Periodically, a college student sends an email to me asking if he or she can interview me for a term paper. I always say yes, and I always learn something about my work by answering student questions about my career.
Invariably, within the list of questions, there's a stumper. This week, the stumper was, “How do you spend a typical day as a journalist?”
I started to answer the question. But every time I started to write an answer, what I wrote sounded terrible. The truth is that I never set out to be a journalist, so I have never been particularly organized about my typical day.
I was a marketing executive who happened to have landed a column. The pay for the column was paltry compared to my corporate salary, and consequently, I devoted a paltry amount of time to the column —writing it during a sales meeting, on my way to an office picnic, or at my in-laws' home in between shopping and dinner.
Part of the reason for my cavalier attitude toward making time for the column is that initially I did not understand that having a nationally distributed column is a big deal; I was in a business where a big deal equaled a big paycheck. But after I left corporate life for a writer's life, I started to understand how lucky I was. So you'd think, after three years of writing full-time I'd have developed good work habits as a writer, but I haven't.
This is surprising to me because in my corporate life I had very good work habits. As I was climbing the corporate ladder, it became clear that you can only move up as fast as you can adjust your work habits to the next rung. For example, the move into management means you have to learn to finish your own work in a way that leaves room for you to help other people with their work. You have to restructure your workday to make other people a priority.
There were times when I distinctly remember changing my workday in order to accommodate a new position. For example, my boss told me that if I could offload all of my responsibilities as a marketing and software production manager, then I could take seed money from the company and start my own company. I realized that the faster I could reorganize my workload and delegate, the faster I could move on with my career. So I did that. Within weeks, and astounded even my boss with my speed.
Achieving long-term goals and tactical plans all depends on work habits. You need to devote time to getting short-term projects done, to managing long-term projects, and to thinking both strategically and creatively.
Each time I've wanted to make headway in my career the fastest path has been by changing how I spend my days; if nothing else, how you organize your days is one of the few things most people can really control.
Which brings me back to explaining to the college student about my work habits. It was untenable to have to confess to her how I was working. I was such a bad role model because in terms of organizing my day, I still treated my writing career like it's a sideshow.
I could accomplish so much more if I would get more organized. So I worked backwards. I said to myself, what kind of answer would I expect from a successful career columnist as to how she manages her days to make her career bloom?
I think it would look like time slots:
Working on projects with deadlines
Thinking about long-term projects
Once I started having days like this, there was immediate change — I accomplished more than usual and the work was higher quality because my days were organized around particular long and short-term goals.
I ended up confessing to the student that I started with sloppy work habits. But I told her that I was reforming myself. I told her about my carefully scheduled days and strategically organized weeks. Then I sat down to write this column, which I now have a special time each week to write. And I was just a little bit more calm than usual because having a detailed work plan in hand makes me feel like I really am going to meet the goals I have for myself.