I LEARNT all sorts of methods at BBC News Online for being productive and I am naturally drawn to technology so I’d had ‘To Do’ apps anyway. But it was when a job was going really well that I started looking into productivity more deliberately.
I thought I was being clever: my big freelance contract was with Radio Times magazine, which I loved, but I wanted to write books and Doctor Who radio dramas too. If I could handle my time better, I figured, I could go do that and keep the regular RT work.
Then, Radio Times made me redundant. You know that any redundancy, any abrupt end to a long job is a difficult time and I’m not going to pretend that I was unaffected. Plus, if they hadn’t kicked me out, I would never have left: I loved that magazine and its website so much.
However, let me be exactly as honest for one more moment: as it turned out, I now thank Radio Times hourly. They could not have made me redundant at a better time and the fact that I was already applying myself to making better use of my time turned out to be an advantage when I suddenly and unexpectedly needed to take a structured and efficient approach to getting more work.
Get on top of your work
Hopefully your work isn’t going to suddenly stop but there’s no question that it will change. It is part of what makes your job interesting but change is often challenging. It usually seems that you have to do more and you have to do that more with less resources. If your work today exactly matches your original job description, you’re unusual, your business is strange and I suggest you’ve got to be bored.
Being busy or being bored is like being rich or poor. People tell you philosophically that these are really the same thing but you know which one you’d prefer.
They can both be overwhelming, though and we’re not good when we’re overwhelmed. We are rubbish at dealing with masses of problems and responsibilities at once. However, we are superb at doing our work. Tell us what to do next and it gets done brilliantly.
This is one thing in favour of having one boss and one job: let him or her decide what they need next and you can just get on with it. It is the number of spinning plates rather than the plates or the spinning itself that is a problem.
I think this can be worse for creatives and ten times worse for freelance creatives. More than anyone else in any other job, you are doing what you do because it’s your art and it’s your vocation. There’s a fair chance you just snorted there because art and vocation feel a long time ago when you’re struggling to get new work or you’re ferociously struggling to complete what you’ve promised.
Break it all down before you breakdown
You’ve got the doing covered - you are superb at the doing. You just need to find a way through the mud of deciding what’s the most urgent and important thing you must do right now.
It’s only mud in your head. Get it all out of your noggin’ and write the lot down on a list. Don’t think about it, don’t plan, don’t do anything except dump it all out onto paper or a screen. Take as long as you need to do this. Get every scintilla out of your head and onto the list in front of you.
You might be daunted by the size and scope of what you’ve written but you’ll also feel better. Seriously, just by doing this, you will feel better. It’s because you’ll feel ready. You’re changing this mud into one specific thing to do, one specific task. Your job now is to examine the list and sort it out. That’s doing and, I am not kidding or flattering you here, you are great at doing.
Look at your big list and start grouping things together: this is all stuff for that commissioning editor; that is all for your accountant and this is all leads for new work. Make big, wide, open groups where you just bung things together loosely.
Then take one group and sort that. Some of the things you’ve listed in a group will be vital, others will be the whole reason you wanted to be the artist you are, and some will be rubbish, which you can scrap immediately. Just let the rubbish go because you know it’s not going to happen so there’s no point in keeping it in your head.
Park all the stuff that you want to do, that will wait for just a little while. For now, you’re concentrating on the vital stuff. Break that down even further. If something has a real, actual, definite, committed deadline then write that down.
The odds are that you’ve written very big and quite vague things like “pitch to producer” or “write book”. Good. Now take one of those and think about what that actually means. If you’re going to pitch to a producer, you need to know which one and then decide what you’re going to pitch and when. So write that down. Rather than “pitch to producer”, write something like this: “Choose which producer, decide what project, find a date to contact him or her” and then start doing. And – say it with me – you are great at doing. It’s just a shame that other people aren’t. That’s what we’ll talk about next time.