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.

Productivity tip of the week

Eighteen months of work, hours of advice from many people, oodles of detail and my current project was just all so big that I was regularly derailed by it. I can’t tell you exactly what it is yet but at this stage the job was just to apply for Arts Council funding to get a project done.

The good thing is that I started the process bewildered and now I know we’ve got a strong application, I know that I did it as well as we could. One bad thing is that you obviously never know whether the bid will be successful. But even if it fails, the process taught me a gigantic amount. So that’s good. What’s really bad is that at this crucial point, I was derailed again. Knocked off the productivity train of mixed metaphors. And once you’re off, it is stunningly hard to get back on.

Yesterday at 10am, though, I set a timer on my iPhone for one hour. No way to finish the job in an hour, not even a chance of making a good enough dent. But at least I’d be doing something, I’d be inching along instead of panicking about it all the time like it was a dental appointment.

Do this for me. Do an hour. Whatever it is that is pressing on you, just take the next hour and work on it. Even if that is all you do, you are better off doing that than worrying about it. You are certain to feel better for being even an hour further along with it. And, not to scare you here, but I didn’t stop at the end of my hour. Five hours later, I’d done the application completely. I actually had finished the job. Well, it’s now with my partners on the project, it’s not submitted to Arts Council England yet, but I feel pretty fantastic.

One hour turned me from wanting to run away from this thing into wanting to do more. So try it. Just an hour. Okay?

Why you kill your own ideas

You’ve done this. You’ve thought of something that might be the Next Big Thing – or even is just the Thing You Long To Do. And you don’t do a thing about it so it just never happens. Since we’re writers and it’s often as if there is just something in the air, quite often it does happen and it does get done, just by someone else.

Fast Company writer Courtney Seiter claims there are typically six things that stop her, starting with this:

The No. 1 thing that keeps me from creating is that the idea doesn’t feel complete yet. It lacks something, or I need more examples, or I’m not sure if it’s clear.

A former editor of mine called these “glimmers”—a little spark of an idea, not fully formed but on the cusp of being something. Sometimes you need to let a glimmer sit for a while before it becomes a fully formed idea. Sometimes you can smush it together with a few other glimmers to make something.

The main thing is that idea glimmers need nurturing, which can be hard to do. When ideas are still developing, they can feel embarrassingly incomplete or tough to explain to others. What if my little glimmer is misunderstood or turns out to be nothing at all?

How to fix it: It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned that this is the time to talk about ideas most, so they can grow from a glimmer to a real idea. You can even post it on social media to give it a quick test. So what if the idea might fail? I’ll be able to get feedback right away and know whether to keep thinking on my glimmer or let it go.

6 Ways Your Brain Tries to Kill Your Ideas and How to Fight Them – Courtney Seiter, Fast Company (18 August 2014)

The other five ways include ones you’ll recognise as well as I do: the idea is too hard, we’re too busy, we’re too distracted. The full piece is a meaty examination of these and more with a lot of good ideas for beating them or at least making it more of a fight.