What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged computer programmer with a young family do a complete career swerve and retrain as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing?

The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things.

Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London.

I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects.

For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this?

Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study.

I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%).

This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination.

You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

I have written before about how important are people who launch themselves on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures. Without these people, how will we hear the stories that fire our own imagination?

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action.

Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of dissatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting dissatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too.

The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast.

So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head.

But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship.

But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey.

No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend.

While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage.

It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door.

For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles.

That epic bike ride changed my life in many ways, but it was missing something. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of that particular Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there.

I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, a Big Reason and a little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together.

It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder.

Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired.

We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour. This was exactly the same for the Thighs of Steel ride from London to Athens in 2018.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not have returned to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt from my secondary school education, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they taught me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters.

This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends.

Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing.

If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful.

Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show.

But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.

There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power.

Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement: the schools of Eton and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage.

Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

No Multitasking

The hardest positive constraint ever. Impossible, in fact. Mainly because I had no idea what multitasking was.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is doing more than one thing at exactly the same time. This is what I’m doing right now, in fact: I’m writing this blogpost while listening to Bach’s Toccata in D minor.

Okay, that’s probably not what you think of as multitasking. Writing feels active, while listening feels passive. Nothing bad will happen if I zone out of listening to Bach. Something bad will happen, however, if I zone out of writzifljds.

But I am only able to multitask in this instance because writing and listening to Bach use different parts of my brain. If there were lyrics in this piece of classical music, then I would be unable to multitask writing and listening.

Listening might feel passive, but it’s still a cognitive distraction. Hence why music helps beginner runners forget the pain, but has no effect on more advanced runners – and might even slow them down.

Except for the very rare times when different tasks use different parts of the brain, multitasking is only possible if one of the tasks has been fully automated. I can walk and talk, just about. But that’s pretty much it. I can’t drive safely and talk on the phone at the same time – and neither can you.

Aside from walking and talking, almost everything else that I thought of as multitasking – doing the washing up while cooking dinner, reading a research paper in one window while watching YouTube videos in another, brushing my teeth while tidying away my clothes, speaking to a friend on the phone while scrolling through the rugby scores – isn’t actually multitasking, it’s just rapid task-switching. Or being a dick.

Either way, it sucks.

What is task-switching?

Task-switching is exactly what you think it is: starting one task, then switching to another before the first is finished. This is what I do a lot of. In fact, my day often resembles a vast Russian doll of activity.

Take one simple set of tasks that I performed today, under the title Returning Home From The Greengrocer:

  • I throw my coat onto the sofa, but don’t put it away.
  • I start to unpack my bag, until I reach a banana. Ooh!
  • I unpeel the banana and take a bite. I put down the banana.
  • I finish unpacking my bag, but don’t put the cheese into the fridge.
  • I take the banana over to my computer and check my email. Ooh!

If I’m lucky, the cheese hasn’t completely melted before I get around to finishing the simple task of unpacking groceries sometime around midnight.

Task-switching is what I’m doing when I catch myself automatically going over to my computer while talking to a friend on the phone. It might feel like I can scroll while talking – but I can’t. How on earth can I read about Scotland getting cheated in the Rugby World Cup while also listening and reacting to my friend’s story about her leaking pond? It’s impossible.

Instead, my brain rapidly switches between the two tasks, so fast that I pretend to myself that I really am multitasking. But I’m bound to miss something (just like referee Craig Joubert in the rugby) and then there’ll be an awkward pause in the conversation. “Hmm? What, sorry?”

But it’s too late – the conversation has gone sour.

Why multitasking is bad, according to science

There is one positive aspect of task-switching that I know of, but it’s certainly not the random, distraction-led task-switching that so many of us get addicted to. Ending a task before it’s finished means that your subconscious can work on the problem without you, while you do the washing up or go for a walk.

This is useful only in a restricted field of activity – putting my coat away doesn’t require a creative breakthrough – and only after you’ve put in a sustained period of effort into the task already.

How did I do?

This has been super hard, but worth it – and for two reasons that stretch beyond the science-supported examples above.

Mono-tasking makes things more fun. I’ve found that, when I’m task-switching, I enjoy each task much less. If I throw all of my attention into cooking and then eating dinner, I will enjoy the rich sensual experience fully. If, however, I’m half-watching an episode of Maigret while shovelling porridge into my face, then I’ll not fully enjoy either.

I’ve started a new morning habit that attempts to instill this mono-tasking frame of mind: reading 20 pages of my book. Sitting down and reading 20 pages can only be done by mono-tasking and I’ve found that this new habit has disrupted my old task-switching routine of thrashing around on my computer, checking email, brushing my teeth, going to the toilet, showering and cramming in breakfast.

Secondly, the exclusive attention of mono-tasking is an extremely powerful tool – and not just for learning, getting tasks done quickly or enjoying my food. As more and more of us get distracted by task-switching devices like our phones, a little burst of exclusive attention lavished on us feels more and more special.

So when you’re with other people, agree to switch off your phones and hide them in a drawer. Because mono-tasking = love.

 

Productivity Positive Constraints

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.

No Desk for Creativity

This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.

The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.

I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.

But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.

With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.

Folded desk
Folded bliss! There’s my sofa on the right, ready for leg stretching creativity. Note also the plants: greenery is good for mind relaxation too.

The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.

It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.

What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!

No Phone against Distraction

When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.

After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.

These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…

Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.

What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.

No Computer for Writing

I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.

Neo 2015-09-28 001
The Neo. Indispensible.

There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.

This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)

The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.

A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.

What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.

So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

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?

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 1

This isn’t just a pie in the sky blog post. This is something that is actually happening, right now. I’ve been holding off writing this first part for a couple of weeks, just to make sure that writing a real novel in thirty days is possible.

What do I mean by a ‘real novel’?

What I’m not talking about is a NaNoWriMo novel, where you blast out 1,667 words a day to end up, at the end of the month, with 50,000 words of complete and utter nonsense. That’s not, in my opinion, a real novel. NaNoWriMo is good for people who find it hard to get words out onto paper. For people who aspire to create something ready for publication, it’s not a path I’d recommend.

NaNoWriMo digression, or: why my novel will be different

I have done NaNoWriMo. I did it last year and, sure enough, I ended up with 50,000 words of garbage. There were some good ideas in there, but it was all over the place and would have taken me months to figure out what was good and what was not. Then I would have had to have re-written it all and added another 30,000 words before it was in a position to be anywhere near getting published.

How do I know that it would have taken me months to sort that jumble out? Well, in 2009, I started writing a novel in a NaNoWriMo-ish way. I decided to write 1,000 words a day for 50 days. This was how I started my first novel and it was a very good way to get me writing. However, the end product was a bit of a mess and it took me almost a year and a half to batter it into some kind of shape.

This is too long for me. I have a life. I can’t afford to spend a year and a half slaving over one novel. I am young and impulsive. I want to write my books in a month.

That means:

  • A manuscript of at least 70,000 words.
  • Of internally consistent and complete plot.
  • Thoroughly edited.
  • Ready for external editors, if not quite publication.

Won’t this just produce internally consistent garbage?

Not necessarily. I think there are actually some good reasons for writing a novel in a month. Here are some of them:

  1. It keeps an energy and a unity to the piece. Compressing the work into just one month means that I live every minute of every day with my characters. The ideas keep coming, even when I’m away from my bed (which is where I write, if you must know). If I only wrote ten minutes a day on the bus, then I’d be likely to lose the feel of my book. I believe that 30 days of intense work will actually create a better book.
  2. Spending any longer on a novel (I know) and I start to fantasise about executing all my characters in a variety of masochistic ways, before turning the electric cattle prod on myself. I believe that a 30-day novel will retain my enthusiasm and enrich my writing.
  3. 30 days is a deadline. When things have deadlines, they get done.

I’m sure you can think of more.

How am I doing it?

This is the really interesting part. This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this (NaNoWriMo not withstanding), so I’m finding out as I go along. But here’s how it’s gone so far.

1. Get things moving.

The first thing that needs to happen is inspiration, something to get the book rolling. This always comes to me in the form of a particularly strong, tension-filled scene. I give that particular metaphorical stone a good push and then chase it down to the bottom of the hill. Hopefully, by the time it’s got there, I’ve found another cliff-edge and it just keeps on rolling. [See #3, below, for the cliff-edges.]

2. Set targets.

I’m aiming to write about 80,000 words for my novel, so I write 3,000 words a day – without fail. I’ve divided my book up into 7 chapters and each chapter I am finishing in 3 days (I know the maths doesn’t add up, see #4, below).

This gives the work a unity and a natural rhythm. Using the rhetorical rule of three, I’m able to construct my chapters very tightly, writing a great beginning on day one, a tense middle on day two and a cliff-hanger ending on day three, which propels me into the next chapter.

3. Make stuff happen.

This is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do, I find.

It is the easiest because, once things start happening, the writing flows out and I can easily do my 3,000 words in about 90 minutes. It is the hardest because, as a fairly timid soul, I’m scared of things happening.

To make sure I stay on track, I try to make something happen every 500-1,500 words. This isn’t a hard and fast rule because every novel has its own rhythm and moments of calm are essential to heighten tension in other parts of the plot. But things do need to keep moving.

I have a habit of having my characters sit around and chat, so, when I see that happening, I introduce a man with a knife, or a police siren, or a lie.

4. Edit, edit, edit.

The writing, though, is not the thing. If the writing was the thing, then this would be nothing more than NaNoWriMo on steroids. No, the difference with this 30-day novel is that, after having written my 3,000 daily words, I knuckle down with editing.

This is what really takes the time. As I edit, I write all the missing scenes that are needed to transform the text from a NaNoWriMo-esque hodge-podge into a well-balanced novel.

It is my intention to have edited each of my chapters twice before the end of the month. This will get the text into a readable state for my friendly editors.

Progress report

So far, on day ten, I have written just over 30,000 words, comprising the first three chapters.

I have edited by hand, in red pen, the first two chapters and I have started the painful process of tapping these edits onto the computer.

I have a good, solid idea of where the plot is going and I’m still excited about it. Thank god.

For the next few weeks I’m going to have to spend even more time on editing. The writing is going really well at the moment, but, as I mentioned above: the editing is the thing.

Wish me luck!

36: A thought experiment to kick your ass

Yesterday I was 28. Today I am 36 years old.

I woke up this morning and I’d lost 8 years in a dreamless sleep. In the mirror, my face was a little more lined, a little thinner, my eyes a little duller. But not much had changed. I’d just lost 8 years of beating-heart life.

36 is a believable age. I could feel, today at 36, just like I did yesterday at 28. I know people who are 36 and they are not much different to me as I was yesterday. So why not?

8 years is a long time. Think of it all, reeling away behind me, all those days, suns and moons. And I’ve done nothing with it. I just woke up this morning, 36 years old, 8 years down.

Hits me in the guts, thinking of all the things I could have done if I hadn’t been asleep. I want to cry, I want to jump and run, I want to eat the world and leave marks.

I know I’m not 36 years old. But I could be soon and it needn’t be an 8-year dreamless sleep that I lose to.

The next 8 years I could lose on Facebook, in supermarkets, bored or brainless. I panic.

It’s a thought experiment.

But there is a deadline to life. Impending panic is a shock to start an engine. I feel it in my groin, in my guts.

So what is it? What thing would I jump to do if I did wake up aged 36 tomorrow? What one thing would make me think: “Fuck! Why didn’t I just do this sooner?”

Seize the Weekend!

Welcome to your fourteenth weekend of the year.

What are you going to do with it?

What have you done with your weekends so far this year? Could you do better?

For a lot of people, weekends are sacrosanct. It’s our only chance to sleep late, our only chance to switch off, to meet up with friends for longer than a quick pint.

But it’s also the only chance we get to seize the day for ourselves. The weekend holds no obligations (if you’re lucky…) – no deadlines, no schedules, no timetables. Anything could happen today and tomorrow – anything.

You could find yourself halfway up a mountain by lunchtime.

You could be swimming in that loch in the sunshine.

You could start writing a novel.

You could buy a guitar and sing crazy songs about musical body parts.

You could help your neighbours with their shopping.

You could bake a cake for your nan.

But remember: after this one, you’ve only got another 39 left – and one of those is New Year’s Eve.

Make the most of them. Make the most of this weekend.

Is this the Secret to a Bigger Life?

Life is what we remember. Most of your life isn’t spent now; it’s spent then – in memories.

To get a bigger life, therefore, you might think we need bigger memories.

But our memories are selective. To use my favourite cycling metaphor, while you will inevitably spend most of your time going uphill – what you remember are the downhills. Our memories cut the boring stuff.

So we don’t need a bigger memory.

We need bigger time.

Time and Travel – or Time Travel?

Consider this: you spend weeks and weeks looking forward to your holiday. Time in the office seems to drag on forever. Finally you get on the plane and shoot off to a beach on Bermuda.

Lying here, with the sand between your toes, the office seems a million years away. Why is that? But your two weeks of cocktails and beaches fly by in the blinking of an eye – and suddenly you’re back in the office.

Now it’s Bermuda that seems a million years away. Did time get mixed up in the Bermuda Triangle?

A physicist might put it thus:

A displacement in space is equal to a displacement in time.*

Or, to put it another way, travel makes time bigger.

Continuity and Happening

Think back to what you were doing ten seconds ago – chances are it was the same thing you are doing now – can you remember how you were feeling then?

Doesn’t it feel weird to think about how you felt just a moment ago? I bet you weren’t really feeling much in particular, at least not until you thought about it.

That’s continuity for you.

The brain seems to have two modes: one for when things are happening and one for continuity. And the more we allow continuity to build up, the less we can pull out of it and remember. It all blends into one.

Our brains don’t bother to make a distinction between this moment reading a blog post and that moment ten seconds ago reading a blog post. In our memories it’s just going to go down as ‘read blog post’ – if that. More likely, it will just get subsumed under ‘just another day at the office’ and none of the specifics will be remembered at all.

For all your brain cares: that moment of your life simply didn’t happen.

Happening and Memory

Happenings, however, break up periods of continuity – and, in doing so, happenings also create a bigger life. Happenings mean that less of our lives get lost in the long tedium of continuity: happenings give us pegs from which to hang the memories of our lives.

For example, how many times have you placed a rogue memory with this kind of dialogue?

‘Oh, that was just before John broke his leg – yes, and not long after Fran won the three-legged race at school – hahaha!’

Travel is a kind of happening. The chronology below shows the effect of continuity and happening on life/memory:

  • Location A: continuity
  • Event 1A
  • Event 2A
  • Event 3A
    • Travel to location B: a new continuity
    • Event 1B
    • Event 2B
    • Event 3B
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 4A
  • Event 5A
  • Event 6A
      • Travel to location C: another new continuity
      • Event 1C
      • Event 2C
      • Event 3C
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 7A
  • Event 8A
  • Event 9A

Events in locations B and C are distinct and separate from the memories made in the other locations. They seem to stand out more due to the unique nature of the location in which the memories were made. It is harder to place event 5A in the logical progression of the year than 2B or 3C, for example. Although the time spent on the activities may be the same, event 5A appears smaller in life, in the memory, than event 2B.

This has serious implications for our lives. Allowing too much continuity to build up makes our lives smaller!

Breaking up this continuity is the secret to remembering more of your life and thus having, not a longer life (who really wants that, wrinkles and all?) – but a bigger life.

Happening + Bigger Time = Travel

Happenings are not always good (poor old John). They are not always desirable.

Travel, however, is a form of happening that is usually (more of less) in our control. It is also (in the form of a holiday at least) designed to make us happy. That seems to make it a particularly good sort of happening.

Furthermore, because travel creates bigger time, the power of memory associated with it is multiplied. Travel is a happening that leaves an impression on your memory disproportionate in size compared to normal life.

Think about this: despite the fact that you spent 230 days in the office last year, the moments you remember best from that year were those 14 days on a beach in Bermuda. It broke the continuity and created big time.

It made yours a bigger life.


*The incredible distances achievable by flight seem to totally fox our poor little brains. It seems literally unbelievable that we could have been at work in Croydon yesterday, when today we are sipping a Piña Colada on Elbow Beech.

You can test this out. How much travel is needed to blow the mind. Walk down the street and look back at the hundred or so metres you’ve travelled and ask yourself if you can remember what it was like to be you back then. What about a longer walk? I think the brain starts to break up its continuity when the distances become unobservable. A trip of twenty miles or more definitely has the ability to make the brain marvel – when you think about it.

The Remarkable Productivity of Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.

What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.

Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.

What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.

Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).

Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.

Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!


*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.

How to Live With No Computers

As you read these words, I have been nine hours without a computer. For the first time in my life-long dependency on computers, I am going cold turkey. I’m not going to use the old bastard for the whole of the rest of this week.

Thank god.

I know this might sound like a ridiculous rich-world conceit, but I am way too reliant on my computer. It sucks into every pore of my life. I wake up with my computer, I work with my computer, I get headaches with my computer. My computer informs me, my computer entertains me, my computer frustrates me.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in – check email – breathe out.

And, to be honest, it’s rubbish. We need a break.

Why No Computers?

One of my ambitions in life is to be as self-sustainable as possible. For me, this means reducing my reliance on things that are not me. Relying heavily on external matter will only cause pain when they are taken away – as all things are one day.

I’m not saying that it’s not desirable to have these things – I rely on a lot of external things for my life and I am grateful for them. But, so far as I can, I want to know what it is like to not have. I might learn something useful through privation. What will I find to do without my time-sucking computer?

I have become so habituated to computers, that they no longer demand my imagination. They no longer get me excited. They are a default. I turn to my computer when I’m bored. I surf the net. I write an email. I surf the net again. When the internet isn’t working I might actually write something. Or play Hearts.

Without my computer to entertain me, I’ll have to think. I won’t have my default available any more. Maybe I’ll find something more interesting, maybe I’ll find something more useful, maybe I’ll find something more human to do.

So for the next week I’m not going to use my computer. It’s not a long time, but it should be enough to knock me out of my mindless reliance on the computer, stop me from taking the privilege of a computer for granted and teach me about what is really important, what is really necessary for my life.

What does No Computers mean?

  • It doesn’t mean I can’t type. I have a rather nifty little typewriter that I intend to do my writing on.
  • It doesn’t mean I can’t use other electronic equipment. I can still use my phone and camera, for example. It’s not a smartphone though, so no sneaky computer use there.
  • I’m not going to be an idiot about it. If someone else is using a computer and wants me to look, I’m not going to throw my hands over my eyes and run screaming. I’m just not going to use it myself. 
  • However, it does mean that I won’t be able to post on this blog any more this week. Not until Sunday night, anyway.


A slightly more extreme opinion on what I am doing comes from a 1987 essay by writer and farmer Wendell Berry:

“I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape? For the same reason, it matters to me that my writing is done in the daytime, without electric light.”

Extreme, but I sympathise with his argument and admire the stand he is making. Even though I’m not at total accord with his dismissal of the power of computers to spread knowledge (you can’t blame him for not foreseeing the role telecommunications would play in the recent revolutions in the Middle East) the rest of the essay is well worth a read: http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html

This article, written for PC World around 2002, is much closer to what I expect and why I am doing it: http://pcworld.about.com/magazine/2103p119id108732.htm

How to Persuade, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Rewards Don’t Work!

  • Rewards don’t work. They sometimes show a short-term boost, but generally elicit the response:

‘I get paid for doing things I don’t like; therefore I must hate this.’

  • Occasional surprise rewards work for things that someone enjoys already. So does praise for their effort.
  • For something disliked, modest payment and feel-good comments about their behaviour works.

Quick Tips for Persuasion

  • Sit in the middle of a group. Important people sit in the middle.
  • If you are trying to sell something, keep the name of the product simple, in other words: easy to remember and straightforward to pronounce.
  • Use simple language, not fancy words to make yourself appear intelligent.
  • Make appeals personal, story based, not based on general statistics.
  • To get more donations, use the slogan: ‘Every penny helps’ and paint your collection box red.
  • Do a favour for someone and they’ll reciprocate. Don’t put the pressure on by doing too much to begin with. Ask for the return favour soon after – otherwise the other person will forget they needed you.
  • Put a photo of a cute baby in your wallet. WTF.

Getting Agreement

  • Getting someone to answer ‘yes’ to a series of minor questions will encourage them to say ‘yes’ when you ask the big one.
  • People like things that are introduced to them whilst they are eating a meal.
  • People are more likely to be swayed by controversial arguments if they have caffeine.
  • Save your time, persuade by rhyme.
  • Similarity works to persuade. People like people like themselves, even just sharing a first name is enough. Funny, eh? I can’t think of a Dave I didn’t get on with. And there are a lot of us around.
  • Use humour, lighten up the persuasion, get them in a good mood.

How to Nail Your Job Interview

Job interviews are all about persuasion and, unjustly, likeability is more important than qualifications or experience, so:

  • Find something you like about the organisation and let your opinion be known.
  • Give a genuine compliment to the interviewer.
  • Chat about a non-work-related topic that you and the interviewer find interesting.
  • Be interested – ask what type of person they’re looking for and how they’ll fit into the organisation.
  • Be enthusiastic about the position and the organisation.
  • Smile and maintain eye contact with the interviewers.
  • When you do have a weakness, announce it early to show your honesty
  • Leave something positive to the end to show your modesty.
  • If you make what feels like a major mistake, don’t panic. The chances are it is much more noticeable to you than them. An excessive response or apology will only draw attention to it.

How to Be Likeable

  • People like you more when they do a small favour for you.
  • The occasional slip up can enhance your likeability. Warning: this only works if you risk looking too perfect, like JFK.
  • Gossip positively – the traits you gossip about will come to be associated with you!

How to Persuade a Crowd

  • The more people who are around a person in distress, the less likely anyone is to do anything about it.
  • Break the crowd mentality by targeting one person and appeal directly with a specific request.
  • If you have a request of a group, ask each person individually, not all together.

How to Achieve Your Goals, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

4 Key Techniques for Motivation

  1. Have the right kind of plan.
  2. Tell friends and family about your plan.
  3. Focus on the benefits of your achievement.
  4. Reward yourself each step of the way.

The Right Kind of Plan

Wiseman’s got the plan, don’t worry.

1. Define your goal:

My overall goal is to…

2. Create a step-by-step plan:

Break overall goal into five steps, each with a goal that is concrete, measurable, realistic and time-based, e.g.:

Step 1:
  • My first sub-goal is to… write a blog post.
  • I believe that I can achieve this goal because… I’ve done the research and I’ve done this sort of thing before.
  • To achieve this sub-goal, I will… sit at the computer and write 500 words on how to achieve your goals.
  • This will be achieved by… today!
  • My reward for achieving this will be, er…a pack of Marylands?

3. What are the benefits of achieving your overall goal?

  • List three important benefits, focusing on how much better life will be for you and those around you.
  • Focus on the benefits of your desired future, rather than escaping the negatives of your present situation.

4. Go public.

Who are you going to tell about your goals and sub-goals? Maybe you could publish them on a blog or display them in your office or home?

1 Simple Way to Beat Procrastination

Start work on something for just a few minutes and your brain will want to complete it. Anyone can do anything for a few minutes. Just start.

Use Doublethink to Achieve Your Goals

Thinking about benefits and setbacks together will motivate you to achieve and help you persevere in the face of difficulties. Answer these questions about your goals to get the best motivation.

1. What is your goal?

2. Potential benefits and setbacks

  1. Write down one word that reflects an important way your life would be better if you achieve your goal.
  2. Write down one word that reflects a significant barrier standing in the way of you achieving your goal.
  3. Write down a second benefit.
  4. Write down another significant barrier.

3. Elaboration

  • Elaborate on how the two benefits identified above will affect your life positively.
  • Elaborate how the two obstacles identified above will hinder your achievement – and outline the steps you would take to deal with them.

How to Achieve Your Life Goals

  • Write your own eulogy (or obituary) in the third person (David Charles will be remembered as full of fast phrase, pace of prosody and poise of poesy…) to reveal your real life goals (that was a dumb example, by the way). What would you like people to say about you when you die? What would you like to have achieved?
  • Those who visualise themselves as others see them are 20% more successful than those adopting a first person view. Apparently. How do they find these things out? that’s what I want to know.

How to Decide, In 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Beware of Deciding in Groups!

Groups tend to:

  • Polarise an individual’s opinion and make them take more extreme decisions.
  • Be more dogmatic than individuals.
  • Be better at justifying irrational actions than individuals.
  • Be more likely to see their actions as highly moral than individuals.
  • Stereotype outsiders.

Furthermore, when strong-willed people lead group discussions they can:

  • Pressurise others into conforming.
  • Encourage self-censorship.
  • Create an illusion of unanimity.

How to Beat the Salesman

You can use these mind tricks for good or evil. Use them to persuade, or use knowledge of them to avoid the dodgy sales tactics of others.

  • Salesmen will often use ‘That’s not all…’ techniques, i.e. give something away for free, offer discounts or bargains. There’s nothing wrong with that – if you already want to make the purchase.
  • Another technique (often used, I’ve found, by people outside train stations incongruously desperate to call home…) is ‘Disrupt, then re-frame’ – in other words surprise a person and then make a request. Don’t ask for a quid, ask for 97 pennies. The unusual request will break through the other person’s automatic negative response.
  • Another good one is to ask for a small favour and then build up to the big favour/sale – get your foot in the door.
  • Or to start with a ridiculously big ask and so that your ‘reasonable’ offer looks like good value.

Use the Unconscious to Unlock Complex Decisions

When making straight-forward decisions, stick with the concious mind. Just think about the pros and cons and assess the situation in a rational, level-headed way.

But for more complex choices, try giving your concious mind a rest by following this simple technique.

  1. Outline exactly what decisions you have to make.
  2. Work through anagrams for five minutes. This occupies your conscious mind.
  3. Now without thinking too much, write down your decision. Hopefully your unconscious mind has come up with something!

When You Make the Wrong Decision…

Regret is surely one of the most painful emotions known to humankind. ‘No regrets’ is a great thing to strive for, but there’s nothing more human than making bad decisions. Don’t let it get to you by using these tips.

  • People tend to regret things that they don’t do, rather than things that they do do.
  • Prevent regret in the first place by adopting a ‘will do’ attitude. Say YES.
  • If you do regret something, see if you can correct it. Write a letter, mend that broken relationships, go back to college, etc.. Use regret as a wake up call for motivation.
  • If it isn’t possible to make things better, don’t dwell on ‘What might have been…’ Instead, spend time thinking about three benefits of your current situation and three negative consequences that could have occurred had you taken the decision that’s causing the regret.

Judgement

Good judgement is at the heart of good decision-making. So what happens when you are faced with a judgement call?

How to Beat Liars

  • Forget the clichés about liars staring to the left or whatever. It’s not true.
  • Liars tend to become static, they gesture less. 
  • They speak in less detail and increase their pauses.
  • They avoid the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and increase their use of ‘him’ and ‘her,’ rather than using specific names. 
  • If someone becomes suddenly evasive, ask for a straight answer.
  • Try to establish an honest baseline for the person by asking simple questions that will get an honest reply.
  • Get them to email you their story. People lie in 14% of emails, 21% texts, 27% face-to-face, 37% phonecalls. Take note of that one yourself: emails can come back to haunt you!

How to Judge Time Accurately

We are very bad at estimating how long things will take. Improve your estimates by:

  • Comparing how long a similar project took before.
  • Unpacking the activity into its constituent parts and estimate how long each one will take individually.

How to be Creative, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Engage the Unconscious Mind

  1. Address a problem. What is it you are trying to solve?
  2. Do a difficult crossword, word-search, sudoku – or any other task that fully occupies your conscious mind.
  3. Now, without thinking too much about it, jot down the various thoughts and possible solutions that come to you.

The Four Ps of Creativity

Classic self-help. The X-number of Y.

Priming

  1. Work feverishly on the problem.
  2. Then do something completely different: Feed your mind with new things: museum, art gallery, flick through newspapers, go on a train journey.
  3. Leave it to your brain to make the connections.

Put plants and flowers in a room. Green is good. Don’t fake it though – pictures won’t do. Avoid red. Prime people with green objects if you want them to be creative.

Perspective

  • Imagine how a child/idiot/friend/artist/accountant would solve the problem.
  • Think about analogous situations by applying the ‘is like’ rule – how is the problem solved by the analogous entity? Can this be applied to your situation?
  • Think about doing the exact opposite to what you are doing now.

Play

Have some fun. Being too serious constrains your brain. Take a 15 minute fun break.

Perceive

  • Don’t go onto automatic pilot. Become more curious.
  • Ask yourself an interesting question each week. Try to find out the answers. Not just by using Wikipedia.

Quick Creativity Tips

Richard Wiseman has some quick tips for us. How kind *pulls desk towards himself*.

Creative Brainstorming

  • Mix groups of people up to be more creative in brainstorming sessions. Put different kinds of people together, not bunches of friends.
  • Or better, allow people to be creative alone. It makes them responsible alone for coming up with good ideas. Quality and quantity of ideas improve when alone in most cases.

The Power of Art

  • Spend a few moments describing a typical musician or artist. List their behaviours, lifestyle and appearance.
  • Look at modern art to help produce original ideas.

Creative Body Language

  • When trying to be creative, pull the table towards you. Pulling things means you are comfortable with them and comfortable means creative.
  • Cross your arms to help perseverance in the face of failure.
  • Lie down to use your locus coeruleus against rigid thinking.

Good ideas without action are just bad excuses

‘Good ideas without action are just bad excuses.’

I’m not sure if this saying from 2009 needs to be explained, but I will anyway, with an example.

A lot of people say:

‘I’m gonna write a novel!’

but then don’t start writing, they don’t act on their words. So it turns into:

‘I’m gonnna write a novel – when I’ve got a bit more time, after the kids have moved out, after I’ve bought a new computer, after I’ve finished painting the Sistine chapel…’ 

etc., etc., etc..

Hence: good ideas without action are just bad excuses.

A Writer’s Manifesto

Every self-respecting writer has a manifesto these days, so here’s mine. Feel free to cover your mouth before laughing.

I. Beginning

  1. This manifesto is not a rule book and there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy.

II. Life

  1. I live. I experiment. I write.
  2. I don’t need any props for this life. I can even write without pen and paper.
  3. The world is big enough for us all.
  4. This isn’t a game and money isn’t the score.
  5. I’m not going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or an engineer. Survival isn’t enough.
  6. I will push my physical and mental capabilities. “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” Mandela.
  7. I am responsible for my own experience. Nobody else knows what is good, meaningful or worthwhile for me.

III. Writing

  1. A book is just a book. I’ll write hundreds of them.
  2. My creation is independent of me. I just show up and put in the hours.
  3. Success and popularity are independent of my creation. They are whims of fortune.
  4. I’m not dependent on suddenly being ‘discovered’.
  5. Publishers are only middlemen.
  6. Bob Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar.

IV. The Audience

  1. There is an audience. They might not be listening, but they are there.
  2. I will not be afraid to engage the audience.
  3. The audience will see themselves in what I write because I am human also.
  4. I will inspire the audience with new ideas, perspectives and sensations.”What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” Thoreau.
  5. I will entertain the audience.

V. End

  1. This too shall change.


What do you think? Big fat self-indulgent piece of tripe? A worthwhile exercise to keep me on the straight and narrow? You ever thought about writing your own manifesto?

How to Succeed in Business (Or How to Become a Writer)

I was at a business networking event this lunchtime (woah – I’ve just upped my street-cred), where I suffered a wonderful presentation given by a business-woman who supplies live-in carers to disabled, elderly or bored people.

Now, I usually spend the entire duration of these presentations wondering how the hell the panicking presenter has managed to start their business, let alone how they’ve come to be lecturing others about their wonderful success – but, right from the start, this presenter was different.

And when this truffle of wisdom fell from her lips, I knew I was in good hands:

“Don’t jump in,” she warned us, “with all feets a-blazing.”

So here it is, the wisdom of Lee-Ann from Choice Homecare on how to succeed in starting up your own business.

How to Succeed in Business

As you may have noticed from the sentence above, Lee-Ann loves figurative language. Well, who doesn’t?

Not one for hyperbole, she describes her battle for self-employed success as like the battle between David and Goliath.

She’s David, by the way, and Goliath is the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of running your own business.

Persisting with the metaphor, David slew Goliath with five stones in his sling and so, for Lee-Ann, there are five ‘stones’ in her ‘sling-shot’. So far, so metaphorical. Here are those stones:

Stone 1: Passion

Your business must be something you are passionate about because nothing else will keep you going through the tough times.

Success or failure will be down to you, you can’t rely on others and nor can others let you down.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

At this point Lee-Ann also trotted out a lovely little cliché: ‘Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

As an employee of a regular business, you never have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

As the owner of your own business, you will constantly be worrying about tomorrow. Equally, though, there is no cap to the possibilities of what you can achieve; it’s up to you what you plan for.

Stone 3: Priority

You’ve got to know what is worth doing and what isn’t. Don’t waste your time on trivialities.

Stone 4: Past success

Keep a record of your achievements, so that you can look back on them when you feel like you’re a failure.

The memory of winning her first client keeps her going when she is finding it tough to find new clients.

Winning that first client told her that all her hard work had been worthwhile.

Stone 5: Perseverance

Lee-Ann had many nos before she got just one yes.

It took her 15 months to get her first client and she only became profitable in her third year.

Ka-pow. Goliath is slain. But what do all those deadly stones mean for me (and you) as writers of serious intent?

How to Become a Writer

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again because a dead horse is there to be flogged: if you want to write seriously, then make it your business.

If you start taking it professionally, then the results will be professional. So let’s have another look at Lee-Ann’s five stones from the point of view of writing.

Stone 1: Passion

Because no one else is going to tie you to your desk and only you can make this a success.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

I personally don’t plan novels when I start them, but boy is there a lot of planning after the first draft. There’s also a heck of a lot of preparation involved in creating the right conditions for writing, i.e. a huge block of alone time, a typing machine, copious pots of tea, etc..

I guess I did a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in writing with my 18-year academic career as well. And the possibilities are limitless with my writing.

Stone 3: Priority

Er, like not doing yet another blog post when I should be writing my novel.

Stone 4: Past success

I will always have written one novel. I know I can do it and there is no reason why I won’t be able to again. I know what it takes.

Stone 5: Perseverance

How many nos will I have to hear from agents, from publishers, from editors before I get that one yes?

Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to keep going until I find out.

Productivity and the Art of Sacrifice

Introduction to deliberate sacrifice

The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.

Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.

But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.

The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.

5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works

1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal

If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.

2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal

From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.

3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive

Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.

4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier

You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?

5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect

Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.

Sacrifice and Priorities

Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.

Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.

Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.

For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.

Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.

How to sacrifice deliberately

Know your goal

Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.

Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal

Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.

Work out the sacrifices

Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!

Work out the secondary sacrifices

These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.

Choose the sacrifices

Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.

A Sacrifice Audit

There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.

1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make

You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.

2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices

These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.

3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway

Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!

4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make

You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!

A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)

  • Our time on earth is scarce.
  • We can’t do everything.
  • We must make a choice.
  • To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
  • By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
  • The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
  • Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.

Where this idea came from

This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.

You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clichéd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.

I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.

Murakami on Writing and Running

A review of: What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.

So what was that?

Continue reading Murakami on Writing and Running

How to make a free and easy documentary video

  1. Get a YouTube account: http://www.youtube.com. Apparently other video sites exist, but I’m going with the market leader – why not? Assuming this isn’t going to be a magnum opus (YouTube is limited to 10 minutes) – just get it up and get it out there.
  2. Download a free lump of software, like this one: http://www.aquasoft.de/SlideShowYouTube_en.as?ActiveID=2124
    This is not a perfect piece of kit. Every now and again it will do funny things and time-slip your video. Live with it: it’s free and easy.
  3. Choose a topic for your documentary.
  4. Do a ton of research on your topic.
  5. Write a script.
  6. Search Wikimedia Commons for pictures relating to your topic and download them.
  7. Throw them into the SlideShow software. In some logical order please.
  8. Record your script with a microphone and Audacity (another free lump of software: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/)
  9. Edit and mess around with your sound file until it sounds good. Don’t worry about perfect, we’re happy with good.
  10. Export it as an MP3 file (you’ll need to download the MP3 Codecs for Audacity to do this bit.)
  11. Throw it into the SlideShow software.
  12. Make sure the pictures line up with your vocals nicely and that there are no ridiculous transitions (like the photo of your grandma doing a somersault whilst you talk about her hip replacement.)
  13. Upload the bugger to your YouTube account.
  14. Check SlideShow hasn’t done something very odd. If it has, mess around until you fluke upon the right timing.
  15. Publicise your baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw94Qtb7e-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A2jQtzUbJo

How to Write: The Tools

To be able to write, you need the write tools.

As you appear to be reading this website, I will assume that you already have a computer. If not, then skip the next two items: they are for people with computers. I should say now that computers are not essential for most of the phases of writing, but they sure as hell save a lot of time later on (unless you have a secretary.)

1. Download this program: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWriter is an incredible (free) tool for creating whole novels out of thin air. You create Chapters and then Scenes in Chapters and then fill them up with words. You can also use all kinds of complicated extra things like Characters, Locations and Items – but I don’t bother. I just focus on the actual writing bit. You can even set a writing targets and the program will chilly-chally you until you’ve finished.

2. Use this website: http://750words.com/
Very very (stupid) simple website that practically forces you to write 750 words a day. You can use this to make sure you write a bit on your novel every day (you get points for hitting 750 words on a day, which then doubles up to make bowling-esque streaks) – or you can just use it like I do for a morning brain dump. Morning brain dumps will make you happier and healthier (apparently), encourage you to get writing and hopefully get all your rubbish words out in one fell swoop, leaving your gold-encrusted mots for the main event.

3. Buy books with blank pages.
This is not a facetious comment. You wouldn’t write in a book that had words in it, so why write in a book that has parallel lines all over the page? How on earth do you hope to write creatively cramped between ruled lines? It just makes no sense to me. Moleskine do nice ones with blank pages. They’re not too big either so will get filled up fast, leaving you with a great sense of achievement. Once you have notebooks, carry them around with you. Note how I use the plural for notebooks. Different notebooks for different occasions. I have little Moleskine ones for portability and big open-up-flat ones for my desk and – important – for my bedside. Always have a notebook by your bed. This is where your best ideas will come. There and on a long walk somewhere. Make sure you have notebooks in these two places.

4. Buy pens.
A lot of pens. Have pens everywhere, in every coat pocket, on your desk,  in your hat band – you do have a hat, don’t you? Pens are more important than paper. Paper you can improvise, pens you can’t (without getting blood everywhere.)

So those are your tools. Not too hard, not too expensive. To be honest, the tools aren’t the thing, the thing’s the writing.

What I learnt about writing from Bob Dylan

Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure.

But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.

And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.

There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):

  • Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
  • There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
  • The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

    Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.

    Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.

How to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

So here it is, the answer to the question every writer asks themselves: how the blue blazes do I manipulate the Nobel committee into giving me a prize?

I copied the extracts (presumably the most representative quotes) of the Nobel prize for literature citations from the Wikipedia page. Then I copied it into the AntConc corpus program. These were the, revealing, results:

31 citations

Poetry/Poetic

22 citations

Art/Artistic
Human/Man

18 citations

Writing/s

16 citations

Life

13 citations

Work/s

11 citations

Drama/Dramatic
Literature/Literary
Novel/s

10 citations

Epic
Great
Narrative
Recognition

9 citations

Power

8 citations

World

7 citations

Deep
Lyrical
New
Rich

6 citations

Force
Imagination
Inspired
Spirit
Traditions

5 citations

Contemporary
Idealism
Style
Truth

4 citations

Brilliant
Clear
Condition
Freedom
Historical
Ideas
Lofty
Outstanding
Production
Realistic
Strength
Thought
Time
Tribute

Conclusions:

  • Write poetry – or, at the very least, literature in a poetic or lyrical style.
  • Drama and epic novels are next best.
  • Consider yourself an artist, produce pieces of art.
  • Write about the human condition and the world, ideally paying attention to historical truth.
  • Don’t stop: the Nobel prize rewards your life’s work, it will take time.
  • Force, power, strength and realism are rewarded.
  • But so are lofty spirit, deep thought, rich imagination and idealism.
  • Ideas are good, style is important – but neither are as important as narrative.
  • It is good to be contemporary, better to be traditional, but best of all to be new.
  • Your work should be great, inspired, brilliant, clear and outstanding – in that order.
  • If you follow these guidelines then you will claim recognition and tribute – and possibly freedom.