Know when you need help

When the Wright brothers made their historic first flight in 1903, lots of other inventors were trying to fling their own shoddy little planes into the air. And in 1977, when Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple II, there were a zillion other nerds working on building a personal computer.

But Woz beat them to it, and Jobs knew how to sell it.

The Apple II was the product that turned Apple into Apple. It was the iPhone of its era, the product that redefined every machine like it that came afterward.

Its real magic was Wozniak’s minimalism. He integrated many technologies and components that no one else had put together in the same device, and he did it with as few parts as possible. It was, as Wozniak wrote in his autobiography, “the first low-cost computer which, out of the box, you didn’t have to be a geek to use.”

But as genius as Wozniak was, the Apple II almost didn’t make it out of his brain and into a product that the rest of the world could use.

Apple’s first employee: The remarkable odyssey of Bill Fernandez – Feature – TechRepublic

Read the full piece.

You don’t have to be creepy about it

But do your homework about people. I just had a terribly fun meeting with someone – er, I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did – and before I got to her, I'd read her blog. I'd seen her professional pages, I'd read what she did, I had an idea of some of the work she did.

I intended to stop there. The idea of coming to a meeting entirely cold makes me wince but equally I'm there to meet you, I'm not there to show off my deep research. I really want to meet you: easily the best part of journalism is that you get to bound off and say hello to people you might otherwise never come across. Utterly love that.

And I stopped intentionally looking into this woman's background. But I've been trying a free iPhone app called Mynd and it did some digging for me without my realising it.

Mynd is like a calendar assistant; I found it because I was exploring calendars and looking for why I nearly missed an appointment recently. I also found it because it got mentioned a few times by Katie Floyd on the Mac Power Users podcast. All it does, I thought, is show me my entire day in one screen: how many events I've got to get to, where the next one is, what the weather's like today. I also found that it calculates how long it's going to take me to drive to somewhere and it will say so right there on the screen: you need to leave in 10 minutes if you're going to make the appointment. Sometimes it sounds a notification too. I haven't figured out why it's only sometimes.

But I have figured out that it believes I drive everywhere when really it's more that I drive almost nowhere. So I got a Mynd notification that I ought to get out of Dodge and start the car right now when I was already on a train to London.

I was going to ditch it for doing that. I have Fantastical now that does all the work I need of managing my appointments and events. (Fantastical 2 for iPad is £6.99 UK, $9.99 US. Fantastical 2 for iPhone is £2.99 UK, $4.99 US. The iPad prices are launch offers and will shortly increase by about 33%.) Plus I don't care about the weather and when I do have a mind to wonder about whether it's going to rain, I ask Siri.


There is a panel on this Mynd screen called People and up to now it has always been blank. Today it showed a photo of the woman I was meeting. And it got that photo from LinkedIn. When I tapped on that photo, it showed me her short LinkedIn bio and then it had options for calling her. If you're running late, you open Mynd, tap the person's photo, then tap to send her a message. If you've got the number of her mobile, anyway. Or an email address.

That would be spectacularly handy if I were ever late for anything but usually I'm cripplingly early. Still, it's impressive.

What was even more impressive is that I scrolled to tomorrow, saw the first meeting had a fella's photo there – and behind it was a list of related Evernote documents. It's just reminded me of the last note I made when talking to him. Right there. I'd forgotten I'd ever made a note but there it is.

It's like Mynd gives you a personal briefing before you go to meet someone. I don't think that means you should skip looking in to them yourself, but I feel wildly efficient about tomorrow now. And I won't feel wildly stupid if he mentions the topic of my last note.

Mynd is free for iPhone on the App Store. There's no iPad or Android version.

Have a look at the Mynd website too. It proposes using the software as your sole calendar for a week and I've just learnt that you can do that. Bugger. I think I'll continue using it as an adjunct to Fantastical but it's handy to know that all the ordinary calendar functions are in this Mynd app as well.

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.

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:



Use the Force – and edit later

One of my books was peer-reviewed by an academic who criticised the first draft with the comment that the first third was plainly rushed. The last two thirds, he or she said, were clearly far more considered and therefore vastly superior.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I’d spent five months writing the first third and one week doing the rest.

That wasn’t through some disinterest in the ending, it was more that I found it hard to start. Not in the sense of putting my backside down on the chair, rather that I had to find the right point and the right tone to start the book or the whole thing wouldn’t work. It was very important to me and I wanted to get this one right, more than ever.

But pondering turned into paralysis and though I was writing away all the time, I was really rewriting. I have no idea how many goes I had at the opening chapters. I just know that the deadline got frighteningly close and that suddenly I was having to write at speed and at 2am.

PressPageThumb03Stuff it, I’m going to tell you. The book was my first, BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair (UK edition, US edition). It was important to me because everything is, of course, but also it was my first book. Plus it was about The Beiderbecke Affair, the 1980s drama serial by Alan Plater that either you don’t know at all or you are already humming the theme. It’s astonished me how many people have written to say they loved that show and also that they really believed they were the only ones. It was a show that felt like your own. It was that personal. I think it was Alan’s best work and that’s saying something because he wrote 300 or more scripts for television, stage, film and radio.

He was also a friend. He died in 2010 and not many months after that, I phoned up the British Film Institute to propose this. Someone should do a bio of Alan but I can’t, that would turn a friend into a journalism subject. But I could do Beiderbecke. I could really do Beiderbecke. It’s personal to me just as it is with so many.

Here’s how personal it got. I have roller blinds on my office window but I’ve never got them to work. They’re just hanging up there at the top, half stuck in knots. And it’s a big window. So at 2am, the lights on in my office, the dark night outside, that big window is a mirror. Even under deadline pressure, I was getting really, really, really intense about a particular point to do with the show. And I promise you I saw Alan Plater reflected in the window. He was leaning back in his chair, lighting up a cigarette, and saying that it’s only a TV show, William.

I didn’t have time to rewrite the last two thirds much. But I also didn’t need to.

Even when I went to the second draft – and I must say that anonymous academic had a lot of really good points that I stole, as well as some that I just ignored – I didn’t have to change the back of the book.

Sometimes, you just have to press on and, sometimes, that works. I’ve discovered that my top writing speed is twenty pages of script or 10,000 words a day and that I can keep that up for about eight days in a row. Whenever I’ve had to do that, it’s been with the full realisation that I’m going to have to change a lot later. Edit, improve, fix, rewrite. It’s true. But even in those times, it is remarkable – to me – how much doesn’t have to be fiddled with.

Stop analysing, just do it.

And then analyse later. I’m not advocating being careless about your work, but I am saying it’s easier to change something than it is to make those first marks on the page.

Boundary pushing

I'd not heard of her before this very minute and I'm not yet clear who she is, what she does or where she does it. But Gayle Allen makes a lot of sense about pushing one's boundaries and a lot of it is deliciously uncomfortable:

80% and go: lose the desire to be perfect. If you can get to perfect the first time, you’re probably not dreaming big enough. Give it 80%, get it out there, and get ready for feedback. It’s coming. It’s okay. Use it. Learn from it. That’s how you’ll get to 100%

Read her guide to being a startup.

Star Wars – May the Force help you work

I saw the original Star Wars when I was seven years old and it changed my life. We all have faith in something; usually a mixture of some personal beliefs with modern science. I am like that also. Mostly, I just believe in what works. Which, for me, is The Force. I admit it.

James Altucher of 99U advocates following Star Wars for sage advice on how to be more productive.

He's quite serious. And has a lot to say to persuade you.

Odd that leaves out Yoda's “Do or do not – there is no 'try'” though.

Beat this – the ‘proven’ ultimate workout playlist

Sometimes you have to look at the data and just say no. That's not right. Spotify has released what it calls the ultimate workout playlist which has 20 songs scientifically proven to be the best ones to get you going and keep you exercising. There's a real scientist involved – Dr Costas Karageorghis, read his Brunel University bio – and the claim is that 6.7 million tracks were analysed.

You're unthinkingly assuming that there aren't 6.7m songs in the world, though you're not sure, and you're also unthinkingly presuming that it isn't that they listened to one song 6.7m times. There is no doubt in your mind that it'll be something in the middle of those two extremes and you're right. But possibly it's just a wee bit slanted toward the one song 6.7m times.

Easily the most respected and revered peer-reviewed science journal in the world, Britain's Daily Mail explains:

The team analysed 6.7 million Spotify playlists containing the word ‘workout’ in the title and compared the different beats per minute (bpm) to those used in certain workouts. For example, a person’s typical stride rate while jogging or running is 150 to 190 strides per minute. If these figures are halved it gives a range of 75 to 95 bpm – the beat range found most commonly in urban music, particularly rap.

There's your skew right there. They looked at the music of people who already go to the gym enough to make playlists and to give them names with the word 'workout' in them. It's not fair or statistically proven that the age of these people will tend toward the younger end of the scale but you know it's true and at least I used the word statisically instead of SCIENTISTS PROVE YOUNG PEOPLE USE GYMS.

And still I can't quite accept the findings of this research because Spotify has published the playlist. I'm 48 and I haven't heard any track on the list. I haven't even heard of any of the tracks on the list.

Tell me Spotify wants a playlist of current tracks, I'll believe you. But tell me that it is scientifically proven that no piece of music of any kind ever beats these twenty released since last Wednesday and I have my doubts.

I'm just not willing to go to a gym to prove it to you or to affect the statistics. Or listen to the music.

But other than that, we're good, right?

Pattern Weeks part 3: ready for you to see

Well, there are limits. I want you to see an illustrated plan of my typical or pattern week because I want you to see if it’d be any use to you too. Plus, I hope that showing it you here means I’ll stick to it and find out whether it’s really any use to me.

Previously on Pattern Weeks… really the only thing to check out if you want to know more about this is the first post I wrote back on 31 December. Now read on.

Or rather, look on. Here’s the final thing: a pattern for my week that I’ve made my desktop wallpaper on my iMac and, here, my MacBook. The MacBook and its screen are artistically blurred; the tea mug in the foreground is mistakenly blurred.


And below it is the actual pattern, albeit without any incriminating text.


I won’t get any points for artistry. And without the incriminating text, I think there is only a little you can take away from the idea. But it’s a good little. And it’s this: I have put these many tentpoles into the week where at certain times I will do these certain things. That means on the one hand that I’m trying to guarantee that these get done but also on the other that there’s all that whitespace. That’s when the real work of the week will be done. If I planned it out too much, I’d be so often breaking the plan that I’d come to ignore it.

I think what I’m trying to create here is analogous to an ordinary office job’s schedule. Whatever you do, you have certain times in which to do it and there are points when you have to attend meetings or deliver reports. And as I say in The Blank Screen (US edition, UK edition) I believe that when you have a commitment like those, it takes away a lot of the churning stress. It adds other issues, but for that hour or whatever, you know you are doing what you have to do and you therefore don’t spend a lot of energy questioning it. You just get on with the gig.

The one other thing to say is that I’ve got to underline the word pattern. This is what my week should look like, it is the pattern for the future. And I know it won’t be like this. For one thing, I’ve planned out here 05:00-15:00 which I’m finding is a good amount of time to work both in when I’m at my best and in how much I can get done. But this coming Thursday, for instance, I’m definitely working until 21:00 so I might start either that day or Friday a bit later than usual.

But we’re halfway through January already and while I’m getting a lot done, I need to do more and the visual reminder right here on my screen, constantly, permanently, I am hoping that it will help. That it will keep me on track through the week and that it will also appeal to the visual side of me as I go.

We’ll see. But this is something new and just sometimes I suspect I need a new toy to help me work.