Between the sometimes erratic day-job, the writing challenge of Table Rappers, other writing projects, and a little time to sleep, it has, until recently, been almost impossible to find consistent balance. I recently found the answer in something that seems to make most people develop a nervous twitch.
Project management with Gantt charts must be amongst the most hated of business activities. Having had no such twitch-inducing horrors in the past, I came to gantt with a positive motivation.
Hopefully, this post will help unravel how I’ve used gantt to not only achieve writing project management, but also such bizarre concepts as “relaxing days off” and “spare time”.
The big, bad project
Traditionally, cant charts are created per project. That’s fine when you are tacking something large, with multiple in-house and external resources, all of which rely on each other.
Allocation of time was the toughest challenge, given my sometimes unpredictable work schedule, so the project my chart would manage, was me: everything project-related I must tackle outside the day-job hours, in a single chart.
What does that look like? Something like the image on the right. This shows my project schedule until the end of the second quarter of 2012.
In some detail
Each of the Casebook Files for the Table Rappers series consists of three individual stories. I generally run short stories (between 3 and 10 thousand words) through two drafts before it goes to my “trusted reader”, then a final draft based on that feedback (and sometimes an additional draft should the need arise). I prefer to let each draft sit and “rest” for at least a week before returning to that piece. During the rests, I can work on other drafts of other pieces. Perhaps you’re getting the picture of how quickly this could all get into a terrible tangle!
Here’s a typical Casebook Files schedule (click image to see the full-size version).
The dated sections across the top are weeks. The vertical, pale-green bar represents the current day (today), which shows that “12Angels” is with my reader, and I am due to work on the next revision of “Endless Mews” tomorrow. (“Endless Mews” was already at revision stage prior to this project planning, hence its first entry being “final draft”, and after my reader, it required an additional revision.)
This chart segment demonstrates that it takes me roughly seven weeks to complete all the tasks necessary for a Casebook File’s writing and production. My publishing schedule for 2012 requires one Casebook File each quarter, so the process of creating one must be carefully managed, and I must keep ahead of the release dates with enough of a buffer to absorb the unexpected.
What of the gaps between the revisions? That’s where the beauty (yes, that’s what I said) of gantt scheduling comes into its own.
The Table Rappers stories have a very specific style, a kind of pseudo-period (Victorian/Edwardian) writing that is quite different to my other genre work. Therefore, slotted in some of the gaps in the above schedule are drafts and revisions of other, non Table Rappers stories. I find the switching between the two styles hugely useful and quite refreshing, and offers the added bonus of simultaneously progressing other writing projects.
The application I use for this is OmniPlan (OP) and allows specific lead-times to be defined between consecutive, dependent tasks. Therefore if, for some reason, I must shift a revision task forward a few days, all other tasks that come after it are also shifted to maintain the defined lead-time.
Working around the day-job
My available project time consists, on an ideal day, of a couple opt hours first thing in the morning, and somewhere between 2 and 4 hours in the late evening. As I work with a team primarily based in the Pacific time-zone (-8 hours), I often do not know my evening project availability until quite late in my day. This means all this careful scheduling must be flexible and dynamic to work around project chunks suddenly vanishing due to an urgent work task.
OP offers me the ability to enter my project time availability in fine detail, and will push task completion times within that availability.
For example: let’s assume the second draft of story B will take around 7.5 hours (which includes my usual 20% buffer, always useful). If I schedule that for a weekday, it will take more than one day to complete (two morning sessions and an evening session). If I schedule for a weekend, that’s less than a day of effort.
OP uses the entered real-world time schedule to re-size charted tasks based on the amount of effort required and the amount of project time available. If I reschedule, the task total duration re-sizes appropriately, and OP shifts dependent tasks forward to a new schedule slot, taking into account any applied constraints.
When I switch to the resource scheduling view, I can spot areas where I am over or under capacity. For example, in the image above, I can clearly see that I have unallocated time at the beginning of the first week in October (green marks indicate already allocated schedule). I could either leave that open in order to take-up slack from any schedule-damaging surprises between now and then, or I could slot-in a project task that is currently assigned to a later date (maybe “HoE: Second Draft”).
This way I maximise my time, optimise my writing process, and take a proper day off here and there, all with the knowledge that it is at least theoretically possible to get everything done.
Everything else is in there, too
Anything that takes more than an hour or two and that needs to be completed by a deadline, also gets charted in the same gantt. Building and maintaining the relevant websites, getting my accounts done, etc., all are allocated time within the chart relative to everything else.
The result, of what became about two weeks developing this solution, has been quite remarkable: I will have the first table Rappers books complete almost three months before the absolute deadline; for the first year (ever) I have submitted my accounts to me accountant early (by three months!); and perhaps most importantly, I spent this very weekend with my parents without worrying about what needs doing next, whether I have forgotten something, how it will all get done, and feeling thoroughly overwhelmed by the volume of work I’ve set myself.
Can creative endeavours like this be so tightly managed? Of course they can. Writing a series of works is no less a process than any other project task: stuff needs doing, that take chunks of time, in a particular order, by a particular deadline. I have found the effective management of proper “resting” periods between drafts offers a way to remove the potential feeling of a production line. There’s time to think, time to let the mind consider, fix and plan.
This is my solution to juggling work and multiple projects while maintaining a viable life balance – and it’s working.