Working in themes

So last week’s post was a little short on specifics other than the admonition to do the damned work. It’s a good admonition, and you really can’t go wrong with it, but here’s one thing I do to impose some sort of shape and coherence on all of the things that want my attention.

I work in themes. This is different from working from a business plan or a to-do list. I have never figured out how freelancers are supposed to have plans. We have to take advantage of opportunities, see what happens, respond to people who express interest, go where the breaks lead us. That isn’t to say we don’t have big picture ideas of where we want to be, just that trying to break all that into action steps is, frankly, futile half the time. 

I’ve been at this long enough to know how to do the day job and the side job (editing and teaching) within the allotted time, and how to be vigilant about not letting them slip over. Then I set aside evenings for Jess. So that does not leave a lot of time for everything else I want to do, such as finish a screenplay, write my next novel, promote my most recent book.

Then I read about a business executive who makes monthly themes for herself so she can focus on bigger picture issues even when day-to-day demands are, well, demanding. So, I loved that idea and adapted it for my own work.

How does it work? February, for example, had the theme of “screenplay.” I had promised a friend that I would get back to work on a screenplay we had developed some time back and then dropped when we went on to other things. So in February, every minute that I wasn’t doing paying work or hanging out with Jessica, I was working on the screenplay.

In January, the theme was “Dojo Wisdom.” That book went out of print a while back, and I loved it so much I wanted to find a way to get it back into print. So I decided I would spend January trying to get a new home for it. I found one almost right away, and that reissue comes out in June. I’m not sure it would be if I had just stuck “find a home for Dojo Wisdom” on a to-do list somewhere. 

May is “finish the novel.” So you can guess where I’ll spend all my spare minutes.

I never plan too far ahead because I want to be flexible and able to take opportunities that arise, but I know that the rest of this year will include themes like “start the next novel” and “work on the Secret Project.” If I have ideas about a project that isn’t the current month’s theme, I just make a note of it and go back to the project that is this month’s theme.

This can work for anything. Suppose you want to improve your social media presence. You dedicate June to “blog.” You research, connect with other bloggers, write several blog posts ahead. Once the blog is in maintenance phase, and is no longer a start-up, you just integrate it into your other daily or weekly activities. 

Then, you make July Twitter month (or whatever). Tweet, follow other people, beg for followers, get into the groove. Maybe it also take August to do that, too. Fine. You’re making progress! 

September is LinkedIn month. You get a profile up, figure out how to link Twitter to it, how to link blog posts to it. You make a bunch of connections.

October is Facebook month. You start posting status updates more frequently, you comment on other people’s stuff. You figure out how to integrate this into your daily life. 

By the end of the year, everyone knows who you are, and you haven’t stressed yourself to death over it. 

Thinking in themes instead of in long lists of things to do has helped me stay on track, and I hope the idea may help you, too!


  1. This was just the idea I needed.
    I want to try writing children's stories – but I'm always in the middle of other projects.
    So now I'm going to devote Julyand maybe August to reading and analysing a bunch of stories and maybe even taking a course in children's fiction and writing and marketing some short stories to magazines.
    Thanks for a great and (for me) very timely idea.

  2. A friend forwarded this post on to me, and I just read it over lunch. Immediately I feel more grounded in what seems to be a rather chaotic time in my life. I am anxious to put this idea to work with my own projects! Thank you!

Comments are closed.