Adventures in Lifestyle Hacking

On Organising Shoes and the Failures of To-Do Lists

So I used to have a problem with shoes. Not a problem with owning them – although you could argue, at the point where I had twenty-odd pairs of converse sneakers, there was a problem there as well – but a problem storing them. I’d wear a pair of sneakers out for the day, shuck them off after arriving home and sitting on the couch, and then I’d forget to move them to the cramped box of shoes in my wardrobe after I finished watching TV or reading.

This cycle would continue over a week or two, until all twenty-odd pairs of sneakers were residing on my living room floor and I’d trip over them in the morning when I wandered to the couch with my coffee. It wasn’t terribly efficient, but it was the path of least resistance.

Two months back I acquired a shoe rack. It spent about twenty-four hours living in my wardrobe, which was not a good place for it, then migrated to the spot beside my bed where I’m most likely to get dressed in the morning. I haven’t left my shoes on the floor since. I get home, I shuck them off, and they’re either on the shoe rack immediately or they get moved there the moment I’m done with whatever urgent thing distracted me (usually, at this point, new episodes of Riverdale).

The thing is, I always  knew what I had to do do – put my goddamn shoes away – but I’d never sat down to tackle the problem of why I wasn’t doing it until the middle of January in my 39th year on the planet.

And really, this is the core principle of every productivity system I’ve ever come across. I’ve spent a large chunk of this year talking to people about systems, from Accidental Creative to Bullet Journal to my ongoing obsession with tracking every aspect of my life with white boards and spreadsheets, but no-one I’ve talked to has ever sat down with a system and been unable to think of all the things that should go on their to-do list. They know what they’re meant to be doing, just like I knew that life would be immeasurably better if I put my shoes away every day instead of tripping over them while ferrying my morning coffee around.

A good productivity system isn’t about looking at what you’ve got to do and putting it on a to-do list, it’s about looking at how you’re going to do it and why you aren’t currently getting around to it. Sometimes the problem is process, sometimes it’s mental; more often than you’d like, it’s a combination of the two.

The problem with putting shoes away wasn’t the desire to do it – it was having a place for them go that made sense and fit with my lifestyle.

I’m basically spending 2017 looking at a bunch of problematic parts of my house that are just like my shoes. They were the January project, my desk became the February project, and March has become all about my kitchen where the places I stored things really failed to mesh with the way I’d actually cook.

The end result was a lot of cheese sandwiches and take-out orders, but a weekend spent hacking the shelf space and reorganising the pantry has made it a hell of a lot easier to convince myself I should cook things.


On Resistance and Roll-Top Desks

I inherited my father’s roll-top desk over a decade ago, after my parents renovated their study. It’s travelled with me from apartment to share-house to apartment, sitting in lounge rooms or the corner of my bedroom, frequently serving as a site for storage and the accumulation of junk rather than an actual work place. This is the tyranny of a modern workspace where a computer is prominently featured, and the desk was designed for an era where computers weren’t really a consideration. It was always easier to buy a small computer desk that sits in the corner work there when I needed an actual desk,, and spend the rest of my writing time on the couch or the bed.

This weekend my problems with the desk came up against another problem: the PhD needs space to spread out when I’m working, layout out research books and notepads and index cards with raw ideas so they can be absorbed and synthesised into the current work-in-progress document. Compact computer desks aren’t ideal for that, and my original plan of going to the university campus to get work done has shown itself to be a problem due to the sheer number of distracting people to catch up with on campus.The two spaces in my apartment capable of handling that kind of sprawl were the roll-top desk or my coffee table, and my shoulder was already hurting from too much time on the couch.

And so I spent some quality time cataloguing all my points of hesitation about using the desk as a workspace, addressing them one by one in order to eliminate my resistance towards using the desk as it’s intended instead of dumping bills and pulling the top down.

The computer issue is much less of an issue now, thanks to laptops, but the older design of the desk still left me with a couple  of other problems I’d never really noticed. For instance, it’s a particularly high desk – the desktop is about 82 cm off the ground – and the seat of my office chair was only 41 cm off the ground. This made typing at the desk profoundly awkward and unergonomic, until I ducked down to my local office works and acquired a new office chair that sat higher and positioned me at a comfortable typing/writing height.

That’s not the only change I’ve made. Other shifts include rearranging one of the draws – the desk has fantastically deep drawers for storage – so it is the repository of the blank notebook archive, and moving the stationary draw I never really used from the left side of the right so I don’t have to reach across my centre line to pick up a pen or an eraser with my dominant hand; I invested in a sleeker, nicer in/out tray so that I don’t have the option of letting things stack up so much.

All of these are little things, yes, but they were still a slight drag on my process the moment I even thought of working at the desk that contributed to the feeling that doing something else was preferable.

Over the weekend I did the bare amount of changing and testing to get me working at the space, in addition to setting up a long-list of things to try as I settle in to really fine-tune the process. For now, it seems to be working okay, and it has a distinct advantage in its ability to literally shut down my access to work when it’s finally time to settle and relax without feeling guilty.

I am using Facebook wrong this year

I didn’t make a big deal about leaving social media, mostly because I haven’t actually left. I still check Facebook a few times a week. I still hit twitter and check in on my feeds. I have so many friends who use Facebook chat as their default messaging system that I don’t have the energy to retrain them or myself, and I still Instagram  because I like the way it forces me to pay attention to the world around me.

What I did do, back on January 1st, was remove all the various apps from my phone so I wasn’t using social media twenty-four seven. My access is desk-top only, and since I don’t log in at work, that limits me when it comes to Facebook and Twitter.

That isn’t quitting social media, but holy hell, it feels like it. My average usage has dropped to about 15 minutes a day, which is enough that you suddenly realise how social media has become the dominant communication medium of our time.

Suddenly I have some empathy for those folks who post annoying “I am leaving social media” posts, because dropping out of sight without telling people is actually problematic. Questions are left on walls. Plans are made without your input, because things never come through on the channels you actually monitor. Occasionally, someone will check in to see that you’re still alive, because they haven’t seen you posting much.

My Facebook wall, in particular, has become the digital equivalent of an answering machine. Not even a terribly efficient answering machine, given the set-up of notifications.

This is not the promise of Facebook, which is all about instant access to people. Facebook is meant to make communication easy, which is its great advantage as well as its greatest flaw. Every time I log in, there is a reminder that I am using Facebook wrong. I am, for the record, completely okay with that.

But letting people know that you’re no longer using social media correctly seems like the kind of thing that would save a whole lot of time.

Hacking the Writing Process, August ’16 Edition

Every couple of months I sit down and look at my writing process, trying to pick up inefficiencies. I study my habits and the things that go wrong, and I double-check systems to make sure they’re working the way they should. The last time I did it, I noticed a bunch of slightly interrelated things that went something like this:

  • My primary work-space had become my couch, which is also the place where I eat food, read books, waste time on social media, and stream television from Netflix. This meant I needed to be really conscious about writing, when I sat down, because there were so many other habits tied to the location that it was easy to get distracted.
  • The desktop computer, which I’d originally intended to be my primary work-space, had gradually been ignored. Primarily this was because there were always multiple steps involved in sitting down and using it, starting with “move all the laundry off my office chair, then turn on the computer.”
  • A secondary problem with the desktop – it was tucked out of the way, in the corner of my bedroom. It never served as a trigger for behaviour in and of itself, which meant I had to rely on other habits to get me there.

If that sounds minor, you’re right. It’s totally minor shit, but it’s often the minor shit that gets in the way of building an effective habit by inserting little moments of resistance, which is why I try looking at this stuff.

When I started coming up with solutions, a lot of it came down to a pretty drastic rearrangement of my small flat, with the accompanying disruption to my entire house. I probably would have left it alone, except that I went through this at the same time I started to have people around to my house semi-regularly for the first time in about seven years. This made me acutely aware of the set-up in my non-sleeping spaces, which were designed with the idea that there would rarely be more than one person in the flat at a time.

So re-arranging furniture became the solution du-jour, and it’s been interesting. I spent a few weeks making notes and pricing options, spending some quality time with the measuring tape figuring out where things will fit. And finally, last Friday, I started rearranging my apartment to start making better use of the space and hack my habits a little.

A lot of the changes are pretty minor, or not writing related, but there have been two changes that are paying off right now.

Hacking My Space, Part One: The Writing Desk

My primary goal with the rearrangement was this: I wanted the absolute minimum level of resistance between me and the act of writing. In both cases, when I identified issues, chairs were a major problem, so I’m currently experimenting with a standing desk under the theory that I don’t have to sit down to start working. Any time I am in the vicinity of the desktop, I am now in the position to start typing, and that seemed like a useful thing.

With that decided, I started to put together a room layout that put me in the vicinity of the standing desk as much as possible. The first step was putting the bookshelf where I store my keys, wallet, and work ID next to the standing desk, which means it’s the first place I walk when I step into the apartment. With the writing computer right there, it makes stepping away from the computer a conscious thing rather than a subconscious habit.

It also puts the writing computer between literally everything else in the apartment and the couch, which tends to rack up another couple of moments where I find myself thinking oh, yeah, I should write on a given day.

It also had an unexpected side-effect: because I am standing already, and listen to music when I write, I am 60% more likely to start dancing when I hit a pause at the keyboard instead of switching over to Facebook and Twitter.

Also, because there is no chair to dump things on, I am more likely to put things in my bedroom.

Hacking My Space, Part Two: The White Board

Here;s a useful thing I learned from checking my RescueTime Stats: Television distracts me from writing. And it’s not that I watch a lot of television – by the standards of the average viewer, I’m pretty low on the hours spent staring at a screen – but the stats tend to show that if I sit down at the computer and start streaming something, I will keep watching for the rest of the evening instead of watching an episode and then doing something else.

Given that I’d fallen into the habit of watching TV while eating dinner, that was becoming a problem. Setting up the standing desk went a long way to stopping that, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that as a solution. I didn’t mind watching TV – hell, I like the television series as a narrative format – but I wanted it to be more conscious and less automatic.

Enter the white-board, which now sits in front of my television and holds the highlights of my weekly Checkpoint from Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative process.

This shit is one of the reasons I like living alone. It would be absolutely impossible to pull this shit in a shared lounge space where other people want to watch things and the process of pulling down the whiteboard would be an imposition. Me, i just whack it up there and take it away the two or three times I actually want to watch TV a week, and the rest of the time it reminds me of the things that need doing.

It’s proving to be really great for the small tasks that I’d otherwise forget about, I do love marking off a check-box, after all, and there’s a lot of process tasks I can get done in twenty or thirty minutes of free time so long as I remember them. It’s already proving to be horribly efficient for writing tasks, since I’ve ticked off half the writing work on there in the space of two days.

The best part about this set-up is that it doesn’t interfere with the thing I primarily use the television for, which is streaming youtube music playlists while I work.

Letting Go Of Old Systems


One of my major tasks for my time away from the day-job was figuring out the storage problems in my apartment. I moved in with a lot of stuff and quickly discovered that there was no place to put it, whether that stuff was books or files or DVDs or kitchen utensils. I’d lived in a pretty sizeable two-bedroom place when I first put my stuff into storage, and the apartment I have now is single-bedroom and oddly shaped.

I’m coming up on my second year in the apartment and a lot of that time has been spent downsizing the stuff that was easy to get rid of. Lots of books have gone out the door. Lots of old clothing that I’m never going to wear again. A collection of sheets and towels that were well in surplus of what I’d need, bottles of wine that I’d been carting around for years (and can no longer drink). DVDs of films that I can now watch digitally. A second couch.

It’s refreshing, being forced to ruthlessly cut like that. Pretty much everything in my house gets examined with the question do I really want to store this in mind.

And yet, if you walked into my place, it wouldn’t like I’d culled a damn thing.

Partially this is because I’ve constantly moved in stuff that was kept in storage, which means that a new box arrives every time I clear the old ones out. Partially its because I’m really inefficient in my use of spaces, particularly when it comes to bookshelves.

And partially it’s because I am reluctant to let go of things.

For instance, I’ve been promising myself I will get better at filing and storing stuff for years now. I keep my filing cabinet in a prominent position. I have folders stacked up around the house, waiting to be used. I have an in/out tray for mail to go into, so I’ve got a central processing point.

Exactly why I still think I’m the kind of person who’ll magically get better at this after twenty years as an adult is beyond me.

The folders have survived three or four moves now, despite me not opening one in the better part of a decade. I went through them all yesterday – about a dozen folders that took up some meter and a bit of shelf space. Most of them contained old writing drafts – things I’d printed out, intending to edit them, and never gotten around to. Two of them contained notes for RPG campaigns that are now over. One contained print-outs of blog posts and web articles I wanted to keep handy in the days before Evernote (or, for that matter, easily set-up bookmarks and omnipresent internet access) in I needed to reference them.

In terms of content, the things inside the folders was pretty worthless. Storage for the sake of storage, or archaic systems supplanted by more efficient digital tools.

So I find myself wondering why I kept them, move after move. Why I kept finding space for them in places I lived, despite the fact that they’re pretty bulky and hard to place. Where did the reluctance come from?

In essence, the logic comes down to this:

  • I spent a whole bunch of money on these folders, once upon a time, and they’re a re-usable resource.
  • I was attached to the idea of becoming the kind of person who did use the folders properly.

In my head, not-using them meant that I’d wasted that money, and they were purchased during a period where I didn’t have money to waste. Worse, it meant that I’d wasted money on a problem that never actually got resolved, since the folders were not doing their job.

And so I ignored them, for the better part of seven or eight years. Letting them grow a film of dust, the metal fixtures starting to rust away, the paper growing spotty and fuzzy to touch.

One of the things I’ve learned in recent years – largely from reading The Accidental Creative – is that we shouldn’t hold onto solutions for problems that no longer exist. We are creatures of habit and strange psychology, which means objects and rituals will get invested with meaning above and beyond their actual usefulness, to the point where they actually become distractions.

So, yesterday, I went through the folders and culled them. Nine of the twelve went in the bin, ’cause if I really need another folder in the future, Officeworks is a few minutes away and the five bucks I’d need to spend is a hardship.

One of them got set aside to take to work, since I actually have a few things that could actually make use of there.

Two of them were kept so I can archive their contents properly – one, full of campaign notes, ’cause I miss the folks who were part of that game and want to read through it all for nostalgia purposes. The other, full of writing advice posts, so I can make sure I’ve got everything archived and properly tagged in Evernote.

And so new shelf-space has been claimed, and new books can go out on display.

Yesterday was a good day.

(Very Silly) Rules to Live By

I live my life by certain un-written rules. Or principles. Or random-ass shit that gets stuck in my head and guides my decisions at various points, even when it seems counter-intuitive. They largely came about to take the element of decision making out of very small things, since I hate making decisions without access to thinking time, a white board, and a panel of experts willing to weigh in on the potential drawbacks of each option.

So, rules. I never thought of this as strange until back in 2012, when I had to explain my philosophy regarding onion rings to my boss while at GenreCon and it clicked that not everyone did this. Or, if they did, they didn’t actually talk about them.

I like to talk about things. On the internet. Not actually a rule – more an slight character flaw – but it happens. And so, a few years back, I started writing these things down, paying attention to why they’d come about and whether they were still necessary.

These are the ones that have survived the last three years.


I come from a family that is thoroughly incapable of ordering from a menu when gathered in a group. Put the four of us around the table and give us a range of options, and you’ll be in for nearly twenty minutes of I’m thinking of getting this, what are you getting? and I think I’ve changed my mind and I can’t make up my mind until everyone else does.

When it comes to food, one way or another, we are coded with a hardcore fear of missing out.

Many of my personal rules are food-focused, because of this. It speeds things up.

And here is the thing I figured out about pork belly – I’m never sorry that I ordered it, and other people are frequently sorry that they did not order it when it arrives in front of you. Therefore, in the interests of saving time, don’t fuck around with a menu when there’s a pork belly option. Just order the goddamn pork belly.


Not sure this applies in countries where onion rings are actually a thing, but here in Australia they’re a relative rarity. And I like onion rings. I am never unhappy with that option.


There are a long list of phenomenal authors on my bookshelf that I’ve only picked up because the people working at my favourite bookstores hand-sold them: Sara Gran; James Salter; George Pelecanos; Dennis Lehane; Ben Aaronovitch. Every time I listen to a recommendation and read the book, I’ve ended up going back and collecting everything else that author had written.

Folks who work in book stores generally have pretty good tastes. And I like reading things that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up on my own. When they talk, I listen.


It will be a terrible, rum-soaked drink intended to make you question your poor life choices. Things that come in tiki cups always are.

But, when it’s over, you still have the tiki cup.

And, if there is any justice in the world, a tiny paper umbrella that can be tucked behind one ear.

I cannot tell you why this makes me happy, but it always does.


Every now and then I do things because the money is good. Freelance gigs, day-jobs, short-term contracts. And we’re not even talking about a lot of money – the reality of any kind of emerging creative’s life is that you’ll occasionally take gigs because there is rent to be paid and food is a nice thing to have.

Writers have to obey the laws of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs just like every other fucker on the planet, and I’ve spent enough time as one of the long-term unemployed that I have serious twitchiness about money and employment and the possibility of ever going back to that.

I don’t even like taking holidays because I fear the job not being there when I go back.

I am not against doing things for the money. And, when taking a gig for the cash, I’ll try to get that fucker done to the best of my ability. I still want to be able to look back and take a measure of pride on what was done. I still want to be able to put my name on it.

But I know the experience is going to suck at some point. It’s a given. Because, when I do things for the money, the shit that would be a mild irritation gets magnified. The shit that would ordinarily irritate you a lot becomes a source of self-flagellation.

If shit goes really, really  wrong, as Neil Gaiman points out in his Make Good Art keynote, you’ll have done a whole bunch of work and you don’t even have the money to show for it.

Even if everything goes great – and my experience with doing things for the money is that this happens less than it should – I will look back a year afterwards when money is not so tight and resent the fact that I was thinking so short-term.

Because, once the need for the money is gone and you’re further up the hierarchy of needs, you forget what it was like to be unable to write because you were panicking about how to buy groceries that week and wondering how much you’d get for your kidney on the black market.


Holding onto a rule that solves a problem that no longer exists is kind of pointless. Chastising yourself for decisions that were less than ideal in hindsight often means you’ve forgotten the reasons the less-than-ideal decision looked right.

Sometimes you have to actually stop and force yourself to think about the how and why certain things were done. Half the reason I blog is so I can remember what I was thinking at a certain time and place, which is incredibly useful when I’m trying to figure out why I did something stupid.

We are forgetting creatures. We aren’t coded to remember all the things long term. We keep the results and forget the process. We let the little things fade away and remember the consequences.

Don’t do that. Decisions get made in a certain context, and assessing them without remembering the context is just going to mess up your chi.

I don’t know about you, but I need my chi. It is vital to getting shit done.

And above all else, I love getting shit done.


When you go into the dungeon, you can usually be sure of clearing the damn thing out if you just follow the left wall and take each room, one at a time.

Mostly applicable in D&D.

Surprisingly applicable in other parts of life.

Total Microsleeps While Writing This Post: 5

Falling ASleep Mid-WordI don’t sleep well, not anymore.

I first wrote that in the opening paragraph of Horn back in 2007, when a kind of restless sleeplessness was one of the first things I knew about Miriam Aster. It was a trait we shared, to some degree, if only ‘cause I’m the kind of person who resists sleep like the plague. I enjoy being up late. I prefer being a night owl. I’m used to living with a kind of self-inflicted exhaustion when I found myself having to engage with other people’s daylight-focused schedules.

These were the stories I told myself, and for the most part they were true, but they ignored stuff: the weeks where I’d wake up repeatedly throughout the night, desperately needing to urinate; the nights when I’d wake myself up ‘cause I snored so loudly; the times when I’d go to bed and get a full eight hours sleep, but still wake up feeling exhausted as hell.

They were just bad nights, I told myself. The problems never stuck around long enough to be noticeable. Besides, I was a freelancer and I lived alone. I could make up the sleep debt with an afternoon nap if I wanted too.

Then, somewhere between 2011 and 2013, I developed this habit I jokingly referred to as stress-based narcolepsy whenever I started working long hours or hit particularly stressful periods. I’d drive home from the office, settle down to watch a movie or TV show, and be asleep on the couch within seconds. No real warning behind it – I didn’t even feel tired beforehand, necessarily – but it happened enough that my flatmate noticed.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m working hard. I’m adapting to being at an office. And it never really lasted more than a week or two, so I assumed it was situational.

I don’t remember when I started dozing off while writing. I do know that it happened at write club a couple of times – I’d literally fall asleep for a few seconds while my fingers were on the keys, waking up to a page of text where I’d held my finger on the J key while I’d slipped into a series of microsleeps.

It’s a testament to my own stupidity and ability to rationalise things away that this happened for over a year before I admitted that there may be a problem. This, despite the fact that I went on holidays with my sister in 2013, and shared a room with a friend of mine at the 2013 World Fantasy convention, and both of them pointed out there was something truly ugly going on with my breathing when I slept.

A lot of this is because it just seemed so stupid to admit that I had a problem sleeping. An actual problem, not a self-imposed one. Sure, something ugly happened when I slept, but I’d always been the kind of guy who could keep a house away with my snoring. Sure, I felt tired, but I’d always felt tired and it was often my fault for keeping erratic sleep hours.

So things kept getting worse while I pretended they weren’t. I slept through alarms more than I used to. My habit of dozing off at write-club turned into a habit of dozing off at work. What’d been the occasional period of sleeplessness had become a nightly thing. I was exhausted all the time, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I stopped going to stuff I was invited to, ‘cause I’d either have to leave early and admit there was a problem, or I’d stay later than I should and pay the price for days.

I stopped driving anywhere that took longer than twenty minutes, ‘cause I was seriously paranoid about falling asleep while driving my car.

It’s when that finally happened – I dozed off for a few seconds while stopped at a traffic light – that I finally went to a doctorWe went through the processes you go through when such things are said, ruling out possible-but-unlikely causes until we settled on the likely one, given my age, my weight, and the fact that I’ve been treating pizza as its own food group for a few years: Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The muscles in the back of my throat constrict the airway while I’m sleeping, forcing me to stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night.

It would be nice to say that having a name has changed things, but the truth is, it hasn’t.

For one thing, the best treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea is weight loss and establishing a regular sleep routine. The good news is that it’s really effective; the bad news is that it takes time, while you continue to feel pretty crappy and exhausted.

For another thing…it just doesn’t seem satisfying enough. I keep finding myself looking at apnea and thinking, really? This? This is the thing that’s making me feel like this? This is the excuse I’ve got to offer people when I shrug off their social event? It’s the thing I get to tell my boss, when I’ve slept through three alarms and arrived late for work? The moment I open my mouth to try and explain, all I hear is that phrase: I don’t sleep well. I feel a little tired. It seems insufficient, you know? Everyone feels tired, these days. No-one gets enough sleep. What makes this different?

I’ve read estimates that one in five people suffers from sleep apnea in some form, which seems kind of impossible. How are that many people getting through life like this? How are they explaining it to other people? I wouldn’t have believed it was a big deal, not until I really hit the wall and felt how bad it was myself.

I don’t sleep well, not anymore.

It seems like it should be such a simple thing to fix, but it isn’t. It get fixed by time and sensible steps: fixing bad habits, working around the limitations, tracking the hell out of my eating habits and sleeping habits. I schedule nine to ten hours for sleep, most nights, and it’s just barely enough to keep me awake the following day. I eat meals consisting of chicken breast and Brussels sprouts. I make notes about what I’m thinking and feeling whenever I fall back into old habits and, say, order pizza or purchase a pack of cookies from the shop intending to eat the entire thing in one go. I assume I’ll need to drive to work at least once or twice a pay cycle, on account of my unreliability when it comes to getting up and out the door in time to catch my train.

I schedule less writing time, which pisses me off no end, but I figure less productivity now is better than a prolonged lack of productivity in the long term.

What I haven’t done is accept that this is my life for the next short while. I didn’t tell folks, outside a small handful of people who I do freelance projects with, who mostly needed to know ’cause I was getting harder and harder to track down. I still try to skirt around the issue when I know I can’t go somewhere, instead of just saying, look, sorry, I’ll need to go catch up on sleep. I still try to pretend its not an issue and write ’til one AM from time to time, even though that’s a bad idea. I still get frustrated by the limitations of being so goddamn tired all the time, since my default state is now “I need a nap.”

But when exhaustion started kicking the shit out of my wordcounts in March – particularly when it came time to record my numbers for the 600k Challenge – I figured it was time to start admitting this and figuring out work-arounds. ‘Cause I don’t want to use this as an excuse not to write this year – I want it to be a hiccup that’s overcome.

If my favourite tactic of working longer and harder is no longer an option, it may be time to try that “working smarter” thing people are always talking about

Big Focus: The Calendar Trick That’s Saving My Bacon This Year

July 2013

July 2013 in all its Colour-Coded Splendor

I have to write 750 words a day between now and October 24th, otherwise bad things will happen. The kind of bad things where you end up emailing an editor and sounding like a heel, on account of the fact that you aren’t getting done the things you said you’d get done, and really that’s not the kind of email that any writer wants to send ’cause editors do neat stuff like pay us to write things and we’d prefer to seem reliable enough that they keep asking us to be involved in their projects.

Now 750 words doesn’t seem like much, but it quickly gets kinda hard to attain. ‘Cause at the same time as I’m doing this, I’ve got a bunch of full-day workshops that need writing. I’ve got at least three Writer’s Festivals/Conferences that I’m going too, which will involve chairing panels or similar activities that have associated prep-work that come with them. I’ve got that pesky GenreCon thing I’m running myself, right at the start of October, and it’s going to start eating my life about halfway through next month.

Basically, I have a major writer/travel/work event every two weeks, on average, between now and the end of the year. On one hand, totes awesome, ’cause I kinda live for this shit, but on the other hand it’s the stuff of chaos that leads directly to the I’m Busy response I wrote about on Monday.

Enter the Big Picture Calendar

So tonight I set up a big-picture calendar, just so I know what I’m meant to be focusing my attention on any given day. All my commitments are written in and highlighted a different colour, depending on what they are. This is petty standard for people using calendars to organise themselves, although for reasons related to the fact that I’m inherently tactile in my approach to things, I’ve elected to go old-school rather than relying on electronic diary software.

Having deadlines written into the calendar isn’t really the point, though. Having a record of deadlines has never really helped me, ’cause deadlines are just a single data-point, easily overlooked. Unless you’re the kind of person who can look at your calendar, see a deadline at the end of the month, and mentally extrapolate all the tasks that needed to achieve that thing, the deadline is just an indicator that you should panic a whole lot on that particular day.

I don’t do that. I see deadlines – especially a whole set of deadlines bunched together – and all I see is the massive potential for failure and an amorphous, unknowable mass of “work” that needs to be done by a due time and date.

So the thing I’m trialing – and this is the thing I’m really hoping will help me rock the latter half of this year – is colour coding some days before the commitment that are set-aside for the necessary focus and writing to get things prepared. In some cases the commitment gets an entire week blocked out, so I’ve got a visual reference that lets me know everything else can go hang for the next seven days and I’ll give my non-writing attention entirely over to the thing I’m working on.

I’ve got another calendar – electronic, highly detailed – that I’m using to track meetings and appointments and other things. This one’s purely about high-level thinking and focusing on the big picture, having some idea of what my months are going to be shaped like without actually getting caught on the details.

The advantage of breaking things down like this is that it lets me know that August, for example, is actually a pretty cruisey month despite going to Byron Bay Writer’s Festival as the AWM rep, and travelling to Perth for the Romance Writers of Australia conference. These things will eat days, but they won’t eat additional days of planning beyond organizing the logistics of getting there (well, Byron Bay will, but I’ll be doing that the month prior since it’s the first weekend of August, and they’ll be done at work besides).

Compare that to September, which has a workshop (one day, plus at least three days of prep) and a whole bunch of panel chairing (a couple of days, plus a whole lot of prep), and I know which month is better for catching up on writing projects that are lagging behind and scheduling social engagements.

It also lets me know when I need to jealously guard my free days for prep and planning, rather than assuming I have the time to catch up in the coming week. It lets me know which non-day-job days are actually free days, and which need to be given over to getting some focused thinking-work done.

The Writing Caveat

Since writing doesn’t fit neatly into this – that 750 a day habit needs to happen one way or another – it’s got a bunch of mini deadlines built into it. From here on, if I reach the 750 word mark, I cross off a day in purple and celebrate like a mofo. If I miss some days…well, I’ve got the mini-deadlines, and they’ve got a block of days marked out where that’s my primary focus, same as I’ve got blocks of days that are devoted to getting a workshop written or putting together a panel.

This too serves as a handy visual reference, since the big purple crosses let me know very clearly where I’m up to with the projects and how many days I’ve missed in a given month.

How Do You Give Up Being Busy?

If you asked me how I’m doing for the last six months, there’s pretty good odds I told you I was either busy, really busy, or completely fucking manic depending on how well we know each other. It’s the default answer to the question for me and a lot of other people in my office (and, lets be honest, worldwide).

Thing is, I don’t really want to be busy. I want to be getting a lot of shit done, which means I’m okay with loading up on a whole heap of projects, but I dislike the idea of busy being my default state.

So I’ve decided to stop using it, particularly in light of this post from 99u, which points out the inherent problem in talking about the amount of stuff you’ve got on:

Saying, “Busy!” has become the automatic non-answer when somebody asks, “How are you?” It immediately shuts down an interaction and any opportunity for constructive conversation is dashed upon the rocks of ineloquence.

via 99u, A Conversation About Being Busy is Barely a Conversation at All

And lest I seem particularly virtuous in this instance, let me be completely honest: I expect I’ll have an easier time giving up breathing than I will giving up this particular crutch.

But I’m working on it.

My Problem With Busy

I’m travelling a lot this year, I’ve got a stack of major projects at QWC, a workshop to teach every couple of weeks, and a stack of writing projects on top of that. Add in some regular gaming, blogging, and the odd spot of leisure time, and the hours get eaten up pretty quickly.

And none of that is about to change.

Busy implies that this level of motion in my to-do list isn’t the status quo. Human beings are naturally busy people – we’re designed to be in motion, to be doing stuff, to achieve things. Even when I was in the depths of slackerdom, there was still that ambition there. I just aimed it at getting a new top score on Super Mario rather than trying to hit things out of the park at my job.

What I’m really saying when I tell people I’m busy is…well, probably please pity me. Like most people who grew up male, introverted and nerdy, seeking sympathy or pity has always been easier than presenting myself as a likable human being. I’ve tried to get a better handle on it now that I’m an adult, but the impulse is always there, seductive and easy.

Busy is a cheap way of asking for validation. People empathise, ’cause we’ve all been busy, and thus my existence on this earth justified by the simple state of being in motion. Even if, when they’re asking me how I am, I’m probably in a state of relaxation on account that I’m out, hanging with peeps who actually like me enough to inquire about my well-being.

Things are Actually Kind of Awesome Right Now, Thank you

I’ve been thinking about being busy and why I think it’s worthy of sympathy ever since I read Busyness is Not a Virtue (linked to by 99u; apparently I haven’t been so busy that I can’t follow link chains down the rabbit hole). I’m not as hardline as the author of that piece – I think there are times when the pressure valve of busy can be useful – but I can see their point.

And it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be busy in the sympathy seeking sense. All that shit I’ve got on? It’s actually kind of awesome. I’ve got a completely fucking kick-ass day job where I get to talk about writing and get paid for it. When I’m not doing that, I get to make shit up and have people give me money for it. When I’m doing that, I’m getting paid to travel around the place and catch up with some pretty awesome folks (or, at least, claiming such trips on tax)

And when I’m not working, I get to hang out with my friends and do stuff that makes me pretty goddamn happy.

All in all, my life is pretty good. People should fucking hit me for expecting their fucking pity.

But they don’t. Instead, they’re sympathetic, or they offer up their own tales of manic-fucking-craziness that’ll match my own, and we’ll commiserate over a cup of coffee and agree that being busy kind of sucks.

Here’s the problem with that:

When I Tell You I’m Busy, I’m Actually Lying

For me, I think I’m busy is really an attempt to say I’m not really in control right now. It’s an acknowledgement that I’m in motion, but not sure where I’m going and I’m unable to figure out what should be a priority. Or, worse, that I’ve stalled and I’m not sure how to start again, ’cause everything seems like it should be done right now.

I’m busy is a sign that I should buckle up and deal with things, figuring out what I need to do in order to regain control of my job, my writing, or my life. But so long as I say I’m busy and people offer me pity, it’s like I have tacit permission to continue along in my disorganised state.

As a survival tactic in my manic, fifty-fifty working life, that’s probably not the best option. And given the choice between being someone who flails at my problems, bumbling along as best I can, and being someone who is known for getting shit done, well, it should be a no-brainer, right?

So Here’s the Challenge

I know I want to stop being busy, but it’s one of those habits that’s heavily ingrained as a response.

The challenge in giving up I’m busy is figuring out what should replace it. This is relatively easy at work – putting things in terms of organisation priorities makes sense there – but in casual conversation it’s a little harder. Leaving busy behind means finding an alternative to take it’s place, and I’m not sure what that should be.

My brain still freezes when someone asks how things are going, locking up as it searches for an option that explains things, because I’m generally doing a good deal of incongruous stuff that isn’t easy to summarise. One doesn’t want to dominate conversation by rabbiting on about current projects, after all, especially if all people are hoping for is a police, socially mandated response to their inquiry as to how I’ve been.

So I’m looking for an alternative I can train myself into using. My instinct is to look for a way that emphasizes the awesome – a “great! We just launched our new website at work” kind of thing – but I’m wary of sounding like a pompous dick when I embrace that approach, even if it’s probably better for me, psychologically speaking, to focus on the stuff that’s been getting done.

So I turn to you, oh internet; what kind of responses would you like to see as a replacement for busy? What are the responses people have given to that question that make you glad you asked?

The Keyboard Shortcut that Rocks My World

I spend a lot of time on the internet, opening up new tabs. It’s an occupational hazard for writers and anyone who works at the Queensland Writers Centre, so I’m always happy to learn things that save me time and help me rock my job a little better. This post is about one that I learned a year or so back, which is proving to be a lifesaver on a day-to-day front.

Ready? Here we go.


Or Command-Shift-T for you Mac people, scourge of the earth that you are with your fancy-pants non-standard keyboards.

If you’ve never used it before, Control-Shift-T is the shortcut that tells your browser to re-open the last tab you just closed. For someone who frequently has twenty-plus tabs open, sorting through them as I construct the steady stream of links I run through the twitter feeds for @Petermball and @AMWonline, it gets used on a daily basis. It lets me backtrack like a backtracking ninja, saves on anguish when I accidentally close the wrong tab, and generally ranks up there with unicorns, beer, and coffee in terms of things that make my life better with their existence.

Whoever came up with the shortcut get mad props, and I honestly can’t remember how I got by without it. It’s a simple thing, but it totally changed the way I engaged with the internet. Control T (for a new tab) gets a little bit of a workout too, but it’s generally just a quick-and-easy time saver – it’s when you throw the Shift key into the mix that you’re actually saved from moments of your own stupidity.

So, yeah. Control-Shift-T. It’s a thing of beauty. Learn it. Use it. Love it.

That’s mine, so how ’bout you guys? What quick-and-easy keyboard shortcuts make your life easier? Have at it in the comments, peeps, and lets make all our lives a little easier.