Making Time to Do Work Right

One skill I still need to work on is estimating how long it will take me to do my work. Sometimes unfamiliar work takes longer than I expect; sometimes I’m speedy past even my wildest expectations. Case in point: the book I’m writing about art and recreation on Mars. The more I clarified my content and what I needed to know to make the book tell the story I wanted to tell, the more I realized how much more I needed to read to be “smart” enough to write it well. I’ll spend some time today discussing how to better estimate the time needed to complete large projects.

Clarify the Scope

The scope of this book comprises much of the ground I covered in the long paper I wrote on this topic last year, plus some additional background topics to make the “story” I’m trying to tell complete. The “good” news is that I’ve already gathered the research from the paper. The problem is gathering sufficient information for the new sections.

As it turned out, I need to learn quite a bit about art history and even some anthropology to give this book the proper scope (why make it easy on myself?). I also have a tourism theme in the book because I have a personal interest in getting to other planets, and I’m more likely to get to the Moon or Mars as a paying travel customer than as a usefully trained astronaut.

All of these topics require a lot of reading. I have only so many hours in the day, and I have to balance my writing for fun with writing for pay, not to mention the regular maintenance of my body, home, and relationships with others. I had hopes that I might finish a draft of this book before I head off on a vacation in September. I would also like to interview some people who have experience or knowledge related to my subject matter. Arranging those interviews, conducting them (1 hour maximum each), and transcribing them will take time as well. Some of them might require travel, if only because I want to visit a couple places in person.

When I combine my reading with the interviews I wish to conduct, it quickly occurred to me that there was no way I’d be done with my research by September. More likely, I’ll be able to finish the research by the end of this year or early next year. I could skimp on the research but 1) I enjoy it and 2), I want to make certain I’ve got enough material available to write with some authority.

Make the Time

Aside from family or social commitments (with occasional “days off” for rest), I can see that my evenings are going to be consumed by this project…at least if I want to finish in a reasonable amount of time. I am my own boss and customer. I have a strong customer service ethic, so I’m more likely to take this book seriously if I treat it as a work project and not just something I’ll do “for fun.” As friends and family will tell you, I always find time to work. Fortunately, this happens to be work I enjoy.

Make a Schedule

Next on my list, after clarifying my list of sources and interviews, is to make a schedule that makes sense but doesn’t put off a completion date so far into the future that I never finish. One year seems sufficient. At least half of that time will be devoted to reading, interviewing, and transcribing notes. Maybe 1/3 of the time will be devoted to writing, with the remaining 1/6 of the time going to rewriting and editing. I probably have those percentages wrong, but that’s what I’m going with for now…

March – September: Research and interviews
October – December: Draft writing
January – March: Rewriting, revising, editing, proofreading w/assistance
April – June: Submit for publication

Am I likely to finish on the schedule? Unknown. It’s entirely possible that the reading will be done by then, but I’m not certain about the interviews. While I would dearly love to visit Johnson Space Center and talk with astronauts one-on-one, I suspect I’ll have to settle for Zoom interviews. Plus, my travel funds are limited. However, once I have all my notes in one place, the organizing and writing (much of which will be going on in my subconscious as I go along) should move along pretty speedily.

Contrasting Personal Projects with Work Projects

I won’t lie: if I was handed this assignment by a paying client, the deadlines would be a lot firmer and my focus on the task would be much tighter because there was actual money to be earned from hitting my milestones and producing results. Work projects usually require an estimate of hours. Deliverables would be more concrete, and a budget laid out to cover labor and materials (so far I’ve spent well over $200 on books and will most likely cough up at least $100 more…plus another $100 for a new bookcase, as I’m running out of room on my current office bookshelves). Hours scheduling would be based on my expected reading speed (30-50 pages an hour, depending on how interesting it is); my expected writing speed (10-20 pages per day); and editing speed (10 pages an hour). All of these numbers might, in fact, be obtainable if I sat down and looked at them…stand by for further updates.

The bottom line is that schedules need to be a balance between dedication and realism. If I’m zooming along, on a good day, I can exceed my targets. If I run into a snag–illness, emergency, other–the work will be delayed. Still, whether I’m working for myself or someone else, I need to set myself a deadline and oblige myself to stick to it.


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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