Do it now

Listen, I don’t know what you’re working on – you could tell me, I’d so much like to know – but because it’s you, I can guess that you’re taking some chances here. You’re trying to write something you’re not quite sure about yet, you’re feeling your way, you’d exploring. And it’s a lot safer to not do any of those things. It’s a lot easier to just fire-fight the current job, the current problem. We all have current work problems and they are always urgent, nothing will change that. However.

Try that new thing and try it now. No waiting. Definitely no waiting for other people. You’re a writer, you’re a creator, go create, go write, go make. I’m all for being productive but there has to be a point: being productive just to get the cash in the door today is maybe enough for now, but you need more and unlike a giant number of people, you have the talent to get more. Hopefully to get more money: I’d like you to have enough that money isn’t a worry any more. But definitely to get more created, to grow in your field and in your heart.

That’s a bit arty-farty. Try this instead for harsh pragmatism: that thing you write is likely to be rubbish, that risk you take is likely to fail. If it is rubbish, if you do fail, you are still pretty close to infinitely further ahead than you were. You’re not still sitting there thinking next summer I’ll do this great thing, you’re standing there having done it. That’s even if it went wrong. Even then. Still ahead, still better, still taller.

Just fail fast so that you can get on to the next version or you get on to the new things you can only see from having gone through this process. Pixar got this “fail fast” rule for the same reason: they’re experimenting and they are rejecting. Samuel Beckett nailed it: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Mary Pickford nailed it better: “Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

The Successful Failure

That’s me, that is. Official. I’ve been interviewed for the US podcast series The Successful Failure: it’s about how one’s biggest, most calamitous bad times are what teach you the skills to get great days.

I’ve known the series producer and presenter, Gigi Peterkin, for years so she knew to steer me away from my haircut errors but she also got more out of me than I expected. Possibly more than I intended, but let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s go here: this is my episode on The Successful Failure website. Do take a listen to the other episodes and subscribe to it on iTunes.

You could also take a read of Self Distract, my personal blog when I mused about how much detail one can unintentionally give up in interviews.

Crisis talks #1: fallen off the wagon

Okay, it’s 8am on Monday and clearly there is a problem. I am behind on everything, just everything, and there hasn’t been an article on The Blank Screen since 20 January. Equally clearly, I need to fix this.

Maybe slightly less clearly, I think I have to fix it in front of you.

It’s not that I imagine you’re riveted to details of what I’m up to but if you aren’t already struggling with getting more productive, you will be. You start this stuff and it’s great, you feel happier, but then it goes wrong and I’m realising you feel worse than you did back when you were just lurching through life and work.

Let me show you the fight and hopefully you’ll get something from it. Let me show you the fight and hopefully my knowing you’re there will help me stick at it.

A little bit of background, also known as an excuse. Just over three weeks ago, I got a cold. No question, it was just man flu but it knocked me off my feet. Or it should’ve done: I pressed on as well as I could and definitely that was a mistake. By chance I was mostly booked to be writing in my own office but I had four gigs outside and I vomited on the way to two of them.

Yesterday I thought this was all done, finally over, I felt recalled to life. And then mid-afternoon, bam. Desperately difficult to move. Appetite vanished. Increasingly ratty. In the end, I went to bed around 8pm and spent a very feverish night. Twelve hours later, the fever is gone, I have a what feels like a concussion headache and I’m unexpectedly snuffly. That was one thing I didn’t have during the main cold but I have it now.

I also have very obvious problems to do with getting work done.

First, I don’t look in OmniFocus.

That’s my usually beloved To Do app and every praise I’ve given it before is true, I just don’t dare look in it to see what I haven’t done yet.

The second was my email. I do the Inbox Zero thing where I deal with an email as soon as I see it: if I can reply there and then, I reply. If I can delete or archive it, wallop. If it needs a bit more work, I send it on to OmniFocus.

You can’t believe the pressure and the misery of seeing the emails build up after a couple of years of being on top of this stuff. At one point I had around 40 emails in that inbox and I would look at each of them, actually incapable of knowing what to do. Then a new one would come in from someone I just didn’t want to have to think about so I’d go away.

Early last week, I got those 40 down to 0 by doing the Inbox Zero lark and that’s great apart from how I’ve found it hard to keep it down. An email will come in that I know I need to reply to and I’m afraid I’ll forget but I haven’t the consciousness to do it now, so I’ve been leaving it there. And then we’re right back to the same problem.

Yesterday morning I replied to all the ones waiting and right now, this minute, I’m not looking at my emails at all.

I’m going to look at OmniFocus.

It’s going to be a mess.

I was re-organising my entire OmniFocus life when this hit so I know I have just the most gigantic mess of projects that I can abandon but haven’t, projects that are so late I will have to give up on them, just more and more projects. Actually, hang on, I can do this, let me check: right, OmniFocus tells me I have 76 projects and a current total of 2,993 tasks to do.

I’m going back to bed.

No, wait, get this done. Back in a sec.

Ha! Caught! If you just throw things in to OmniFocus they go into what’s called the inbox: just a growing list of things that you’ll think about later. Bung them in now when you think of them, later go back and decide what you’ll actually do. Decide that this is to do with your work and this for home, that this has a deadline and that doesn’t, all this sort of stuff. I am amazed and deeply relieved to find that I must’ve done this going back later.

For there were just seven things in the inbox. I tell you, face up to your fears, it works out. Especially as I’m not going to do three of the seven: they’re not needed now so I just deleted them. It also turns out that I’ve done two of what’s left so I tapped the Done button and felt good. That left two and one is a big job that’s going to take an hour. I admit I don’t feel up to that yet.

But the last of the seven was just that I meant to email thanks to someone. So I did it.

And that’s where I got caught: going in to email her meant that Mail got all the new emails that I’ve been avoiding looking at this morning.

I don’t know what I was afraid or of what exactly I was avoiding but there are – curiously – just seven emails in my inbox now. Brilliantly, six can be deleted immediately so they went to the trash with gusto. One was a thanks email to me so I read and enjoyed that but don’t need to reply so that’s now archived off.

An empty email inbox is a good thing.

OmniFocus is another. I’ve moved that hour-long job from the inbox and into today’s due tasks. I’ve ticked the thanks email as done, so I have an empty OmniFocus inbox too. But right now OmniFocus looks like this:


That doesn’t look awful at all: you can’t see the details but you can see I have five things to do today. Now, I know that doesn’t include one increasingly urgent problem though I admit I have no idea what to do about that. I feel I may look at that tomorrow.

But look toward the top left where it says Forecast. There’s 53 next to it. And just underneath, you can see I have 52 things I should’ve done in the past.

Now, actually I know I will have done a lot of that. Even in my worst moments I’ve kept on writing so I’m hopeful I’ll have done many of them and just need to tap Done. Okay, no, hang on, I’m being honest with you here so that I can be honest with myself. I feel like you’re holding my hand. Let me check the 52.

I’ve already done 33 of them.

I’m looking pretty smugly relieved here, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t.

Some 16 of those 33 are repeating tasks and I’ve done them yet definitely haven’t done them every day or every week or whatever it is. Actually, I can’t work out how many I have and haven’t repeated.

The bigger number in every sense is further down that same OmniFocus column: do you see where it says 74 projects? I told you I had 76. But this means there are 74 that I haven’t reviewed.

Reviewing is a great thing. You take a minute to look at the whole picture, everything you’re doing, and you add more tasks, you tick off ones that are done, you delete others, you really just get that whole picture in your head. See where you are with everything, make decisions about it all – and then forget the lot. Trust that OmniFocus is tracking everything you need. And instead you just look at doing today’s five things.

The trouble is that reviews take more than a minute, especially when you have 74 projects to look at.

What I need to do is review them all once and then as I go through each one, decide when I want to review them next. Every project must be reviewed but you can say how often. So, for instance, there are certain financial things I review every second day. I keep my shopping list in OmniFocus but I’ve told it to make me review that once a year.

I must go through the rest so that they pop up as needing reviews in some more manageable way. A few a day, for instance. I’ll get on that.

But not today.

Today I am truly struggling so what I’ve just done is create a single To Do task called Monday. I’ve written in it the few things that I truly cannot leave plus some notes about them.

This is not how to use OmniFocus. But it will get me through today. See you tomorrow?

Be the worst

I feel this is more likely to apply to you than it is to me but the crux of this is that if you are the best person in a group, get out. Finance writer Emma Lincoln:

In fact, you should always try to the be the worst one in the room. If you’re the best one in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

That’s why I read other personal finance blogs, and why I’m helping organize a personal finance retreat this summer. Because when I spend time around people who (metaphorically and physically) kick my finance-ass, I’m inspired to work that much harder to hone my money-saving skills.

And when I meet couples who have done incredible things together, built homes together, traveled the world together, saved a million dollars together, I’m inspired to go deeper with A, to seek out the goals that are the most challenging to set.

Are You the Worst? – Emma Lincoln (29 December 2014)

Read the full piece. Also, hat tip to Lifehacker for spotting this.

Weekend read: a tale of two supermarkets

Well, it’s Tesco and Sears. Both have supermarkety bits to them, both do more, both have interestingly turbulent times. I’m just terribly interested when unstoppable companies stumble: IBM was invincible and now it’s still gigantic and successful but you barely think of it. Microsoft, much the same. Now Tesco, surely royalty of UK supermarkets if not yer acksual king, has taken a kicking.

There’s a schadenfreude element, I suppose, and I’m not embarrassed by that when, for instance, the company falling from a dizzy height only got to that height through blatant copying of another firm. (Did you hear the joke when Apple’s Tim Cook came out as gay? Word was that the head of Samsung was going to come out as more gay.)

But speaking of Apple, I’m also interested really interested when big companies turn around. Apple was within 90 days of bankruptcy and look at it now. Maybe this all speaks to me because I’m a freelancer and a writer: I don’t have a multi-billion dollar business nor, crucially, thousands of employees but we get the ups and downs, we really get them.

So this pair of unrelated but oh-so-very-related articles from the Harvard Business Review makes an absorbing read. First this about Tesco’s woes:

Tesco’s chairman has resigned in disgrace. The company’s market value has more than halved to an 11-year low as it acknowledged overstating profits by hundreds of millions of dollars. And a humbled Warren Buffett, after opportunistically raising his stake in the company after a surprise profit warning, confessed to CNBC: “I made a mistake on Tesco. That was a huge mistake by me.”

Tesco’s Downfall Is a Warning to Data-Driven Retailers – Michael Schrage, Harvard Business Review (28 October 2014)

And now one about how Sears has faced stumbles before but manages to get up and have another go:

It’s easy to suggest that perhaps it’s simply run its course; after all, over the last 50 years, the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has shrunk from about 60 years to less than 20, as more than one business thinker has pointed out. Founded in 1886 as a mail-order watch retailer, Sears was already 71 when it became an original member of the S&P 500 in 1957. At the hoary age of 128, it had beat the odds twice over when it lost its place to chemical maker LyondellBasell at close of trading this year on September 4th.

But perhaps its current woes are just a blip in a long, long history of facing and rising to challenges. A trip through the HBR archives shows just how cutting-edge the company has been in so many ways for so long

Sears Has Come Back from the Brink Before – Andrea Ovans, Harvard Business Review (28 October 2014)

Write like you’re the CEO

There’s an interview doing the rounds that apparently features John Sculley talking about Steve Jobs and Apple. (Previously on Sculley… Jobs hires him, they’re best pals, then they’re not, Sculley fires Jobs. Now read on.)

I say the interview apparently says this because, on the one hand, I haven’t watched it yet – I thought we could do that together – and on the other because every bleedin’ interview with that man is about exactly that same topic.

What I’m interested in more, from our productivity point of view, is how Sculley attempted to shape his story when he was still in the thick of it. He wrote a book called Odyssey: From Pepsi to Apple which at the time I really enjoyed. Later I said that to someone and they looked at me exactly the way I would now. Because of them, I got the book back off my shelf, opened it up, shut it again.

It’s not a very good book.

But here’s a guy attempting to put his career and its single most notable moment into a shape, a narrative that ultimately showed him in the best light. I don’t care whether he succeeded or whether it was even possible, I do care that we could try the same thing.

Why not? You are CEO of your work, I am of mine, let’s write our autobiographies in such a way that we make sense and most importantly that our successes get better coverage than our failures.

I’m not sure I’m really advocating that we write 100,000-word books about us, I have limits to my ego – says the man with two blogs, a speaking tour and previously a podcast – but that bit with the successes and failures could be big.

I forget things I do that are good. If I pull something off then no matter how hard it was for me, it’s done now so I know it’s easy for everybody else and I undervalue my own effort. But I just went a bit bombastic for a second, wrote about my towering glory and that time only last night when I successfully roasted a chicken at 1am, I could feel good about myself.

Possibly also silly, but.

Here’s that Sculley interview if you’re sitting comfortably.

It’s so easy to break habits

Well, I could do with fixing my tea drinking habit. And my Pepsi Max addition. I could lighten up on the curries too, or at least if I stopped having so many I could perhaps lighten up.

But about six months ago I made a plan – and put it in OmniFocus – that every day I would post one article to this Blank Screen news site. Just one. After a while, it became a habit. And there was certainly never a shortage of material.

After a spell, that became frustrating: there was always more that I wanted to say.

So I worked out timings and figured out the average time per article – it’s ridiculously variable – and also reckoned that doing two together would take less time than doing one then coming back later for the next.

In my head I was about to change the repeating daily OmniFocus task to “Post three new articles” and I began typing exactly that. But somehow the word ‘three’ changed itself to ‘five’. A slip of the mind.

But I tried it. And for at least five months, I did five stories a day. It got so doing the five was a normal part of my day. Until the end of September.

Then various events I’ve been producing all year came along and last preparation, new marketing and new research followed by the performance, it clobbered me and I failed.

I failed to post at all one day.

I remember sitting by the bed, iPad in hand, not really able to focus my eyes let alone my head. It was probably a sensible decision to fall asleep, even if my body made that choice for me.


Having broken the chain once, that chain became china: it shattered at the break. It became very easy to not post at all.

Now, I don’t think you were waiting for me every day. But I was. And I’m jolted by how hard it was to break the pattern the first time yet how very, very easy it was to break it the second.

So I’m back. I promise myself and you that I’m back. But do please take a telling from my admitting to having been poor like this. You can do more than you expect with a habit and if you don’t break it, you feel great.

So you haven’t done what I told you, so what?

This has come up a couple of times recently. I have a natter with someone – because they asked, come on, I don’t accost people in the street with productivity advice – and it seems to go well.

I think they get a good idea of what’s really on their plate and which of it matters to them. There’s usually a new project that they want to do and after a hour or so with me, they tend to have a plan. And most importantly, I think, that new project has turned from a nebulous, unwieldy thing that’s overwhelming them into something they can do. And will do. Talking it through invariably leaves you physically no further forward yet in every other way extremely far down the line. The intangible is at least well on its way to tanging.


What’s happened these couple of times is that armed with their own new plan and, I believe, fully enthused at what they’re going to do, they haven’t done it.

They tell me this with something approaching guilt and I feel terrible. I like people thinking of me as someone to account to if that is what helps them, I loathe it when they think I’m judging them, damning them.

So here’s the thing.

Bollocks to me and what you think I think of you. What I actually think has not changed at all: I think you had this great idea and it wasn’t working out but now you have a plan, now you know you can do it. Whether you do or not almost doesn’t matter.

I want you to do this thing: it is exciting and it’s you, only you can do this and I want to see how it turns out. But what I needed, if we’re to get all personal about this, was to help you go from this stage of it being a mountain ahead of you to your seeing the path you need to take.

I promise you that I will never think badly of you for not having started on your path yet. I’m struggling to think of a situation where I would think badly of you. Come on, it’s you. How could I think badly of you?

And here’s another thing.

That plan you came up with, that simple set of steps to get this project of yours started, it’s still there. You may have changed: your interest in it may vary, your ability to fit it in with everything else you’re doing may very well have varied, but the plan is true and you can start it any time.

And let’s have a mug of tea sometime.

Productivity can go wrong in the biggest companies

When you or I fail to do something, it can be pretty bad but it is unlikely to have a visible impact on millions of people. You know where this is headed.

Apple never reveals its plans ahead of announcing them, but a fairly detailed report published prior to the conference from 9to5Mac laid out what it claimed was Apple’s map news.

Key changes included enhanced, “more reliable” data; more points of interest and better labels to make certain locations like airports, highways and parks easier to find; a cleaner maps interface; and public transit directions — that is, providing people with data about nearby buses, subways and trains. Further ahead, the report noted plans to integrate augmented reality features to give people images of what was nearby.

Why didn’t they appear? One tipster says it was a personnel issue: “Many developers left the company, no map improvements planned for iOS 8 release were finished in time. Mostly it was failure of project managers and engineering project managers, tasks were very badly planned, developers had to switch multiple times from project to project.”

It’s a take that is both contested and corroborated by our other source. “I would say that planning, project management and internal politics issues were a much more significant contributor to the failure to complete projects than developers leaving the group,” the source said.

Apple’s Maps are Still Lost – Techcrunch (9 June 2014)

I like Apple Maps: I find Google’s improved iPhone maps app a chore to work, though I too have been misdirected by Apple’s one.