Is it really December already? That’s insane. There’s no way it’s already December, especially since I still haven’t finished three projects that should have been done in August. That’s absurd. The world is out to get me. The calendar has it out for me. I’m being toyed with by time itself.

Everyone is the enemy of Phil!

Weird how much I wish that were actually true.

An interdimensional conspiracy aimed at making me miss deadlines might seen terrifying at first blush, but right now, about four months behind, it sounds great to me. After all, even if time itself was out to destroy me at least then I can blame this on someone else. responsibility could be shifted. All sins absolved.

But no, I get to take this one (or, more accurately, these three) on the chin.

I did a little whining about this last week, too, and made it clear there that my inability to work through NaNoWriMo this year is because I had to concentrate on certain immediate priorities. And guess what? Even having suffered through my computer crash I’m actually really making progress.

And that’s me making progress not because I managed to sue time and get the last four months back, but because I’ve sat down, prioritized my work and life, and gotten busy working instead of busy suffering over not working.

Depression Sucks

I can blame some of the past six months’ fall-off in productivity to a generalized gloomy depression that’s settled in. That’s real, and a real challenge, and one that’s come and gone my entire life. I’ve always managed to work my way through it, but this time—maybe I’m just getting older, or some other stressors are working at me—it took a little longer for me to even identify it, much less set it aside. But in the meantime depression got to work on me in all sorts of negative ways. I’ve gained considerable weight, and am suffering with some physical issues because of it. I’ve got some financial woes, and so on.

But I also have a lot of support and imagination and humor and tools to positively affect my own life. Aided with unseasonably sunny weather and a strangely euphoric sense of new beginnings that a wiped-clean hard drive and an OS update can provide, I’m back in the saddle. And though I’ve promised no more New Year’s resolutions, I’m determined in 2016 to get back to being the guy who never blows a deadline ever. I know I can do that because except in the last maybe three or four years I’ve always been that guy, so I’ve simply decided to go back to being that guy.

There is a little bit more to it than just making a conscious decision to break out of depression and stress and other things like that, but start with the decision and then…

Gather Some Tools

Over the last year or so I’ve been learning about some of the more recent project management methods emerging from the software industry then spreading out, like Agile, Kanban, and others. I’ve experimented with these and had results limited enough that I’m still way behind, but along the way I’ve managed to find certain things that worked and cobbled together what I feel is, finally, the time management routine that will actually work for me.

A slightly less formalized version has already yielded real results so that though I’m still at critical stage on three projects, a month ago I was at critical stage on six projects. I think that’s a big improvement and leads me to believe that, if I keep my nose to the grindstone and my eyes on the prize, I will start 2016 in that rarified state we call Caught Up.

I’m a to do lister and always have been. I’ve read recently that that’s a bad thing, and I will admit that sometimes I spend an inordinate amount of time reorganizing my to do list—time clearly better spent actually doing the items on said list. My to do lists have been very small and simple and at times have proliferated into these monstrous things with literally two dozen items or more per day, which included various household chores.

This was not good. As long as I could cross off an item that took two minutes and required no particular effort it appeared as though I was working when I wasn’t really. Invariably I’d end the day with things like “3 tweets” and “Vacuum upstairs” dutifully completed while actual paying work hung off the edge to add half a dozen items to the next day’s list until I’d end the week with about 35 hours of work packed into Friday.

That’s not possible so it meant weeks collided into weeks in what can only be described as a to do list train wreck.

I’ve stopped doing that.

Here’s what’s started to work, and what I’ll do my absolute best to stick to in December. And when (not if!) I’m Caught Up on January 1, this will be my to do list at least so long as it keeps working:


8-9 Unpaid, Check $, follow-up, WD class/contest:

9-10 Exercise/read

10-11 Write 1000 words/day:

11-12 Additional project:

12-1 Lunch/read

1-4 Edit 15,000 words/day:


This resides on a Stickies e-Post It on my computer, with specifics filled in for each day, set up a month at a time.

The numbers that begin each item is the time range. These aren’t just arbitrarily assigned. In the third quarter (July-September) of this year I tracked my time down to the minute. I have a few clients I do that for anyway, who pay by the hour, so all I did was extend that to every other project, including time I spent doing things that weren’t attached to a paying project, which are categorized as “unpaid.”

Looking back at that data I was able to spot trends: when I was most productive both which days during the week and what hours during each day. I also got a renewed understanding of what a project manager would call my “velocity of work”—how much I actually do in that period if time, including very specific tracking of word counts to see how many words, on average (and it’s not an exact science), I can edit in an hour, depending on the nature of the edit. How many hours I can write, how many hours I spend on my two online courses for Writer’s Digest University, and so on.

Based on this data, and additional data now that I’m tracking my work hours all the time for all projects from now on, I know what a good work day should look like for me.

Every freelancer should do this time tracking, by the way. This is how you get a clear understanding of how much you’re making per hour on those flat fee projects, etc. I’ve had to say goodbye to a few projects that I only realized after gathering this data were paying me less than $10 an hour—I just can’t pay the mortgage on that.

This all may sound terribly mercenary, but that’s because it is mercenary.

I am a mercenary.

I’m a freelancer.

I’m free to wield my lance for multiple masters.

Get it?

Trust me, mortgage lenders do not accept artistic integrity or “exposure” in lieu of money.

Turns out, after some investigation, I’ve come to the conclusion that they accept nothing in lieu of money.

Back to That New To Do List

8-9 Unpaid, Check $, follow-up, WD class/contest:

Thanks to my time tracking, I know I can reliably start my work day at 8:00 am. I also know that my brain needs a certain “warm up period”—that’s natural. I can either fight that and be miserable, or accept that and turn it to my advantage. So in this first work hour I answer emails, keep track of my finances, follow up with clients and potential clients, update online classes, etc., and otherwise do the kind of miscellaneous work that needs to get done.

9-10 Exercise/read

I need to exercise. I’m going to die if I don’t exercise. I weigh 365 pounds. Not only will this save my life, I always feel better after I exercise. I can’t keep de-prioritizing that. I need half and hour on the bike and half an hour to clean up. That’s one hour, five days a week, to fuel all the rest of everything.

10-11 Write 1000 words/day:

I used to say that I don’t understand how people can write a thousand words a day. I need to be in the mood and hear the call of the muse and other bullshit excuses. Most of the authors I know who are in any way prolific write every day. I’ve advised other people to write every day. I need to write every day. I know I can write 1000 words or so (again, not an exact science) in an hour or so, so let’s do that first. I owe this to myself—and owe a couple editors some words, too, so: I will write for at least an hour every day. I just have to.

11-12 Additional project:

I always have something else going on, so I’ve carved out the 11:00 am hour for “Additional project.” This might change on a day to day basis. On Tuesdays it’s this blog post, and guess what, as I’m writing this the clock here reads 11:16 AM. Amazing. Other days it’s story edits for my pulp course, looking through a copy editor’s corrections on a book I’m editing for Wizards of the Coast, or additional time for deadline intensive writing or editing projects. This is an hour for work—not Facebook or fantasy football but actual paid work—that takes into account a freelancer’s often unpredictable workload.

12-1 Lunch/read

For an hour starting at noon I eat lunch and instead of watching TV and getting caught up in a movie so that my ADD kicks in and blows the afternoon, I will read. Notice also that I read while exercising. See how I just slipped an hour and a half of reading (can’t read in the shower) to every day. That’s good. That’s essential, actually.

1-4 Edit 15,000 words/day:

And that gets me to 1:00 pm and a daily goal of 15,000 words of editing, which also means ghostwriting, etc.—probably more accurately called my “Primary Project.” This is the Thing With the Deadline That Pays the Bills. If I have to keep working after 4:00 pm to keep in good deadline shape I will.

So here we have an eight-hour work day minus two hours for exercise/hygiene and lunch though that’s partial work time too since a writer has to read, and so does an editor. I know I can stick to this because I have stuck to that, even when I wasn’t trying or even really aware of it. This is what my time tracking exercise told me I do, and in the times I was most religious about this schedule, my productivity and general psychological well-being increased dramatically.

I’m an old dog, and new tricks are hard. That’s why my new to do list is based not on a total rethink of my life, but on a close examination of it to see what I actually do and how I actually do it and embracing what works and shedding what doesn’t. This creates a new normal.

And if I don’t get in my own way, a fresh start in 2016.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to LET’S GET ORGANIZED

  1. Greetings, Phillip

    Your blogs always inspire, and I look forward to them each week (although I don’t comment as often as I should). I must say that I, too suffer from depression that gets in the way of my work flow. These past two months I’ve barely written anything… these past couple years I’ve barely read anything, and exercise is something I just can’t seem to accomplish. I’ve given myself a strict schedule again and again and (for me) it’s only made me suffer for ignoring it. As of the last week though, I’ve found myself bouncing back. Not only did I write four chapters (each about 2,500 words) in the last six days, but two of them were yesterday! An d a blog on top of that! This time of year sucks for writing–I agree. Every year this happens with the weather beginning to decline, and the darkness creeping in from every corner. But I want to say, that you can do it, my friend. Keep on that schedule of yours, as I will keep on mine. Being a storyteller is the best thing in the world! It brings countless hours of enjoyment to everyone who dares pick up a book! As a child I read nonstop and I want to get back to that, I really do. I picked up Night of the Hunter the other day and started reading again (although Drow names annoy me sometimes as they’re so hard to pronounce).

    So what I’m saying is, you can do it!!! We believe in you! And make sure to keep up that exercising. If you die, what blog would I read every week that inspires me so as a writer?

    –Jake A. Strife

  2. Craig says:

    Good on you Phil, that seems like a decent scheduling system. I always think that simple is better, and if it works, run with it! If it stops working, try something different. And if that stops working, try something different yet again. Even if it feels like endless trial and error, keep trying, and you’ll get better and learn more about yourself each time.

    A few things that I’ve found work for me over the years that I’ll just throw out there…
    1) Exercise as soon as possible after you wake-up… it’s the hardest thing to stick to in the day, but when you spend the whole day knowing you already checked that one off the list, it’s a good feeling.
    2) After lunch I’m always tired… either have a massive cup of coffee, or plan something really light from 1-2.

    Good luck! And keep up the good posts, I look forward to reading them every week.

  3. Pingback: MY 3.85-HOUR WORK DAY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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