In the last few years I have been particularly conscious of improving my personal productivity. That sounds very clinical, but as a self-employed writer and comedian, that means looking at my methods of working. How to make them better.
When I look back to when I started as a comedian, there was no discernible method at all. I didn’t know how to write material. Or how to best contact promoters to book in work, or how to promote myself.
In reality I would note down jokes in a notebook as and when they came to me (and if they didn’t come to me, then nothing was written down). Promoters were rang when I could build myself up to it, and self-promotion was non-existent. As mostly was my productivity.
It’s only with hindsight that I realised I had a major problem with procrastination. The root of this lay in my problems with anxiety. Not that I understood I had problems with anxiety either.
It’s like someone who for years takes sandwiches to work and just accepts they feel bloated in the afternoon. It’s only after learning that some people have an intolerance to wheat and/or gluten that they try cutting out bread. After that they feel fine every day, and now know they had an intolerance all along. Before that, feeling uncomfortable each day was just normal.
That’s what anxiety was for me – just normal.
I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of mental health martyr. My issues have held me back (Translate – I have held me back), but they’ve not been crippling. In the same way the person cutting out bread had a mild intolerance to wheat, but that’s not the same as being coeliac.
Understanding anxiety as a concept doesn’t make everything ok, but it helps you to investigate what you can do to improve how you live your life.
One aspect has been my morning routine.
As I’ve started to understand Anxiety, I’ve also looked at areas to help solve my problems such as CBT.
I have found them useful, although anything that can be described as ‘self-help’ needs to be approached with a sense of healthy skepticism. There are many ‘snake oil’ salesmen out there, selling nonsense remedies to the gullible that can never follow through on their promises.
There are many areas where you are told that by simply wanting something enough, thinking positively, you can make it happen. If you think everyone who finished behind Usain Bolt just ‘didn’t want it enough’, you’re an idiot.
These podcasts, however, do contain a lot of very helpful and interesting ideas and interviews.
Through this and my own personal research and experimentation, I have started to put some systems in place that have helped me to take control of my life, and to be more productive.
Each morning, where possible, I have a routine in place. Once up and dressed I mediate for 10 minutes and then do a long form journal.
To explain each in turn…
Meditation – I have heard many misconceptions about this as a practice. The most common is friends saying “I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to clear my mind.”
Don’t worry, no one can. That’s not the point.
It is about mindfulness. The practice goes back through the centuries, in Buddhist practice and beyond. The benefits of meditation are backed up by solid science though, don’t worry if you fear it is some mystical mumbo-jumbo.
It’s about taking some time for yourself (“But I don’t have 10 minutes to spare.” Yes, you do). Being mindful can start with using your other senses, such as the physicality of sitting in a chair, hearing the sounds around you, etc.
You don’t have to clear your mind. Instead, you focus on your breathing. Rich or poor, man or woman, any background, we all have our breath. Thoughts come and go, and when you realise your mind is wandering, you simply return to focusing on your breath.
In reality it’s not only NOT about ‘not thinking’, it’s really about accessing deeper thoughts. Going deeper in to your mind by working through the fog of crap that sits at the front of your mind.
Personally I use Headspace, which provides excellent guided meditations. It’s a premium service to unlock a large collection of exercises, but you can do a series of 10 meditations for free, and these act as an excellent introduction to meditation.
I personally recommend at least trying these 10. Not only is it a simple, no risk trial, it is also specifically designed as an introduction to the practice of meditation. After that you can pay for the premium service if you want. You can also just as easily keep redoing the same ones over and over, use guided meditations you can find on YouTube or elsewhere, or just set a clock for a set time and do it yourself.
I find this helps not only clear my mind, but also focus it. After a whole day of activity the day before, sleep helps you reset, and your dreams help your mind make sense of everything. Meditation helps me make more logical sense of all that, otherwise I’m going to spend time wondering why I’m driving to start school again naked (genuine dream, two days ago. Not a fan).
After that I make things even more solid by doing a long form journal. There is a book called ‘The Artists Way’ that apparently everyone has heard of but no-one has ever read. Many though have heard of the central exercise in there called ‘morning pages’.
With morning pages the author suggested that you should write three pages longhand, first thing in the morning. The writing should be completely free-form. You don’t worry about structure, or what you are writing, you just write. The point is not to edit yourself.
Your mind gets switched on, and you get useful things from being trapped in your head and get them out on to paper. When I first tried this years ago I found it difficult. One, because my hand would ache as I hadn’t written longhand for years, but also because I couldn’t see the point.
Since then, I have revised how I do it.
I now use a website called 750 Words. It is a simple online word processor with no formatting tools whatsoever. You set up an account and can log-in from anywhere to write. Once you reach your 750 words target (equivalent to three pages of A5) a message flashes up to tell you.
I am no longer bothered about reaching a set target. What I do is take a bit of time and write out my thoughts for the day. I write about what happened the day before, lessons to be learned, my concerns, and what I want to happen for the day ahead. Essentially, I write whatever comes to mind.
Before I would write non-stop, not wishing to break the flow in case the ‘magic’ was broken. Having found this seemed to be of no benefit I now take more time, but whilst I will ask myself questions, it is still free flowing writing. And I do not edit.
This is my morning routine. These exercises are entwined with my Bullet Journal, which is used for planning, and also a 5 minute journal, which is good for helping you reflect at the end of the day. I will talk about these in my next blog.
If you have any questions about these practices, or indeed can share your knowledge if you’ve tried any of them yourself, or have other techniques to increase personal productivity, please let me know in the comments.