Tag Archives: persistence

Books for writers: Shadows Beneath (Writing Excuses Anthology) review

With NaNoWriMo only a week away, instead of my usual ‘book for entrepreneurs’ review, I thought I would focus specifically on a book for writers.

Most writers (aspiring and published) have read Stephen King’s On Writing. I love that book, but most of the engaging content is the autobiographical stuff, rather than the writing parts. So I thought I would take a look at a much more hands on, practical book: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.

The book was released in 2014 and often gets overlooked as being a short story anthology, rather than a practical guide to writing. It follows the writing process of the four main Writing Excuses hosts from story concept to finished work. Side note, if you’re a writer and haven’t checked out the Writing Excuses Podcast then go there now. It’s one of the best ‘craft’ podcasts out there in a realm of marketing ones.

The first part of the book contains the completed short stories. This means that those who aren’t interested in the writing process can just enjoy reading some quality fiction. For writers, it is the second part that is interesting: the ‘making of’ section.

For each of the stories, we can read a transcript of the Writing Excuses episode where they brainstormed ideas. For people who wonder where ideas come from, this is gold in itself. Then there is the first draft of the story, transcripts of workshopping discussions and intermittent drafts and commentaries from the authors. Finally, there is a version showing all the edits from the first draft to the published edition, full of cuts and additions.

So why read this book?

During NaNoWriMo, the idea is to take an idea and write. Write each day and get 50,000 words down by the end of the month. Editing has no place here. Often at the end, we are left with 50,000 words that need some pretty serious work. Shadows Beneath is a great way to see that even without these crazy time pressures, the first draft is never perfect. It can be hard to imagine that our favourite, successful authors struggle to write a first draft and that it often doesn’t work. It can be hard to believe they reach out to others and say ‘hey, I’m struggling with this and could use some help’. This book will teach lessons in craft and development, but it also shows the spirit of community and encouragement.

Which, when you think about it, has always been at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

You can buy Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology here. If you can, I’d recommend getting the print edition, as it allows you to flip back and forth much easier when following the revision process.

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You’ve got 12 weeks to complete your 2017 goals

12 weeks? Is that all?

I know, 2017 has sped by in a bit of a blur. However, there are still 12 weeks left to make progress on those goals you’ve spent the majority of the year procrastinating on. The good news is, with a bit of planning and forethought, that’s plenty of time.

Learn to think in 12 week years

If you’ve not read The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran then go and read it now. You can also check out my 12 Week Year Book Review post if you want to know more.

Prioritise

Okay, so 12 weeks is plenty of time to get things done, but it’s not enough time to get everything done. Work out which goals will give you the biggest impact and leverage then discard the rest. If you’ve not done anything about them so far, they can probably wait another few months anyway.

Engage

Don’t do anything you don’t care about deep down. If you want to make 2017 your best year ever, then do the things that will give you satisfaction and a sense of pride. Obligation and guilt are not the motivators here.

Plan, plan, plan

I don’t care if you do it in an app or on paper, but you need to write down a plan. Between now and the end of the year, social and family obligations shoot through the roof, there are holidays and for many of us, lots of shopping. Don’t pretend this won’t zap your time and energy. Open the calendar and plan the work.

Get specific. Plan the tasks that get you to the goal, not just vague references that make you feel like you’ve written without really having to think about it.

Execute

The hardest part of all. Now you have to act on those tasks you’ve defined. Each day, make sure that you’re working towards the goal, rather than getting distracted by lesser tasks that feel like work, but don’t actually get you anywhere.

Finish strong

Although the end of the year is approaching at break neck speed, it really isn’t too late to make it a great year for your productivity. There may be the temptation to put everything off until the New Year, but if you do, then you’ll find reasons not to start then either. Take the first few, small steps and the rest will follow. Plan the work, work the plan.

Seasons – Planning Life Alongside Nature

For us in the northern hemisphere, there is no denying the change in the air. Summer is giving way to autumn (or fall, if you want to be all American about it). The kids are back at school. All the upcoming holidays now have an ‘end of year’ feel to them. For those in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true. Spring is coming and summer will be here before you know it. Time to hit the beach and get outdoors.

It was whilst living in New Zealand that I realised for the first time how productivity and personal development have seasons of their own, often very much inline with nature. Perhaps it was because all my online inputs were largely presenting an experience that was the reverse of the one I was living through. What I did realise was that as the rains came (I was living in Christchurch, there was lots of rain), it became harder to stay motivated and geared up for new projects all the time.

Any productivity guru worth their salt will tell you that you don’t need to wait for the New Year to make a change. Or that every day is a fresh start. It’s all very true. I just think it becomes harder if you try to do it out of sync with the world around you.

Many people live online so much that it makes it easier, in a strange sort of way. When you never leave the house, it’s easy to forget what is going on outside. I know the temptation of the laptop as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, it can contribute to a feeling of burnout when there is no variation, just the non-stop hustle and grind of daily life.

Right now, I am taking a mini-break to plan the remainder of the year. I wanted to be somewhere different, somewhere much closer to nature, to remind myself of this idea. As the days get shorter, it will become harder to get out of bed each morning. The evenings will seem made for curling up under blankets with a good book, not hitting the gym or high intensity projects. I need to remember this so that I don’t fill my days with things I won’t achieve. I don’t like breaking promises to anyone, least of all myself.

So, over the next few weeks when you begin to see articles and blogs reminding you that ‘It’s not too late to win the year!’ and ‘make that final quarter count!’, remember that life is meant to have periods of recovery and renewal. If you’ve left it until nature begins to shut down, then it might be time to consider a different approach next year.

Of course, for those of you in the southern hemisphere, it’s time to get up and at ‘em.

How to create a successful morning routine

Why set up a morning routine?

These are a few benefits I’ve found from my own routine over the years.

For many years, a corporate job took most of my time and energy. I would come home from work and have nothing left to give for things that were important to me. I wanted to be a writer, but I never actually wrote anything. This all changed when I dedicated just an hour every morning to my writing. Having a morning routine allows you to dedicate time to the things that matter to you most.

Precious alone time. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with interruptions, whether in real life, social media or any other online input. A successful morning routine, one that was clearly defined, gave me a definite course of action, so I always knew what to do next. That removed ‘check twitter’ from my list of options. That space gave me time to think about what was important and also sheltered me from negative bombardment from the moment I woke up.

There are many other benefits, but those two give the biggest returns for a happier and more fulfilling life.

So how do you set up a morning routine?

It’s easier than you think.

Firstly, ask yourself what you hope to achieve from doing this. Everyone will have different objectives. Is it to make time for your creative projects? Is it to make sure you get in a good workout each day? Or perhaps it is to read or work on personal development. What matters most to you will make up the core of the routine.

Secondly, decide how much time you want to devote to this activity. Be realistic. If you want to do a thirty minute workout but have to go to the gym, then include the travel time and showering afterwards. No one will thank you if you run out of time for that. The amount of time required will impact on how early you need to get up in order to complete the routine before beginning your existing obligations.

Thirdly, don’t start too big. Habits take time to become routines and the more you add in, the more likely you are to become overwhelmed and give up. My morning routine started out with a simple, single task: write 1000 words before breakfast. Over time, that has developed into a multi-step routine, but I needed to get used to doing that single but significant task first.

Be in it for the long haul

So what does my routine look like now? It combines several elements that I have seen successful authors, businesspeople and entrepreneurs confirm as being instrumental for them.

1) Begin with a pint of water. I used to go straight to coffee, but never underestimate the power of rehydrating after 7 hours of sleeping.

2) Write 1000 words. That’s still my big goal after 6 years of doing this.

3) Morning Pages – adapted from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You’re really supposed to do them before anything else, but for me they have actually always been more effective after my half-asleep writing session. The last page always contains three things I am grateful for that morning.

4) 20 Pushups. Really not many, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done something physical and makes me more likely to do other activity throughout the day.

5) Affirmations and visualisations. Yes, I still feel like an idiot sometimes saying these things out loud, but they do work. I’m shy and introverted by nature, so this gives me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone when I need to.

6) Goals review. Don’t work hard to climb that ladder just to discover it’s up against the wrong tree. Work out what you want and remind yourself every day to stay focused on what matters, rather than what simply feels urgent.

7) Calendar review. It doesn’t matter what grand goals you have for that day if your calendar says you have back-to-back meetings. Again, be realistic.

8) Task list review. By the time I’ve reviewed what matters (goals) and what’s immovable (calendar), it makes it much easier to delete, delegate or defer tasks on my list. What remains still needs to get done, but this way I don’t waste my energy on unnecessary tasks before I get to them.

The power of a morning routine means that these tasks take less time as you repeat them. The whole process above now takes somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. That’s from 6-8am at the latest. That gives me a whole hour to have breakfast, get showered and be at my desk by 9am.

I’ve already achieved things that matter to me and mentally prepared for my day by the point most people are just thinking about booting up the laptop.

None of this will work unless…

A meticulously planned morning routine with all the best intentions and activities will still fail unless you actively set yourself up for success the night before. Unless you have the luxury of being beholden to no-one, you’re going to have to sacrifice some morning sleep to get this done.

A successful morning routine means ensuring you go to bed early enough to get the quality sleep you need. If there are any objects/spaces that are essential to your routine, then these should be found or made clear the night before to remove as much friction as possible and ensure you can make every minute of your morning routine count.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas about how to set up a morning routine and how to grow it into something that makes a huge difference in the level of success and satisfaction you get from your day. If you have any questions or thoughts then drop them in the comments section below, or you can get in touch with me by email at realist@sherrinicholds.com.

Books for Entrepreneurs: Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s infamous book, Essentialism, has been on my reading list for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard about it, but those who mentioned it always spoke of its life changing effect.

When you read a lot of business and personal improvement books like I do, you get used to people waxing lyrical about how things will never be the same after adopting strategy x. This may turn out to be one of those rare occurrences where it happens to be true. The constant doing more, but achieving less. Never feeling satisfied or that the day was meaningful.

As I began reading, I was relieved to discover I already had quite a few essentialist habits. I discovered the underlying cause of friction I felt on many projects: my broadly essentialist approach versus the non-essentialist approach being taken.

This meant that in addition to completing the task itself, I had to work out the true intent and purpose of the project. Where some people are happy to just complete any task (usually just taking the easiest route to something approximating done), I have never accepted mediocre as the target to aim for. Instead, I would rather take longer to work out how to provide a valuable outcome.

But although I was embracing essentialism in many areas, in others I was getting woefully distracted. My personal life, especially, was in free-fall at the time of reading this book. In no small part this was due to the mental exhaustion that came with battling work tasks handed to me that were governed by non-essentialist principles.

So how has this book helped me? Largely by giving me the confidence not to accept a task without getting those in charge of the project to clarify their thinking about it first. Sometimes, the person handing out that task is me. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, understanding essentialism is vital for avoiding burnout.

It’s hard to ask difficult questions sometimes, but it gives me the boundaries to not only do good work, but also valuable work.

The best part of this is that I ultimately freed up valuable creative energy to expend into my personal life and projects. I developed a new infrastructure for 2017 that allowed me to be location independent and travel.It also gives me the framework to consider carefully my side projects and see which ones are ready to move from hobby to business and which ones simply need to be cut from my life, no matter how enjoyable they seem on the surface.

For the first time since reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I have experienced a fundamental shift in what I believe is achievable and what my life needs to look like to get there. The confidence comes through in the decision making process. Whilst success is never guaranteed, I am giving myself the best possible shot at living a meaningful life, rather than a purely busy and productive one.

With challenging economic and political times ahead, Essentialism is one of the books I would recommend for anyone who wants to make the most of future opportunities in the changing workforce.

Beyond the bikini body – be healthy for life, not just for summer

It’s been coming for a month or so. The magazines aimed at women (and a handful aimed at men, too) have been screaming that we need to slim down for summer. The bikini body. The ‘lose ten pounds in two weeks’ diet. The juice cleanse. And goodness knows what else.

Many countries have a long weekend right about now. It holds the promise of summer. The evenings are longer. The temperatures are warm enough that the long sleeves and baggy jumpers that hide the sins of winter have to go.

For many people, panic sets in. Hence the crash diet and the crazy food choices. Most of them do work, but only in the short term. Some of the more extreme ones actually do more harm than good.

“In reality, the healthy approach is simple. Not easy, but simple”

In reality, the healthy approach is simple. Not easy, but simple. You don’t need cabbage soup. You don’t need a low fat, low flavour, low calorie diet. Just cut out processed sugars. Simple as that. Go cold turkey for thirty days and by the time the summer really kicks in, you’ll discover it’s not about looking thin, it’s about being truly healthy.

And your health? Worth more than dropping ten pounds in two weeks, no matter what the media tries to sell you.

Don’t know where to start? My realistic guide to navigating the sugar free lifestyle is available in ebook for only 0.99 until June.

Deeply addictive, sugar is everywhere. Even added to the most unlikely foods, the majority of us exceed the recommended daily intake without even realising it. Instead of teaching you how to cook fake cake, or pretending that quinoa really is an exciting grain that will revolutionise your view on salads, this book guides you through the myths about sugar in our food and through the realities of addiction. The 9 step action plan then helps you make the change and really stick to it.
Even if you’re not quite ready to eliminate all sugar from your life, this book contains practical tips to help you shop wisely, create good habits and sustain better lifestyle choices.

The paperback edition includes blank pages and examples to help you analyse your behaviours and face up to your bad habits, allowing you to document your journey to a sugar-free lifestyle.

Available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk

Not The 4-Hour Workweek: lessons in scheduling, time tracking and an abundance of hours

This is the first full work week completely under my own control. I set the tasks, the hours, the goals and overall strategy. Anyone who knows me will agree I love to have that kind of control. It has been a steep learning curve, but years of practicing in my free time outside of the 9-5, as well as the lessons in project management I’ve learned over the years working in companies, has made it much easier than it could have been.

Towards the end of 2016, I listened to The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. For anyone who has ever considered location independent living or being a digital nomad, then this is often the springboard book. Besides, with a title like that, who wouldn’t want to work just four hours?

Of course, is that really what the book is saying? ‘Do nothing and get rich’ is the answer a lot of people hope to get from it. But at it’s heart, it’s about doing the things that matter in the most effective way possible. It is a bible for lifestyle design. People who can automate their business to the point that they only spend four hours on them are the kinds of people who don’t then retire. They start another business. The ‘be effective’ and commitment to living big is the message they take away, not do as little as you can.

Four hours sounds nice on the surface. But if you work doing the things you enjoy, which I suspect most of Ferris’ disciples do, then four hours is never the goal.

Time tracking

As you can guess from the title, this has not been a four hour work week. My life hasn’t been fully automated with a bunch of virtual assistants running businesses for me while I sip cocktails in Bali. How do I know this? For the first time in years, I did proper time tracking.

I didn’t spend hours looking at all the different options for doing this. Instead I picked toggl, as Mike and Grey were talking about it so much on the recent episodes of Cortex. Have I gone all in? Nope, I won’t be taking advantage of that extensive API to play with. I just want to know how much time I am spending on the key areas that now constitute my day.

The results? I might not be working a four hour week, but I’m not doing a forty hour one either:

This is actual work. This is not ‘killing time’ work. This is not timesheet submission busy-work. When the tasks for the day are done, then I am done. I focus on them completely and make them as efficient as they can be. This is just the first week of data, but it is fascinating. I’ve always believed that quality of work is more important than hours spent and this is re-enforcing that in a big way.

Time scheduling – a combination of digital and analogue

In a less time efficient move, I have lost countless hours since January looking at digital project and time management tools. None of them seem to be just what I was looking for. Many were far too time intensive to set up projects and tasks for my small, single-person projects. Secondly, I’m still reliant on the GTD way of thinking, meaning that many have critical pieces missing. Thirdly, none would emphasise calendaring in a way that works for me. I’m a deadline driven person, so without a ‘real’ due date, my default action will be to happily defer.

Rather than continuing this frustration, right now I am managing things in an analog and digital combo. The first is a paper planner (the Moleskine Weekly Planner that I reviewed here) and a separate ‘work’ calendar that chunks times of the day into very high level categories (for example, editing time vs ‘line edit of x book’).

Putting the two together has allowed me to focus on the bigger picture, whilst still getting into the detail of the day. Whether it will continue to work in the long term remains to be seen, but for this first focused week, just about everything went according to plan, with enough flexibility to allow for one or two unscheduled events.

Free time and the sensation of guilt (‘I should be doing…’)

I’ve been sticking to my usual routine of starting my workday at 6am. Doing around 4 hours means I have a lot of day left at the end of my day. Whilst this sounds like a dream – and it is – the thing that I have noticed at times is an overwhelming sense of guilt. Even on the day I used all my brainpower writing 7,500 words, it was an obvious nagging sensation at the back of my brain. The quest for something ‘productive’ to do. It has made me realise how much we are compelled to fill our hours with work, when sometimes the thing to do is just relax.

I hope this is something that disappears quickly. It feels like a hangover from the 9-5 life and it serves no purpose as far as I can tell.

Walking and thinking is a valid use of time

Conclusion – scary, at times overwhelming, but eye-opening and utterly rewarding

Would I class this first proper full time writing week as a success? Yes, I would. I’ve eaten well, I’ve rested well and I’ve spent time creating new products and learning new things.

Has it been difficult and crazy ass scary at times? Of course it has. Any big change always does (and anyone who tells you otherwise has got caught up in their own lies and bravado). But I’ve also loved the freedom and the self-reliance. I’ve loved a semi-traditional work week, with all of the benefits and very few downsides.

I already can’t wait to see what next week brings when reality sets in.