How to get going on tough days

This should not be a tough day: I’m off to be a judge at a Royal Television Society event, I’ve been looking forward to this. But I did not sleep last night and today is proving very tough. So the idea of performing – of just being up and alert and responsive and hopefully clever and decisive – that’s tough.

As I write this to you, I have ten minutes left before I must leave.

So about twenty minutes ago, I was as far from ready as you can be. I’d like to offer you a recipe for how to get up and go but that presupposes what I’ve done will work. Right now, I’m more confident than I was, so I’m going with this.

Job 1. Shower. Again. When I’m this tired, I think the water in my early morning shower just knew to leave me well alone. It did its job, it did the cleaning, but this second shower is the freshening spin cycle.

Job 2. Shave. Probably not for everyone, this, but it works for me. Partly because you of course feel better for looking a smidgeon better, but also I have to really concentrate. My skin is so sensitive that even sensitive-skin razor blades cut me. I was lucky today but I had a standby shirt just in case.

Job 3. Listen to something. I chose to listen to a design podcast called 99% Invisible. But whatever it was, making it something I could listen to rather than hear – so speech radio instead of music, for instance – got my head working.

Job 4. Load the dishwasher. I have no idea why this helps but knowing I won’t have to come back to that later made me feel more in control of the day.

Job 5. Caffeine and terrible things. I’m sitting here with a can of Pepsi Max – I would’ve preferred tea at this time in the morning but don’t have long enough to drink it – and two chocolate mini-rolls. I have no need for any of this. But the caffeine is helping and the chocolate isn’t hurting.

Job 6. Do something in the seconds you have left. Such as write to you with a list of six jobs to get yourself going.

If it all fails, I’ll tell you. But right now I feel ready in every sense. And thirty minutes ago I was a lump.

Wish me luck, though, eh?

Go ahead, dabble

Sure, you should be doing that thing you do. And sure, it's hard to take time away from it. But do. Take time. Spend it on something else, spend it on something unrelated to anything you know or already work at. In fact, go ahead and dabble:

Dabbling is cross-training for the brain. Pursuing interests in a variety of subjects stretches the mind and pushes the imagination, causing us to be more creative. Dabbling is simply a way of gathering new information and experimenting with new ways of doing something. It causes you to think differently about everything else that you do, a process which can lead to incredible innovation. “The best way to discover something is to take an existing concept in one discipline and apply it to another,” says Stibel. Hopmann says Dabble fields lots of fan mail from people who have felt inspired after taking their courses, showing inspiration can come from the most unexpected places – even a glassblowing class

Why Dabbling can Make you a Better Entrepreneur – Entrepreneur magazine 27 February 2014

Read the whole article for more of an explanation of why it works plus what you can do to make the most of it.

Hat tip to for finding this.

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.

Yes, you do have time

You do. Don't tell me you're busy, I know you have time. Time to start that massive project, time to do something completely new. What you need to get this new or massive thing done is not time, it is involvement. Excitement.

I would say that I've been a bit busy this week yet I've also read – hang on, just checking – 396 pages of The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling). I'm reading it in the kitchen while I cook, I'm reading it on tea breaks, I'm catching a few minutes here or there with it. I'm not reading in bed: I've got this novel in paperback and for reading in bed I prefer my iPad. I'm never going to read it or anything else in a bath: I get that it's a relaxed time and that therefore reading should be great, but the idea of holding a book that is getting more sodden by the minute through steam or, god, shudder, shake, dropping it into the water. Eugh. Never.

So my time available for reading must be quite small yet I've read all of this in about a week, maybe a day or so more.

This happens to me regularly: one non-fiction book or novel will take me months to read, another one will zoom by in days. It is down to engagement and involvement: I'm enjoying The Cuckoo's Calling and it's pulling me back.

The great thing about new projects and massive new undertakings is that they are new. That they are side ideas, side projects, at least at the start and there is always the issue that you have other things to get on with. Other priorities, other demands on your time. Let the new project be a guilty pleasure that you enjoy spending time on and you will find the time.

You have the time. You do.

Gaming productivity

I’ve written before about using a mad-dash hour to get over problems. If you’re feeling low – like I have a cold coming on at the moment – or you’re just overwhelmed, agree with yourself that you’re going to spend an hour working. Just an hour.

And then list ten things that you want to get done in that time.  That’s what I wrote about in New Hour’s Resolutions – Not Year’s, Hour’s (2 January 2014) and that’s what I did:

Consider this a live post: as I write to you now it is coming up to the top of the hour and from that hour I am going to do ten things. I can’t tell you what they are because they’re specific and they involve other people who don’t know you and I are talking like this. But I took a shower, decided on this overall idea of ten things in the next hour and realised that if I do it, I’ll feel I’ve got somewhere today. And usually that’s all I need to keep getting somewhere each day.

I wrote down a list of eight things immediately. Had to check my OmniFocus To Do list for the other two and got a bit bogged down because there was so much to choose from. But the point of ten is that it’s not easy but it is achievable. Whatever you’re working on, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that there are ten really fast things you could do right now if you put your mind to it.

And I bet at least one of those is something you don’t want to do.

It’s getting on for three months later and I haven’t had need to do that hour again – until today. Today my head is just tilting into a cold and, moreover, for some reason I have things on my list that I kept putting off. I truly don’t know why: it was just an email I had to send someone. I think maybe part of it was that I couldn’t remember why I and to email them. I’d written the task in OmniFocus as “Email XXX about the YYY event” but honestly went blank on what that YYY event was. At least, blank on enough detail that I could coherently tell the fella about it.

Thirty-one minutes ago, I started a mad-dash hour with ten new things including that email. I made that email the third thing on the list after two other items I wasn’t especially looking forward to but would at least be quick. And when you start quickly, I’ve learnt that writing down the time you did it next to the item really motivates you to bound on to the next. Where I am guilty of thinking I’ll just make a mug of tea now, for this hour with that list and those times, I don’t.

I’m writing to you because even as I drew up the list, I knew this felt different to last time. I was seeding the list with things I didn’t want to do and – this is the killer difference: I am hiding the list from myself.

I wrote it in Evernote and hit return a few times so that the list vanished off the top of my screen. So now the sequence is: 1) Race to the top of the document, see the next thing, 2) race to the bottom, make a note of it or anything I need to write to get it done, 3) get it done, 4) note down the time next to it. Rinse, repeat.

I put writing to you as the fifth of the ten things so that I could know how it was going this hour, so that I also had something to look forward to if I’m honest with you, and also because it’s not a quick and easy thing, writing to you. I have to think about: I don’t want to take your time up with rubbish. (Usually.) So this was fun but substantive.

And because it’s taking more than the average 7.5 minutes that the preceding four tasks took me, I find that my list was written long enough ago and referred to long enough ago that I truly can’t remember what item six is.

But I’m about to find out.

Mixing sound and vision to get the full picture

I’m a very visual kind of man but, awkwardly, what I visualise is text. I can see words. If you and I are talking, I can choose to see your words as text. Squint a bit and there it is, word by word, white text on a black background, right in front of my eyes. It’s great for transcriptions. But text is so much a par of me and I am so much a writer through and through that I have ignored other visual ways of looking at detail. Okay, maybe I can see scenes visually when I’m reading or writing a script, but when faced with a problem, I used to always just think it through. More recently, I’ve written it down and thought it through.

But then last week, I had a meeting that was intentionally nebulous. It was clearly a chance to pitch something, but I didn’t know what and I was fairly sure that there were no specifics behind the invitation either. It would be up to me and what I could bring to the meeting.

And I mind-mapped it.

Slapped down everything I could think of that even considered crossing my mind in the week before the meeting. I used MindNode for iPad (£6.99 UK, $9.99 US) so it was with me wherever I went and by the morning of the meeting, I had a completely useless mess. But it was a big mess. Lots of things on it. And I started dragging bits around. This stuff sorta, kinda belonged with those bits over there. This one was daft. That one was actually part of my shopping list and I’d just put it in the wrong app.

And then I’d find one that ignited another small idea so I’d add that.

After a bit of adding and subtracting and moving around, I had three or four solid blocks of ideas that were related. I exported the lot from MindNode to OmniOutliner for iPad (£20.99 UK, $29.99 US) which picked it all up and showed it to me as a hierarchy of text lines instead of a visual bubble of blogs. I work better with text, I may have mentioned this, so that was perfect for me.

Nearly perfect. I really wanted to then hand the lot on from OmniOutliner to OmniFocus, my To Do manager, (iPad £27.99 UK$39.99 US). I wanted to be able to tick off the ideas as I got through them in the meeting. I wasn’t able to do that on the iPad; I suspect that it’s something that needs me to use OmniOutliner on my Mac (from £34.99 UK, from $49.99 US). I’ve got that and I use it ever increasingly more, but I wasn’t at my office.

So instead I stayed with the text in OmniOutliner. Made some more changes and additions, moved some more things around. And then I worked from that list in the meeting and it went really, really well.

The whole process went well: the mind mapping on to the meeting itself. Enough so that afterwards I tried mind mapping again, this time to figure out what I’m doing with everything, not just this one meeting. I’m still working on it. But it’s proving useful. And while I can’t show you the meeting mind map as it’s naturally confidential, and I obviously can’t show you this new mind map of everything because it’s in progress, I can show you a blurry version. This is what I’m doing now:



Beat the afternoon slump

This is a big thing with me: I write from 5am weekdays and come 3pm or so I am starting to feel a bit tired. Feeble, really, but there you go. I’m being honest. And now I’m being hopeful too, because:

There are many reasons for feeling the mid-afternoon dip. According to a study by Gallup, 40% of Americans don’t get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep is a cornerstone habit that has many positive effects, mental and physical performance improvements among them. If you’re notgetting enough sleep, your brain is not functioning optimally.

Research also points to our circadian rhythms as a cause of mid-afternoon tiredness. Ourmental performance ebbs and flows throughout the day:

What you ate at lunch also has an effect. Food coma is a real phenomenon, and when you eat crap, you’ll probably feel like crap. You could also just be drained after a full morning of tough meetings and debates with your team. Willpower is a finite resource; we all start with a certain amount every day, and it diminishes with every decision or choice we make.

Whatever the reason for your lack of afternoon focus, let’s look at some research-backed lifehacks to help break out of the daily slump and finish your day strong.

Why We Procrastinate the Afternoon (and How to Stop) – Lifehacker

So there’s some research about it, which means we’re not alone. And then there are some solutions, which mean you’ve stopped reading and are already gone to Lifehacker. See you there.

The 1,000 day rule

You know the idea that if you just work on something for 10,000 hours you will be great at it. Please check back with me in hour 9,999 and we’ll talk again. I’m less cynical about the number 1,000 and specifically an idea that it takes a thousand days to make your business work.

Any number is bollocks, really, so if you are on day 1 or day 999 and things don’t look like they’re on track, I wouldn’t lose sleep. But this is one of those ideas where the point of the number is not to plant a stick in the ground and say this is the finishing line. It’s to say that the finishing line is way over there, it isn’t on your first day or at the end of your first month.

Dan from TropicalMBA claims:

I was chatting with my friend David from Greenback Tax Services the other day about these misconceptions. I said: “people don’t understand they need to be poor for 1000 days.” Our basic hypothesis: you’ll be doing worse than you were at your job for 1000 days after you start your muse business. I’ve seen it happen a bunch of times. For many of us it’s been almost exactly those 1000 days it took for us to get back to the level of income we enjoyed in our corporate days.

The 1,000 Day Rule: What Living the Dream Really Looks Like

He then goes on to outline what many of those 1,000 days looks like on the way.

Love Tuesdays, they’re your best day

Seriously. Apparently seriously. If you work a typical Monday-Friday week then you can guess that Monday is a day for recovering from the weekend, if you don’t love your job, or catching up on everything you’ve missed since Friday, if you do. It’s also a documented fact that website traffic goes up on Friday afternoons as office workers plan what they’re going to do next weekend.

So we’re already two days down in the hunt for the most productive time of the week. The Toronto Star reports that a survey by Accountemps says Wednesdays and Thursdays are okay, but Tuesday wins. Easy:

In the survey of more than 300 Canadian human resources managers, 33 per cent said productivity accelerated on Tuesdays versus the least productive Thursdays and Fridays, which polled in at 5 and 6 per cent, respectively.

Wednesdays were the next most productive according to 23 per cent, while Mondays rated a 14 per cent response and no particular day drew 18 per cent.

“There’s limiting distractions,” said Accountemps senior staffing manager Vitaly Melnik of the midweek peak.

“You’ve got your head focused after the weekend is over; you’ve caught up on everything; and you can do your regular work schedule most effectively. Then, after the hump of the Wednesday, come Thursday, Friday, you’re already thinking about the weekend. ”

The Toronto Star

Hat tip to Lifehacker for the link.