This is the season when a lot of people find it difficult to be productive. If that's you, maybe this is the time to be a little gentler with yourself and get more rest, get back to exercising regularly (you don't have to go to the gym, just taking a walk every day helps), and set out your goals for this year, to make sure that the things you're going after still matter to you.
One of my projects for the year, with the collaboration of my friend Christoph Falkenroth, is the new website www.TimetoWrite.com. Have a look – it's still in the early stages and we'll be adding more content and features frequently.
Now here are some tips and techniques I hope you'll find helpful:
1: The Psychic's Time Log
U.K. Time management coach Mark Forster has an interesting variation of the classic time log that can help you overcome procrastination. As you probably know, the traditional time log has you write down how you spent your time, jotting it down every fifteen minutes or so. The idea is that you will be able to tell exactly how you're using (or misusing) your time.
Mark's idea is to use a time log as an achievement tool by writing down what you are going to do in the next few minutes. Do it, then jot down the time and the next thing you're going to do. It might look something like this:
10:35 Set up PayPal Account online
10:41 Order office supplies
10:50 Revise chapter titles for new book
As Mark says, this will help you act out of decision rather than impulse. If you are interrupted, jot down the time when you get back to the planned task and continue.
ACTION: Try this system when you find yourself procrastinating. Be sure to deal with only small chunks at a time. In other words, don't write: "9:30 Write new book" – that's too big a chunk. The more that procrastination is a problem for you, the smaller your chunks should be.
2:: The Twenty-Five Beans Method
Many of us in the creative fields get a lot of rejections, and as much as we can tell ourselves not to take it personally, it's still difficult. Some time ago I read about how one of the motivational geniuses of the last century taught salesmen to get over their fear of asking for business. He gave each of them 25 navy beans to put in the left pocket of their trousers. Every time they made a sales call, they moved one bean to their right pockets. They were not allowed to quit for the day until they'd shifted all of the beans. By focusing on the whole process, rather than on individual rejections, they were able to keep going. And invariably at some point in the day they made a sale, which motivated them to continue.
ACTION: Can you think of a way to adapt this technique to your situation? For example, I'm about to start submitting a novel to publishers here in the U.K., and I'm going to make up a 'beans chart' with 25 squares on it. Each time I get a rejection, I'll cross out one of the squares – on the assumption that at some point I'll get an acceptance (and, if not, I can always draw more squares).
3: Keep It Simple
I'm always on the look-out for interesting and simple creative ideas. One of the best – and simplest – examples of this relates to cash machines. As you probably know, there are a lot of muggings of people who use these card machines, and cases where criminals look over your shoulder to see your PIN and then steal your card.
The simple move: paint a box on the pavement to mark out the area where the person using the machine can stand – and nobody else should. In one test, the box was painted in bright yellow and had the words 'ATM Zone' or 'Cash Machine Area' inside. Robberies dropped by 66%.
One way to come up with solutions like this is to formulate the solution to a problem as simply as possible. In this case, it could be 'to make people keep their distance when others are getting money out of a cash machine.' Then brainstorm in what other circumstances people are required to keep their distance. For example, when lining up inside the bank, or at an airport at the passport control. That might have led you to the solution above.
ACTION: What's a problem that you are facing? Try applying the strategy described above and see whether it leads you to a simple solution. (If it does, I'd love to hear about it at [email protected])
4: The First Three Levels of Change
The Virtual Thinking Expedition Company, based in Texas, has broken down creativity, innovation, and continuous improvement into seven levels of change. Here are the first three:
Level One: Effectiveness – Doing the Right Thing. The starting point is to make sure that you're really doing the things that will give you the most benefit. This is where the Pareto Principle comes in. It says that we get 80 percent of our benefit from only 20 percent of our activities, so it's important to figure out what that 20 percent is, and do more of it.
Level Two: Efficiency – Doing Things Right. This is where you take a close look at what you're doing to see whether you've found effective ways of doing the things you want to do.
Level Three: Improving – Doing Things Better. This is a continuation of level two, periodically reviewing how you're doing things and striving for small improvements all the time. Even if 'we've always done it this way,' there may be a better way.
We'll cover levels four through seven next time.
ACTION: For each of your major activities, take a few minutes to brainstorm how you could apply these three levels.
5: A Little Pep Talk
In the book "Zing! Five Steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command," Sam Harrison includes a little pep talk I like:
"You tap on the water glass and it's time to get everybody's attention – it's time to sell. You draw sketches, write drafts, build prototypes. Beat the drums. "Listen up!" you shout. "I've got a great idea here." You verify the idea. Tinker to make the whole thing better. Talk the white out of the moon until people listen. Pick up a few selling tips from your brother-in-law, the software hawker. You slap backs. Sweet-talk. Schmooze. You pace floors. Knock on doors. Wear a sandwich board on Main Street if you have to. But you don't give up until the idea comes to life. You bring that baby to life."
ACTION: At this time of year we may need a little prod, and if this one speaks to you, why not print it out and stick it above your desk?
6: And a Quote to Think About:
"The future belongs to those who believe in their dreams." — Eleanor Roosevelt
Until next time,
PS: Here's another installment from my "Letters to an Unknown Friend:
I've recently rediscovered the haiku. Maybe, like me, you learned about it in high school English class. It's a form of Japanese poetry, very simple. It's three lines. The first line is seven syllables long, the second is five syllables long, and the third line is seven again. The idea is to use these three lines to give your impression of something – a place, a person, a moment in time. The lines don't have to rhyme, they just have to express something.
The way I rediscovered this form is that I have been presenting some creativity workshops for executives and I wanted to get them to do some creative writing without having them feel self-conscious. Although normal poetry sounds way too artsy-fartsy for that group, I thought asking them to write three lines that don't even rhyme probably wouldn't put them off too much, and that was right. In fact, they've come up with some stunning results and surprised themselves in the process.
What's great is how easy it is to summarize something in such a short form. I've
just come back from having dinner with two friends. One of them is facing a big decision: his girlfriend wants to have a child, but he's not sure, and it's endangering the relationship. The other friend has recently become a father and very sensitively talked about how it has changed his life both in positive and not so positive ways. Let's see what comes up
Three eat dinner together,
Words flow like fine wine.
Caring is on the menu.
Well, it may not be Shakespeare, but as a snapshot of what has just happened, I like it! Why don't you try it? What important thing, large or small, happened in your day today? How could it be expressed in a haiku? Don't worry so much about the syllables:
A poem is born
When hidden feelings come out
Let yours come to me.
Go on, it's not hard, and how nice to remember that we are all poets.