Six tips for keeping productive as a creative

Keeping productive: the constant battle

It may come as a shock to the thousands who dream of freedom from the tyranny of working for someone else that being only accountable to yourself is often even harder. It definitely is for me. The one thing I’ve struggled with particularly in my move into ‘indie authorship’ is staying productive. Who knows (unless I tell them) that I watched South Park rather than writing those 1,000 words I meant to write? What concern is it of anyone but me if I spent the time I meant to use to update my author Facebook page clicking on links to funny animal videos instead? You would think that being accountable to yourself should of itself mean you are more intrinsically motivated and likely to achieve your goals. After all, surely you don’t want to let yourself down, of all people? Sadly, I’ve not found that to be the case and so I have put into place a few approaches to keep me on the straight and narrow.

My top six productivity tips

1. Set deadlines

time-481444_960_720This is perhaps the most obvious and the most important tip. No matter how artificial it is, a deadline creates accountability and urgency, even if you are the only person who knows it and no one else is impacted if you miss it. When you have a big task like writing and self-publishing a book it is necessary to break this down into further deadlines and milestones (e.g. complete outline; complete first draft; submit to editor; commission cover designer, etc.). Not only does this create further urgency, it also creates a sense of progress and achievement, which is often one of the things you most lack and most need when working for yourself.

2. Batch similar activities into blocks of time

How many of us check email, Twitter and Facebook whenever we see a notification (and stop doing what we were meant to be doing to do so)? This switching back-and-forth from one activity type (e.g. writing) to another (e.g. scanning your Facebook feed)is not highly effective multi-tasking (though I used to tell myself it was), but a massive productivity killer.So, I try to group similar activities together into blocks of time. For example, I have three email and social media check-in points per day (early morning, lunchtime and mid afternoon). I do all my checking and responding then. This reduces massively the dreaded social media time-drain.

3. Treat writing like any other job

conference-room-768441__180This goes for any project where you are only accountable to yourself and not only writing. Scheduling my writing and related activities in the same way I would a meeting in ‘normal’ work and respecting the timings significantly increase the chances I will do it. In fact, I rarely fail to do what I’ve scheduled and where I do fail it is normally that I’ve not worked on whatever it was for as long as I wanted rather than I haven’t done it at all.

4. Tell other people what you are doing (whether they want to hear it or not!)

As I said, being accountable only to yourself is actually harder than being accountable to someone else, so create ‘false’ accountability to other people. If you’ve told your spouse, best friend, mum or Aunt Tabitha’s dog that you’re writing a book (or starting a business, or finally going to clear out the attic) you’ll feel more like you have to follow through than if only you know it. Some people often go further and set up formal accountability with other people and have regular check-ins. This is sometimes called an ‘accountabilibuddy’, which is a truly appalling term which I believe was coined by the creators of South Park (or at least that is where I first heard it). I haven’t got an ‘accountabilibuddy’ as yet, but, in spite of the silly name, it seems a very promising idea. 

5. Write things down as soon as they occur to you

study-1231393_960_720Do you get distracted from what you’re meant to be doing now by what you’re meant or want to be doing later or what you’ve already failed to do? My brain used to swirl with ‘to do’ lists and reminders of what I’d forgotten to do. Then I read the ‘Getting things done’ methodology (by David Allen) which proposes the premise that your brain is not meant as a store of things you need to do or haven’t done. In fact, it is absolutely rubbish at that (whenever I say to myself “I must remember to do…”, I can categorically guarantee that I will not remember to do whatever it was). Writing things down allows your brain to focus on higher order activities, like idea generation and critical thinking.I find a product called Evernote great for this as it’s on my phone, tablet and computer, so I will always have access to what I’ve written.

6. Identify the essential, biggest impact activities for the day

When I was a management consultant one of the almost daily mantras was a quote from the management expert Peter Drucker – “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. Putting in place the approaches above is pointless if you aren’t using them to do the right things. Something I’ve recently started doing each evening is asking myself “What must I do tomorrow if I do nothing else?” This has been really effective as it has helped me hone in on the important activities and means I have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

What would you add?

So, there you have it: my top six productivity tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have found these approaches the most helpful in keeping me motivated and productive. What tips would you add to the list? Please let me know in the comments below.

Why creativity is important (and how we are killing it)

Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up – Pablo Picasso
When was the last time you did something which had no immediate practical application? When did you last do something truly creative? It may have been yesterday, but, more likely, it was a lot longer ago than that. Our creative urges, almost universal in primary school children, are often beaten out of us as the more practical consideration of finding a job for our future becomes the focus. But it doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, the two can quite happily go hand-in-hand.

Why creativity is important

1. It leads to innovation which leads to progress

moon-walk-60616_960_720Thinking in terms of the macro benefits of creativity to society and the economy for a moment, it makes financial sense. In the business world we need creativity desperately in order to solve the problems which businesses and the wider world face and for businesses to become more effective and efficient. If there is no creativity, where will progress come from?

2. It produces more effective workers in the modern world

Again, to think of the need for creativity in practical and financial terms, modern jobs require much more creativity than they did in the past and will continue to demand it even more. Fostering a child’s creativity and inquisitiveness will fit them better for the world in which they will live and work than pushing them down a narrow corridor of learning purely what is practical and will get you a job right now.

3. It increases mental well-being

photo-1448932133140-b4045783ed9eAlthough we live in perhaps the most prosperous time in history by most measures, many of my peers complain of disaffection and unhappiness in what they do. We are also increasingly concerned for the mental health of children and young people. It is no coincidence that “adult colouring books” are now taking up acres of shop floor space and seen as an effective way to deal with stress. Though, admittedly, these do not demands masses of creativity, their popularity shows that we miss doing something that has no obvious immediate practical application and allows a little creative expression.

4. It promotes greater problem-solving (and less whingeing)

Someone who is engaged in creative activities is more likely to approach problems as something to solve than something to complain about. And funnily enough, proactively addressing problems and not whingeing both make us feel better!

How we are killing creativity

1. Making being wrong a crime

My experience of working in the business world has shown me that many people are almost paralysed by the fear of being wrong. There seems to be an unwritten rule that it is almost better to do nothing than do something wrong. This naturally reduces creativity and thereby, ultimately, effectiveness in the workplace.

2. Teaching to the exam

birger-kollmeier-910261_960_720This is not a criticism of teachers. I was a teacher in a previous life and found myself virtually forced to teach to the exam in some instances. Exploring a topic and following a line of thinking are not rewarded – there isn’t time to go off-topic. I decided to drop Physics at school because it was taught in a very prescriptive manner of copy down the note, learn the note, repeat the note in the exam. Just to be clear, though, this isn’t Physics’ fault and conversations with friends who have taken their study of Physics far beyond the age of 13 have convinced me of the wonder and opportunity for creativity which the subject offers.

3. Demoting the arts in schools

The most obvious manifestation of creativity in schools is the arts, like Music, (English) Literature and Art itself, but we hear reports daily of reductions in funding for these areas and prominent political figures denying their usefulness. The focus is on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. These STEM subjects are fundamental to human progress and should quite rightly form a significant part of a rounded education, but given the prescriptive way they are often taught, where are children going to learn creativity?
In summary, having the opportunity and capacity for creativity make us better workers and happier humans, yet we are inadvertently stifling, if not killing it entirely.

What do you think? Is creativity a luxury or is it something essential? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.

Want to find out more?

You can follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts. You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here.

What learning the piano has taught me about writing

No learning is ever wasted

pianist-1149172_960_720What does learning the piano have to do with writing? I can hear you asking this question as you open this blog post. The answer is a heck of a lot more than you’d think (or I thought until recently). But one thing I have come to realise is that few lessons are only useful in the context in which we first learn them. To put it another way: no learning is ever wasted. So it has proved with my new pastime of learning the piano, which has delighted and frustrated me in equal measure. A few admissions about me and music before we start:

  1. I am tone deaf.
  2. I was worse than hopeless at Music in school.
  3. I had no idea what any of the funny squiggles on a page of music meant until a few weeks ago.
So, I am learning piano from the lowest of bases, which is pretty much the case with me and this new world of self-publishing and indie authorship too. This has meant that learning the piano has furnished me with many lessons that are equally applicable to being an author.

Five writing lessons from learning the piano

1. Some days are just hard, but that’s fine

These cats are probably making a better sound than I do on many days.

Some days practising the piano has felt like wading through incredibly thick treacle while
wearing iron boots. I have had to force myself to stay on the piano stool for my allotted practice time, even though the urge to run screaming from the piano has, at times, been overwhelming. However, the following day, when I have returned to the piano stool, I have found things suddenly click. I have experienced this time and again with writing as well. This has taught me that I need to put the hours in (whether practising piano or writing) regardless of how difficult it feels on that particular day. I will reap the benefit of that input at a later date. I just need to have faith in the process

2. You can only improve by doing

Those of you who have read previous posts of mine will remember that I have had problems in the past with spending too much time researching and not enough time writing. Learning the piano has reminded me of the importance of doing in order to learn and improve. Reading about playing the piano isn’t going to make me Lang Lang (actually nor is practising, come to think of it), but practising might actually give me a chance of becoming half-decent.

3. The ‘slog’ is easier to bear when it’s something creative

This is a very important life lesson for me. I have found it much easier to persevere with the hard work of learning the piano and writing than I did with jobs I have done in the past. The common theme between these two pursuits (and what that previous work was missing) is the creativity involved. This is a sustaining force.

4. A change is as good as a rest

Watching TV is not the only way to relax and refresh the brain (in fact it’s probably a pretty bad way). Doing something else mentally stimulating is a good way to recover from work (whether it be writing or any other job) and can help you to do that work much better. I have found my creative thinking to be far greater and my brain to feel far fresher at the end of a session of piano practice (which always comes toward the end of the day) than with other, more passive means of relaxation.

5. If it’s tough, don’t stop, just take it slower

ice-climbing-1247606_960_720I am working my way through a fantastic book of piano pieces written by Bela Bartok which he composed specifically to teach his son the piano. This means that they are getting progressively more difficult and introducing new ‘concepts’ as they go along. I have found two or three of the pieces particularly challenging and almost overwhelming. Instead of throwing in the towel, though, I have simply slowed down and taken these particularly complicated pieces at a more manageable pace and in smaller chunks. This means I will get to my ‘destination’ more slowly than I intended, but it means I should still get there. There have been times when I have been writing when my narrative has become bogged down and I have found it hard to resolve a particular tension that has come into the story. taking this approach has helped me to work through these sections and come out the other side.

Over to you

I have applied the lessons above to my writing, but, on reviewing them, I can see that they are applicable to most things in life. What useful life lessons have you learnt from unexpected sources? I would love it if you let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

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You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

Six of the best: favourite reads from my childhood (and today)

Childhood books stay with you

Do you remember your favourite books when you were a child? Do you find that those books have stayed with you much more than books you’ve read in later life? Working on my first two children’s books (which will be published shortly – see here for more information) has made me reflect on my own favourite children’s books a great deal. It has also made me realise the extent to which they have influenced me (mostly unconsciously). When I considered the question of what my favourite children’s books were, I found it very hard to pick 6 above the others. So here are 6 from among my favourites.

Six of my favourites

1. The Twits by Roald Dahl

Copyright: Puffin Books

It was hard to single out only one of Roald Dahl’s books. He is a colossus of children’s literature. I almost chose the Witches, a book whose downright ghoulishness still haunts me to this day (in a good way). When I think of Mr. and Mrs. Twit, two of the vilest human beings ever committed to the page, I can’t stop a huge smile spreading across my face, so it had to be them. This tale of a couple who take pleasure in making each other miserable and torturing their pet monkeys and the local birds is filled with Dahl’s clear misanthropic tendencies. But it is still incredibly funny and a joy to read. I still laugh at the memory of the pranks these two awful people play on each other.

2. Funny Bones by Allan and Janet Ahlberg

Allan and Janet Ahlberg are the king and queen of picture books and have dozens of titles to their names (a good number of which I owned as a child), but Funny Bones remains supreme amongst them. “In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark street and in the dark, dark street, there was a dark, dark house…”. These opening lines will be familiar to thousands of parents and children alike. In spite of this rather spooky opening, this is a hugely entertaining and fun book, perfect for bedtime reading to even very small ones.

3. The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

I suppose this is a cheat as it’s three books rather than one, but, oh well. I picked up the first of these books, The Dark Portal, at a book fair at my primary school. I was hooked from the beginning to this tale of the Deptford mice’s struggles against the evil and shadowy Jupiter, a sort of feline Darth Vader as he seemed to my young imagination. These books are scary, action-packed and highly evocative of the underground world which they describe. Great fun.

4. Fred by Posy Simmonds

Copyright: Andersen Press


You probably think of cartoons for adults, or graphic novels as I guess they are these days, such as Gemma Bovery, when you think of Posy Simmonds. I fondly think of her as the author of the fantastic children’s book Fred, which is a heart-warming story of two children whose cat, Fred, dies. They both loved Fred and are obviously sad to lose him, but they’d always thought he was a rather boring and lazy cat. How little they knew. After Fred’s death, they discover that they had him all wrong and that in actual fact he had been a megastar of the feline world who catkind now bitterly mourns. I now realise that Fred unconsciously influenced the cat character in my own upcoming book (click here for more information on this book). Fred is a brilliant creation.

5. Alfie gets in first by Shirley Williams

The Alfie books in general are great fun, always have a good moral and they have fantastic pictures. I’d recommend any of them. The characters are apparently based on Shirley Hughes’ own daughter and grandchildren and this comes through in the genuineness of the characters and the affection with which Hughes so clearly writes of them. In this particular tale, poor Alfie manages to get himself trapped in the house while his mum and little sister are stuck out on the doorstep (following a mishap as Alfie’s mum was struggling with Alfie’s little sister’s pushchair – a pain familiar to many parents, I am sure). All the neighbours club together on the doorstep to free young Alfie, while on the inside our young hero hatches his own scheme.

6. Mr. Stink by David Walliams

Copyright: Harper Collins Children’s Books

I thought I would include a modern title for my final recommendation. David Walliams’ Mr. Stink, though fairly recent, is still a timeless tale that teaches us that there is more than meets the eye to all human beings. Our young heroine, Chloe, befriends a homeless man, Mr. Stink, with an interesting history and a very sad story of how he came to be homeless. This is a humorous tale which still manages to deal sensitively and not at all ‘childishly’ with some relatively grown-up themes.

Over to you

What children’s books would you have on your ‘favourites list’ and why? Leave me a comment below to let me know. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other networks you use (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.