Productivity. I don’t even like the word, if I’m honest. And yet I find myself helplessly clicking on pretty much any link that promises to list five new ways to improve it. And the more of these articles I read, the more miserable I become because this business of productivity is not a cheerful one. Not only do the authors not seem to be terribly happy about their awesome productivity rates, but you begin to suspect that all they are actually producing is articles on improving productivity. “I wake up, check emails, meditate, write a Five Minute Journal, schedule my To Dos, run seven miles to clear my head and “prime” the day, then I hit my desk and write three articles on productivity before breakfast (granola and local honey).” All of which just puts me in mind of the least productive image imaginable:
I have, nonetheless, become obsessed with productivity methods. (I think I’m supposed to call them “hacks” but I can’t, sorry.) As a professional writer there’s pretty much nothing better that procrastinating over pieces on how to avoid procrastination. Luckily, people have written whole books on the subject and it’s possible to spend weeks reading them rather than doing any work. Over the last few years, I think I’ve tried pretty much every hack (yay, I did it!) that’s out there and can now report back on what actually seems to work for an average human being.
Before we get to that, though, something by way of a caveat: be doing something you want to do. In broad terms this means that if you go to an office every day to sit surrounded by people you don’t like, working for assholes on a pointless job that you hate, then I don’t know how you increase your productivity and I really don’t know why you’d want to. Honestly, dick around a little; don’t take it all so seriously.
Even as a freelancer though, doing something you like is still not a given. I always wanted to be freelance and to make up stories for a living. I get to do that and yay etc but I still have bills to pay and so I have still had to take jobs that didn’t exactly thrill me in order to do that. If I can’t find a way to make that job interesting then I ensure that I’m also writing something of my own alongside it (or I’m way into a big video game). That way I can do five pages of the drudge job and then reward myself by moving onto something I enjoy. Recently, though, I’ve been lucky to have weeded most of those kind of jobs out and I’m in a position to make choices about what I work on. (There is a solid argument, by the way, to say that if you’re not actually starving to death you can ALWAYS make those choices and the work that you want to do will turn out better and do more for your career than the jobs you think you SHOULD take.) So now I adopt an approach that I think may have come from Derek Sivers: It’s either “Hell Yeah!” or it’s “No”. That job that sounds like it might be interesting, or have some interesting element to it but you’re not sure? That job your agent says you should do because these are good people to be in business with or it’ll look good on the resume? Six months down the road, you will hate every minute of it; say no now. If the idea doesn’t make you want to literally jump for joy and air punch every time you think of it, it’s a no. It’s brutal, but it makes for a happier, more productive life and better quality work.
Realistically, if you can put that into practice 100%, you can stop reading now because any job that you’d rather do than watch TV doesn’t have any productivity issues attached to it.
But we’re all still here because it’s an imperfect world and because sometimes even the best projects hit a sticky patch. (Right now, I have a script on my desk wherein Act Two is twice as long as any reasonable human being should expect. It’s a good story, I’m enjoying writing it, it was a Hell Yeah project. Nonetheless, I’m writing a blog about productivity rather than getting that red pen out.)
Getting up early. That’s a thing I’ve started doing and I’ve already droned on about it HERE so I won’t bore you again except to say that I’ve discovered that robbing the last two hours of the evening, wherein I achieve little beyond dozing off in front of The X-Files, and tacking them onto the front of the morning where they become two uninterrupted hours where a load of work can get done before other people are even awake, is already paying dividends. Getting pages written before the school run really changes the shape and possibilities for the rest of the day.
Morning pages. This comes from the Artist’s Way by Julian Cameron which is the most hopelessly hippy book ever but, at the same time, is actually pretty good. The morning pages are the cornerstone of it. In a nutshell; wake up and write three pages of whatever comes into your head; pure stream-of-consciousness bullshit. Except it turns out it may not be bullshit, it may actually contain some inspirational gems and reveal things you’re thinking about that you weren’t consciously aware of. The idea is that it moves thoughts that are blocking your creativity out of your head and onto the paper, so you can get the mental flow going. I’m not sure that’s exactly what it’s doing but I’ve been trying it the last few days and it does SOMETHING good so I’m going to keep going with it. My one tip; Cameron doesn’t mention paper size, so I started writing on an A4 pad. Don’t. It’s too much. It felt like homework and by the time I’d scribbled three sides of A4 the last thing I wanted to do was write anything else. My friend Adeline (@Mrs_Scott_V on Twitter; she roasts the most amazing coffee, buy some) recommended 3 pages of the Midori Traveler’s Notebook and this is much more doable. It’s also an excuse to buy a Midori Traveler’s notebook, and that’s no bad thing. You’re welcome.
To Do lists. I’m addicted. I use Things 3 (I was using OmniFocus but it’s too labour intensive – you end up having “update OmniFocus” on your To Do list, which seems self-defeating) and I use a physical bullet journal. Bullet journling is awesome but I’m not going to explain it because Google exists. Try it if you haven’t already. Leuchtturm make a really great bullet journal that you can buy in Rymans and it has instructions in the back of it. Get that.
I also use a Kanban board on Trello for an overview of what I’m working on that doesn’t change day to day. Again, Google “kanban method”, I’m not going to do all the heavy lifting here… OK, fine, basically you have three columns; To Do, Doing and Done. And all you focus on are the “Doing” items and there should be a hard limit on those (I have 5). You can’t add anything to the Doing column until you’ve moved something to Done. But still Google it because there’s a little more to it than that. It’s a Japanese system, which means it works.
What Kanban has shown me though, and it’s also been mentioned in a couple of productivity articles I’ve read, is that you don’t want more than five things on your To Do list. I mean, outside of “buy milk” or whatever. Five things that you can actually get done. Do them, tick them off, move on. More than five and you just have tasks hanging over into the following day because you had to make some calls or you got a flat tire or whatever, and that’s demoralising. Five things max.
Pomodoros. That’s the 25 minute work windows that I talked about on an INFODUMP newsletter a few weeks ago. Again, Google is your friend. A lot of people got in touch to say they’d tried it out and it’s a life saver. I use them all day, with the exception of those first two hours in the morning that don’t seem to require them. I use an app called Focus which is great for timing Pomodoros and then nagging you to take a five minute break. TAKE THE BREAK. I know you’re in the middle of stuff and you don’t want to but TAKE THE BREAK or you bust the system; trust me on this.
So now I need a fifth thing to deliver on the promise of the title… What is it? Oh… ANALOGUE DAY!
Analogue Day. This is a new thing we’re doing at home and I want to take credit for inventing it but I probably didn’t. Or maybe I did! Quote me in your correspondence and we’ll make it The Simpson Method. Anyway, it’s exactly what it sounds like; turn off the computer and the iPad and put the phone in another room as far as that is possible. One day a week where you write longhand, read actual physical books and magazines, talk to people and all that touchy feely stuff. When you make things up for a living, you are constantly drawing on a well of ideas and inspiration and that well is finite. You need to refill it regularly. And you don’t do that online. Or if you do, you can do it the other six days of the week. Analogue Day is about changing pace and changing input, grabbing a book off the shelf rather than scrolling Facebook, listening to stuff, watching stuff (I don’t ban myself from movies and TV on analogue day, but there’s no dicking around online whilst half-watching something). One day a week and it REALLY pays dividends creatively. Personally, I have a bunch of magazine subscriptions that build into a pile on the table throughout the week so I take this day to go through them. Then I might scan the bookshelves for something I’d forgotten I had and start reading it. It’s all about new things and unexpected creative prompts and I’ve found it to be enormously helpful and also, which seems to be anathema to the productivity nerds, fun.
And that’s it, I’ve done it. I’ve written a “Five things…” article. But now I should post and shut up because it’s meant to be Analogue Day today. Nobody’s perfect.