The new normal

I’ve been working with a lot of writers lately and specifically about how to make more time for your writing. It’s not as if this is something I’ve never done before, but it is unusual how I somehow currently have three totally separate projects with completely separate groups and even in entirely different forms, that are all about this.

Maybe it’s that volume of thinking about this topic, maybe it’s because I’ve learned from these writers, or maybe it’s just age, but I have realised something. I realised it this morning, actually, as I came to talk to you.

If you want to write or to do anything, make it normal. Don’t think of it as new or different, it’s just what you do, so you’re doing it.

It takes time to make something a normal, regular part of your routine, but I would have said it takes five years and now I think it can be weeks.

Don’t let me sound as if I’m talking about making a habit of something. That’s different. What I mean is – well, actually, let’s take you and I for an example.

When Self Distract started, easily ten years ago now, it was a place for me to promote something or other. Something to do with Radio Times, where I was doing most of my writing at the time. But it changed.

It’s now you and me getting to talk. And I don’t know when you read it, but I do know exactly when I write it.

Early every Friday morning, I make us a mug of tea and we start. Like we always do. Like it’s normal. And if it’s taken years for me to see it as being as much a normal part of the week as cooking breakfast is, the last few months have seen a change to that normality.

Lately I’ve been spending so very many hours at my desk most days that to talk to you, I move to the couch in my living room. If you’d asked me about it yesterday, I’m sure I would’ve told you that I do this, but I’d have had to think about it. Whereas this morning, I had the tea, I had the couch, but I’d forgotten my iPad. It’s in my office and surely the sensible thing is just to go there and write, especially since the moment you and I finish nattering, that’s exactly where I’ve got to go.

But it felt wrong. Without my realising that it had happened, the couch had become normal and anything else had not.

I got the iPad. I made more tea.

And if all of this is on my mind today, I think that perhaps it’s because I’ve been looking for it. You know how when you hear some word for the first time, you are somehow guaranteed to keep hearing it over and over again. Not once in your life had you heard it before, now it’s practically daily.

I think that really the reason I’ve been looking at how to make something part of your normal life is that something else has changed for me and it’s probably only taken a month or two.

Twice this week, two entirely separate firms I work with had problems and I offered to produce a video for them. In fact, for one of the firms, I just did it. Wrote, produced, shot, edited and delivered a video that did this thing they needed.

At some point very recently, video production became one of my regular, normal tools. It helps that I write the scripts, and it helps that I do believe video editing uses the same mental muscles as writing, but still something has changed. I’ve edited video for two decades, easily, but never before has it been the obvious solution to a problem.

What’s changed is not that I now edit video, but rather that it is a normal part of my working week.

Once you make something normal, you just do it. And I think you end up doing so much more of it than you had thought. That’s both in terms of how you find more uses for whatever it is, but also you do somehow make more time.

I shot five videos this week and so far have delivered four of them. Whether they’re any good or not is a very different issue, but the five came on top of everything else I was doing this week, which is exactly what I was doing every week two months ago.

I know you get faster at things through practice, but I believe that you can take on something new and that you can find the extra time to do it more when it stops being this scary new thing and instead becomes normal. When your To Do list becomes Write Script, Pitch to X, Interview Y, do Food Shopping – and Shoot Video.

So come on then, it’s just you and me here, let’s figure out what new things we can take on next.

Get up

The following takes place between smugness and embarrassment. Paragraphs happen in real time.

Listen, I have a thing. I have this accidental new gig talking about productivity – it’s a dull word but getting yourself more time to write or compose, it’s worth the odd dull word – and one crucially important aspect is to do with finding your best times to work. In an ideal world, with no day job or kids, there will be a time of day that just suits you the best. Maybe you’re a late night writer, for instance. You just are or you just aren’t.

My point is to look for that time, experiment around until you know when it is and then always do your best to keep that period clear. It’s simple and obvious enough, you get it.

Only, as an example, I generally tell people that I found my best time for writing is when I get up at 5am. The sole thing I stress and underline more than the fact that this is just an example, I am not recommending you do 5am too, is that I stress and underline and weep about how I loathe it. Getting up to write at 5am is all kinds of stupid and it is a damned curse that it’s when I happen to function the best. I would like put this functioning best capability to functioningly sleeping. And similarly, if you write best at midnight, I envy and applaud you. That’s when this should be done. That’s when real writing happens. Going to bed before midnight should be illegal.

But.

I’ve changed my mind.

Not about how stupid it is to get up at 5am and not one pixel about how stupid I am for doing it.

But it’s no longer just an example.

I’m afraid it’s a recommendation.

I fell off the productivity wagon a little while ago, coming off the back of a big book project. Plus I had a lot of evening speaking engagements and it was both crucial that I didn’t fall asleep in them and also knackering that I was doing them at all. Also, plus, and, lots of excuses. It has always been that the weekday 5am is inviolate except for when travel makes it impossible or other things in my schedule make it unwise.

Whatever the excuses and the number of excuses, the result was that I had a couple of weeks where it wasn’t practical to get up at 5am.

Yet I didn’t feel all that more rested and refreshed.

I felt rather bad, actually, and things were just not working out. A few rejections, a lot of very poor writing from me. I do a weekly email newsletter for my productivity site, The Blank Screen, and in it there is always a brief section that tells you what I’ve been writing lately. It is there to hopefully keep prodding you into doing your own writing, it is there to certainly prod me. And the last few have been feeble. Practically nothing going on. And so the newsletter that used to be a nice prod for me started to become a bit of a cattle prod in my side. Just for that section, I enjoy the newsletter. But lately not that section. (I’d like you to see the newsletter, it’s good. Do sign yourself up here.)

I don’t think I consciously connected the problems to the lack of 5am starts but about a week ago, I felt so overwhelmed with what was going on and what wasn’t being done, that I made myself get up at this stupid o’clock again. Not because it’s my best time but just that I needed the number of hours it gives you when you start that early and you don’t finish until late.

And since then I’ve pitched more successfully than I have in months. My new book is about 10,000 words further on. I thought of a new business, started it, announced it, got my first paying clients. We are now fully in the smugness section and I do apologise but there is embarrassment coming, honest. So yes, I can see I got up early and I can point to specific things that have gone well because of it. But I think the truth is that it’s me who has made them go well, not the clock. But the clock has got me some extra hours in the morning, it’s got them before the phones start ringing, it’s given me a head start every day and by 9am I feel I’ve done loads – because I’ve done loads.

So that’s it. It is 5am, Monday to Friday for me now, forever. Always.

Cue embarrassment.

Except today.

Last night I was at the Royal Television Society’s awards gala dinner in the Midlands and I think I must’ve passive drunk because my head is a jackhammer on a spin cycle. Also, I got to bed around 1am. And it’s going to be a late night with a lot of driving tonight. So yes, the excuses are back and I’m embarrassed. But I’ve got the buzz of the week’s work behind me, I’ve got a buzz from last night, actually, and I know that next week is going to be full of 5am starts so I am hoping that sheer momentum will carry me over today’s jackhammer lie-in.

I’d suggest we chat at 5am some time soon but we should be working, shouldn’t we?

New book out today: Filling the Blank Screen

Filling-the-Blank-Screen_600x900Last year, The Blank Screen book captured every single thing I knew about being a productive yet still creative writer. How to beat distractions. Get started. Cope with the day job, cope with deadlines, cope with other people – and cope with yourself too. There’s also an astonishingly popular bit in it about kettles. Tea-making aside, I am deeply proud of how useful the book has proved to people. Actually, hang on, how about this quote?

“Love this book, it is clever and witty and genuinely grapples with making an extra hour (or two) in the day. Inspiring and liberating. A real Can-Do manual. No creative should be without it.”

That was an out-of-the-blue email from Barbara Machin, creator of BBC’s Waking the Dead. Made my day, didn’t it? So did getting tweets at 5am from people saying they had finally finished their novels because of what I’d told them. Okay, being up and working and able to tweet right back at them that second was part of the fun.

But that’s the thing. People. The Blank Screen book became a workshop that I have now done all over the country. I’ve done versions for individuals – that’s intense but fantastic: ask me about that – and I’ve spoken at literary festivals, in universities, I’ve worked with new and amateur writers, I’ve worked with long-time professionals. Next week I’m in Newcastle and it is to spend a day with writers but also with journalists, musicians and actors. People who have to create, whose passion is in creating new work but who are having to do more of that and do it alongside so many other jobs that their creativity is under pressure. The work they live to do is being squeezed to one side like the credits on a TV show while they are having to run businesses or get day jobs.

I know that what I’ve got for them will help with everything they’re doing. That’s a great feeling, to actually know that this works. But what’s greater, for me personally, is that I do not know what they’ve got for me. I just know that they will have something.

It’s more or less exactly a year since The Blank Screen first came out and now I’ve learnt so much from so many people that I’m ecstatic to tell you today sees the official publication of a new book: Filling the Blank Screen. One hundred chapters of advice, tips, recommendations and daft anecdotes from a year of making more people more productive.

This new book is actually a distillation of more than a thousand articles on The Blank Screen news site and of more than a quarter of a million words written on there since November 2013. One hundred of the best, the most-talked about and the most-read pieces have been continued, developed, updated and given a nice scrub to make this new ebook. If you and I have talked at a workshop, I have stolen your brilliant idea and it’s in chapter 3.

Filling the Blank Screen is due to be released in paperback on 12 September and the ebook is out today.

The aim of this new book is not to replace The Blank Screen, I still know that will be useful to you and I hope also entertain. But Filling the Blank Screen is a burst of bite-sized pieces you can grab on the run and which tell you what to do to get things done. Read one piece a day and in a hundred days you’ll have had a good time and I’ll have the reputation for writing long books.

Everybody wins and it costs you only £2.99.

Quick aside? Since it’s you? Filling the Blank Screen is not the book I was planning to write this year. It really did come out of the unexpected success of the workshops and the news site. It felt like it was the book itself that wanted to be written. Which is startling and great, obviously, and I’m dancing here, but still it is not the book I was planning to write. Which means I am deep into the planned book and that’s what I should be working on right now. If only there were a couple of books out with great and tested advice about getting writing finished and beating distractions and putting the kettle on this minute.

It is a treat that I get to tell you these things. Thanks.