To celebrate the launch of ‘Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts’ co-authors Bec Evans and Chris Smith explore what it means to be a writer with bestselling writer Oliver Burkeman, who wrote the foreword to the book. You can watch the video on YouTube.
Welcome! Introducing Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts
Bec Evans: Hello and welcome. Thank you for joining us today, this first week of January 2023. It’s also Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas, which is known as Epiphany Eve. So brace yourself because who knows what revelations are going to come to the fore tonight for you to put into practice tomorrow. I’m Bec Evans and I am here with my co-author Chris Smith to celebrate the launch of our book Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts. And we are joined by Oliver Burkeman, recovering productivity geek, one of our favourite writers who was kind enough to write the foreword to the book.
Before I get to the introductions, I just want to say a few words about how this session is going to work. If you’re watching live, it’s in webinar mode, so you can ask a question using the Q&A function, which is at the bottom of the screen. We’re going to get to the audience questions at the end of the session and you can upvote and comment on those. All your cameras and sound is off, which means you know can listen in any way that works for you. You can be relaxed on the sofa, lying on the floor, multitasking while you’re cooking or doing a workout. There’s no perfect way to show up. And if you are watching this video on catch up, feel free to pause it now, put on an elasticated waist or draw a long bath, light a candle, and soak up the wisdom of this conversation over the next hour.
So that is the practical stuff covered. I’m going to hand over to Chris now.
Chris Smith: Hello everyone. My name’s Chris. I’m co-author of Written. I’m co-founder of Prolifiko, and as Bec said, today is launch day of our book Written, so thanks so much for being here to help us celebrate our big day. So I thought I’d just spend a little bit of time just telling you what Written is all about.
So Written is for anyone who has ever procrastinated over a writing project of any kind, which means it’s for everyone!
It helps you become more productive, it helps you find more time, it helps you overcome obstacles, things like distraction and overwhelm. And it helps you do all of this in a way that’s personal to you and in a way that works for you and your life. Bec and I, if you don’t know us, we are writing productivity coaches at Prolifiko and we’ve been working with writers and writing for decades, and really the book distils everything we’ve learned over the years about how to start, how to keep going, and most importantly, how to finish your writing project.
It’s full of lots stories that are really going to inspire you. It’s full of the latest research into psychology and neuroscience and the science of habits, and it’s also paced full of our own tried and tested tips. These are the kind of things that we’ve used over the years and we know that works in our webinars, in coaching programmes and all those things. It’s available from today, so it’s available now in all good bookshops and Amazon. So that’s the flagrant pitch over. So back to Bec.
Introducing Oliver Burkeman, bestselling author of Four Thousand Weeks 03:50
Bec Evans: Thank you so much, Chris. I’m going to welcome Oliver Burkeman and any other visitors who’d like to appear behind him in the course of this conversation [laughs].
Oliver is a writer who started his career as a journalist, becoming a columnist at The Guardian newspaper. His first book Help: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done was based on his long-running and much loved ‘This Column Will Change Your Life.’ It was followed up by The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, where he presents an alternative negative capability approach for a good life that embraces constraints, uncertainty, and even failure. His 2021 bestselling book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals asks what if we stop trying to do absolutely everything, and by embracing the limitations of our life we can unlock a more meaningful path. He’s been writing about psychology, philosophy, writing about writing, which is how we came across him and connected more than 10 years ago. And he has a brilliant newsletter called The Imperfectionist, and next week will be running his first masterclass, the Art of Imperfect Action. Welcome, Oliver. It’s great to have you here.
Oliver Burkeman: It’s great to be here and this is a fantastic book. It would be funny if I held up one of my own then, wouldn’t it? It’s a fantastic book. Congratulations and I’m really happy to be able to be here with you to help celebrate the launch.
New Year – New You? Kicking off with goal setting 05:13
Bec Evans: So I thought as it is the first week of January, I’d like to kick off this conversation talking about goals. We are all feeling that ‘new year, new you’ pressure for more resolutions and better versions of ourselves. We get asked about goals a lot and we get to run workshops and talk to people about it, and so do you. You’ve written about goals, I mean in Help you wrote about smart goal setting and this alternative approach which is called Ready, Aim, Fire, which you explored more deeply in The Antidote. I would just like to find out where are you on goals at the moment?
I’ve gone through various stages in how I think about goal setting because one of the things that I was doing when I was writing The Antidote was being taking a very sort of sceptical view about how too much focus on goals can kind of distort what you’re doing. It can drain the pleasure out of the activity, everything just becomes done for the purposes of something later on. You’re never sort of enjoying the moment and there are all sorts of other problems as well.
I think at the same time, it’s kind of futile to imagine that we can get by, that we can ever be so completely in the moment that we are not trying to get anywhere. And books don’t get written unless you do have a goal of writing a book and goals of writing chapters, paragraphs, one word next. I think that the way that I’ve sort of settled on this for myself anyway is that is to think about goals as ways of navigating, right? Ways of helping you make decisions in the moment about what it is that you’re going to do with this moment. So not these kind of things where you invest all the meaning of life into the point at which you get to the end of the quest, but just ways of making decisions about what to do now, when there are a million things that you could do in any moment and you need to be able to choose one of them.
The other thing that I find more and more in my life, I don’t know if this is a good sign or bad sign that I need it more and more, but it’s very small goals, the kind that you can achieve in a morning or in a half hour, I think have a sort of very simple reward function that helps a lot. It helps me a lot if I can write something on a piece of paper on a list and tick it off. So that’s also part of it.
Task management – two approaches to organising what you need to do 08:24
Bec Evans: Thank you. It’s really interesting you’re talking about these kind of micro goals because it feels a bit more like a to-do list in some ways. Have you changed how you think about that, having your master list to one side and then this kind of daily, I’m just going to do this one thing and then I will do the next thing, step by step?
Oliver Burkeman: That’s still very much my approach in my life in general and work in particular, is to make sure that there are two places where I’m thinking about the tasks that are on my plate.
1. Lists of storage
One of them is the place where you put absolutely everything, good old-fashioned David Allen style for those who are familiar with that productivity approach, you need some system, an app, a notebook, piece of paper, doesn’t matter where you really do just put everything that’s on your plate. And that’s less to do with organising your writing as making sure that you’re not thinking about all the other things that are not your writing when you’re doing it, right? That’s about not worrying about, oh, do I need to call a dentist? Oh, do I need to do this or that? It’s all on that list and you know that you can go back there if you need to.
2. Lists as intention
And then the second thing is some sort of much more constrained, much more gentle list of maybe the two things it’s most important to get done today or the one writing goal that you want to meet today. And so I think what we do a lot of the time with lists is we confuse lists of storage with lists as intention, and we think that if you make a list of sort of 400 things that are on your plate, hopefully nobody’s going to fall for the idea that they’re supposed to achieve all those things in a day or a week or indeed ever.
Bec Evans: I love setting goals and I love New Year’s and resolutions. I am one of those sorts of people who likes writing down lots of those things, but I don’t feel terribly attached to them. Chris, on the other hand, in all the many years I’ve known him, I don’t know if I’ve ever known him ever set a goal of any type actually.
Chris Smith: That is true. Well, before everyone has me pegged as a sort of directionless, aimless waster is, that’s the whole point of the book really in that whilst I don’t personally find goals and goal setting a particularly motivating thing to do, that’s not to say that other people shouldn’t use that tactic and that I couldn’t use a different tactic to help me. So one of the things, for example, that I was thinking through this, one of the things that has helped me in the past is actually thinking about the things that will stop me from achieving not just necessarily a goal but some kind of ambition because I do manage to get things done regardless of whether I actually set goals or not.
Obstacle thinking – identifying what will get in the way of writing 10:30
And I know, Oliver, that kind of process is something that you’ve thought through and written about with the work of Gabrielle Oettingen. In terms of this whole process of obstacle thinking or which she calls mental contrasting. And it’s a very simple approach really. It’s the whole idea is that: have a goal and have something that you want to achieve, have an ambition, but make sure alongside that ambition that you are also aware of the things that might maybe get in the way of you achieving that ambition at the same time.
It’s a really simple idea and it’s actually the kind of thing that we start most of our coaching courses and it’s in the book as well. And I just didn’t know whether that, is that something that you have incorporated into your life or into your writing, that kind of obstacle thinking approach?
Oliver Burkeman: To a limited extent, that does come up sometimes on bigger, more complicated projects. I think it’s really useful to ask yourself those questions and I’m going to be honest with you and say to, in order to demonstrate the wide variety of approaches and say that I don’t think I do do that on a sort of day-to-day basis.
Finding the balance between structure and freedom 12:13
For me, this is maybe a different question and a different topic so we can turn to it later or not, but for me, the big challenge that I’m always facing is the balance between structure and freedom and the fact that any kind of plan that I come up with for my day or for my writing over a course of weeks and months is prone to this phenomenon where I immediately rebel against it because it’s like I don’t want to be told what to do by some jerk, even if that jerk is me.
So there is this subtle phenomenon where you have to find the balance between making things happen and letting them happen. I’m also not someone who can just sit there, meander through life aimlessly and hope that inspiration is going to strike at the right moment and suddenly translate into thousands of words. So it’s that holding that, a degree of structure in what I’m planning to do without it becoming sort of oppressive and something that I want to rebel against. That’s for me, it’s the key challenge. I don’t know if that relates exactly to what you were saying, but it’s where it is for me.
Bec Evans: Well, one thing I find with that kind of obstacle thinking approach is on a daily basis I can figure out what is going to distract me and that level of freedom and fighting against what I want to do because fundamentally we’re human, we like procrastinating. It’s like it’s more fun than doing the work or doing the writing. And it’s quite hard to figure out are you actually procrastinating? Do you need freedom? Because we do need as writers to be able to have ideas, find ideas, but sometimes we just want to be a bit lazy and do something easier.
Procrastination! Are we giving into our worst impulses or being too hard on ourselves? 13:43
Oliver Burkeman: And it’s such a subtle balance between not giving into your worst impulses versus not being just relentlessly and pointlessly hard on yourself, which I think is definitely looking back at my life, I’ve definitely been more on the side of unnecessary meanness to myself than the other. So I think it’s we’re so familiar with the risk of just doing something silly and fun when we ought to be so something challenging and accomplished. I think you have to keep in the back of your mind the idea that relentless barking at yourself to do things is not going to be the answer to anything.
And just at the most fundamental level, I think there’s something really powerful about remembering that you don’t need to do any of this, especially when it comes to writing creativity. You may need to in a certain sense of nourishing your soul, but maybe there are a few things we need to do with food and shelter in life, but it’s really important I think in the back of your mind to remember that you need to do this to save your life, and to me that actually causes me to want to do it more. Right? That’s actually a productivity tip. It does not, as people sometimes fear, or certainly with me anyway, does not lead me to say, “Well, why bother then?”, and not do anything. The stakes can easily be too high for things like writing and lowering them can be incredibly powerful because then you’re just doing it for the fun of it instead of because you’ve decided on some level that you are only worthy somehow if you complete the project you’ve launched.
Chris Smith: How did that unnecessary meanness to yourself go, what did you do?
Oliver Burkeman: The most obvious form of that, and I think I see it in a lot of other people too, is just incredibly rigorous, detailed, ambitious plans about when you’re going to do what through the day. For some people this kind of time boxing I think can be really useful, but for certain kind of person it’s so easily misused, it so becomes this kind of like, okay, these are my marching orders for the day and I’m going to do this until then, this until then, within this section I’m going to achieve all this.
And of course the moment that doesn’t work out because we are, not to be pretentious about it, we are channelling our unconsciousnesses in this work and you are in a relationship with something weird and unknown when you’re writing any kind of writing. So you don’t actually get to dictate things like, I’m going to have completed this section by this time. On the other hand, if you don’t make any move in that direction of, I’d really like to get certain amount of progress during this session, then you’re liable to still be on page one after a year.
Why planning sets us up for failure 16:20
Oliver Burkeman: So I think for me it’s that kind of rigorous planning of a kind that then just sets yourself up for failure and leaves you sort of annoyed with yourself and the world, and unluckily probably other people in your orbit as well.
Bec Evans: You quoted a G.K. Chesterton, which I think is a brilliant quote, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And I really like that as a way of lowering the stakes because if you’re going to or you’ve got to do it, you might set yourself this really big ambitious goal, but actually you just have to start. I think you write about how when we procrastinate, it’s actually still giving us control of a project because it’s still this perfect plan. This we haven’t even started on it yet and that we delay starting because it is going to be not as good as our dreams and our visions are.
If perfection is what we are aiming for then we have already failed 17:36
Oliver Burkeman: Absolutely. I was really influenced, and I quote it in my Four Thousand Weeks, so sorry if there are people who read that and this is repetitious, but there was a piece that the philosopher called Costica Bradatan wrote in the New York Times a few years ago now, where he tells this story about an architect who designed the perfect mosque and then refused to actually let it be built because anything that was built in reality would inevitably fall short of his perfect fantasies. And in his piece he is sort of comparing this to Gnostic theology. It gets very sort of complicated, involved, but the basic idea is that there is a sense in which bringing anything into the world is to degrade it, right? It’s to sort of settle for less than the fantasy.
And I think it’s so useful to realise that this is built in because then it means when your writing does not measure up to your perfect fantasy, you realise it’s not because you screwed up or because you are not as good as other people. It’s like it’s built into the situation that if perfection is what you are going for, you’ve already failed. And I always think that idea that you’ve already failed as opposed to that you might fail, it’s so empowering because it’s like, “Oh great, don’t need to worry about that now. I can just do the best that I can do with the materials that I have to hand.” So I think it’s really good to get familiar with the degree to which sort of perfectionistic fantasies can drive some people. I was going to say us, but maybe I’m screwed up in a specific way. I don’t know.
Time management & why abandoning hope leads to motivation 19:54
Bec Evans: I think we should talk about time actually because it came up then. You mentioned about scheduling and how that’s an approach that works for you. It’s generally the thing that people come to us and they say they don’t have the time to write, they want more time or they want to make better use of the time they have, optimise it. And your book Four Thousand Weeks, you open it by saying that the brevity of life is the defining problem of human existence and that fundamentally productivity is a trap. The time management approaches that we have, they’re just failing us. And accepting that, admitting defeat is really excellent news. And that by abandoning hope it leads not to despair, but to motivation, and that’s the liberating concept behind your book. You say once we realise that, we can roll up our sleeves and start work on what is gloriously possible instead.
Can you tell about this concept of embracing our limitations and the limited time we have?
Oliver Burkeman: Sure. And then I’d love to know how you think it ties in or doesn’t with the work that you do in the context of writing specifically. In a way there’s just a certain kind of move that I realise I now make in all the topics that I touch, and time is no exception, which is basically that it’s worse than you think. You think that your situation is that you’ve got so much to do, it’s going to be incredibly hard to get it done. But no, it’s actually going to be impossible to get it all done. You think your situation is that you’re going to have to struggle, struggle, struggle to make your book perfect, but in fact it’s impossible to make your book perfect. It’s worse than you say.
And there’s that move from things are difficult and bad and I’ve got a chance if I really, really exert a lot of anxiety and anguish, I’ve got a chance of conquering them, to the realisation that no, it’s worse than that. That we are so far from going to be capable to get our arms around everything there is to do, make use of every single moment of time, live forever, all these goals that we might on some secret level have, but there’s actually, again, huge liberation in that.
There is too much to do so embrace limitations 22:20
Oliver Burkeman: And in the context of time, that is just in seeing that there will always be too much to do, there will always be more meaningful things you could do with your time than you will have time in which to do them. And one of the ways that that helps is it makes you see that if you want to make time for writing in your life, and if you think about it in a certain way, millions of other things are going to have to give. Right? There isn’t a clever way to avoid that.
On the one hand that’s kind of depressing because it means like, okay, what do you want to give up in order to have an hour a day to work on your creative projects? But another sense, again, I think it’s liberating and consoling because it says nobody else is going to find a way to do this. It’s built into the situation. We’re only deciding what to neglect in life. We’re not trying to find a way to not neglect anything.
And to me that’s just like, okay, that’s lovely and that has the effect of making me see that there are four or five things in life that really, really, really matter to me, and then a whole bunch of other things that are totally important and meaningful, and I don’t have to convince myself that they’re worthless, it’s just that there isn’t going to be time for them anyway. Anyway, yes, that’s the basic idea. So tell me how that relates to actually getting writing done in the day, please!
Bec Evans: I will, I will. But I was just going to say very quickly that I think prioritisation is something that everyone struggles with and that people have these kind of methods and systems, whether it’s the Eisenhower Matrix or things like that. I don’t find them particularly helpful, but just like you saying then that we are deciding what to neglect rather than deciding what to do. I think it’s quite a nice way to flip that choice of how we spend our time. It’s like, well, these things just aren’t important, and then you’re left with fewer things to focus on.
Saying no – advice from Elizabeth Gilbert 24:24
Oliver Burkeman: Right. But I’m afraid, even a lot of things that are important and I’m not going to make the cut. And that was a big revelation for me, that realisation, and there’s a wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert quotation that sums this up, but learning to say no to things, this thing we hear about in every magazine article every day, it entails having say no to things that are perfectly legitimate, good claims on your time. It does not just involve saying no to rubbish, it means saying no to things that there’s just that built in poignancy. It’s like to do these things, I have to not do those things, and those things would be really cool too.
Bec Evans: That Elizabeth Gilbert quote is amazing because she says it’s hard saying no, but it’s easier saying no to things you don’t want to do. It’s when you have to say no to all the things you really want to do that it gets hard. And that’s what we are fundamentally forced to do if we want to make time for writing in our life. But that sort of led me to, when I was researching this, Edward Fredkin. The Fredkin Paradox that two things are equally good to do.
The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it is to choose between them. But no matter what, the choice only matters less because actually it doesn’t really matter which one you choose to do.
Oliver Burkeman: Right. To sort of rephrase that back at you for no reason except that it’s the way to make sense to me, the idea, one way of thinking about this is if you’ve got three hours of discretionary time and there are two things you could do with it and they both seem really, really important, what we tend to do then is agonise about which of those two things to do. But logic, if you can adopt a slightly more rational mindset, logic dictates that actually it matters… You might as well toss a coin because they’re both going to be really meaningful uses of your time. It’s actually less of, it ought to be, rationally speaking, less of a problem.
No time to write? 26:13
Chris Smith: Going back to some of the themes in Four Thousand Weeks in terms of how we use time and how we conceive of time in terms of something that we have and we can possess, as coaches what’s interesting that we have people coming to us saying that they have absolutely no time, so they have no time to do any writing, so they just don’t. Then some other people come to us and say, “I’ve got so much time for writing,” and they still don’t do any writing. So it’s actually not the time itself, it’s the prioritisation. It’s all these other things that get in the way. It’s not time itself that stops people writing, even though they may well think it is.
Oliver Burkeman: I’ve really had to sort of contend with this in my own work as well because part of what I’ve been arguing in my last book is that we have to make these tough choices and lots of things we can’t do because we don’t have the time to do them. But then I’m forced to acknowledge that there are all sorts of things that I don’t do in my life when I do have the time to do them really, and it’s a question of asking what else is going on there?
And I think there’s a lot of truth in that notion. It can be said in a way that sounds very cruel I think, but there’s a lot of truth in that notion that, well, no, it’s not that you don’t have time that you chose not to use your time for that purpose. Now, that’s a hard thing to say to someone who feels run ragged by the attempt to look after family and pay the rent and everything, but it’s true in a specific sense, which is like, yeah, you are making a choice. If you decide not to spend any time writing, you’re making a choice. It might be the right choice for this week or month or year. It’s not always wrong to put these things to one side, depending on the situation that you are in.
Four approaches that writers use to write 28:04
Bec Evans: You asked about how do we find, make, and use time? And we found with writers, we’ve been doing research over the years and we ended up with about 3,500 writers who’d responded to surveys, and that enabled us to come up with different patterns for how people use their time. I think a lot of what we try to do with the book is we present the research and we present stories of different writers and how they do things. And the purpose of us doing that is not to show that this is the best way to do it or the only way to do it, but so people can take a bit of inspiration. In the chapter, the first big chapter of the book is time, because that’s the problem people seem to face. So it was really important it came first. And we just talk about four different approaches which we started to cover already.
There’s the scheduling, what we call time boxing. So that is putting time in your calendar. Might be two or three times a week, treating it like any other appointment. It’s prioritised, it’s in the calendar, it’s time boxed.
There is what’s often considered that golden standard for productivity, which is daily, which is that more habitual, same time, same place, no kind of willpower, just showing up. And we do find that it is quite good for people, but actually it makes more people feel really bad because they can’t do it. But it really, the people who can do daily writing, they really weather the ups and downs of writing because if they don’t write, they can show up the next day and they’ll try again.
Then for the people who are really, really time pressed, we have a spontaneous, which other writers often call the snacking approach or it’s using time confetti, which is grabbing little moments where they come. That’s for people whose lives are really unpredictable or completely overbooked. So it might be that really small, little moments of time.
The fourth one is the binge writing approach, which I know, Oliver, you have some fear of these multi-day binges. If you can’t write for days or weeks, accept you can’t write and just say, “Right, I will do it in whatever, a month’s time,” and schedule it and treat that binge in an intentional way rather than this panic and hypermanic way that Robert Boice writes about.
Oliver Burkeman: It’s interesting, the most challenging part of this book of yours I think is that we’re being asked to consider that there might be a role for binge writing. I feel like we should call it sprint writing or something, right? We should…
Chris Smith: Rebrand it.
Oliver Burkeman: Right. We should break the sort of vague echo of eating disorders I think in this thing. Right, yes, absolutely. And the dream here, of course, is to be sufficiently knowledgeable about yourself, perhaps through working through a book like this, absolutely. And sufficiently sort of nimble about how you change from day to day. That’s something I definitely still struggle with. It’s like if a day shapes up, I’m very much that kind of few hours daily in the morning kind of person. Try and do that pretty much every day. Be kind to yourself. It doesn’t work every day, but the basic expectation is every day. And the thing I find really challenging is if that doesn’t work because either of events in my life or kid being sick or just for weird motivational psychological reasons which can happen, adjusting to still do a little bit that day or just feel good about not doing it or something as opposed to just calling off the whole day because my plan for it didn’t come good, that’s a key challenge that is still challenging.
Chris Smith: I think why we find that those four categories work quite well for people, and again in the coaching and with the book, is largely because a lot of time, I’m not talking about you here, but people become quite wedded to using time in a certain way and using a certain approach. And even if they know that there are these different approaches that they could use and the one that they are using may not be right for them, it can be quite liberating just knowing that there are different approaches out there.
Oliver Burkeman: Totally, totally. It’s important to be able to experiment a little bit because I think, I’m sure something else that happens is, and I think I’ve been there, I think I’m loosened up on this now, but something worked just about for you and it’s not very pleasant, but it just about works in terms of output. You really don’t want to mess with that and sort of allow yourself to do something different because hey, at least I meet my deadlines, if you’re a journalist, or at least I get the words out. It’s important to be able to let yourself sort of say, “Well, okay, just for a day, just for the next couple of days, I’m going to see what happens if I try this alternative approach.”
Comparison! Stop comparing yourself 33:33
Bec Evans: We’ve found that we can become wedded to an approach and we compare ourselves to that. So writers are notorious for comparing themselves with other writers, more famous and successful ones and our peers, but also we compare ourselves to a past version of ourselves where a certain approach worked. So for example, if you’re looking at academics, a PhD who that was their main priority: write PhD for several years. It’s much harder when they are on a tenure track and they have a full-time job and a family and all the other responsibilities. That doesn’t work and that can lead to blocks where they make that comparison. But then many of us make comparisons to this future ideal version of ourselves, and that can be just as toxic as comparing ourselves to others and to past versions of ourselves.
Oliver Burkeman: It’s just it’s extraordinary how many different comparators we will find that all have the effect of making us miserable when I think the only legitimate comparison really can be I could have stayed in bed and done absolutely nothing today. Which by the way, even that is probably fine on in moderation. But the comparison for what you did today should be compared to had you done nothing, not compared to whether you’d met some sort of past or future fantasy goal, I think.
Is there such thing as the ideal writing routine? 35:01
Bec Evans: Back to goals and those ideal versions of planning again! I was going to say that we’ve got questions coming in on the Q&A and I’ve got from some other writers who’ve sent them in advance. Molly Flatt, she’s a novelist who’s also a writer as her day job, and she was wondering whether you can reach your full potential without an ideal focused routine. She wonders whether she could have been a much better writer if she could write for five hours each morning than read, reflect, walk in the afternoon, which is that kind of theoretical ideal routine, but it’s absolutely impossible because of juggling work and childcare and that sort of leads to that, it’s almost like that worry or that regret that she couldn’t be the writer she wants to be. I think that’s quite a common feeling amongst many of us.
Oliver Burkeman: Absolutely. And I don’t know, I think for me it really gets at that, I don’t want to sound glib, but it really gets at that idea that kind of disappointment or some kind of failure is, again, it’s sort of built into the situation. It’s not that there was a way of doing this that wouldn’t have resulted in some kind of poignancy or sadness that missing out on something. That is only an impression you’ll get if you watch YouTube productivity videos made entirely by 23-year-old men. I you’ve got no kids and there are other complications in life, you do have a certain ability to just do the things you wanted to do, but then you’re missing out on things that you don’t even know about.
So I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful thing to say in response to that question, except maybe it’s the only truly helpful thing there is, which is, yeah, I think that’s a fair feeling to have. I don’t think you should struggle to try to eliminate that sense of poignancy and lives not lived because actually it’s in opening to that truth about being limited like we are, but you’ll realise in a deep way how meaningful the path you did take has been. So I don’t think that’s an illegitimate feeling or something one should aspire to never feel.
And the perfect routine, of course, doesn’t exist. The perfect routine is that one of these kind of fantasies that we’re holding ourselves to. I have amazing routines for my day in my head, but if you look really closely at them, they sort of add up to more than 24 hours or involve me never feeling a bit sleepy at half past two in the afternoon or something like that.
Writing routines and childcare
Bec Evans: It’s just come up in the Q&A and we’ve got some really great questions coming in. Laura Bennett asked about, she’d read Four Thousand Weeks while she was writing a PhD and she just had twins in the middle of all of that. She was just wondering, and I think it comes up a lot with if you say 23-year-old men on YouTube giving productivity advice, this issue around childcare and how you’ve found things have changed for you because it comes up a lot actually, with children and big life changes.
Oliver Burkeman: In the case of Four Thousand Weeks, it’s kind of ridiculous because I actually sold the book proposal about eight months before we knew that our son, my first and only child, was coming, was due to be coming along. I then had to negotiate multiple extensions with the publisher because nothing happened in my writing life outside of just, I was doing a lot of freelance journalism then, so that sort of got forced by deadlines and income, but the book did not get written, and I’m conscious that there’d probably be more significant in effects still if I was his mother rather than his father. And yet what it was doing was sort of confirming and helping me deepen my understanding of the very thesis that I was trying to outline in the book, which is one thing that children will do.
I don’t think it fundamentally changes the fact that we’re all finite, that applies just as much to people who are not parents, but it makes certain truths that are true for all of us much harder to ignore, and one of those is having two thirds, at least, of your previous discretionary time in your life just completely eliminated. It will make that sense of trade off and the fact that to do one thing, you have to not be doing something else, incredibly vivid in a way that is occasionally frustrating, but a lot of the time is so unavoidable if you want to be a halfway decent, halfway present parent and you have a job and not a private income or something.
It’s so unavoidable, and there’s a certain sense in which it is less stressful because it is, obviously it’s incredibly stressful to be up multiple times a night with a new-born baby and things like that, but there’s a sense in which I ended up using it to cut myself a little bit of slack because clearly the possibility of doing every single thing that popped into my head, which was never on the cards beforehand, was so much more obviously not on the cards that actually you just sort of have to do in front of you.
Now, that’s not a useful tip about how to fit writing in around childcare. That’s like an existential refocusing. You, I suspect, have some tips from your coaching work about that kind of question, and I’m sure it goes in the direction of the sort of using time confetti. I don’t want to say write while the baby naps. That seems like it’d get me repeatedly stabbed by anyone I suggested it to, but certainly an ability to do something on your creative work for 25 minutes instead of needing five hours is going to be an incredible benefit in that kind of situation.
Chris Smith: It’s interesting that at that period in your life you were almost so overwhelmed that it actually helped you become a lot more zen and actually practise acceptance over the time you actually had because you didn’t have any time.
Oliver Burkeman: Right. Yes, exactly. I think that that’s the same thing I just bang on about. It’s like, yeah, even more the situation of our finite time is even more total than we like to think. And there’s something in that that’s like, all right then, change the nappy that’s in front of me.
Why other people’s rules won’t work for you 42:11
Bec Evans: What’s really important about that is that you, or all of us, all writers figure that out for ourselves. We have to notice that about ourselves. And a lot of our book, we are really inspired by Professor Ellen Langer from Harvard and she writes about mindfulness, which is basically noticing. It’s an element of self-reflection. She’s absolutely excellent. I’ll just read out the quote because it comes up again when we think about productivity gurus or comparing ourselves to other writers and anybody who doles out advice, and it’s:
“The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them, and the more different you are from that person, the worse they’re going to work for you. When you’re mindful, rules, routines and goals guide you. They don’t govern you.”
And I find that so powerful because it just takes into account that of course Professor Robert Boice, who’s quoted a lot and he’s got a lot to offer writing productivity, but he’s coming from a very certain perspective, and that if you just compare yourself to his advice, you will feel bad or you’ll fall short. So you’ve got to see how am I different from this person? What does it mean to be able to figure out that in my own life?
Productivity is personal 43:36
Chris Smith: I think that really goes to the heart of, well, the book and also our coaching more generally, which is this whole concept of productivity is personal.
If there’s kind of one single thread that runs through the book, it’s that and the idea that there is no one tactic that is going to work for everyone. And what we do and what the book does is try to help people to find those combinations of tactics and approaches, and so forth, that work for you. And what Langer’s work does in terms of mindfulness, I think of it’s almost like being the key that helps you to find those things that work for you because if you don’t notice what works and if you don’t notice what doesn’t work for you, then you are never going to be able to or you’ll struggle to find the things that work and you’ll struggle to find these tactics and approaches that help.
Oliver Burkeman: Yes, I agree completely. There’s a point to augment that I can’t remember if it comes from Written, so I’m either giving you a point of your own back at you or I’m not, but which is that obviously those routines that we hear about when you read The Paris Review interviews with the famous authors about how they work for precisely three and a half hours or whatever, not only is this personality specific, but also those they will have been emergent in the lives of those writers. They will have been things that through trial and error they found worked for them. So the process of coming up with them was also not this kind of big routine. Now I will implement it on top of myself, onto myself. So in a way, one of my things that you need to bring mindfulness to I guess is watching in your own life what seems to be working and going more in that direction.
Just to hark back to an early point for me that one of those things has been actually when I drive myself a bit less relentlessly and I’m a little bit kinder to myself and I pursue and I sort of think about trying to make the day enjoyable, I’ve noticed that actually it’s better for my productivity and my output. It’s not actually an intention with it. So that kind of noticing of what’s emerging in my life as a writer as a good routine for me is actually the really useful skill. It’s fine to be inspired by what Haruki Murakami does, just to pick the most sort of exhausting example even just to think about. But he found that it works for him and for his writing. And so the question to follow his example is to ask what works for you and for your own.
46:30 Get inspired by writers’ daily rituals – use these to experiment
Bec Evans: It really is about, rather than comparing ourselves to other writers, taking inspiration from them. You mentioned The Paris Review, they’re the of long form interviews. I really like Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, particularly his second book. He did the first book and then he realised that it focused on men. So he bought out a companion volume that focused on women, again with much more different types of lives. They’re artists and creators of all types.
The idea is read, find out what other writers are doing because in community, you really do learn a lot from other writers, and I encourage people to join writing groups and join writers’ hours and things like that. Don’t use it as a way to beat yourself up. Use it as a point of inspiration and then run those experiments. If you’re not sure what is working for you at the moment, run those low stakes, quick experiments just to figure things out because we don’t know what’s going to work until we try it.
Oliver Burkeman: Right. And don’t expect the same thing to work for you every day and don’t expect the same thing to work for you forever. That’s the other thing. I spent a very long part of my early adulthood, I think, thinking that my interest in productivity and habits and psychology, it was going to eventually lead to some time where I had figured it all out and then you’re just going to follow that routine to the end of your life. Well, it’s not going to happen and it would actually be no fun anyway.
So I think just allowing for the idea that if you’re at an event like this or you’re reading a book like the one you’ve written, you’re going to be the kind of person who nerds out a little bit on all this stuff and that’s totally fine. It shouldn’t be something where you are sort of subtly thinking that because you haven’t found the exact right routine yet, that that’s a problem. It’s like this question of exactly how to tinker with and arrange my writing habits, I’m quite sure will be with me until the day I stop writing.
Chris Smith: I really like the idea that, writing advice is just advice. And even if those people that are giving you the advice are your PhD supervisor or your university or the revered Dr. Robert Boice, it is just advice and it needs to work for you.
Oliver Burkeman: Yes, absolutely. And sometimes what it is, is the givers of the advice telling you how they wish they had done things.
Or what they think they were capable of or trying to rationalise choices they’ve made in their lives. And, in my own writing about advice, I feel like the only thing I do try to do is be honest about that fact. I don’t think, it’s not a reason not to give advice, but the idea that someone giving advice has got it all figured out is never going to be the case.
What writing advice has Oliver tried and failed with? 49:29
Bec Evans: Just thinking about advice, I’m really aware of time. It’s rushing past and I have been trying to filter our conversation to reflect some of the questions in the Q&A, so I’m hoping we cover some of those. But is there any advice that you have taken that really hasn’t worked for you in the past? Have you run experiments that have failed miserably and you have gladly accepted that and moved on?
Oliver Burkeman: That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure gladly accepted, but one of the things that springs to mind is that I think I have sort of finally accepted that time boxing is not for me, but that sort of approach where you mark out onto a calendar, the hours in the day that you’re going to be doing one thing, and then when you’re going to stop and move on to the next thing, that that is a step too far in terms of making me feel like I’m sort of imprisoned by the plan I’ve made. Clearly it’s incredibly effective for lots of people, so that’s a good example of a piece of advice that is not like it’s wrong. It’s just one that I’ve had to give up on.
Another place where I feel like I’ve sort of accepted something about myself in the direction of accepting some perfectionistic or neurotic tendencies, I suppose, is that I am extremely bad at doing a vomited out kind of first draft. So I’m not someone who finds it easy to just do it any old way first and then try to get the sentences right.
I remember years ago now when I was at The Guardian and when he was at The Guardian as well, my then colleague, Gary Younge, brilliant, brilliant writer and columnist, sharing with me, I think it was an insight he’d just come to in his own writing back then, decades ago, that if in a long article, if you couldn’t figure out how to begin it, but you knew some way that you wanted it to go sort of halfway through, you could just begin halfway through and then work back. And I was just like, “No, I can’t. Never.” To the depths of my soul. I cannot do that and it might be very healthy if I could, and he could and that was great. So that’s an example of another sort of piece of advice that, again, it’s not wrong, it’s just not me.
What writing advice works? 51:59
Bec Evans: Definitely. And what’s working for you now? Is there anything that you’re really enjoying about your writing?
Oliver Burkeman: What is working for me now, two things that come immediately to mind. One is to try to have one single, moderately ambitious but very achievable goal per day. So I do still tend to do a few hours in the morning. That is my rhythm. And to have one, like that I will finish and email a newsletter, that I will work out the structure of some piece I’m writing or event I’m doing or something, that I will complete the research for a given section of a chapter, something like that. So to have that single discreet goal and to be willing to make all the other potential goals for that day wait until I’ve done that one. That works well for me, that sense of, okay, I need to have some little victory today. So whatever that is the way to keep going.
The other thing which has just helped me and always done, it’s so second nature to me that I forget that it’s incredibly odd and I just offer it in case anyone wants it, although I think it does occur in one of those Paris Review interviews. It is that when I’m redrafting things, I work at the level usually either of an article or an email, a newsletter, or at the level of a chapter subsection – I tend to work in these thousand word chunks to edit and draft and redraft, is literally to print things out and type them back in. This is such a central part of my writing routine that, as I say, I forget how odd it can strike other people.
So I write a draft, I’ll then print that draft out and literally copy it from the paper back into the computer. And what happens then is that all sorts of improvements and edits get made without me realising that I’m making them. And so it’s much lower effort than for me than to be on the screen and trying to figure out what changes need to be made.
Find your highlight & celebrate your ta-dahs 54:15
Bec Evans: Oh, I absolutely love those. I’m going to pick up on particularly the first one. I’m going to try the second one because that sounds really intriguing, so I’m definitely going to give that one a go.
The first one you mentioned, which is picking one thing for the day, and it was a tip from Jake Knapp in his Make Time book and he called it a highlight. I like it, it’s better than having a most important thing, which is from Zen Habits, that a highlight is the thing that makes you feel like you’ve had a good day. That sense that you feel, we all have this internal gauge of what productivity means and that’s something that’s quite satisfying. So he focuses on your highlight for the day, which could be your most important thing. It is send email out, send newsletter out, but it could just be sit down and have a dinner with my kids tonight. So your highlight can encompass all areas of your life.
And it also reminds me of Grace Marshall who wrote How to Be Really Productive and the brilliant book Struggle, and she just calls it your ta-da. So you write down, it’s like your done list. I’ve done this, so put that on your list at the end of the day and celebrate what you have done. I find this really powerful. It’s a lot in positive psychology, but the gratitude, the noticing what you’ve done, the seeing your progress can make such a difference, particularly when you’re working on a very long project like a book where it’s endless, endless! So you need to mark up what has worked each day. I sat down, I paid attention for 15 minutes.
Oliver Burkeman: Yes, absolutely. And it’s a question of finding something that you are willing to do and that you think you can do. And if it’s not a thousand words but it’s 200 words, then the difference between those two is so much smaller than the difference between doing something and doing nothing that, yes, just yes, absolutely. Cut yourselves some slack.
Bec Evans: We change best by feeling good, fundamentally. BJ Fogg always says that.
We’re out of time. It’s just coming up to 7pm. So thank you everybody for your time and attention and your brilliant questions. There’s so many amazing questions. I’m hoping I’m going to be able to download them and I’ll get a list of them and answer them in a blog or something like that because I know you’ve all listened really attentively and commented on each other and there’s some great stuff there. It really means a lot that you showed up to celebrate our book launch. So thank you from me, Bec Evans, from Chris Smith, and thank you to the wonderful Oliver Burkeman.
Today is the publication of Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit that Lasts. It’s available in all good bookshops. And there we go. Thank you all.
Oliver Burkeman: That’s the advanced copy. You got a lovely hardback if you buy.
Bec Evans: Thank you. Thank you to my glamorous assistants. Available in bookshops and we do encourage you to buy from local and indie where you can also buy all of Oliver’s three books. They’re available. That’s Help, The Antidote and the really brilliant and life-changing Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. You can find me and Chris online at prolifiko.com. We’ve got lots on our website, newsletters, courses, coaching, and we’re on the socials @beprolifiko and I am on Twitter and Instagram at @eva_bec
You can find everything about Oliver on his website, which again, very memorable, easy to spell, unlike ours, which is oliverburkeman.com. I really encourage you to sign up to his Imperfectionist newsletter. It’s just full of insights and wisdom, and it’ll make you feel calm and relaxed and much more accepting about the things that we can’t do. And he’s got his Winter Masterclass next weekend, The Art of Imperfect Action.
I think that’s everything. You all know the drill. If you like what we’ve said, rate, review, subscribe. It helps others find us. That kind of thing.
Remember that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. So please go and write, go and create, make. Do your hobbies imperfectly because the only way to get something done is to just do it.
I think that’s everything. So thank you all very, very much and this will be recorded and I will send the link out to everybody who signed up. So whether you’re here now, you can get to rewatch and learn from this, and I’ll send out for people who couldn’t make it this evening as well. So thank you all very much and have a lovely evening.