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.
I believe that splitting your concentration and even – gasp – multitasking means you end up with lots of things not finished. Probably not as good as they could be, either, but chiefly unfinished. Writer James Clear argues that there’s more to this one-thing-only approach, though, and he starts with trying to prove its value:
If you want to master multiple habits and stick to them for good, then you need to figure out how to be consistent. How can you do that?
Well, here is one of the most robust findings from psychology research on how to actually follow through on your goals:
Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick with your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior.
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.
This morning I went straight to the keys and wrote a Writers’ Guild email newsletter that had to go out. Then I had breakfast. So it was around 11am when I ate and now, a couple of hours later, I’m putting off getting lunch.
This could be why I feel a little ill.
You know that you should eat regularly and if you didn’t know it, you hear it often enough. But there is a reason you hear it often, there is a reason why it’s important and in case it takes just one more push to get you to do it, hello. I’m pushing.
I’m pushing you because eating regularly, even though it takes time away from your work, means you can work better.
And I’m pushing you because that will push me. Let us work together. Hey, let’s do lunch, okay?
Look, back in the olden days before there were clocks and deadlines, time was this vague, huge thing with little more than the seasons to mark its passing. Compare that to now when we can know time to the minute and we use it to the second: we have cultivated time.
If that’s true then I think it follows that we have to tend and farm time. There is a point when we sow and a point when we harvest.
And if I went even a pixel further I think I would break this analogy so I’ll shut up. But I’ve thought about this far more than it can seem here, certainly far more than is healthy, and the useful thing I’ve taken away from it is that we need breaks.
That without a break, over-worked soil will cease to be able to grow anything.
Sounds like a plan to me. Jensen Karp – if he were any more famous you’d have heard of him – is a writer and producer who spoke with Fast Company about doing a gigantic amount of work at the same time. I read this and conclude he’s young. But give the article credit: it uses the word ‘myriad’ correctly.
The other night I was doing this thing, talking to university students about writing and we got on to how difficult it is to pitch to people. I offered that in so many ways it’s just like talking to people and said, for example, you didn’t find it hard asking me that question, did you? The young woman I gestured at said yes, she did. She wasn’t kidding: in that instant I could see the nerves.
But I wouldn’t have known before: she found me and she asked what she wanted to know. “Just keep pretending like that,” I told her. “It’s what I do.” For a longer, more considered and frankly more confident version, take a look at this TEDtalk from Dr Ivan Joseph.
I’m not lucky being a writer: I wanted this and I worked for it and I have to continue working to keep it. But I would say that I’m fortunate to have known very early on what I was passionate about. I didn’t do it for a long time, I went the wrong way often enough, but I had the passion and that’s rare.
If you have that passion, brilliant. If you don’t or if you doubt your passion, that’s a damn sight more normal and common than you are usually allowed to think. Watch Terri Trespicio on this point.