Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: productivity

2016 was a hell of a year in all sorts of good and less good ways. Celebrities apparently dropping like flies and some seriously crazy political developments put my own experiences of the year into some pretty sharp relief. Be that as it may, I’ll run through what I did last year in the hopes that I might see from my contrail where I’m actually heading, and in case you might find it useful or interesting.
The year began well, with the publication of Advanced Longsword: Form and Function on February 10th. This was a big step because it finishes the set of my up-to-date Fiore interpretation, which began with The Medieval Dagger and continued with The Medieval Longsword. I’m quietly proud of the trilogy, and the readers for whom I wrote it seem very pleased with it.
I followed up with three instalments of The Swordsman's Quick Guide. How to Teach a Basic Class came out on February 29th, Fencing Theory on April 21st, and Breathing on September 2nd.
As for writing, I also managed to bash out 49 blog posts this year, and have made great strides on the second editions of both Veni Vadi Vici and The Duellist's Companion, and on my memoir, Sent.
The single biggest challenge of the year was moving with my household from Helsinki to Ipswich at the beginning of June; you probably know how much work it is to move house; factor in the kids, and then square it for the additional complication of moving countries, and in retrospect it’s a miracle I got any work done at all.
Other than that, the biggest departure was setting up my new online courses venture. I began it in the most obscure and geeky way possible with a course on how to research historical swordsmanship from historical sources, which went live on July 1st. This is a monumental course, and it’s far from complete; I’ve got enough material up there to keep most students busy for about a year, but I’ve got some serious work to do to get the final modules published. I followed that with a much simpler challenge; a 6 week course on breathing training (published in September), then one on Footwork (November) and another on the basics of Fiore’s dagger combat material (December).

All in all, that’s a pretty productive year. The work done in 2016 built the body of my next book, The Theory and Practice of Historical European Martial Arts. I completed the first full draft of that last week. It includes instalments 1-6 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide, a great deal of content developed and edited from the Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources course, one or two blog posts, and some completely new material. This began in my head as a book that was too big to write, so I split it up and worked out the individual pieces separately, in exactly the way I describe in my article “How to Write a Book“. The book is with a couple of trusted friends now, and I'll get it ready for test-readers in a week or so. I expect it to be out in the world by the end of May.

It seems, looking back and extrapolating forwards, that I’m going to be putting a lot more effort into courses, but at the same time, I need to get those second editions done and dusted. It’s a good thing I know how to prioritise!
One of the most useful tools to get me to hit my targets is my writing group, which meets at the Arlington brasserie every Wednesday from 7.30 (Come! all welcome). It's very relaxed, but we do get some formal exercises done too. The pitch is just right- informal enough that I can file it under relaxation if I'm feeling overworked, and formal enough that I can file it under work if I'm feeling like I should be getting more work done. We state our goals for the coming week, and if we meet them, good; but if we don’t, then we have to put a pound in the Tardis (a tin shaped like, well, the Tardis). Money collected goes towards the wine for our annual Christmas dinner. Goals can be anything; write 1000 words of your first draft; edit one chapter; spend 10 minutes every day writing, or even (this was one of mine) take a whole day completely off! Whatever it is, it gets written down, and the next week you have to report whether you hit it or not. It’s surprisingly effective. I've barely missed a session since I started coming a couple of weeks after moving to Ipswich at the start of June.

Another major factor in getting stuff done has been renting desk space at Atrium Studios, which is part of the University here. For only £120 a month I have a spacious desk, use of the University library, access to the print shop, wifi, and so on. The Studio has all sorts of people working here; artists, sculptors, a brewery runs its office here (and bring samples in for product testing), plus graphic designers, start-up entrepreneurs, and so on. This means that it's much less isolating than working from home, but because we're all doing different things, there's no pressure to join in with anything. You can just sit down and work. My desk is enlivened by art from Roland Warzecha (Dimicator), Jussi Alarauhio (who did the art for Audatia), Brian Kerce (who made the gladius) and Titta Tolvanen. The little metal squiggle was made by Neal Stephenson and me in his basement. He's getting into blacksmithing, and this was our first attempt at ‘drawing out'. The tankard holding pens was given to me by PHEMAS to commemorate a seminar in 2012.  I also have all my books and Audatia decks here. Why?

Because in the difficult times, seeing the things I have made, and the things my friends and students have made for me, can be the difference between getting something useful done, and quitting in self-disgust.

The main mural posters are reproductions of Lorenzetti's stunning Allegoria frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. This serves many purposes- to keep me immersed in the art and culture of Fiore's time. To remind me of how art is supposed to work. And to remind me of the breathless wonder that hit me when I entered that room and saw them for the first time.

And with that, I better get on and put 2017 to work!

The New Year is upon us, and with it, a new opportunity to do interesting things, and a time to perhaps take stock and think about what's important. That would be lovely, except right now I'm totally overwhelmed with stuff to do. You might be to, so here's how I deal with it. First, let me take you back a few years….

When I was about 11 years old, I had to do a project on the Second World War at school. I chose British fighter planes. I had three weeks to prepare before I had to hand in my project and give a short talk to the class about it.
The day before the assignment was due, my tutor Mr Rawson found me in tears. I had put off even starting the project until the day before, and had absolutely no idea how to start or what to do. On finding out why I was crying, he pointed out that I’d had three weeks to figure it out or get some help, then showed me a couple of books in the library, and told me what to do. I had found the task too overwhelming to even start it.

I bashed something together, and gave the talk, and handed it in. I got an ok grade, but nobody was impressed.
As you can see from that story, my natural reaction to overwhelm is procrastination.

Overwhelm is a horrible feeling, like drowning in nit-pickery. So many little things, so many big things, all clamouring to be done, and only one me to do it all. Aaaaaaarghhhh! Run away and hide!

I get this feeling often. Right now, I have this list up on the wall by my desk. Lots and lots of different projects, and several continuous processes, all at various stages to be monitored, managed, and done.
The absolute worst bit is the final stages of publishing a book or a course. There are just a gadgillion little steps, and no clear playbook to follow to walk through them all. Again, aaaaaarghhhh!

The little poster on the left of my to-do list has the covers of all my published books and decks of cards (not the courses, they didn’t fit). Clearly, I can actually get stuff done, despite the overwhelm. So here’s how I do it, in the hopes you might find it useful.

1) Slow down. When it’s all piling up, and the to-do list is infinitely long and tedious and tricky and hard, the tendency is to rush. So I slow right down. I literally move in slow motion.

2) Self-talk. “Oh shit I have x y and z to do and only an hour!! Aaaargh!” (Again). This compresses time like no other technique. But I want to extend time, so I slow down, and say something to myself like “a whole luxurious hour. And really, not so much to do! Maybe I’ll take a nap in 30 minutes…”. This changes my perception of the time I have, and dramatically increases the amount I can get done in that time.

3) Do one small thing. The hardest thing, when faced with the badgillion bloody bits of bother, is to find the thread that will unravel the whole thing and make it easy. So I don’t look for it. I don’t spend any time thinking about which bit to do, I just pick one small thing and do that. Then the next, then the next, and so on. And nine times out of ten, it turns out that the first small thing is the magic thread that unravels the whole mess. The only real discipline involved is in not paying attention to the other things, big or small.

4) Productive procrastination. Sometimes I’m just not ready to handle the overwhelming stuff. So I find ways of procrastinating that are actually productive. Such as “I’m not ready to write The Medieval Longsword”. So I’ll build a writing desk.” (You can see it here: Productive Procrastination scroll down to find it). Or, I’ll empty my email inbox. Or I’ll do some training. Or I’ll write this blog post…

5) Break for breathing. Overwhelm is very stressful, and I find that I can break the cortisol spiral by going outside and doing breathing exercises, or push-ups, or kettlebells, or swinging a sword. It all helps. Five minutes or so of exercise gets everything back under control, and makes the process of slowing down and getting on with things easier.

Now that I have productively procrastinated, I’ll get back to the thing that was overwhelming me…

See you later!

If you liked this post, you might also like these others:

Project Management

Following my own advice

What should you spend your time on? My rules for prioritising what to do.

 

I just uninstalled the Facebook app off my phone.

Shock! Horror! How could  I do such a thing?

Well, yesterday I gave a class to some students on a professional writing course at the University of Suffolk here in Ipswich. The topic was time management, and my advice boiled down to the following key points:

  1. Distinguish between ‘urgent' and ‘important'. Most things that come in appear urgent but are not important. Many things that are important (like writing the next book) do not feel urgent. Prioritise the important over the urgent.
  2. Create assets. Assets are anything that add value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.  A book is an asset if it boosts your reputation, or makes money, or both. (My first book The Swordsman's Companion made me precisely no money between 2004 when it was published and 2013 when I self-published it. But it put me on the map as a swordsmanship instructor.) In the case of the students present their degree would be an asset, as would a blog they maintain, or work they do that can go in a portfolio to show clients. Facebook status updates? Not assets.
  3. Put first things first. Try to get some work done on an asset before checking email or anything else. Your inbox is everyone else's agenda. Your assets are your agenda.

On Monday morning this week I followed my own advice to perfection. I got up and did my meditation, had breakfast with the kids and walked them to school, then came home and produced the final videos for my Footwork course (which is now complete, with students enrolled and everything), and edited some videos for my Medieval Dagger course (which is also now complete). After about two and a half hours of full-on creative and productive work, my computer was tied up rendering video, so I took a break. I did some breathing training, took a shower and got properly dressed… And checked my emails for the first time that day. My creative intention had not had a chance to get derailed.

Back in 2006, in the days just after publishing The Duellist's Companion and right before my wedding, the server that hosted the school website and my emails broke. Five years of emails, my entire inbox, everything, gone in an instant. At a rather busy time in a self-employed person's life. But you know what? I can't think of a single bad thing that happened because of it. Not one. Everyone who mattered (such as my future wife) had other ways to get hold of me. Every important email got sent again by the person who hadn't gotten a reply yet. The wedding went off without a hitch (she showed up and said “I do”. Everything else is a blur). There are two takeaways from this. 1. Backups are important for your important work, but probably not so much for your emails. 2. Very few emails are truly important.

Whenever I talk like this, people jump up and down about how critical their rapid email responses are to keeping their jobs. My answer is in the form of a book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. To sum up, firstly, your job probably doesn't genuinely value your rapid response, they just expect it. Most knowledge workers don't put “I respond fast to email” on their CVs. You can train your co-workers off treating email like instant messaging. Sure, I'm in an unusual position, but Cal is not- he's a Computer Science professor, with all the admin crap that goes with that, so read his book and take his word for it. But you might find my contact page instructive in setting expectations. I'll save you clicking and quote:

Hi! You can email me, which I prefer, or find me online on FacebookLinkedInGoodreads, and Twitter, or if you like, try this spiffy form. Whichever you choose, please bear in mind that I don’t have a secretary, but I do have family, students, books to write and a school to run. This means that I think I’m doing pretty well if I answer your email within three working days, and any social media message within seven. After that time has expired, and there is still no response, try emailing again!

Then, when I reply to someone's email in two days, their expectations are exceeded and we're all happy.

Secondly, do you really want a job in which your primary value is not doing deep creative work, but simply reacting to emails? Really?

Getting and staying out of a reactive mindset is critically important to getting serious work done. Reactivity is not creative. Sure, creative work is often done in reaction to something; protest art, for instance, but the process of creating that art is not reactive, and a wise artist doesn't let anyone see their work until the first draft is done.

This goes to one of the most important ideas for living a worthwhile life: expanding your circle of control. Mr Money Moustache (one of my favourite bloggers) has written an excellent article on this here, but let me summarise it for you. You should spend your attention only on the things you can directly affect. By doing so, you become better able to affect the things you care about. Moaning about politics is a classic beginner's mistake. Writing to your congressman or MP, voting, organising or taking part in protests, standing for office, are all much more effective responses. If you're not planning on doing any of those things, then you shouldn't burn any mental effort on thinking about it. And moaning about the weather? Come on. The weather doesn't care. Either wear the appropriate clothing, or choose to do something else. By paying attention to the things you can affect, you become much more effective and your circle of control grows. Expending effort worrying about things you cannot affect takes away from those things that you can, and you become less effective, and your circle of control will shrink.

What has all this to do with Facebook? Well, 99% of the stuff in my Facebook feed I skip over. Of the 1% I react to, 99% is not stuff that I can directly affect. This is incredibly inefficient. But this morning I found I had checked my email and my Facebook feed before doing my breathing practice or working on an asset. And yet I had just the day before spent an hour being an ‘expert' and preaching to these students about putting first things first.

The thing is, Facebook is staffed by hundreds of people who are way cleverer than me, and whose paychecks depend entirely on making the site sticky. They need our eyeballs on those ads or they are out of a job. They are naturally very, very good at getting and keeping our attention. The only way to win is not to play. Getting off the scroll-scroll-click dopamine drip is very likely to enable me to increase the value I put into the world. Of course I will keep my Facebook profile and pages- they are a useful aspect of my business and personal life, great for organising parties, keeping up with far-flung friends, and all of that. But by increasing the barrier to entry (taking it off the phone), I will only be able to get on Facebook on my work machine, which means after I've done some useful work (because, you know, self-discipline and all that. Lack discipline? Use an app such as Freedom that prevents you getting onto the internet altogether, or blocks certain sites until a time you set).

This is the great thing about teaching. You teach that which you most need to learn, and by being forced to set a good example to your students (because who wants to be a hypocrite?) you get better at the things you care about.

Right, that's 1300 words of creative writing done. What next? Should I open up Scrivener and get to work on the next book? Or dash on over to Facebook and see who's been getting up to mischief?

Creating a card game to teach the basic theory and terminology of a medieval combat system was really hard. Audatia is done though: four glorious character decks and two expansion packs; piled up on my desk they really look like we created something.

When people hear about it, the most common reaction is “wow, that’s cool!” or words to that effect. The next most common reaction is some variation on “but I had that idea!” Sometimes that comes with the feeling “I’m so glad somebody is doing it”, but sometimes I get the impression that the person felt that by having the idea they had somehow staked out that creative territory and were annoyed that I was encroaching on it. An idea that they had done absolutely nothing to bring into being.

The same is true with writing. I hear a lot of “I wish I was a writer”, or, “I want to write books too”. I don’t really get it, to be honest. If you want to do something, do it. 99% of the obstacles preventing you are between your ears. If The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could be written by Jean Dominic Bauby just being able to blink one eye, letter by letter, or my wife’s friend Roopa Farooki can manage two jobs, four children and a commute and still be a successful novelist, really what’s your excuse? Everybody can find half an hour a day to blast out text if they really want to. If they really, really want to. Because it is hard.

And I think that’s the crux of it. Having the idea is easy, costs nothing, and feels good. Executing the idea is often brutally hard, a marathon of sprints, exhausting, frustrating, painful and at the end of it all it might still fail or flop.

I often get what I think are brilliant ideas that I know for a sure and certain fact I’m never going to execute. Here are three.

The Writer’s Briefcase

I had this idea while watching my kids in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Michaela and I were tag-teaming; she had gone off for a wander leaving me supervising the little artists.

Piazza del Campo. Great place for ideas…
The writer's briefcase. Every writer should have one…

And I thought how handy it would be to have a consistent work set-up, that folded away into a briefcase. I was inspired by the idea behind the Roost laptop stand. The key points are:

  • Easy access: you can pull the laptop out, plonk it on your lap and work, or open the case on a table and have at least your laptop, mouse and notepad to hand. Or you can spend a couple of minutes doing the full set-up with the Roost and all.
  • Modular design: if you need to take research books, an ipad, or whatever else with you, you can attach additional modules, like MilTec only in nicer colours. Oh, alright. We'll do one in black if we must.

This could be produced quite easily: find a bag designer, raise funds on kickstarter, have cool names for different models (by writing space “the garrett”, “the studio”, “the atelier”; by author “the Dickens”, “the Austen”, “the Shakespeare”), have young chaps with beards and tight jeans rave about it, and you’re over 100k in minutes. Really, luggage is so in right now.

The Tripod standing desk

Continuing the theme of writing set-ups (as my regular readers know, I’m something of an ergonomics afficionado): one reason I don’t like working in cafes and other public places is the utter lack of standing desks with keyboard shelf at exactly the right height, monitor at exactly the right height, and so on. The problem of a stable, strong, and portable vertical support has been solved for decades: the photographer’s tripod.

So how about a light, collapsible two-level desk (keyboard and laptop) that fits on a standard tripod mount? You could even have a tripod pouch on the “atelier” above. The base level would be adjusted through the tripod itself; the monitor/laptop level would be adjustable through how it fits to the keyboard shelf.

A standing desk you can take anywhere? Huzzah!

Genius.

The Bladebell

This is one project that I took all the way from basic idea through first production run, but then it stalled. In short, it’s an Indian club with edge alignment and sword-handling capabilities. They are actually really good; I use mine all the time. I was really careful to get the mass and point of balance just right so they stress the hand like a longsword. You can do all your grip changes, blows, and everything except actual strikes and pair drills with them, as well as everything you would do with a standard Indian club. I even shot some video of how to use them:

 

I made a couple of prototypes, and got the excellent chaps at Purpleheart Armory to make a batch of 12 pairs, which were sold at WMAW in (I think) 2011. They all sold, but somehow Purpleheart and I never quite got round to marketing them properly so they never took off.

Rather than keep these to myself, I would rather that somebody takes them and runs with them. Go ahead, make millions, and give me a lift in your Ferrari one day.  I recently let the url “bladebell.com” lapse; if you want it, it’s yours.

Give away your best ideas.

Seriously. Give away all your best ideas. It’s quite safe. The chances of somebody else having the grit to execute your vision is vanishingly small. And if they do, all it means is that your own execution was inadequate. In these cases, I’ve no interest in becoming a bag designer, writing ergonomics company director, sports equipment manufacturer, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being any of these things, they’re just not me.

And I think that’s where the idea versus execution problem really lies. It’s in our nature to have ideas. It’s also in our nature to flit from one to the other until something grips and won’t let go. All of the skills around execution can be learned or hired. The one thing that can't be learned or hired is the sheer stubbornness to see it through until your idea is made flesh. You just have to want it and give up whatever needs to be given up to make it happen.

So, if any of these bite you in the arse and won't let go, take them with my blessing and execute the sh*t out of them.

Some stuff to be done…

This has been quite a month. Since May 1st, here are the projects I have been working on, and some of the stuff I have done, in no particular order.

  • Finishing and publishing the first three instalments of my Swordsman’s Quick Guide series.
  • Working on a complete rewrite of Veni Vadi Vici.
  • Installing a new kitchen in our apartment
  • Moving back into our apartment after the plumbing work.
  • Working on the Liechtenauer expansion pack for Audatia.
  • Preparing my Realities of Steel presentation for Ropecon.
  • Attending Ropecon for three days, mostly playtesting Audatia, and giving the presentation.

All of this in addition to the usual:

  • Teaching at the Salle
  • Running the school, organising seminars etc.
  • Writing this blog
  • And maintaining at least acceptable competence as parent and spouse.

So, as you may imagine, I’ve been a bit busy. But I do not multi-task. So you might very well ask, how do I manage all this?

The short answer is “I don’t”. I let some things slide. Email and social media are the first to go; some poor folk waited two weeks for a reply to some queries. And it’s been a while since my last post, no?

The longer answer is, “prioritise, and do things bit by bit.”

I also delegate where possible.

Let me enlarge on this a bit.

Every project is broken down into tasks. You cannot possibly fit a kitchen. It's too much. So instead one day I laid the floor. On another I painted the ceiling. On another I sanded the worktops. On another I fitted the handles. On any given day, I have only one task. So, today might be the day for sanding down the kitchen surfaces. Or writing a blog post. Or working on Veni Vadi Vici. I start with that, and keep going until I need to stop, or until I finish a given milestone: first draft written; three more chapters proofread; surfaces oiled, whatever.

Then I start on the next project, or lie on the sofa and watch TV, or whatever else I actually feel like, because the day’s work is done. I don’t always get to choose which task is next; those with hard deadlines (like preparing a presentation for an agreed date) go before those with soft ones (finish the Veni Vadi Vici rewrite), but wherever possible, I wake up in the morning with only one work thing to do that day.

Quite often, a task I have built up in my mind as huge and difficult gets done in minutes instead of hours; but my wife will tell you that I have a terrible habit of thinking something will only take an hour or two, and it takes days instead. That’s also sort of part of the system; by underestimating the difficulty of the project I increase the likelihood that I will actually commit to it; once the commitment is there, the task will be done, just not necessarily on schedule. (I hear my Audatia supporters grinding their teeth… the Liechtenauer Expansion is a year late, and it’s my fault for underestimating the time).

I only ever work at 80% capacity or better. If I find that a task is dragging, that I can’t get into the flow with it, then I switch to something I can flow into. So up to a point, my subconscious chooses my tasks for me, and this is a skill I have deliberately developed over many years; I have trained my instinct to tell me what I should be doing. I often don’t know when I wake up in the morning what I will be working on that day. But then I find a particular file open on the computer, or I find myself assembling a tool kit in my head, and just go with it. Dammit, I do use my feelings, Ben!*

I wanted my series out and off my desk this month, as a matter of urgency. So I put that first, and duly published on May 8th. In that week, if (for example) my wife asked me something about the kitchen, I’d say “I don’t care”. Or somesuch. Because right then the only thing I did care about was the series. The major kitchen project was not the one thing I was doing right then.

Task switching has only one useful function: it can be used as a way of productive procrastination, or a rest. If I get tired typing: great, time to put up the shelves in my study. If I’m exhausted from fitting the kitchen: perfect time to run errands. This goes further: I never work late at night. Because with enough rest, food and sleep, I can get twice as much done the next day. Really, it is so much better to work 10 hours at 100% than it is to work 20 hours at 50%.

If I ever am stuck for which task to prioritise, I use a pencil and paper and write down everything that’s pressing. Usually the one on the top of the list is the one I should be working on that day. Also, projects that are likely to make money take precedence over those that cost money. [One corollary to that; when paying bills in a time of cash shortage, I prioritise them according to their impact on the creditor's cashflow. Freelancers get paid before big companies, big companies before governments.]

One trick that I find helps with managing tasks of different sizes, is get one or two of the small ones done first. For example, when I was fitting out my wife’s walk-in wardrobe, I also needed the same toolkit for putting up a shelf in the loo. I did the shelf first, because it got it off my plate, and gave me a feeling of “I’ve actually accomplished something today”, which I could ride on through the tedium of laying floor, drilling 8000 holes for shelving etc. through the rest of the day. If I had left it as something to do after the wardrobe, I would have been too tired to bother with it.

some stuff done. Tiles, painting, tidy up the dishwasher, still to do.

So right now, there are many large tasks waiting, but I also got the balcony table trimmed down a bit, something I’ve been meaning to do for seven years. Having the necessary tools here for the kitchen made resizing the table a small task, easily done in an hour or two.

Delegation is hard, especially on a tight budget when you can’t just hire someone. (I got a lot of help from my friend and student Henry on fitting the kitchen; he did much of the actual fitting on the weekend I was at Ropecon, for example.) But one thing I have delegated a lot of is food-making. My wife and I are way busy, and the kitchen appliances aren’t connected yet (long story), so we have been eating out a lot, delegating the cooking and clean up. It’s not the cheapest or best option, but an ok compromise. But I am so looking forward to getting to play with the gorgeous new induction hob and steam oven…

So, my system in brief, is something like this:

1) Prioritise

2) Do only one thing at a time.

3)  Only work at efficient rates.

4) Leave things of low priority undone

5) Delegate where possible

And one last thing. When a project is not going well, or I find myself stuck or about to take short cuts, I envision a student, and teach them how to do it. While doing the kitchen surfaces, I was running into serious fatigue-related problems, but did not want to switch tasks, so I decided to take my imaginary student, and create a video for her. This is perhaps the worst how-to video in history, because it was not really made for the watcher; it was made because having the video running gave me access to greater reserves of patience. And I threw it up online on the off-chance that somebody somewhere might find it useful, but basically unedited, because I’m too damn busy right now to carefully craft a how-to-sand-and-oil-kitchen-worktops video. It’s not on my to-do list.

* Readers who do not get this reference seriously need to go watch the original Star Wars movie. Right now.

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