Best productivity advice for November

I refuse to mention the word Christmas – damn – but on this first day of November, some things do change and the year is canted toward its end. Plus you know that January is for making resolutions, February is for breaking them and March is for admitting that you actually broke them within a day and a half. November has a purpose too and it’s you.

Back in January you were under all this pressure to declare your plans for the year. Nobody’s asking you to do that in November and actually fewer people are asking you to do anything. Depending on your industry, this can be a slow time and that’s typically true of freelance writing. When you do get work in then stuff everything I’m saying to you and go do that. But when you don’t, do this instead.

Look for some new places to pitch your work. A couple of Novembers ago, I made a list of ten companies I quite liked the sound of and only one of them listened to me. But they became a major source of income, they’ve accounted for maybe a third of the money I’ve earned since then. So you can say that my list of ten was rubbish and worthless and pointless, you can say that I should’ve just gone to this lot. I definitely did say repeatedly that this was a rubbish idea as I worked through the list and nothing was happening. But I still remember the moment, sitting in a Costa Coffee, when I hesitated over whether to bother continuing.

I think that nine failures made my approach to the last lot better or at least more practised. I also think that nine failures meant I wasn’t hoping for anything with the tenth and that I therefore had a busy, an un-needy attitude in that approach. I also know that if it had taken a lot of time I wouldn’t have bothered.

Whereas I think it probably took me two hours over the course of a week to compile that list of ten places; I expect that it took me less time than that to approach them all, and it made a huge difference to my productivity for the next two years.

The trouble is that you don’t think you’ve got two hours to spare over this week. Very often you haven’t, but as we head toward the end of 2016, you’re going to find the time. And if you don’t, if you’re so busy that you haven’t got the time, take it anyway. I’m not saying lie to your client or your employer about how you’ve just spent the last two hours, but only because they might hear me.

Sod the fear and do it anyway

I’m pretty sure I was actually at this TEDxManchester talk: it was a few years ago and the presenter’s doubtlessly done it many times, but it stands out to me. Actually, it stands out most for the opening 90 seconds or so. Among all the other things that Carrie Green discusses in her talk, I took away the very first point about just doing something.

We are all remarkably hesitant about things we don’t know, experiences we haven’t had and about how we will appear to others. About whether we will cope with something. I can’t put words into Green’s mouth but what I believe she’s saying is that the time we spend hesitating is wasted and the fact that we hesitate blocks us from things we would enjoy.

Plus, if we then don’t enjoy them, we’ve got ‘me over with quickly instead of stewing about it.

Have a look at her whole talk but especially the opening minute and a half or so.


Focus on one thing at a time

I believe that splitting your concentration and even – gasp – multitasking means you end up with lots of things not finished. Probably not as good as they could be, either, but chiefly unfinished. Writer James Clear argues that there’s more to this one-thing-only approach, though, and he starts with trying to prove its value:

If you want to master multiple habits and stick to them for good, then you need to figure out how to be consistent. How can you do that?

Well, here is one of the most robust findings from psychology research on how to actually follow through on your goals:

Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick with your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior.

The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing at a Time | James Clear

The rest of the article is more about the philosophy of concentrating. Read the full piece.

Your snooze button is harming you

Sorry for the dramatic headline but I think it’s true. Have a read of this:

Most people see the snooze button as a luxury that promises just a little more energy, but in fact, it screws up the morning and beyond. Hitting snooze may offer a temporary sense of relief, but there is mounting evidence that it also keeps us from starting our day with a feeling of purpose.

In his book, The Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod explains that the danger of the snooze button is that every time you hit it, you are implicitly saying that you don’t want to wake up to your life.

If you’re thinking, “Meh, not such a big deal,” think again. There are graver conditions than apathy associated with over-snoozing – the most insidious of which is depression. Repeatedly hitting the snooze button in resistance to rising gives you the sense that you have nothing to look forward to, leading to feelings of purposelessness and passivity very similar to what depressed people feel.

The Most Harmful Thing You’re Doing Before You Even Get Out of Bed – Page19

That deeply chimed with me because I’ve been doing the snooze a lot lately, including this morning, and I can see directly how my mood is different to when I get up at 5am as planned. Read the full piece.

Take another look at productivity tools you’ve rejected

Sometimes it’s not the tools, it’s you. More often, it is the tools. But then just once in a while, it’s not neither you nor them, it’s when you first tried them. Writer Ken Armstrong used to be firmly against the use of index cards for planning out your scripts but last week found a new approach.

Rather than doing what everyone says you should and actually planning out what the script will be, how the script will go, he wrote the script first and then wrote index cards. One card per scene. He says:

As I wrote them and laid them out on the floor it was almost as if the play stepped a little further out of the script pages and closer to some kind of reality. That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. The script itself is a rather bulky tome and the only corporeal form it has is a stack of pages or, worse again, a series of digital imprints on a computer screen. On the floor, the little cards, so loose and so tenuously askew, look like they might dance and sing a little. They look like someday they might actually turn into something real.

So there’s another rare writing tip from me. If index cards work for you at the outline stage, well done. If you hate them, like I did, try them once more right at the end. 

Ken Armstrong Writing Stuff: It’s not where you start…

Read the full piece.

Eat regularly

This morning I went straight to the keys and wrote a Writers’ Guild email newsletter that had to go out. Then I had breakfast. So it was around 11am when I ate and now, a couple of hours later, I’m putting off getting lunch.

This could be why I feel a little ill.

You know that you should eat regularly and if you didn’t know it, you hear it often enough. But there is a reason you hear it often, there is a reason why it’s important and in case it takes just one more push to get you to do it, hello. I’m pushing.

I’m pushing you because eating regularly, even though it takes time away from your work, means you can work better.

And I’m pushing you because that will push me. Let us work together. Hey, let’s do lunch, okay?

If there were a university course for freelancers

Actually, there are elements of the freelance life in existing courses: I’ve been booked to talk to students about writing for a living. But The Freelancer website’s Danielle Corcione has written a funny, incisive and rather smart prospectus for a proper course. It begins with a module on Self-Care for Emotionally Unstable Writers before it goes into practical issues of money.

Have a read. By the end, you’d sign up for this course if she ever really ran it.

Networking when you’re new in town

When I was a student, I was blasé about what it was like going to a new place. I pointed out to someone that it’s startling how often students choose to remain in those new places after graduating, how they so completely fit into the situation that it must surely be easy.

Uh-huh, said this someone. And then she pointed out that when students move to a new place, they meet a gigantic number of other people who have just moved there for the same reason. That’s why it’s at least easier than it would be on your own. So later on moving somewhere else new, by yourself, that’s hard and that’s why fewer people do it.

Can’t disagree. She was completely right, I was completely wrong.

All these years later, it’s an important issue because we don’t necessarily move around a great deal but we do need to meet new people. We need to network for our jobs and actually I’d say for our very souls: I love blathering with new people. The things they know that I don’t, the things they’ve done that I haven’t. The disagreements I can learn from like I did from my fellow student.

All of which is a long way to say that I want to point you at a piece by Meredith Fineman for Harvard Business Review: it’s a short, simple, practical guide to networking from scratch. Do have a read.

Planning vs prevarication

A friend just sent me a mindmap of a book idea and said that she was doing so to prove that she would write the book. It shouldn’t be proof, but it is: she’s done a particularly well-worked out and detailed map that slips easily into a chapter outline. Pop those into Word or whatever she’s writing in and her book is underway.

It shouldn’t be: this is just a list of chapters, but it is and you know it is. That time spent planning has produced a working, useful document that has got her somewhere and will continue to get her places.

There is another type of planning that neither she nor you ever, ever do, which is where you plan in order to postpone doing the actual work. We don’t talk about that kind of planning, you and I, we do not.

Until she sent me this map, what I was intending to talk to you about today was planning in general. And I was going to use October in particular. I’ve been feeling a bit anxious and overwhelmed about the things I’ve got to do this month.

So many of them are events that need work and then around them are so many other tasks that aren’t event but need more. And hanging over the lot is a job where I’m waiting to get briefed.

Last night I went through it all and put each event on my calendar. That’s it. Nothing else. Today I have to work through the work, so to speak, but seeing it all there on the month view, somehow it has become manageable to me. I think it’s become visible, that’s the thing. I can see what the month is.

I’d have told you that I’m not a visual thinker, that I’m more a text kind of one, but there’s no reason you can’t be both and right now the month view plan is making me feel calmer.

Whatever you’re overwhelmed about, spread it out on the table in front of you and just the act of doing that helps whelm.

Farm your time better

Look, back in the olden days before there were clocks and deadlines, time was this vague, huge thing with little more than the seasons to mark its passing. Compare that to now when we can know time to the minute and we use it to the second: we have cultivated time.

If that’s true then I think it follows that we have to tend and farm time. There is a point when we sow and a point when we harvest.

And if I went even a pixel further I think I would break this analogy so I’ll shut up. But I’ve thought about this far more than it can seem here, certainly far more than is healthy, and the useful thing I’ve taken away from it is that we need breaks.

That without a break, over-worked soil will cease to be able to grow anything.