The S. Z. Attwell Project Planning Method

As a writer, and in life, I have to tackle large projects all the time. However, I don’t exactly follow the structured paper-planner route. My attention is more…focused. By that, I mean that I can sit for 5-10 hours at a time working on something, to the point that I sometimes don’t eat dinner until late at night. 

This makes for some intense accomplishment, but also makes it hard to plan. Add the fact that to-do lists can be overwhelming…

I should begin by saying that I am actually organized – I have managed, thank God, to publish two novels and a flash fiction, learn ~B1 German in a year, have a social life, etc. – but I am organized in my own way. I do in fact have the ability to sit down and force myself to work on x or y, usually, but that’s partially because deadlines put pressure on me, and I work very well under pressure. I know from long experience that my attention tends to be focused on one thing, intensely, all afternoon/evening, and that I accomplish the most when I go with it. I might as well take advantage of that fact. 

So how do I get things done? 

The other day, I went to the store to (yet again) try to find a calendar or planner that worked well for my marketing. (Thanks to The Picky Bookworm for all her info/discussions on content calendars!) I knew that I wanted something like a calendar, but somehow none of the ones I found worked for me. The boxes were all too small, too uniform, yet I didn’t want a blank notebook. I kept thinking “I wish I could expand this [day] box and include all the stuff I want to do for [project] in it” – but then realized I couldn’t just drop an entire set of possible project to-dos into each day. I would need a huge notebook/calendar for that, and it would probably look like I was the least accomplished planner-user ever.

But then…it clicked. 

It’s about having the entire project available when I need it. I needed two things: (1) a list of projects and (2) a page, or entire section, for each, with a checklist of possible to-dos for each project.

I therefore present…

The S. Z. Attwell Project Planning Method (my other option was already semi-trademarked, so yes, this is what I decided on).

This post has two parts: Method and Planner. I also have a short print version of the planner concept with templates here.

PART 1: PROJECT PLANNING METHOD

When I am working on a complex project (say: a book launch), how do I not get overwhelmed?

Timelines are not my thing. I can get super overwhelmed, especially when I have a lot of stuff that I have to do at once (or when it seems like it’s at once). The key is that things that need to be done can be broken into steps, and those steps need to happen in a certain order, in a certain amount of time.

The 6 STEPS

1. I write everything I need to do down: big things, small things, etc. Everything.

2. Which of these lead to others? Put the final goal at the end and order the items accordingly (my goal is ____, and to do that I need to do ____, and to do THAT I need to do ____…)

3. and 4. Bold or underline the must-dos. Assign each an approximate timeframe.

5. Work backward from your goal and add deadlines to your calendar!

6. Start working!

That’s it. That’s the process.

Note: It can really help to use an app with movable checklist items so you can re-order things as needed.

Let’s try a sample book launch (partial; your results may vary).

1. Things I need (thinking off the top of my head):

-book cover – draft completed -revising -editing -proofing/checkthrough – beta readers -announcement on mailing list -formatting the book -ads -social media hype (teasers, etc.) -LOC number -ISBN assignment -author copy -publish! -celebration -blog post -press release lol -swag – blurb

These are some ideas. There could be more. I feel like I’m forgetting a lot of things. Anyway, let’s order these:

2. Which of these lead to others?

I try to start at the bottom with the final item (here, “publish!” is the main goal, but it’s followed by celebrate/press release), then work my way upward. As I go, I think of things and add them:

  • draft completed
  • contact book artist
  • revising
  • editing, beta readers
  • blurb! approve cover art!
  • formatted final version, book cover, LOC #, ISBN purchases
  • social media hype, mailing list hype, prepare ads [get art from artist]
  • swag (can be done at any time, including after launch, but it’s fun so why not now, haha)
  • publish!
  • press release, blog post, mailing list
  • celebrate!

3. Bold the stuff that MUST get done (vs. CAN get done).

and

4. Put in estimated times so you can calculate your projected timeline.

For a book launch you may want to think backward in general to get a sense of how much time it might take, and then project your book publishing date forward from your actual draft completion. I know this from experience. I told people I hoped to launch book 2 “in fall 2020.” I then searched “when is the last day of fall 2020” and slipped in juuuuust under the wire. December 18, 2020. Yay. 

  • draft completed
  • research cover artists [~1-5 hours]
  • prep for cover artist: synopsis and/or blurb for cover, and comparison images [I just thought of this while writing the time estimates in: you need something for them to work with. Shutterstock can be useful for comparison images. I estimate 2 days for this.]
  • contact book artist [1 hour, if you have to send all the material above]
  • revising [anywhere from a week to 3 months, depends on book]
  • editing, beta readers [also depends on book]
  • blurb! approve cover art! [cover art can take a while to get back/there may be several rounds]
  • formatted final version [1 day], book cover, LOC # [1 week], ISBN purchases [2 hours]
  • social media hype [ongoing], mailing list hype [2 hours], prepare ads [get art from artist] [probably 2 hours]
  • swag (can be done at any time, including after launch, but it’s fun so why not now, haha) [2 hours]
  • publish! [10 min]
  • publicize! press release, blog post, mailing list, social media hype [1-2 days]
  • celebrate! [1 evening]

Again, note that this is a partial list. It’s just an example.

My specific timeline was from about March-August 2020 for book 1 and probably August-December 2020 for book 2. I’d give yourself at least 3-4 months from the end of the draft to get all the rest of it done if you are self-publishing. Again, for book launches in particular, I recommend getting an approximate timeline and then setting your launch date (and building in vagueness if possible – “summer 2023” is better than “August 1, 2023” in case something goes wrong, for example).

5. PUT THE DEADLINES IN YOUR CALENDAR. Do it now. If you can, you can even use a highlighter to project the timelines backward so you have start dates. If not, that’s ok too. I just like colorful stuff.

If you want a great content calendar, check out The Picky Bookworm’s blog post.

6. Start working! 

That’s literally it. I build the list, put the deadlines in my calendar, and then I chip away at it as I can. The great thing about this system is that not only do I now have a set of specific, manageable steps, where nothing is so big it causes me to be overwhelmed, but (this is essential!) I also have a built-in sense of urgency because I can’t really do stuff further down the list without accomplishing things higher up

And that, dear internet, is how I organize massive projects. I…project backward. 

(Haha, bad pun…or excellent pun? I’m not sure.).

Part 2: THE PROJECT PLANNER

I’ve designed a project planner to use with my method. (Get your copy here!)

NOTE: This goes along with part 1; I recommend having two planners: mine, and a standard calendar to keep track of deadlines. I personally use my phone for the latter.

Let’s take a look at my project planner template and how it works.

Keep in mind this can be used for things you want to accomplish at your leisure in your free time, and also for things that you need to accomplish by a certain deadline. The idea is to keep each project separate, not all lumped together in a calendar. The calendar should be reserved for deadlines and specific things that need to be worked on that day.

Example: German. 

I am studying German, and I take lessons, but there are lots of things I can do to improve on a daily basis. My German list would look something like this:

  • Lessons
  • B1 word list
  • Online practice
  • Grammar book
  • Podcasts, videos (listening)
  • Books, apps (reading)
  • Speaking w/people

This project page helps me in two ways: it puts everything together where I can visually see and remember it, so I don’t have to think each time of all the things I could do when I feel like working on German, and it gives me a list of options to choose from based on what sounds most interesting that day. 

Any of the options should lead to my goal, which is improvement. But sometimes I just really feel like watching videos, or really feel like using flashcards, or similar. Forcing myself to do 2 hours of reading because it’s The Thing I’ve Scheduled is an easy way to make myself stop enjoying German.

Or how about this: German doesn’t sound interesting? Maybe I feel like working on my book. That might look like this:

  • Outline the part where [spoiler]
  • Character x thinking about [another spoiler]
  • Read through the first section and see if the pacing works
  • Send beta chapters to friend

Or maybe I feel like working on marketing:

  • Content calendar! (see The Picky Bookworm for tips)
  • Blog post
  • Make a video of me reading my first chapter aloud (I keep meaning to do this…eep)

The point of all this is that I have everything available at a glance when I need to work on and/or feel like working on something. Everything I do is some kind of progress toward a goal.

The principle is this: Make a project book. If you decide to focus on X, have a list of things to accomplish ready.

That’s it.


To sum up (aka the super concise version): 

1. Group all your project stuff together so it’s all there when you feel like working on it. Progress is progress, even if it’s not in a “standard” way.

2. If you need to prioritize things:

A. Write down all the things you need to do (everything, don’t worry about order; you can add more stuff as it comes to mind).

B. What leads to what? Start at the bottom of the list with your final goal and fill in the previous steps in logical order, using the to-do items that you’ve written down. 

Do this as well as you can. I use an app with a re-orderable checklist so I can move stuff around as needed.

C. and D. Bold the must-be-done stuff and add approximate time lengths for each item. Give yourself a reasonable amount of padding.

E. Project backward from your goal and add deadlines to your calendar!

F. Start working!

I hope this was helpful! Happy Project-ing!

Sabrina

P.S. Want to see what hyperfocus helped me accomplish? Check out my epic dystopian sci-fi series Aestus! 


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