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Useful Resource:


I heard recently from Debra Exner, who does coaching and training work about effectiveness and collaboration, and thought I’d take a look at her Web site, I immediately found some very useful material, for instance in a new series of posts on the site called “Get Things Done: 4 Ways to Collaborate for Accountability,” which includes strategies like “Get-It-Done Days” for organizational work, during which participants check in with each other every hour to report progress and state goals for the coming our; and “Mastermind Groups” of individuals who get together to talk about their individual goals, their progress, and their concerns so that the whole group can provide accountability and brainstorming.

If you’re interested in organization, collaboration, productivity, or creativity, I’d recommend taking a look at the site and perhaps subscribing to posts by e-mail to let Debra and site co-author Maddie Hunter provide some useful ideas.

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part III: Bouncing Back


Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is the final installment of that three-part interview.

The impact from your medical condition on your writing time sounds very disheartening, and I imagine things only got more complicated (although admittedly with compensations) when Calliope and Thalia were born. What got you from being depressed and in disorder with your writing schedule to regaining your focus and getting back on track? Was support from others particularly important, or the experience of the work itself, or other steps you took?

Well, the kids took up some time, but they keep you from focusing on yourself to focusing on them, which was a good thing. It was tough from January to September of 2009, but mainly I kept my eye on the prize. I was alive, I got to write a little bit, and starting in September I’d have enough to go back to mostly writing. And I was grateful that even though I wasn’t getting to write as much as I preferred and loved, I still was a freelancer. This meant I had a life where I could work when I had the strength, and sleep when I needed, which was great for that recovery time. In April, with newborns, I was able to have a flexible schedule and be around my kids as much as I needed.

When September rolled around, it was a case of just being excited to do what I loved the most, even though I knew there was this 11 month or so hole in my career.

As a writer you have to love the work, and being inside the work. And that’s what I turned to as soon as I could. I started work on a young adult novel, which was a new kind of project. And it wasn’t due, so there was no pressure. I just hard to work on it every day. Just being inside a novel and working on it, living in that moment, and figuring out for the first time what my new energy levels were like, was a discovery period.

I also took the time to destress myself. I’d pushed myself too hard in Montreal for Worldcon. I ended up in a Montreal cardiac center. And I ended up getting a doctor who told me my condition was like asthma: potentially life threatening if I ignored it. But if I took things easy and built my life around realizing I had it, and then got on with life, I’d probably die of something else first (which was the case of his older patients who had my same heart condition). He told me I needed to not physically or emotionally stress myself out.

So I had a doctor’s excuse now. I negotiated out of deadlines as best I could, and just started focusing on the writing for its own sake. It would get turned in when I turned it in.

That ended up being remarkably freeing and, oddly enough, made me more productive over the next 9 months than I have been since I first wrote Crystal Rain.

Additionally, I read an article about how Asimov used to work. He used to work on a project on a typewriter, then when he’d get blocked or bored with it, he’d switch to another project on another typewriter. He’d keep hopping from one to the other. I started noticing that I used to have multiple day gaps on large creative projects, so I started to wonder, since I had few ‘golden hours’ in me every day, if I could afford to let these periods persist. So I decided during this time to experiment with the Asimov method. I’d avoided it in favor of writing work sequentially due to the fact that when I was a new writer, I always ran into these people who were perpetually starting something new. And never finishing. So I avoided that out of a desire to succeed at being a writer.

But now that I knew I could write a novel, or novella, or short story, I thought, why not take a risk during this recovery period? Everyone knew I was recovering, I’d negotiated out of my deadlines, my career had this gap of a year and was paused, I couldn’t see things being any more messed up. Now was the time.

I started working on that young adult novel called The All Tree, but I also rotated in a novelette I was writing for called “The Executioness.” At the same time, I worked in my spare time on a non-fiction book about my journey toward becoming a writer, equal parts biography and manual and advice and random thoughts on writing. In eight months, despite having less energy than before I got sick, I’d written the YA novel, drafted it, made progress on an adult novel I owed Tor, written the novelette, finished a draft of the book on writing, and written a novella for Clarkesworld. Enormously productive for me.

I’ve also been thinking about mastery, and creative mastery a lot, and reading about neurophysiology. I’m starting to learn that keeping a sense of play and fun in creative work is really important, and so both getting out of the fear of deadlines and expectations about career, and just living in the work during that first draft process, is real important. Very directly tying money to creativity actually, and this is now shown by research, can have a very detrimental hit to your productivity. So I’m learning to work on projects, then set them aside as I find myself slogging and slowing down. Then I switch to something fresh and fun. After a while it gets sloggy, and I turn back to the project that’s shiny again, that’s gotten shiny again while I was ignoring it.

So now I feel like I get paid to play all day again, and that means there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and happiness in my daily work day, and also means that I’m actually more productive.

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part II: Handling Serious Health Problems


Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is part two of that three-part interview.

 Back in 2008, I was surprised and worried to hear that you’d had a heart attack–while not even 30, I think–due to a congenital condition. Did you have writing plans that were derailed through that period? What effects did the interruption have on your attitude toward your work? And what kinds of things did you do to get back on track: did everything fall more or less easily back into the way it was, or was it more effortful than that?

I actually didn’t have a heart attack, we just discovered that I had a congenital defect with my heart. But the events were certainly as dramatic as a heart attack, and the ER doctor ended up assuming much the same. It turns out I likely have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The quick and dirty is that under duress, my heart fails to fire correctly. I’d been doing some home remodeling, and went to bed exhausted. I woke up four hours later with my pulse still racing madly and having trouble catching my breath. Ended up in a cardiac specialty ward for a week and after they looked at my insides they declared my arteries clean and my heart strong, but that I’d either had pericarditis and the HCM together added up to a dramatic event, or I had just pericarditis, or I had an HCM episode. It’s a somewhat inexact diagnosis, but the best they could offer me. Since my grandfather had HCM, and my mother has it, and they saw very faint signs of the possibility I had it, it’s a good bet I have it!

I was very derailed. I went down for the count in November 2008. And after the event, got a pulmonary embolism (either from lying in the hospital for a week or from the heart cath or something that gave me blood clots) that put me back into the hospital a few days later again for another week. Recovering from both left me exhausted, I didn’t get much done throughout December, January, and February. Between the medical bills and having hardly any energy to work for three months, the financial fallout was really tough.

There were two issues that made it hard to get back on track. One was that some of the medicine I was on really affected me as far as energy. I had maybe two ‘golden hours’ of ability in the day where I was able to work at capacity, down from ten. I really had to plan my entire day around that. And because I only had two hours, I basically had to let a lot of stuff just go. My least paying clients, or freelance gigs, or potential jobs. I just had to let them go and focus on the best paying ones to get through the first half of 2009.

And that meant I got very little writing done, and had to make my peace with it. I wrote a few short stories throughout the year, and worked on the books I wanted to write as best I could. But my highest paying clients were freelance gigs, and I had over ten thousand dollars of deductibles (don’t get sick at the end of a calendar year, right? I had to pay deductibles for two different years at the start of 2009) and then outside bills to pay, plus I’d lost three months of work as I focused on just recovering. It was a pretty rough time.

On top of that, my heart is more sensitive to stress, both physical and emotional, now. So in December, January, and February, I made numerous trips to the ER for chest pain due to the after effects of the pulmonary embolism and events where my heart would go into overdrive. I was also dealing with enormous amounts of depression. I consider myself a pretty physical guy. I like to workout and jog. That was taken from me. I’d been making really good money in 2008 freelancing, and I was struggling to stay afloat. That stress, of course, didn’t help.

But I just kept my head down, tried to pay off bills as I could. I wrote as I could. My wife had twins that April, which, for a month or two, sucked up a great deal of time as we went through the initial newborn phase. But once we fell into a schedule with the twins, and I slowly got better, and inched ahead, I turned more and more toward the writing again. I built up a buffer of cash so that in October, almost a year after the event, I was able to devote most of my day to writing fiction once more, and have been since then.

A number of interesting things have come out of that whole experience. Wouldn’t want to do it again, though!

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Motivated, Wise, Productive

Strategies and goals

Self-motivation has a lot to do with wisdom and productivity, but they’re not the same thing, and sometimes they come into conflict–as when I’m motivated to do something constructive, but it’s not the exact right constructive thing. For example, a few days ago I got an idea for a novel that I thought would be lots of fun both the write and to read, a playful and entertaining piece of writing, and I wanted to start writing it immediately. I guess it’s not surprising, considering how thought-intensive most of my writing work is for me these days (what with the neurology and psychology and all that), that I’d be tempted by something lighter. But I have plenty of projects on my plate right now and definitely don’t need to be writing a humorous novel, at all. It’s true, I was motivated to do something constructive, and if I had used that motivation I would have been productive, but it still wouldn’t have been a wise decision. I might have been happy with the novel I produced, but I wouldn’t be happy that I’d had to neglect other priorities to write it.

Or consider meditation, a practice that yields positive results and that takes motivation to stick to (though it’s funny that to meditate properly we have to put aside thinking, including thoughts that motivate us), but that doesn’t produce anything directly. Or work that we might do only because someone else keeps urging us to and that we’re glad to have done in the end, but that we’re not motivated to do ourselves: wise and productive, maybe, but not motivated.

The point in my philosophizing is that while it’s powerfully useful to have motivation and it’s usually rewarding to be productive, it’s also important to know how we’re directing our energies and to put a lot of thought into how we’re prioritizing all the demands on our time. If we’re moving toward our goals, are they the right goals? Are we trying to accomplish too many at once and therefore not accomplishing any as well as we want to? If we have chosen the right goals, we can harness that knowledge to become even more motivated. If we’re not moving toward our goals, is it because of what the goals are? But here we’re getting dangerously close to asking “What’s it all mean, anyway? Why are we alive, and what’s important?” which at the very least isn’t the subject of today’s post.

One thing today’s post is good for, for me, is to help me get my head on straight for the subject of tomorrow’s post, which is a challenge to myself that I hope will interest you. I hope today’s post is also interesting enough to you to make you sit back and spend just a few minutes with this question: are my goals the best goals for my life right now?

Photo by drp

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Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks

Strategies and goals

Here’s a quick and easy exercise: look at your task list (or if you don’t have your task list, just start jotting down or typing out a list of things you’d like to get done) until you find an item that will take five minutes or less to do–especially if it’s one that you really don’t at all feel like doing. You don’t have to do it now, so it’s completely safe to pick a really unpleasant one if you can find it.

Now ask yourself: how many times have I thought about/spent time avoiding/reshuffled or scheduled this particular item? If the answer is that you jotted it down on your task list very recently when you were in the middle of something else, or that you just thought of it, either 1) you’re doing amazingly and don’t need any further information on this subject or 2) you have other less-than-five-minute items you’ve actually been avoiding and need to pick one of those instead.

Now ask yourself, just for fun or any insight it may provide, has organizing/keeping track of/thinking about/avoiding the item taken more time and attention so far than actually completing the task would? Even if the answer is “no” in this case, might it be “yes” in other cases? It certainly is sometimes in my life.

An example: my shower hasn’t been draining well lately, something I noticed a couple of weeks ago. I usually shower when I’m gearing up to go somewhere and don’t have a lot of spare time, so whenever I noticed the shower problem, I kept thinking (for the first week) “I have to remember to put that on my task list.” To my credit, as soon as I remembered it anywhere near my task list I did write it down, and I didn’t even fall for the trap of writing down “clear shower clog,” which is vague and doesn’t have a specific action attached to it, but instead wrote down “Check to see if I have any drain opener.”

Then the task sat for another week.

This morning I was reviewing my task list and doing my best to adhere faithfully to David Allen‘s very good advice about not handling things over and over: anything that would take a few minutes or less, I did it immediately rather than shuffling it around. When I got to the “check for drain opener” item, I went and checked to see if I had any drain opener. Nope. I could have then written down the next item “Search the Web for clearing shower drain ideas,” but since that too would only take a few minutes, I did it. A few minutes later I was upstairs in my bathroom, prying the drain cover up with a flat head screwdriver and then extracting gobs of my (and I suspect, the previous resident’s) hair. As a public service, I did not take a picture of that to illustrate this post. I got rid of the hair, washed off the screwdriver, and was back at my computer in hardly the time it would have taken to make a cup of tea. Then I checked the drain opening item off.

This was not always the way I would have handled things. Often in the past I would have thought “No no: organize now, do later.” The change in thinking for me was in considering these tiny tasks part of the the organizing.

Keep in mind that even if the task is very trivial, if it’s got some of your attention, it’s a win to get it done right away. That’s because there’s a point at which a task, however unimportant, takes more of your time and attention not to do than to do.

There’s a more advanced and effective step beyond what I did, which would have been to provide a little extra time to get ready each morning so that I’d have leisure to deal with the shower drain immediately when it came up. Allowing a little extra time here and there allows us to pick off a lot of things as they come up, and makes it easier to keep up with things like quick answers to e-mails, doing a few stray dishes that are sitting in the sink, or making a brief telephone call–all of which offers a more productive and less distracted life. It’s like clearing a clog to let water flow freely. And fortunately, it only takes a few minutes.

Some related articles:

Photo by  ap.

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Useful Book: Getting Things Done


Getting Things Done by David Allen is by far the best book I’ve ever read on organization, and it also has a lot to say about productivity and peace of mind.

When my friend Roger loaned the book to me, I was a little curious but didn’t expect much. I’d already had a pretty effective task management system in place for some time, and at best I was expecting Allen to offer a few ideas for minor improvements. It it did turn out to be true that most of the things he had to say in his book were things I was already doing, but Allen’s deep understanding of the subject offered me a wider, more useful view that was both practical and powerfully motivating.

Getting Things Done offers a way to look at and interact with “stuff”–papers, objects lying around the house, pestering concerns that keep surfacing in the mind, incomplete projects, dead plants, upcoming events, or anything else that’s fighting for our attention. Allen describes how to stream things into useful categories with a set of simple, familiar systems–task list, calendar, file drawers, etc. Yet the rules for the process he describes are not the familiar ones, because once something has been processed, you stop having to worry about it. Allen’s approach doesn’t just clean up and organize a physical environment: it creates reliable ways to know that you’re keeping track of everything and therefore creates a lot of peace of mind. Of course, this same approach does great things for productivity, and it yields unexpected benefits like increased reliability, management of stress, clarifying priorities, and improved communication.

My initial impression of the book was that it was mainly directed toward busy executives, and it’s true that these seem to be the people Allen mainly works with. However, he also understands perfectly well what needs to be done to deal with a home, family, or even vague set of aspirations for the future. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is trying to organize, get a handle on an overly busy life, create more serenity and confidence, or become more productive.

I’ve written recently on the site about several ideas that overlap with or draw on Allen’s:

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Are Creative People More Likely to Procrastinate?

Strategies and goals


A good imagination may not be strictly necessary for procrastination, but it can help.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the nature of procrastination: picturing something in the future and imagining how hard it will be or what can go wrong. He goes on to point out that the more easily a person can imagine problems, the more incentive they have to procrastinate “… because their sensitivity gives them the capability of producing in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project and all the negative consequences that might occur if it weren’t done perfectly.”

How do people successfully combat procrastination? They take control and move things forward–that is, they figure out what the next physical action is.

Allen is big on the next physical action, and close examination of the idea helps explain why: figuring out the next action changes the focus from broad dangers to easy, short-term wins. For example, if you’re daunted at the prospect of doing your taxes, you may find yourself distracted by thoughts of a big balance due, mistakes, or audits. Figuring out your next task (“Sort through receipts in receipt box” or “Call tax preparer to make an appointment” or “Download an update to the tax softare”), by contrast, puts things on a much more comfortable level. Almost anyone can sort receipts, make a telephone call, or click a button on a Web site, and doing so moves the tax process forward. Reducing large tasks to a series of next actions–only one of which needs to be figured out at any given time–can create enthusiasm or energy around getting things done instead of wrapping the task in anxiety.

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To Free Your Mind, Capture Your Responsibilities

Strategies and goals

One of the current books I’m reading is David Allen’s excellent guide to task management, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I’ll certainly have more to say about this book in future posts, but Allen makes one particular point that’s immediately useful: if you want to be relaxed and focused, it makes all the difference in the world if you capture the things you’re concerned about and get them out of your head–that is, if you type them out or write them down.

One use of this principle is in dealing with a thought that’s nagging at you or upsetting you. To use this idea, you write out everything that’s in your mind about the problem: your concerns, possible solutions, fears, and so on. Doing all of this stops these thoughts from swirling around in an incomplete state within your head, leaving a more peaceful, constructive and resolved state of mind.

Allen himself doesn’t really go into why this process works, at least not in what I’ve read so far, and he isn’t really concerned with how it can be applied in areas other than task management. It’s enough for him to say that to handle tasks, it’s important to have a system for collecting all tasks needing to be done as they arrive and getting them on paper or onto the computer so that you can prioritize and deal with them instead of fretting about them. But some of the reasons capturing your responsibilities in writing can work so well are clear from other things we know about motivation and mood. For instance, we know that the human brain is designed to focus on only one thing at a time, so having multiple responsibilities or concerns knocking around mentally is stressful and not very constructive.

Similarly, we know that mindfulness–conscious consideration of what’s going on in our own brains–helps nourish constructive behaviors and opens up the possibility of detecting and repairing broken ideas. Broken ideas can’t really be tackled unless they are laid out explicitly, and writing is often the easiest and most effective way to do this. As long as a broken idea is floating around inside a mind without being fully detected and named, it can cause damage while the person is having it may not even realize it’s there.

For task management, of course, there are more steps to go through after writing things down. But for some of the other useful applications of this idea, writing down can sometimes be all that’s needed. And even when there’s more work to be done after, writing down stray thoughts instead of letting them roam is the first step in many complete solutions.

Photo by tnarik


The High Cost of Distractions

Strategies and goals

Bee fairy causes mental blue screen of death

This post and the follow-up I’ll be posting next week are based on the “Handling Distractions” chapter from my new eBook, The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation. Have I mentioned it’s free to download and share?

The true cost of distraction
Distractions are pernicious for even more reasons than might be immediately obvious. They

  • offer unwanted invitations to stop doing whatever we’re doing,
  • require two mental “reboots,” one to address the distraction and another to return to work,
  • interfere with focus and immersion–distractions lower the number of pieces of information and connections we can keep in mind at once and force us to retrace our steps,
  • cut into time set aside for work toward a goal,
  • make otherwise productive activities more frustrating and less pleasurable,
  • encourage errors,
  • help discourage us from doing constructive things in the first place (due to feeling like we won’t be able to work uninterruptedly), and 
  • interfere with “flow” states, in which we’re engrossed in what we’re doing, highly productive, and enjoying ourselves.

If you have trouble screening out distractions, there are several useful techniques you can employ–but it may also help to know that focusing despite distractions, like virtually any other skill, is one that improves with practice. My experience certainly bears that out. It used to be that I couldn’t write or focus on work when there was any kind of noise around me, but there came a time when my home office had to share space with the playroom. Pushing through sometimes difficult writing sessions with kids playing in the background, I eventually became much more resistant to distraction, and a couple of years after that process began, I found myself cheerfully writing a book in the middle of a social gathering, and even contributing a little to the conversation from time to time. I  I didn’t do anything special to gain this skill except to keep trying to write even when distractions made it hard.

What our brains have to do to handle distractions
In his book Brain Rules: 12 Rules for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work and School, developmental neurobiologist John Medina describes the process the brain goes through when it has to shift attention from one kind of task to another. It has to disengage from the first task, shutting down the systems it was using; assess the new task; fire up new systems for it; handle the new task; then go through the whole thing all over again when we switch back. Says Medina, “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to complete a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”

In other words, a two-minute interruption takes a lot more than two minutes away from whatever it interrupted. That interruption can also mean the difference between being in flow and being out of it

So, it pays to prevent distractions. There are at least four ways to do this: choosing your location, managing responsibilities, devising rules, and erecting barriers. Next week, we’ll talk about each of these strategies in more detail.

Image based on a photo by rachel_titiriga. In case you’re one of the lucky ones who might not recognize it, the blue thought bubble contains a blue screen of death.

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