Reclaim the day

It kills me that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Then I work all the hours in the day and that kills me. Here’s an idea for getting back some of the time that otherwise fritters away on, you know, like relaxing and socialising and stuff.

Take Back Afternoons: Productivity After the Post-Lunch Slump

When lunchtime breaks up my day, I’m terrible at getting back into a productive flow. I’m not unique in struggling to work through the afternoons, though. Most of us tend to have a dip in energy in the early afternoon, often known as the “post-lunch slump”. Research suggests that our bodies are designed to have a short sleep around this time to complement our nighttime sleep.

This regular slump in energy is obviously bad news for anyone, but it’s especially bad when you work remotely (as I do) and need to discipline yourself to complete tasks.

The best way I’ve found for kicking myself into gear is to have a deadline to push up against. If you remember ever writing furiously at 11:45 p.m. to finish a school essay and submit it by midnight, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s something about deadlines that help us overcome our worst procrastination habits.

So I took this self knowledge and used it to hack my routine in such a way that I’m now getting significantly more done with less last-minute scrambling.

Experiments with Time: How to Take Back Your Day from the Grip of Procrastination – Belle Cooper, Zapier (17 March 2015)

Read the full piece for what she does with the rest of the day. I sound flippant here, I think, but she has good points to make and the topic occupies my head a lot.

More grandmother, eggs and email advice

Given that I’m just after admitting to you that I have today followed my own advice and it worked – and so I am therefore feeling good about the day but also a bit unbearably smug – there is something else.

One other thing I’ve done today that I swear up and down in the The Blank Screen book that we should all really, really do – and we don’t. I try. But today I did it and it worked.

I didn’t read any emails until the top of the hour.

Right now, for instance, it’s a few minutes past the hour and I can see that there are two emails waiting for me. Wait. Three. I should really also switch off that notification –

– and the phone just went. Well. Other that that, I’ve been good. And it’s helped.

So. Switch off your emails and only let yourself read or write any at the top of the hour.

A bit of this, a bit of that

Today is probably the first day in three months that I have felt on top of things. I’m not. But I feel that I am. And it’s because I did this:

One hour on this project
One hour on that
One hour on the other

It broke down slightly, there were urgent interruptions but having set aside an hour to do something, I did it. As it happens, the first task only took me 37 minutes. I don’t usually count that precisely but I enjoyed the thought that I could take the rest of the hour off so I noticed. And I took it off.

A later hour took 67 minutes, but.

All of the things I am working on took steps forward today and I have to feel good about that. I do admittedly also feel good that I got this idea from my own book, The Blank Screen.

Okay, so I’m feeling on top of things and just a teeny bit smug about that. But join me in smugness, will you? It feels good.

Using Evernote to write books

It’s a piece from so, you know, there’s not going to be a lot of criticism here but still:

Every day, people rely on Evernote to compile, catalog, organize their research and writing.

For author and chief Business Insider correspondent Nicholas Carlson, Evernote was the primary tool he used to write a 93,000 word book. In six weeks.

That boils down to an average of 2,500 words every day.

This week, Nicholas stopped by our Redwood City HQ to talk about how he used Evernote as the comprehensive writing workspace for his newly published book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!”

How to Write a 93,000 Word Book With Evernote – Taylor Pipes, Evernote Blog (18 January 2015)

Read the full piece.

Write like you’re doing a meal plan

This doesn’t help if your main writing work today is a novel. But if you’re writing lots of smaller pieces, if you’re blogging, if you’re pitching stories out to people, if you are doing anything that is bitty, take a minute to do a meal plan.

For instance, this news site The Blank Screen will almost invariably have five new articles per day. If a lot happens, if something very big and relevant to you and I goes on, then it’s more. It’s rarely less because there is always enough going on and enough to read that I can help you postpone actually doing any work.

I don’t try to write five articles per day, though, I try to write six. It’s not always possible of course but when it is, when I can do it and when there is material to write about, then a sixth piece is a real help.

It can’t be something time-sensitive, it can’t be breaking news, but it can still be something useful and interesting – just something useful and interesting that I can hold to the next day. That means the next day begins with me already having one of the five started. If I then manage to write six new ones, I can hold two over for another day.

You could argue that this is like preparing today’s meal and then using leftovers tomorrow. I like that except it feels mildly insulting to whatever tomorrow’s articles are. Still, it’s true.

But there’s something else. It’s easier to write that sixth article than it is to write the first. It’s like you’re in the zone by then, you’ve got five pieces behind you, a sixth is not a massive stretch.

On Fridays, I also write The Blank Screen email newsletter (do sign up for your copy). Also on Fridays I write an entirely personal blog called Self Distract. Then on the first Monday of every month I write an email newsletter for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s West Midlands branch. Now, that Guild newsletter goes out on that first Monday in the month but I’ll write as much of it as I can the previous Friday. So that means on one Friday in a month I am writing two email newsletters, one personal blog and five or six news articles. Doing them all in one go, piece after piece in a row, is much easier and faster than picking up one piece a day and working on those.

As well as being in the zone both of writing and of researching new material for the newsletters, there is the practical element that they get written in the same places. I’ll compile the ideas in Evernote but both newsletters are sent using a service called Mailchimp and there are certain steps you go through. Go through those steps for The Blank Screen newsletter first means you whack through them all a second time for the Writers’ Guild much faster.

Everything you write – I mean you, specifically you – has three parts to it. There’s the getting ready to write, there’s the writing, there’s the finishing up. If you can do more writing in the middle then you save the time getting ready and you save the time wrapping up the details.

I see that very much like planning out the meals for the week and knowing that if I do a slow cooker thing on Tuesday that it will last me Wednesday and Thursday too.

One thing. The Blank Screen newsletter always includes a section called What I’m Writing. Ostensibly this is to show you that I am doing some bleedin’ work, I’m not just after telling you to do some. It does also definitely mean I will write something in the week so that I don’t have to confess laziness to you.


It also very specifically means I will always include a reference and a live link to the new personal Self Distract blog.

Which means I have to write and publish Self Distract first.

By making this choice, I set a sequence for myself and that means I never have to think about it. I’m sitting down now to write Self Distract and that is the only thing I can do, it is the right thing to do, I can concentrate on it fully.

Maybe I just need tricks like this to get me through the week but I bet you do too.

Move your deadlines up

There’s an interesting piece on Contently about coping with deadlines and this is my favourite one:

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It’s not just a funny observation; it’s called Parkinson’s Law. If you’ve felt unproductive or if you want to increase your output, move your deadlines up. That’s right, giving yourself less time could actually make you more productive.

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, deadlines set near the present encouraged people to get started on their work, while deadlines set further in the future (e.g., early next month, early next year) encouraged procrastination.

Instead of setting your deadline for next Monday, try moving it up to this Friday. You may find yourself more compelled to work throughout the week. If you’re used to catching up with work on weekends to meet a Monday deadline, moving your deadlines up to Friday could mean finally getting to relax on Sunday.

And you don’t necessarily need to tell your editor about the accelerated deadline for it to be effective. It might sound counterintuitive, but shorter deadlines could also clear your head and help you think straight.

5 Ways to Use Deadlines to Your Advantage – Herbert Lui, Contently (25 February 2015)

Read the full piece for four more ideas.

It’ll just take a minute…

There’s some smart and simple advice from productivity writer Grace Marshall: get a stopwatch. Well, if you have a phone, you have a stopwatch, but get it and use it. Time what you do.

Time your distractions
Next time you tell yourself you’re just going to have 5 minutes on Facebook – set a stop watch and see how long you actually spend. It may only take 5 minutes to post your update, but if you start scrolling, clicking and exploring links, how long is that actually taking?

Test those two minute jobs

We all have things we perpetually underestimate. What are yours? For me it’s the bitty jobs. The things I think will only take two minutes (e.g. email file) but actually take anything from 5 minutes (connect to server, wait, find file, type email, press send) to 15 (oh wait, that’s the wrong format, fix that, change the date, add that other bit of information, save it to PDF, check it looks alright, now type the email and send it…) Next time you tackle your simple, mundane or bitty jobs, use a stopwatch and see what you discover.

Stop the clock – Grace Marshall, (undated but probably 9 March 2015)

I think by excerpting this bit I make it sound like a time and motion study but in her full piece, Marshall is relaxed and persuasive about how it’s a small thing that helps a lot.

Under-promise and over-deliver

This is from last year but it’s a goodie from Lifehacker: it’s advice for freelancers about time management. Each section has a good summary of the issue and then links out to much more detailed Lifehacker articles. Here’s my favourite:

Picking the right projects and charging what you’re worth are the foundation for your life as a freelancer. The other main part is simply scheduling.

We’ve recently posted tips for how to better estimate time for projects, but you might want to double that time estimate or at least add some “buffer time”… That extra time is especially important when you’re tackling a new project area or it involves something highly susceptible to Murphy’s Law (e.g., when writing an article about upgrading a computer—everything will go wrong, trust me).

The more generous you are with estimating your time, the better you’ll be able to follow through on your commitments and follow the golden rule in business: Under-promise and over-deliver.

The Freelancer’s Guide to Time Management – Melanie Pinola, Lifehacker (28 August 2014)

Read the full piece.

It takes more power to start the engine than keep it going

This is really just about my sum total of knowledge about cars. I can drive and I can see when they have enough wheels, but otherwise, they are magical devices whose magicality is reduced every time you have to pay insurance or go for a service.


I also know what cars look like from underneath, but that’s just because I used to watch The A Team. It’s quite complicated under there, you know.

We’re now into March and while I am loathe to write you another piece about how gosh-hard it is to keep being productive, I need to talk to you and this is how I’ve managed to do it. About thirty times in the last few days I’ve started to write something serious but it turns out that I can only do serious by accident.

So let me take this one car fact and treat it with more seriousness than it warrants.

It is true, though. Starting to write to you got harder the longer I spent not doing it. Where I have not lacked for news or information to tell you, I have lacked the discipline. I will again say that, look, very bad cold, right, six weeks and I’m still snuffling, but I’ve lacked it and that’s that.

Except, you do of course know the phrase that what’s done is done. I reckon that in the same vein, what isn’t done, isn’t done. Somehow that sounds more defeatist but I hear it the same way: the past is the past and we can only change what comes next.

There is so much to tell you. Such gorgeous nuggets of news and details that will help you get more done and enjoy doing it. I’m going to be right here telling you it all – though I’ll understand with far more humanity now why you might sometimes just want to skip thinking about this stuff.

National Clean off Your Desk Day

I kid you not. Next Monday is the National Clean Off Your Desk Day. I might as well be kidding as it’s definitely solely an American idea and certainly not officially adopted by whoever adopts these things, plus you’re not going to do it anyway.

But the second Monday in January is, seriously, National Clean Off Your Desk Day and what the hell? Why not? I usually only clean off my desk when I’ve been fired but I’m going to fight those bad memories and do it. Wait. I’ve a meeting next Monday. Okay, next Tuesday. National Clean Off Your Desk Day +1.

Actually, I’m sitting here now in a pit of 2014’s work and papers and electronics. I suddenly really get why this is a good idea and I know that it will help me get on more with work as soon as it’s done.

Though I am obliged, I feel, to tell you that Monday 12 January 2015 is also National Pharmacist Day. And National Marzipan Day. And National Curried Chicken Day.

And Tuesday 13 January is National Rubber Duckie Day.