Experiments in Productivity: CompuTen

Last week I did something counter-productive. I switched off my computer at 10am. Switched OFF.

This meant that, after ten in the morning, I couldn’t do any writing on the computer, I couldn’t edit any of my works-in-progress, I couldn’t connect with people online, I couldn’t work on my blog, I couldn’t promote my book or advertise my English classes.

By switching off my computer so early in the day, I successfully cut out 99% of my capability for productivity.

How on earth could this help me become more productive?

Before starting this rather drastic computer-diet, I used to be on my computer all hours of the day. Some days I would be tied down for as much as 7 hours 34 minutes.

How do I know this? I signed up to RescueTime, which logs what programs I use and what websites I visit. RescueTime tells me that about 3 hours of that was spent on email, on reading the news, on social networks and on entertainment. Less than two hours per day (on a good day) was spent on writing.

The Plan

So the plan was that, by cutting off my computer-use at ten in the morning, I would be motivated to get up earlier and do more writing.

The rest of the day, when my productivity dips anyway (RescueTime tells me that I’m 50% productive in the morning, but only 48% productive in the afternoon – with a 50% reduction in time at the computer as well), I would be able to get out into the world.

I would teach, I would go on adventures, I would read and think and cook and perhaps do some writing with pencil and paper. I would, in short, become more human and less virtual.

The Results

In the last week, when I was on my CompuTen diet, I averaged less than 2 hours of computer-time per day. Great!

In addition, because my computer-time was squeezed, I became more efficient at doing the important things. Like social networking. I found that I still spent 20 minutes a day on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ (whatever that is).

And I spent significantly less time on the less important things like writing – just 2 minutes 23 seconds last Friday, for example.

Success!

Wait. That doesn’t sound like the plan. The plan was that I would get up early and write like hell for as long as I could, until the 10am cut-off time.

What actually happened was that I would wake up, somewhere between half seven and eight, and immediately get stuck into email and news-reading, pretty much until my alarm went off at 10am. This isn’t the healthiest thing in the world.

So what went wrong?

Well, as it happens: nothing. But as with all experiments, you don’t always get the results you’re expecting. 
I was expecting to get up earlier and be more focussed when I was on the computer. I certainly didn’t get up any earlier, but I was more focussed on the computer. I teach English, so I had to make sure that I prepared any worksheets or articles for my lessons first thing in the morning. No more procrastinating.
However, this compression meant that I had no time for computer writing or editing. I found myself mildly frustrated when all this free-from-computer-time brought writing ideas to the surface that I couldn’t implement.

So what went right?

It was easy. I had a concrete rule to follow and there was nothing so urgent that it couldn’t be achieved without a computer, or couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
It was relaxing. There was no rush and panic to check something immediately. If I thought of something I wanted to do, I would write it down on a piece of paper to do the next morning. And then, often, when I got to it the next morning, it wasn’t worth doing anyway.
I stopped using the computer for entertainment. Instead of watching the recent Montenegro-England football match online, I listened to it on the radio. This took me way back to my childhood and it was a real treat for my senses and my imagination.
I didn’t read so much news and comment online. I did read a lot more fiction and non-fiction offline. I learnt the obvious: offline reading (from a real book!) is deeper and more meaningful. Last week I read the entirety of The Impact Equation and I feel like I absorbed more of it than I would normally (for those interested: it’s all right).
I spent more time on my sofa. I spent more time in the kitchen. I spent more time idling. These are all good things in my book.
But, best of all, the CompuTen diet pushed me onto my AlphaSmart Neo 2. This cunning device is perfect for writers. It is nothing more than a keyboard with a tiny display. It does one thing and it does it brilliantly: it writes. Over the course of last week, I wrote more than 5,000 words on the dear little thing (including the kernal of this blog post).
Neo: The One.

Conclusions

I consider CompuTen to have been a success. However, it’s not a long-term solution. The main problem with it is the forced computer usage in the early morning. I would rather fill this time with meaningful writing (not necessarily on the computer), eating breakfast and showering.
However, CompuTen showed me a number of things:
  • I can resist the computer, if I have a concrete rule of when I can use it and when I can’t.
  • There is nothing so urgent that it can’t wait until tomorrow.
  • Multi-tasking is a killer.
Multi-tasking is surely the most pernicious capability of computers. My PC can deal with everything I throw at it: a to do list, six documents, a couple of PDFs, a novel in YWriter, iTunes, a couple of browser windows, each with five or more tabs open on news, social networks, Blogger, YouTube…
The problem is that I can’t keep up. Humans are programmed to be able to deal with one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is for dweebs. 
So my new computer regime (which I am using right now) is to use the PC like a precision instrument.
  • I will only use the computer for 25 minutes at a time.
  • Before opening the computer I will write down the goal of my activity. One concrete, defined goal, so that at the end of the 25 minutes, I can answer the question: Did I achieve my goal? 
  • Having just one goal should eliminate multi-tasking, but to make it easier on my will-power, I will only have one program running at a time (when building the links for this blog post, I nearly got distracted by another review of The Impact Equation – but stopped myself just in time!).
  • At the end of the 25 minutes, I will close my computer and walk away – no matter whether the goal is achieved or not. I can always set a new goal and work for another 25 minutes, after a short break.
  • If the computer task is likely to take less than 25 minutes – DON’T DO IT. I will batch these tasks until I have enough to fill 25 minutes. Email falls into this batch as well.
So that’s my experiment over. I do anticipate that my new regime will be harder. I’m going to need rock-hard will power. But I have only 1 minute 22 seconds left of this 25 minute block, so I’m going to press Publish right now! 
What are your techniques and tricks for staying on-task at the computer? Please do let me know in the comments – we can get through this if we help each other!

Facebook Zen

  • Do you have a problem with information overload?
  • Are you frequently lured to Facebook AGAINST YOUR WILL by the evil cookie monster, ‘Cool link, dude’?
  • Do you confuse looking through your Facebook News Feed with being productive?
  • Do you wish you could quit Facebook, but fear the consequences?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, then you need Facebook Zen.

What is Facebook Zen?

Facebook Zen is this:

Facebook Zen
My News Feed

Oh yes. That is my News Feed. You will notice that THERE IS NOTHING ON THERE.

That means:

  • Nothing to get distracted by.
  • Nothing to time waste with.
  • No empty information calories.
  • No ‘cool links’ to lose three hours over.

And it means there is no need to quit Facebook.

Why not quit Facebook if it stresses you so much?

Because Facebook can be useful. Honestly, it can!

You probably don’t care about why I find Facebook useful, but perhaps my list will help you make your own list – AND THEN MAKE SURE THAT FACEBOOK ISN’T MAKING YOU DO ANYTHING THAT ISN’T ON THAT LIST.

Do you see?

So, for me, Facebook is great for:

  • Making contact. I once saw a guy on a bus in Croatia quickly scribble out his name on a piece of paper and stuff it into the pocket of a girl he’d been chatting up, saying, ‘Find me on Facebook!’ – just before she stepped off the bus and out of his life.
  • Staying in contact. I’ve got old, old friends on Facebook who I haven’t seen for years (not since I chatted them up on a bus in Croatia) – you never know when they might come in handy.
  • Stalking people – but on my own terms, not because Facebook thinks I’ll be interested in their lurid holiday snaps.
  • Spreading something that I have created, that I think others will find valuable. Like this blog post, for example.

If you’re worried about what you’ll lose by getting a Zen-like Facebook page, then consider this:

  • If someone really thinks you’ll really appreciate the minutiae of their daily routine or that you would benefit from seeing an inspirational quote or a picture of a kitten doing ninjitsu, then they’ll either post it directly onto your wall or tag you in the post. Or tell you in person, like in the good old days.
  • Therefore, all you’re really filtering out is information vomit and spam. Or, more politely, water cooler chit-chat.
  • And, remember, you’re not quitting Facebook, you’re just turning down the volume so you can hear yourself think. OM.

If you desperately want the serendipity and spontaneity that the News Feed (let’s face it: incredibly rarely) provides, then by all means surf some of your friends’ pages and go where your finger clicks you. But make it a deliberate choice, not because you’re forced to by the Facebook News Feed cookie monster.

Most of the time we need less information, not more. Facebook Zen provides this, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So…

How do you get Facebook Zen?

Well thankfully (and quite against form), Facebook makes it easy.

If you’re a sharp Facebook user, you’ll have noticed Lists. These are a way of grouping friends. Among these lists are Smart Lists. One of these is called Acquaintances. It’s supposed to be used in partnership with another smart list called Close Friends, but we’re only concerned with Acquaintances.

Why? Because one of the features of the Acquaintances list is that people in that list DO NOT APPEAR ON YOUR NEWS FEED.

Score. Now, down to business.

First: forget the name Acquaintances. It’s just a name, you’re not defriending anyone. In fact, they’ll never even know about their demotion*. Into this list you are going to put every single Facebook friend you’ve ever made and will ever make.

Here’s how:

    1. Go to this page: https://www.facebook.com/friends/organize (sign into Facebook if you aren’t already).
    2. A page will pop up saying something like:

See less from these 8 friends in News Feed? You haven’t interacted lately with these friends. Would you like to add them to your Acquaintances list? (You’ll see them less in News Feed.)

    Haha! This is the stuff – but we want MORE!

  1. So scroll down down down to the bottom of this page and you’ll see a link that says something like: Include 163 others – now click this!
  2. Then press the Add to Acquaintances button on the right hand side at the bottom of the page.

If you have any other ‘Smart Lists’ running (like location-based or school-based lists), Facebook may prompt you to add even more friends to your Acquaintances list – just go through steps 3 and 4 above until it stops prompting you.

Et voilà! You have now pushed all your friends out of your News Feed and you now have achieved Facebook Zen.

OM.


*Except for all my friends: yes, you have all been turned into acquaintances. Sorry.

What a to do! Suggestions for list-makers

I have a problem with TO DO lists. They are impossible. Not only that, but – being optimists – we don’t even realise it. It’s almost tragic, our list-making.

Bob Dylan’s TO DO list.

What I mean to say is: if you managed to survive the public education system with a shred of your imagination intact, then of course your life is going to be overflowing with things TO BE DONE.

Put another way: there will always be more on your TO DO list than CAN BE DONE in an average human life-span.

You still don’t get what I’m saying, do you?

Here it is: if you were to write out your TO DO list in full, you must understand that you will DIE long before every item is ticked off.

There.

That might sound a little morbid, but it does give a certain poignancy to all such lists, which could be useful. Perhaps if we considered these lists in their true light, we would spend less time on TIDY ROOM and more time on READ HAMLET.

Suppose you have a TO DO list of ten items. What six items would you immediately strike off if you knew you were going to DIE after only doing four of that list? That should be a pretty reasonable guide as to what you should be doing and what is probably not worthwhile.

I also wonder what items would miraculously appear on our TO DO lists if we are honest with the truth that our time on this earth is finite. Perhaps CREOSOTE FENCE would be replaced by APOLOGISE TO JANET.

Think about it the next time you are looking down your TO DO list…

###

Even if you don’t follow my rather morbid objection, I have a further problem with TO DO lists. The name.

I believe that the first step in doing anything is to think of doing it. So merely by adding a task to your TO DO list, you have (by definition) already started it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be called a TO DO list, but rather a DOING list.

This has the advantage of being far more optimistic and gives you the impression that the task is pretty much over and done with. Which (I would argue) it is. If you think about it, you can easily write a novel without ever being able to spell properly, but it is an impossible task if you never even think of writing a novel. The thinking of it is always our biggest hurdle to accomplishing a task.

So I challenge you to change the name of your list and see what a difference it makes to your productivity and contentment.

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 days: Part 3

I have finished!

I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.

An Admission
Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.

However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.

[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]

So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.

Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.

Phase One: Write like crazy

I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000 words in 71.75 hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.

At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.

By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!

It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.

Phase Two: Edit like crazy

I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.

There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.

As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 10,000 words
  • Part III: 14,000 words
  • Part IV: 10,000 words
  • Part V: 17,000 words

By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 17,000 words
  • Part III: 14,500 words
  • Part IV: 16,500 words
  • Part V: 19,000 words

As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.

The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.

Reflections on the 30-day process

The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.

Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.

One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?

I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.

I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.

So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.

Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!

What’s next?

I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.

Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…

And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 2

I’m 22 days into my ambitious plan to write a real novel, fully drafted and edited, in 30 days. Part 1 is here.

So how am I doing?

Well, this was always going to be a method-in-progress so here are some updates to how I’ve been doing it, and then I’ll come onto how I’m doing, if you see what I mean.

The method: a novel in crisis

1. Don’t get ill.

I managed to contract a cold at the beginning of last week, which knocked me out for four days or so. I only managed to squeeze out about 5,000 words over that time, about 5,000 words down on where I should have been.

More importantly for the project, however, was the ensuing loss of focus. Without focus or the feeling that I knew what I was doing and where I was going, the novel would be dead. This was a serious problem.

2. The mid-novel collapse.

It could have been a coincidence that I felt this death of the novel at the same time as I had a cold. The feeling came on at around 45,000 words, which should have been at a pivotal point in the story. It should have been just as the middle is developing and boiling up nicely for the denouement. But I just didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what my fifth chapter needed to set up the ending.

3. How to resurrect a novel in crisis.

So on Thursday last week I changed focus. I did two things. Firstly, I decided that I would skip chapter five. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I’d write something that was going somewhere and then go back to chapter five later, when I’d discovered what it needed to set up. In other words: I’d write the ending.

The second thing I did was to set a new deadline and a new target and focus on that. I decided that I’d finish the sixth and final chapter in 10,000 words, on Sunday. This re-energised my writing and my focus. Suddenly I knew what I was doing again. The novel was back.

So what happened?

Well, two things happened. Firstly, I finished the sixth chapter today, on Monday. That’s one day after my deadline, but instead of writing 10,000 words, I have written nearly 17,000. So I think one day slippage is allowed. The total word count now stands at 65,000.

Secondly, by writing the last chapter (there will be a short epilogue, but this is the end of the story proper), I did find out what needed to be in chapter five.

This highlights one of the problems with the NaNoWriMo style of plotting. How can your setup work smoothly if you haven’t written the ending yet? That might sound perverse, but, by reversing the writing order, my ending will be far more believable because I know exactly what my ending (i.e. chapter six) requires in its setup (i.e. chapter five). This should save me a lot of time in the editing process.

So what now?

Tomorrow I am going to write the epilogue and then I am going to spend the last week of my 30 days editing the beast down. This will include the writing of chapter five. Again, I am going to edit the ending before the setup, so that the passage of the novel is seamless.

The final word count is going to be about 80,000 words. I am finding, as I edit the earlier chapters, that the pre-edit word count grows about 20%. This is because I have to write in extra scenes to keep the novel flowing logically. Plus there’s chapter five to be written, almost in its entirety.

Stay tuned for Part 3. Will I really have a fully drafted and edited novel after only 30 days?