As part of our new #AskALLi weekly podcast we’re releasing popular Indie Author Fringe speaker session highlights in a podcast recording. This means you can catch up on sessions you may have missed, and listen to them on-the-go or in your car.
If you’re not familiar with our Fringe event, it’s three-times a year, online conference for self-publishing authors, brought to you by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and fringe to the major global publishing fairs; London Book Fair, BookExp, and Frankfurt Book Fair.
ALLi brings together the most up-to-date self-publishing education and information available and broadcasts it to authors everywhere. Running 24 sessions over 24 continuous hours allows our members, and other authors round the globe, to attend sessions, no matter where they’re located.
Our next Indie Author Fringe Conference in on October 14th. Just click here to register and you won’t miss any of our event updates.
This week we’re showcasing the session “Productivity for Authors: How to Write and Publish Often And Well: Mark McGuinness.”
If you struggle to find time for your writing and publishing amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life, this session is for you! Mark will help you carve out time consistently, while still managing all the other important commitments in your life.
Topics Covered in this Fringe Highlight Session:
How to organize and prioritize your writing time
Laying a creative foundation
Setting your writing priorities
Avoid procrastination that is hindering your writing output
Placing value on your writing time
Freeing up your brain to write
Listen to this Fringe Highlight Podcast
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Barry: Hi everyone, my name is Barry McDonagh and I’m and I’m here interviewing Mark McGuiness for the Indie Author Fringe. Welcome Mark and thanks for being here.
Mark: Thank you Barry, it’s very nice to be back here.
Barry: Before we get into the topic and discuss more about productivity for creative people, tell me a bit about yourself and how this book came about?
Mark: Sure, so, first and foremost, I’m a poet. That’s my own creative form of expression. Growing out of that, my day job is as a coach for creative professionals where I work with writers, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, anyone where I don’t have to have the conversation about why creativity matters. And I also write. I’ve been blogging for ten years about creativity, productivity, professional challenges for creatives. And this book has come out of that, it’s really a kind of distillation of everything that I’ve been writing and thinking over the past 10 years, writing for the past ten years, coaching for the past twenty years on, as the book subtitle says, how to get creative work done amid the demands and distractions of twenty-first centaury life.
Barry: Was there something in particular that got you interested in this whole area? Was it something in your own life or something you saw in creative people around you?
Mark: It was, well very often I discover I’ve got an issue myself when I see it mirrored back in my clients. So, for me it was immense frustration that there was, I really wasn’t organized enough and the technology was going faster than my organizational skills. I was spending a lot of time on the hamster wheel of trying to catch up with email and phone calls and this was even before Twitter and Facebook and all of that. It just felt that my day was not in my own control, that I was spending all my time kind of chasing my tail. And I wasn’t getting the most important work done. Which for me has always been writing. And no surprise to see that I started, as soon as I started investigating this, looking into time management, productivity systems, I noticed a lot of my clients coming up with the same issues and the same frustration that, you know, we go into this profession because we love to write and yet if we’re not careful, writing can be the thing that gets pushed off the schedule by all of the other stuff that’s supposed to be an accessory to writing.
Barry: I think every author who is watching/listening to this is going to be struggling with this on some level, so, I think it would be great if we dive in and we get some really good kind of granular detail on what it is that they can do. Are you open to doing that?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. So, let me just see if I can get these slides to magically appear. Can you see it?
Barry: Because I noticed you’ve got different stages and one of the first stages is laying the foundations. I can see your slides, yeah.
Mark: You can, ok, so, let’s go straight in. So, the brave new world is just a question that we’re just covering, that the internet makes life so much easier and at the same time so much harder for authors. And I think, if you really want to meet this challenge and overcome it, and fulfill your potential creatively as well and professionally and financially, there are three important things. These are the three main areas I want to cover today.
Step One: Laying the Foundation
So, first of all is, I call it laying the foundation. So, this is about taking a step back. Getting off that hamster wheel and really thinking about how you work best, where the points of frustration are in your working life. Maybe looking at some of the myths about productivity and creativity in our culture and making some big picture decisions about how you’re going to organize your time. And, you know, that’s what I would invite all of us to do today. This is an opportunity, listening to this or watching the video, to just really, as you do this, just think about how does this apply to me? What can I learn? Where am I feeling frustrated and where would I like to be more creative and fulfilled I my daily work?
Step Two: Doing Creative Work
So, that’s the first step, the second one is doing creative work. In our case is actually writing, and I’m putting them next as a priority because it’s so easy for us to think, well, I’d better empty my inbox, I’d better catch up on my phone calls, I’d better update my marketing, I’d better do anything other than the actual writing which is the foundation for everything. And if we’re not careful, then all the other stuff, being productive about the kind of the secondary thing, can be a form of what Steven Pressfield calls resistance to actually getting creative work done. That’s the thing that makes us procrastinate and avoid our true calling.
Step Three: Dealing with the Rest
And finally, is dealing with the rest. So, this part is, if you like, closer to the traditional productivity system advice which is about how do you manage email, how do you keep your commitments, how do you make sure that you never forget something important, how do you plan ahead and make sure that, you know, you’ve got your marketing, your book launch, etc, all fitting in and not rushing to do everything at the last minute.
So, those are the three areas that we’re going to look at.
Barry: So, the third area is very much everything outside of your writing life, the first two is all about the writing?
Mark: Well, the first two is, actually, I mean the first one really helps you make some decisions and distinctions between the two. So, it’s kind of the overall principles that you want to have clearly in your mind, that for instance, you know, helps you distinguish between doing research which may be important at a certain stage in the writing process but if you’re not careful you could end up, I mean I’ve had some clients, I’ve just banned them from doing any more research, until they’ve written a first draft because very often, as Milton Eriksson said, you know more than you know you know. So, you know, that’s one example that a bit of clear thinking up front can save you a lot of time further down.
Step One: Laying the Foundation
So, let’s start with laying the foundations and here the big principle that is maybe slightly provocative, that I’d like you to bear in mind is the idea of get more organized in order to get more creative. Now, I know some people watching this are going to resist it because somebody always does. Somebody says well, I’m an artist, I’m a writer, I’m a creator, I’m not here to be a cubicle worker and be organized in, you know, like in jellicle pen pusher. And I totally get you, that’s not what I’m talking about at all.
But, to give you an example, this morning I was working on a poem. And I spent my whole morning doing that and I didn’t think of anything else. I didn’t check my email, I didn’t take phone calls and most importantly of all, I wasn’t worried that I’d forgotten something. There was no part of me that was going is there something else I should be doing? I was totally focused on the poem because I’d done the big picture thinking. I’d set up my systems. I knew that later today I would get on, I would catch up with all the email, I would return the phone calls, I would do all the admin and marketing tasks that were in my plan.
And so for me, the most important thing about getting organized and it doesn’t have to, I’m not going to give anybody some kind of best practice system. What I’m going to present here and what I present in the book is a menu. And you take what works and you leave what doesn’t work. But I would just invite you to experiment with the idea that if you really think about it and you decide, I know when I’m going to be doing my email, I know when I’m going to be doing my marketing, I know when I’m going to meeting my cover designer and talking about all of that stuff and all the other tasks and I know that it’s not going to be in my writing time. If you can do that then it frees you up, it frees your mind to focus on the story or whatever it is that you’re writing that’s most important to you.
Barry:How do you stop an interruption during that key time? So, you’ve blocked off that very important number of hours, whatever it is, and then something happens. Someone, even physically comes in to interrupt you, so, your phone might be off but other things can. How do you deal with that?
Mark: Well, you know, physical interruptions, maybe a lot of, one of the nice things about being a writer is a lot of us end up working at home on our own or in our own office. So, there are relatively few interruptions like that. I guess you could improvise a barricade but certainly telling, if you’re in a shared space then let people know around you, when it’s ok to interrupt and when it’s not. You might even, say if you’re going to have a specific place that you go in order to the writing, I know lots of writers who do this. The digital stuff is a lot easier because you just switch it off. I mean I’ve switched this off because I’m talking to you. Now, of course, it does require a little self-control to do that. There is software that you can use, for instance, I think its called MAC-Freedom allows you to switch off the internet and lock yourself out of checking email or Facebook or whatever your temptation is.
But, the big thing I would say here is treat it like a game, say whatever my writing time is, this is what I’m allowed to do, this is what I’m not allowed to do. There was one famous writer, I can’t remember his name, said, he used to sit at the typewriter every morning till twelve o’clock and he had coffee, a packet of cigarettes and a typewriter. And he said he didn’t have to do anything but the only thing he was allowed to do was drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and write. And so obviously he spent the first twenty minutes drinking the coffee and smoking the cigarettes. After a while he got so bored he thought I might as well write something while I’m here. So, just having rules like that, that lets you know what’s ok and what’s not ok. And again, it’s up to you, you decide it, this is your utopia, you can design it anyway you want.
Barry: Good, I think my problem is, I give myself that time and I get some good writing done which I feel is good and then I feel I deserve a reward and that reward is where the problems come in because that reward might be going on to Facebook, it might be stepping away and having a conversation with someone.
Mark: I’m all for rewards, just save them up till afterwards and just think about how much, one thing you might think about is how much more rewarding it will be when you’ve done 90 minutes instead of an hour or two hours instead of one hour, you know, whatever it is for you. But it is really important, if you’re going to have the self-control or discipline to do this, that you do reward yourself later on. You can splurge on Facebook or Twitter or whatever it is you like to do.
And this is another principle that I talk about in the book, is do more nothing. Don’t work all the time because if you work all the time, you might be productive in the kind of traditional corporate sense, but you certainly won’t be creative. Creativity needs us to take time away and come back.
It’s nice to remind myself of that this morning when I was very frustrated with my poem. I’m hoping it will look easier and it will flow better tomorrow but we will have to wait and see.
Barry: But say that again, do more nothing?
Mark: Do more nothing, yeah. So, this is some, I got this idea from when I spent time in a Buddhist monastery doing silent meditation retreats. So, ten days of literally doing nothing except walking, sitting meditation. No TV, no reading, no books, certainly no phone and actually what happened then was every morning, almost about 10:10 exactly, I would have an insight about something that was happening in my life at that time. And I would have no conscious idea beforehand what it was going to be but it was quite weird. But by the end it became fairly regular as clock work and that really highlighted to me that creativity, problem solving, you can’t push it, you can’t force it.
You can create the conditions and then get out the way. And it also made me really aware that the morning is the best time for my writing. And so, I’ve always kept that free for writing and the afternoon is fine to use for other things because I’m not particularly good at writing, my brain is a bit slower and more sluggish after lunch. So, you know, again, that’s no example of, just try to work a little smarter as they say, rather than just nose to the grindstone all the time.
Barry: So, the nothing is like a processing that’s going on in you brain, so, there is work maybe even happening there but you’re just not aware of it?
Mark: Yeah, opinion is divided among the psychologist and neuro-scientists about what the effect is. Some people argue you’re brain is working very unconsciously and other people say it’s simply the fact that you’ve gone away and you’ve come back and it’s fresh. So, whatever theory you subscribe to, it’s fine but there is definitely that effect of you go away, very often exhausted or tired or just convinced that there’s no way that you can do this and then you come back the next day and you think oh well actually, maybe? Or you could be walking the dog or riding your bike or in the shower, as lots of people testify, and the idea comes to you. So, certainly, working hard all the time is not going to make you a better writer.
Barry: Great, I interrupted you there, please continue.
Mark: So, let’s have a think. Multi-tasking, this is another thing, you know, when you’re laying the foundations just try, again, neuro-scientists have confirmed this, that the brain cannot multitask. You can do two things at once but you can only pay attention to one of them. So, having all those browser windows open is not going to work. And it really keeps coming back to the boring, simple idea that writers have known for centuries that, just sitting and focusing on that one thing and doing it for however long you can do it each day, it’s much better to do two hours of really focused writing than spend a whole day with six browser windows open and the phone on and having conversations and so on.
Barry: So, jumping around isn’t helpful.
Mark: No. And again, there’s plenty of time to do that later in the day, as we’ll see or you know, at another time in the day when you’re focused on dealing with all the rest. We’re not saying you have to be in a monastery all the time or in completely focused seclusion.
Step Two: Doing Creative Work
So, let’s move on to the next phase, which is about, we’ve actually, I guess, jumped ahead slightly into doing creative work.
So, just picking up on the story about the monastery, one thing I suggest you do is notice the time of day or night or evening, when you personally find it easiest to do your creative work. So, most of us tend to be more alert in the morning but some are more alert in the afternoon and others are the night owls of the species, they like to do their best work late at night. And whenever that is, it’s important that you ring-fence that time. That is your sacred time. So, to me an hour in the morning is worth at least two hours in the afternoon or the evening because I know that my mind is really clear and sharp and it’s much easier for me to focus at that time of day. And so, for instance, it’s really hard to get a meeting with me in the morning. All my coaching clients, unless they’re in Australia when the time zones don’t allow, I see them all in the afternoon. I work with a lot of them in the States so it works out then that their morning is my afternoon so that’s fine. So, you know, and I’m always, when I’m looking at the beginning of the week, just think how many mornings have I got, you know, how many mornings have I kept free to get my writing done? And that’s the biggest decision for me of the week. If you can do that, the good news is, you know, there’s plenty of other time that you can be doing other things.
So, for instance, if you are an evening person, as long as you keep your evenings free to write, then you can do all kinds of things during the day. You can exercise, you can see friends, you can spend lots of time on Twitter and Facebook. You can get really good at emptying your inbox. You can do lots of interviews for podcasts. You can do whatever it is you want to do, whether it’s marketing or publishing or dare I say it, having a life outside of writing, as long as you keep your promise to yourself to write in the evenings then the rest of the day is free.
It’s like for me, if I write in the morning, I get to call myself a writer all day and I never have to write another word after lunch. So, you know, I have a coaching business that basically fits in to the afternoons. So, on the one hand it requires a bit of discipline and focus to do this but on the other hand you’re opening up the rest of your time.
Barry: And it’s really about placing value on time itself, you know, almost seeing time as a commodity and that you are saying my writing time is probably the most important time of the day, I’m going to do it at my best, mentally, when I’m at my best and then ring-fencing it so that you won’t be interrupted. I think it’s just really about seeing how precious those moments are, that that time that you’ve ring-fenced off is.
Mark: Absolutely. And the other thing is once you’ve ring-fenced it, it’s not to say you would never write another word outside of it but I would say, you know, this is the minimum, if you really want to make sure that you’re fulfilling your potential as a writer. So, if it gets to say, I don’t know, half past nine in the morning and I haven’t started writing, I’m thinking well, hang on, I haven’t got much time left. And what is an absolute killer to productivity for a writer is you start the day and you think well, I’ve got all day, I’m not in a rush. I can muck about, I can procrastinate. It doesn’t matter if I do all the other stuff that we’ve been talking about. If you’re not careful, you can end up giving away your best time of day. So, if you’ve only got two hours of an evening, or you’ve got a morning or an afternoon then once you see that, you really value it. And also I generally try to avoid the work discipline. I know I’ve used it a couple of times but to me, this shouldn’t be something that we have to do, oh god, I’ve got to do my writing now. It’s something that we get to do, you know? I get two or three or even four whole hours to practice my craft today. Well, that’s something that I want to dive in to and enjoy and savor. So, yeah, absolutely right, treat it as precious time.
Barry: Yeah, I think the discipline is a thing that artists struggle with. Artists don’t like the word discipline because it seems to confine you and maybe lock you down but really discipline leads to freedom, you know? By having strict discipline you end up with freedom.
Mark: Yeah, that’s the way I like to look at it. Another way to kind of frame it to yourself is to say well, what would your ideal day be like as a writer? So, my ideal day is I get up, I write in the morning and I do other things in the afternoon. So, I’ve designed my day, I’ve designed my business around that. So, we’re not talking about discipline as in trying to force your creativity into a system. We’re saying design the system around the creativity. If you like to work at night and your family are ok with that, then sleep or morning or you know, have a nap in the afternoon or do whatever works for you and just think your writing is coming first, just like we’re using it in this model, you know, the three step model, we make some decisions, put your writing first and then deal with everything else.
So, I mean we’ve touched a little bit on fending off the distractions, turning off the phone, the email, etc. Another thing I would like to invite people to think about is, if you like, your warm up ritual as a writer. So, you know, we’re quite familiar with this for sports players and actors and performers, that they’ll have a strange kind of ritual and might put one book on before the other, they always wear the number seven, they have to be last out of the dressing room or whatever. And a lot of writers have the same kind of thing, I mean to me, I drink, in the morning I have a routine, after the children have had their breakfast and gone to school, I meditate and then I brew the coffee and it’s always the same kind of coffee to the same strength, and I have my little Japanese tea mug that I drink the coffee out of, and I put music on, it’s always the same kind of music for a particular kind of writing. And that just, all of these things act as a trigger for my emotional brain, for my unconscious mind, whatever you want to call it. This goes back to my days as a hypnotherapst, when what you’re actually doing is you’re activating the writing state. It’s like the equivalent of double clicking on an icon to open up an app so that you can use that app. What you’re doing with your brain, you know, whether it’s a favorite arm chair, a favorite writing pen, a favorite chair in your local café, a favorite brand of incense or coffee or whatever it is, is you try to set up unique triggers that you learn to associate with that act of writing. And when you do that, it makes for a smoother transition. It makes it much easier and quicker to get into that flow state when you’re not even thinking about the distractions because you’re so absorbed in the writing.
Barry: So, yours are music and coffee, a drink and it’s the location, always the same location?
Mark: It is, you know, this is my office, this is my inner sanctum. It depends on the actual writing, so for poetry I’ll use a pen and a notebook quite a lot, as well as the computer, always the same kind of notebooks, obviously. If I’m writing prose, then I use speech recognition. So, typically I will stand up, I’ll have a Bluetooth headset and I’ll walk up and down and dictate to the computer, I have very large font, thirty.
Barry: So what software do you use for that?
Mark:I use Dragon. Dragon naturally speaking for Mac, you know, which is something, Dragon for Mac or Dragon dictate. The P.C version is even better, but the obviously draw back because you have to have Windows, so I use the MAC version, but they’re both pretty good. And it’s no good for poetry because I write that very slowly. But for prose it really helps me capture my speaking voice. And bang that first draft out very quickly, so that’s another little technical tip. And there’s a chapter about that in the book where I talk about you know, how, it’s almost like it frees up that little bit of short term memory, you know, you know when your typing, and you’re typing one sentence and your brain is thinking two or three sentences ahead and you’re trying to remember it all at the same time as get it down. If you use speech recognition, that delay has gone, you can speak as fast as I am speaking to you now, it will get it about ninety, ninety five percent accuracy once you’ve trained it.
Barry: Would that be more for first drafts, obviously not for editing?
Mark: Yes, definitely. First draft, you have to go back and edit and you’ve got to be really careful when you editing because it will never make a spelling mistake but it will sometimes make a word mistake. So, if there are really odd words, sometimes my editor is going what is this doing? I’m sorry that was Dragon, put that word in, it should have been a completely different word. And you’ve got to train yourself to proof read for that because naturally when we proof read we’re looking for spelling mistakes and stuff. But we tend to assume that the word that we meant to put there is the one that is actually there and you can get word blind.
Barry: I did try it years ago, but I bet you know that it’s much better. I mean you can see with Siri how good it is, how good speech recognition has gotten.
Mark: Yeah, I mean these things are only going to get better and I’ve been using Dragon for at least five or six years now. Probably even longer than that. And it’s surprisingly good. I discovered it when I had RSI and I couldn’t type for six months. It basically saved my writing career, I think. And still I’m a pretty fast typist, but even when the RSI improved, I thought actually I want to stick with this, because it’s so good.
Mark: So, ok.
Barry: There’s something, there’s something you mentioned earlier which I just wanted to, I think it probably falls under this. But sleep. You know?
Barry: You talked about sleep, and the importance of sleep and napping. Is that, is that something you talk about in the book?
Mark: Yeah, there’s a chapter in the third section about dealing with rest, about napping and that comes from a little bit of research. I love all these bits of research that kind of confirm things that I’ve been doing for a long time and maybe slightly eccentric habits. They tested it with NASA pilots and they found that their reaction times were forty percent better if they had a twenty minute nap after lunch. And so I tested this, because I hate that time after lunch when your brain is a bit sleepy and you kind of yawning and you try and concentrate but it’s really hard, having a nap, no longer then twenty minutes, set an alarm, and it basically reboots your brain. So, certainly if I have to do any writing in the afternoon, I will do that. But I will do before my client sessions anyway because I want to be fresh for them. And it really improves the quality of my thinking and therefore productivity in the afternoons. So, again this another advantage if you work from home, it’s a lot easier to do that. Because it’s maybe a bit harder to get away with in a cubicle. But sadly, because a lot of …
Barry: Or the library?
Mark: Or the library, well I think that’s easy, well there’s usually somebody asleep in the library isn’t there? If it’s a really good library. So yeah, again, just keep experimenting with what works for you. None of this stuff, don’t think well I need to do it because that’s what it says in the book, or that’s what you know, some productivity person or neuro-scientist has said. Test it out, you know, this is an experiment. You can use a lot of creativity on actual writing, well just use some of that to redesign your working habits.
Barry: Yeah, yup, great.
Mark: Ok, so I think that covers, you know that gives you a whistle stop towards the second part, most important part which is ring-fencing your own time, and here the two big things to look out for, external distractions and internal, you know, the temptation to go and do something else. To do anything else sometimes feels, rather then actually sitting down and writing.
Barry: So would procrastination fit under this second section? Is this, is this where procrastination comes in?
Mark: Yes, yes, and this is again, all of this stuff about having a designated start time, it gets rid of one more excuse, you know because if Monday morning I think well should I start writing now or should I start writing later? Well, that opens the door to procrastination. But the way I set it up, that I know nine o’clock Monday morning I’m either writing or I am avoiding writing. So, you know, it’s a really binary choice, I can’t fool myself in that sense.
Barry: And is it a case that you are literally just forcing yourself to sit at your desk, regardless if you have no desire to write you still have to sit there, physically sit there for that time?
Mark: Yes, yes. Martin Amis said this, he said; the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I think there’s so much truth in that. Now, ok, I have a standing desk now, and I stand and I dictate, but the same principal applies. That if, you know it’s like, remember the guy who just sat there at his desk with his cigarettes and the coffee, just this is the space, these are the rules. But actually if you can be with a little bit of boredom, which is the big obstacle and the thing the internet takes away, then on the other side of the boredom is joy.
And I’ve done this, I use to go to the British Library sometimes, because it’s the most boring environment on planet Earth, maybe apart from the Sahara Desert. But I would go in there and I’m working on a Chaucer translation, so I would go in there and I would get the big red Chaucer book down off the shelf and I would just sit with it and there’s nothing else you can do in there. Everybody frowns if you so much as cough in the library, and you’re not allowed a laptop, I think maybe a laptop, but you are not allowed anything makes any kind of noise. And, yes, it’s really boring to begin with but actually, it just forces you to concentrate on the writing. And once you break through that, that’s when you’re in the flow, and that’s when, you know, you wouldn’t rather be anywhere else, you know? That’s the time when you remind yourself this is why I love to write, you know, when, my daughter said this to me yesterday, she’s only seven, she said, “Daddy, we were doing writing at school and it’s went very quickly, we had an hour but actually felt like ten minutes.” And I said that’s it, that shows you get really into your writing. So, again, you know, with all of this, we talk about productivity and discipline and temptation and so on. But at heart of it all should be joy, you know, that you write, because you love to write.
Barry: What about those writers that say writing is painful, writing is a chore, but the whole process of it. You hear that a lot from a lot of writers.
Mark: Well yes, I mean had that this morning and that’s cause I was stuck, but you know, we’re not saying it’s unalloyed bliss, but the reason we do it. The reason we go through the suffering is for the moments and some days, you know, some days that might not be very many, or they might not last very long. But when you have the breakthrough, when suddenly it works, when suddenly it flows, when all, mainly when you look back and you’d struggled through something and you read through it and you think, you know what? There’s something here. This isn’t too bad. So yeah, suffering is a part of it, but at the same time you know, pleasure is part of it too.
Step Three: Dealing with the Rest
Mark: Ok, so let’s move onto the final section, like I say, I’m putting this last because I used to put it first and that meant I was really good at getting on top of my email and phone calls and filing cabinet and accounts. And yet, I wasn’t so good at getting the writing done. So, I’m putting it after but it does require a lot of thought, it does require time and it does require a bit of training yourself to develop your own systems, your own loops that makes sure everything gets captured and processed. And there’s two principals here I want to talk about. So, the first one, is get things off your mind, and what I mean by this, is don’t try to remember everything.
So, I’m there this morning, writing my poem and I’m not trying to remember what I’ve got to do this afternoon because I have written it all down. And it’s there in my inbox. And this is something I’ve got from David Allen’s classic book, Getting Things Done which is the kind of productivity bible for kind of corporate workers and he talks about having buckets to capture information, to capture commitments. And he says you should have as few buckets as possible.
So, mine would be my post-it too do list, which we will talk more about in a minute. My e-mail inbox, the kind of messages, you know, the answer phone on my phone, and also my diary. So, any time I have an idea, I think ok, I’m going to do that or anytime I make a commitment to somebody, I would have put it in one of those places. And I assume I’m going to forget, I’m never even going to try to remember. Because even if I could, I would be using up a bit of my valuable bandwidth in my brain and I want to keep that free for whatever I’m doing in the moment, whether that’s writing, whether that’s talking to you, whether that’s working with a client or even doing my email.
I could be as mindful as possible doing each and any of those things. So, again any, so, the take away from this, is decide what your buckets are going to be, and then train yourself, each time you say, ok I’ll do that, put it in a bucket. Each time you say to yourself, ok, I really want to do that, and myself put it somewhere. If it’s time limited put it the calendar, if it’s for today, put it on the too do list, if its for another time then send an e-mail to yourself or, you know, stick it in a project management software. Whatever, it almost doesn’t matter what it is, just that discipline of putting it somewhere other then in your brain. And that frees up your brain to actually do more creative things.
Barry: Is it the working memory that we have in our brain, it’s like a desktop or desk space, and you have to have it clear, in order to be present and work on whatever is in front of you.
Mark: Exactly, and it’s not very wide, you know, the neuro-scientists, they keep revising the estimates, they use to be this magic number seven, plus or minus two kinds of chunks of information you can keep in your conscious attention. And now they said no, it’s probably only three or four. So probably by next week it will be down to two or something. So, keeping your desk clear so you can see what you are working on right now, then you work on something else, get another load of stuff out, but put this one away first.
Barry: So, when you’re writing and it always happens. You remembered you’ve forgotten to do something important, what happens than? You know, you remember, Oh, there was that person I was meant to call or there’s something that pops into your, into your …
Mark: I put it …
Barry: … interrupts you.
Mark: Yeah, I put it in one bucket. Then actually, there’s one I forgot to mention which is the, I think its called Reminders app on the phone, and I can set it, you know, call Barry. And I could set it, and it would remind me at three o’clock this afternoon. And then, I switch that off and I’m back into writing. Hopefully I’m organized enough that it wouldn’t be, you know I need to call him right now or something disastrous is going to happen. So, yeah, I mean, most of us have got a phone so have somewhere you can easily capture this stuff, you know, Evernote might be another thing you might use for that. It’s really good at capturing stuff and putting it up into the cloud.
Barry: And we seem to, when we are doing work, as part of our brains seems to want to try and distract us with, and even the littlest thing that isn’t important seems to become important when we’re in that writing zone or in that compartmentalized space. Some things we would never really be worried about suddenly becomes things we should do now.
Mark: Well this is, I mean, I’m sure a lot of people listen to this will have read Steven Pressfield’s great book The War of Art, cause Steve really nails that, he talks about the idea of resistance as being the bad part of your brain that wants to distract you, it will use anything to get you away from knuckling down to today’s challenge. I mean I have had this a few months ago, I remember. It was Monday morning, and I was in a place that I wanted to be for years which was the first thing on my desk on Monday morning was working on a poem. And this should have been bliss, this should have been me diving in with both hands, you know saying hallelujah this is fantastic, and the first thing that went through my mind as I sat down was, I’m learning Japanese as well, and the day before I’ve been working on making some Kanji flashcards. And the first thing I thought of was, well maybe I can spend half an hour doing some more Kanji cards, because they all get up to X number. And I was kind of tempted to think, to do it. And I thought, hang on a minute, what’s going on? Oh, this is resistance. And just simply recognizing, that that is my brain trying to distract me and it’s using whatever, you know it will pick up whatever’s nearest. Whether it’s something I want to do, something I feel I should do, I thought about somebody else and it kind of waves it in my face and says no, look at this instead.
Barry: What is behind that resistance, why is it there? Is it fear? Do you think it’s something as deep as fear of success? What is it?
Mark: I think there’s nearly always fear there. And that’s a good thing, so my version of this is the bigger the dream the bigger the fear. And if your dream isn’t very big you’ve got that much fear. So, I think as a writer, you know we’ve got to be dreaming big. We’ve got to be pushing ourselves, we want to be writing a great book not just a good book. And, so in a way it is a good sign, but I also recommend not analyzing it too deeply. So, this is why I love Steve’s work, you can just say, oh, it’s resistance. That’s all it is.
Mark: You see a bird out in the garden and you think oh, what is that, oh it’s a Robin, ok, that’s all it is. And then you get back to work. So, it’s the same with resistance, just acknowledge it. If you need to capture something in the moment than do it, but don’t let that take you off track.
Mark: Ok, so, still in this area of dealing with the rest, another little tip I have is, this is for your daily work, if it won’t fit on a post-it, it won’t fit in your day. And, this is something that I’ve evolved as a way of dealing with the endless to-do list problem, which is, once you get interested in productivity is very easy to start compiling lists of everything and when I first did this about ten years ago, I had, literally, I had a electronic to-do app that had over two thousand items in it and it just depressed me. Every time I looked in it and I kept remembering more stuff to put into it, and more stuff kept coming in and I was, I just felt I was drowning it, it was deeply unproductive. And my antidote to that is to say every day, there’s a limit to what I’m going to be able to accomplish.
So, if I acknowledge that right in the beginning in an easy to see form, it makes me think about what’s important today. So, for in instance, this is my to-do list for today. And this has been finely calibrated to the size of the post-it to the size of my handwriting, you may need a smaller one or you may need a bigger one. But what I know is, so, the top left is always the most important things right, well I’ve got T.C up there. That’s for Troilus and Criseyde, which I’m translating, the Chaucer poem. And that’s the main writing project of the day, as we go down here, these are things for clients and other mission critical stuff for my business. And down here is more household, more kind of nice to have stuff. Now, I know if I, if I’m running out of space on that post-it, I’m running out of space in the day. So this is the thing, if I fill the post-it, then I know I’m going to have a really busy day. So, its stops, it gets me thinking about what do I really want to accomplish today? Do I really want to put that in? And what is most important. Now the flip side to this is that I can actually finish work. This is a weird concept for any of us who are self-employed because there is always more to do right?
Barry: Yeah, yeah.
Mark: And if we keep adding more and more stuff to the daily to-do list and that just happens, you just end up, you never ever get ahead. But, during your day, if new stuff comes up, as inevitably will, then we lift up the post-it, this is tomorrow’s post-it. So, after half past nine in the morning, nothing else gets on here unless it’s an emergency. And then tomorrow’s post-it starts filling up with all you know, phone call comes in, an e-mail, I get an idea. I put all of that in there. And, that means I can always finish today which is motivating.
I’ll stay an extra twenty minutes in order to complete the post-it and tear it up and scratch it in the bin. And then, it also creates a nice little buffer in the day. So, something comes in, and I like, I’m doing this, and now I’ve got to do that and I can very swiftly get either panicked or I can just feel deflated, I feel like I’m never in control of my time. Well this does, ok, I’m going to do that, but I’m going to do it tomorrow. And when I come to it tomorrow, I’ve had a whole day cause most things can wait till tomorrow. There’s very, very few things that absolutely must be done today. And by the time I get to it tomorrow, depending on which neuro-scientist would believe to, we believe, you know I’ve had maybe a whole day of my brain unconsciously working on that. And thinking about it, at the very least I’m coming at it fresh and thinking ok, how am I going to approach that? So, I’m not resenting the time I spend on it.
Barry: And it gives you the permission to clock off doesn’t it?
Mark: It does.
Barry: It’s your end of the day.
Mark: It’s really important.
Barry: Yeah, because if you freelance, you’re working from home, whatever, you’re day doesn’t have set boundaries and things kind of can run over very easily.
Mark: Yeah. So, that’s one, just nice little thing to experiment with in terms of daily work. Another thing I think is important to think about as authors, particularly, actually this applies if you’re self-published or you’re traditionally published, there’s stuff you have to do to write the book and then there’s stuff you have to do to make and publish and market the book and again, if you given place to your writing work, then you also got a place for all this other stuff. And you know, whether that means working with your editor or your cover designer or planning the marketing campaign or doing a launch or promotion of some kind. You can give this total focus, you know. Unless you’ve done this, then you can be in the mind set that one part of the day you trying to write and you thinking maybe I should be connecting with my fans on Facebook or getting back to the cover designer. And you feel guilty about that and distracted and then you’re over doing this, and then there’s a little part of you going, oh no, maybe I should be writing. And so this is what I say about mentally just sorting it all out. Give it a place, and then you can be totally in the moment, totally focused, totally switched on with your business brain when it comes to promoting a book or deciding how it’s going to look when it’s published. Which again, it’s similar but different to the state you’re going to be in when you’re actually writing. So, particularly, if you’re in, you know as most of us you are self-employed, if you have to wear more than one hat, then have a different time of day, or a different day of the week for these different roles.
Barry: Yup, yup. Makes sense. So, I mean, one of the key messages I’m getting from all this is that routine as well, is so important, and just knowing where your going to be at each time of the day, what you going to be working on. Rather then changing things up so your writing time will always generally be at that same time of day. You won’t start changing it around to fit with whatever is happening with in your life.
Mark: Well, in an ideal world yes, you know, and I think as writers we maybe more creatures of habit then a lot of other, other creatives. Everybody’s different, some people don’t like the idea of having a daily habit. And, to me it’s when works for you? But be honest with yourself, is not having a routine an excuse to avoid the difficult work? Personally I find routine is really helpful for any kind of writing project apart from lyric poetry. It’s really hard for me to sit down and come up with an idea for a great poem on the spot. So, I’ll usually have a longer, either you know, draft that I previously have started, or I’ll do a longer project like a translation. That means I’ve got something that I can plough away with every day for poetry. But poetry does tend to be more spontaneous and kind of capture the genie when you can. But, certainly for writing any long term pros work, I find routine is invaluable. Because it helps you get the momentum.
Mark: But kind of wider to that is that with all of us we have different types of day. And so you might have different templates for different days. So, my default, it’s like on a website, you know if you designing a website, then you going to have say a home page, you going to have landing page, you might have a blog post page, you might you know have a video page whatever and it all this is configured slightly differently because what you want the page to achieve and what needs to go into it. So, you might say, like I have my default day which is I write in the morning and I coach my clients on Skype in the afternoon. But I also have another kind of template which is if I’m with a client all day doing an intensive one on one session then I don’t do any writing that day. I just go, I spend time with the client. I keep an eye maybe at lunchtime and then at the end of the day, usually on the phone, any essential e-mails particularly from other clients, but other than that I just don’t put pressure on myself do I. If I do something say on the train on the way there or on the way back, that’s a bonus. So, you know, don’t try to be rigidly inflexible about it, but maybe think about will how many different types of day do I have and therefore how many templates could I do with designing to, you know, accommodate for that.
Barry: I won’t keep you too much longer, but do you, you’ve work with a lot of different authors and you would have seen a lot of different types of routines. What in your opinion is the most common type of daily routine author’s have? Is it a morning writing routine?
Mark: It generally, I would say yeah, mornings are more common than any other time. And there some people who really resist it. And who, and who are much happier writing later in the day. You know they would do say all their e-mail and marketing, and shopping and task in the morning and then that’s all out the way and then they can get on with the writing in the afternoon, in the evening, which is fine you know, whatever works you know. And the proof is in production really.
Barry: Great, well I found this incredibly helpful. I know a lot of people watching probably have too. I’m sure they’ve take a lot of great nuggets from it. Where can people find your work? And the name of the book of course is Productivity for Creative People.
Barry: Wonderful. Well Mark, thank you very much. Is there anything you would like to leave the listeners/watchers with, any final message?
Mark: Maybe the quote that I used the start of the book which is from Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist. He says be regular and orderly, like a bourgeois in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
Barry: It’s very good. Thank-you Mark for the time.
Mark: Thank Barry, I really enjoyed it, I hope people find it helpful.