Every year, I make yet another set of resolutions that somehow get shoved under the rug by the time Valentine’s Day rolls around. In a perfect world, I “should” be able to achieve my resolutions of getting back in shape, finishing a novel and traveling. But for many writers like myself, not achieving a set of goals in my opinion has little to do with intent or discipline. (Mind you, if you’re a writer, you have to have some amount of discipline otherwise you’d never get any projects completed.)
I believe that the reason why it’s difficult to achieve a set of New Year’s resolutions year after year is because we get preoccupied with our craft, often losing sight of the end goal because we get caught up in project cancellations, financial worries or new clients. “Life” happens and when it does, the specificity of our goals gets shoved under the rug because we are dealing with the “now.” In order to achieve our goals, I believe that we need healthy habits that will allow us to thrive.
Five Good Habits Every Writer Needs
You might think that the idea of “writing” habits is fairly inane or loaded with common sense, but it’s not. In our craft, since time truly is money, poor habits that take our attention away from writing only creates more work for us in the end. Here are some habits I feel we can all improve upon, but there may be others to add to this list.
1. COMMUNICATE MORE EFFECTIVELY
We are writers by nature, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily effective communicators. Smart communication, in my book, is really two-fold. First, it’s about clarity. Every freelancer needs to know a few basic pieces of communication before moving forward, so this might be something you’re already doing. From length of contract to pay, you know what you need to move forward on a project.
However, there are times when your client either doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do or has another “mission” for their product in mind. If there are roadblocks in communication with your clients that cannot be overcome, and you are spending more time on it than it’s financially worth, then you might want to consider backing out of the project. (Read my post about Sample Phrases to Politely Turn Down Projects.)
Second, effective communication is about choosing the right tool for the right message. Social media is great, but it can be more casual than you might think. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind. Ask yourself not only who you are communicating with, but why and how. Just because you’re leaving a comment on someone else’s blog does not mean you should tone down your communication by writing in slang or LOLspeak to the point where it is unreadable. Remember, your writing (all of your writing, I might add) reflects upon the quality of your work as I had mentioned in How to Ruin your Online Reputation in 10 Easy Steps.
I thought that Frugal Marketing did a great job with this article about How to Communicate Effectively in Business. It is a very structured article that takes the amorphous concept of communicating and structures it into an outline format.
If you still use “snail mail” for some communication, consider going virtual and stick to brief, more direct communication via email. Scan in your contracts and send them as pdfs to save you time and money. A decent scanner/printer/copier costs around $100 at several retail stores.
2. MANAGE YOUR COMMUNICATION
Now that you’ve figured out how to communicate better with other freelancers and your clients, I recommend mastering your “InBox.” I just spent all day Sunday wrangling over 2,000 emails by using manual and auto filters, archiving techniques, labels, etc. It was a painful activity, but it was necessary. Out of those emails, I found “dead” submissions that I can retool and reuse, created a “to do” list, followed up with a ton of new and old contacts, etc.
If this is a habit you already do, then kudos to you. If it isn’t, I have to tell you — it feels great to air out my “InBox.” I used an email labeling system similar to what David Allen had designed in his Getting Things Done program. Basically, I label both by file type (i.e. financial, publisher, etc.) and by action (to print, to follow-up, etc.) and archive what I don’t immediately need to see.
Everyone needs a great filing system for paper communication, but this can be the hardest to manage. This article on MSN shows you how to Purge your Financial Paperwork. It talks about some of the “rules” for tossing things like bank statements, loan paperwork, etc. For another perspective, check out this Consumer Reports article about All that Paperwork: What to Keep and What to Toss.
The hidden benefit to wrangling your emails and your paperwork is that you will open up space in your life for “new” projects. Once you’ve gotten a hold of your communication, set a date with yourself once every couple of months to stay on top of things — you’ll be glad you did.
Other ways to communicate more effectively might include: adopt third-party “tools” and coordinate your social media accounts to simpler interfaces, moderate how people can contact you so you’re paying attention to less accounts and phone numbers, keep messages unread until you’ve acted on them, let people know the best way to get a hold of you and be forthcoming about deadlines.
3. KEEP REFERENCE MATERIAL ORGANIZED
– Do you have a ton of links you’re not managing correctly? Whether you use StumbleUpon, delicious, Digg or other methods of bookmarking your links, take control over what you have saved and tagged so you can be more productive. When you find a link, ask yourself how you are going to use that website. Is it a writer’s resource? Entertainment? Promo opportunity?
A better link hierarchy can help you in any number of ways, but it requires you to ask yourself what kinds of habits you’re keeping. How do you visit your favorite websites? How do you reference important links? Why are these links important to you?
Not to be ignored, I can’t think of a better time to purge through your personal dead tree libraries, too. With the advent of pdfs and ebooks, this might help you not only save space but could turn into a hidden source of cash. Sell those unwanted books through eBay, Amazon or your local used books store to get some extra cash.
If you’re a bibliophile, you can get recommendations for new books through sites like GoodReads, or swap books with people you know to ensure your library is useful and up-to-date. Bookswap.com is a college textbook-swapping site, Paperback Swamp is a huge book swapping site that includes audio, hardcovers, etc. and Swaptree also allows you to exchange DVDs, games, etc.
4. CUT DOWN ON TIME-WASTERS
In a previous blog post I talked about how the internet is my biggest time-waster. Well? The internet may be a place to get distracted, but it’s also vital to a freelancer. How can we make the most out of this tool?
How about aggregating all of the websites you read into a simple, manageable easy-to-read format? Subscribe to their RSS feeds, then split them up by category in your reader to get more information in a flash. I really enjoy my Netvibes.com account, and have updated it to include new authors I follow. Netvibes offers a personal and public page, once I’ve updated my public page I’ll share it with all of you. Web surfing is a time killer, and will eat into your productivity.
Other ideas include: stop checking your email incessantly, schedule blocks of time for communication, and turn off your IM clients.
5. THINK HOLISTICALLY
I haven’t talked about this too much before, but the idea of living a holistic lifestyle is definitely something that’s been on my mind for the past, few months. Put all thoughts of money aside for a moment and consider how much time you spend shopping, running errands, managing your life. A holistic lifestyle is ideally one that integrates all of those spheres of your life: health, wealth, career, friends, etc.
If you work a full-time job like I do, your weekends are precious to you. Imagine what you can do if you cut down the time it takes for you to run errands or make out your shopping list. I’m finding that I’m getting more done because I’m more motivated to achieve my goals. While every person is different, if you are truly serious about writing, sometimes the best way to move forward with your goals is to look “around” them. Look at everything “but” that shiny goal at the end of the rainbow to see how you can make room in your life for success.
Here are some of the ways I’m tackling “life” organization to minimize the clutter and make more out of my day:
- Set up Errands as Tasks, Appointments – I mentioned in my post about the Cost of Writing Fiction versus Non-Fiction that tracking was important. You already schedule your writing-related assignments, why not block out time for shopping and running errands, too?
- Shop Online – Part of household management is to get the product that you need in a timely fashion at the price you’re willing to pay. I can’t say enough good things about shopping online, because it keeps me out of the stores and I don’t have to worry about buying incidentals. Some people are even getting groceries delivered right to their door. While I’m definitely not there yet, I do all my shopping online with the exception of clothes and toiletries.
- Budget and Schedule Long-Term – By thinking longer-term, you not only plan better use of your time, but you also plan for vacations and “time off,” too. Thinking longer-term is an art form that requires patience and practice, because long-term planning requires big picture (and realistic) thinking, flexibility, and the means to enact the plan.
- Promote after Project Completion – This past year, I had an issue with my Violetwar site because I split my time between promoting it and writing it. Promotion is its own job and really needs to be treated as such, but you have to have something to promote otherwise you’ll lose people’s interest.
- Adopt Healthy Habits and Put “You” First – Being healthy is not a task, it’s not a “to-do,” it’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that affects every sphere including what you eat (and how much), how much energy you have, etc. Only you know what’s healthy for you, but why not make 2009 “your” year? Why not tackle those non-writing areas to help you lay an excellent foundation so you can write?
- Remember to Be Social – For this point, I’m not talking about social media. I’m talking about turning off your computer and your game system and getting out there to talk to people. There are ways to be social while getting things done. It’s called “networking.” There are also a lot of low-cost ways to be social and enjoy yourself by reconnecting with friends, going to concerts, etc. Even sitting in a coffee shop can help put you out there. As writers, we may need to actively seek social contact moreso than the other butterflies out there, but it’s an area we should remember to foster.
Of course, there are other areas to add to this list depending upon your lifestyle. The key to thinking more holistically about your life is really to look at the “big picture.” 2009 will have a lot of great things in store for many of us, but it does require smart planning. After you think about what you want to accomplish, ask yourself “how” and “why” you want to accomplish them. I’m confident you can achieve your dreams this year. Let’s establish some great habits and move mountains!