Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, January 31, 2016

How Do You Make Time To Write? (Or To Create Anything Really)

I was answering questions for a couple of interviews about my writing and books recently, and one of the questions concerned finding time to write. Co-incidentally, I was discussing something similar with my mum the other day, about finding the time to work on our own important projects, when everyone else makes demands on our time that are seemingly more urgent. And this got me thinking, how does one make time to write? And am I doing this as well as I can, or can I improve?

Again, the beginning of a new year is a good time to ask these sort of big-picture questions. Anyone who is juggling multiple priorities will be wondering if they really have time to devote to writing or painting or setting up a side-business. Or you may already be making some time for this passion on the side, but you are frustrated that you are not able to spend enough time on it, enough time to really hone your skills, or take on an ambitious project that will give you a lot of traction. In that scenario, the sensible voice inside your head tells you to shelve your project till you have more time later.

Reading Laura Vanderkam's books, who studies how people spend their time, I realized that we actually have a lot more free time than we realize, or rather time that is not being used by working and sleeping, time that we can allocate how we choose. The problem is that most of us use a lot of that time inefficiently. Sometimes we take on chores or commitments that don’t reflect our values, we do things that we don’t really need to or want to, and give up on things that are more important to us, because "we don’t have enough time". At other times, we aren’t conscious of how we are using our time, and before we know it, 3 hours have gone in watching mindless TV that wasn’t even that important in the first place, or an hour has disappeared into "catching up with friends" on social media, even though we didn’t exactly send any personal messages. What could we accomplish with just 3-4 hours every week devoted to our passion projects?

One thing I have been experimenting with this week is scheduling what's important to me first, and then worrying about everything else. The famous exhortation of Stephen Covey to put "first things first" is apt here – I found that things that I want to do and naturally used to say 'no' to before thinking I didn’t have time for it, I can very often make some time for it. I just have to be more mindful of how I am using my time. I also have to be more willing to let the dishes pile up in the sink, and ignore the siren call of the laundry or the unread newsletters in my email. I won't really suffer if any of those things aren’t done right now, and instead devoting half an hour to my current WIP is more satisfying, or taking the time to find new ways to market my books which could yield more sales is ultimately a better use of my time. 

I also found strangely that the chores were still getting done; I was just getting through them faster, or perhaps batching them made it more efficient. Regardless, deciding how I was going to use my time, rather than just going about on autopilot, just doing what I always did before, actually helped me to find more time. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Productivity Articles from the Archives

Image credit:

I was going through some old emails that I had sent to myself with articles that I wanted to save and come back to again, and decided that some of them were so good I had to share them with my readers. I hope they inspire you to tackle some long-pending projects of your own.

1.       Woody Allen and the Art of Value ProductivityThis article from Study Hacks makes a point that really spoke to me – "be bold in conception, but pragmatic in execution". Woody Allen is so prolific because while he tries to do something new and different with each movie, he doesn’t let the reality of the final product stop him from completing it. So often we realize that the idea in our head doesn’t match the product in our hands, and we abandon it, waiting for a better time when it will 'magically' be better. There isn’t such a time, so get on with it.

     2.       How to Execute a Successful Side Project -  This article by Scott Young walks you through conceiving and following through successfully with a side project. Many of us think to ourselves, I would love to make…, or learn…, but the realities of juggling work and life push our projects aside. Scott gives tips to help you design a realistic side project and actually pull it off.

     3.       How to Trick Yourself into Doing Tasks You DreadThis article from the Harvard Business Review blog lists some ways to tackle those pesky tasks that you absolutely hate even thinking about, but need to get through anyway. The article lists the different types of unpleasant tasks that we avoid, and strategies to deal with each one.

So if you are putting off something unpleasant like cleaning out the garage, or keep procrastinating on creating that website you have been talking about, the articles above can give you helpful inspiration to get started. Don’t forget to stop reading and start taking action at some point though!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Plan (Not) To Be Productive Today

I read a lot of productivity books and articles, and try to share some of what I read on this blog. Thinking along the lines of how to be more productive all the time, can counter-intuitively, be less productive.

As I usually do at the end of one year, and the beginning of the next, I have been thinking a lot about how I spent the year and what changes I want to make. I also looked through my time tracking data to see how much time I spent working and writing and working out. What I saw surprised me – I didn’t work as much as I would like. But I didn’t do as much of consciously chosen leisure activities as I would like either. I don’t track every minute of my time, especially time spent watching TV, travelling, doing little things around the house. And I suspect a lot of my time was used up in obvious ways. But I also suspect that I 'wasted' a lot of time that didn’t really register with me, on Facebook or playing a game, waiting for something, or in between activities. Which would be ok, not terribly bad, if it weren’t for something else. I felt like I didn’t have enough time for personal projects or meaningful leisure activities.

In an effort to work harder and move certain aspects of my career forward, I decided to embrace weekly thinking rather than daily thinking (something I learnt from 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam). This meant that I took the time to run important errands on a weekday or meet someone if that was the only time possible, and make up that time on the weekend. But this started to become a regular habit, and basically every day became a weekday – I took plenty of breaks, but no day completely off. Or I felt incredibly guilty if I did. Additionally, there were many things that I wanted to do that I didn’t give myself permission to indulge in, except very occasionally. I recently started dabbling with paints as a hobby, but seeing as this was clearly a leisure activity, I found it hard to do it when I could easily be sitting down and getting some work or house priority tackled instead. Besides, painting takes a lot of set-up and winding down time, so I could only do it in large chunks of time, which made it harder to justify.

One of the leisure activities I made time for recently...
What I didn’t notice however; was how cranky and irritable I had started to get, especially when things didn’t go as planned, and extra responsibilities were put on my plate. Without realizing it, I had started to be very difficult to be around. As a result of some conversations with my mum, and taking advantage of a slightly slower start to the year, I experimented with scheduling time to paint, and to do other renewing activities such as go for a swim in the middle of the day.

In just over 10 days, I found a remarkable change in my attitude – I am happier, less annoyed with others and even less interested in dessert (a side benefit I didn’t see coming!). In fact recently, someone asked me if I was overwhelmed in my volunteer position, as the person supposed to be helping me was probably not going to be able to. I was surprised at her question, because I didn’t feel stressed at all.

It's not easy to make time for personal priorities when the world has a hundred demands on your time. But I recently realized that the demands are going to keep coming, no matter what you do. You are better off scheduling the important things first, and along with work and family responsibilities, don’t forget to schedule something that is replenishing for you as well. I experimented with creating time to work out and to paint in my day, and then fitting my chores and other tasks around them. I also began to be aware of just how much discretionary time I waste in a day, time that could be better spent doing something mindfully, something that is totally unproductive but matters to me, and makes me more productive in the other areas of my life as a side effect. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Are We Wasting Time On Pointless Busywork?

I have been reading Laura Vanderkam's latest book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, and it is making me think about how I use time, and how efficient I am. I know Vanderkam's position on certain things like not spending too much time on wrestling your inbox down to zero (or some suitably low number), or doing laundry or cleaning obsessively. Basically don’t do anything that doesn’t really add value to your career or your life in some real way, don’t do things just because you read somewhere that it is something to strive for, decide for yourself whether it really is worth the time.

In some cases, whether or not we should do something, may seem obvious. But as I read the book, and since it is the beginning of another year, I am examining my life and work schedules anyway, I can see many uses of time as either sub-optimal or something to question. For instance, last year I set up systems for dealing with my housework and was frankly quite proud of doing that. I used to be one of the messiest housekeepers possible, happy to just ignore dust and dirt and mess, and just walk around it. I finally decided to change that (for the sake of the other people around me) and decided to organize my home and cleaning systems, to make it more efficient. I thought it was saving me time.

But reading Vanderkam's description of similar stories from working women who were actually spending more time on housework as a result of too-good home management systems, I started to recognize myself in those stories. At some point, the goal became not to have a reasonable clean home and then get on with things, but to impress some invisible person or committee with how much housework I was doing / how well I was doing. I felt guilty everything I saw a full clothes hamper, or looked at the kitchen stove and realized it needed cleaning. Here's the thing with housework – there is always more to be done. And in a futile attempt to get it done before I got down to my other work (I work from home, and this is a possibility), I invariably let the housework take more time than it should, than I allotted for it, eating into my writing and work time. Even my leisure time. I started to feel accomplishments from getting the laundry and ironing done, and then complain to myself that I didn’t have enough time to pull off the marketing work I needed to. I didn’t put the two together however, till recently.

Although there are other instances when I don’t know what is pointless busywork and what is useful and needed administrative work. The other day I actually spent a chunk of time getting my inbox of email down to almost a 100 emails. This is actually a huge accomplishment, because I routinely have 1000's of emails in my inbox, but somehow manage to keep on top of everything, although just barely. And I keep feeling stressed about the things lurking in my inbox that I have forgotten about, and have many times failed to respond promptly to less critical matters, just because they got lost somewhere in the pile. Over the course of a few months, I have been ruthlessly whittling down my inbox (working in fits and starts), and thus the jubilation when it was finally down to about 150 messages. And then I asked myself – was it worth it? Should I be wasting my time doing this? I have read strategies such as deleting everything and starting over from people, while others maintain you should forget about managing it, just use gmail's advanced search features. I couldn’t delete the emails, as many of them are personal correspondence that I would like to hold on to, and generally I like to keep far more than I should probably. And while the search is great, having that big morass of emails was stressful. But I am not sure whether reducing it has reduced my stress. So I am back to the same question – is the time invested in sorting my notes in my Evernote folders, dealing with my email, putting my mess of papers in my filing cabinet in order – worth it? I could use this time to write another book. Or to do something else, like learn a language. Vanderkam would say it is a waste of time.

On the other hand, I read somewhere (Jack Canfield I think), that completing things helps to remove them from our minds, and frees the attention for more important things. This is the David Allen approach – clear your mind of clutter, have neat systems set up for everything, and you will be much more productive. I see the merit of this idea, and it has helped me, when I follow it, to feel more in control. But it does take time, and provides a great tool to procrastinate on difficult things like going after new business, or spending time on marketing and promotions, or making art – instead you get the illusion of progress and hard work, without having to do the things you are truly avoiding.

I don’t have a solution – all I know is that it feels nice to know that I can get my inbox down to a manageable amount, that I can have a clean kitchen on occasion or organize my paperwork, as long as I don’t do any of them obsessively, or to the exclusion of more important and nurturing activities.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Interviews On My Writing Process (and Most Recent Book)

I am fascinated by articles and books that discuss the writing process of other writers - reading some of the routines and processes employed by my favorite writers over and over again. Assuming that other readers similarly enjoy reading about writers' routines, I answered many process related questions about my writing in a few interviews that came out in November and December last year. I have posted some excerpts below from the interviews. Follow the links to read them in full - they cover a lot of ground regarding my writing and books in general.

Excerpt from the interview with Joyce T. Strand (Strands' Simply Tips):

Q: Do you try to deliver key messages or to educate your readers? What is your primary goal when you write?
I remember reading somewhere that even if you have a message to deliver as an author, you should hide it very subtly within the story, and above all, seek to entertain. I am not sure I have achieved that yet, but I definitely keep that advice in mind when I write. Since I write non-fiction I guess it is acceptable to try to educate my readers, but my goal is really for the reader to gain a new perspective on the subject, or to ask more questions and think about the topic even after they have finished reading the book.

I guess my ideal goal would be that my books are read by those who have only a passing interest or even none at all in the subject, and my book kindles a deeper interest in them, or they feel that they have learned something unexpected from it. Personally, I have always had absolutely no interest in astronomy, I don’t even know where most of the major constellations are, but I happened to read this one book on the demotion of Pluto, and it kindled this passion in me for astronomy. Now I am hungry to read more books on the subject, and learn more about it. That’s the power of non-fiction, and that's really what I am aiming for, although probably not quite getting there, yet.

Q: What tips can you offer about “being creative and productive every day?”
Well this is a pretty vast subject, one that I feel I am only scratching the surface of. I write about being more productive and creative on my blog, to share what works for me and good advice that I come across elsewhere.
The most important advice I guess I could give would be a derivation of a quote from Ira Glass, the radio personality. As creative people, our ability is far less developed than our taste, and so what we create may well be far worse than we would hope for, at least initially. I used to personally get discouraged by this, and give up. What Ira Glass suggests, and I concur, is to keep doing the creative thing, whatever it is, no matter how bad it is. At some point, it stops being bad, and moves to tolerable, and sometimes, it is even good. And then, when you keep at it long enough, suddenly you are really good, and on some lucky days, even great. Believe that that moment will come for you. And my unique take on this advice – find whatever productivity hacks that help you to keep at it, even when it is hard, or when the work feels hard, or when you're sure it is intended for the stink pile. With some rare exceptions, most of the greats in your chosen field got there because they learned how to get through the really bad output, the really bad art, and keep going till they got better.

Excerpt from the interview with Sara Chatterjee (The Page-Hungry Bookworm):

As a student, what was the greatest difficulty you faced while studying or preparing for tests?
I think the psychological barrier is the hardest to overcome. By that I mean, if it was a subject that I thought I was good at, like English, I usually started to prepare enough in advance, and didn’t find studying for the test particularly painful. But for subjects that I struggled in, just thinking about the test made me run towards the TV remote!

I think when you don't like or do well in a subject, the biggest difficulty is simply in knowing where to start. Maybe this is because you don't study or learn the material as you go, but expect to somehow figure it out a week or even days before an exam. I know I did this a lot in school, and this was the cause of most of my stress. On the other hand, for rare subjects where I did the learning as the school year progressed, there was so much less aggravation during the study prep period, and I could focus then on really preparing to answer questions and get the most important facts committed to memory, rather than encountering the bulk of the information for the first time.

Is there a common flaw that you have noticed in the study pattern of most students? If so, how would you advise them to correct that flaw and improve the study process?

That's actually a great question! I think the most common mistake that students make (and I myself certainly wasn’t immune to this) is to study passively. Reading through a textbook and simply highlighting passages without taking notes or sitting in class and not paying attention; it may seem like you are studying but really you're not learning anything. Research has shown that highlighting your textbook or simply reading is the worst way to learn, because weeks later, you remember very little. And it's worse because it gives you this illusion of having done the work.

The best way to learn? Do some active learning. Take notes that summarize the main points in what you are reading, answer questions on the text or take a short quiz. Anything that requires you to put your brain through a mental workout, manipulate the material and make it your own. This actually is harder in the moment than passively reading, but since it speeds up learning so much, it can actually save a student a lot of time.

Excerpt from the interview with

What inspires you to write?
I like to write about topics that get a hold of me, that keep coming back to me in some way over and over till I give in and decide to spend time writing about it. In general I am inspired to write by reading great prose, watching inspiring movies and listening to uplifting music. Any piece of art, and I define art quite loosely, that speaks to me and moves me, inspires me to write.

I am also inspired by other artists – those who are authentic, true to themselves, and create something that touches my heart in some way. Growing up in Calcutta, India, I was always surrounded by books and people who loved books – in fact I am named after the Nobel Prize winning book of poetry from India’s first Nobel Prize for Literature – by Rabindranath Tagore. I guess, in some way, when my mum chose my name, she wanted me to be creative in some way, and I ended up following that path unconsciously.

What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I think people will always read books. The mode of how they read may change. I do believe that more and more people will read digital books, and I definitely believe that markets outside the US will play a bigger role than they currently do, in terms of numbers and maybe even changing the landscape of the types of readers used, the languages in which books are available and many other parameters. I don’t think we have any idea of how much will change, we can only speculate.

I also think that although democratization of content is great, discoverability will only get harder for authors. I read somewhere that given how many books are being written and published every day, there is no longer any room for average. The market can only support excellent books, in the sense that they will be the ones that get discovered and read. I totally agree with that. Readers want a lot more now, and our job as writers is to deliver it. Word of mouth and reader recommendations will continue to gain in importance. My own strategy is simple, I only want to write something that excites me or pulls at me in some way, and I want to write the best possible book I can. I hope that with each book I write, I become a better writer.

Excerpt from the interview with IndieView:

Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I usually write my first drafts longhand, sometimes in a dedicated notebook, sometimes on one side of used printer paper. I like to use something as everyday as possible, so that it will signal to my mind that there is no pressure, the writing is no big deal, I am simply jotting a few thoughts down. Once I have a written draft, I type it up (this can take a long time or not, depending). I try to refrain from making major edits as I type, or differentiate the edits from the original. Invariably, at this point I realize that the draft is dreadful, and despair that it could ever improve.

Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I usually don’t outline till I have a draft, although for Anyone Can Get An A+ I had jotted down a list of topics to write about, in no particular order. I am still refining my writing process, but at the moment, once I have typed up my draft, which for this book I did in Scrivener, I try to move the pieces around till I am happy with the structure. Then I edit the individual chapters and sections.

Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
I usually like to listen to music while writing first drafts, or doing the tedious parts of writing such as checking references and compiling the bibliography. I usually edit in silence, but it’s not a completely hard rule. I also listen to music when I am writing in a public place, to minimize distractions. Each book usually has a different soundtrack. For my book on cluster munitions, I listened to Celtic music as a nod to the location of the signing of the Convention. Anyone Can Get An A+ was written while I listened to classical music (I played Handel, Mozart and Beethoven on a loop), and was edited to Coldplay and Gregorian Chants.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

Happy New Year! In honor of the new year, I have decided to start a new tradition on the blog – Reading Round-up. Every week, I will post either a book review of a book that has really inspired me (in keeping with the themes of the blog of course), or link to the most interesting articles and blog posts that I came across in the past week, on being more creative as well as productive every day.

(Update: I sort of abandoned that - my bad. But instead, I have awesome interviews with authors on their writing process, so check that out!)

This week's post is a book review, of a book I recently finished reading: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, a professor at Stanford University. It is a fitting book to discuss in the first week of the year, when we are still in the rosy glow of having made New Years' resolutions that we still think we will achieve. The book discusses the science behind willpower and self-control – how to refrain from behaviors that we would like to avoid, and build on the ones we would like to do more of.

Each year we make resolutions stating that we will do something – lose ten pounds (or forty), give up smoking, get more exercise or write that novel or screenplay. Then as the months go by, our well-meaning resolutions becoming mocking reminders of yet another failure – of either intention or action. As I read this book, I looked back on all those resolutions I had yet to accomplish, or ones that I had abandoned halfway through. Although last year was particularly good for me in terms of accomplishing long-awaited goals – I lost a significant amount of weight, and finally won Nanowrimo and wrote a complete novel for the first time – I also failed to make as much progress as I would have liked on many others. If anyone reading this is struggling with a long-promised goal or resolution, I would recommend McGonigal's books as a fount of practical strategies and insight into exactly why we fail to exert willpower when we need it the most, and what we can do about it.

The biggest takeaway from the book for me was the realization that I simply needed to pick one habit or willpower problem at a time, and focus as many tricks and strategies as I could to accomplish it. Somehow simply reading the book made me think that I could overcome some of the willpower challenges that I am facing currently, the most notable of which is my addiction to dessert. It remains to be seen how much my new-found intentions stand up to the scrutiny of time and a hectic schedule, but the dozens of strategies, coupled with the knowledge of why exactly I seem unable to reach for that cookie or make myself stick to my writing schedule, made it seem more likely that I will be able to accomplish my goals.

Here are three interesting ideas from the book that stuck out for me:

1.   Ten-minute delay – if you are trying to give up something - smoking, cookies, whatever – try waiting a mandatory ten minutes before you allow yourself to have the treat. The brain treats a slightly delayed reward and a more significantly delayed reward similarly, i.e. not as attractively as something that is immediately available, and this fact alone could reduce how often you tend to give in.

2.   Plan for failures – knowing that we are fallible and will give in to our temptations when tired or distracted or for a myriad other reasons, we should plan for these failures. One good strategy is pre-commitment­, such as paying for your gym membership in advance. Another one – create rules that govern your behavior, such as (this is one that works for me) no starchy carbs after 6pm.

3.   Acknowledge the reality of your future self – the research shows that we are far harsher and more emotionally distant from our future selves. This is the reason we overly optimistically believe that in the future we will do more exercise, lose more weight, give more money to charity etc. Partially, this is because we don’t acknowledge that in the future we will be similarly stressed, tired, tempted to give in, etc. Instead we will make far more progress on our goals if we accept our current limitations, and find strategies for accomplishing our goals given these realities, instead of imagining an ideal future. 

What are your strategies for reaching your goals?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...