Columns March/April 2021

Controlling the Chaos

By Michelle Corbin | STC Fellow

Early in my career, I became maniacal about time management. I took a five-day course on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where I wrote my first personal mission statement and where I learned the foundations of good project management. Of course, my next bible became JoAnn Hackos’ Managing Your Documentation Projects (which expanded to be much broader in scope: Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People). In this column, I’ll summarize the key principles of my own maniacal time management system that has effectively and efficiently guided me throughout my now 30-year career as a technical communicator and technical editor.

How to Be Effective

To be an effective technical communicator, I have cultivated these two habits (which are based on two of Covey’s 7 Habits):

  • Proactivity
  • Prioritization
Be Proactive

Habit 1 of the 7 Habits is “Be Proactive.” Being proactive means having “the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen” (p. 71). We must act instead of being acted upon by others, by our environment, or by things outside of our control. Where we choose to focus our time and energy dictates how proactive we can be. We have to become aware of what we have control over. When editing, what is our circle of influence? We need to focus our time and energy within that circle only, instead of the much broader circle of concern.

From a time management perspective—specifically a productivity perspective—we have to apply Covey’s P/PC balance principle (p. 54). We must balance our own production (P) with our own production capability (PC). (Chad Carson wrote a great blog summarizing this principle; see References.) Without this balance, we quickly lose our effectiveness. To take action—and be proactive—we have to understand what we can influence and what we are capable of.

Prioritize, Plan, and Preview

Habit 3 of the 7 Habits is “Put First Things First.” Covey summarizes years of time management research into this simple phrase: “Organize and execute around priorities” (p. 149). He presents a time management matrix, which instead of focusing on things and time, focuses relationships and results, which ultimately helps to maintain the P/PC balance (p. 150). This matrix categorizes activities across two axes: Importance and Urgency (p. 150-156).

These four quadrants work their magic in these two ways:

  • They allow us to easily prioritize our activities. Covey encourages that we spend most of our time in Quadrant II: Important, but not Urgent. Quadrant II focuses on prevention and preparation.
  • They enable us to say the magic word: No. To be able to focus on Quadrant II activities, you have to say no to non-important activities and sometimes even say no to urgent important activities. Still, you get to say no.

The best way to spend most of your time in Quadrant II activities is to first and foremost plan your week. Then, do a daily preview of the following day based on how your day went, and adjust the weekly plan based on your priorities. Prioritize, plan, and preview; wash, rinse, and repeat.

How to Be Efficient

To be an efficient technical communicator, I have cultivated these three habits (which were formed from applying Hackos’ project management principles):

  • Set objectives and goals
  • Track your time
  • Report your results
Set Objectives and Goals

Before you embark on any project, you need to know the goals and objectives of your company, your organization, your team, and yourself. To effectively manage your time, and prioritize your activities, you have to have a clearly documented set of objectives and goals. All of your decisions and prioritizations should be based on this predefined list of goals and objectives.

Track Your Time

As your team sets about creating the project plan and project schedule, they start to seek out standard productivity metrics. Hackos certainly presented some for information development projects, and Carolyn Rude includes some in her Technical Editing textbook for editing activities, and you can even find some from a quick Google search (see Jean Hollis Weber’s take or David McClintock’s interesting words per hour (WPH) benchmarking; both are listed in References).

In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at michelle.l.corbi@gmail.com.

These standard metrics are at least a good starting point, but you can improve the effectiveness and efficiencies by tracking your own time and identifying your own productivity metrics. Your team and your organization are going to have a different set of priorities, processes, tools, and dependencies that just won’t be represented in the standard metrics.

Creating and using a personal time tracking spreadsheet can allow you to estimate how much time you think an activity will take, and then document the actual amount of time that you took along with the dependencies and impacts for the activity. This is a skill that is particularly crucial to freelance editors, as it helps to understand if you are pricing your projects appropriately.

Report Your Results

Make sure that you put that data to good use. Report on the results “up the line” (to your manager, to your team, and to your organization). These results will help you set goals and objectives for the next iteration or version. They’ll also help you improve your estimates and project schedules, because they’ll be based on the most contextualized, more accurate actual data for your production and production capability.

Efficiency and Effectiveness

Many of my colleagues are amazed at everything that I can accomplish in my eight hours each day. That’s because I am proactive whenever and wherever possible, I prioritize and plan and preview my activities constantly, and I track my time daily.

Peter Drucker, a management consultant, is quoted as saying, “Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” The best way to control the chaos inherent in our technical communication projects is with project and time management principles. Covey’s 7 Habits and Hackos’ project management principles can help you focus on doing the right things all while doing things right.

 

References

Covey, Stephen R. 1990. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside.

Carson, Chad. n.d. “P/PC Balance: How to Be Effective Over the Short & Long Run.” Coach Carson, Accessed 23 January 2021. https://www.coachcarson.com/p-pc-balance/.

Tech Tello. 2020. “Effectiveness vs Efficiency: Why Successful Leaders Need Both.” Updated 17 February 2021. https://www.techtello.com/effectiveness-vs-efficiency/.

Hackos, JoAnn T.1994. Managing Your Documentation Projects. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Hackos, JoAnn T.2007. Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rude, Carolyn. 2006. Technical Editing (4th Edition). New York: Pearson Education.

McClintock, David W. “Benchmarks for Estimating Editing Speed.” Corrigo: The Newsletter of the STC Technical Editing SIG. Accessed 23 January 2021. http://stc-techedit.org/corrigo/benchmarks-for-estimating-editing-speed/ .

Weber, Jean Hollis. “How Long Does Editing Take?” Technical Editors’ Eyrie: Resources for Technical Editors. Accessed 23 January 2021.
http://www.jeanweber.com/about/howlong.htm.

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