Think Longer Term to Be More Productive With Creative Work

Last week I told you how I break down my writing process and how I think about the different steps in the process in terms of the energy level and focus I need in order to work on them. I also told you how I use these energy levels to manage my tasks for the day.

If you haven’t read last week’s post, you may want to start there as much of what I’ll talk about here will assume you are familiar with what I said in that post. You may also want to read my thoughts about creativity and productivity from earlier in the year.

Today I want to think beyond managing tasks over a single day and talk about how I manage my work over the course of a week and how I prefer to think longer term about the projects I want to complete.

How I Manage Weekly Projects and Tasks

I like to schedule in advance what I plan to work on the following week. Every Friday I close out the work week with a productivity review. I look over what I accomplished, but mainly I look over the projects I’m currently working on and I think about which should get the most priority the following week.

For example, as you might guess, working on this post had some priority this week (for me as I write) or I wouldn’t be working on it. In fact, it’s the highest priority non-fiction project on my list this week. It’s not the only project though.

I usually choose 2–4 projects and look through them to see what I need to do to complete them. I’ll add new tasks, modify others, and possibly remove a few as part of managing the projects. When it comes to choosing what I’ll work on the following week, I’ll think again in terms of mental energy and focus.

If a deadline is approaching, the project associated with it naturally takes on a higher priority, but more often it’s the projects where the next bit of work requires a lot of focus that takes priority over others.

The reason is that my capacity to maintain that focus is limited and I want to prioritize the tasks that need it. If I didn’t it would be too easy to waste some of the time where I do have the energy. I’ll probably have two stretches of time through the day when my energy level is at its highest and I want to ensure that I’ve scheduled at least two high energy tasks every day and set the rest of my schedule around these tasks.

The low focus tasks I can more easily find time to do even when surprises happen and I have to abandon my schedule for a time.

I look for at least two, and up to four projects in which I can balance higher and lower energy tasks throughout the week. Much of the time, one of the projects will need more of my focus and the others serve as backfill throughout the week.

I’ll have a particular goal for each project for the week. This post is one of four I’m working on at the same time and my goal is to have all of them finished and ready to be sent to WordPress and scheduled to go live at some time in the future. I’m currently editing the last of the posts and I’ll move on to the proof and polish stage in my process tomorrow.

This week I only have one lesser priority project, which is work on a second edition of my book, Design Fundamentals. The tasks from the project all involve looking over parts of the first edition and making notes for how I want to rework them. They don’t require as much of my focus as editing this and the other post. Some days I’ve worked on the book. Others I haven’t. It’s scheduled for the last part of the day and how the rest of the day goes determines if I make it to tasks for the book.

Also in the mix are a number of tasks I perform every week, such as the administration of this site and my small business forum, responding to email, and routine life tasks like laundry and picking up groceries.

Every week, this one included, I also have random tasks to complete. This week I’ve been thinking about how I might create a course of writing exercises to direct my growth as a fiction writer and I jot down thoughts here and there. I’ve also started collecting my thoughts for the next newsletter I send out for my writing site.

Since the majority of my tasks will span days, if not weeks, I don’t have a lot of tasks scheduled most weeks. I’ve had one task to edit four posts, which I’ve moved from Monday to Tuesday to today (Wednesday if you weren’t paying attention). I left the next task, to proof and polish all the posts, for Friday, but since I should finish editing today, I’ll move that task up a day to tomorrow.

I tend to front load Monday with a task for each project I want to work on along with a few random tasks and every morning I choose a few to work on that day. I move the other tasks to the following day or sometime later in the week. I also tend to feel optimistic on Friday afternoon’s when I review everything and forget how much I won’t want to start the week on Monday morning.

As the week progresses I rearrange when I’ll work on different tasks. Some days I get more done and can move tasks from later in the week to earlier in the week. Some days it’s the opposite and a task I thought I would do today is pushed back to tomorrow or the next day. Every week contains a daily reshuffling of a handful of tasks.

I strive to keep things flexible. There have been weeks where I decided the main project for the week wasn’t working and I put it on hold for a few weeks. There have been weeks where an idea popped into my head on Monday and by Friday I have several articles based on the idea completely finished.

The same as I do daily, I let my energy levels lead everything. It’s a GTD concept in that I always try to work on whatever task best matches my focus of the moment. Where it differs is that I can usually predict when I will and won’t have that focus and instead of choosing what to work on in the moment, I preplan and schedule the work allowing for change throughout the week.

If your work generally has deadlines associated with it, you might be wondering how I can be as flexible as I want with my weekly (and daily) schedule. The answer is that I think long term when it comes to what I work on.

Think Long Term and Multiple Projects for Added Flexibility

There’s an important consideration in the way I manage my daily and weekly tasks. I need to have a consistent well of tasks across the energy spectrum at the ready. I can’t reach for busy work after lunch if I don’t have any busy work to do.

The way I ensure that I have work available of different energy and focus requirements is to think long term. The first step in doing that has always been for me to work extra hard for a time to get ahead of schedule.

Ideally, I can sneak in an easy writing project somewhere or I’ll just work more hours for a few weeks. The further ahead of schedule I am, the more future work I can include in my thinking.

Sticking with the example of this post, it marks the last writing I’ll do for several series I’ve been working on the last few months. I started making notes for the performance series I’ve been publishing this year back in November of last year. In fact, I already have notes started and pretty far along for the next performance mini-series I’ll publish. During the first week of January I finished all of the performance posts I’ve published so far this year.

This creativity/productivity series was one I thought about in early December. It started as a two post-series which I finished before Christmas. In early January I thought how I could extend the series and I’ve spent much of the month working on it, once I finished work on the performance series.

When you add it all up, I finished about four months work of posts for this site between the start of November 2017 and the end of January 2018. When I finish this series, I’ll likely take a week or two away from writing anything for this site while other projects get more of my attention.

After a time, I’ll start thinking about the content I want to publish over the summer and into the fall. My goal will be to have it all in WordPress and scheduled to go live, before the post you’re reading now is actually published. Over the summer I’ll work on content for the site through the end of the year.

Working over longer time frames is more efficient for me since I can research 10 articles at once and then write them all instead of having to work through my full writing process on each article before moving on to the next. It also allows me to look at series with a wider perspective and hopefully improve them.

Most of the series I’ve published the last couple of years started as shorter series, but as I research and write they grow and mid series I decide four posts can become six posts if I can collect a little more information on one subtopic or expand a section of a post into a full post all to itself. That kind of flexibility is difficult to work in when you have a deadline of next week, but when the deadline is a few months away you can rework things, which only helps you get further ahead of schedule.

I realize not every type of project can be worked on this way, but understand this series has been about how to be more productive when your work is mostly the creative kind that doesn’t have deadlines imposed by others.

I certainly want to finish projects like reworking Design Fundamentals sooner rather than later, but ultimately there’s no reason why I need to finish it on February 21st instead of March 15th or whatever day I end up finishing it. Sure, it means the second edition of the book might take longer to complete than it has to, but it also means I’ll likely get more work done overall between now and the time it is ready.

Closing Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this and my other posts this year on being more productive with creative work. I do think creative work is more difficult to manage with productivity systems due to it’s fuzzy nature, but I also think you can manage creative work to get more of it done.

The key for me was to understand that my daily ebb and flow of energy was the the biggest stumbling block to getting more accomplished and so I’ve learned to work with my energy instead of against it.

I break down projects into tasks based around my writing processv. I don’t worry too much that the tasks aren’t so well-defined. I accept most of my tasks will run multiple days and every week I schedule work for each day according to what I know will be my likely energy at a given time.

This works best when I can think further ahead and work on several months of projects at once. It provides more tasks across different levels of focus so I have more to choose from on any given day as I mix high and low energy tasks in accordance with what I know about myself.

Ocassionally I have crunches like everyone else where I have to work on something now or this week, but fortunately working so far in advance on most things gives me the flexibility to take a week or two away from any project to work another one in.

Also, know that this is all a work in progress for me. It’s not long since I’ve come back to using productivity systems and apps and I’ve yet to figure out a good process for working on multiple fiction writing projects the way I have for non-fiction projects. However, I feel confident that as long as I continue to stay on top of my work and spend a little time each week thinking about how I can be more productive, I’ll get there.

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