Monday, February 9, 2009

Divvying up your work hours

A growing proportion of us, these days, don't have jobs. We have projects. If we're freelancers or entrepreneurs, we may be working for many different clients at once. But even if we work full-time for an employer, we increasingly have to choose how we'll construct our career portfolios across different teams, topics, offices and the like.

So how do you figure out how to allocate your time? It's an important question. You have to find the right balance between doing work that pays your bills today, work that you really enjoy, and work that prepares you for big breakthroughs in the future.

When I was writing Grindhopping, I decided to use a bit of a prehistoric analogy. Imagine we are cavemen trying to land enough sustenance to survive.

Dream projects are mastodons -- you can feast on their oh-so-satisfying meat for ages. Unfortunately, they're not exactly easy to catch. You might only catch a few during your life.

Good projects are fish and berries. They're quite tasty and round out your diet and are much easier to find than mastodons, though not as easy to find as grasses and tree bark. These are the projects you do because they fill you up (i.e., they pay the bills).

If you have big career plans, you always want to be chasing a mastodon (a dream project). Even if you've caught one and are currently chewing, you still want to be thinking about the next one.

Choose fish and berries (good projects) wisely to keep you happy and fulfilled at work, and improve your chances of catching future mastodons. In general, this means projects that you care about, that bring you into contact with people who will form a good network, and that get you a little closer to where you're going.

And remember, even tree bark (pay-the-bills projects) can keep you on the mastodon path if you use some judgment.

I've been thinking about this over the past few days because I've been tallying up my 1099s from 2008. It was a good year. I had one big pay-the-bills project -- a book ghostwriting gig. This strikes me as a reasonable tree bark gig. At least it's in my field and keeps my writing skills sharp, and hence keeps me on the mastodon trail! I had some good fish-and-berries projects -- a weekly column for Scientific American turned out to be an awesome opportunity which I've really enjoyed and which has honed my profile and technical writing immensely. I'm writing longer, think-y feature pieces for publications like City Journal. I also spent a lot of time working on chasing my mastodons -- I finished a draft of a novel, and also went through several versions of a non-fiction book proposal.

In general, in life, people tend to think you should spend more time on things which pay you more. This is certainly one approach. But if you want to build a dream career -- a high profile, difficult one -- I firmly believe you have to do something radically different. You have to spend most of your time on the things which carry no guarantee of any payoff whatsoever.

Here's how it broke down for me. I cranked out that ghosted book in 5-6 weeks. That's 10% of my time. It also represents about 55% of my income. I spent about half my time on the fish and berries projects of column and feature writing. That came out to the other 45% of my income. And I devoted the rest of my time -- 40% of it -- to the novel and building a platform and writing a proposal for a non-fiction book. During the entirety of 2008, these things earned me nothing. Zilch. OK, some of the platform building earned me some fish and berries projects (speeches and articles). But no book money. And I wanted a book contract.

Fingers crossed, though, I seem to now have an offer for the book. And the novel will go out to publishers soon. So the investment I made in 2008 will pay off in 2009.

I, of course, am partial to my time split, though I realize this is harder to pull off in some circumstances. But I do think that you need to devote at least a third of your time to pursuing dream projects. Since life has a way of interrupting, this means aiming for half (with the understanding that you won't necessarily get that). Spend another third on the fish and berries, and another third on the tree bark, and you have a pretty good formula for workplace bliss.

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