While I am writing this story I am on parental leave and home with my three kids full-time for a couple of months. Spanning between the ages 1,2 and 4 you get the idea that the days are not about me anymore.
Ever since I re-discovered my passion of writing a few months ago I realized this that writing is the best way right now to get my ideas out there, or simply just trying to make sense of the world.
There is a problem though, I am sitting with 78 drafts and 2 published stories! All of them sounds so great in my head and all I need is some time to get the words down and structure it, then press publish. It can’t be that hard, right?
The frustration builds up when I realize that my publishing frequency is not that high. It creates a feeling that nothing gets done. Even though procrastination can be a good thing (side note: please watch Tim Urbans Ted talk about this topic), in my case procrastinating too much can be really devastating for my development and self esteem.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. What if I don’t have to feel I am getting drowned by my own backlog and if it could be a way to use that passion of mine to fuse some great energy into my life.
The first story I published here on Medium got featured in The Startup which got my ego triggered but also the positive feedback needed to continue. My passion for writing that started in junior high school was revoked.
But how do I get the momentum of getting my stories out there, then?
Everyone becomes a better parent and partner if they feel they can live through their abilities, as Jay-Z once said when asked what success really is.
To get to the point of this and to get my shit together I took a deep-dive into my little library. After some reading and an attempt to connecting dots I concluded the below 4 areas, that we as writers and other creative practitioners, can make use of. Let’s elaborate:
1. Being effective instead of stuck in the productivity trap
A lot of people get stuck in the productivity wheel that usually ends up with either burnout or simply an endless wheel of producing more and more stuff. So much talk about productivity methods and being the most productive nowadays. It is not a bad thing itself to produce and being productive, if you are a machine.
But luckily we have robots and industries that can be productive for us, so we can focus on being creative and effective as human beings.
“Intelligence, imagination and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results.” — Peter F Drucker
To get the right things done you really have to focus a lot on what you should NOT do. Nassim Nicholas Taleb brings up an interesting concept in his book “Antifragile”, called ‘via negativa’ — basically addition by subtraction. He uses the term to describe how individuals, teams and organizations can become antifragile (something that gains from setbacks rather than simply survives) by reducing stuff rather than adding more.
By applying a “to don’t” mindset where ‘No’ is more important than ‘Yes’ can put you in the spot of doing the right things rather than simply multitasking without any actual thought into it.
Effectiveness is like any skill, it can be learned and trained. As we all are unique human beings with various traits and abilities, there is not one effective personality. So don’t be confused by the “productivity experts” out there saying that you need to look, talk and move in a certain way to be effective. Effectiveness is achieved based on your terms and your ability to focus on which the right things are for you right now.
2. Safe guarding and pruning —’ know thy time’
A common excuse people have is “they don’t have time”. This is getting old and I have stopped spending time convincing people who use that as an excuse to not focus on what they truly want or need.
The time is simply a fixed container that no one of us can take back. The one thing we can affect is what we choose to put in there and also what we choose to deduct.
Peter F. Drucker dedicates a whole chapter in his book “The Effective Executive” to time. Time is the limiting factor and you cannot capitalize on it. Since you cannot gain more time you really need to safe guard it and observe what you are doing with it. To prune unnecessary stuff that doesn’t add any value to your life is a first step, so that infinite social media scrolling will not make you more effective.
To be a bit more practical, when it comes to writing I started to sketch 3 different scenarios on how to mix ‘deep work’ with shorter chunks of work, i call the latter ‘cycles’.
The benefits we are after come from both shorter iterative work where you produce, reflect and edit, with the more in depth focus of deep work where you have time to conceptualize, imagine and connecting dots.
The main concept is that you switch between shorter work cycles and longer sessions of deep work. The shorter cycles may be frightening to people who claim that mono-tasking is the solution for every problem in the world. So don’t get confused by mixing it with our conceived idea of multi-tasking.
(Side note: If you want to hear another view on the usually black/white debate of multi- vs mono-tasking I can truly recommend you to listen to Cathy Davidson discussing it on this HBR’s podcast episode.)
I will tell you what, you can be cool with those shorter focused working cycles, those can be really effective in the end.
Deep work (book and concept by Cal Newport) is really the time you truly dedicate for that one single activity for a longer time. I hate defining a specific time for this since every human is unique. What you are after is to define those flow states during the day that you can use, for example when you are waiting for the laundry to be done (our 40 C° eco program can be adjusted to 1 hour and 30 minutes, perfect for a deep work momentum.)
Cycles on the other hand are the chunks of shorter iterative work. As pointed out already they shouldn’t be neglected using the bad rumor of multitasking, just as Premiumuikits brings up in their great story about staying creative while multitasking you can benefit from doing multiple stuff. As a personal example I come up with great ideas when I do the dishes, changing diapers or when I am in the shower. So to not loose those ideas I write them down directly in the draft version so they don’t get forgotten. Sometimes the circumstances let me write a few sentences and sometimes it is enough just to get a one-liner down.
An important note here is that the mind switching and the mental attention you give to anything else during that time is the time stealer you want to avoid.
Integrating the work and making it a habit is key. I.e 20 minutes of writing a couple of times a day adds up to a draft story. Making it coherent by editing, subtracting and tweaking is key to top it up to that great message you want to send out.
I am advocating for a mix of switching between two styles. Some may call them mono- and multitasking, but I choose to not be so black and white.
How much is an hour?
“An hour a day”, my violin teacher told me. You will learn that Mozart piece eventually.
When it comes to deep work and chunking the work into focused tasks such as writing you cannot ignore the power of “monotasking”. When performing deliberate practice such as playing an instrument or working on those writing skills the ‘Pomodoro technique’ can be a great approach to apply.
There is always some extra hour here and there during the week that you can aggregate. Enough to get started. Working on that story of yours for an hour a day in the course of a week leads to results, that’s 7 hours of writing in total.
An hour is an hour, no matter how much you try to squeeze in it. Just like Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson puts it in their great book about work culture; “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work” an hour can be split into different slices.
- 1 x 60 minutes
- 2 x 30 minutes
- 4 x 15 minutes
- 25 + 10 + 5 + 15 + 5 minutes
Even though I share mr Fried’s and mr H. Hansson’s view that the quality we are after is 1 x 60 minutes I would like to flip that approach and adapt it to the “working parent- reality” for example. By using the small slices of work, such as the 4 x 15 minutes you can actually achieve a lot, the below is an example:
- 1st 15 minute chunk: Crafting a killer headline, like Darryl Brooks writes about in his story.
- 2nd 15 minute chunk: Type down a few one-liners or key ideas you want to use as fuel in your stories (i.e references to research, a great quote etc.)
- 3rd 15 minutes chunk: Re-read your text and edit sentences and grammar.
- 4th 15 minute chunk: Go through references, double check sources you use.
Et voilá, if you truly focused on those 4 x 15 minutes you can get to the quality of an hours work. You can now go back changing diapers or continue play with the kids without feeling bad or in-effective. Maybe another chunk of work will pop-up during the day…
3. Setup your environment for success
Setting up an environment for you to craft those great idea of yours is key. The environment is your temple. You can prepare a physical, digital and mental space for success.
Even though it is not really about the physical items and the physical space itself, the environment can of course boost your creativity and help you along the way. I would rather point out that the digital and mental space is more important, if not necessary to reach that finish line.
“Sometimes success is 3% brains and 97% not getting distracted by the internet.” — Farnam Street
Regarding that physical space there are some good news, you don’t have to own a big house to have your nice little office in place to get started. I am settling with my little workspace at the dinner table. So before the family wakes up that is my little “office”.
I also put away my smartphone in another room to make it more difficult for me to fall into the social media trap and deeper into the infinite scrolling world. Having the digital space setup for you can be tricky sometimes, especially if you are an early adopter of productivity tools and hacks. I would stick to the “easier said than done” - approach of simply having one tab/window open at the time and focus on that story of yours.
Personally I love to start the mornings with getting my body aligned and in place after a good night sleep.
A combination of movement exercises wrapped up with sitting down and meditate is important for me to get that headspace going.
Training my mind is as important to train my body. It enables me to simply observe what is popping up. Doing this on a daily basis makes me more focused and it is easier to handle those short cycles of work and even the deep work sessions without any major distractions.
Making the writing process easy accessible and hard to break, that is the key.
4. Stick to it, ship and iterate
Now when I am approaching the end of this story it is so easy to slip into the “let’s quickly wrap this up” — trap where there is a risk of not connecting the dots and make it a sloppy ending for the story. I hope this will not be the case…
By sticking to that single idea and wrapping it up, start finalizing and stop starting. Writing is a creative process and one single story requires lots of thinking, reading and composing thoughts into clear sentences. Once you applied your structure of ‘deep work’ and ‘cycles’ you simply want to press publish in the end. That is the start of next iteration.
To have that final touch can also be made with help from others. Maybe you want to ask a couple of friends or family members to read your draft before you press publish? Because hey, you are not writing for yourself, right?
A reference group could be great for you, it also creates some sort of organic growth of your audience and may make it easier for you to reach out with your idea. Either way you can spend so much time on making it perfect but in the end I truly hope you find this beautiful process of writing as an infinite learning process where nothing really gets 100% perfect. That is the whole idea. You simply can get better for each time you press publish.
It’s like one of my training coaches said once, “the best workout is the workout that you felt suck”. You don’t simply want to be too happy with everything, no improvement comes with an ok ‘happy state’, so you better embrace the suck and get going.
Once you press publish you will start to see the spread of the story, depending on whether you choose the 1st, 2nd or 3rd way in the deep work/cycles approach or you simply find your own way, the key of this is whole frustrating writing process is that you keep going.
As long as you learn, you have patience and you trust the process you will incrementally grow. So go ahead, ship it and get it out there!
That’s what I am going to do now, to press that green button… wish me luck :)
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