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?

You don’t have to be creepy about it

But do your homework about people. I just had a terribly fun meeting with someone – er, I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did – and before I got to her, I'd read her blog. I'd seen her professional pages, I'd read what she did, I had an idea of some of the work she did.

I intended to stop there. The idea of coming to a meeting entirely cold makes me wince but equally I'm there to meet you, I'm not there to show off my deep research. I really want to meet you: easily the best part of journalism is that you get to bound off and say hello to people you might otherwise never come across. Utterly love that.

And I stopped intentionally looking into this woman's background. But I've been trying a free iPhone app called Mynd and it did some digging for me without my realising it.

Mynd is like a calendar assistant; I found it because I was exploring calendars and looking for why I nearly missed an appointment recently. I also found it because it got mentioned a few times by Katie Floyd on the Mac Power Users podcast. All it does, I thought, is show me my entire day in one screen: how many events I've got to get to, where the next one is, what the weather's like today. I also found that it calculates how long it's going to take me to drive to somewhere and it will say so right there on the screen: you need to leave in 10 minutes if you're going to make the appointment. Sometimes it sounds a notification too. I haven't figured out why it's only sometimes.

But I have figured out that it believes I drive everywhere when really it's more that I drive almost nowhere. So I got a Mynd notification that I ought to get out of Dodge and start the car right now when I was already on a train to London.

I was going to ditch it for doing that. I have Fantastical now that does all the work I need of managing my appointments and events. (Fantastical 2 for iPad is £6.99 UK, $9.99 US. Fantastical 2 for iPhone is £2.99 UK, $4.99 US. The iPad prices are launch offers and will shortly increase by about 33%.) Plus I don't care about the weather and when I do have a mind to wonder about whether it's going to rain, I ask Siri.


There is a panel on this Mynd screen called People and up to now it has always been blank. Today it showed a photo of the woman I was meeting. And it got that photo from LinkedIn. When I tapped on that photo, it showed me her short LinkedIn bio and then it had options for calling her. If you're running late, you open Mynd, tap the person's photo, then tap to send her a message. If you've got the number of her mobile, anyway. Or an email address.

That would be spectacularly handy if I were ever late for anything but usually I'm cripplingly early. Still, it's impressive.

What was even more impressive is that I scrolled to tomorrow, saw the first meeting had a fella's photo there – and behind it was a list of related Evernote documents. It's just reminded me of the last note I made when talking to him. Right there. I'd forgotten I'd ever made a note but there it is.

It's like Mynd gives you a personal briefing before you go to meet someone. I don't think that means you should skip looking in to them yourself, but I feel wildly efficient about tomorrow now. And I won't feel wildly stupid if he mentions the topic of my last note.

Mynd is free for iPhone on the App Store. There's no iPad or Android version.

Have a look at the Mynd website too. It proposes using the software as your sole calendar for a week and I've just learnt that you can do that. Bugger. I think I'll continue using it as an adjunct to Fantastical but it's handy to know that all the ordinary calendar functions are in this Mynd app as well.

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.

What’s so great about OmniFocus part 1: get it in

No enthusing, no evangelising, just straight showing you. I talk about the OmniFocus task software a lot because it means a lot to me and now that a new Mac version is an inch away, one of the barriers to universally recommending it is gone. (There is still the fact that it solely runs on Macs, iPhones and iPads. So Windows, Unix and Android users are out of luck. But I honestly think this means you’re out of luck. OmniFocus is that good.)

Ahead of a video covering this that will be out in time for the official launch of OmniFocus 2 for Mac, here’s the first of a short series.

Before you can do any task, you have to think of it. If you think of it and you can do it right there and then, do it right there and then. But if you can’t, then you need to keep that task. You have to be sure you won’t forget it.

Here’s how you do that in OmniFocus.

Actually, here are the many, many ways you do this in OmniFocus.

1) Type it

In OmniFocus for Mac, iPad or iPhone, just type in your task and hit Save. The iPhone version has a nice button called Save+ which saves the task you’ve just typed and gives you a new blank one to start typing the next one in.

That’s the tiniest of things yet it makes a big difference. You know you’ll whack through entering tasks because of it so you do, you whack through tasks. You don’t think of it as a chore, so you don’t put it off.

There’s a lot of speedy little aspects like this. Most come later when you’re sorting through tasks and thinking about them, but for just straight getting that task out of your head and into a system you know will keep it for you, OmniFocus is very strong.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 08.26.29

On the Mac version, you can enter a task whatever you’re doing, in whatever application you’re using. Tap a couple of keys and you are entering a task into OmniFocus. Hit return and that task flies off to OmniFocus while you carry on back with your other application.

2) Say itiphone reminder

I probably come up with most of my tasks while I’m driving. So I tell OmniFocus. I say it aloud.

OmniFocus works with Siri so I can say aloud “Remind me to phone Angela when I get home” and it will go into OmniFocus. (And when I get home, ping. Location Reminders are a stunning thing. Apple introduced them in its Reminders app, every decent To Do software has followed along.)

Slight problem. You do this via Siri and so after you’ve said “Remind me to take a screenshot for the OmniFocus blog post”, Siri will say aloud “Here’s your reminder. Shall I create it?” But because I’m driving, I can’t look at the screen to see what it thinks I’ve said. So invariably I say yes.

Usually it’s got it right. Sometimes it is astonishing what it has got right – or strange what it’s got wrong. But once or twice now, I have got home, looked at my OmniFocus reminders list and had not one single chance of figuring out what was so important.

3) Email it

An email comes in with something I need to do. I forward it. Straight into my OmniFocus list. The end.

I’ve just looked into this and it turns out that I have used this feature three times a day since it was introduced in December 2012. That’s 1,411 and I have to tell you that I am astonished it is so few.

Email after email, wallop. Straight in to OmniFocus.

If an email includes several things I have to do, which is common, then I could forward the same email several times. Or I could select a portion of the email, then hit forward – and it only forwards that section. This is a feature of OS X Mail and probably most email services but is especially handy here. Select one task in the middle of the email, press Forward, enter my OmniFocus email address and maybe change the subject heading to something about the task. Send. Gone.

The time it took to say that to you far exceeds how long it takes me to do it. Especially the bit about entering my OmniFocus email address. You get given a secret address, you add it to your Contacts or Address Book, and ever since then I just have to start typing the letters “Om” and Mail fills out the rest for me.


I use all three versions of OmniFocus: Mac, iPhone and iPad. And I use them because they work even better together than apart – and because having the three means I can record or capture any task that enters my butterfly mind. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing.

Next, I have to actually do some To Dos.

Productivity lessons from Blake’s 7


In fact this came from Blake himself: Gareth Thomas suggested I do this when I was interviewing him for a forthcoming book about the BBC science fiction series.

Actually, full disclosure, it was more that he couldn’t fathom why I was such an eejit that I wasn’t already doing it.

It’s just this: put your phone calls on speakerphone and tape them.

For all that I said yesterday about finding it hard to make certain types of calls, I have made a fairly constant stream of them throughout my writing and especially journalism careers. With Gareth, I really wanted to phone him over Skype so that I could record the call on my Mac. But he wanted to phone me instead.

I do loathe costing my interviewees any money, I don’t see why they should pay for the call or go out of their way for me, but Gareth couldn’t do anything else. He was on tour in a play and fitting me in on a Saturday morning; he might be able to predict what town he’d be in but there was no way to give me a phone number to ring. I would of course have accepted a mobile number, very happily, but mobile to Skype to Mac has proved tricky before. More than one interviewee has said I sound like I’m in a barrel down a mineshaft.

So I’m genuinely mithered over what to do in order to record the interview. I have to record it. Have to. I’m not going to get a huge amount of time with him and he is somewhat vital to the book, I need to make the most of the chat.

I’ve never actually met Gareth Thomas, I’ve just now done two phoner interviews with him over the years. But even in those short times, I can tell you that he is as charming and funny and interesting as you would expect. Yet I swear I could feel him thinking the word ‘eejit’ before he explained to me that I didn’t need to route the call through my Mac to record it.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been doing something wrong for twenty years? So that happened.

I recorded that man three ways from hell. I rang him on my landline, had my iPhone and my iPad recording the sound from the speaker and I even got my Mac to do it too.

And that’s the productivity lesson: use your Mac or presumably your PC to record calls. You can’t just record anything, it has to be with permission and agreement like I had there with Gareth and a book interview, but you can record anything – in that anything that makes a sound, you can record.

Since that interview, I’ve recorded many calls. Lots of interviews, naturally, but also phone meetings or conversations where I’ve really needed to find out a lot of things and there isn’t much time.

I don’t know how you do this on a PC, though I imagine it’s part of Windows Media Player, but on a Mac you just launch QuickTime Player. Doubtlessly because of its name, few people realise that this Player also records. It can record anything that happens on your screen – so it’s ideal for showing someone how to do something – or it will record your face through your Mac’s camera. Or it will simply record audio.

Choose that, hit the record button. Here’s a second productivity tip, this time discovered by me without the aid of Roj Blake, fictional freedom fighter: identify yourself for the recording. I say my name, the date, the time and who I’ve agreed to record. You don’t think you’ll do this all that often but over the last six months I’ve gathered up a stock of maybe fifteen such calls and being able to identify them in the first few seconds of playback is a godsend.

Especially since QuickTime Player confuses me continually. Once you record something, it is there as an untitled document. Close it and it will ask you for a name to save it under. Or you can just save it and then close it. I say this to you and I cannot see what is so hard. Yet I regularly end up wondering whether I’m going to save or accidentally delete the recording. And I postpone worrying about it by leaving them all there.

So I’ve currently got about seven Untitled phone recordings on my Mac.

I promise to sort through them.

One more productivity tip, this time from my years producing UK DVD Review. That was a podcast from 2005-2010 which I’m proud to say peaked in the top ten of all podcasts, of all genres, across the entire world. I think there were only 11 podcasts then. But I learnt this. If you’re recording a lot, I mean for a long time and maybe just doing a few calls one after another, clap your hands.

I clap three times before the start of a long recording. Interviewees think I am strange. But they suspected that anyway.

This is pointless if it’s just a quick call and even with the much longer one I did with Gareth, it was straightforward: I just transcribed it afterwards from start to finish. Often, though, I will have such a long recording that I need to find parts of it quickly. Usually that’s the start of the next interview. When I was doing this for broadcast, it would be to find the next take or the next section.

These are all things that I would tend to listen to in a proper audio editor instead of just through QuickTime Player. (You don’t have to launch QuickTime Player to listen back to a recording: just find it on your Mac and tap your spacebar. It’s gorgeous how fast that is when you have a lot to look through.) With a proper audio editor, you get wave forms.

And with waveforms, the clap is really distinctive. You get three massive spikes in a row and you can just skip straight to that.

So. With permission, record your interviews or other detailed calls. Do it simply on your computer, label everything, and clap yourself if you’ve done a good job.

Calling it

My name is William and I have a problem with cold calls. Making them. I'm fine with getting them, I can even enjoy a good cold call so long as they don't stick robotically to a script. They always do but I always give them a chance to break free so I feel I've contributed something to the chat before I hang up on them.

But making cold calls, that's tough. And that's tough in another sense as I have to make them. I want to make them. I'm speaking at the Stratford Literary Festival next month because I cold-called. Obviously it took more than that one call, it took chats and emails, but it wouldn't have happened without my dialling that number. Me. Stratford. That's worth the difficulty of making calls.

I've developed two coping mechanisms that I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about them because this week I've been trying a modified version of one and am now ever more sure it works. At least, that it works for me. You own personal form of paraylsis may vary.

The first is that I know from years of struggling with this that statistically my most effective phone calls are made between 11am and noon. So in my series of Pattern Weeks here, I've written about blocking out certain times to do certain things and that hour is for phone calls. Monday to Friday, 11am to noon. Bang, bang, bang.

But to do it bang, bang, bang-like, I have to use the other strategy. This is exactly the one I write about in my Blank Screen book about writing To Do tasks as if someone else is going to do them. So in this case, rather than Call Anne, I write Call Anne re invoice number for the Doctor Who feature. Sometimes I'll even put the phone number in there too.

And that means no thinking, no looking anything up, just read task, see number, dial, speak, finish call, breathe out. (I shouldn't have chosen Anne as that example. She's lovely.)

So I game this: I arm myself with all the tools to make the call so that I can't prevaricate and then I set this inviolate time to make the calls – because that makes every other time the opposite. I cannot make phone calls outside that hour. (I do, it's often necessary, but the rule is the rule, I don't make these things up.)

The thing I've changed this week is that I've stopped ringing people on Mondays and Fridays. Again, not true. I had to ring someone yesterday in order to hit my thirty total for the month so nuts to the new plan.

But the new plan is to do 11-12 Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

You may think that's an excuse, that I'm creating more specific times to call in order to create more times I don't have you.

You caught me.

But it's again down to what is working and how often I am reaching people. Mondays and Fridays are bad days to try to get to speak to folk. It must be nice to work in an office where you can relax on a Friday just because it's a Friday and it must be hell to work in one where you cannot do anything on a Monday but panic about catching up, but it's what happens.

And it's what works.

Or it's what works for me.

If you have the same problems with cold calling that I do, give this a try. If you don't, please tell me your secret.

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.


I use OmniFocus 2 for iPhone every day. Close to every hour. And still I’ve just learnt some things I didn’t know – because the Omni Group has posted a short manual to the iBooks Store here.

Mac software tends to work the way you expect it to, so I don’t often look further than what I can figure out as I go. But I should know better because I used to write some of these manuals. Not all that many and so long ago that I can still remember how gorgeous bromide proof pages looked – and how rubbish final printed manuals looked in comparison. But simplicity is a very hard-won feature in software and if you lean on something a lot, it’s worth seeing what else is hidden behind the simple surface.

Consequently I’m now also reading the Omni Group’s OmniOutliner manual on the iBooks Store.

*This used to be a very familiar term when I was briefly a technical author: Read the Fucking Manual.

Don’t plan so much

This could be a sister post to one on how you shouldn’t spend so much time analysing, you should just write now and revise after: Use the Force – and Edit Later (27 February 2014). There is an argument that when we plan too much, too specifically, that we are also limiting ourselves. It’s fine and even good to have goals, but lighten up.

…of all the disappointments in life, there is hardly a kind more hazardous to happiness and more toxic to the soul than disappointing ourselves as we fail to live up to our own ideals and expectations.

The solution, however, might not be to further tighten the grip with which we cling to our plans — rather, it’s to let go of plans altogether. So argues British journalist Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library) — a fascinating look at how our conventional approaches to happiness and success tend to backfire as our very efforts to grasp after such rewards generate a kind of anti-force that pushes us further away from them.

Brain Pickings

Read the full Brain Pickings article for more on it and details of Burkeman’s book. The summary of the article and the book must surely be that there’s got to be a middle ground, though.

Email hacks – create a temporary group in OS X Mail with TextExpander

File this under I Needed To Know But Couldn’t Find It On the Internet. So here I am putting it on the internet.

My problem was that I now have to regularly email the same group of about 25 people, a good dozen or more are not in my address book. OS X Mail remembers who you’ve emailed before, whether or not they’re in your address book and that is remarkably confusing. I’ve just been slogging through this and discovered the strangest people are not in my address book: people I email often, people I like enormously, they ain’t in there.

They are now.

Side tip: in Mail, choose the Window menu and the entry for Previous Recipients. You get a long list. A long list. But if somebody is in your book, you get a little contact-card-like icon next to their name. And if they aren’t, you don’t. Click on the first one who isn’t there then option-click on each other one you want. Thump the Add to Contacts button and you’re done.

But with my group, I don’t actually know that many of them. Certainly not enough that I could glance down that list and know who was in the group, who isn’t. So I thought I was faced with adding each one separately and then collecting them into a group.

I was. Except I had a Damascus moment: I’ve got TextExpander.

So this is what I did – and I apologise for how geeky it sounds, I promise that it took seconds.

1) Found the last email to the group

2) Hit Reply to All

3) Selected all the names in the To: field and dragged the lot into the body of the message. They turned from the familiar blue-button names into names plus email addresses. They looked like this: “William Gallagher <>” except with twenty-five more of them, all in one massive lump with commas between them.

4) Copy and paste into Word.

5) Search and replace “>, ” (the closing bracket, comma and space that is at the end of every address) and replace with “^p” (Word’s code for a paragraph)

6) Set a tab halfway across the page.

7) Search and replace ” <” (the space and opening bracket that is at the start of every address) and replace with “^t” (Word’s code for a tab)

8) That got me what looks like two columns: the first with people’s real names, i.e. “William Gallagher” and the second with their addresses, “”

9) Option drag to select the column of names and the white space over to the start of the addresses.

10) Delete.

11) I was left with one column of addresses.

12) Search for “^p” and replace with “, ” (comma, space)

13) That got me back to one massive block of text that was every email address separated by a comma. Select and copy the lot

14) Open TextExpander and create a new snippet, a piece of text I want to use often. Paste my massive block of addresses and commas in to that and set a short key combination for the lot

So now whenever I’m writing an email message, I can type “;swf” (with the semicolon but without the quote marks) and the To: field is filled out with all of these nice people.

Now, truly, if you read out the above at the standard speaking speed of three words per second, it would take you a minute and forty seconds. I’ve just worked through the instructions again to check and the whole shebang took me… oh… a minute and 35 seconds. Okay. That was rubbish.

But next time I want to email this group, it will take me a seventh of a second. No searching for the last one, no adding some from the address book, some not, just “;swf” and wallop.

There is the downside that the people who weren’t in my address book still aren’t in my address book. As I talk with any of them individually, I’ll have to remember to add them. And I could have continued to just find the last email and Reply to All. I definitely could’ve done that and I have done for a month or more now. But each time I do it, I have to check the list because some people have asked to be taken off the group. Now I can forget that and just email everyone in one go. If anyone new asks to come off the list, it’s a moment’s work to edit the TextExpander snippet.

No, face it, William, this was a five-pound hammer for a one-cent problem. But it’s done now, get off my back.


Definitely TextExpander. But then you need that for everything. Promise. Read more about TextExpander on its official site.

Microsoft Word. Any word processor would probably do this but I turned to Word – even though I don’t use it so much any more – because I knew the codes for paragraphs and tabs. See more about Microsoft Word on its site. I used the Mac version which takes a little more digging to find on Microsoft’s site. Can’t imagine why.