The self-imposed deadline
As a freelance editor and writer working from a home office, one of my biggest challenges is meeting self-imposed deadlines. I may have an external deadline—the manuscript must be copyedited by the end of the month—but I have to break that down into practical pieces. I know that’s no different than what I did when working in an office, but now I have to be my own supervisor.
If I have a 300-page manuscript and I estimate an editing pace of five pages per hour (which is about average), I’ll need 60 hours total for that job, and I need to develop a schedule based on that and any other projects I have going on. I may decide I need to work four hours a day on this project. This theoretically means that if I stay on target, I’ll read 20 pages a day and be done the job in 15 working days.
In the past I’d take a job and not really worry about my pace, because I was working for a set fee, and as long as I made my deadline I was fine. This was foolish. By not tracking my exact hours I was not getting a good understanding of how much I was really making. Over the last six months I’ve been much better at tracking. What happened was a huge smack of reality for me. I either had to work a lot faster or start to charge more. (And I have started to charge more for some projects).
There are tricks to working faster—such as macros that make working with MS Word a lot quicker—and I’m learning a few relevant ones. But the main key to achieving a better working pace, to me, is staying focused. When I first started working independently, it was such a luxury that I fought the idea of being chained to a desk. I’d worked for someone else for so long, for good and bad bosses, that I wanted to rebel and do my own thing. But I have to work to survive, and if I want to keep clients I have to meet deadlines. I realize that sounds obvious, but it’s something I still have to remind myself of from time to time when I want to do other things. If I procrastinate, I’ll be crunched when my deadline gets closer.
- I pick the optimal time of day to do work. I tend to be more open to creativity in the morning, so I like to write first and then do editing in the afternoon.
- I have a “starting ritual”—I try to walk for half an hour to wake me up, and have coffee before sitting down to the job.
- I work on one job at a time. If I have two deadlines at once, I work on one job in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
- I anticipate distractions and prepare a plan for dealing with them. If my cat won’t leave me alone (he likes my keyboard), I’ll lock him in his carrier or in the bedroom. Or, if I can take my work offline, I’ll go read in a Starbucks or a local diner. A change of location helps me, even moving from my desk to the dining room table or the bedroom.
- If I meet interim goals (I’ve edited for an hour without losing focus, or I’ve written twenty pages), I try to reward myself. Ideally I think there should only be one reward per day . . . otherwise it’s another distraction. But figure out what works for you. I have a sweet tooth and allowing myself a candy bar might not be smart every time. But I could allow myself a five-minute break and play Bejeweled or some other quick game, which brings me to the next point:
- I allow breaks—every hour or so, or when shifting from one project to the other, or when shifting from writing to editing.
If something changes and my schedule needs to be adjusted (I’ve taken on another “small” job, for instance), I keep close track of where I’m supposed to be with all projects. It does take me away from the editing work to calculate the extra hours I’ll need for the new project, but it saves me trouble in the long run.
I get distracted easily. The Internet lets me look up whatever I need to know in the course of a project . . . but the internet sucks me in like a black hole if I’m not careful. These and other distractions can get me behind quickly. And I can’t let that happen.