So Much to Do! So Little Time!
As I write this column, I’m in the middle of a month in which I’ve felt overwhelmed by work on several occasions. The psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls this state of mind “F-state”. “C-state”, he writes, “is clear, calm, cool, collected, consistent, concentrated, convivial, careful, curious, creative, courteous, and coordinated. On the other hand, F-state fractures focus and is frenzied, feckless, failing, fearful, forgetful, flustered, furious, fractious, feverish, and frantic. . . . In C-state you have found your rhythm. In F-state you have lost it.”1
When I think back over incidents in my career that I regret (not a lot, but who doesn’t have at least some?), I realize that many of them occurred because I was in F-state. It’s hard for me to work effectively and I’m not at my best in interactions with authors when I’m feeling flustered. I’ve decided to devote this column to some of the excellent advice that I’ve received over the years from mentors, colleagues, and others about how to keep my workload under control.
1. Keep a calendar or to-do list that works for you
I’ve experimented with different systems, and I’m happy with the one that I use now: I keep a Word document on my desktop with work dates listed on the left side of the page and tasks and appointments listed to the right of each date. I leave blank lines between Monday–Friday blocks so that weeks appear as discrete blocks of text. Before I commit to a new project, I scan this document. When I see that there is little free time left in my schedule, I know that I need to say no to requests. (I was inspired to use this system when I read Carol Fisher Saller’s description of her system.2 Several chapters in her book on copy-editing have excellent advice for any editor who wants to stay in control of his or her work schedule.)
I work as part of an editorial group charged with helping many authors, and I’ve found my calendar to be useful when I’m negotiating with authors. I can open my calendar and say, “Well, Dr X, in the next week and a half I’ve committed to editing an NIH R01 proposal and two journal articles and presenting part of a workshop, so I won’t be able to return your proposal until 2 weeks from now.” Most authors, faced with the facts, are quite reasonable—they may be willing to accept a longer turnaround time, have their work assigned to a different editor in my group, or perhaps accept a more narrow scope of editorial assistance than they originally hoped for. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve found that looking at the stark reality of my schedule while I’m negotiating helps me to stand firm when I need to. I’m less likely to say yes when I see that doing so means that I’ll be giving up part of my Saturday.
2. Avoid overcommitting yourself
I feel miserable when I land in F-state through my own fault. In addition to feeling overwhelmed, I feel disappointed in myself for accepting an assignment that I shouldn’t have accepted. And these negative feelings make me less effective in my work, which makes me more disappointed with myself, which makes me less effective. I can fall into a temporary downward spiral of unhappiness.
In thinking back over what has caused me to overcommit, I’ve identified four main causes:
- Underestimating how much time an editorial project will take.
- A desire to please. I’ll say yes when I should say no because I want to avoid letting someone down.
- Carelessness linked to unwarranted optimism. I’ll be sailing along in C-state, enjoying a week of great productivity and tranquility and working on interesting projects, and a long-time client will call and request a rapid review of a “brief editorial” that “just needs a quick read”. Anyone who has been an editor for more than 6 weeks knows not to commit to anything before examining the work to be edited. But occasionally, carelessly, I’ll say, “Sure! No problem! Send it on over and I’ll have it back to you by Friday!”
- Ironically, being in F-state can lead me to overcommit. When I’m in F-state, I may be so frazzled that I don’t have a good grasp of my workload, and it may seem easier to say yes quickly than to take the time to determine exactly what I can and can’t reasonably do. If you sometimes overcommit, taking the time to identify your own reasons may help you to avoid overcommitting in the future.
3. Practice negotiating and saying no
It can be hard to avoid becoming overcommitted if you can’t say no or negotiate for better terms. In my experience, most authors are perfectly reasonable if you explain in general what’s going on with your workload. (If you support multiple authors, as my group does, it also helps to explain how priorities are set among projects so that authors know that scheduling decisions are made fairly.) For unreasonable requests, a straightforward no is perfectly fine: “I can’t stop what I’m doing now to review your slide presentation before today’s 5 o’clock submission deadline.” When I have to say no because of my workload, I simply say that: “I wish I could help, but I’m simply too busy to fit this in right now.” Because I work as part of a group of editors, I can usually propose that authors have their work edited by another person in my group. In the rare case in which that isn’t feasible, negotiation comes in handy—“I can’t do a complete review of your proposal over the next 2 days; what if I spend an hour and a half reviewing the most critical sections—perhaps the abstract and specific aims?”
Every now and then I encounter an author who is quite demanding and will not back down even if I explain why I’m not able to do what he or she requests. One trap that I used to fall into is the “silent-treatment trap”—an author will ask for something that is unreasonable, I’ll explain my point of view and offer a counterproposal, the author will again ask for something unreasonable, I’ll again offer a counterproposal, and then the author will fall silent, leaving my proposal hanging in the air. This silence is extremely uncomfortable for me, especially over the telephone, and inspires an urge to agree to what the author wants just to make the silence go away. But I’ve learned to take a deep breath and remain silent. When I do this, usually authors back off or begin negotiating in earnest.
4. Educate authors about what is and isn’t reasonable
It’s good to be helpful, but if you routinely accommodate extraordinary requests—for example, requests for extreme rush editing or requests for work that is outside the scope of what you are expected to be doing for authors—authors may start viewing extraordinary service as routine. This point is especially important if you work as part of an editorial group with the mission of supporting a large group of authors. If exceptions are made for one author, other authors may find out and become upset if exceptions aren’t made for them too. We don’t have to be rigid and never accommodate special requests, but it is helpful to note when we are providing exceptional service—for example, “We can’t normally accommodate requests for same-day turnaround for proposals, but because this funding opportunity was just announced to faculty members and because your proposal is brief, I’m willing to make an exception in this case.”—and to limit the amount of extraordinary service provided to any one author.
5. React early when you sense trouble ahead
Regularly take time to scan your calendar to see what’s coming up, and intervene early when you sense potential trouble ahead. I try to survey my calendar at least once a week, usually on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening. Often schedules can be adjusted or deadlines modified, but changes are much easier when they’re made with plenty of advance notice.
6. Keep a positive outlook!
It’s unreasonable to expect always to do a perfect job of controlling your schedule and negotiating with authors. When things go wrong, instead of being hard on yourself, remind yourself that the problem is temporary, resolve to do better next time, and move on. Commiserating with a supportive friend or colleague is often helpful too.
Wishing you a calm and productive 2011!
- Hallowell EM. CrazyBusy: Overstretched, overbooked, and about to snap! Strategies for handling your fast-paced life. New York: Ballantine Books; 2006.
- Saller CF. The subversive copy editor: advice from Chicago (or, how to negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues, and yourself). Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2009.