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Actively managing your schedule

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Actively managing your schedule. Intercom April 2010:18–19.

Uncertainty is the only certainty of the freelance life, but it's also a problem that afflicts wage slaves—as I learned during the first 15 years of my career. Something unexpected always seems to be popping up, disrupting our carefully crafted plans and leading to long days and late nights. Fortunately, there are ways to make life less uncertain than it might otherwise be. Each involves actively managing our schedules rather than waiting for others to define them for us. Active schedule management involves three types of activity:

Here and in the rest of this article, substitute "colleague" for "client" if you're a wage slave rather than a freelancer. The meaning is the same, since most technical communicators provide a service (e.g., writing, editing) for other people, whether those people are freelance clients, product developers at our company, or even our direct manager in the workplace.

Understand your client's business

If you invest some time thinking about your client's business, you'll almost always be able to identify certain predictable trends. Many are obvious, such as annual reports, but others become obvious only in hindsight or through repeated surprises that occur over months or years of work with a client. You can reveal those patterns by tracking the work you do for each client during the years of your relationship and looking for signs of repetition. This isn't rocket science, not does it require repeated visits to your astrologer: all you need is a Word document that includes monthly headings for each client, followed by bullet points that begin with the date of each assignment and conclude with its name. If the same date appears in each month (e.g., a monthly status report that requires editing) or each year (e.g., a software release), that repetition says you've discovered a pattern.

Look particularly carefully for recurring annual patterns, since annual projects tend to be larger than monthly projects, and demand correspondingly larger amounts of time. These patterns typically revolve around the end of the fiscal or calendar year, the months before annual trade shows specific to your industry, deadlines for funding proposals to government or other agencies, the weeks before the peak staff vacation period, and so on. Also stay alert for workplace changes that provide clues to deadlines that won't reoccur regularly. For example, if you learn through the grapevine that a client will be traveling, leaving on maternity or paternity leave, taking a sabbatical, or moving to a new job, ask yourself whether this might create new work. If so, contact the person as soon as you learn of their departure to inquire whether they'll need you before they leave.

To see how this works in practice, consider my year. I work primarily as a freelance scientific editor, and most of the research done by my clients occurs during the summer field season rather than in a lab. As a result, the first three to four months of the year are times when many clients are frantically trying to finish up last year's writing so they can begin the new year's research. A government client has a fiscal year that ends on 30 March, and they know the current year's money won't be added to next year's budget, so they send me a ton of new work in early March so they can spend what's left of the current year's budget. I've learned not to expect much free time during this period. Conversely, late April and early May tend to be relatively slow because the field researchers have left the office for the summer. That means April and May are my prime vacation time.

Every industry has unique patterns. In commercial book publishing, the Frankfurt Book Fair may represent a crucial deadline. If you edit books for the publishing industry, ask your clients whether they expect to produce any books for the coming Fair; if so, ask how far in advance their editing deadline will be. The same principle applies to consumer electronics, for which the International Consumer Electronics Show dominates the lives of many writers and editors. For information technology, the driver may be Interop, formerly known as Comdex. Each technical communication field will have similar annual events.

The key point is that understanding your client's business provides advance warning that lets you find ways to manage your schedule.

Manage your client's schedule

The passive approach described in the previous section has merits, but its primary drawback is that it leaves you entirely at the mercy of your clients. Why not try to actively manage their schedules rather than letting them manage yours?

At a former employer, every research group developed annual research plans that identified when researchers planned to begin and end each project, and what documentation "deliverables" would result. The passive approach would involve simply adding these planned deliverables to my calendar. But by understanding this plan, I was able to contact individual researchers weeks before a project was scheduled to end so I could learn the status of their research and the associated writing. Knowing the big picture helped me identify busy periods, and knowing the authors let me figure out who to help so their writing would be complete before or after those periods. Shuffling the work this way let me reduce my workload during the busy periods.

For example, I knew one author always had trouble meeting his deadlines and always waited until the last possible minute before delivering a nightmare edit. To avoid this, I offered to work with him several weeks before each deadline to produce a killer outline for his reports. The outline made it easy for him to complete the report the following week, ensuring that it didn't arrive several weeks later during my work crunch. Conversely, an unusually proficient writer had earned the right to deliver his reports a few days later than planned because his manager knew they wouldn't require much editorial or review work. With him, I could negotiate a delay of a day or two in delivering his manuscripts when I needed the time because the delay wouldn't affect the overall schedule.

Better still, I managed (with help from managers) to implement planning meetings for each research project. At these meetings, authors would summarize their research so I, their manager, and the research manager could review the proposed manuscript and commit the author to a writing deadline. In addition, I worked with each one to develop an effective outline for each manuscript based on the meeting results, thereby making their writing process far more efficient. I've described this in my article Effective Outlining. This had the additional benefit that I learned when to expect their work, and could propose a time that was more convenient for me but that wouldn't affect the overall schedule.

If you've developed good relationships with your clients, you can simply ask them about recurring or unique events in their work. Each will know of deadlines you'd never learn about otherwise; the better-organized ones even learn to alert you to imminent work well in advance so they can reserve your time. For example, most publishers plan their publishing schedule months or years in advance, and some update the schedule quarterly as part of their budget review process. Some clients will even provide access to their work calendar, either directly or as a PDF file, if you ask nicely. If you know they'll update their plans (say) quarterly, as part of an ongoing review process, add a note to your reminders program (e.g., Outlook) to request an updated schedule at these times.

These suggestions relate to client-defined deadlines, but you can also define your own deadlines and use that as a tool to motivate clients to modify their schedules. For example, whenever I know I'll be away for more than a few days, I send out announcements such as the following to all my clients at least a month in advance:

"I will be traveling from 12 to 26 May and unavailable for work. If you have any editing work for me that is due before I leave, please reserve a date now or send me your manuscript at least 2 weeks in advance (i.e., by the end of April). Because of my workload, jobs that arrive without a reservation may have to wait until I return."

This provides much more lead time to complete my work because fewer jobs arrive unannounced at the last minute. As a freelancer, it has another benefit: it reminds clients who only occasionally send me work that I exist and that they haven't sent me any work for a while. This often leads to new work arriving that might otherwise not appear for months. I send a similar message whenever I know I'll be insanely busy during a future period (e.g., for me, every March).

The key point in managing the schedules of your clients is that you can often find ways to encourage them to submit their work at times that are more convenient for you, thereby evening out your work flow.

Plan for the unexpected

The best laid plans inevitably go astray. Despite my suggestions in this article, some work inevitably arrives unannounced and at the last possible instant, and I have to find ways to cope. In my article Managing the chaos of freelancing by taking control of your schedule, I described ways to estimate the time required to complete work and allocate your available time accordingly. The key points in that article are that you can't plan your schedule if you don't know how long work takes to complete, but that once you know this, you can use the knowledge to build some slack into your schedule. That way, when the inevitable surprises occur, you'll have more flexibility to adjust your schedule and to find ways to cope.

Look for other tricks that will help you manage your schedule. For example, when I was a government employee, I routinely received a ton of last-minute work right before I left for vacation. The solution was to find a way to make that work arrive a few days earlier so I had more time to complete it. If I knew, for example, that I would be leaving on 12 May, I would inform all my clients that I was leaving a day or two earlier—say, on 10 May. That gave me roughly 2 days to complete any unplanned last-minute work, including other work I had put on hold while getting through the previous week's crises. There's no question this was mildly unethical, but in practice, the last few days before a lengthy absence were always time I required to clear my desk before leaving or to finalize details of my work plans for colleagues who would carry on while I was away. Building in those extra two days generally let me leave with a clean conscience rather than leaving a mess for my co-workers to clean up.


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