocks, and I used an improvised letter key to categorize the blocks.
This worked great, especially for giving me a visual picture of how many hours I was spending on work per day (not as many as I would have thought, most days!). If you want to be able to do more sophisticated data visualizations, Toggl is a time-tracking app that has a free version. I used that to track my billable hours for years and it’s pretty functional, as long as you remember to start and stop the timer on the app.
In August, I decided to invest an an even easier to use time-tracking tool. I will admit that I first saw it in an Instagram ad and felt a little silly dropping serious money on it, but I’ve found it to be completely worth it. It’s called Timeular, and the physical device looks like an oversized 8-sided D&D die (are there 8-sided dice in D&D? I don’t know, but you get the idea). It comes with an erasable pen you can use to label each face of it with a task category, and it links via bluetooth to your computer. Every time you start a task, you set the die with the corresponding category face up and the app on your computer automatically tracks the time spent until you flip it to another task or put it back in its holder. The app also allows you to track even when you’re not at your desk with your physical tracking device. The app generates reports like the ones I’ve screenshotted for this post (the paid version of the app will let you do even fancier data analysis, but I don’t really need or want that right now).
I want to be clear here that none of what I’ve been talking about in this post is about “increasing your productivity” or “getting more done.” This newsletter is definitely not about making you feel like you should be doing any more than what you, personally, find worthwhile to do, let alone more than what you have the capacity to do (we’re all dealing with a lot right now, and always). It’s more about showing you a system that might help you feel more on top of the work you’re already doing or going to do.
Tracking and categorizing my time did not in any way help me write and finish my book. But tracking and categorizing my time helped me see that I spent 188 hours working on the book in 2020. That works out to about 4 hours per week, though of course there were several weeks where I spent more time than that and many where I didn’t work on the book at all. This knowledge will help me plan if I ever decide to write another book—I’ll know how much time I should block off from other activities in my schedule—and it helps me see the whole book-writing process as a manageable project rather than some mystified feat. I hope it has a similar effect for you if you decide to try it.
A little PSA: the January–February 2021 session of the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator is now completely full. I respond with feedback to all participants who share their work in the Accelerator platform, so I do sadly have to limit enrollment to keep things manageable for myself (especially in the event childcare goes away again).
If you didn’t make it into this cohort, don’t worry—I’ll be running the Accelerator again in June and July of 2021. And I won’t be calling that the “Summer Session”—I’ve realized that seasonal language is exclusionary to scholars working in the Southern Hemisphere and that’s not my intent at all. Past sessions of the Accelerator have included participants in Australia and Brazil (among many other places outside the US); it truly is open to all, though the focus is on scholarly publishing in the United States. Out of respect for participants’ privacy, the live Q&A sessions over Zoom will not be recorded (other than the sessions featuring guest acquisitions editors), but I will be providing transcripts with participant names redacted for those who can’t attend live. Details about the next session will appear in this newsletter, so stay tuned in the coming months.
Do you have any other questions about the Accelerator? Check out the information page or feel free to shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or a tweet (@lportwoodstacer).