The Dark Side of Accountability

As of today I have managed to post more times in the past two weeks then I did in the whole of last year. Yay! I am quite proud of keeping up my workday blogging schedule.

One of the reasons I have done so, possibly the only reason, is because I said I would, here on this blog, in my very first post of the year. Because my resolution is a matter of public record, and it’s easy to see whether I have kept it, I feel some pressure to get the posts done. I will be embarrassed by my failure to do so.

Being in the spotlight has nudged me towards writing the blog. Not only have I made a public commitment, I set up a Seinfeld chain to encourage it. As the chain lengthened I felt the usual pressure not to break it.

The extra motivation helps me get things done but that is not an unalloyed good. There is a dark side. Certainly, because I feel the pressure of public accountability, I make the effort to get the posts up. That same pressure means that I sometimes ignore other things. I don’t make my living blogging. I make my living writing books. Yet there have been days in the past couple of weeks when I have put the writing of fiction on hold just so I could finish my daily blog posts.

It did not start this way. My original idea was that I would do the blog posts after I had completed the day’s writing, and I would devote at most one 25 minute pomodoro to them. Things have not quite turned out that way. There have been days when I have devoted much more time to the posts. They have also begun to take up headspace. I find myself spending as much time thinking about the posts as my fiction.

It’s a classic case of the urgent squeezing out the important and it’s making me have doubts about the undertaking. The discipline might be better applied to something else such as writing 500 more words of fiction per day.

This is not to say that I am immediately going to abandon posting. My doubts might just be my natural laziness and resistance to doing something new kicking it. I do need to monitor the situation and try and nudge things back towards the way I want them to be. If I feel my work is suffering I’ll cut back on the posting. Let’s see how it goes for another couple of weeks.


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Free Stuff for NaNoWriMo

I should have known it was all going to go horribly wrong the moment I got on the plane. It wasn’t just the person on the left of me was snuffling. The person on the right was as well. As was the person in front of me and the person behind. As we took off the sounds of coughing and sneezing drowned out the engines. I could practically feel the cloud of unhealth settle on me. Father Nurgle has blessed me once more.

There was not a lot of NaNoWriMoing done last week. As of yesterday I had completed 36522 words. Looking back at last weeks blog post I can see I had managed 28000 or so. That means in seven days I’ve done roughly 8500 words. In my defence I will say there was a lot of family visiting, a lot of time spent in airports and a lot of time spent walking in the cold rain, cultivating the germs my fellow travellers on the Airbus so helpfully gave me.

This has been a useful reminder that not all drops in word count productivity have to do with writers block or the torture of being a true artist looking for the perfect place to put that so-important comma. This NaNoWriMo I have frolicked through 6000 words in an afternoon. I’ve also had days when 1700 words were trench warfare in bloody mud. The difference being that in the first case I was healthy and in the second case I was a snuffling, gurgling, sore-throated mass of disease spores.

On the plus side, during my trip The Roost Stand and Alphasmart Dana performed exactly as advertised. They were portable, rugged and very useful from an ergonomic point of view.

Writing sprints continue to be the revelation of this NaNoWriMo month. I would never have thought it possible that I could get so much done so easily. I’ve always thought I needed at least half an hour to get myself into a writing frame of mind. I was wrong. Five or ten minutes can be enough if I approach it in the right way.

And now for a public service announcement. If you are reading this on a laptop or tablet, I urge you to consider it not as a useful piece of portable electronics but as the ergonomic time-bomb it really is. Don’t wait until, like me, you are the proud recipient of numb arms, pins and needles and episodic vertigo brought on by spinal compression. Do something now.

I point you to the following bits of free software. I find them useful for forcing sensible practises on me. Both remind you to take breaks at reasonable intervals. Both can alert you to take minor breaks as well as longer term ones.

Workrave is my favourite of the two. Its for Windows and Linux. It looks less pretty than its Mac equivalent but it has more functionality. It plays you little videos showing useful exercises during your breaks.

Time Out is for the Mac and is a lot prettier. I tend to set it so that the over-ride buttons are not visible which forces me to step away from the keyboard.

I have installed these bits of software on all my machines now. They make me take one or two minute breaks every ten minutes and 10 minute breaks every half an hour. This also serves a useful function for timing my writing sprints and pomodoros so it fits in well with my workflow. It takes a little getting used to the way the programs break up your flow but the long term benefits make it worthwhile.

There’s some other stuff to report. I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in the airport duty free store. First impressions are favourable but it deserves a review of its own. I also saw Interstellar in the IMAX. That’s three hours of my life I won’t be getting back. It needs an incoherent, spoiler-and-rage-filled rant to do its fractal stupidity (thank you for the phrase, Mr Mooney) justice and I am just too sick. Also I have to get back to NaNoWriMo.

Back next week for my final report on the event.


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Checklists, Waypoints and Revisions

Back in the mid–90s, long before 9–11, I was a guest on the flight deck of an SAS Boeing 737 flying between Stockholm and Copenhagen. For a man scared of flying this was a revelation. Everything seemed so peaceful and safe. The most reassuring thing about it was how routine everything seemed. One of the things that made it so was that one of the pilots, the captain, I think, sat there with a clipboard. He ticked stuff off on a checklist as the co-pilot performed various functions. It was clear that these guys had a system that made the complex task of keeping the plane in the air routine.

This was on my mind recently as I worked out the tip I am about to pass on, a thing so obvious that I am almost embarassed. First some background.

I am revising the seventh Kormak novel, Born of Darkness. During the writing of this book, I tried, as I often do, experimenting with a new technique.

I am a dedicated outliner. It’s the first thing I do when I sit down to write a book. This time I thought I would experiment with pantsing, just winging it from the basic idea of the story. Or I would attempt as close to this as my over-controlling nature will allow.

I had the idea of using waypoints. I would do micro-outlines, just brief sketches up to what screen writers call the Act Breaks. (If you’re not familiar with Three Act Structure take a look at this.) I wrote as far ahead as the Act Break, and once I got there, I stopped re-evaluated my plot, did another micro-synopsis and pushed on.

It went pretty well. Lots of interesting stuff popped up as I was writing. In some ways, too much interesting stuff. New ideas, new scenes, new characters, new bits of business all showed up, often out of the blue. Trying to go with the flow I did not go back and rewrite as I went along. I just made a note in the text, usually an inline annotation in Scrivener or a note in my journal or in Evernote and I pushed on. A lot of the stuff was cool, but some of it contradicted things said earlier, some of it needed foreshadowing in the text.

When I finished the first draft, things were even more of a mess than usual. I had notes scattered through my text, in various files in my journal, in plain text on my phone and in Dropbox. Sometimes I scribbled stuff down in OneNote on my tablet if an idea struck me when I was out and about. I needed to go through all this , put it together and sort it out.

That’s when I remembered the pilots on the 737. I decided I needed a checklist. I would go through all my notes, put them in one place and then tick things off as I went through the list of what needed to be done.

I started using OmniOutliner, an app I have owned for over a decade but rarely use these days. It’s a good program but I have not had much use for it since I started using Scrivener. So why was it on my mind now? Because I wanted something I could tick things off on and, as far as I know, there is no way of doing this in Scrivener.

OmniOutliner is great for making checklists but there was no place to cut and paste the information I needed to use.

Then I remembered that I owned Folding Text. I took all my separate notes and pasted them into Folding Text. I gave each of the major sections of the book a separate header and I put all the revisions I needed to make in order. I gave every item a checkbox.

Once I had done that I had a clear idea of everything I needed to do and more to the point I could see the order I needed to do things in. It was obvious which revisions would affect succeeding revisions. I moved the headers around to reflect the most efficient order to do them in.

Once everything was set-up, I worked through the list, ticking things off when completed. It was the easiest revision process I have ever experienced. Everything I needed was in one place. I knew exactly what needed doing and the order to do it in. As I worked my way throughthe list, ticking off the completed sections which gave me a sense of progress.

I had a clear road map to where I wanted to go and a bunch of sign-posts along the way to getting there. I knew exactly how far I was from my destination.

You don’t need fancy software to take advantage of this. You could do this with print outs and a handwritten checklist if you needed to. All you need is a place to get your stuff in order and a way of keeping track of your progress. I found that it really helps.


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Invisible Software

For the past couple of weeks I have been living in a strange alternative universe where proprietary formatting for applications never happened. I have been storing my to do list on my phone and editing it in my word-processor on both Windows and OSX. My phone happens to run Android but I could just as easily be doing this on an iPhone. I’ve been taking notes on my phone when out in the playground with the baby and been able to edit them in my word processor, add them to my Evernote stack and/or do whatever else I want with them. I’ve been writing blog posts that I can send directly from my word processor to this blog knowing they will format correctly. I’ve been running my project management software everywhere.

I’ve been doing all of this courtesy of working in plain text/markdown files and it really has been a wonderful experience. For someone like me, who works on a variety of operating systems and a number of strange devices, including an Alphasmart Dana, markdown has been a real boon. Using an open standard (and it does not get more open than plain text) means I can use anything I want, any time I want, anywhere I want. If I feel like editing my work in progress on my phone (don’t laugh it occasionally happens) I can. What it means is that the software I use becomes effectively invisible. It gets out of my way.

I’ve been working on Byword on the Mac and the extremely wonderful WriteMonkey on my Windows machines for word processing. I’ve been using todo.txt for my to do lists and Taskpaper for my project management/ Getting Things Done Stuff. It all works together extremely well.

It was what I was going to write about today, but when I came to think about it, there’s another sort of invisible software that holds everything together. Dropbox. When I stopped to consider it, I was amazed at how stealthily and completely this program has infiltrated my life.

For those of you who have not encountered it, Dropbox is an extremely simple looking idea, extremely well executed. It is a folder that sits on your desktop and when you put something into it, it gets stored in the cloud on Dropbox’s servers and from there is synchronised with the files on any other machine you happen to have Dropbox installed it. I’ve been using it for years and it works really well. It even stores versioned backups of your recent files, so if you accidentally overwrite something you can go back and retrieve what you wiped.

Dropbox is where my ToDo.txt file lives and my markdown drafts and blogposts and even the Scrivener files for my big writing projects. It’s useful in that not only does it provide an effortless method of synchronising my data between machines, it gives me an off-site backup for my work. (I also use Google Drive, Amazon’s S3 cloud and OneDrive for this as well as a USB stick and Time Machine backup– I know it sounds paranoid but I lost a bit of work once and I never intend to have it happen again.)

Recently Dropbox has allowed me to automatically back up the photographs from my phone’s camera onto my computer. It happens invisibly in the background while I am doing other stuff. I am experimenting with using the speech recorder on my phone to take dictation. Dropbox makes transferring the dictation files from my Galaxy to DragonDictate 4 on the Mac an absolute breeze. I just save the file in Dropbox and, boom, it’s there on my computer ready to import into Dragon when I want. This is the way that software should work. It should just get out of your way and let you do stuff.

I think Dropbox is in many ways the wave of the future, capitalising on the Cloud’s strengths. It’s not something you really notice because you don’t work in it the way you do with a program like Scrivener or Microsoft Word, but it has definitely changed the way I work and I imagine it will continue to do so.


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The Seinfeld Method

Happy New Year to you all. I know it’s been some time since I blogged. Partly it has been the dreaded deadline doom as I finished The Fall of Macharius. Partly it has been the curse of Nurgle as yet more of his winter plagues have racked my aching body. And partly, of course, it has been pure laziness on my part.

Like everybody else I made some resolutions for the New Year. I have even found a way of helping myself keep them. I am using what is commonly known as the Seinfeld method. It is associated with Jerry Seinfeld because he used it started his career as a method of getting himself to write jokes every day. It is otherwise known as “don’t break the chain.”

All you need to do is decide what needs to be done each day then once you have done it you make a cross on your calendar. It sounds simple and it is but it is a surprisingly powerful tool when you want to form a new habit or rid yourself of a bad one.

In my case I had several resolutions. I wanted to write every day. I wanted to walk for at least an hour every day. And I wanted to eat healthily every day. In my case I defined the last one is cutting out chocolate, cakes and sweets as well as bread. So far I have managed all of these things.

You’re probably thinking that I could do this without putting a mark on a calendar and of course you would be right. Where keeping a record helps is that it gives you something to aim for. And the more ticks you make on your calendar the more personal it becomes. It is quite easy to abandon your plan after one or two days but once you have built up a streak you find yourself becoming motivated to keep it going. You don’t want to break the chain.

For me at least this actually works. There have been occasions when I have considered eating a bar of chocolate and then found myself thinking that I would need to start the chain again from scratch and asking myself I really want to do that. The answer was no.

The other thing about the Seinfeld method is that it forces you to focus on the time that matters—today. When you are trying to add that extra mark on your calendar all you need to do is get through this one day. Tomorrow the chain will be extended by one more link. You just need to concentrate on doing what needs to be done right now. This is a method that is commonly used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous when they are trying to avoid drinking. Doing things one day at a time works.

The Pomodoro Technique

Over the years I’ve tried many different productivity systems—I am a sucker for them just as I’m a sucker for any piece of software that promises to increase the number of words I get done daily. Recently I have been experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. This was originally developed by Francisco Cirillo back in the 1980’s and is essentially very simple.

The basic idea behind the method is that you productivity increases if you include small breaks between your work sessions. These should be interspersed with longer breaks whenever you have done a certain number of sessions.

The basic unit of work in this system is the pomodoro. (Yes, that is Italian for tomato—the system takes its name from the mechanical kitchen timer that its creator originally used to measure is work time.) In my case a pomodoro is 25 minutes. Each pomodoro is separated by a five-minute break. Once I have done a complete set of four pomodoros, I take a 25 minute break and then I repeat the process throughout the working day. During each break, you step away from the task and go and do something else—make a tea, do some stretching exercises, chat, whatever, as long as you break from the task you were doing.

Basically all you need is a notebook, a pen and a timer of some sort. I find the stopwatch on my Android phone does very well but I have also invested in Tomato Timer for my MacBook. At the start of each day, I spend some time planning, estimating roughly how long I think each task I intend to do that they will take me. I write this down and allocate a number of pomodoros to each task. If I think that a task will take me less time than one pomodoro, I can allocate a group of such tasks to a single pomodoro. For example if I know that writing a couple of emails will take me roughly 10 minutes, I will do that and some planning and then maybe write for the remainder of that pomodoro.

At the end of each pomodoro I take a few moments to write down what I achieved in the notebook.

I know, I know—it just sounds ludicrously simple doesn’t it? That’s one of the reasons it works. I find it very easy to work in 25 minute segments. I used to work in units of one hour but my repetitive strain injuries would flare up so I switched to working in units of half an hour. I’ve always been pretty good at maintaining concentration over that period.

My problem was that once the period was over I would take what I thought was a short break. Inevitably the short break would turn into half an hour or an hour of surfing the web or responding to emails or basically just frittering away my time in some other way.

The Pomodoro Technique gives me a structure that avoids that. It allows me to have a definite break at the end of each work period but it also lets me know that I should be returning to work within the next five minutes. The slacker in me is reassured by the fact that I will be getting a full 25 minute break at the end of the two hour period. This means that I feel that I am not being too imposed upon by my system.

I think having a basic structure and keeping to it is central to using this system. But that’s not all there is to it. The devil is in the detail with all these sort of systems and here are some more details. A pomodoro is treated as an indivisible unit of time. If you’re interrupted for more than a very short time then you need to reset your timer and begin your pomodoro all over again. But what if I have to take an urgent phone call 24 minutes into my pomodoro you’re thinking—well that’s too bad! You can either choose to answer your phone or you can reset the timer.

Or, alternatively and more sensibly, you can choose to respond to the phone call and tell the person calling you that you are in the middle of something and will get back to them soon. The system allows you to do that but very little more than that. When you are doing something during the course of a pomodoro then you should be really doing it. You need to train yourself to ignore such distractions and set aside some time to deal with them later either during one of your breaks or in a pomodoro would you have scheduled specifically for dealing with these things.

I think the Pomodoro Technique works in part because it forces you to focus on exactly what you are doing at the time you are doing it. It also tends to focus your attention on exactly what you can do within that 25 minute period. I don’t stop and daydream about what I am going to be doing in half an hour’s time—I keep my mind focused on the writing that I am doing at the time. I don’t need to worry about problems that might arise later in the book I’m currently working on. I just need to keep focused on writing one word after another and then one sentence after another and then one paragraph after another.

When it comes to editing, I have found that the Pomodoro Technique has certain advantages as well and I strongly suspect that these advantages are only going to become more obvious the more I use the system.

Because one pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time, you can actually measure what you have done in one pomodoro against what you have done in another. For example, I have always suspected that when I am editing I do so at roughly 6 times the speed that I write first draft prose. I have found that my editing speed actually varies considerably depending on the density of editing required. If I am basically just checking spelling and the sense of sentences and making a few late corrections, I can edit up to 7000 words in a pomodoro. This becomes considerably slower when heavier rewrites are required. Because I log what happens in each pomodoro I have some idea of how long each process takes me. Believe me, when you’re writing a book this can prove invaluable.

The Pomodoro Technique naturally generates a good deal of information about how productive you are at various times and when doing various things. When you check your records, you’ll have a very good idea about how long it took you to complete the process. The utility of this information will only increase over time as you gather more of it.

Also on record as a number of pomodoros you estimated that each task would take at the start of the day, compared to the number of pomodoros the task actually took. This means that you have a tool available that should, hopefully, over time allow you to become more accurate in your assessment of exactly how long a given task is going to take you. The Pomodoro Technique is one of those systems that helps you to become more productive the longer you use it.