Geetanjali Mukherjee

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Embrace Iterations to Keep Perfectionism at Bay

Sometimes what we think of as lack of productivity can be really an attack of perfectionism. When I find myself not making progress, or as much progress as I would like, I always resort to comparing myself to other's who are far more prolific, or labelling myself lazy.

Perfectionism as the Enemy of Productivity

Recently, I read this book that made me realise often my stalling progress can be linked back to too high standards on my part, and fear that I won't be able to meet those standards. The book: Hillary Rettig's The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. In it she describes the signs of a perfectionist attitude, and I recognised in myself many of them. She also describes a process for getting through writing a book, which I think can be applied to other projects as well.

I have a tendency to think as a writer that I should write one ok first draft, one much better second draft, and one final, well-polished third draft. Rettig dismisses this theory, and states that we should go through "as many drafts as it takes". And the proper procedure is to write one terrible draft, make the next one slightly less terrible, and so on, until you are happy with the outcome. This approach basically allows you to suspend the anxiety associated with approaching your project, and you find yourself getting closer to the finished product much quicker, thanks to reduced procrastination and fear. For each draft she suggests tackling the obvious flaws, and moving on, which is similar to dealing with the low-hanging fruit first, something I discussed in a previous post.

This concept reminded me of computer programming, and especially a concept known as iterations. In the context of programming, you basically repeat a part of a program on a loop, till you get the desired result. In the context of work, it means to do a specific step in your workflow over and over, each time improving it slightly, getting it closer to the outcome you want. App developers do this all the time, releasing updates, with each version solving a few more bugs, adding a few more features.

Applying Iteration to My Work Process

I read about an author sometime back approaching her work the same way (I can't remember who it was at the moment), and I decided to apply this approach to an aspect of my work - designing a cover for my second self-published book. For "Will the Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up?", my book about Albert Speer, one of the members of Hitler's cabinet, I knew roughly what I wanted for my cover. Once I found an image I was happy with, I decided to apply the several versions approach to see if that made it easier and less stressful for me.

Around the 6th or 7th version I was so frustrated, I was ready to just go with one of the several versions I had produced, none of which were any good. Then, while waiting for feedback on the version from my mom, I discovered a different software I could use, and quickly created another version, which I was finally happy with it. That was the version I uploaded with the book, and was my cover for about a month.

However, a few days ago, I had an idea for tweaking the cover slightly, and created the 10th version. This is the version I am going to keep as the final one, and here it is.

Deciding in advance that I was going to have several versions allowed me to crank out 9 versions in the space of a couple of hours. Usually, I would create one, get stressed that it wasn't perfect, feel the urge to procrastinate, and put off completing it for a while, maybe even a few days. Knowing that I had several chances, and that I was willing to accept an almost outcome allowed me to get quite close to a good cover, and I got done much quicker.

I have now been applying the iteration mind-set to my current writing projects, and I have noticed its much easier to get through the process of revising knowing I can always have more drafts to fix what I am unable to fix right now, and I move right along to the next section.

What project are you procrastinating on right now that you can bring the magic of iteration to?

Update: I have updated this cover again - in March 2016, and I am now really happy with it. I guess that just proves the advice above - keep tinkering and keep taking action. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Balancing Multiple and Competing Demands

These last two months my primary goal was to complete two book projects that have been in my queue for a while. It was an ambitious undertaking, trying to complete both together, but I thought that I could work on one, and when I got mentally tired I would simply switch to the other one.

I quickly realized that didn't work for me - I need to have only one thing I am constantly thinking about and percolating ideas for in the back of my mind. So I decided to work in phases - first one phase of one book, then another phase of another book. I have made more progress than I did trying to switch between the two, but I still can't help thinking this is horribly inefficient.

In a similar vein, I don't think I am properly able to strike the balance between writing my current books (and thus building up a catalogue of work), and marketing the books I have already written, and building my 'platform', that ubiquitious phrase that keeps being bandied about, and strikes fear into the heart of every writer who thinks building a platform sounds awfully like 'make my carpet fly'.

Initially I did do the social media thing, but keeping up with it really eats up too much head space for me, and there isn't much room left for ideas for my work. Not to mention its really easy to waste hours chasing links, or comparing yourself to others wondering why you have so few followers, or why your books aren't selling as well.

In other fields I am sure there are similar problems. Should I work on my presentation, or hang out in the break room getting office gossip that might benefit me in some way? Should I attend yet another networking event where I may get some leads, or go home on time for once and hit the gym, since I hardly ever exercise anymore?

I was having this conversation with my mom a few days ago - the world is becoming more complex and difficult, there are more demands on us than ever before, and while its easy to see some distractions for what they are (Candy Crush isn't going to move your career forward), others aren't so easy to categorise. Some authors (like Cal Newport) famously eschew all social media as distractions from the substance of their work. Others swear by these tools as essential to their success.

I fall somewhere in the middle - I acknowledge the usefulness of these tools, but I also realize that they call for more discipline and mindfulness from me - I need to actively decide to what extent and when I will use these tools, or for that matter how I will divide my time between writing and marketing. And that just means I need to work on making myself more effective, and knowing what works for me. It's daunting, and I always second-guess myself, but that's maybe the price to pay for trying to have it all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Focusing Your Energy: The 80/20 Rule

Most creative professionals, with or without a day job, have to juggle a variety of tasks and responsibilities. You must expose yourself to a variety of inputs to have a constant stream of fresh ideas, you must turn those ideas into products, and you must find a way to market yourself, i.e. put those products in front of people who will buy them. The specific logistics differ according to whether your products are blog posts or books or paintings or apps, but the general principle is the same. When you are trying to establish yourself and your reputation, there is an endless series of things to do. That can be pretty overwhelming.

It doesn’t help that although we are lucky to have access to a lot of excellent advice on how to succeed in these endeavors, we have access to a lot of excellent advice. Some days I feel like Sisyphus, writing, posting, tweeting, just to start it all over again tomorrow. Lately, my enthusiasm started to dip, as I faced the harsh reality that I wasn’t really getting too close to my goals, and yet it felt like I was putting in the hours on a regular basis. Sure I have a lot to learn as an independent author, attempting to establish a career as a writer, but it felt like I wasn’t moving much further along.

In the realm of “independent author-dom” or being an “indie”, there are many other writers who have been there and done that, and are luckily sharing their wisdom. However, just starting out, it can all seem just a bit too much - all the list of “musts” that one must do as an indie to ensure that you come across professional and committed, and move your career along. I started to despair that I could ever do enough, or work hard enough, to get where I need to.
And then I had a bit of an epiphany. I have been reading a few varied books - and a few ideas started to crystallize in my mind. I realized that the advice wasn’t ordered - these are the most important, these are somewhat less important. Either in terms of what gives results, or what you need to do depending on where you are in your career. [A notable exception to this is the excellent book Write.Publish. Repeat. which does give ordered advice, and was a book that influenced my thinking for this post.] There was a lot of information sure, but perhaps not all of it applied to me right now, and maybe there was a hierarchy of advice - absolutely do this, then if you have time, do this. As a complete newbie, I simply assumed I had to do everything, and beat myself up for not accomplishing enough, or seeing enough results from the things I was ending up doing.  

I am sure most people have heard of the 80/20 rule or the Pareto Principle. It was posited by an economist, Vilfredo Pareto, that the distribution of most things follow a disproportionate division - 20& of the people control 80% of the assets, 20% of the clients provide 80% of the sales. Well this rule applies also to your creative endeavors, and the potential results you can expect from them.

Each avenue of creative work is different, and it also matters where you are personally on the journey. In my case, I have written some books and long articles over the years, but I haven’t really completed some projects that are not only close to my heart, but also definitive of my style and what I really want to convey. Until I can finish those, its not easy for me to “find my unique voice”, or to “create a coherent narrative of your work”, or to “find my tribe”. I am myself not totally sure what my tribe is, so how am I supposed to find it?
Confused by all this advice, I found myself trying to be on every social media platform, trying to implement all the book promotion strategies I read about, reading endless articles debating the nuances behind hiring editors and cover designers and the like. Sure, I was in the midst of self-publishing a couple of manuscripts, but they are books I had already written a while back, and were publishing to get my toes wet and prepare myself. But here I was, wading in the deep without remembering to wear a swimsuit - I hadn’t even finished revising my current manuscripts, for which the advice would be relevant, if only they were ready to be published. But they weren’t.

And for all the time I was spending implementing the 10 cent advice, I had neglected the 100 dollar principle - do the 20% of things that will give you the 80% of results. Sure getting some retweets and followers is great, but not at the expense of actually writing and publishing books. Sure, without marketing you won’t sell too many books, but without having the books out there in the first place, you won’t sell any. And in my case, the time spent on the 10 cent activities that weren’t netting me any results were actually de-motivating enough to not work on what was really important - writing.

Not all those who read this are writers, but still advice can still apply to you. In your line of work what results are you most responsible for? Are you spending a sufficient amount of time on those results, or on doing things that are tangentially relevant? This could actually make a big difference in what you achieve, and ultimately, what you are known for.

Sure, its great to work hard and try to get everything done. But when everything can be overwhelming, decide which few activities deserve the lion’s share of your time and energy.

I’m off to work on my writing - in the meantime, do share your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Learning to Fail

I was reading The Midas Touch, by Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki, the other day, and one insight that really jumped out at me was the importance of being willing to fail. Of course, they are referring to entrepreneurs in the book, but I think the insight applies equally well to creative professionals. After all, the way to get better at our craft involves trying different things and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

However, its not always easy to allow ourselves to fail, or even to entertain the possibility of failure. Especially when you are trying to establish yourself, your mind fills with doubts and doomsday scenarios - this current project will bomb, you will metaphorically fall on your face, and no one will ever buy your art. Ironically, the one thing you need to do to get better, is what you often feel incapable of doing.

So if you can’t eagerly sign yourself up for failure, what do you do then?

The last few days I was re-working the outline of my WIP, and I started to get misgivings about the flow and whether it was innovative enough, and well-researched enough. I got panicky thinking that I didn’t know what I was doing, and I should just quit. After all the hours I put into it I couldn’t bear to simply give up, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I was afraid to fail. I was afraid of giving up, and yet I was afraid if I went through with it in its current form, my work would be terrible and I would look amateurish. I was stuck and miserable.

And then I asked myself what would be the worst thing that happened if I did an average job. It wouldn’t be failing exactly, but it wouldn’t be killing it either. And I realized that it wouldn’t be that bad. I gave myself permission to be average, which really meant giving myself permission to fail.

I started over, and within very little time I had a new outline. And this is the strange part - it was actually much better than the previous one, and looked much more professional than I was expecting. I was actually really happy with it.

In a way, letting myself fail didn’t actually lead to failure (well not yet anyway). What it did do was free myself up to be more creative, to look at the problem from a different angle, one I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

So, to come back to the question, if you can’t eagerly sign up for failure, how do you gain the ability to learn from it?

Think about that project that you abandoned, or haven’t finished despite numerous attempts, because you were trying to get it just right. Think about that idea that you had but were too afraid to try in case you got it completely wrong. These are projects that you’ve already doomed to the dust heap, because you aren’t working on them anyway. Give yourself permission to do an average job, in fact, go ahead and say, “let’s do a poor job”. At least it will get done. And you will learn the valuable lesson of learning from failure.

Try it and I guarantee you, you will be surprised by the result. You may even fail to fail! Start right away, what do you have to lose?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

One-day Only Free Book Promotion

To celebrate Labour Day, just for today, my new (short) book "Will The Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up? The Many Faces of Hitler’s Architect", is available for free at the Amazon Kindle store.

Here's the book description:

         Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, has been given several titles – ‘the good Nazi’, ‘Hitler’s architect’, ‘future Reichchancellor’, and even ‘the only penitent defendant at Nuremberg’. He presented many faces to the world, but which one was genuine?

        Speer was extensively involved in the Nazi party, both as Hitler’s architect and the Minister for Armaments, and through his contributions to the illegal war waged by the regime. Thus, the question naturally arises: did Speer receive adequate punishment? The events leading up to the Nuremberg trial, and the trial itself, provides clues to answering these questions: what can we learn about the personality of Speer from the evidence available, and why does it matter?

       In the years since the trial, biographers have been fascinated with the life of Speer, and have attempted to understand the man behind the enigma. The reason for the fascination is as much for his proximity to Hitler and the regime as it is for his actions at the end of the war. Were they justifiable? Was Speer’s biggest flaw his ambition and his turning away from obviously inhumane acts? Or did Speer manage to pull off the ultimate conjuring trick, convincing the court of his unintentional involvement, all the while wholeheartedly supporting the Nazi regimes’ treatment of those they oppressed?

If you read it and like it, I would love if it you left a review. Click here for the book.

Happy Labour Day!
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