Juggling Chainsaws, Torches and Watermelons: How to Manage Multiple Assignments

October 15, 2013

Freelance Files

Above: Environmental journalist Adam Hinterthuer may appear to be hugging that old-growth tree, but he’s actually reaching around to estimate its circumference while on an IJNR Lake Country Institute in Wisconsin in 2009. Photo: © Roger Archibald.

Below: More recently, Hinterthuer's two young daughters awaited help with new fishing rods, while their assignment-juggling dad completed this article. Photo courtesy Adam Hinterthuer.


Several months ago, I led off an article on tips for juggling jobs with this line — “I really shouldn’t be writing this.” Since then, not much has changed. I still shouldn’t be doing this. Yet here I am, once again agreeing to somehow find the time to fit a freelance assignment into my schedule. You don’t need me to explain this disease. You probably have it, too — this gnawing need to tell stories.

You may remember me. Over the last few years, I’ve been “that guy” from SEJ’s annual conference who jogged the hallways and yelled himself hoarse in a Quixotic attempt to herd you onto a bus or into the buffet line.

What you may not know is that SEJ wasn’t the only organization that employed me for my jogging and yelling abilities. I am also the director of programs for the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources and the outreach and communications specialist for the Center for Limnology (the study of lakes) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Obviously, this arrangement gives me gobs of time to help my wife raise our four-and-a-half- and two-year-old daughters while simultaneously finding time to squeeze in writing assignments. Right.

Something’s always out of control

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, I had a single part-time job and zero kids. My freelance career seemed, well, viable at least. I landed assignments for real magazines. People paid me to podcast.

But a daughter was born, bringing with her the need for a good insurance plan. A job opportunity arose that gave our finances some much-needed stability. We bought a house. Another daughter arrived. Before I knew it, I had three jobs, two kids, and a couple of mortgages. I held the job of employee and father and husband and writer. I was juggling.

It’s important to remember that, even when you’re doing it right, juggling means that something is always out of your control — hurtling along on whatever trajectory you’ve last sent it, waiting to be intercepted on its way back down. I can’t claim to always make that catch. I’m not sure anyone can.

But, if you really feel the need to take on more than one thing at a time, here are some tips I've learned from my time in the circus.

  • Set deadlines for everything: Even if you're a born organizer (which I am not), it is alarmingly easy to drop the ball when you're juggling jobs. I now set deadlines on everything that's due, from a conference call, to a feature article, to a measly little follow-up e-mail. I tried giant desk calendars, Gmail's built-in "task list," and an online organizational tool called WorkFlowy until I finally found Asana, a free online program that lets you create different projects and a list of tasks for each. I assign myself tasks and give them all "due dates," then Asana sends daily e-mail reminders of what I should be up to and, even better, sends reminders about those reminders when I miss my deadlines. Outsourcing my inner nag lets me concentrate on the task at hand and not worry that there's something I'm forgetting.
  • Don't tune in but do drop out: My various employers never remember which days are set aside for what job and constantly try to get in touch with me as soon as something requiring my attention surfaces. At any given moment, there are a dozen people I'm waiting to hear back from regarding any number of things. The result is an always-overflowing inbox and constant calls on my cell phone. There is a strong urge to respond to these immediately, but that's just inviting a swarm of distractions in, buzzing around my head as I try to keep my most pressing duties on track. Sometimes I have to (gasp!) close my web browser, turn off my phone and focus on the tasks at hand. I can always check in with the boss at the end of the day.
  • Create a flexible workplace: If you're going to keep freelancing on the side, finding jobs that let you be the master of your own hours is crucial. It's a bonus if they operate on a schedule with peaks and lulls in the workload. Programs I run for IJNR usually occur in late spring and summer, while my university gig revolves around the academic calendar. I work for both year-round, but the important deadlines for each hammer me at different times. Even better, working from home part-time means sometimes I get to do other important things like schedule interviews with sources, walk my daughter to preschool and even have lunch with my family every now and then.
  • Lower your expectations: I got paid to write exactly one freelance assignment last year. My New Year's resolution for 2013 was to, at least, double that output. While I'm able to still technically call myself a freelancer, this is obviously not the dream of "making it" that led me to journalism in the first place. The reason this doesn't drive me crazy is that life's not short. This is just a stage that's bound to pass and someday, I dare to dream, I'll either strike a better balance or end up with a single paying gig.
  • Don't do it: Perhaps the real secret to juggling jobs is not to do it all that much. When I'm juggling, I'm never out ahead of any assignment. I'm just reacting to the one that's closest to crashing to the floor, which makes it difficult to plan ahead and feel "on top" of any assignment. It takes constant cognitive effort to keep track of these multiple tasks and, now that the phone in my pocket can be its own place of work, the jobs I'm juggling all-to-easily invade my personal life. (Case in point: I'm currently "on vacation" in northern Wisconsin and my two girls are begging me to take them down to the lake to practice casting on their new fishing rods. I am, instead, asking for quiet time so I can write.)

I realize this "how to" article has taken an unusual turn. I'm not completely against multitasking — juggling jobs can often be an inescapable necessity to getting through some really busy phases in life. But the point of juggling is to keep juggling. The act itself doesn't solve the problem that got you oversubscribed in the first place. While I may feel like life is sitting offstage, lobbing chainsaws and torches and watermelons into the mix as I frantically try to keep up with all the new material, I only have myself to blame. I'm the one who keeps reaching out a hand to accept the next projectile.

Maybe it's time I learned to say "No." Just don't ask me to write the article on how to do it. I've got some fish to catch.

Adam Hinterthuer is the director of programs for the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, coordinator of outreach for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology and an on-again, off-again freelance writer. If he had any free time, Adam would spend it camping, hiking, biking and, yes, fishing with his two young daughters and his wife, Carrie. Portions of this article were used for a blog post on "The Art of Juggling Jobs" for the Pitch, Publish, Prosper website.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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