What a recording studio taught me about writing planning

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Does your failure to do adequate writing planning ever lead to catastrophe? I know mine sometimes does…

I have the kind of voice that often makes people ask me if I’ve ever worked in radio. I wish I could answer yes! My deep alto, with reasonably crisp articulation, would have loved to have spent some time on the airwaves. Especially if I could have been paid for it.

Last week, however, I had my first chance to perform in a recording studio. A client had hired me to prepare and perform five 10-minute webinars. Initially, I was expecting to have to record them myself, using the software Camtasia. I was thrilled when they proposed I go to a local sound studio instead.

I was less thrilled with the volume of pre-work required. It took me about 90 minutes to pull together each one of the five PowerPoint decks — a total of 7.5 hours. Then I had to write my own five scripts of about 1,800 words apiece.

In fact, the script-writing task was so daunting it sat on my “to do” list for about five weeks, lurking like a mild tooth ache that eventually erupts into a tooth so decayed it needs a root canal. I kept ignoring the job and carrying it over to the next day.

And here’s the interesting thing: Because there was no immediate urgency/penalty attached, I didn’t even feel a sense of failure about it. Although, of course, I had a growing unease as time ticked inexorably by.

Then about 10 days ago (looking for distraction, I must confess) I decided that my “to do” list had ceased being functional. It was too long — not infrequently, 30 items  — too intimidating and it made it too easy for me to overlook jobs that really had to be done that day.

As there are few things I like better than organizing myself (for me it’s like a back massage, a glass of really great red wine and fabulous haircut all thrown into one), I spent a couple of hours thinking about how to make the list work better.

Eventually, I remembered Steven Covey and reflected on his four quadrants. Remember those? (1) Tasks that are important and urgent. (2) Tasks that are important but not urgent. (3) Tasks that are unimportant but urgent. And, (4) Tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

Many people are inclined to think that items in quandrant one should be the highest priority, but Covey argues — and I agree — that box number 2 is actually the most crucial. After all, if you allow the urgent stuff to take control of your life, you’re constantly rushing to put out fires.  Only by making time to do what’s really important — for example, planning, reading, working on a book — can you be really productive.

But I decided I needed better names for my list — something that would inspire me. Here’s what I came up with:

(1) Most important to me.  I liked the way this sounded. Strong, determined.

(2) Must Do Today — with a pomodoro. Here was the note of urgency and a realistic assessment of the time required. I now try for no more than three per day and I really do them.

(3) Must Do Today — quick. Each of these tasks can be done in five minutes or less so I can knock something off the list when I’m between phone calls or wanting to take a quick break after some difficult writing.

(4) Optional tasks.

I also added a column titled “Personal” for the personal business I need to do during the day and one titled “Meetings” so I don’t forget about them, either.

Did this new system help me get my scripts written? Sadly, it was too late for that. I had ended up leaving the job to the very last minute and shocked myself by writing 9,000 words — while keeping up with my other urgent tasks — in four days. It was absolutely exhausting and involved my starting work at 5:30 a.m. twice last week.

I think it’s taught me a lesson. I mustn’t allow important work to be displaced by all the urgent tasks so eager to take up my time. If I ever get the chance to do a project like the recording one again, I’ll…

  • Divide the big job into a series of smaller ones,
  • Schedule each smaller one as a “Must do today” task, and,
  • Do at least one each day until the job is completed.

By the way, performing the recording was exactly as much fun as I’d expected. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

How do you manage your big writing tasks? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by March 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the novel Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

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