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An experiential guide for underachievers. Turn your chaotic life upside down and start to make serious progress in 2020.

Are you always late? Do you keep missing deadlines? Is your work performance being affected by your spiral of calamity? Are your friends and your partner tired of copping the negative end of your stress? Maybe none of these things applies to you, and you just want to squeeze more out of your already hyper-efficient lifestyle. Good for you. Unfortunately, the former situation was my life back in 2016.

On top of that, I was underachieving in both my earning capability and creative performance. Here is what I did about it.

What was going on in my life that affected performance?

2016/17 were extremely challenging years for me. I was trying to launch a new creative writing business after the failure of my previous venture. I was locked in a battle with a vulture fund which had bought my mortgage without warning. I was struggling to maintain any relationship, personal or otherwise. As the pressure slowly dialled up,

stress and anxiety were slowly eating away at me. It was no wonder that my business struggled to clear £8k during the 16/17 tax year. Bogged down with worries, real and imagined, I could barely keep my mind on anything. My creative self suffered too. By 2018, I knew things had to change. I set about taking practical steps to increase my productivity.

The process of streamlining is still going on. As we enter 2020, I feel like I am gaining some semblance of healthy control. My tax return for last year shows more than four times what it was in 16/17. I filed that tax return a month early from a beach in Thailand, instead of 4 am the day of deadline surrounded by receipts for the fiscal year. (Yep. Two years in a row).

The turn around has been dramatic and started with my conscious decision to change things in December of 2017.

2019 was seminal. In addition to building Joined-Up-Think from scratch, I also toured my play which I wrote and directed, performing 47 dates around the UK, including a full run at Edinburgh Fringe. I ghostwrote a feature-length screenplay, started (and parked) a novel, and in October, I left the UK to travel around South East Asia for three months. While touring Asia, I have maintained my business, started a new novel, applied for a grant and started developing a new spoken word show.

This morning, I sat and meditated over what I had done differently, and what key decisions had played a role in this transformation. I narrowed it down to six practical steps which I would like to share with you now.

Six practical steps for increased productivity

  • ONE: Plan your daily work and work your daily plan.

It sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Making plans is not enough on its own. You have to see them through. I had flown by the seat of my pants for so long, that the adrenalised panic of getting things done last minute had become my reality. I believed that I needed that panic feeling. I told myself that I performed better as a result of it. I was wrong. I also realised I was an asshole to be around when I worked like that.

I learned my lesson when writing One Foot In The Rave in 2018. For the first time, I committed to a project. I had no choice as I had agreed to specific performances in advance and then had to be ready for the opening night. Begrudgingly, I started planning. Timelines for project milestones, rehearsal schedules and marketing strategies developed. I spent an entire spring saying no to social occasions if they clashed with my rehearsals. By May, I was ready. And that is the point; for the first time, I felt prepared. I was confident in the material, I felt minimal pressure, and it showed.

One Foot In The Rave won an award and has gone on to be a big success for me. I now plan my days meticulously. I still have some way to go here, but daily planning is a thing. Who knew? So plan. Whether you do this every night for the next day, or once a week for the entire week, is entirely your choice. Just make sure you never wake up without knowing what your day is going to consist of, even if that something is relaxation.

  • TWO: Detox your phones home screen

By that, I mean uninstall all of the junk, including, (and especially) your social media accounts. “Smartphone” is a misnomer. They should be called dumb-down phones. I am not saying delete your social media accounts. All I am suggesting is that you uninstall them from your phone.

Cumulatively, I have gained days of thinking and hours of reading time through this one simple step. For a writer, the extra time you spend with your face up, looking at the world, is a game-changer. I have found four characters for my novel just by looking at what is going on around me. Long journeys, and even short commutes into town are now taken up by podcasts, kindle books, conscious reading or merely listening to music with my eyes closed. I feel liberated. I can feel my neurons reconnecting. The most crucial gain here is brain space. The extra thinking time is gold dust. I have had all kinds of epiphanies, breakthroughs and light bulb moments when I would ordinarily be timeline scrolling. I read eighteen books last year. I read two between January 2016 and November 2017.

I still have two twitter accounts, two LinkedIn profiles, and an Instagram account. The difference now is that I use them during a set period every day, and only ever on my laptop. Even if I want to post on Instagram, I upload the photos to my G drive and plan an Instagram posting session from my laptop. If you are not sure how to post pictures to Instagram from your computer, then you can find out here.

My social media engagement is down to an all-time low of less than one hour a day average.

At its worst, my tracker software reported over five hours a day, (including Facebook). I want to say that this was an isolated situation, but that was a daily average over a month. That is not healthy.

You may wish to uninstall for good, or maybe just while you have a particularly heavy workload or a tight deadline. Perhaps try a week without your apps installed, and see what happens.

  • Three: Consciously plan your short term, midterm and long term goals

This suggestion is not to be confused with point one. Whereas point one is setting your daily agenda, this has far more to do with the bigger picture.

The human brain has a fantastic capability to process secondary information while you focus on other tasks. It also acts as a receiver or antenna, selecting only the things it knows you need from your surrounding environment. These filters change with your conscious and sub-conscious focus. Help your brain to help you by consistently focusing on the same plans.

Streamline your thinking and attention to only those things which will serve you in your mission, or missions.

The process of planning is not complicated. Firstly, set out your short term (next twelve months) goals.

For 2020 mine are;

  1. Finish my debut Novel.

  2. Perform One Foot In The Rave a minimum of 20 times (including Europe).

  3. Tour a new poetry show (Wonderland) with at least ten dates.

  4. Build my regular client base to three clients a week.

  5. Increase my creative output to fifty-two articles/blogs.

  6. Travel Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam

    Make the list that works for you and your personal circumstances. Don’t overstretch! (more on this later).

Then do the same with your mid-term (one to five years) and long-term, (five years and over) goals.

Once you have three clearly defined lists, let them sit for a while. When you return to them, change any that no longer apply. I found I had changed my mind about four of the goals and refined my lists accordingly.

Now, this is the critical part-

Write your three lists down on to one piece of paper which you must then fold up and put in your wallet, purse or any other item you have with you daily.

A good friend of mine taught me this trick. As well as dialing in your intentions, you will also have the list on you at all times.

When offered an opportunity, job or other big commitment, you can remove the list and ask yourself; “is this new opportunity going to help me or hinder me in my short, mid and long term planning”.

Try it. You may well be shocked at how many opportunities that you would ordinarily jump at, actually conflict with your personal goals. By fine-tuning your goals, and only undertaking significant projects if they support those aims, you will be far more productive.

  • Four: Excercise

It is a well-known fact that exercise boosts the feel-good chemicals in the brain. When you are feeling good, that positivity spreads. The endorphin rush is a natural high that sets you up for a productive work session. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy that will raise your heart rate. You must enjoy doing this activity, or you will bail on it when the weather is terrible, or you are feeling low. Plan this exercise in for a minimum of three hours a week.

It is not just the physical benefits that you will feel. Ring-fencing this time will give your brain three hours of quality secondary processing time, and if you can pick and activity that you can do with a friend even better. Freelancing and writing can get lonely, so shared exercise ticks two boxes.

  • Five: Set a timer

If you are sitting down to a specific task, decide how long you need for it and set a timer. I stumbled across this one entirely by accident. I was working on a clients article last year. There was a deadline, and I had plenty of time to complete the task. I took the bus into town, and then a train to Plymouth (47 miles away) in plenty of time for a meeting that I had scheduled with a new client the following day. I used my time on the bus and train to meditate on some new ideas, catch up on a podcast and read my book. When I arrived in Plymouth, I headed for my favourite cafe, took out my laptop and prepared myself for four or five hours of work.

My heart sank when I realised that I had left my laptop charger in Exeter. Although I had a full battery, my ageing HP laptop was showing just three and a half hours of battery life. I got my head down, working as fast and micro-editing as ruthlessly as I could.

I made the deadline and turned out one of the best comparison articles I have ever written. I put this down to enhanced focus and impetus. Intrigued by this idea of working with a restriction, I started setting myself achievable time goals and setting the alarm or timer as a fixed endpoint. I noticed an immediate upturn in productivity. I now program my days in this way. The time limit focuses my attention and more importantly, has seen my hourly earnings rate break £30.00 with a noticeable lift in the quality of the end product.

Note: I realise that this feeds into my earlier notion that I need the adrenalised panic of the last-minute rush, but that is not the case. Nowadays, I research and data collect information for my articles the day before I write them. That way, I am fully prepared to hit the ground running during scheduled writing time. This was informed speed writing rather than a free for all.

  • Six: Learn to say no

Saying no to things has been my most recent lesson. Like all significant life lessons, I chose to learn it the hard way.

At the end of last year, buoyed by the hugely productive year, I was having, and riding on a wave of false optimism, I bit off more than I could chew. I received an offer to bid on a large contract for multiple blogs and articles on Upwork. I pitched and was shortlisted, and then verbally offered the deal. I have a lot of creative friends, including some incredibly talented writers. I decided that I would recruit a bunch of them as freelancers and share the incrementally growing workload with them. Ego suitably boosted, and feeling very important; I started emailing and contacting peers, setting up a few trial jobs with people and wholly ignoring my own advice.

Had I have checked my goals list, I would have noted that nowhere in the next ten years, had I planned to grow the business to that level. I paid the price. I spent weeks getting everything ready and taking on the worry of providing work for other people and then bang. The client dropped out.

I had wasted so much time and energy, as well as the goodwill of valued peers, applying for something that ultimately was not on any of my goal lists. Rookie error.

The fall-out was a personal spiral. I started doubting myself again, feeling stressed and anxious. I took me the entire first month of traveling to recover myself. All I had needed to do was say no to the offer.

Since that experience, I have started saying no a lot more. A spin-off is that I have started saying no to anyone whose budget is too small for the work they want doing. I now have a very defined parameter within which I will work, and if a clients budget is not within ten-per cent of that lower limit, then they are not my client. Simple. The last vestiges of anxiety about this creative writing lark have left the building. So don’t be scared to say no, it will only help you by freeing up more time and increasing the value of the hours you do work.

I hope that or more of these tips proves to be of benefit to you. None of them is groundbreaking. We have all heard them over and over, I am sure. I know I had. It was the putting of them into practice that made the difference.

Have fun.

Sean Holland is Creative Director at Joined Up Think. He is a keen cyclist and an avid reader of books. Say hi on Twitter @joinedupthink, or you can search him on LinkedIn.