Best productivity advice for November

I refuse to mention the word Christmas – damn – but on this first day of November, some things do change and the year is canted toward its end. Plus you know that January is for making resolutions, February is for breaking them and March is for admitting that you actually broke them within a day and a half. November has a purpose too and it’s you.

Back in January you were under all this pressure to declare your plans for the year. Nobody’s asking you to do that in November and actually fewer people are asking you to do anything. Depending on your industry, this can be a slow time and that’s typically true of freelance writing. When you do get work in then stuff everything I’m saying to you and go do that. But when you don’t, do this instead.

Look for some new places to pitch your work. A couple of Novembers ago, I made a list of ten companies I quite liked the sound of and only one of them listened to me. But they became a major source of income, they’ve accounted for maybe a third of the money I’ve earned since then. So you can say that my list of ten was rubbish and worthless and pointless, you can say that I should’ve just gone to this lot. I definitely did say repeatedly that this was a rubbish idea as I worked through the list and nothing was happening. But I still remember the moment, sitting in a Costa Coffee, when I hesitated over whether to bother continuing.

I think that nine failures made my approach to the last lot better or at least more practised. I also think that nine failures meant I wasn’t hoping for anything with the tenth and that I therefore had a busy, an un-needy attitude in that approach. I also know that if it had taken a lot of time I wouldn’t have bothered.

Whereas I think it probably took me two hours over the course of a week to compile that list of ten places; I expect that it took me less time than that to approach them all, and it made a huge difference to my productivity for the next two years.

The trouble is that you don’t think you’ve got two hours to spare over this week. Very often you haven’t, but as we head toward the end of 2016, you’re going to find the time. And if you don’t, if you’re so busy that you haven’t got the time, take it anyway. I’m not saying lie to your client or your employer about how you’ve just spent the last two hours, but only because they might hear me.

Take another look at productivity tools you’ve rejected

Sometimes it’s not the tools, it’s you. More often, it is the tools. But then just once in a while, it’s not neither you nor them, it’s when you first tried them. Writer Ken Armstrong used to be firmly against the use of index cards for planning out your scripts but last week found a new approach.

Rather than doing what everyone says you should and actually planning out what the script will be, how the script will go, he wrote the script first and then wrote index cards. One card per scene. He says:

As I wrote them and laid them out on the floor it was almost as if the play stepped a little further out of the script pages and closer to some kind of reality. That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. The script itself is a rather bulky tome and the only corporeal form it has is a stack of pages or, worse again, a series of digital imprints on a computer screen. On the floor, the little cards, so loose and so tenuously askew, look like they might dance and sing a little. They look like someday they might actually turn into something real.

So there’s another rare writing tip from me. If index cards work for you at the outline stage, well done. If you hate them, like I did, try them once more right at the end. 

Ken Armstrong Writing Stuff: It’s not where you start…

Read the full piece.

Planning vs prevarication

A friend just sent me a mindmap of a book idea and said that she was doing so to prove that she would write the book. It shouldn’t be proof, but it is: she’s done a particularly well-worked out and detailed map that slips easily into a chapter outline. Pop those into Word or whatever she’s writing in and her book is underway.

It shouldn’t be: this is just a list of chapters, but it is and you know it is. That time spent planning has produced a working, useful document that has got her somewhere and will continue to get her places.

There is another type of planning that neither she nor you ever, ever do, which is where you plan in order to postpone doing the actual work. We don’t talk about that kind of planning, you and I, we do not.

Until she sent me this map, what I was intending to talk to you about today was planning in general. And I was going to use October in particular. I’ve been feeling a bit anxious and overwhelmed about the things I’ve got to do this month.

So many of them are events that need work and then around them are so many other tasks that aren’t event but need more. And hanging over the lot is a job where I’m waiting to get briefed.

Last night I went through it all and put each event on my calendar. That’s it. Nothing else. Today I have to work through the work, so to speak, but seeing it all there on the month view, somehow it has become manageable to me. I think it’s become visible, that’s the thing. I can see what the month is.

I’d have told you that I’m not a visual thinker, that I’m more a text kind of one, but there’s no reason you can’t be both and right now the month view plan is making me feel calmer.

Whatever you’re overwhelmed about, spread it out on the table in front of you and just the act of doing that helps whelm.

You must, must, must use outlines

Must you bollocks. Fast Company has a good feature on creative discipline, this business of creating things in the haphazard crazy way we do but simultaneously being focused and actually finishing things. I like a huge amount of the piece but its thing about must, must, must outline is making me twitch.

I do use outlines on certain jobs – I’m contractually required to often enough and there are times when it is definitely a quick route to a goal, just not necessarily the best one. I’m pretty much as addicted to OmniOutliner as I am to its sister app OmniFocus but I use it with care, I use it with wariness. Because exploring on the page, writing something to see where it goes and being willing to throw it away afterwards is still what I believe to be right for me.

See what you think:

Outlines are the tool of fast and productive writers. They help you say what you want to say, before you’ve figured out what it’s going to sound like or you’ve wasted time and energy writing about the wrong things. Outlines help you see if your plot makes sense, if your arguments stand up, or if your blog post is going in the right direction.

Before you start your next writing project, take five minutes to create a writing outline. For example, if you’re writing a blog post, break it into five or six sections and an introduction and a conclusion. Each section should contain three to five bullet points corresponding to a point you want to make. If you’re writing a book, write an outline for each chapter using headings and bullet points. For larger projects, write your outline on index cards. Laying these out on your desk or on a wall will give you a visual overview of your work that you can rearrange.

8 Essential Lessons in Creative Discipline – Bryan Collins, Fast Company (11 June 2015)

I like that he’s clear about what it does, I’m not keen on the certainty behind it. But he has other advice that I’m less precious or prejudiced against, so do read the full piece.

Contently: Freelance lessons from wedding planning

This is good. The more events I produce the more I realise that my wedding worked the same way – or at least that Angela planned it the way I should do these – and I’ve also realised that the hardest part is other people. Nearly 21 years later, I still haven’t written about this thought but now don’t have to because Contently has done it for me.

And done it well. Yael Grauer writes in part:

Weddings seem to bring out the worst in some people, amplifying issues and personal insecurities that have been quietly simmering beneath the surface. Handling these situations gracefully is a delicate art, so you have to quickly learn how to take bad news in stride.

Likewise, in freelancing, it’s easy to fixate on rejections or read too much into brief emails from busy, overly caffeinated, or unresponsive editors.

“People will think, ‘my pitch sucked,’ when really it’s that [editors] haven’t had time to look at the pitch, or they are running something similar, or it’s not right for the market. It’s almost never that your pitch sucked, or whatever your knee-jerk scary reaction is,” James-Enger explained.

And if an editor did think your pitch sucked, remember to focus on the eight similar publications that might be interested in your idea rather than the one that turned you down. It’s just business.

7 Freelancing Truths I Learned While Planning My Wedding – Yael Grauer, Contently (14 November 2014)

Read the full piece.

In and On your Business

You work for yourself and you run a business – even if you also work for someone else and your writing or other creative business is currently a sideline. This is just going to be a very quick thought but it’s something that was pointed out to me and which has been pinballing around my head for about three weeks now.

Every day you spend in your business is a day you’re not spending on it.

Follow. I often go into schools now and it is huge fun but it is almost always a day. If I’m on a deadline writing for you, that’s certainly hours, probably days, maybe weeks. None of which I would change but all of which means I physically can’t work at planning my business or developing my business.

I’d not seen it in this way but I had seen that on the odd occasion that I’ve taken a day off to try finding new commissions, I’ve found them. Usually quite easily and sometimes they’ve become the most enjoyable work I’ve ended up doing.

So I’m going to spend more time doing that, I’m going to deliberately and consciously take more time specifically to work on my business. Do the same, will you? I mean your business. You can work on mine, that’s fine.

Prepare yourself mentally for a holiday

Not in the sense that you’ll feel good if you pretend you have a holiday coming. Rather in the sense that if you dread holidays or you dread how you feel at the start of them plus everybody around you can’t bear your company until halfway through the trip, you can do something about it in advance.

As you start your vacation, you’ll want to relax as quickly as possible. But a more effective approach is to transition slowly, allowing your mind and body to get used to the change, particularly if your prep time was very stressful. Research shows that stress can dampen our immune system. It’s true that stress hormones like cortisol prop us up for a time. But if we relax too quickly, letting go of that support before our immune system can recuperate, we can expose ourselves to illness. So maintain a similar level of mental and physical activity for the first few days of your holiday then ease into full relaxation.

Get in the Right State of Mind for Vacation – Alexander Caillet, Jeremy Hirshberg and Stefano Petti, Harvard Business Review (29 June 2015)

Read the full piece for a lot more advice on how to treat your holiday as a job.

The best time of day to do anything productive

Fast Company doesn’t share all its working out but its article by Stephanie Vozza has specific advice on when best to get things done, particularly when you’ve got to work with other people. Two examples:

If you want to get a reply to your email, consider sending it early in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Reply rates are highest in the morning—about 45%—according to the Yesware study.

Fewer emails are sent during these time slots, lowering competition. The study also found all weekdays to be equal. So don’t worry about the day; focus on the morning, instead.

Monday-morning meetings are a staple at many companies, but if participation is low, there’s a reason why. Only one in three employees is likely to attend, according to a study by the online scheduling service “If you have a meeting at 9 a.m., employees will need to prepare the day before, or turn up underprepared,” research coordinator Keith Harris told Inc.. If they’re not prepared, they won’t come up.

Get more participation by holding meetings at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, the company found. Tuesday afternoon stands out “because that is the furthest you can get from the deadlines at the end of the week without bumping into the missed deadlines from the week before,” said Harris.

The Best Time Of Day To Do Everything At Work – Stephanie Vozza, Fast Company (23 June 2015)

Read the full piece.

Working in and on your business

There’s a difference. I’m a freelance writer but over the last few years that’s meant more than sitting at my desk from 5am to 5pm typing. I’m out of my office a lot, I’m running workshops and giving talks, I have books that I’m publishing, I have lots of what are officially not writing jobs but they are to me. It’s all the one thing in my head, all the one writing and communicating thing that I enjoy so much, but it doesn’t look like one thing from outside. And I’ve been getting advice about this.

So far the conclusion-in-progress is that I’m either spinning a lot of plates or working with a 1,000-piece jigsaw, but whichever it is, I was given one piece of advice about it all that chimed with me:

Each day you spend in your business is a day you’re not spending on it

Follow. If I go into a school for myself or the Writers’ Guild or the Royal Television Society, that’s work and that’s great, but it is a complete day. I can’t do anything else in those working hours. That’s fine, that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m here for, that’s why I’m a freelance, but freelancers also take every day’s work they can. It’s what we’re like.

And if every day is taken up like this, you are spending no time planning for the future or managing your business. The person who gave me this advice also pointed out that the fee you get from going into a school is money today, not money tomorrow.

I find it hard focusing on the cash instead of the work or even – I’m going to say it, you can’t stop me – the art of what I do. But without cash, I don’t get to continue doing this. I need to be planning ahead, I need to be setting aside some time to work on my business.

So you know what I’m thinking now, don’t you? So should you.

The fun of dead time

You can’t plan this, that’s the point, but unexpectedly having a couple of hours in which you can’t do anything is great.

Today was timed to the minute for me with rushing everywhere except for one long meeting scheduled for 14:00-18:00. I then had to nip off to another thing for 19:00 and be back on a train for no later than 21:15.

Right now it is 20:24, I’m getting a train in a few minutes and everything is preposterously relaxed. The long meting wrapped 90 minutes early and we all went to a pub. I could stay, I did stay, I couldn’t go to my next thing for ages so I didn’t go to my next thing for ages.

I got maybe an hour relaxing and that on a day I was half dreading for how much I had to get done.

I still have a lot to do but I’m carrying on that preposterously relaxed feeling even as I do it.

So go on. Schedule your day tightly and then enjoy the cracks between than become chasms.

Mind you, I’m glad the train has mains power or it’d be a very boring ride home.