Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, February 29, 2016

5 Tips To Supercharge Your Productivity

I read a lot of articles and books on productivity, and keep looking for anything that will help me to add to my existing knowledge. Today however, I wanted to take stock of the most important lessons I have learnt from various productivity books and online articles, and the things that have worked best for me, to help me make the most of the time I am working.

1.           Work While You're Working
The biggest lesson I have learned, and something most productivity gurus will tell you as well, is that multi-tasking does not work. In fact, there is no such thing as multi-tasking, not really.

When you read a text message while you're working on a report for your boss, you aren't reading your messages and working on that report. You're reading your messages. Then you're working on the report. And then you're reading your messages again. In essence, you are switching between tasks, not the same thing as doing two tasks at once. And what happens when you switch – each time you use up a ton of energy, energy that is no longer available for you to actually work on the task. Research shows that when you switch between different tasks, you actually increase the time it takes for each task by a 100%, that is, it takes you twice as long to complete the task. And you increase the rate of errors by 100% too. That's really not efficient at all, is it?

Solution: work on whatever you are working on, without distractions. Even the sound of an email or message coming in, even when you don't actually check the message, can distract you and take you out of the focused state. However, the plus point of working in a focused manner? You have more chance of being in a flow state, where you are able to concentrate better, work with more creativity, and generally enjoy your work more.

2.           Stop Using Your Head (For Keeping Lists)
This is the classic advice from David Allen, the famed productivity guru: to write down everything rather than try to keep it all in your head. Productivity advice is almost synonymous with the advice to be super-organized, have the latest planning software and to-do list apps and the whole shebang. And anyone not completely comfortable with this level of color-coded bliss, thinks they can skip the whole list craziness and use the old-fashioned method – keeping things in their head. Or writing them down wherever they happen to find a scrap of paper.

Well, I am not advocating anal levels of planning here, but at the same time, not having a system not only is a recipe for disaster, it will actually make you miles less productive. Here's why. Your brain can only keep so many things in what is called the working memory, or the part of your brain that tells you that you have a meeting at 4pm today. It might remember that, but if you tack on 4 other meetings, and a birthday gift to shop for, and needing to remember to start working on that crucial project, something will fall out of the list. Besides, trying to keep all that in your head, you won't have the brainpower to devote to the higher-level sort of planning and thinking that actually makes you good at your job, or at school, or in your extra-curricular projects.

Solution: find the simplest, easiest method that you will follow, and stick to it. After trying many different apps, I settled on using Wunderlist, where I have lists for work and home, and sub-divided by category. To start with however, I would recommend one home and one work list, as well as a someday list for work (where you can put in projects that you would like to work on in the near future, or even stuff you would like to tackle next month, that you don’t want cluttering up your current list) and a someday list for home / personal (where you can list ideas for personal projects, books you want to read, or places you want to visit alone or with family). This isn't the only option, there are dozens of methods out there. However, I suggest it is more important to start somewhere than spend days on selecting the best tool for you. The important thing is to get everything out of your head and onto a paper or digital capturing tool, so that you can devote your head space to actually completing the tasks, and not just trying to remember them.

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3.         Plan Your Work
The next step after creating an on-going list of everything you need to do, is making a list of what you need to do today. David Allen advises against making daily to-do lists, as work is organic and what was a priority when you were making the list may be pushed aside by something else. I agree, which is why my Wunderlist lists are separated by type of work and not date (although you can set deadlines with each task if needed). At the same time, I find that sitting down to work on a day with only a vague idea of getting through my to-do lists isn’t particularly effective, and I get easily derailed by other things.

Solution: The way I deal with this is to scribble a tentative to-do list on a sheet of paper at the beginning of the day, or sometimes the night before. I put down all the external obligations and meetings I have. And anything that is due today and absolutely has to get done. Then I add in what I think I can accomplish or I would like to accomplish. Invariably I don’t get to everything on the list, and I usually just plonk the list down somewhere, walk away and forget about it. Still, I notice that the very act of making the list acts as a subconscious trigger and I get more things done than the days I make a list in my head, but neglect to actually write it down.

4.      Break Down Projects Into Doable Bites
How do you eat an elephant? The answer to that old cliché as you know, is one bite at a time. This advice can apply to any project, but especially to projects that are so big or complicated that you find it difficult to even know where to start.

Aside from breaking projects into pieces, another piece of advice that I found very useful is to separate different types of tasks. For instance, writing and editing. Or doing research and then writing up that research. The reason to separate different types of tasks is that research from neuroscience has found that it takes up a lot more energy for the brain to switch to one type of task to another one, and as we read before, switching wastes energy. So following the assembly line principle, its far easier and more efficient for you to break up the project into the kinds of things you need to do, and group similar tasks or do all of one kind of task before moving on to another.

Solution: Write a list of everything you need to do for the project, and add the list to your favorite list manager. Or create a separate list for the project. Be sure to group based on types of tasks – for instance, send all the emails requesting information from department managers at one go.

5.        Don’t Work All The Time
This is strange advice on a post on working more. Except the point is that it isn’t about working more. It is about working more effectively. And it is hard to work effectively and work long hours, without replenishing your energy. Not only hard, but not recommended.

In fact, this is a mistake I made when I was in grad school. I was taking every difficult course I could, trying to make the most of the awesome opportunity presented by attending an Ivy League school. I arrived at the library almost as it opened in the morning, and stayed till evening, came home, made dinner, and started to study again, till late at night. I took breaks only to go to class, my part-time job, or grocery shopping. And school-related meetings. Eventually I would rebel against my self-imposed schedule, and have a day of just watching endless episodes of some TV show. Not the greatest way to renew my energy. Now that I'm wiser (and away from the environment of everyone's wacky schedules), I can see that there were much better ways to replenish one's energy and get motivated to get back to work.

Solution: make a list of the kinds of things you like to do that are really relaxing, and don’t involve plopping in front of the TV. Preferably some of these activities involve getting some exercise, like taking a walk on a scenic route, or playing basketball with friends, or even visiting some of your city's tourist spots. Author Laura Vanderkam recommends making a list of 100 dreams, and planning your leisure time just like you plan your work. This leads to more fun memories and more motivation to get back to work.

Hope these five tips culled from reading dozens of books help you to become far more productive this year. We are only two months into 2016 – let's really make this year count!

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

How To Write Your (First) Novel

You know when you want to do something, like write a novel, but you aren't sure whether you can pull it off? So you think about it, you talk about it, you read books about it, but the one thing you don’t do, is actually sit down and write.

Now I know a lot of people would think – ah, you're lazy. That’s why you talk about doing something, but never get around to doing it. I don’t think you are lazy though. I don’t think I am either. It isn’t laziness that holds us back from doing something that is important to us, but is still something that we never make time for. Have you heard that saying – if it is important to you, you make time for it?

Well, in this case, that saying is wrong. I have read every tough love piece of advice out there regarding writing, and I can tell you, bullying or coercing yourself to sit down and do something that for some reason you can't even imagine doing, isn’t the solution. You know why? Because you are held back by fear. Fear of the unknown. You don’t know how to write a book. You don’t have a blueprint. You have no clue how to go from the vague storyline in your head, to the first sentence that you type into your computer. Or the next sentence. Or the one just before you type "The End".

The problem is that because you technically know how to put together a sentence, you assume that you know how to write a book. It is like me saying that because I know how to beat an egg, I can make a Beef Wellington. That's a big leap to make. But it doesn’t mean that I can never learn how to make a Beef Wellington. Or that you can't learn how to write a novel.

It's just that you can't use the same method for both.

There are no recipes for writing a novel. There are no videos you can watch. But that doesn't mean that you are doomed to be an aspiring novelist forever.

Here's the thing with writing. Unlike cooking, you get many do-overs. And much like making pancakes, you have to discard the first one. Don’t start the process thinking that you are going to write a brilliant book that will change the course of the universe. If that happens, amazing! Please send me a signed copy of your book. But what's more likely, you will write something that has some potential, some really great bits, and a lot of meh – stuff you need to fix or throw out. But that's fine, because you will have a finished draft.

So although this post says that it will tell you how to write a novel, I think it's more accurate to say, how to write a finished draft.
1.                   Keep It Simple
Keep the premise of the story simple. You are a beginner, learning to juggle characters, setting and plot. You don’t need to bring in the cast of War and Peace, or decide to do original research in the backroom of the Library of Congress to write your novel. Start with something that is familiar to you in some way. Take your idea and simplify it. I'm not suggesting you make it boring, just doable, unless you want to complete your first draft in the summer of 2020.
2.                   Put Away the Red Pen
Give your inner editor a holiday. The reason that Nanowrimo is so popular is that the crazy schedule of writing a novel in a month forces you to disentangle the process of writing from editing. You can go back and worry that the timeline is off and your characters are inauthentic, once you have a draft. For now, just keep going, other than to correct minor typos. Even better, if you do have an idea for how to make the scene better, instead of deleting what you have, just write it again from the new angle. Keep both scenes and decide later which one is better. For now, just keep going.
3.                   Draw From Experience
Creating a whole new world is challenging enough, make it easier on yourself and draw on your own life experience wherever possible. Julia Cameron always says that writing is large enough to hold anything you throw at, so don’t be afraid to put in stuff from your life. While writing my Nanowrimo novel last year, I was desperate for anything that would help me to make up my word count since I was hideously behind. I shamelessly cribbed whatever was going on in my own life and chucked it into the novel; for instance, the characters met properly for the first time at the gym, only because I was spending a lot of time at my gym at the time, and found it easy to write that scene.
         4.      Don't Write Chronologically
One of the main reasons I couldn’t complete my book ideas for many years is because I mistakenly thought that I had to write the book in chronological order – you know, "begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop". That may be how the reader reads the book, but that is no reason for you to write that way. I spent months trying to figure out the first scene, the opening sentence. And it didn’t help that I read articles about how important it was that the introduction really hooks the reader, that you must convey the essence and flavor of the story in that first page. All that is true, but what I didn’t know, is that you don’t need to do that now. When you're just starting out writing, you don’t know what will make a good opening scene. Forget about that first sentence. For now, you just need to have something written. One scene. Any scene. The ones that you know you will include. The ones that make you excited about the book. Go ahead and write those.
As you put down the things that come to you, more ideas will get sparked from your writing. Sitting frozen imagining what you will write won't get you any closer to a completed manuscript. Writing it will. Put down whatever you can think of, and after you have a finished draft, you can worry about that perfect opening scene.

So there you have it. The four things I did to help me finally write a complete draft of my first novel, as well as how I completed six non-fiction books. Every time I start a new draft of a new book, I still feel fear. I still put it off. I still dream of getting the book published and how amazing it will feel. And then, I start writing. Because nothing can help you become a published author if you never actually go ahead and write that first draft. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

4 Books That Have Made Me A Better Writer

I was writing answers for yet another interview about my writing, and one of the questions made me think. I didn't think the short space within an interview gave me enough room to write in the detail I wanted, so I decided to write about it here.

The question: what books and authors have influenced your writing? Ok, so that's not exactly the question I am answering here. Because to tell you the truth, I think every book I have ever read has in some way influenced my writing. It is one of those osmosis-type things; you subliminally take in cues without even realizing you are doing it. There have been however, a few books, that have changed the way I write, or in some way influenced my writing, so profoundly, that I want to highlight them, hoping they can help someone else. Some of these books have been featured on my blog, so where they have, I have linked the title to the post in question.

This book is my writing bible. I keep going back to it whenever I start to feel the onset of the writer's version of impostor syndrome. Why did I think I could write? What if I have been deluding myself? What if this book is crap and no one reads it? What if this book is crap and people read it and then tell me that it is crap?

You know what I mean? The spool of fear and doubt whirling around in your brain. When that gets too loud and too paralyzing, I take out my copy of the book and start to page through it, and inevitably calm down. Julia's sage and simple advice never fails to restore me – the origin of your work is you. Therefore it is original. You have something to say, and therefore it is important that you say it. Everyone is creative if only we allow ourselves to be.

This book is full of timeless advice that can benefit any creative person (not just for writers) on any part of their creative trajectory, beginner or professional. 

A relatively recently published book, this book is bursting with compassionate guidance, and full of useful tricks for anyone stuck on a difficult project and wishing they could simply abandon it and run away. This happens to me so often, that I have almost memorized some of its passages.

Rettig advises writers to abandon any notion of starting at the beginning, and going straight on doggedly till the end. She gives you permission to start anywhere, stop, and move one elsewhere. Do what's easy. Uncomplicate your project. Make sure you have enough resources. Fortify yourself with snacks. That last one is mine, but I am sure she would approve. Do whatever you need to get through the project, and solve each problem one at a time, slowly, without pressure. Remember, you are taking on a tough project, and don't make it harder than it needs to be. 

This last one is not a writing book. But it is written by an incredible writer, who never fails to lift my spirits. Her characters are well-rounded and interesting, but in this collection of essays by Keyes, you get to peek behind the curtain and get to know the writer herself, who is far more interesting than her figments of imagination.

Keyes' light-hearted tone and easy turn of phrase inspires me to let my own personality through into my writing. When I get stressed about what to say, I become more stiff, and so does my prose, like my writing has put on a starched, tight shirt. Perhaps I am reminded of my English teachers in school, who were never happy unless we used the most bland language. Any flights of fancy were firmly curtailed, and I think the vestiges of their influence still live within my inner editor. Reading Keyes' sentences, full of words that I have never even encountered before and don't know the meaning of, shakes up my own vocabulary, giving it a little pep and lift. 

4. Developmental Editing - Scott Norton

I love this book, which I stumbled upon last year and have discussed elsewhere on this blog. The book is geared towards those actually working as DEs (developmental editors) in publishing, but it is invaluable insight for authors, especially for those writing non-fiction. There isn't much for non-fiction authors out there, so this book is great especially for that reason. Reading this book really helped me to create a much better structure for my most recent book Anyone Can Get An A+, as well as to generally understand how to think about structure, something I have always struggled with. I highly recommend it.

This is just a partial list, and as I think of more I will add to it. What are your favorite writing books, or what books have changed your writing for the better? I would love to hear your comments. 
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