How to Use Time to Bring in a Big Project

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In order to complete a big project successfully, sometimes we have to vary the way we manage our time demands. Writing a book is a great example as the last few weeks have been hectic – I spent way more time than expected putting the final touches on the paperback version of Perfect-Time-Based Productivity. In today’s world, assembling a book has multiple phases, each of which requires it’s own kind of time demand management. Here are the “big 3 phases.”

Phase #1 – Drafting the Kindle Version

In this phase, which lasted from January to October, I focused on getting my ideas in words, and then turning my prose into quality content. I naively believed this book would be easier than the last, because Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure was a novel, and I was a first-time writer who had barely written a short story since age 11. I decided that because I knew how to write non-fiction, (from my experience as a blogger/columnist) this book would be easier and I’d be done by May.

My technique for writing involves very early mornings – my alarm has been set for 3:30 AM on every single weekday since I started. I normally exercise 5 days per week so on those days it meant writing before heading out for a run or ride. On the other days, I found it easy to work from 3:30 AM – 8:00 AM, helped along by a cup of coffee, flavored with chocolate and sweetened to taste.

This schedule required an early bed-time at around 9:00 PM each night, and never later than 10:00 PM. I learned how to make this time-shift during my Iron-distance triathlon days in 2003. Back then, I learned to go bed an hour earlier in order to wake up at 5:00 AM with enough energy to complete a long training session. This tactic (which I used in shorter spurts to write the Bill book) is just an extreme version.

I found these early mornings to be an ideal opportunity to enter the flow state, which as I explain in my book, remains an elusive state for the average worker. At that time of day, there are simply far fewer distractions. Also, this was helped by being clear about what I’d be working on the next day. this is a useful technique for waking up productive.

From my point of view, there’s just no way to bring in a lengthy project without explicitly setting the time aside. While you may view the idea of waking up at 3:30 AM for months at a time as an welcome burden, it’s important to see that there is no magical time of day that works for everyone. The underlying principle that endures, however, is the need to set time aside to enter the flow state. It’s not a nice to have, but a requirement to complete work at a high standard.

As a result of the time change, I developed the unusual habit of undertaking a mid-morning nap. At around 9:00 AM, I found myself fatigued on most days – either needing to recover from a 5 hour writing marathon, a 90 minute run or a combination of work/exercise. It didn’t need to be very long to awaken fully refreshed and I took comfort in all the recent research that backs up the need for short naps on demand.

Usually, I couldn’t engage in another round of content creation for the day. I had spent my creative energy, and another round of intense solo activity seemed impossible.

I also found that coffee helped. There are a number of studies that reflect this fact and even though I don’t really like the taste, it helped to wake me up, feel sharp and keep me going for long stretches of time. I restricted my drinking to two or three times per week, simply because I didn’t want to develop an addiction. Also, I wanted to reserve its use for those mornings when I really needed it, such as the two days per week when I had no morning workout.

Phase #2 – Painting the Paperback Version

On the typical Kindle book, the formatting is quite simple. Individual Kindles and Kindle readers do their own formatting, setting their own page sizes. This is why they never have a numbered table of contents, page numbers, index or footnotes. On the other hand, they do have live links which are tedious to include, but not challenging.

However, I severely underestimated the effort it would take to generate the paperback version which should (for the type of book I was writing) include a reference, table of contents, page numbers, and index and footnotes. After going back and forth I decided to include them.

Putting all these pieces together was not the html-driven, technical challenge of the Kindle version, and effort which, at times, felt like writing code. Instead, this experience was like painting an elaborate work of art.

The reasons are easy to understand: putting together the paperback version involved making an exact replica of the final product in the form of a pdf file.

As you may imagine, this was detailed work that was a little like creating a 415 page painting, with each page having its own particular look. The fact that I had a number of diagrams and forms didn’t make things easy. Neither did the fact that I had to learn how to make an Index for the first time. That took at least 10 tries, working around the quirks of Microsoft Word as I bumped into them.

This wasn’t the dedicated effort of the first phase, in which I used the flow state to write and edit the prose. Instead, I found myself completing one repetitive chore after another, fixing and fiddling with the layout to get it just right. It required little or no creativity – just persistence and consistency.

As such, I could work on it at any time during the day, without requiring the flow state. This may sound a bit like a luxury. It wasn’t, because I had already submitted the Kindle version to the Amazon store: there it sat, waiting for its physical counterpart. I couldn’t advertise the book heavily until both versions were ready, because a number of people wanted the physical version, imagining correctly that it would be easier to jump from the text, to the References, to the Lab Notes and into the Index on paperback. So I grabbed every available moment, using it to complete the task.

It’s a good thing I did, because as I mentioned before, Phase 2 took much longer than anticipated. While I didn’t have a dissertation committee breathing down my neck or a publisher’s deadline looming, I wanted to make sure my readers had a seamless experience with a book that was easy to use.

The end result, I discovered after a few days of seeing it added to the Amazon estore, was a book that was very different from the one I started out writing. In the beginning, I believed that I’d simply be translating my classroom experience into words. At the end, I stood back and saw that my curiosity had helped me produce something quite comprehensive.

How so? At different points during Phase 1, I found myself dissatisfied with the limits of my own experience. I wanted to know whether or not some of my hunches and intuitions were correct, whether or not the techniques that worked in my classrooms were back up by independent research.

Once I started hunting, it became addictive*: I couldn’t stop. One article’s reference took me to a book, which led to a conference paper, in which I found a new term, which I had to define and then search for the expert who coined it via Google, in order to see what she originally meant. On and on it went, but I discovered that there was indeed, a rock bottom. In several critical areas, I simply ran out of new knowledge to unearth. (PhD’s tell me that that this is the moment when they actually start developing their theses.)

For me, it translated into a need to incorporate my findings into my book, whether it matched my direct experience or not.

At that point, the book shifted from being a simple reflection of my programs to date, and became more of a tapestry of findings from all sources I could possibly find, ranging from hundreds of academic journals to time management books. There was some good each of them, but no-one had ever taken the time to stitch together their best points into a single, coherent whole.

If I hadn’t been curious, the book would have been completed in May as I intended. In retrospect, it’s a good thing I didn’t take the shortcut, but it meant that it changed the contents, and page-count I intended. I didn’t know that it would change the format as well, which became clear in the paperback version when I found myself obliged to add an index, for example, that’s not needed in the Kindle version.

Other, more famous books by David Allen (2001) and Stephen Covey (1989) didn’t have that problem – they used only a handful of sources. According to CNN Money website, “Allen’s book is notable for being nearly devoid of research citations, footnotes, and other source material.”  Author Fenwick English expresses a similar concern about Covey’s work: “The only actual citation in 7 Habits… is a generic reference to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” 

By contrast, Perfect Time-Based Productivity includes more than 250 citations. (Unfortunately, for some, that’s a good enough reason to never pick it up!)

Phase #3 – The Audio Version

So far, I have only done a couple of test recordings of the FAQ’s, which appears within the first few pages of the book. I can already see that producing the audio version will offer a fresh challenge to the way I arrange my time demands. Now, I’m faced with the task of creating content and later editing it into a useful format.

Unlike writing text, I don’t trust my ability to create audio content at 3:30 AM in the morning. My tests show that I sound sleepy and my voice, which doesn’t normally “wake” up until later, has a deep growl. While I may do my editing early in the morning, I’ll have to find a way to create the audio content at different times during the day.

This means doing it in a place and time where I won’t be interrupted. That will take some coordination with others in my family, especially as this happens to be the week before Christmas.

I have done lots of voice-recordings before, but never one of this length so I am unsure about how much total time to set aside. I do know that I’ll need to be in the flow state, well-watered and well-fed as a solo-performance of this nature takes significant concentration and energy. While interruptions might be less of a problem (I am, after all, reading a text to make the recording) I still need to pay attention to other factors such as ambient noise, which can ruin a recording.

My goal is to complete the initial recording by Jan 1st, (10 days’ time) but this may be overly ambitious.

The Power of a Plan

As I describe in my book, there are stages in one’s life when having a detailed schedule is not a requirement. In those stages, we can get by if we only use our calendar to track appointments. However, this year, 2014, has not been like that at all for me.

There is no way I would have completed the Perfect Time-Based Productivity “project” without a detailed routine – some call it time-blocking – in which I gained regular, continual access to the flow state.

This worked for me, and the research I cite in the book indicates that approach makes success more likely. However, it’s not for everyone, or even the same person all the time.

People who push themselves to their limits (as may some believe I have) require this kind of planning on a regular basis, however. Think of the President of the United States and his schedule, and that of his predecessors. They have their measure of short-term crises, but most days are spent following a plan whose day includes items that were first added far in advance – by years, even. While he’s free to change most days at will, even at the last minute, his long-term accomplishments are hard to undertake when the private activities to move them forward one step at a time aren’t planned and placed in his schedule.

The same applies to writing a book – most of the activity is performed alone, when no-one else is even watching. Only when the final product emerges does the public take notice and get involved. Before then, there’s only the author, a blank piece of paper and an empty calendar.

How have you used unique, custom or idiosyncratic scheduling to get a mid to long-term project done?

*Fortunately, I had full access to the online library at the University of Phoenix as a part-time faculty member.