Just do an hour

I’ve said this before but it keeps working for me and it worked again today. After lots of long days and the loss of a lot of hours to meetings, today I just wanted to sleep.

But I took my own advice and did an hour on one job. And hour on another. And a third. I was rubbish: I did the hours but with huge tea-drinking gaps between them. Tea with ginger biscuits. I was rubbish.

And probably getting fatter.

But even under these conditions I’ve reached the end of the day and am further ahead on everything.

So just try an hour, okay? It’s only an hour, it can’t hurt anything / and for me it gets stuff moving and it gets me working.

From today’s The Blank Screen workshop in Newcastle

I do this Blank Screen productivity workshop a lot but I particularly enjoy doing it for the Federation of Entertainment Unions. They hire me occasionally to speak to members from their four associated unions: the Writers’ Guild, the Musician’s Guild, the National Union of Journalists and Equity.

It’s very special talking with these because all of us in the room are working full time in our creative fields. It’s especially exciting for me because actors and musicians have different needs to writers, journalists and authors so I work to find out what they need and how to help them.

I should say: to help them with this business I do of remaining the creative person we are, yet becoming a lot more productive. It’s not about knocking out work faster, it is about handling your time so well that you can do much more. That’s a subtle but an important difference.

But whatever group I talk to, there seems to be a collective mood. There’s so much in the workshop, especially the full-day version like today’s, that I spend some time at the end getting the attendees to recap. I think it helps them focus on what they’re going to take away but I know it helps me see what’s worked best.

Today what went down the best was a thing called Bad Days.

This is all about the worst times you get in our work, the time when are overwhelmed. That can be because you have too much to do, it can be exactly the opposite: you have nothing going on and have to pick which project to kickstart.

I actually have a solution. I’m proud of this and I’m proud of how the Bad Days chapter has been the most popular one in that first book. I’m fascinated by how I wrote that chapter right there during a really bad day. It was like I was writing live from the scene. The text is a little painful for me to read now: it’s clear and makes sense and does its job but I can feel the undertow.

But, hey, I’m a writer: nuts to my being uncomfortable, I’m simultaneously proud that there is an undertow.

I don’t want you to have bad days. But I do want you to have Bad Days, the chapter. Everyone I worked with today will get a copy of that via the FEU and I want you to have it too. It’s a single, blunt chapter from The Blank Screen and a PDF of it is all yours. Have it for free, use it, share it around if you think it will help people, and you’ll make me very happy.

Download it here.

I would be happier still if you fancied getting it in the book as I hope there is a huge amount of other advice in there that will help you. But the Bad Days PDF is the thing.

The Productivity Dash

I spent some while earlier looking for the best place to send you when I mentioned a fella named Merlin Mann: he does a lot of productivity work, he is very entertaining, but he’s also hard to pin down. Strictly speaking his current best place is probably his Back to Work podcast but I don’t honestly enjoy the format of that. So instead I pointed you at his old website, 43Folders, which he hasn’t updated in years upon years but still stands and is still replete with great ideas.

Including the Productivity Dash.

Hand on heart, I’ve read his site many times over the years and I simply missed this. And I like it so much that I want to show you:

My favorite tonic for procrastination—which I have mentioned in passing previously—is what I call a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project. Neat, huh?

Kick procrastination’s ass: run a dash – Merlin Mann (8 September 2005)

He wrote that nine years ago. Tell me I don’t bring news to you quickly. There’s not a gigantic amount more to that article than you’ve just read or that you can readily infer, but do read it all and do take it as a good starting point to explore that whole site. Amusingly, Mann says somewhere in it that you shouldn’t be reading a site about productivity, you should be being productive. I want to agree with him, but…

Quick and completely unrelated aside? I’m listening to iTunes Radio and a station I made by picking 4 Non-Blondes as the starting point. It is a terrific station, I am addicted to it now, and as I typed that title above – Kick procrastination’s ass – and specifically as I was on the last word there, I was listening to You Get What Give by the New Radicals and the lyric:

Come around
We’ll kick your ass in!

I just wanted to share that with you. Carry on.

Make it worse for yourself

There are jobs I don’t like doing.


That’s not actually true. There isn’t a single thing I’m working on that I don’t relish. That’s nice for me, isn’t it? But nonetheless, there are always elements of most jobs that I really just don’t enjoy doing. Things that I put off for one reason or another. You’re the same, I can see it in you, so let me suggest something to help.

Find a thing you hate even more.

If that’s hard for you, bugger. I mean, it’s good that you can’t find bad things, but it’s a bugger because I need you to. For me, for instance, I don’t like invoicing and I don’t enjoy cold-calling. (I’m not a salesman who relies on cold calls but so many successful pitches and projects have come from my just ringing up a firm that I am compelled to keep doing it. Compelled. But still, I don’t like it.)

So I try to rig my time such that my choice is between doing an invoice or making a call.

Invoicing wins.

More than that, invoicing becomes the lesser evil at first, then it’s a near-as-dammit a pleasure because it’s the thing that means I don’t have to do this horrible other thing. I start looking for more invoicing to do so that I can postpone phoning people.

You may think I’m stupid and I will not disagree with you. But at the start of this, I hated invoicing enough that I wasn’t doing it, I was at best postponing it for as long as I could. And now at the end I’m looking for invoicing to do.

Having a Bad Day? Read this for free

As part of the Birmingham Independent Book Fair this weekend, I gave away a free PDF of what's proved to be the most popular section of my book, The Blank Screen. It's called Bad Days and it is meant for those times when you are seriously under water: there is fast advice to get you out of it now and then there is a lot more to help you avoid the situation in the future.

I want you to have a copy too so please feel free: here is the entire and uncut Bad Days chapter from The Blank Screen.

I think it will help you. I hope you also like it and if you do, have a look at the complete book: The Blank Screen on Amazon UK and on Amazon US.

Free 1Password video because your heart bleeds

I use 1Password a minimum of ten times a day on my Mac and a lot, an uncounted lot but still a lot, on my iPad and especially my iPhone. It is for storing passwords, yes, but because of the way it does that, you tap on a site name and takes you there, pops in your username and password, and you're done.

So rather than going to a site and then looking up what my password is, I am already in that site and logged on. It's that speed plus the sheer handiness of having my most important secure sites to hand that means I keep using 1Password and I keep recommending it.

But even though I've had it for years, I am still learning about it and today The Mac Observer spotted that Screencasts Online is giving away a free video tutorial. It's not a coincidence that they're doing this just as we all face schlepping through changing our passwords because of the Heartbleed security problem. But they're doing it like a mensch: yes, of course Screencasts Online would like us to sign up and pay to watch lots of videos but they're giving away this one for free. It's free and it's apparently complete so it's useful and it's good of them to do it.

I say 'apparently' only because I've come straight to you with the news. Guess where I'm going next?

Yep, straight to the free 1Password video on Screencasts Online right here.

France wants to stop emails after 6pm

You have to be in France. You have to be a manager there, too, because ordinary workers can lump it: if your boss needs you to answer your emails all day and night, you’ll answer them or else. But if a French plan to protect stressed bosses works, it will logically help everyone. Follow. When your boss is not allowed to go on email in the evenings then he or she can’t be emailing you anything. Everybody wins.

In many jobs, work email doesn’t stop when the employee leaves the office. And now France has decided to act. It has introduced rules to protect about a million people working in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside office hours. Those are taken to be before 9am and after 6pm. The deal signed between employers federations and unions says that employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work email, while firms cannot pressure staff to check messages.

Michel de La Force, chairman of the General Confederation of Managers, has said that “digital working time” would have to be measured. Some emailing outside of office hours would be allowed but only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Could work emails be banned after 6pm? BBC News

I’m more sympathetic to this idea that I might have been before. I used to live by the bleep of my incoming emails and now I’ve switched it all off. Almost all. Certain people’s emails make a bleep but the majority don’t. And I switched off push notifications too. Suddenly my battery life is longer and I am able to concentrate on more work because I just don’t get interrupted so often.

And I can tell you exactly where in Damascus I had this blinding revelation. Do read the BBC article because it is interesting but for useful ideas – specifically for useful ideas you can use right this moment – buy David Sparks’s book about Email from the iBooks Store.

Lifehacker: Delete your way to productivity

Often, we don’t notice something until we need it and then it appears everywhere. I’ve spent this weekend deep-cleaning my working life – see I nearly missed an event today – and once I’d deleted a huge amount of projects I’ll never get to, I found this:

Getting things done often has more to do with removing barriers than actually accomplishing a task on your list. Whether you have too much email, too many creative blocks, or a myriad of distractions, it’s time to metaphorically (and sometimes literally) press the delete key and make your work surmountable.

Delete Your Way to Productivity – Lifehacker

It’s possible I also missed this because my mind tuned it out over that wincing misuse of the word myriad. (You can’t believe how many times people get thait word wrong. I must’ve read myriad articles where it was cock-eyed.)

But otherwise, that article is a good read. It makes a fine start with discussing how one can and perhaps should delete emails. Then it extends that into deleting distractions and finally deleting whatever blocks your productivity and your creativity.

I nearly missed an event today

And I have fallen behind on a project I am very keen to do.

I am compelled to make an excuse about the event, at least. It’s one that was rearranged to this afternoon, okay? And I caught it when I checked my calendar at 5am this morning. So when I say I nearly missed it, it’s not like I spilt my tea and had to run for the car. But somehow even though I want to go to this, and I will go to it, for some reason it wasn’t on my mental map of the week.

This is happening to me more often now and part of it is how I think my business is in a bit of a transition. Previously I was almost completely task-focused: I had this enormous list of things to do. It wasn’t event-based: I didn’t have a lot of meetings, for instance. Now I tend to run more talks and workshops – I did ten sessions in March – so my calendar is more important than it was.

I vehemently refuse to join up my tasks and my calendar: To Dos do not belong on certain dates. Or at least, they rarely really do. If something has to be delivered on Tuesday, you could put that on the calendar, fine. But do you then put a date on there that you’ll start the job too? Odds are, you won’t start it then. Instant failure. Instant unnecessary failure. Put the flexible start date in your To Do list, if you must, put the deadline in there too and then everything to do with that task is in one place.

I have zero question about this, absolute zero doubt. If you’re looking at me now thinking you’re not so sure, the strongest chance is that I have failed to convey to you why I think this. That’s how sure I am that I’m right. This is a rare feeling: let me have it. (Unless you really do think I’m wrong and you can tell me. I would prefer to know.)

But right or wrong, it is how I am working and today that isn’t working. So I’m taking steps.

And this has become a kind of live blog as I try to get a handle on it all. The aim is to get back on top of everything and to be creating new work, producing material, instead of losing most of my time to managing it all. And I know that the way this will work for me is in software. That’s just easily obvious because of prior experience. So taking a step back from that overall aim, I think that I can have two contributory aims:

1) Restore my previous excellent grip on all my tasks
2) Find a way to cope with my newfound extra need for handling events

The shorthand for number 1 there is OmniFocus. Much as I love that software, much as it as truly transformed my working life, my copy of it is a mess at the moment.

I think the shorthand for number 2 would be Calendar plus a regime of checking it. I do currently have a task in OmniFocus called “Check calendar for today and week ahead”. That repeats every week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m not sure why that isn’t working, then. I don’t want to make it a daily task but we’ll see what happens. Okay, it’s 07:47 and I’ve decided to temporarily make checking my calendar a daily task for Monday to Friday.

And I’ve just downloaded the new Fantastical 2 for iPad. I’ve been reading about this since its launch yesterday and I’ve been reading about its iPhone version since, oh, just about the day I bought Fantastical 1 for iPhone and had it superseded. I agree with the consensus that Fantastical is a good, strong app but for me it wouldn’t stay, I didn’t keep using it on my iPhone because I just found the standard Apple calendar better. Not in features, not in ease of use, but both of those are fine and the Apple one has the killer feature that it can include the current date in its icon. I struggle to believe how often I have to check today’s date but with that right there, job done. With Fantastical, I had to go into the app. Job not done.

But Fantastical 2 can show the current date as a red badge notification on its icon. I’m hoping that will be enough for me because I like what I see about the rest of Fantastical. I like how it feels holding your month and week in your hand, seeing the shape of it all. I’ll play with this and try to get it into my habitual working pattern. If it doesn’t work, I’m out £6.99. If it does, I’m out a lot more because I can see me buying the iPhone update and the Mac version too.

For now, though, at 07:52, let’s say that my second aim is at least addressed if not necessarily solved.

So it’s time for aim 1: OmniFocus.

This is going to take some time. It’s going to be a huge change for me. I’ve let OmniFocus sprawl a bit too much, I’ve let it become a repository for everything in my life. Things I want to read, for instance. I save those to Pocket but I often send them straight into OmniFocus: maybe they relate to a project, maybe I just want to remember them and OmniFocus’s mail drop service is too handy. Whatever the reason, I need to use Pocket and Evernote more, and to keep this stuff out of OmniFocus. That’ll take some re-training. But I’ll create an Evernote notebook for it all and get into the habit of using the Evernote equivalent of mail drop.

But things have also changed in my business and life. I am very pleased to say that I am still on Room 204, a Writing West Midlands development programme, but I’ve finished the formal, official year there. So about a year ago, I created OmniFocus projects to do with Room 204 and the eight separate things I was doing with them. I’m still doing them, I’m still doing them with Writing West Midlands, but the Room 204 projects need to go.

I’ve also got very lazy. If a great benefit of OmniFocus is that you know what you need to do now, that works because it hides from you everything you don’t need to do now. Only, for that to work day to day, you have to often review absolutely everything: go through all your tasks and see what’s done, what isn’t but can be, what will never be done and should be deleted. The idea is that you work through every task and you spend time on every task. This is more than an idea, it’s a principle and I have found that it works brilliantly for me.

Except lately.

Lately, I’ll do the review process and see – wait, let me try it right now – okay, I only have 12 projects review. Last time it was 67. (You set this project by project. You have to review everything but one project is my shopping list: I’ve set that to be reviewed once a year. Other stuff has to be reviewed every day.)

Especially when I’ve got 67 projects ahead of me, I’ll look at the list and I won’t patiently dwell on each separate task. Rather than do them right there and then or consciously test the task – why isn’t it done? what do I need to do it? – I just think yeah, yeah, haven’t got to that yet. And then I move on.

I can’t let that continue because I’m missing things and I’m not getting stuff done as much as usual.

So. It’s 08:03 and I am going to pull out the list of projects. I’m going to do a MindNode mind map of everything I actually have to do and compare that with what I’ve got. It’s slate-clean time.


Four days later. That is a hell of a slate-cleaning. I would like to point out that I did have that meeting to go and then there was something else on Friday, plus I worked the weekend… and all the way through, I was thinking of this. Right now, Monday at 12:12, I’m happier and I think I have proof that I am.

Let me tell you the proof first: I have no overdue tasks in OmniFocus.

And only 16 more things to do today.

It’s funny but having overdue tasks was proving to be a huge weight. It’s not really funny because it isn’t funny but it also isn’t funny because that’s how things used to be. That’s how they were before I moved to OmniFocus. Maybe it was worth letting things slide because I am reminded with extreme gusto that I do not ever want to feel this weight again. It’s paralysing: you feel you can’t clear that backlog, that there’s no point doing anything more.

So you now you’ve got to know how I did it. And it turns out I was right: it was a two-step thing.

The first was the Calendar and it was Fantastical 2 for iPad. I found that I still had Fantastical 1 for iPhone and I’ve been using that too – I’m honestly not sure what the difference is beyond some obvious aesthetic ones – and the combination has been useful. I’ve had to train myself to turn to my iPad whenever something comes up that needs me to look at my Calendar: even if I’m at my Mac, I turn now to the iPad for this. It’s not a habit yet but it’s becoming so and each time Fantastical does something clever, I am that much more sold on it. The most specific clever thing it does is accept natural language statements: typing “Lunch tomorrow with Steph at Birmingham” pops all the details into my calendar in the right spot. It reckons lunch is 1pm and actually I needed to change that but it was easy enough. But it new Birmingham, actually it knew the more detailed place name I put, and it knew what day tomorrow was. It’s very satisfying entering an event like this because it parses what you type as you type it: you see the place name flying off to that section of the appointment, you see the time going there too and you can see the calendar zipping along to the right day.

Also, it turns out that having today’s date as a red badge notification means that my muscle memory automatically makes me open the calendar. See the badge, intellectually know that it’s the date, but still open it as if there is something I need to be notified about. It’s made me open the Calendar about thirty times since last Thursday and as irritating as I suppose that is, it’s helping me to reinforce this new habit of using both Calendars and OmniFocus.

The second thing began with the way that a friend pointed out how casually I had planned her working year for her in a chat one day and she was back now with a pen to do mine.


And we didn’t finish. But we’re still in play and I’ve been taking her advice to heart. That coupled with the most massively tedious reorganisation of OmniFocus has all proved part of it.

I’ve been using the new OmniFocus 2 for Mac beta because it’s the quickest version and also, I now think, the most pleasant to use. But this reorganisation meant replacing every old project with an entirely new system, then seeing what fitted the new plan and what did not. I have very ruthlessly and with only a little blood deleted gigantic chunks of tasks because I haven’t done them and, William, I ain’t going to. So they’re gone. Kiss ’em goodbye.

I did a MindNode map as I told you and this is how that looks. You know I can’t let you see the details, there’s plenty of confidential stuff in there but this is the shape of what I was dealing with.



Look at that mass of colour in the bottom left corner. The centre word there is ‘Kill’ – these are all the entire projects I deleted as part of this reorganisation. The smaller blog of colour is a set of seven other projects that I have taken out of OmniFocus and put into Evernote: they’re all research jobs, all reading ones where I was amassing things to read but no actual tasks yet.

Then the rest is everything I am in fact going to do. The central word, the white blob around which all the rest of the colours flow, is “OmniFocus”. And that’s apt: this app is that central to everything I do.

I still need to work out a system for tying those Evernote documents in to the tasks as they come up. It’s easy enough technically, you copy one thing from Evernote and paste it into OmniFocus – or vice versa – and are thereafter just a clicked-link away from either. But it’s the mental system that’s hard, the decisions I need to make about putting stuff in OmniFocus or in Evernote.

Similarly, if I get an email from you with a task in, you can bet I forward it on to OmniFocus but when do I then archive that email, when do I put it into my Follow-up inbox to make sure I see it? For that matter, when do I only put it into Follow-up, when do I not bother making it an OmniFocus task?

I’ve still got to work all that out but it will come and right now, I’m exhausted yet much happier. I mean, much. If you’ve read this far, you’re a mensch and I want you to take away this single point: getting on top of everything you have to do – just getting on top of it, not necessary even doing it all – makes you feel infinitely better.

Calling it

My name is William and I have a problem with cold calls. Making them. I'm fine with getting them, I can even enjoy a good cold call so long as they don't stick robotically to a script. They always do but I always give them a chance to break free so I feel I've contributed something to the chat before I hang up on them.

But making cold calls, that's tough. And that's tough in another sense as I have to make them. I want to make them. I'm speaking at the Stratford Literary Festival next month because I cold-called. Obviously it took more than that one call, it took chats and emails, but it wouldn't have happened without my dialling that number. Me. Stratford. That's worth the difficulty of making calls.

I've developed two coping mechanisms that I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about them because this week I've been trying a modified version of one and am now ever more sure it works. At least, that it works for me. You own personal form of paraylsis may vary.

The first is that I know from years of struggling with this that statistically my most effective phone calls are made between 11am and noon. So in my series of Pattern Weeks here, I've written about blocking out certain times to do certain things and that hour is for phone calls. Monday to Friday, 11am to noon. Bang, bang, bang.

But to do it bang, bang, bang-like, I have to use the other strategy. This is exactly the one I write about in my Blank Screen book about writing To Do tasks as if someone else is going to do them. So in this case, rather than Call Anne, I write Call Anne re invoice number for the Doctor Who feature. Sometimes I'll even put the phone number in there too.

And that means no thinking, no looking anything up, just read task, see number, dial, speak, finish call, breathe out. (I shouldn't have chosen Anne as that example. She's lovely.)

So I game this: I arm myself with all the tools to make the call so that I can't prevaricate and then I set this inviolate time to make the calls – because that makes every other time the opposite. I cannot make phone calls outside that hour. (I do, it's often necessary, but the rule is the rule, I don't make these things up.)

The thing I've changed this week is that I've stopped ringing people on Mondays and Fridays. Again, not true. I had to ring someone yesterday in order to hit my thirty total for the month so nuts to the new plan.

But the new plan is to do 11-12 Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

You may think that's an excuse, that I'm creating more specific times to call in order to create more times I don't have you.

You caught me.

But it's again down to what is working and how often I am reaching people. Mondays and Fridays are bad days to try to get to speak to folk. It must be nice to work in an office where you can relax on a Friday just because it's a Friday and it must be hell to work in one where you cannot do anything on a Monday but panic about catching up, but it's what happens.

And it's what works.

Or it's what works for me.

If you have the same problems with cold calling that I do, give this a try. If you don't, please tell me your secret.