A Simple Trick to Increase Your Productivity

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

When my father died in 1988, I found myself the head of a one-man publishing company. Dad, a highly regarded L.A. lawyer, had devoted twenty years to a pet project called Bell’s Compendium on Searches, Seizures & Bugging. It’s a digest of all California and U.S. Supreme Court opinions in this area of the law, updated several times a year, in a unique format that allows lawyers, judges, and law enforcement to find relevant decisions in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, I’d been working with Dad on his treatise for a couple of years after leaving a big law firm to open my own practice. He taught me everything about the book, which is a good thing, for he was the only one who knew how to do it. If I hadn’t been there, Bell’s Compendium would have died with my father.

Today, over thirty years since Dad’s death, I’m still carrying on his work.

But back in ’88 I had to teach myself—fast—how to operate and expand a business.

So I created a crash course on entrepreneurship—reading books, listening to tape programs, attending seminars, and putting into practice what I learned. One of the first areas I had to master was time management. Luckily I came across Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. This little classic is filled with practical techniques, and one great tip for dealing with the bugaboo that haunts all of us from time to time: procrastination.

We writers have developed many ways to procrastinate. The problem has only grown worse over the last two decades with the rise of the internet, social media, and 24/7 stimuli. When we’re writing and we hit a bad patch, it’s so easy (and dopamine-inducing) to hop onto the net and surf around. We scan our Twitter feed. We see what a favorite blogster has to say. It’s fast and non-threatening (unless you’ve unwisely engaged in a tweet storm with some unhinged mountebank).

But what causes procrastination in the first place? I think it’s simply the prospect of unpleasantness. When we have the ability to choose among tasks, we tend to favor those that are more enjoyable (relatively speaking). Or we simply choose to lollygag about until forced to give a knotty problem some time (which is why bosses and deadlines were invented).

Lakein has an answer for this tendency. He calls it The Swiss Cheese Method. Simply put, instead of looking at the entirety of the unpleasant task, take five minutes to “take a bite” out of it (creating a hole in the task, thus the name of the method).

For instance, when you sit down for a writing session and face the blank page (“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” Sidney Sheldon), it is sometimes pure joy and there’s no problem. Other times, though, you know you’ve hit a bump—or a wall—and it’s going to take some painstaking keyboard clacking to get you out of it.

Or maybe you’ve got several writing-related things to do in addition to your WIP. There’s editing another manuscript, marketing tasks, getting ready for an upcoming conference, queries to prepare, and so on.

Hmm, maybe I’ll just check my email first. Oh look! Marcie sent me a link to a cat video. Cute!

What’s that YouTube suggestion in the sidebar? A scene from Malcolm in the Middle. I love Bryan Cranston! I’ll just watch it and…

 

And before you know it, your time management has been turned upside down.

I usually have three projects going at any one time—a novel, a non-fiction, and a short story. So what I do when I first sit down to write is ask myself which project is giving me the most resistance—and then take a bite out of it. I usually aim for just a “Nifty 350” words, and then see where I am. What happens most of the time is I break through whatever barrier there is and keep going.

If for some reason I don’t move on after 350 or so, I’ll switch over to another project for awhile. When I come back to the first one, my “boys in the basement” have been working on it and I’m usually ready to write some more.

To sum up: Tackle your most unpleasant (or challenging) task when you are fresh (this works, BTW, for any enterprise you’re involved in). Take a five-minute bite out of it. If you feel some momentum (and usually, you will) keep going. If you encounter resistance, go to another task for awhile, then come back to the first one and take another “bite.”

All this talk about bites has me feeling peckish, so I’ll turn it over to you. What do you do to combat procrastination?

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Get More Done By Giving Yourself Less Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

You’ve probably heard Parkinson’s Law articulated, even if you didn’t know its name. It was formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson, one of those appellations whose authoritative grandeur makes you stand at attention. He was actually an English naval historian and novelist, and quite prolific. So it must have been with some consternation that his most famous work turned out to be the little book Parkinson’s Law, which arose out of a satirical article about government bureaucracy.

In short form, Parkinson’s Law holds that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. As explained in this article, the adage…

…signifies that the more time we dedicate to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if we could have gotten the task done just as well in a shorter period of time.

For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if we’re given a week to perform a task that it can normally take us a day to complete, then we will end up unnecessarily stretching our performance of that task, until it takes us a week to complete it.

This is why publishing houses give writers deadlines. And why writers almost always find themselves massively stressed in the weeks before a manuscript is due. They could have been early with the book, but they aren’t because they’ve expanded the work all the way to the deadline. It’s almost magically perverse.

This is why it’s important for indie writers to establish SIDs—self-imposed deadlines. Otherwise, it’s just too dang easy to loaf about you manuscript, especially if it’s giving you some trouble.

The article suggests the following:

To account for Parkinson’s law in your work, you need to start each task by identifying its scope, and trying to determine how much time it will realistically take to complete it.

That is, don’t ask yourself how much time you have to complete a task. Instead, ask yourself how much time it should realistically take you to complete that task, and do your best to complete your work within that timeframe.

In other words, set your own deadline based on what you could realistically accomplish if you parked your keister in the chair each day and did your work!

Further, you can put time constraints on a micro level as well. Let’s say you have four months to write 70k words, and you know your writing schedule and daily quota can easily get you there. Don’t get cocky.

Instead, figure out what you can optimally produce per week, up that number by 10%, and make that your goal.

You can even go smaller. Every now and then I give myself five minutes to write 250 words. I’ll often use Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die for this task. Nothing jump starts the writer’s mind like forced, fast writing (with the possible exception of a double espresso).

Final bit of advice. Parkinson had another law, the Law of Triviality, which holds that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Might I suggest that this applies to individuals, too.

For writers this might mean that when you sit down to write you first check your social media or email, or rearrange your desk, or finish that Sudoku you’ve been working on.

Indeed, there even seems to be a new corollary at work today: the amount of available triviality on the internet exponentially expands our desire to experience it.

Which leads to another law: Every “peep of steam through [your social media] whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — [reduces] the boiler pressure … needed to write another novel.”

Solution: Practice digital minimalism, set your own strict time limits when you work, and write!

Does Parkinson’s Law resonate with you? Do you find yourself filling up all the time you have for completing things?

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A Trick That Will Tame Your Crazy Writing Stress

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some time ago the astute Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted about what she calls The Popcorn Kitten Problem. It’s based on the video below. Take a look at a bit of it:

Now that is what an indie writer’s mind can often feel like. So much freedom! So many things to write! And yet so many marketing hats to put on, and a ton of petty tasks that seem to repeat, over and over again.

Lest ye think this is just an indie conundrum, it’s also increasingly a picture of a tradpub author’s brain, because so much of the marketing onus now falls upon the writer. Publishers are insisting upon “platform” before they offer contracts. When a book is released the harried in-house publicity person (if there is one) has little time for any single author. So you better be out there doing a hundred different things…every day!

If you don’t watch out the resulting stress might grab your good endorphins like an amped-up Conor McGregor and slam them to mat.

conor-mcgregor

Enough of that and you could end up tired or with a chronic case of the blues.

Here’s how a typical popcorn kitten scenario might play out:

You’re writing your WIP, an essential scene where your protagonist has to apply for a new job. In your pre-planning you decided that job would be as a hairdresser. Or, since you are a notorious pantser, you came up with that on the spot.

You don’t know all that much about the hairdressing business. If you are a wise writer, you put a mark in your manuscript that will tell you to do the research later. Then you’ll write as much of the scene as you can, based on what you know about human nature and job interviews—and if you don’t know about either of these, you should quit writing and join the Navy. Then get out and write a novel about the Navy.

Instead, you decide to leave your WIP and jump on the internet for some “quick” research. As you look at search results, you see a book called What Every Writer Needs To Know About Writing Hairdresser Interview Scenes, and you click over to Amazon to check it out. Seems reasonable at $2.99, but just to make sure you don’t spend your discretionary Starbucks money like a fool, you download the free sample.

But while you are on Amazon you see a recommendation for a mystery series about hairdressers. You know the author. She’s someone you met at Bouchercon. You hop over to the book page and see 125 five-star reviews and a rank of 1,286 in the paid Kindle store. At a price of $4.99. What? Your self-published stand-alone mystery is only $2.99 and it’s ranked 423,679.

You wonder what this other author has that you don’t. So you look at her Amazon author page and check out her covers. Wow. Great! Your cover was done by your cousin Axel, a budding commercial artist who lives with his poet girlfriend, Moonglow. Well, you admit, you got what you paid for.

You do a little more research and find out who did this author’s covers. You check out the artist’s portfolio online and what he charges. Whoa! That’s a healthy chunk!

So you do a little research on how to judge the worth of a book cover. There are many blog posts on this, and you read a few of them. Something else catches your eye on the last one. It’s about the importance of book description copy in selling a book. You recall that when you did yours you had a nagging suspicion it was rather plain vanilla, but you were anxious to get the book out because everyone in your critique group was making money self-publishing and you didn’t want to be the chump standing on the dock as the ship took off for the Bahamas with all your friends.

You go back to Amazon and find a book called Book Description Copy for Former Chumps Like Yourself, and you download that sample. You read that sample, and from the Table of Contents figure out some of what your own description was missing, so you open up a new doc and start writing afresh.

Ten minutes into that a thought pops into your head. You don’t want to have your protagonist apply for a hairdresser job. No! She should be an insurance investigator!

So you hop back on Google looking for “How to become an insurance investigator.” Lo and behold, there’s a book called Insurance Investigation for Former Chumps Like Yourself. The author has a website. You go to the website and see he has a blog. Gold!

Which reminds you, you were going to try to do some guest posts for various blogs when your book came out. That’s publicity! Where was that list again? You search for it … you need to send out some emails!

You look at the clock. Uh-oh, it’s almost time to pick up Lydia from school, and what have you done on your WIP? Fifty-seven words! The last word you typed was hairdresser

I’m sure you can relate. Just as a Molinist theologian can contemplate an infinite number of contingent realities, so you, the writer, have an infinite number of ways you can get distracted, going off in different directions based upon a single pop of a cerebral synapse, one little soft-pawed frolic of a popcorn kitten.

So what’s the cure?

Here is a simple trick that can change your life. All it requires is some paper and a little mental discipline.

I call it Nab, Stab and Tab.

First step is to nab that thought. Recognize it for what it is—a siren’s song to leave whatTenniel-Cards you’re focused on and slide into Alice’s rabbit hole. You might even say it out loud. “My crazy mind wants me to go on Google right now!”

Next step, stab. You want to nail the thought to your desk so it doesn’t hop around in your head. You do this by writing it down. That’s all. I have scratch paper nearby for just this purpose. So in the scenario above, if I suddenly remembered I want to explore guest blogging, I’d write guest blogging on the paper.

Then I immediately forget about it and get back on task! This is the key moment, the forgetting. Get back to work on your WIP!

Finally, when I come up for air and have some time, I’ll give each thought a tab—I assign it a level of importance, using the A, B, C method (which I detail in my monograph, How to Manage the Time of Your Life).

A is for highly important, must-do.

B is for what I’d like to do.

C is for items that can wait.

If there is more than one A item, I prioritize these with A1, A2. Same with any Bs and Cs.

Next, I estimate how much time each task will take. I use quarter hour increments. So a task might take me .25 hour or .5 or a full 1 or 2. Whatever.

Finally, I put the A tasks into my weekly schedule in priority order. If there’s enough time, I’ll put in the Bs. The Cs I usually put off.

This may sound complicated, but it takes only a few seconds to nab and stab. And only a few minutes to tab and schedule.

Yet the benefits are profound. Less stress, more focus on you primary work.

The kittens will start to purr, and then they’ll go to sleep.

And you’ll sleep better, too.

So can you relate to kittens bouncing around in your mind? How do you usually handle it?

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Getting Back on Track

Nancy J. Cohen

How do you get back on track after being away from home? When I go on vacation, attend a conference, or even do a one-day speaking engagement, I lose about two days of work for every day gone. It’s hard to jump back into your Work in Progress when you have bills to pay, receipts to file, emails that need response, phone calls to return, and household chores like laundry and food shopping to complete. With that being said, the idea of being able to use a shift swapping app when people are away could make getting back into work a lot easier. Plus, people can switch shifts if certain people can’t make it.

Photos from our visit to Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival:

Spaceship Earth  

Scotland

Chocolate Cake

Lamb Chop

Easing into a work schedule is impossible for me when all these things are on my mind. Thus I allow a few days to get caught up, maybe not in everything but at least in the essentials, before turning to the work left waiting for me.

There’s no easy way to get back to the grind. You can reread your material and do some edits to put the story into your head again. Or you can set a writing/editing schedule beginning with a certain date.

I’m expecting line edits on Warrior Lord, #3 in my Drift Lords paranormal series. Before these arrive, I want to move ahead with Peril by Ponytail, my next Bad Hair Day mystery. This story is based on my recent Arizona trip, and I’d like to write it while those details are still fresh in my mind. And yet I have travel arrangements to make for a New York trip in January, bank statements to reconcile, a wedding invitation that needs a response, family visits to plan, and more. Plus the laundry and food shopping must be done today, not to mention paying the property tax bill, etc.

In a week or so, I’ll be caught up. And this is only from going away for four days. So how do you ease into your work schedule after a vacation? Do you jump right into it, or do you allow yourself time to get caught up?

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Fall into Reading Contest, Oct. 28 – Nov. 15 Enter to win an ebook copy of Dead Roots, my haunted hotel mystery, and a $10 Starbucks gift card or one of three runner-up prizes: http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/


Booklover’s Bench Contest Nov. 4 – Nov. 18 Enter to win a $25 Amazon or BN gift card or one of six runner-up ebook prizes: http://bookloversbench.com/contest/

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Time Management for Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

How do you juggle between writing, marketing, and having a life?

Things used to be simpler when all we had to worry about was selling to a NY publishing house. When I wrote for Kensington, I turned in one book a year. Easy, right? I wrote my Bad Hair Day mysteries and nothing else. No blogs or Facebook posts. I didn’t have a second publisher to worry about making deadlines with double the work. Promotion consisted of mailing out packets of bookmarks to booksellers, letters to reader groups, and personal appearances.

blog speaker

It wasn’t until my option book was turned down that I started writing in other genres to see what would sell. Now it’s years later, and Wild Rose Press has picked up my romances while Five Star is publishing my ongoing mystery series. I am preparing to self-publish an original mystery and a few other items on my agenda as well. Currently, I have four books in various stages of the publishing process. This means edits and page proofs, along with research, plotting and promotion.

bewitching_author

Never before have we had so many options. It’s an exciting era, but it’s also utterly time consuming. Who has free time when we can publish our entire body of works through various formats, and spend hours on the social networks promoting them?

Establishing priorities is paramount. When I’m in a writing phase, I set myself a daily quota of five pages a day. That’s my minimum, and I have to be at least halfway through before I’m permitted to peek at my email via Microsoft Outlook. I have to be finished before going online. This is the only way to get your writing done. Do it first before anything else intrudes.

When I’m in a revision phase, I also set limits. Maybe it’s one chapter per day to edit or 50 pages per day to proofread. Again, this work must get done.

As for the rest of the day, it’s spent on promotion and marketing, interspersed with errands, meeting friends for lunch, or whatever else is on my daily schedule. I’m fortunate that I can write full-time. My retired husband helps out with errands, freeing more of my time. Some of you may not have this luxury. In that case, you have to set your own limits.

How many pages can you reasonably write in one day? How many pages can you edit or proofread on a steady basis? How many days a week can you devote to your writing career?

Do you enjoy social networking and marketing, or would you rather watch paint dry? Does someone have to handcuff you to the keyboard to get you to participate?

Handcuffs (800x600) (2)

Where it comes to marketing, create a specific promotional campaign for each upcoming title. Follow this template so you’re not reaching blindly in the dark. As for the social nets, pick a select few and check in there often. Visit the other sites whenever you get to them. Schedule tweets ahead of time if you have a chance. I’ll visit Facebook several times a day because I feel this one is the most important.

Twitter comes next for me. I’ll pop in there every now and then and do a few posts. Pinterest isn’t on my daily role call. I’ll pin photos after I do a blog post with pictures I’ve uploaded. Goodreads is on my list but not on a daily basis, as is commenting on other people’s blogs and posts. You have to do what feels right for you.

I’m a big believer in lists. Write down your writing and business goals for the year. Each day, decide what you have to accomplish. These lists will give you a concrete path to follow. Write down the marketing plan for your next book. This will give you a specific focus, i.e. a blog tour or a book trailer. What you don’t want to do is flounder about, because that’s truly a time waster.

So what’s your plan for today? Mine included writing this blog. Marketing task number one is done. On to task number two.

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Dueling Manuscripts


by Michelle Gagnon

So I’m currently working on two writing projects at the same time. One of the novels I’m actually getting paid for, the other is a passion project that I started last year and have yet to finish. The goal is to complete both novels in the next six months.

These days, dueling manuscripts aren’t a rarity–in fact, most of the writers I know are doing the same, publishing multiple books a year just to stay afloat.

But a few weeks into this multitasking adventure, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they’re managing it. I feel like I’m trying to nudge two balls up a mountain simultaneously: I manage to move one a few feet, only to discover that the other has slipped down and I have to race back to it.

In the past I’ve worked on short stories while writing a novel, or tackled a screenplay while editing a book. But this is the first time I’ve confronted the challenge of working on two completely separate series simultaneously. Better yet, one is geared toward a Young Adult audience, and I’m still somewhat confused about what limitations that places on it (I don’t generally have much sex in my books, but my characters do tend to have filthy mouths. Is that okay? Do teens say “like” anymore? And what kind of music are the kids listening to these days anyway? You see the problem.)

My agent expressed concern when we first discussed the possibility of signing a new book contract. After all, we’d agreed that I would take my time with the passion project (which will henceforth be referred to as MOPWW, or “My Own Personal White Whale”), working on it without deadline pressure.
“So you’re sure you can write both in that timeframe?” she asked (sounding, in all honesty, a little dubious).
“Oh, absolutely,” I said with confidence. “In fact, I’ll probably have them both done early.”

Ha ha ha.

While contract negotiations were finalized, I did my utmost to finish MOPWW. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed, and suddenly the “i’s” were dotted and “t’s” were crossed and the September 1st deadline for the YA novel became a reality. I was forced to admit that I’d have to work on both books at the same time.

Initially, I didn’t think it would be a problem. I figured I’d spend mornings on one, and then alternate after lunch. Easy, right?

The problem is, I end up becoming so engaged with one project, it’s hard to switch gears. I find myself really wanting to forge ahead with MOPWW, to the complete neglect of the other manuscript (you know, the one I’m actually getting paid for). Just one more day, I figure. If I can write just a few more scenes, and get within striking distance of the ending, I can set it aside and work on the YA in earnest…

Next thing I know, another week has passed and I’ve primarily made progress on the whale.

Meanwhile, that deadline clock is ticking away in the background, dishes are piling up in the sink, laundry is overflowing the hamper, bills are sitting on my desk unopened (and oh, the mess on my desk–I’m sure it puts Clare’s to shame).
So how do people do it? And is anyone willing to take care of these dishes for me?

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What’s up with time?

By Joe Moore

It seems like the older I get, the more I’m aware of the lack of time available to me each day. I remember back when I was a kid my mother used to comment that as the years rolled by, the less time there was to get things done. I thought she was crazy. Back then I had all the time in the world. No crunch, no rush. The days went on forever as I grew up. Well, that’s all changed.

Now my friends and I complain that there are not enough hours in the day. Last time I checked, there were still 24, the same number I had when I was in my teens, going to college, starting my career, working, traveling, and writing. And, incidentally, the same number of hours that Donald Trump, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates get each day.

So what’s going on with time? Why is it that I never seem to feel like I have enough of it? Why do more and more things spill over into the next day? Why is summer over already when it just started? Didn’t we just celebrate Halloween? I can still taste the pumpkin pie from Thanksgiving. There’s something weird going on here. I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s an X-Files issue or a government conspiracy, but I’m losing time.

I know it’s not because I don’t prioritize. I try to figure out what’s the most important task at hand and attack it first. Then when it’s complete, I go to the next item on the list. At least most of the time.

It can’t be from interruptions. OK, so this is a big one for me. I’m easily distracted. I try to avoid being interrupted when I’m working on the highest priority tasks. Really, I do . . . hang on for a second while I check my Amazon numbers and update my FB status.

I’m sure it’s not from stress. I admit I tend to worry about everything, especially things I can’t control. I know it’s really dumb, but what if the North Koreans do have an nuclear bomb? Or something much worse. Hey, I wrote a book about that (THE 731 LEGACY), so worrying can be a good use of time. Right?

At least I can’t be accused of procrastination. Well, I do like to take the downhill road and do the easiest of the most important tasks now, leaving the harder ones for later. But that can’t be the problem.

And God knows I set achievable goals. I try to be realistic in what I want to accomplish. If Dan Brown can sell 40 million books, why can’t I? It’s doable.

This time-loss thing can’t be entirely my fault. In fact, I think it would make a great premise for a show like Fringe. Maybe I’ll stop what I’m doing and send them the concept. I’ve got a few minutes to spare.

But I’m convinced there’s something strange going on, and I’ve decided to spend the better part of my day trying to prove it, starting with this blog. And in between my investigation, I’ll work on my new thriller. Should be plenty of time for that.

Anybody else think time is slip-sliding away?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
"What do you get when you cross Indiana Jones with THE DA VINCI CODE? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, a rollicking thrill ride." – Tess Gerritsen

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