Getting Things Done – book (half) recommendation

It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read yet I can see, I can clearly see, how so many of the things I do to stay productive either came from this book or were confirmed for me, were oddly validated.

Getting Things Done (UK edition, US edition) is a self-help book by David Allen. The strange things first: it was written in 2001 and you will be amazed how long ago that seems. (Example: Allen talks a lot about how, for instance, you obviously can’t access the internet unless you’re in your office. It’s practically Victorian.) Also, it feels as if Allen is focusing on office workers and people who may do fantastic things but aren’t the kind of messy-minded creatives that writers are.

So I remember reading this and rather translating it on the fly. The very last thing he says is that you should wait three months and then re-read the book. He promises it will seem like a completely different thing. I did that. It did. The second time through, it was rubbish.

But the ideas. Next Action comes from David Allen: the idea that you can break down a mountain of a job by listing just what the one very next thing you can or you have to do is.

OmniFocus works with this Getting Things Done system – the cool kids call it GTD and it actually is a cult – though you don’t have to use Allen’s techniques to get a lot out of that software. David Allen doesn’t: I believe he prefers a paper-based system. Strange how I’m not surprised.

But if I can’t recommending it entirely, I do recommend it fairly wholeheartedly. How about this? Go to Amazon UK or Amazon US and use the Look Inside feature to read a few pages and see what you think.

There is also an official site for David Allen that you might like.

To Not Do list

We've had To Do lists. A lot. We've come up with Done Lists which are very satisfying: you write down what you did as you finish it and then looking back later is immensely cheering. That's pretty much the entire purpose of my month reviews (see That Was March 2014…). But maybe we could take a further step and write ourselves a To Not Do List.

It feels risky. Like it could end up as a kind of new year's resolution fad: I will not drink so much tea, I will not keep putting off the gym.

But it could also be a good guide. I keep reading headlines lately about the first app that people use in their mornings and I've been stopping at the headline because I don't want to find out the detail. Chiefly because I want to avoid thinking about mine.

Since you're here, I'll face up to it. My first app is email. If you don't count Awesome Clock, which I use to give me an old-fashioned analogue clock face on my iPhone all night. If you don't count my iPhone's own alarm. Then it's email. As I lurch to the loo and on to the kitchen and into my office, I am checking both my main or personal email account and my public one, the address that is your best route to talk to me about The Blank Screen.

I want to stop doing this. Funnily enough, I've been training myself to make sure I check my calendar every morning and that's going fine. (See I nearly missed an event today, though I suggest you bring a packed lunch with you because that is a long, long post.) So I want to keep that new habit going, I do want to reinforce my early OmniFocus use every day.

But I have to drop the email one.

Because too often now I've woken up at 5am to start writing and been derailed by a bad email. Usually a rejection. And at that time of the morning, most rejections matter. Later on, they wouldn't, but right there and then I am somehow more open to the slap.

I'm fine with being slapped. But it also saps. There are few things worse than getting up at 5am to write but one of them is getting up at 5am and not writing. I've seen this after big projects finish when the pressure is off and I have nothing that truly has to be done then. That's a horrible time. But yet worse is this paralysing that you can get from certain rejections, when they're strong enough, when they're important enough.

All this is on my mind now because I had a rejection that would've cut whenever I read it, but it did especially stop me one 5am start.

Or it should've done. It certainly did for a time. I certainly struggled to begin working. And I didn't do the thing I was intending to do that morning. Instead, though, I worked on fiction. You know how great it is when you are reading a book and you're completely into it. Writing fiction, at times, can be similar. For whatever reason, I hit that moment that day and by the end of 2,000 words on that project, I felt better.

And I had a solution to the rejection.

Without thinking about it, without brooding on it, my noggin' had found a way around the problem.

Now, that's good. And having been able to take my mind away for 90 minutes or whatever it was, that was also good. But the solution requires other people and it requires much planning, all stuff that I couldn't do anything about at 7am that morning.

So if I'd just put off reading the emails until, what, 9am, I'd have had four hours solid work done, I'd be far less prone to the rejection paralysis and when my head came up with a solution, I'd have been able to do something about it right there and then.

Top of my To Not Do List, then, is this: I will not check emails first thing in the morning.

Do we have a deal?

I nearly missed an event today

And I have fallen behind on a project I am very keen to do.

I am compelled to make an excuse about the event, at least. It’s one that was rearranged to this afternoon, okay? And I caught it when I checked my calendar at 5am this morning. So when I say I nearly missed it, it’s not like I spilt my tea and had to run for the car. But somehow even though I want to go to this, and I will go to it, for some reason it wasn’t on my mental map of the week.

This is happening to me more often now and part of it is how I think my business is in a bit of a transition. Previously I was almost completely task-focused: I had this enormous list of things to do. It wasn’t event-based: I didn’t have a lot of meetings, for instance. Now I tend to run more talks and workshops – I did ten sessions in March – so my calendar is more important than it was.

I vehemently refuse to join up my tasks and my calendar: To Dos do not belong on certain dates. Or at least, they rarely really do. If something has to be delivered on Tuesday, you could put that on the calendar, fine. But do you then put a date on there that you’ll start the job too? Odds are, you won’t start it then. Instant failure. Instant unnecessary failure. Put the flexible start date in your To Do list, if you must, put the deadline in there too and then everything to do with that task is in one place.

I have zero question about this, absolute zero doubt. If you’re looking at me now thinking you’re not so sure, the strongest chance is that I have failed to convey to you why I think this. That’s how sure I am that I’m right. This is a rare feeling: let me have it. (Unless you really do think I’m wrong and you can tell me. I would prefer to know.)

But right or wrong, it is how I am working and today that isn’t working. So I’m taking steps.

And this has become a kind of live blog as I try to get a handle on it all. The aim is to get back on top of everything and to be creating new work, producing material, instead of losing most of my time to managing it all. And I know that the way this will work for me is in software. That’s just easily obvious because of prior experience. So taking a step back from that overall aim, I think that I can have two contributory aims:

1) Restore my previous excellent grip on all my tasks
2) Find a way to cope with my newfound extra need for handling events

The shorthand for number 1 there is OmniFocus. Much as I love that software, much as it as truly transformed my working life, my copy of it is a mess at the moment.

I think the shorthand for number 2 would be Calendar plus a regime of checking it. I do currently have a task in OmniFocus called “Check calendar for today and week ahead”. That repeats every week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m not sure why that isn’t working, then. I don’t want to make it a daily task but we’ll see what happens. Okay, it’s 07:47 and I’ve decided to temporarily make checking my calendar a daily task for Monday to Friday.

And I’ve just downloaded the new Fantastical 2 for iPad. I’ve been reading about this since its launch yesterday and I’ve been reading about its iPhone version since, oh, just about the day I bought Fantastical 1 for iPhone and had it superseded. I agree with the consensus that Fantastical is a good, strong app but for me it wouldn’t stay, I didn’t keep using it on my iPhone because I just found the standard Apple calendar better. Not in features, not in ease of use, but both of those are fine and the Apple one has the killer feature that it can include the current date in its icon. I struggle to believe how often I have to check today’s date but with that right there, job done. With Fantastical, I had to go into the app. Job not done.

But Fantastical 2 can show the current date as a red badge notification on its icon. I’m hoping that will be enough for me because I like what I see about the rest of Fantastical. I like how it feels holding your month and week in your hand, seeing the shape of it all. I’ll play with this and try to get it into my habitual working pattern. If it doesn’t work, I’m out £6.99. If it does, I’m out a lot more because I can see me buying the iPhone update and the Mac version too.

For now, though, at 07:52, let’s say that my second aim is at least addressed if not necessarily solved.

So it’s time for aim 1: OmniFocus.

This is going to take some time. It’s going to be a huge change for me. I’ve let OmniFocus sprawl a bit too much, I’ve let it become a repository for everything in my life. Things I want to read, for instance. I save those to Pocket but I often send them straight into OmniFocus: maybe they relate to a project, maybe I just want to remember them and OmniFocus’s mail drop service is too handy. Whatever the reason, I need to use Pocket and Evernote more, and to keep this stuff out of OmniFocus. That’ll take some re-training. But I’ll create an Evernote notebook for it all and get into the habit of using the Evernote equivalent of mail drop.

But things have also changed in my business and life. I am very pleased to say that I am still on Room 204, a Writing West Midlands development programme, but I’ve finished the formal, official year there. So about a year ago, I created OmniFocus projects to do with Room 204 and the eight separate things I was doing with them. I’m still doing them, I’m still doing them with Writing West Midlands, but the Room 204 projects need to go.

I’ve also got very lazy. If a great benefit of OmniFocus is that you know what you need to do now, that works because it hides from you everything you don’t need to do now. Only, for that to work day to day, you have to often review absolutely everything: go through all your tasks and see what’s done, what isn’t but can be, what will never be done and should be deleted. The idea is that you work through every task and you spend time on every task. This is more than an idea, it’s a principle and I have found that it works brilliantly for me.

Except lately.

Lately, I’ll do the review process and see – wait, let me try it right now – okay, I only have 12 projects review. Last time it was 67. (You set this project by project. You have to review everything but one project is my shopping list: I’ve set that to be reviewed once a year. Other stuff has to be reviewed every day.)

Especially when I’ve got 67 projects ahead of me, I’ll look at the list and I won’t patiently dwell on each separate task. Rather than do them right there and then or consciously test the task – why isn’t it done? what do I need to do it? – I just think yeah, yeah, haven’t got to that yet. And then I move on.

I can’t let that continue because I’m missing things and I’m not getting stuff done as much as usual.

So. It’s 08:03 and I am going to pull out the list of projects. I’m going to do a MindNode mind map of everything I actually have to do and compare that with what I’ve got. It’s slate-clean time.


Four days later. That is a hell of a slate-cleaning. I would like to point out that I did have that meeting to go and then there was something else on Friday, plus I worked the weekend… and all the way through, I was thinking of this. Right now, Monday at 12:12, I’m happier and I think I have proof that I am.

Let me tell you the proof first: I have no overdue tasks in OmniFocus.

And only 16 more things to do today.

It’s funny but having overdue tasks was proving to be a huge weight. It’s not really funny because it isn’t funny but it also isn’t funny because that’s how things used to be. That’s how they were before I moved to OmniFocus. Maybe it was worth letting things slide because I am reminded with extreme gusto that I do not ever want to feel this weight again. It’s paralysing: you feel you can’t clear that backlog, that there’s no point doing anything more.

So you now you’ve got to know how I did it. And it turns out I was right: it was a two-step thing.

The first was the Calendar and it was Fantastical 2 for iPad. I found that I still had Fantastical 1 for iPhone and I’ve been using that too – I’m honestly not sure what the difference is beyond some obvious aesthetic ones – and the combination has been useful. I’ve had to train myself to turn to my iPad whenever something comes up that needs me to look at my Calendar: even if I’m at my Mac, I turn now to the iPad for this. It’s not a habit yet but it’s becoming so and each time Fantastical does something clever, I am that much more sold on it. The most specific clever thing it does is accept natural language statements: typing “Lunch tomorrow with Steph at Birmingham” pops all the details into my calendar in the right spot. It reckons lunch is 1pm and actually I needed to change that but it was easy enough. But it new Birmingham, actually it knew the more detailed place name I put, and it knew what day tomorrow was. It’s very satisfying entering an event like this because it parses what you type as you type it: you see the place name flying off to that section of the appointment, you see the time going there too and you can see the calendar zipping along to the right day.

Also, it turns out that having today’s date as a red badge notification means that my muscle memory automatically makes me open the calendar. See the badge, intellectually know that it’s the date, but still open it as if there is something I need to be notified about. It’s made me open the Calendar about thirty times since last Thursday and as irritating as I suppose that is, it’s helping me to reinforce this new habit of using both Calendars and OmniFocus.

The second thing began with the way that a friend pointed out how casually I had planned her working year for her in a chat one day and she was back now with a pen to do mine.


And we didn’t finish. But we’re still in play and I’ve been taking her advice to heart. That coupled with the most massively tedious reorganisation of OmniFocus has all proved part of it.

I’ve been using the new OmniFocus 2 for Mac beta because it’s the quickest version and also, I now think, the most pleasant to use. But this reorganisation meant replacing every old project with an entirely new system, then seeing what fitted the new plan and what did not. I have very ruthlessly and with only a little blood deleted gigantic chunks of tasks because I haven’t done them and, William, I ain’t going to. So they’re gone. Kiss ’em goodbye.

I did a MindNode map as I told you and this is how that looks. You know I can’t let you see the details, there’s plenty of confidential stuff in there but this is the shape of what I was dealing with.



Look at that mass of colour in the bottom left corner. The centre word there is ‘Kill’ – these are all the entire projects I deleted as part of this reorganisation. The smaller blog of colour is a set of seven other projects that I have taken out of OmniFocus and put into Evernote: they’re all research jobs, all reading ones where I was amassing things to read but no actual tasks yet.

Then the rest is everything I am in fact going to do. The central word, the white blob around which all the rest of the colours flow, is “OmniFocus”. And that’s apt: this app is that central to everything I do.

I still need to work out a system for tying those Evernote documents in to the tasks as they come up. It’s easy enough technically, you copy one thing from Evernote and paste it into OmniFocus – or vice versa – and are thereafter just a clicked-link away from either. But it’s the mental system that’s hard, the decisions I need to make about putting stuff in OmniFocus or in Evernote.

Similarly, if I get an email from you with a task in, you can bet I forward it on to OmniFocus but when do I then archive that email, when do I put it into my Follow-up inbox to make sure I see it? For that matter, when do I only put it into Follow-up, when do I not bother making it an OmniFocus task?

I’ve still got to work all that out but it will come and right now, I’m exhausted yet much happier. I mean, much. If you’ve read this far, you’re a mensch and I want you to take away this single point: getting on top of everything you have to do – just getting on top of it, not necessary even doing it all – makes you feel infinitely better.

Pick yourself up and have another go

Productivity is supposed to just be a handy single word to cover all the things we want to do. But it becomes a label and then it becomes an ideal and you can see people for whom the word itself has become a cult. If you spend more time thinking about productivity than actually doing anything, you need help.

Hello. My name is William.

(Hello, William!)

The ease with which we can get caught up in shaving a few seconds off those tedious emails, in making sure our work is everywhere we are so we can get right down to it and finish that vital paragraph on the train, in writing sentences so long that you’ve forgotten the start… um… The ease with which we get caught up like that is one reason I think it feels so bad when we stop. When you fall off the productivity line, it’s rarely because you’ve made a conscious choice to get a life. It is usually that you didn’t keep up the effort. That feels bad enough but then these things snowball and you just see all the jobs you’ve got to do mounting up and mounting up. Perhaps because you have been on top of it all, you can see how big that mountain really is and that makes it even harder to get back going again.

Bollocks to mountains.

Do you know the phrase ‘sunk cost’? It’s the money you’ve already put into something. If you’ve invested £50,000 in something that isn’t working, it’s ferociously hard to forget that £50,000 and move on. Of course it is. It’s bleedin’ £50,000. Yet sometimes you should weep now and move on, sometimes it is a sunk cost. Because we are so wired to feel the loss of that £50,000 that if someone says you just need to do this simple thing – oh, and it only costs £20,000 more – we think about it. So we should: I’m not saying investors should bail out early, though you know how every website gives financial advice like that and then says, by the way, nobody here knows anything so you can’t sue us? Seriously, I know nothing about investing. I’m making an analogy. You knew that but I had to say it. Anyway. This £20,000 more lark: we don’t see the £20,000 because we’re still blinded by the enormity of the £50,000 we’ve lost. There’s a very good chance that we will spend that extra £20,000 because of it.

And then we’re out by £70,000.

Sometimes you must, you must accept that the money and the time and the sweat you put in to something is gone, it is this sunk cost and nothing you do will bring it back, maybe everything you can do will make it worse. Except moving on.

If you’ve fallen off the productivity line, forget everything that’s behind you. Yes, you failed to complete this important thing, yep you should’ve done that other vital thing. But you did fail and you didn’t do what you should.

Let it go because it is already gone.

Bollocks to all of it, there is literally nothing you can do to fix it so move on and put all that energy into doing the next thing instead. Some problems will cause you damage forever but not actually that many and most things you didn’t do today will be forgotten by everyone else by tomorrow, so join them. Forget it. Move on.

If you really are in a bad place and it really does seem like a mountain that is resting on your chest, do take a look at Bad Days in my book The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition).

But also just take a breath. Look at what’s in front of you right now and see what tiny bit of it you can actually do, right now.

Don’t look down, don’t look up, just chip away in small moves and I promise they add up to mountains. And if that’s too Hallmark Card-like for you, think of it this way: maybe small moves don’t add up very quickly or to very much, but they add up to a hell of a lot more than your sitting there doing nothing but regretting mistakes.

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.

Pattern weeks part 6 – not so much

Previously… in an attempt to get more done in huge week, I've scheduled some important slots. I'll do certain things for certain projects at certain times so that they are done and I know they are done and they are always progressing instead of ever coming to a pause. I call this schedule the pattern for the week and it's named after the term 'pattern budget'. That's the money you've got to spend on each one of many things, like episodes in a TV series. In practice, you shovel that cash around so your first episode can be really big. You just save the money later and it works out. Similarly, my pattern weeks get disrupted by other events: if I'm booked somewhere for a day, the people who booked me get me for the day. I don't go off taking meetings or phoning other people.

Sudden memory: Hays Galleria, London, by the Thames. I'm working on a magazine and every lunch time would go out to a nearby phone box with a pile of pound coins to make as many calls as I could. That would've been early 1990s and I wonder now if that's the last time I used a public phone box. The magazine was a technology one, long gone now, and I was one of the people reviewing the earliest of mobile phones. A brick with a handset. I can picture me standing by the Thames late one gorgeous evening, phoning people because I could.


I've been working away from my office a lot lately and that's disrupted the pattern twice over: I obviously lose the time I'm somewhere else but it also means getting ahead with some things before it, catching up with other things afterwards.

So the pattern has failed a bit since Part 5 when I said it was working. It still is, I think, and my only real grumble is that the chart I made of the pattern is so amateur that it hurts me. And it hurts me often. I replaced my beautiful iMac wallpaper with this horrible thing and it is also on my MacBook. Hate it. But for now and especially while I'm finding it hard to keep up because of disruptions, I'm going to keep it there.

More urgently for me, I think, is sorting out email. I have a follow-up mailbox that I bung in things I need to respond to and sometimes I also forward the mail right into OmniFocus, my To Do manager. Yet still, especially when weeks break apart, I let things go through cracks.

This week I'm using Polyfilla.

A quick fix for days you’re below par

A quick fix when your problem is you and how you're feeling. This works especially if you're feeling slow and lethargic, it's good if you're feeling in any way too below par to get any work done.

Go see somebody.

I don't mean a doctor. I mean arrange to get a lunch or a coffee with someone now.

It may well be that what you ought to be doing is staying right where you are and getting this bastard piece of work done, but the odds are good that you would just continue pushing the pieces around without getting anywhere. And the odds are high that whatever you do accomplish will be about as below par as you.

So if the hour or the day is not going to work out, spend that time or a key part of it going to have a coffee with someone.

Because it does three things.

The obvious first one is that coffee will perk you up, you use a percolator to perk you up now.

But there is also the business of who you go to see. There's the issue of whether they can see you, but before you pick up that phone you need to have thought of someone to call and you need to have an idea of what to call them about. Maybe you can just phone them with the idea of getting a coffee; I tend to need something more to offer them, like it's a coffee about doing this or it's a tea about doing that. Whatever it is, you have to pick the person and you have to think of what you'll say and you have to phone them.

And you'll then have to do that with the next person if your first choice can't make it.

Then when you do meet them, though, that's when the third and by far the biggest boost comes. This works with anyone you meet, anyone at all. But it's greater if it's someone you like. Greater still if it's someone you in any way admire. It is beyond measure greater if you also fancy them.

Whoever they are and whatever you think of the way they flick their hair, you will be performing for them.

There is just no possibility that you will present yourself as this half-dead sloth who could barely type a word. You will bounce. You will lie.

And the lying and the performance will pick you up.

Then get back to work as quickly as you can before it all fades.

Eeek. Erase things to remember them? Right. Sure.

Shudder. Hack College suggests that you should erase something you've memorised in order to fix it in your head. I think I went pale at the thought. Write something down, commit it to memory and then hit delete. I swear I just hallucinated a popup dialogue saying “This operation cannot be undone”.

But if you're braver than me, there is more about this and 19 less scary ideas for people with bad memories on Hack College's 20 Memorization Techniques for College Students. Also a great photo.

Spotted by Lifehacker

Pattern Weeks part 4 – did it work?


Last year I cracked getting up at 5am every weekday to write and it was a boon. It was bigger than that, it was huge. This year I want to stamp some kind of structure on my weeks, a base pattern for how Monday-Friday should go. It never will: no week is ever going to stick to a plan. But by having one, I hope to be aware of what I should be doing and have each hour be more of a conscious choice to do the plan or go off it.

Six days ago I told you my plan was finally ready for you to see, albeit a bit redacted. Now, read on.

Day 6.

I stuck to the plan perfectly for Monday to Wednesday, inclusive. Then Thursday was a day of meetings and a talk in the evening that ran late into the evening. I can't ever just go to bed when I come back from one of those so it was a late night and that had its impact on Friday.

The best thing from the pattern week is easily that it got me to make calls. This is, for some reason, a real weakness with me: I'm far better yapping face to face and I can write a crackin' email, but cold phone calls are tough. I do go in phases, though. There's a bit about this in my book, The Blank Screen, (US edition, UK edition) where I mention that my most successful calls happen between 11am and noon. That's quite true: I don't understand it, I can't see a particular reason, but I've noticed it. When I was writing that chapter, though, I think I was on a high for some reason because I said I had five calls to make and that I'd just whack through them. I did have them to do and I did whack through them.

But it was unusual. And I have to be aware now that while calls are a difficulty, I do seemingly have these highs and so it's far too soon to tell: did I make my calls this week because of the pattern schedule forcing me to or did I just happen to be good at phoning people? We'll see next week, I suppose. But for now I'm choosing to think it was the pattern. I made sixteen calls and perhaps seven of them were successful.

If you've ever worked in sales – and I haven't so I'm just guessing here – then I imagine the figure of sixteen doesn't impress you but the success rate might. It's certainly encouraging.

There was one other thing that was good about working to this pattern instead of my usual chaotic plate-spinning. And it was also a bad thing. That's great for having something to tell you about, it's ace that I can have a natural bridge between the good and the bad, but I didn't want any bad.

Here's the thing. At 10:59 on each day I was making calls, I would rush to start and then at 12:00 I would stop it and feel great. So far, so excellent. But that happened with each hour that I had planned and the pattern has huge, giant gaps which is where I'm supposed to be doing the work and instead, I'd look at that and think phew, I can relax a bit now. And I did. Too much.

As a result, I don't feel I got enough done in the week and that is exactly the opposite of what this was all supposed to do.

So I'm just going to have to work harder, aren't I?

The myth of nerves being good for you

I have the very best time talking with people, leading a writing session, meeting folk, yapping away. The very best time. But I get nervous beforehand. Seriously nervous.

I've only vomited once but it's been close a fair few times. And every time, every time, every time, I am so nervous that my body chemistry alters. I think my mind chemistry takes a beating too because you probably wouldn't like me as a big event gets closer. It's not that I'm mean suddenly, but you'll quickly conclude that life is too short, whatever you want can wait until I've returned to planet Earth.

That all goes the second I begin talking. The instant I step on stage. The instant. I have this very clear visual image of many, many times when I've looked at the microphone, taken a breath – and boom, I'm off. I truly cannot overempathise how exciting it is to meet people and bring them something I know they'll enjoy. I can say that last bit with huge ease because I'm sure I've stolen everything from cleverer people.

But I'll do confession another time, we're here to talk about nerves. Since I talked at LitFest Birmingham, a literature festival in Birmingham, back in September 2012, I've counted the talks I've done. Talks, workshops, writing sessions, radio interviews, television, anything. I'm not sure why but I note the date, the event and the number of people present. If I had any brains at all I would also jot down what I spoke about so that I don't repeat myself, but I haven't so I don't so I might.

Last night I did my 42nd since then – so that's what, two or three events every month. That's not a fair estimate as it's all trending upwards, but typically I've always got something on the horizon and so I always have nerves.

If you take nothing away from me today, make sure it isn't this: the only way I cope with nerves before a big event is to have a bigger event scheduled before it.

That's not my biggest mistake, though. My big one and the thing I would actually like you to take away or perhaps argue with me about, is that nerves have no connection to the quality of the event or of the work you do.

I came to believe they did. I've always believed that if you're blasé about a talk, you shouldn't be doing it. But I came to find that the opposite was the terribly seductive idea that the more nervous you are, the better you'll be on the night. It's this business of the instant transformation when I reach the stage. That change feels the bigger when you've vomiting in the car park.


I've done 42 talks. Nervous before all 42. I'd say that roughly 20 went brilliantly and I know that means 21 went merely superbly. Because I know that I died on exactly 1.

I deserved to, I was crap. But it wasn't because I was less nervous. It was because I wasn't well enough prepared. (I need to tell you that it wasn't for want of trying. I spent a lot of time on that gig and it was just somehow eluding me, I didn't nail the material until the morning of the event and I was wrong to think I'd manage to master it in time.)

You can't really base any science or true statistics on one person's 42 experiences. But you can try. And concluding that nerves have no connection at all to whether or not one succeeds, if concluding that success is entirely dependent upon your material, that's ultimately better for your stomach, for your audience and for the poor people who had to clean up the car park.

Incidentally, if you dare, I am available to talk about writing, technology and productivity. Just don't ask me to talk about nerves because that would be just far too meta for me.