Making Projects Managable

This morning as I was getting ready, I was running through the list of things I need to do—wrap up a big writing project, prepare for an upcoming writing conference, catch up on my blog, embrace Twitter, clean the house, provide entertainment and inspiration for my kids, and on and on. I’m sure you get the idea. As I neared the end of my list, I smiled at myself in the mirror and thought, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

I know we’ve all heard the saying, but sometimes it helps to repeat it. If you’re like me, you can become paralyzed by the enormity of a project, particularly ones that are abstract. Telling myself I need to work on my blog is less effective than committing to drafting three new posts this week. Small, actionable steps make any project doable. So, this week, I’m breaking down the items on my seemingly insurmountable to-do list and tackling them head on. By changing my thought process I’ve gone from feeling overwhelmed to empowered.

The clock is ticking and I can’t wait to see how much I can do in the next seven days. I’ll report back next week and I’d love to hear more about what you plan to accomplish this week.

Five Tips for Making Mommy Hours Work

Evan, Mindy and Madelyn at the Cherry Blossom FestivalAs a freelancer, I work “mommy hours.” During my kids’ preschool hours, naptimes and after they go to bed, I am at my laptop. I love being able to work around my kids’ schedules, but it isn’t always easy. Here are five tips for making mommy hours work:

1. Protect your work time—both the daytime and the nighttime hours. I have limited daytime hours, and I have to use them wisely to ensure I can take care of client calls and interviews. I don’t meet up with friends for coffee, shop or chat on the phone with friends or family. I head straight home after dropping my kids off and as soon as I walk in the door, I head downstairs to my home office and start working. I look past dishes that may need to be done or laundry I should fold, which means my house is not nearly as tidy as I would like, but I am able to grow my business and meet my clients’ needs. I take care of my household chores in the morning before I take my kids to school, evenings as I’m prepping dinner and on the weekends.

My nighttime hours are just as valuable as my daytime hours, so I usually spend those at the laptop, too. I wrote about skipping happy hour in this post.

2. Be flexible. As a freelancer, customer service is paramount. I have to deliver on the projects I take on, so my number one goal is to get the job done. Not everyone works mommy hours and there will be times when a source or client needs to talk with you outside of your scheduled work time. There are plenty of times I need to call in a sitter or set my kids up with an activity that will keep them entertained for a half hour or more. If I know I’m going to have a heavy workload on a day my kids don’t have school, I try to tucker them out in the morning to take advantage of long naps in the afternoon. Just last week I had four interviews lined up for Friday afternoon—a time when my kids will be with me. My kiddos each had classes in the morning (Evan at preschool and Madelyn at Little Gym), then we hit the park for a picnic and a few hours of playtime. Both kids fell asleep in the car on the way home and I was able to knock out all of my calls. I also recognize that this nap time was a gift from the gods, because it doesn’t always work out this way, but I am oh-so happy when it does!

3. Be honest. When I first started freelancing, I tried to hide the fact that I work around my kids’ schedules. I would create little activities to entertain Evan if I needed to take a call after he was home from preschool and rarely asked someone if he could offer up another, more convenient time to talk. As I’ve gotten more stable (and comfortable) as a freelancer, I’ve been able to rein in some of that and tell people upfront what times I’m available. Being honest about what times work for me hasn’t hurt my career and, if anything, it can be an icebreaker when I’m talking with other working parents. I think becoming more comfortable and confident with where I am in life right now has actually helped my business. Plus, I am proud that I am able to keep “mommy hours” and build a successful freelancing business, so here is no reason to hide it. That being said, refer back to tip #2.

4. Plan ahead. To maximize my daytime hours, I spend time each evening plotting out how I’m going to structure the coming day. I review my calendar, ensure I have all of the contact information I need for reaching sources and send any emails that I need to get out. I also look a few weeks out so I keep all of my deadlines straight and can prioritize the interviews I need to get done. I do most of my actual writing in the evenings and on the weekends, so I’ll often schedule certain stories or editing projects for certain nights. Taking a broad look also lets me find time to volunteer at my kids’ school or schedule in doctor and dentist appointments that I have to take care of during preschool time.

5. Be grateful. I know that working mommy hours is a gift. Not everyone has that luxury, so even on the days that are hectic and I’m trying to figure out how to get it all in, I give thanks for ability to work around my kids’ schedules as much as I do. That helps me keep perspective and see those late nights or crazy afternoons as a gift and not a burden. Plus, I know these years are going to go by in the blink of an eye. Evan turned five this month and today we are having a meet and greet with his kindergarten teacher. Starting in the fall, my little guy will be in school all day five days a week. I’m sad he’ll be away from me so much, but I am certain I will use that time wisely.

Gaining Control

Checking Off the To-Do ListThe freelance life comes with uncertainties. I can’t always predict how much work I’ll have or when, clients’ needs may change, last-minute projects arise and sources may be hard to line up.

The very nature of this lifestyle means I lack a certain amount of control. I don’t mind the ebbs and flows that come with freelancing, but there are a few things that help me maintain my sanity. Here are four ways to help keep (or gain) control as freelancer.

1. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can get done today. When you have a deadline that is six weeks away, it might be tempting to put off interviews for a few more weeks. But I’ve found that you never know what might happen. A great project with a pressing deadline may come your way or you might come down with the flu. The freelance lifestyle doesn’t come with sick days or anyone else to pick up the slack, so it is important to stay on top of things. That means you should line up those interviews and start researching stories as soon as you get the assignment, even if you have to flip over the calendar to write down the deadline.

The same holds true with family to-dos. Evan’s birthday party is still a few weeks away, but his fully assembled goody bags and paper goods have been sitting in my guest closet for well over a month now. I took care of it when I had some spare time and I am so happy I did because the last few weeks have been crazy for me. In addition to a busy work schedule, I’ve had sick kids that have needed some extra love and care. It is nice to know I have one less thing on my to-do list.

2. Utilize lists. And speaking of to-do lists, I really do use pen and paper to make them. My to-do lists seem less overwhelming when I actually take the time to write them down instead of stressing about them in my mind. More often than not, seeing my to-dos in black and white brings a sense of relief and let’s me focus on the most important items first. Plus I feel oh-so-good when I can start checking things off of those lists.

3. Keep projects front and center. Right now I have a handful of primary clients. To stay organized, I have clipboards for three of my clients that hang above my desk. Each clipboard holds information about my latest assignment, the deadline, sources and the status of those I’ve talked to. I love having an at-a-glance overview of my assignments. For my other clients, I have file folders with key project information. I find a certain amount of comfort in having hard copies of assignments and research at my fingertips.

4. Determine how long you think a project should take and try to stick to the schedule. I try to determine how much time I should spend on a project based on a) how long it will take to produce the results I want and b) what my rate is. Once I get that number, I try to be as efficient as possible to come in on target.  It really helps cut out the amount of time I spend surfing the web or completing other non-work tasks during work time.

That’s what works for me, but I’d love to learn from you. What tips do you have on maintaining control of your life?

Image by Gary Mcinnes courtesy of Stock Exchange. 

Strategic Outsourcing

As a soul proprietor, there are few things I can outsource. When it comes to the researching, writing and editing, it is all me and that is exactly how I want it. But freeing up time for work doesn’t mean you have to outsource work-related tasks. When looking at my daily to-do list, house cleaning was always on it, but I never had quite enough time to get it done right. So, I’ve outsourced it. Yippee! For $70 every two weeks, someone else comes in and takes care of the cleaning so I can devote that extra time to work or my kiddos. Of course, I still have to straighten and organize things before they get here. I’m working on outsourcing that to the rest of the family, but so far they’ve shown little interest. When I first hired a cleaning service I felt a little spoiled, but the numbers make sense. When I look at my hourly rate versus what I pay for the cleaning, I can justify the expenditure. Plus, I love knowing that for at least two days out of the month every room in my house is clean. Sometimes outsourcing just makes sense.  

Movement Versus Action

“Never confuse movement with action.” – Ernest Hemingway

It is easy to be busy. Whether we’re reading blogs, cleaning the house or wrapping up a feature story, there are plenty of ways to fill our days. The key is identifying our end goal and then determining if what we’re doing is simply movement or if it is action. Differentiating between the two can add to our success in our professional and personal lives alike.

I do better at focusing in on action in some areas than others. For example, as a writer and entrepreneur, I have set income targets I need and want to hit each month. That means every paying project puts me a step closer to achieving my goal. As my business has grown, I’ve been able to take on higher paying projects while cutting back on others. Both qualify as “action.”

Determining our goals and focusing on the actions necessary to achieve them also helps with time management. Unfortunately, I frequently find myself bouncing from blog to blog with no real goal in mind, which equates to only movement. I’ve switched to Google Reader and added primarily writing blogs to my subscriptions. Reading targeted, career-related posts gives my online reading purpose and also inspires me to write.

Goals don’t always have to be big picture. On weekdays, my first goals of the day including getting lunches and school bags packed, kids dressed and everyone loaded in the car by 8:50. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve woken up at 5:30 a.m. yet still had to rush out the door at 8:55. Those mornings are filled with far more movement than action. Now I’m trying to focus on the most important tasks first and save playing and reading for after my kids are presentable and the school bags are prepped and waiting by the door. 

I first read Hemingway’s quote in Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner about twelve years ago. Whenever I think about it, it helps me keep the big picture in mind. As I wind down 2011 and begin plotting goals for 2012, I’m going to ask myself if the steps I’m taking are action or simply movement. How about you? Are there ways you can turn movement into action? I'd love to hear about it! 

Save Time with Google Reader

Do you use Google Reader yet? You probably do. I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer. I just subscribed to all of my favorite blogs and I love how easy it is to read everything all in one sitting. I save so much time by logging onto one site versus visiting each blog individually. If a post strikes me, I click on it and leave a comment. Super easy! If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a shot. And, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned Google Reader veteran, if you like my site, add me to your subscriptions! 

The Time Trap Known as Target

Hello. My name is Mindy and it has been three days since my last trip to Target. Before that, it was four months. It only took one Target-induced hangover (pounding headache and all) to make me remember why I quit shopping at most bricks-and-mortar stores. I browse, I wander, and I end up spending way too much time with my four year old on the toy aisle (because I am not about to spend my kids' precious preschool hours running errands). In other words, I waste valuable time. What’s more, I walk out with a Star Wars t-shirt and a two-foot tall light-up jack-o-lantern that weren’t on my shopping list.

Online shopping is a key time management tool for me. I’ve had everything from root beer to mouthwash delivered to my front door over the past few months. Don't get me wrong. I used to enjoy shopping, but that was before I had two kids along for the ride and my own business. Now, I shop via computer screen and wait for UPS to deliver my treasures. 

Sometimes I think I miss browsing the shelves at retail stores, which is why I fall off the wagon every so often. But the fact is, online shopping saves me time that I can invest in other places. 

Skipping Happy Hour


When you’re building a business around your kids’ schedules, you spend every night and weekend working—at least I do. That means I frequently find myself having to turn down fun invitations from friends. Just this week I had to make apologies several times because of work responsibilities. 
The hours between 8 p.m. (bedtime at our house) and midnight are precious. I write stories based on interviews I wrapped up during business hours, reply to email and review my calendar for the day ahead. While a happy hour or night out with girlfriends would be far more fun, I know I have to stay focused on my business (and the four upcoming deadlines on my calendar) to make it a success. 
When I first started freelancing, I found myself being a tad resentful from time to time, but I’ve shifted my attitude and find myself repeating some words of wisdom my grandpa passed on—the chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what we want most for what we want at the moment. 
Tonight when I sit at my desk reviewing notes and working on a feature about fuel, I may find myself wishing I was sipping a glass of wine with girlfriends, but I will also know that I am working toward my ultimate goal of building a career while raising my family. Careers are built one story and one day at a time. At this point in my life, I work nights so I can enjoy the days with my little ones. One day soon that will shift, and I’m eager to see what my career and my kids look like as a result of the time I am investing in them both now. 
*Photo by Roger Kirby courtesy of istockphoto. 


Six Tips for Freelance Success

1. Meet your deadlines: Yes, I know this is obvious, but it is a biggie. I put each of my deadlines on my calendar and then jot down the milestones I need to accomplish to finish the projects on time. I also like to work ahead when I can. You never know when a client will call with a last-minute project and staying current on my to-do list gives me the flexibility to lend a hand when needed.

2. See yourself as part of your client’s team: As a freelancer, my job is to help my clients meet their goals. That applies to the project at hand, of course, but it is also much broader. I like to be flexible with them and step up to the plate when they have last-minute needs. I read articles with specific clients in mind and try to develop ideas that can help them overall. Moreover, I know that I am often an extension of my clients’ brand. For example, I typically reach out to ten or more sources for one feature article. With each phone call I make, I am representing the client, even if it is indirectly.

3. Make financial goals: Freelancing is a business and as such you need to create a business plan with income projections. If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know how to get there. More importantly, if you aren’t profitable, you won’t be in business very long. I know the minimum amount I’d like to make each month and having that figure in mind keeps me working toward it. I pitch more stories on months that look like they might fall short and feel great about my work on months that exceed my projections. Either way, my financial goals keep me on track.

4. Meet new people: When you work at home, it is important to keep up your network. Attend alumni events, go to writing conferences and connect online with other freelancers. One of my top clients last year came from a chance meeting at an alumni event. You never know where your next assignment or your next great idea will come from.

5. Know your strengths: While it can be tempting to be a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll do better if you play to your strengths. There are reasons journalists cover beats. Getting knee-deep into an industry gives you insight you don’t get from just covering it now and then. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve covered criminal court, Capitol Hill and commerce. Right now in my career I write primarily about the transportation industry, which means I stay up on trends, monitor news stories and have extensive industry contacts. Covering this niche market has served me well as a freelancer. I have six transportation publications I write for regularly, and the editors know they can trust me to provide in-depth copy on deadline.

6. Don’t be afraid to turn down projects: This relates to #5. Yes, there are financial goals to meet (per #3), but it isn’t always about the money. Taking on a project that isn’t the right fit will hurt you in the long run. You’ll likely produce a less-than-stellar product, which can ding your reputation, and you might get down from doing work you don’t love.