How do you plan the work you’ll do? Do you make a schedule every day? Week? Month? Maybe you’re happy figuring out what to work on over the next hour and as long as you have something in front of you, you’re fine.
I bring this topic up because I think it fits well with the podcasts about consistency and priorities I recorded recently and especially after last week’s episode where I talked about Fantastical and how I’ve started using a calendar more now that I purchased the latest version.
I want to share some thoughts about productivity, specifically as it relates to time and especially in regards to planning further ahead and scheduling the work you have over longer time frames.
Planning My Editorial Calendar
I tend to work from a GTD productivity app, Things, and I generally don’t fill up a calendar with the work I think I’ll do on any given day. I didn’t wake up this morning and fill in how I’ll spend my hours on a calendar.
I focus on the tasks and projects as opposed to the time. I avoid timed deadlines where possible and know I do better work when deadlines aren’t pressing.
However, I do work from an editorial calendar where this site is concerned so time does enter into my workflow. I regularly post here on Monday’s and Thursday’s and so there are deadlines associated with writing here as well.
I’m not sure what day you’re listening, but I’ll publish this recording on a Thursday and there will be another recording the following Thursday and the Thursday after that. Time certainly enters into my day and my schedule.
I still don’t care for deadlines though, and I don’t want time controlling the work I do. I worked hard to get ahead of schedule on this site. I may technically have deadlines, but they’re about a month away at the moment.
With my calendar I fill in the month with ideas I think will work as articles and I track my progress toward publishing them. It’s early April as I’m recording and I have most of the month’s content finished. May’s calendar has a with a mix of posts that are finished and in various stages toward completion.
I have color coding set up to quickly distinguish between an article that has a completed draft and is ready to edit and an idea that needs to be filled with notes before I can even think about starting the draft.
I can look at the month and quickly see how much I’ve finished and what’s left to do so I can better prioritize the work that’s left.
For a long time I set up a process that allowed me to finish two posts each week. At first I was writing one week and publishing what I’d written the next week. My week as it related to writing for this site looked something like this.
- Monday — Choose posts for week and add some notes.
- Tuesday — Add more notes and organize them into something that can be turned into a first draft.
- Wednesday — Write the draft.
- Thursday — Edit the draft.
- Friday — More editing, a proof, and schedule the post for publication.
To get ahead I’d try to compress the above into four days for a week and start the next week’s writing a day early. If I did that five times, I’d get an extra two posts written over the time frame.
While working that way kept me publishing for years, it was limiting in the sense that I chose ideas on Monday that needed to be finished by Friday if I wanted to remain on schedule. I could only choose ideas I could finish in a week or I’d have to compress my work into fewer days.
One problem with that is if I couldn’t work on a Tuesday one week it throws the schedule off. I’d have to rush another day in the week. That’s fine on Tuesday, but it doesn’t work as well when the day skipped is Friday.
One solution is to get further ahead of schedule so I can skip a few days and that’s what I’ve always done. For most of the last few years I’ve been 2–3 weeks ahead of schedule, though sometimes it’s been longer and sometimes I was writing today what I’d publish next week.
Another problem is that you are limited in what topics you can write about. It has to be something you can finish in a week if you’re publishing next week. That isn’t always enough time for research. Sometimes I need more than a week to understand the topic well enough to explain it.
If I have a great idea for a 4-part series, I either need to publish the first post before understanding the last one and what it will be about or I need to work on additional posts I can publish while working on the series.
Getting further ahead of schedule is also a solution to this problem. If I’m four weeks ahead I can spend four weeks on a series. The first post doesn’t need to be ready next week. The series needs to be done in four weeks.
Plan Further Ahead For Greater Flexibility
When scheduling, the more time you can schedule at once, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with the time.
There’s only so much you can do in a minute. There’s a lot more you can do in an hour. At the very least you can do 60 one minute tasks, but you could also do one hour long task, a couple of 30 minute tasks or any combination you like. You have more flexibility over the longer time frame.
When you write and publish on the same day you force the work into the time frame. You do the best you can within the available time you’ve scheduled. What happens if the time runs out and you aren’t happy with what you produced? What do you do? You probably have to publish since you have no choice.
When you write today for tomorrow you can take a second pass through your work and give it a round of editing. When you write today for next week you can take several passes to edit. You can find an error in logic, a redundant thought, a tired paragraph, or you can rewrite the whole thing.
You also get time to explore possibilities knowing if you explore a dead end, you can recover. Sometimes you won’t find anything useful when exploring a new angle and you’ll put yourself back under pressure. So what? If you’re far enough ahead of schedule you have plenty of time make up for it.
Sometimes, though, you find things you didn’t know existed. You come back with gold and your day’s exploration becomes a new article or several new articles, or a big improvement to the existing article.
This year I’ve been writing more series. I’m planning over longer time frames. Last year when I started writing CSS Animations, I was four weeks ahead of schedule. I had to give back all those weeks to finish the book and by the end I was writing for next week again.
At that point I worked hard through the fall and winter to get ahead of schedule. I’m writing a month ahead of publication now which gives me more opportunities to catch up form a bad day and more time to explore different avenues and angles.
I can also work on projects that take longer than a week to finish, allowing me to work more efficiently. I know I have about four or five weeks before I need to publish again. I can plan out a 20 part series if I want. In a month’s time I won’t have the series finished, but I’ll easily have it all outlined and have the first four or five posts done with plenty of progress made on the rest.
Plan Further Ahead for Greater Efficiency
When I’m a week ahead I can probably take two ideas and turn them into something I’ll publish the following week. A month ahead and I can probably get four weeks of writing finished in three weeks of work.
The longer time frame lets me specialize to a degree. I can work on one series for a few days and then switch to another. Sticking with the same topic means I don’t have to keep looking things up and leave the flow of writing.
Before I was writing two unrelated posts each week and it was hard to get in a third. It was too many topics to be thinking about when I wasn’t actively writing.
Now I can work faster, because I schedule more time to work within. The longer time frame lets me work smarter and employ multipurposing. I can work on several articles that share research, hence the recent theme of series.
With the SVG series I’m now publishing on Mondays, I didn’t have to research each post every week. It’s the same research applied to handful of posts. I think I’ve been getting them done at a clip of four every three weeks and possibly six done over for weeks. That’s a lot faster than one per week.
I’ve talked in the past about doing your best work at the best times for you. For me that’s writing and creative work in the morning or late at night and busy work immediately after lunch.
When you schedule work for the day you can’t necessarily schedule it at the best times for you. You have limited time and have to get the work done. When planning over a longer time frame you have more time to coordinate different projects and tasks so you can choose which to work on when.
Over shorter time frames you might not be able to schedule work to fit with the best times of your day. You might not have any busy work for the low energy times and might not have creative work for the high creative energy portion of your day. Different projects will fit together better when you can consider more of the project over a longer time frame.
It’s like a jig saw puzzle except you get to decide what the pieces are and how they fit together. You get to decide what the puzzle eventually becomes. You’re building a puzzle without a single solution where you get to make the pieces in any shape you want and combine them in any way that works best for you.
We all do things better at certain times and the longer the time frame, the more pieces you have to choose from and the more time you have to shape those pieces so they can fit into whatever puzzle you decide to build.
Whether you’re scheduling an editorial calendar or scheduling client work you never really know how long a project will take to complete. We track time to better estimate future time, but we never really know in advance how long things will take, at least I never do.
If you schedule the work you have over longer time frames there are more ways you can schedule the work. You aren’t choosing a time frame first and then forcing the project into the time frame.
I find the best work comes from letting the project dictate how much time it needs instead of forcing it into an arbitrary time frame because of your calendar. For a better project with higher quality don’t focus on time. Focus on the project.
You can’t entirely escape time, but you can greatly lessen its impact by planning further ahead over longer periods of time. You can’t escape the effects of time when you’re only thinking a few days ahead. The deadlines are too close.
The more days, weeks, or even months ahead you are, the more time you have to schedule. More time gives you more options for what to work on and when. It gives you more opportunities to recover from an unproductive day or week.
Scheduling work over longer time frames lets you more efficiently work on different tasks at the time you can best work on them. It’s much more efficient than choosing what to work on because you’re chasing a deadline that’s approaching.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.