Archives For Productivity

Surgery is no joke. I get that. But when I found myself confined to quarters for a couple of weeks last year while recovering from (completely scheduled and non-life-threatening) hip surgery, I couldn’t immediately work out why. After all, I’m just a copywriter. My day job really doesn’t require much action from the waist down. Still, I wasn’t about to look at a few weeks off work, say “No thanks” and hand it back, was I?

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

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And that was the problem. Work had become an optional extra for me. I struggled to recall the last time I just couldn’t be bothered going there and doing that. Sure, there are plenty of times when work is really inconvenient (like when the swell is running, or your kids want to go for a ride or the love of your life has plans to take you out to dinner), but that’s different. I had arrived at a place (and it was a new place for me) where work wasn’t holding my attention. Trouble was, I had spent so long giving all my attention to the job that, when it wasn’t reciprocating, I felt a bit lost. I’d forgotten to build something that was, creatively, just for me.

“If you really are a writer, you really should write”

That there was the voice of the love of my life. I was hoping she was going to invite me out for dinner, but she was telling me that while I was on my literal arse, recovering from surgery, it was the perfect time to get off my metaphorical arse and start writing that book. This is not the book that I was always threatening to write. This is the book that I had given up even bothering to threaten to write. It had been so long, I had forgotten it was the thing I really wanted to do all along. Crazy, huh? Truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just constructed an elaborate excuse: I’m an advertising copywriter, when you boil it right down and so I had (mistakenly) assumed writing fiction was fundamentally the same as my day job. Why would I want to come home from a day of writing to do more writing? Now that I wasn’t writing all day at work, the excuse didn’t hold much water.

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.”

 

Rojak, Singapore, fiction

Looking for more words to read?

That’s one of Zadie Smith’s 10 tips for writing and there are times when it makes sense. For me, however, the internet helped me find The Singapore Writers Group and also online fiction writing courses offered by Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA Extension writers’ program. All three of these gave me the structure that simply steamrollered any ennui or procrastination or fear that might have been lurking at the heart of my inability to write anything other than marketing copy or powerpoint decks. Once you sign up to come to a meetup or be part of a class, the commitment starts to drive you. It’s a task like any other and, provided laziness is not your issue, you find yourself automatically responding. You do the work.

It’s been about a year since I limped out of hospital and now my side project is starting to bear fruit. The first visible sign is my contribution to a book called Rojak: Short Stories from The Singapore Writers Group. Inspired by a gift given to the group by award-winning New Zealand author Andrew Fiu, we’ve written, edited, designed and now published the group’s first annual short story anthology. My story contribution is titled New Guinea Gold, in which a student lets his ambitious girlfriend talk him into smuggling guns and drugs. Rojak became available this week on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Also coming out in a few weeks is another short story, this time in Cuttings, which bills itself as an interactive journal of new Australian writing. Available only on iPad, it takes a more inclusive approach to writing by pairing the words with photography, sound and animation. Issue One was as much fun to navigate as it was to read. My story submission included images and time-lapse film created by friend and amazing photographer Martin Ollman. His side project is now his vocation but, with images this good, you’d have to call it a calling.

 

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherwordly images literally beneath your feet.

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherworldly images literally beneath your feet.

 

I also dabbled with a startup, inspired by a collaboration that occurred in the UCLA writing class I was taking, that aimed to match genre fiction writers with specific experts from certain technical fields. Crime writers could get anecdotes and procedures from a street cop, for example. Historical fiction writers could find professors, erotic novelists could find BDSM mistresses and so on. The service was slated to be called The Fictional Bureau of Investigation and would begin as a simple matching service, progressing all the way to full-blown for-fee manuscript reviews. In between the difficulties of remote managing web development and the growing importance of my own actual writing, I put this project on hold. Besides, you can probably find what you need on Quora or LinkedIn, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

A novel idea.

My ‘real’ side project is a novel of contemporary literary fiction. The idea for it kind of snuck up on me and tapped me on my shoulder while I was exploring these side projects and looking for ways to bring the energy back to my profession. As of this writing, I am midway through the second draft, having spent a fair bit of time studying the art of story structure. I won’t give you the synopsis just yet, except to say the pitch is “Twighlight Zone for the sharing economy”. I am currently looking for serious beta readers for a round of feedback and constructive criticism. If you’d like to offer your time and energy to help me with this side project, I’d love to hear from you.

 What she said

I came to it late, but I revisited Tina Roth Eisenberg’s talk a couple of years back about “The importance of side projects”. Her advice boils down to: Love what you do. Don’t be a complainer. Trust your intuition. If an opportunity scares you, take it. Find like-minded people. Collaborate. Ignore haters. Inspire others with what you do. I feel reassured that I’m following most of this advice as I pursue writing in a setting outside of advertising.

And it’s working. These various project kept me creatively alive and engaged, driven and interested in the world around me while I walked through a fairly unsatisfying mid-career valley. I realised that I had outsourced ‘creative satisfaction’ to my career for (what is now very clear to me) far too long. I also realised that no one is managing your career except you, so if you aren’t doing it, no-one is. I’ve brought the craft of writing back into the office and am currently working on some new training and facilitation programs that help teams build genuinely engaging Branded Stories and to uncover the possibilities of Data Storytelling.

Which is a roundabout way of saying this post marks my last day with Ogilvy & Mather, my last day working on the IBM account and my last day working in Singapore. All three of these things have been important to me (and they’ve occupied 13, 6 and 2 years of my life respectively), but they are not important enough to allow you to forget what it is that you love doing.

I love writing, communicating and persuading. Now that I’m back in the groove, I’m looking forward to new challenges, in new locations, with new partners.

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He was recently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

You Don’t Need To Learn To Code + Other Truths About the Future of Careers

I’m ‘busy as’ right now  – and that’s a good thing.

Everyone’s different when it comes to productivity: some people I know love it when things are calm and they have time to think about those projects they’ve been circling around for a while. But I’m one of those people who struggle to build momentum when there’s not much going on. For me, busy is generally better, provided it is the right kind of busy.

Research is a good kind of busy. Sketching is another good kind. Talking with someone really smart, like a papaya, is also pretty good. Tinkering and building and experimenting are also heaps good, until your ambition outruns your abilities and you feel like the kid who’s too short to be on the rollercoaster. This is something I’m (increasingly) familiar with.

Evidence of industry can reveal a lack of thinking

Busy-work, busy for busy’s sake and making a good show of being busy are all incredibly stupid forms of busy. They suck time, in and of themselves, but I find the mental energy it takes to stop myself from choking the living shit out of whomever is causing this kind of busyness leaves me drained of all motivation, I can’t even be bothered to look at the stuff I want to be busy with.

If I were forced to rank them, the absolute worst kind of busyness is ‘presenteeism‘, where your workload or output is measured by how often, and how long, you are perceived (but not measured) to be physically present in your assigned office chair. The worst manifestation of this, the worst kind of busyness, are the people who make the mock-jovial “Half-day today, is it?” comment as you leave the office at a reasonable time. No matter that you’re leaving to go to a meeting / wedding / funeral / surgery / cage fight / someplace you can actually get some fucking work done.
I’ve had this line recently from a couple of different people who really should know a lot better and I think it betrays a hopelessly outmoded, industrial-era view of productivity. In the absence of an appropriately thought-out measure of creative output (Quantity? Impact? Happiness? Empty Red Bull cans?), the lazy manager falls back to the punch-card and the time clock as a way of estimating value.

In the era of mobiles, laptops and wi-fi balloons over the desert, the notion that you can walk out of your office and simultaneously walk away from ‘work’ is faintly ridiculous.

Smarter people than me

The relationship between time and productivity has always had its critics – in the field of Software Engineering, Fred Brooks famously concluded that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. In the realm of time and creativity, Google built its reputation for relentless innovation on the ’20 per cent time’ policy, an idea it actually borrowed from 3M (and added 5%).

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focus, busy, creativity

Some minds require action to achieve focus.

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Even in the valley, times may be changing, back to the future. As companies mature and the pre-IPO frenzy gives way to shareholder demands, Google appears to have killed its ’20 per cent time’ policy (although some believe it will always live). Less open to interpretation is Yahoo’s ban on working from home as it tries to engineer its way back to internet dominance, a move recently copied by HP, another tech giant looking to recapture former glory.

If you can’t beat them

Realising that the demand for commercial and creative productivity (however you care to measure it) is likely to follow me for the rest of my career, I sought help from the self-help section of the bookshop. Surely someone has worked out how I can spend less time on ‘busy work’ and more time getting busy on the work I want to do?

Turns out, plenty of people have. The two volumes that have proved to be most useful for me, however, are at the opposite ends of the practical / philosophical spectrum.

First up: Practicality

I thought I might benefit from having some sort of day-to-day system. Truth be told, I thought I might benefit if I could convince my wife to adopt a day-to-day system: she has 4 to do lists, 3 calendars (that I know of), several contact books and organisers and a snowdrift’s worth of scraps of paper with important things on them. I know she also operates better when busy, but this is going too far.

From where I sit, most of her busyness is caused by having to look for the right book / list / calendar / organiser / snowdrift and that’s where Dave Allen’s ‘Getting it Done’ really shines. It’s a pretty simple and effective way of building a daily ‘system you can trust’ so you can empty all the busy work out of your brain and onto the right list. Once you stop trying to remember all the things you know you shouldn’t forget, it’s remarkable how less ‘busy’ your brain seems to be. It’s working a treat for her and it’s helping me refine the way I use some of my organising tools, like Evernote and bit.ly

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productivity, tools, technology, coach

If I could pay someone to plug it all in and make it work, I probably would.

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Seeing the proliferation of organisational systems and services and sites, I’m convinced there has to be a business in being a ‘personal productivity coach‘ – someone who helps you select and get set up (who has time to read the manual?) on the tools and systems to organise and streamline your work and life, then makes sure they all talk to each other and that they are working for you, rather than the other way around. If you are already this sort of coach, please call me.

In the meantime, if you feel like you could do with a bit of a system, I recommend Getting Things Done, by David Allen.

Next: thinking about doing

Right now, I’ve got: a couple of major work projects; a constant stream of approvals, advice, collaboration and FYIs from offices as far afield as Bangalore, Mexico City, Dubai and Budapest; we’re assisting on some global briefs; I also have a couple of web-based passion projects, a major writing project and I’m taking a couple of courses that, predictably, overlapped a bit. I’m also taking a cue from my eldest daughter & trying to re-learn the habit long-form fictional reading (yes, books). It’s getting busy, but mostly in a good way.

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busy, creativity, productivity

It’s important to dial in the right level of activity. (see what I did there?)

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What’s helping me stay mentally engaged and productive through all of this is a small, very well-written book I discovered, ironically, a couple of months ago during some very non-busy time (caused by major but planned surgery and the resulting recovery period). Steven Pressfield was, at one point a copywriter, but he’s since gone on to write novels and screenplays and this: Do the Work. It’s published by The Domino Project, a new approach to publishing backed by Seth Godin and Amazon.

Do the work, pressfield

Beautiful book, ugly cover.

I wouldn’t have bought this one on the cover alone (it’s a drawing of some significance to the author, but it is hella fugly) and I won’t try to summarise it except to say it does a great job of explaining to you what is probably going on inside your head during all the major stages of a major project. His advice is to not listen too much to what’s going on inside your head, get out of your own way and start before you are ready.

My advice is: if you want to do the work (not the busy work, the real work), read ‘Do The Work‘.

What’s your advice?

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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“more naps, albeit short ones, might make for a more functional workforce”

like a Joss: how Whedon gets things done (via FastCoCreate)