Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jeffe's Five Tricks for Juggling Multiple Projects and Deadlines

This time of year, all of my flowering vines blossom, like an end of summer special treat. They'll be the first to go when we get a frost, so they are all the more fleeting for that. Transient and precious.

Speaking of which, Dear Author is giving away three copies of Ruby.As of this writing, the giveaway ends in 36 hours, so hie on over if you're interested.

A lot of people seem to be out enjoying the long weekend - the three-day Labor Day Weekend, here in the U.S. and the traditional end of summer. All the kids are either back in school or headed that way. The academic types are kicking into the new semester. For many, this weekend is the last hurrah - camping, boating, barbequing.

For me?

I'm planning to write 8,000 words, review four sets of copy edits, critique two emergency contest entries and finish reading a critique partner's (CP) book.

Would I rather be out playing? Sure, on some level. Part of me wishes I could park myself on a lounge chair under an umbrella, drink adult beverages and read for pleasure. Except I also know I can't afford that time right now and, in the end, I'll be happier to get my work done. Having an extra day off the day job is like a gift of time.

And this, my friends, is how I do it. This week's topic is: Juggling Multiple Projects & Deadlines: How to Do It Well.

I was about to type that I'm not sure how well I do this, but then I checked myself. In a rush of self-congratulation, I have to say that I think I do juggle multiple projects and deadlines with a fair level of skill. But wow - it's been an acquired skill. So many things interest me that I want to do them ALL. Along the way, I've learned tricks to keep all those balls in the air.

#1 - Organize, organize, organize

Okay, you laugh, because you know I'm the Spreadsheet Queen, but I'm a huge believer in keeping organized as the key to getting it all done. I remember a time back in grad school - lo, these many moons ago, when computers were kept in a special room and we didn't have them on our desks, much less our laps - when I drew an enormous calendar on the blackboard over my desk in the lab. I plotted out my exams, both the ones I was taking and those I was giving, research, and various other projects. One of the professors walked by, shook his head and said "looks like displacement activity to me." But he was wrong. Making those calendars enabled me to plan my effort and keep on track.

Now I use Excel. I've written before about how I track wordcount. That's part of an overall effort to keep myself not just producing, but producing on schedule. In my Progress Count workbook, I have a tab called Priority List. I have all of my active projects listed there, from those proposed to in copy edits (the final stage of editing) - right now there are 13, though two are back-burnered - with columns for tracking. I note current status, next step, next step deadline, which is up to bat, what's on deck, estimated time required for the next step and the dates for delivery. Right now I have deadline dates ranging from 9/4 (those copy edits) to June 2015.

When a publisher asks me when I can deliver a proposed manuscript? This is the spreadsheet I go to.

#2 - Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I never used to be this way. Ask my mother. When I was in high school, I drove her CRAZY because I was always completing projects the night before they were due. I was absolutely one of those people who needed deadline pressure to get my off my duff and seriously working.

And I hated being that way.

The thing is - that deadline pressure that gets you moving? It's stress. The adrenaline response to that atavistic fear of HOLY SHIT, THAT TIGER WILL EAT ME IF I DON'T RUN LIKE THE WIND is what gets you moving. However, nature intended this to last long enough to get us the fuck away from the tiger. Not to last for our entire adult lives. Being under constant stress was bad for my health. More, it sucked in a big way.

These days, my incremental wordcount plans and spreadsheets are all designed to keep me balanced. If I do everything right, then I can get my work done - steadily moving forward every day - without stressing about it.

#3 - I Am Always Under Deadline

I don't quite get it when writers say things like "Oh, I can't do that because I'm under deadline." This makes no sense to me, because, ever since my third book, I've had deadlines. Now, as I noted in #1, I have eleven deadlines. Even before that, I used self-imposed deadlines to keep myself on track. See #2. Aren't all professional writers always under deadline?

Sometimes I think that, when people say this, they mean that they're feeling the deadline pressure. That they've glimpsed the tiger or feel its breath hot on their necks. To me, this is more saying "I'm under the gun." And sure, that happens. With these copy edits, they came in late last week and I hadn't known when they'd come in. Some publishers - it seems the bigger they are, the worse this is - don't tell you when edits will arrive. And when they do, the turn-around they expect can be unreasonably short. Often this is because the tiger is hunting them and they're tearing through the woods hoping to escape with their lives. I mean, jobs.

#4 - The Half-Again Rule

Okay, so, for my day job I work for an environmental consulting firm. We're forever tasked to estimate Level of Effort (LOE) to complete a job. This means both hours and dollars. It's not easy. Worse, if you underestimate, your project runs over and the company ends up eating the loss. Which makes the bosses UnHappy. (And they turn the tigers loose.) Quite some time ago I learned the Half-Again Rule and it has saved my tender hiney from the tiger more times than I can count.

The rule is very simple: Estimate how long you think a task will take and add half of that to it. So, if I think I can write my novella in 30 days, I plan for 45. Easy peasy. This allows for all the Unexpected Things. Like sick days, or goof-off days (hey - they happen!) or family celebrations or tragedies that demand your time. Or if your New York editor says "can I have these revisions back in 24 hours?" Don't laugh - that's happened to more than one friend.

Pad that schedule with the Half-Again Rule. You will never regret it.

#5 -  Deadlines Are Tools, Not Weapons

By all of this, I'm saying - juggling projects and deadlines is about planning, not panicking. I believe strongly that "I'm under deadline" should not be synonymous with "I'm under the gun." A deadline is a date on the calendar. It lets you count the dates between then and now (Excel even has a function of =TODAY() that you can plug into formulas for this very purpose) and figure out how much work you have to do each day to reach that goal. Number of words divided by number of days (plus half-again!) will tell you what you need to do.

Work the tool and no one will hold a gun to your head.


  1. Gotta watch out for those tigers...I'm not a fan of them getting too close to my rear end either and make fake deadlines way before the real ones.

    Hope you had a very productive day off Jeffe! You're superwoman, so I know you can get to all of it. :)