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How to better manage your calendar and the clock—without getting overwhelmed.

How to better manage your calendar and the clock—without getting overwhelmed

Public transportation saves. This from a Midwest native who never stepped on a bus, and had no idea what an “el” train was prior to a move to Chicago.

Step on board and you’ll see how people live and work. You’ve got the college kid listening to an MP3 player while taking copious notes on the art history book open in the adjoining seat. The businessman with his laptop balanced on his knees.

The working mom with a Blackberry in one hand, a stroller in the other. And then there’s Scott Turow the lawyer who spent two hours a day every day for one year (getting to and from his job in the city) writing his first novel, Presumed Innocent, on a 25-cent legal pad.

Turow followed the “daily journalist’s mantra.” It goes like this: “Always keep the story moving. Push it forward. Pull it along. Drag it through the mud. Move it. Bit by bit in pieces if you have to. Between meetings, in meetings, in the airport, during lunch and on the train. Spend every free moment pushing that story to completion. Because if you don’t, it’ll never get done.”

How’s that for time management?

The reality is, you’ve got plenty to do and not much time. And that will never change. What can change, though, is your ability to manage the clock and the calendar. Because when you’re on call, understaffed, overworked and pushed to improve your publication, the most important thing you can do is get out in front of it all. It just takes a plan.

Don’t have time to plan? Then stop reading now. And be prepared to accept the status quo of too many meetings, too many deadlines, no specific agenda, approval nightmares, low design standards and the sinking feeling that nothing of quality will ever get done on time again. Or you can make a plan to:

  • Tackle the writing and be more efficient
  • Improve your editing and become more strategic
  • Streamline approvals and client “negotiations”

    First, some clarity. It does no good to brilliantly manage the calendar, but lose sight of managing the clock. Managing the calendar is about the plan. It means you:

  • Know every action point in your publication’s process
  • Determine which people are involved and what their role is in making the publication move from beginning to end
  • Create physical calendars and deadlines
  • Envision your publication, identify the end result and work backward to create a strategy
  • Sell concepts and stories to those in the “chain of command”

    Managing the clock is about reality. How much time does it really take to do all the tasks outlined in your calendar? And more important, why does it take that amount of time, and what can you do to trim? The answers require that you study patterns, identify areas for improvement and trust that the writers, designers, photographers and approvers who help you are doing the best they can (and that requires ongoing encouragement and motivation).

    Managing the clock is about giving everyone, including yourself, the time to do the job right the first time around. Because if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to redo it?

    Manage your calendar with care

    The key to managing the calendar is to make the overwhelming whelming. You do this by using tools like calendars, idea files and to-do lists, and when you actually schedule time for reader relationships, organizational updates and team building.

    First, get to work writing down each task associated with your publication. No task is too small or unimportant to make your list and every task should be broken down to its smallest part (i.e. don’t just record on your list, “publication goes to print,’ but “call the printer to confirm dates, prepare proofs for printing, create package for printer to include press order sheet, conduct press checks, get appropriate sign off on all press proofs,’ and so on).

    Then, work backward from your deadline and plot what task happens on what day on a big calendar (when is the pub due to the printer, when does it go to approvers, what are the designer’s deadlines, when do you need photos and when are the stories due, and what are your dates for editorial meetings and brainstorming sessions?). Give yourself plenty of time on each task. And here’s a tip: color coding is great if you manage more than one publication.
    Publications typically follow the same timeline each issue. So, you should be able to plan months at a time.

    Your calendar is the easiest and most inexpensive tool. Include everything on it. Even if it’s simply scheduling time to make phone calls (which you need to build relationships with your readers), or blocking time for organizational updating (after all, you’re going to need time to maintain your calendars, notebooks, idea files and binders), or if you’ve just decided to put aside 15 minutes every day for a “walkabout”—time to go see your writers, clients, readers, boss or anyone else you may be able to help and influence (team building).

    Of course, managing the calendar isn’t just about the calendar. It’s also about finding other ways to stay organized. Consider creating and maintaining an idea file, a word document you update every week that captures all the ideas you’ve gathered from the prior week.

    One side of your document, list the idea in broad terms; then in one sentence or less, tell a bit more about the story whatever will help you remember why this was such a good idea in the first place. Add to that the person who recommended the idea at what meeting.

    On the right side of the document, list all the publications (by name) this idea would suit.

    As you add ideas, get rid of the refuse. Maybe the person who recommended the story is no longer at your company or you’ve researched the idea and know it’s not going to work.

    An up-to-date idea file helps with determining assignments, content meetings and brainstorming sessions. You also can share this file with writers and managers as a way to encourage their own brainstorming. But the best part of an idea file is that it keeps in one place all the ideas you’ve gathered from all the meetings and phone calls and hallway chats you’ve had. No idea gets lost.

    The last tip for managing the calendar is this: make a to-do list and keep a to-do list. If you want to perfect yours, try this: Make a list of every project you have. Then, add to it a list of every writer, designer, photographer and any other person who works with you on these projects.

    Under each category/project heading, list the action item and when it’s due. Copy and paste as appropriate to keep the action items in order, based on deadlines and urgency. Under each person’s name, list their to-do items as they pertain to your projects and when those items are due to you. Every morning, print the list and keep it with you during the day (take it to meetings—that’s when many action items are assigned). At the end of each day, update the list in your file and make a “priorities” section for the next day—limit activities you must complete to one or two items.

    Then, every week, send an e-mail out to those people listing deadlines in the coming 14 days. Some people think this is enabling behavior. But isn’t it better to get the stuff in on time than to fight the closing window in your production schedule when deadlines are missed or downright abused?

    Watch the clock

    No, don’t sit and actually watch the clock (it’s an activity that causes nervous habits). Just be aware of time and how much it takes to do the job right. Pretend, for the moment, that you work in an ad agency and your time is broken into billable hours.

    Create lists of tasks and determine how much time it really takes to complete them. This requires some research ask your team, notice trends and take a look at your own “wasted” hours.

    Then, improve where you can and determine exactly how much time you need. And be honest and realistic. Don’t promise the impossible.

    Tackle the writing

    Here’s when you write: during the interview. Between meetings. While on the phone. While eating lunch. While note-taking. While planning. Before you’ve got everything you need. Before the last interview. Before you’ve been struck with the muse. Here’s when you don’t. All free moments (and maybe you want to redefine your definition of “free”) should be spent pushing the story to completion. Because, alas, there will never be the perfect time to write.

    Also, consider abolishing the idea that all stories must be written “anew,” as if any writer, famous or otherwise, has found any way to write any story anew in the last several decades. The Wall Street Journal is highly formulaic and highly successful. If you examine their copy, you’ll note they have just three templates and only one for their famous cover feature.

    Read your favorite newspapers and magazines. Choose four or five templates you like and write to them. Examples include: question and answer, interview story, profile with a hard lead/soft lead, story lead and news story. Only when you have some free time, or when a story demands it, should you depart from formulas.

    Finally, outline what the story will achieve before you start writing. Ask:

    • How will this story address the topics most important to this distribution?
    • What will the reader get from reading this story?
    • How will this story impact the recruiting, retention, sales and/or other goals of my company?
    • What “refer to” information can I provide my reader?

    Improve your editing; be more strategic

    The most important thing you can do as an editor is talk to your writers. Make clear assignments and give writers your time. If one more story comes in that doesn’t match your vision, you only need look in the mirror to place the blame.

    It’s easy to say a writer didn’t do what you hoped. It’s harder to plan time to make the assignment, discuss it, talk about the first draft, discuss the second and hear about steps along the way.

    Writers yearn for direction. Think of it as the “meeting before the meeting,” those moments that take far less time than rewriting.

    And, stop rewriting. Stop telling yourself that no one can do it as well as you. Stop believing that it’s harder to teach than to fix. Rewriting only saves time today. It does nothing for building an arsenal of talent for tomorrow. A good editor is thatn an editor. Your job is to find time to help writers improve and to help them understand your goals, style and standards.

    From one editor who used to rewrite to another, trust me. Your ability to manage the creative process, to identify future trends, to stay on top of business communication requirements will largely depend on your free time, and if that’s spent rewriting, you’re giving up precious opportunities for professional growth. Remember, your boss doesn’t do it all. Neither should you.

    Finally, the most important thing you can do to become more efficient is to make smart assignments. Ask yourself who has time to write, who wants to and who can. In the midst of tight deadlines and tighter budgets, now may not be the time to give budding writers a chance at something new, or to wait on your seasoned pro who may be busy working on 10 other projects.

    Streamline approvals and client negotiations

    When it comes to improving the approval process, many editors are intimidated into giving up before they start. Consider this:

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