A lot of people have asked me how I stay on top of my workload. I’m currently juggling a full-time day job (teaching and coordinating Seneca College’s Animation program), a part-time creative career job (project managing UDON creative services projects), other work (freelance comic writing) and writing/managing a creator-owned comic series (Skullkickers at Image).
When I write it all out like that it seems impossibly huge and ridiculous, it’s true. It can be easy for me to psyche myself out and let the amount of work in the queue overwhelm me, but I’ve been able to find some techniques that help keep it all in check.
Communication is everything.
Storytelling is all about communication. As creators we’re communicating ideas, characters, plot lines, emotions… The better we are at engaging and entertaining the audience, the stronger the response they’ll have to our work. People want to work with good communicators. Communication is at the very core of what we do. If you do it well you’ll have a serious leg up on the competition.
This may seem like an odd topic for a tutorial but, believe me, it’s just as important as anything else I’ve covered so far. The quality of your communication and how you’re perceived as a communicator has a direct correlation to how you’re treated as a professional.
In this article I’ll talk about organization, but in future tutorials I’ll also talk about the tone of communication, automating repetitive tasks and anticipating client needs to save time. Some of these things will seem pretty obvious, but all put together they save me a ton of time and keep projects rolling forward.
I’m obsessive about good email communication. My inbox rarely has more than 10 emails hanging around. I doubt I’ll ever be able to “zero” my inbox, but communication as a whole is under control and constant. Here’s how email works for me:
• I always reply. Even if that reply is a short and sweet “No” or a polite “I can’t do this right now but I’ll get back to it as soon as I can” type response, people always hear back from me. There’s no ambiguity or wondering if I received a message. It’s polite and the right thing to do.
I would ignore death threats or messages from crazy people but, thankfully, I haven’t had anything horrible like that so far in my career. Fingers crossed that I never do.
• If I receive a message I can respond to quickly now, I do it as soon as possible so emails don’t pile up. If it takes me less than a minute to respond to then there’s no reason for me to wait and do it later.
• If someone else can’t do their job until I reply, I prioritize that over anything else. I never want people to feel like they’re waiting on me unnecessarily.
• When I receive information or a file, even if the conversation is done, I hit the sender back with a short “Got it” or similar reply. I want people to know I’ve received their information and am good to go.
• Once an email is replied to, I either archive it (if it has information I’ll need later) or trash it immediately. Again, I don’t want messages to pile up. It’s a psychological way of pushing stuff that’s not relevant right now off my plate.
• I always title my emails with subjects that are short and clear. That way it’s easy to find if I need to search for that information later on. If someone sends me an email titled “Yo”, I reply with a subject that’s more relevant to what we’re talking about. According to Thunderbird, I sent over 5000 emails in 2012. I need to be able to find this stuff later on.
• In my emails I keep sentences clear and ensure that major points I’m trying to make are either bold or separate so that, even if someone quickly scans my message on their phone, they’ll see the important things I need them to. If I have questions, they are always separate or bullet pointed. Clarity is key.
• I always do my damnedest to follow through on my commitments but, if something is falling off schedule or not happening as planned, I communicate that as soon as possible. I’ve found that people are way more understanding if you confront a problem early than if you ignore it. It shows responsibility and saves a lot of headaches later on.
• The only emails that hang around in my inbox are ones where a conversation is active/relevant. My inbox isn’t just a mass of headlines stretching back into infinity; it’s a To-Do List reminding me of what I’m currently committed to. I can scan my inbox at any point and have a sense of my work schedule for the next few weeks.
When I hear people bragging that they have hundreds (sometimes thousands) of emails in their inbox, I’m not impressed. I worry that they’re overwhelmed and won’t be able to do their job properly.
Right now, for example, I have 8 emails in my inbox:
3 are reminding me about current writing deadlines
2 are reminding me about artwork I committed to completing next month
1 is a podcast interview date happening this week
1 is a book launch event I committed to that’s coming up
1 is the latest email in an ongoing conversation I’m having with an artist about a potential new creator-owned project
That’s what I need to keep in mind right now so those emails stay up front. The rest gets archived in folders clearly labeled by project name. Once a project is finished I shove the whole folder into a deeper Archive folder so it’s out of the way. It’s sort of like RAM versus hard drive space. The relevant NOW stuff is in my inbox and instantly accessible. The other important stuff is filed away for later access if needed.
New Project Organization
When a conversation starts up about a new potential project I immediately gather all the relevant info into a new project folder. In there I put reference material, links, contracts and usually a few text files with hastily jotted down notes I made while on the phone with clients so I can refer to them later. I can’t assume that I’ll remember details later and I don’t assume anyone else has the information I need. I keep as much material ‘local’ as possible so I’m up to date and organized in a way that makes sense for me.
When new deadlines or commitments pop up, they instantly go into my Google Calendar so I can see availability and plan my time. My wife and I share Google Calendar information so we can see how our weeks are filling up and plan downtime too. I know that sounds ridiculous, but with a work schedule filled to the brim it’s a necessity.
Use the Cloud
If I have a document I’m working on (proposal, outline or script) it instantly goes into my Google Drive folder (cloud storage) so that it’s the exact same file whether I’m on my home computer, my laptop or using the computer in my office at the college. It’s automatically backed up, current and I can work pretty much anywhere.
I even have my email signature in a text file in my cloud folder and have all my email accounts point to it. If I change that one text file every email account I use (Thunderbird, Gmail, Seneca email, etc.) is updated instantly.
I have text files filed with common responses I’ve pre-typed out so I don’t have to re-write them over and over again. Standard introduction messages, bio text for conventions, links to my work samples, all kinds of stuff.
When I realize I’m writing a similar email over and over again I take a few minutes and put together a template I can use as a base and customize as needed. It’s carefully composed and thought out so I can work more quickly later on. I don’t want my messages to come across as robotic, but if it’s information I’m going to be re-using a lot I might as well have some of it prepared beforehand and ready to go.
Even these tutorials are a kind of template. I realized I was being asked about the comic business a lot and that it would be better for me to put together an in-depth article once rather than try and briefly reply to each question and miss a lot of detail. These tutorials are an archive of my work process I can point people towards. It saves me a lot of time. I communicate a bunch of information to a lot of people but don’t have to write it up over and over again.
All the above sounds anal and, sure, it absolutely is. It’s a methodical process that keeps a lot of different projects moving forward on a constant basis. It’s detail-oriented and streamlined because I can’t afford to let things fall through the cracks and don’t want to waste time anymore. I have to be proactive and organized because otherwise none of this would work.
If I’m doing it right, my communication should showcase hard-work, organization and reliability. Those are traits I’m happy to take ownership of.