As a self-employed freelancer, keeping track of all the deadlines and other tasks I have can be challenging. On a typical day, I'm responsible for delivering content to three publishers, as well as corporate clients and other jobs. Throw in regular interstate travel and few other bits and pieces and planning a week becomes a challenging task. So, I've been experimenting with ways to be better organised and am trying a new approach. Here's what I've come up with.
The case against fully electronic systems
I've tried fully electronic systems in the past. My problem has always been that they are too limiting and take too long to enter things in. So I end up with hybrid systems with reminders in an app and paper for ad hoc stuff like phone messages. For those tasks, I find handwriting much quicker but I then end up having to check two places for things I need to do.
I also find electronic systems to be annoying with recurring tasks, particularly things that are on the fourth Wednesday of the month and patterns like that. Some support those types of recurrences well but others struggle.
When it comes down to it, and this might be a sign of the era I started my work life in and old habits that are hard to break, I find paper-based systems easier to manage.
Through the second part of last year, I developed a paper-based system that worked well for me.
My local Kmart or Target (I forget which) had planner pads available for about $3. Each sheet on the pad had a block for each day of the week as well as space for notes. So, I took to writing daily tasks on that at the start of each week. I wrote about that on my personal blog a while ago. And that approach worked quite well except for one thing.
It was a real pain once I got into my regular travel schedule. Most weeks, I fly interstate for a day or two and there's are international trips every few weeks as well. The paper-based system worked well in the office but meant I had to pack an extra thing when I travelled and it was unwieldy to work with if I was on the run.
So, I've been looking for an electronic system that bridges the gap between my preference for using a paper-based system for weekly planning and capturing ad hoc tasks, and something I could easily manage on a device I already carry a lot of the time.
Notability has become my notepad
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Notability - an iPad app that lets you draw and write on an iPad, that supports the Apple Pencil, as if it's a notepad.
Last week, while I was at an event in Las Vegas, I used Notability every day. The only time I needed to use a pen was to fill in arrival cards for US and Australian customs. I did have a pen in my bag but I gave it to someone whose pen ran out of ink and didn't miss it till I needed to fill in the arrival card when returning to Australia.
One of the things I touched in in that review is that Notability lets you open PDFs and annotate them.
And that got me thinking - what if I create a PDF template of my weekly recurring tasks as well as making it easy to capture ad hoc tasks. So, I started designing a template that suited my specific needs and came up an A4 sized template that provided an area for capturing major things, like travel, easily and daily recurring tasks for each client and a place for ad hoc things like calls I need to make and one-off jobs.
I used the Pages app on my iPad to create the template but you can do the same with almost any word-processing tool. My one-pager has five tables on it. They are
- Events: so I can enter things like travel, off-site meetings and other things that are significant enough, to me, that they'll interrupt my normal work day. i also use this for household chores as I work from home much of the time.
- Lifehacker: for planning what stories will fill each of the four stories I write each day.
- Two tables for other recurring clients: As well as Lifehacker, I have commitments to create and manage content for two other clients each day so they get a table each.
- Other: This is a table for one-off tasks such as following up calls, stories I write for corporate clients and other non-recurring tasks.
Even though the template is designed to fit a single A4 page, I can scroll beyond the PDF section in Notability to keep adding notes.
There are lots of different systems for planning your work and staying on top of things. The challenge for me, when using a "system" is that it's too constraining. So I end up giving up as the processes and templates they provide don't bend to meet my needs.
I fully expect the template I use to evolve over time. It took several iterations to get it work now and as my work changes over time I'll update it to suit me.
Notability doesn't support templates directly although there's an easy workaround as Notability lets you import PDFs. Each week I duplicate the imported PDF and then fill it in with what I'm planning for the week. As things get done, I use a red pen to mark them off - there are few things more satisfying than crossing things off a to-do list.
Also, while Notability syncs to the iPhone, it's a less convenient tool for editing my work list.
Also, I find the Apple Pencil, which is connected most of the day as the iPad sits next to mall day so I can easily edit that list and make other notes, such as when I'm doing a phone interview, can get low on power towards the end f the day. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to charge but I do need to keep an eye on it later in the day. The same goes with the iPad although I find it can get through a full day reasonably easily unless I end up watching videos.
Planning your week and organising your work is a very personal thing. What's your system? Do you have suggestions on how I can improve what I'm doing?