One of the most crucial skills you can learn as a technical communicator is time management. I keep myself out of “danger” from overlapping commitments by engaging in what I call “first minute-itis.” That means instead of waiting until the last minute (i.e., close to the deadline) to get started on projects or products, I try to start working on them as soon as possible. There’s a bit more to it than that, so let’s get started, shall we?
The Essence of Time Management
Time management is actually a collection of skills that you have to learn over time, and it incorporates–at least for me–several different features:
- Gauging task complexity.
- Identifying how long specific tasks will take you to do.
- Maintaining temporal mindfulness (i.e., watching the clock to see how much time you have to do the work).
- Prioritizing tasks.
These skills have been listed in the order in which I learned them, but they are actually in reverse order of priority. The more you work, the more you gain experience, understand which tasks are “easy” for you, and learn how long it takes you to do them, the better you can prioritize which tasks you should do first. For example, editing a two-page letter someone else has written takes a lot less time than writing a letter about a complex subject to someone you don’t know.
For me, it’s all about time: I want to get the tasks that take the least time done first. That way, I can get the small stuff out of the way as quickly as possible, leaving the bigger, more complex tasks to take the bulk of my day.
Mind you, time is not the only factor that governs my workflow. As a freelancer, I have to ensure that the customers who pay my rent get first priority.
This week, I had a large task from my largest client (by dollars) as well as a lot of small-to-medium-size tasks from a relatively new client. While some of the new client’s tasks were smaller and easily done, I also need to keep my primary client happy. My decision in this case was to divide my time for a couple days, spending 50% of my time on the prime client and 50% of my time finishing smaller tasks for the new client. However, when the prime client’s work seemed to conflict with my ability to finish the various short tasks from the new client on time, I decided to spend more than 50% of my day to finish the prime client’s work completely. That would give me the rest of the week to concentrate entirely on the shorter tasks from the new client.
We’ll see how it works out. I finished the prime client’s work Wednesday afternoon after over six hours of dedicated effort and managed to finish a task for the new client that was due Friday later that afternoon.
In addition, my personal balance equation also must factor in my comfort level with the content. I’ve worked with my primary client for over three years now, and I can move through large tasks for them rather quickly. However, I have several tasks from the new client that are of varying length. And because the content is new and unfamiliar to me, I must also give myself an extra “fudge factor” to ensure I have the time I need to do the work well.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have plenty of work to do, but not so much that it will overwhelm you. Regardless of your workload, it’s important that you acquire a good sense of how long it takes for you to do things, and what your various deadlines are. As long as you’re able to work expeditiously with a keen sense of both, you’ll be able to make your clients happy and keep the work flowing your way.
Whenever I get a “there’s no rush on this edit” I’m grateful for the timeline but I still dive in ASAP because I can’t see what else is coming in soon, and sometimes it’s a monster. Not usually, but the one time I procrastinate, I’m gonna pay. Murphy is alive and well.