Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on balancing work, family, and the writing life. Our last three writers all came from the world of children's literature. This week, we'll switch genres and gears to get some time-management tips from high-tech writer, editor, and webmaster Howard W. Penrose. An expert in electric motor systems and in the Reliability, Maintenance, Energy, and Environmental industry, Howard is the owner of SUCCESS by DESIGN Publishing, Executive Director of the Institute of Electrical Motor Diagnostics, Inc., and editor and webmaster for several technical Websites (and that's only a few of the hats he wears!). Those of you interested in green transportation might want to check out AllAmericanHybrid.com and see what he's been doing in the field of hybrid cars. Anybody this busy had better be organized, right? Right! Let's see how he does it all.
Q: Welcome, Howard. Tell us a little bit about your writing background and how that fits in with all the other things you do.
Howard: I am an independent consultant and publisher. I work with companies such as General Motors on the design of hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as projects related to maintaining GM manufacturing and facilities equipment and energy conservation programs, companies such as US Steel for facility condition-based maintenance and motor management programs, and a number of other similar projects for companies ranging from utilities to military and food processing to mining. I do some work overseas for nuclear power companies and factories in China, South Korea, Malaysia and Australia. I fired my last boss in 2004 and went into business for myself. However, SUCCESS by DESIGN Publishing was established in 2001; I expanded it to include Reliability, Maintenance, Energy & Environment consulting in 2004.
I am the publisher for several eZines, including the AllAmericanHybrid.com eMagazine and the Reliability, Maintenance, Energy & Environment eMagazine . We are expanding both from the newsletters they were through December last year to full eMagazines. The blogs include the AllAmericanHybrid.com blog , the Hybrid Tahoe blog , and the RME&E blog . The primary purpose is to provide an avenue for response to the different eMagazines. I evenly spend my time between writing, publishing and editing, my hobbies, and my consulting work, also a hobby. Writing provides about 15% of my income.
Q: I understand you've dabbled a bit in science fiction...
Howard: I do write across multiple genres as well as publish. From 2001 to 2003 I had an online Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine which was more of a hobby as more money went out than came in. However, I did publish several ebooks with some of my own work and an anthology (Stories of Myth, Legend and Future: SBD SF&F 2002 Anthology) as well as How to Become Your Own Publisher and a couple of technical books. In all I write and publish through magazines and conferences over twenty-six professional papers per year and at least one book per year. In 2008, fourteen magazine articles, eight conference papers, fifty-two editorials and eMagazines, operate/own four Websites, Web Editor-in-Chief of a major professional Website (330,000 members), self-published two books, wrote a number of reports and studies, and quite a few blog posts.
Q: Wow! That must keep you hopping. Tell us a little bit about the Websites you manage--it sounds like you're dealing with some really cutting-edge technological stuff.
Howard: The websites I would like to mention are: AllAmericanHybrid.com and an associated eMag (first one out on the first Tuesday in February). I am the owner and webmaster. I have an Editor-in-Chief who now selects the content. We launched the site on January 5, 2009, and we are still adding quite a bit of content. I am getting encouragement from GM, Meyers Motors, and Tesla motors on this site – it is self-funded right now, but I am expecting it to be profitable by summer. We are also fully sponsoring a high school electric race car, which is pretty fun!
http://www.motordoc.com is my professional website and associated with my Reliability, Maintenance, Energy and Environment eMag which has been in circulation with a variety of formats to 7,000 subscribers since 1997. We are working on expanding it and the number of subscribers in 2009.
http://www.motordiagnostics.com is my archive site for a number of white papers that cover technical topics and the Motor Diagnostics and Motor Health research study. There is information on my work related to Skilled workforce.
http://ewh.ieee.org/soc/deis is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation Society (IEEE-DEIS) Website. I am the Web Editor-in-Chief. The Website is a large project that has been in progress since August, 2008, with the developers in the Netherlands and the editorial staff in Europe, Australia, Canada, USA, and Asia. The site is officially released to the public on February 6, 2009, at 6pm EST. For the first three sites, I am Webmaster as well.
Q: You must be pretty organized to keep all those responsibilities straight Could you give us an idea of how you manage your time?
Howard: I spend an average of two hours per day writing, or more. As I travel a fair amount, I get written drafts of work and ideas flowing on airplanes, airports, or think through an article on long drives (average four+ hours). I spend approximately ten hours per week on book promotion – sometimes more.
I am normally up around 6 a.m. and in bed by about midnight. While I do not always work from waking to sleeping, I do spend a significant amount of my time "working."
It is hard to describe how I manage my day. First, I have been actively writing since I was nine, wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen, headed a different path when I discovered how well it paid, but kept my passion to the present. By developing drafts in my head and short sketches on paper, through years of practice, my first draft is often my only draft with only a little editing. In the 1990s, I would average an article or news item once per week and eventually got to the point where I can put out a few thousand words a day on subjects I have an interest in. However, if I have a particularly challenging project I may put writing to the side for a few days or a week or two.
A typical day includes setting up breakfast and coffee with a notebook nearby. I will sort through my day and create a to-do list noting anything that is time-dependent, such as a speaking engagement, consulting work, teleconference, etc. It is important to begin to figure out a balance of time such that you do not assign too much or too little work for the time you have allotted.
Q: Yes, underestimating how long things takes is definitely a big pitfall for me. Tell us a little more about what a typical day looks like for you.
Howard: On a day like today, my schedule looked something like this:
6:30 a.m.: organize my day;
7-8 a.m.: respond to emails;
8-10 a.m.: teleconference with client to discuss research and report results;
10 a.m-noon: work on report for GM facilities related to maintenance;
30-minute lunch – no work;
12:30 – 1 p.m.: answer emails;
1 – 3 p.m.: complete GM facilities report;
3-3:30 p.m.: answer emails;
3:30 – 5 p.m.: work on IEEE website; 45-minute dinner;
5:45 – 7:30 p.m.: Organize information for Detroit Auto Show article – images, press releases and notes, sketch out order of article;
7:30 – 9 p.m.: answer this email;
9 p.m.: review day and organize for tomorrow, answer remaining emails, relax.
Q: That's a pretty full day--and now I feel guilty for taking so much of your time! You're not tied to the computer all day, though, are you?
Howard: I will usually work in ten-minute sessions on my exercise bike during the winter – randomly to get things moving, or hour walks when the weather is above freezing.
Q: When and where do you prefer to write?
Howard: My best places and times for writing tend to be early in the day and at a desk with a little background music. The genres range based on my mood (anything but country or hip hop/rap). I try to match the music to my mood and the type of writing I am doing. If I am writing a "debate" piece, or controversial, it will be something like electronica or metal/hard rock. If it is a research piece, it will often be meditation music or "seasons."
Q: It sounds like music really helps you keep your momentum. Do you have any other techniques for keeping the flow going?
Howard: Practiced meditation, turning off TV, turning off phone or email, turning off IM. If I have to concentrate on a specific subject I will get out white boards and put my notes together across the room. I have also set up my desk to look over a pond and fountain, which is soothing and not distracting. If I am writing on an airplane, I will use an iPod and music to block out everything else. If I am trying to think, I use pen and paper--for some reason that generates thought versus typing.
Q: Charting out your notes is a really good idea--it helps you see the big picture. It sounds like writing longhand helps when you get stuck, is that right?
Howard: When have a bout of writer’s block, I will sit with a notebook and pen and write by hand. Literally anything, could be a to-do list, grocery list, and then I start writing down exactly what pops into my head. After a while things begin to make sense. Whatever I do, I just think about whatever the topic is and I do not force anything.
Q: So free-writing is a big help for getting the flow going again. Do you have any trouble with transitions between your writing and all your other work?
Howard: I have had no trouble with the transition. I have been going back and forth for over twenty years.
Q: What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Howard: Self motivated: meaning that I am disciplined enough to drive myself. If I feel I am slipping, I fall back to to-do lists. I will set goals and pursue them. I used to have to write them down at least once per day until they were ingrained. Now I just focus on the goals I have set and keep myself going in that direction. In fact, when viewing my writing, all of my work at any given time will relate to what I am doing and the topics will directly relate to each other. When I start something, I need to finish it.
Q: I admire your drive. I'm very good at writing to-do lists...it's the doing that I have to kick my butt about! How do you deal with distractions—either outside or inner procrastinatorial/avoidance issues?
Howard: I just get things done or get rid of distractions. I set a location and turn everything off with the exception of music. However, there are days when I even feel that is an issue and I need to work in silence. I also trained myself to ignore a ringing phone. Drives people nuts if I am talking on stage and I am the one who forgot to turn my cell phone off, I will usually let it ring with only a few exceptions. Once I looked at who it was, answered the phone on stage, and told the person I was speaking then asked the audience to say ‘hi.’ It was great!
Q: I love it! Gotta love that caller ID, too. It definitely makes it easier to ignore the phone. What advice would you give to others struggling with writing and time management issues?
Howard: Organized steps, to-do lists, organization, time limits. I will usually keep an eye on the clock or may even use the calendar in Outlook to organize my day. The pop-ups are a great reminder if you are typing. I never use a timer, for some reason they distract me. I need to keep looking to see how much time is left and it can disrupt my train of thought.
Q: You're so right. Lists and time limits and breaking things down into smaller steps help me, too--when I make myself stick to them! Any other issues or ideas you'd like to mention?
Howard: Multi-tasking and dealing with everything at once. What to do when everything happens at once or when it all goes wrong. Are these easy or difficult? I thrive on stress. Once in a while when things happen all at once it is a break from routine and rapidly solving issues can be exhilarating. The biggest thing is learning how to prioritize on the fly and when to just let some things go.
Q: Hmmm...and from what our previous guests have said, one of the things we should let go is housework ;)....Speaking of prioritizing on the fly...One of your books is called Physical Asset Management for the Executive (Caution: Do Not Read This On An Airplane). So of course I just have to ask--why shouldn't we read this book on an airplane?
Howard: The statement about not reading the book on an airplane actually has to do with Chapter 4.7. Chapter 4 discusses instances when reliability and maintenance of assets goes wrong and the results. Section 4.7 relates to personal airline travel experiences related to R&M (Reliability & Maintenance). In my weekly newsletters when I was traveling forty-three weeks per year, at least one leg of a flight would have some type of major problem that delayed or cancelled the flight. I would write about each instance in my weekly newsletter and actually gained a reputation such that when people recognized me they would ask if they should change the flight. These days whenever some R&M issue happens wherever I am, it is usually attributed to my being there! The problem relating to airlines actually has to do with the qualifications of the people doing the work, in particular when airline maintenance is outsourced. Right now all 747 maintenance is performed in China and most wide-body planes are maintained in Venezuela. In each case, the technicians are usually not FAA certified nor do they report maintenance issues.
Q: Now I get it. You definitely don't want to know all the things that can go wrong when you're 20,000 feet in the air! Or you at least want to be sure you have Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger for your pilot. Thanks so much, Howard. You've definitely inspired me to get better organized.