Time Management 2: Organizing

129.365In the last post, we talked about what I believe is the most important element in time management: prioritizing.

Now, let’s talk about getting organized. As I have said, I’m only sharing what I do, not giving expert advice. So I won’t cover the various time management tools that are available. You can keep a paper-and-pen to-do list if you find it helpful. You can use  very sophisticated time and project management software if you need it to stay organized. Or, most likely, you will use something in between. Find what works for you—and use it.

I use Outlook as my primary organizer because I can integrate my email, calendar, and to-do list in Outlook with documents. For example, I receive an email from a prospective client asking about my editing a book manuscript.

  • I reply to the message with a PDF document with information for clients, explaining what I need to give a quote: pages for a sample edit, a synopsis or chapter summary, and answers to a few questions.
  • I drag and drop the message into Contacts, creating a contact file with the author’s name and email address along with the message.
  • I create a mail folder for the prospective client as a subfolder of “prospective clients” and drag and drop both the original message and my response into the new folder.
  • If the prospective client replies with questions or incomplete information, I respond and store the messages in her mail folder. If she sends some of the requested material, I create a new folder in My Documents, as a subfolder of “prospective clients,” which is a subfolder of “clients” and save any attachments there.
  • When the prospective client has sent all the information, I drag and drop the message into Tasks and assign a due date. Depending on the client’s needs and my work in progress, I try to do sample edits and quotes within a few days.
  • When I work on the quote, I drag and drop the task into Calendar and record the time I spent.
  • I continue to file messages and documents in the prospective client’s folder until she is moved to “clients” or the “not accepted” subfolder of prospective clients.
  • If the client does accept my proposal and hires me to edit her manuscript, I continue to keep her records (both email and documents) organized in the appropriate folders, to schedule the steps of her projects in Tasks, and to record the time spent in Calendar.

Here are some of the key elements of my organizational system that make it work for me:

  • My office is virtually paperless, so I don’t spend time filing or looking for paper documents. Most of my work is electronic, and when I receive paper documents (such as contracts), I scan them and store them electronically.
  • My files—both email and documents—are organized in categories with main folders and several layers of subfolders: My Documents/Clients/John Smith/Book 1/Drafts, …/Book 1/Cover ,…/Book 1/Layout, …/Book 1/Promotion, etc.; …/Book 2/Drafts, etc.;   …/Website/Design, …/Website/Backups, etc.
  • With rare exceptions, my email inbox is emptied daily. When I check email, I try to process it at the same time. Unless I am in a hurry because of a scheduled appointment or deadline, I read and delete or file messages in the order they are received. If I need to do something in response to the message, I create a task for it as described above and file the email. Determining whether to save or delete a message can be challenging. Sometimes I think I should have a current subfolder under each client to file those iffy emails that I really don’t need to keep permanently, but I do need to keep while I’m working a specific project. But I haven’t done that, so I have more emails in file than I ideally should.
  • I have created documents with information on my services (a general document covering writing and editing; a document for editing clients with instructions on what I need to give a quote; and documents for self-publishing, formatting, resume, business, and website clients) as well as information for blog guests. When I get a query about work or guest posting, I reply with a very brief note and the appropriate document. I also have template emails that I use to cut down on the time and thought required to respond to similar emails.
  • My task list includes everything I need to do—phone calls I need to make as well as major projects. I don’t depend on my memory for anything—and if I do try to rely on memory, I’m reminded very quickly that it doesn’t work. 🙂
  • I record everything on my calendar–and I mean everything. There are two reasons for this: 1) I charge an hourly rate for most of my clients, because I do a variety of small jobs throughout the month, and it’s not feasible to give a flat fee quote for each one. If I don’t account for all my time, it’s easy to overlook a quarter hour here and a half hour there of billable time. By keeping track of all my time, I don’t forget those small jobs. 2) I can see how I spend my time. When I start feeling unproductive, I can look at the calendar and see large chunks of time marked Personal, which generally means I’ve had to help my husband more than usual. Or I may see large blocks of time marked Email/Blogs/Facebook and realize I need to be more selective in my blog reading. If I didn’t see that time written in my calendar, it would be easy to say–and believe—that I don’t spend much time online. I categorize and color-code every activity, so it’s very easy to tell at a glance the amount of time I spent on client work compared to the time spent personal activities, social media, and everything else.
  • In addition to the Outlook Calendar, I also maintain two separate calendars in Word documents. My blog editorial calendar has my posting schedule—all the holidays and special occasions/events I want to blog about marked on the appropriate date, guest posts and reviews or interviews I have scheduled, and ideas for topics to write about. Although I have major deadlines in Outlook Tasks, my project calendar contains more details about large jobs. Those details include deadlines throughout the project for other people—the author, an associate who does a round of edits, the cover designer, beta readers, and others—and interim deadlines for me—first/second/third round of edits due, interior layout, upload file to online printer, review printer’s proof. I find this much detail clutters up my Outlook calendar but is very easy to see when laid out in a one-page monthly calendar with nothing but deadlines on major projects visible.

This describes the tools and system I use for organization. You may prefer a different tool and another system. It doesn’t matter how simple or complex your system is. What matters is whether it works for you. If it is effective for you, it is a great system.

Next time we’ll talk about what I do on a daily basis.

Creative Commons License photo credit: romana klee

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