CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. All of Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson’s columns can be found here.
Barry Johnson: Today’s topic is time management. As Michael can attest, my time-management skills sometimes desert me. Or maybe I don’t apply them consistently enough. Some of that I blame on my newspaper practices, which led me astray almost from the beginning.
When I left The Oregonian last December, I had planned to jump right into working on the idea to start an arts journalism non-profit. Between Christmas and New Year’s, therefore, I did what I think almost any journalist would do. I made phone calls and sent out e-mails to many of the people I wanted to talk to about the project. You have a new story to pursue, you make a lot of calls, right? But then, the first week in January I started hearing back from everybody, and I started scheduling appointments. Lots of appointments, three or four on some days. Pretty soon January was full and February nearly so.
I’m not complaining exactly, because the response showed that people were interested in the idea. But I lost my ability to manage the appointments by doing it the way I did. I had some conversations early in the process that I should have had later, for example. And that led to the necessity for more appointments with the same people. And in the middle of all those appointments I lost the ability to manage my time—sometimes meeting is not the best way to spend an afternoon.
What do you think, Michael? How good a time-management teacher is journalism?
Michael Andersen: Ugh. I’d like to call it the worst, but those of us with poor self-control are probably just drawn to jobs with constant deadlines. Either way, I’m terrible at this and a lot of journalists I know are, too. For those of us trying to make the leap to entrepreneurship, this is a deadly problem.
Barry: Are we too impulsive? Or cognitively deficient?
Michael: Too easily interested? That’s the nice way to put it.
Barry: What has been your most consistent time-mangement question?
Michael: I guess the central question is priority. When should I set aside a long-term task to complete a necessary routine? When should I do ad-sales outreach at the expense of some editorial research?
Barry: Are they too linear for the multiple balls you have in the air? Personally, I have legal pads filled with large circles and connected by doodles.
Michael: Does that work for you?
Barry: I think it helps me keep in mind a lot of things at once. I have a central diagram with the seven major areas my project has to address (“editorial content,” “marketing,” “membership,” “sponsorships,” “design,” “administration” and “grants+donations”). Not today, necessarily, but as it evolves. I keep working those circles, jumping to the next one when an opportunity arises. But then that’s where time management comes into play, priority, because sometimes I have more than one opportunity available, where time might be profitably spent, and then I always want to do some journalism.
Michael: For me, identifying small tasks seems to help. Any time I really get cranking on something, I’m likely to become interested in the adjacent tasks and work at maximum productivity for a while. But then I run the risk of staying in the same subject area for too long. (I’ve been splitting my own tasks four ways: “marketing,” “editorial,” “ad/distro/production,” and “accounting/planning.”)
I like your use of a single medium (paper—ah, paper) to store the information. Do you try to convert every small e-mail task onto the print diagram?
Barry: Mostly, I just try to be aware of the larger purpose of what I’m working on at any given moment. Where does it fit? And if I’m staying inside one circle too long, then I try to balance it out, because I have a seemingly endless to-do list in each category. Getting the order right is the trick, and attempting to have meetings and activities that deal with more than one category. I write down almost everything I’m hoping to do each day, including e-mails, especially if they are important ones. If it’s not important enough to write down, then there’s probably something more important I should be doing…
You’re trying to do some good, hard journalism as you attempt to lay the foundation of your non-profit, which presents certain problems, right?