Start at the End

Just a quick post on time management and deadlines. Used to be, when I did this freelancing medical writing thing on the side, I’d have one project at a time. I’d finish it, and if I had another project waiting, well, that was a bonus. I’d move onto that one, finish it, etc., etc. Now that the “on the side” has turned into a full-fledged medical writing business, this approach just won’t cut it. More often than not, I have multiple projects on my calendar, with overlapping deliverable milestones and due dates.

I just finished reading The Accidental Medical Writer by Cyndy Kryder and Brian Bass, and on the topic of deadlines, there is only one thing to say: Don’t miss them. Ever. I wholeheartedly agree. There is nothing worse than being late on a deadline. It’s a reputation killer.

How do I avoid this? I start at the end…I set reasonable deadlines. And the only way to do that is to make sure I know everything I can about the project up front – the scope, the deliverables, the client expectations. And I never promise a deadline until I’ve completely evaluated everything in the context of my schedule.

What happens if I do mess up and overpromise? I put on a pot of coffee and work all night, that’s what. I will not let myself miss a deadline.

That said, I do have some long-time clients who would understand if I contacted them ahead of the deadline to negotiate an extension. But the key here is “ahead of the deadline” — no one wants a call the night before to find out I’ve dropped the ball. But I try to avoid these calls altogether. If they don’t kill your reputation outright, they will erode it over time.

So, time management. I have a pocketbook calendar that I carry around with me everywhere – oldskool, I know, but I haven’t got one of them fancy smartphones yet. And then I have a plain old Excel calendar on my office computer, where  I can keep track of all my overlapping projects and deadlines and set a month’s worth of priorities. Nothing fancy. But without it, I’d be toast. Or someone would find me under a pile of Post-It notes muttering about dates and numbers.

Everyone does it differently, but the key for me is to know my deadlines, see how they fall out on the calendar, and then set (and re-set) my priorities so that I don’t miss any deadlines. I’ve had to move away from the one project-one deadline model to one that is more flexible and can accommodate shifting priorities, which happens almost daily as new projects are added to my calendar.

It’s all very exciting–and maybe a little scary–for someone who does well with a little more structure and predictability in her schedule, but I’ve learned to adapt and make the most of the freelance rollercoaster.

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