How I get Things Done: Managing my Actions

“Your mind is for getting ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

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Creative people struggle to get things done. They just do. I’ve always felt a little bit embarrassed about the fact that I write down every freaking last thing I need to do during the day in a cheap notebook and give myself a check mark or a tiny colorful sticker when I complete the task.

But, I’m currently reading The Art of Getting Things Done, and I’m feeling a whole lot more confident about my way of reminding and encouraging myself to get things done. The book is a national best-selling book by productivity consultant David Allen. It was published in 2001 and updated in 2015, and it’s a staple of productivity enthusiasts everywhere. He believes the key to managing all your stuff (for writers, think, writing projects) is managing your actions. His Getting Things Done system, often call GTD, is based on a simple fact: The more information bouncing around inside your head, the harder it is to decide what needs attention. As a result, you spend more time thinking about your tasks than actually doing them.

Allen said, “What you do with your time, what you do with information and what you do with your body and your focus relative to your priorities—these are the real options to which you must allocate your limited resources. The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real issue is how we manage actions.”

The key to managing our writing ‘stuff’ is managing our actions

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For us writers, this is key: our success depends on how we manage actions. So, fellow writers, “How are you managing your actions?”

Allen said, “In training and coaching thousands of professionals, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is): the real problem is a clack of clarity and a definition about what the project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are” (p. 19).

Do you know what your next-action steps are?

For something to be an action step, we have to be able to do something.
Writing is not just the writing, it’s all the associated tasks that go along with it: finding markets for our work, doing the research, maybe calling or emailing someone for an interview or for information, drafting, editing. So for writers, some examples of next actions steps might be:

1. Find three magazines that print the kind of article I want to write.
2. Call Deborah for quote for article
2. Outline article

Be clear about the things you have to do

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I’m currently writing a magazine article. I could write down in my bullet journal, “Work on article,” but, when you think about that seriously, it’s not actionable. “Write introduction,” is actionable. As noted above, email Deborah for a quote is actionable. For me, today’s note is: 15 minutes on article. That is actionable; then, the next question is “what is the next action?” If I don’t finish the draft today, tomorrow the action will remain: 15 minutes on article. Eventually the next action will be: proofreading and mail article.

When you define what the next action (it doesn’t need to be a BIG action) that you can take on a writing project, you have something to do. Jeff Goins, over at goinswriter.com calls it a “bias towards action” and says we need to develop it.

Find an Organization System that works for you

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You’ll be better equipped to undertake focused thinking about your writing when your tools for the actions you need to take are part of your daily organizational style.

There are lots of productivity systems and methods out there, and while some people worship one method or another, the best way to use a system that works best for your needs, not to strictly adhere to “rules.” If you want to get things done without compromising your creativity or productivity, you need a productivity system. And it needs to work. Just pick a system and use it. If it doesn’t work well for you, try another one.

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Writing Tip #15

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Part of being a successful writer is knowing your genre. If you want to publish, it is important that, whatever genre you write in, you familiarize yourself with what’s current in your genre. What was popular even ten years ago isn’t necessarily popular today. Read what’s thrilling readers today. Then write the best darn article, essay, poem, or novel that you have in you.

The *Best* Time to Write

If you’re like me, you’ve read way too many articles on how to find time to write. And none of the advice seems to work.

This is one of my favorite passages from my Ph.D. dissertation:

Much of the advice on how to finding the time to write still mirrors a patriarchal mindset. Advice offered by men has a different tone from that given by women. Atchity (2018) said, “We all have the exact same amount at our disposal: 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours each day, 168 hours each week, 8,736 hours each year. If you put one hour into a project each day for a year, you’d have worked on it for 365 hours—more than enough time to write a book, and a screenplay, and a treatment or two” (para. 6).

Aside from claiming out that this is plenty of time “to write a book, and a screenplay, and a treatment or two,” his approach is similar to many other male writers who recommend a take-no-prisoners time-management approach.

Conversely, women writers are more apt to offer advice that recognizes that women writers live in a world of jobs and children and cooking, and offer suggestions like write on your lunch break at work, after you drop the kids off at school, or while dinner’s in the oven.

McGriff (2017) is typical of many women when she says, “I have three good hours to write Monday through Thursday. That includes my lunch hour at work and two hours in the evening after my daughter goes to bed” (Tip section, para. 3).

Also, in contrast to Atchity, is female television producer and author Storey (2016) who tells women, “Think about your story while you chop vegetables, then while waiting for pots to simmer, write down those thoughts” (Tip section, para. 5).

This difference in advice on how to find time to write further illustrates the social-cultural divide between men and women. This clearly shows that the writing advice offered by men may be bad advice for women writers to follow, because it may set a standard that many women are unable to reach.

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It doesn’t matter what men writers tell you, there is no best practice for women writers.

Your writing life has to work with you: your life circumstances, who you are, where you are in life, even what kind of writing you do. (Are you writing novels or poems? The time commitment from idea to finished product is vastly different in those genres.)

A woman’s life is messy/multi-faceted/busy/overwhelming and you have to go with the flow.

Need a boost? Go back to basics.

Block out time. Schedule it as if it were a job you had to show up for every week. Tell yourself, for X amount of time, I’m going to sit at this spot, doing this work.

If you’re not currently blocking out writing time, look at your day and where you can write instead of doing something else.

Then, let the world fade, focus on your writing in that moment, and get the words on the page.

Finding Secret Undiscovered-for-Writing Pockets of Time to Write

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For a woman, every day is about making choices. Some of those choices we have no control over. We have to be at work at a certain time, pick up the kids from daycare, or take the cat to the vet. But there are other things that we do have control over: like whether or not we write.

When we own up to the fact that we really do choose whether or not to spend a piece of our day or week writing, then it’s coming from a place of empowerment. We’re in charge. We’re saying yes or no to writing at that time. That replaces victimhood.

So, let’s acknowledge there are things we must do. These things are not choices.

If your days are busy and chaotic, like mine. Then, look for those quieter moments where you can settle in and write for a little while. Do you commute to work? Can you write to and from your job? Or can you bring a sack lunch, stay at your desk and write a few days a week? How about if you treat yourself to a coffee and sandwich at a nearby coffee shop and spend that hour alone writing?

Here’s my point: If you’re truly invested in your writing, you may need to look for those secret, hidden, undiscovered-for-writing pockets of the day that don’t take away from family and home responsibilities, and do your writing at those times.

The Work-Home-Writing Juggling Act

Those days when you say, “I didn’t get very far on (fill in the blank) today,” and even though it’s driving you crazy, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer anymore.

Work-life balance is a juggling act, and life balance is an ongoing challenge for women writers. There is so much you can’t control. You can’t control when your kids or spouse gets sick, when work gets super busy, when a family responsibility superseded your desire to write.

Most of us have to balance jobs, family and writing. And it’s a fallacy that “real” writers work full time at their writing, and that’s the only thing they do. Most working writers have another job, or two, or three.

Those days when you cannot get your butt in a chair, when you can’t get words on the page, you need take a deep breath and realize that you will have time in the future, if writing is something you truly value.

When life is wild, here are three things I do:
1. I tell myself, you can do it. I write what I can. I encourage myself. I make it a point to be generous with myself.

2. I find the pockets of the day when I’m not doing anything and use that for writing.

3. Sometimes I can’t fit writing in. On those days, I take a deep breath and relax. I write down the ideas as they’re coming and I know that I’m going to get back it as some point.

Find Your Work-Life Balance

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This tightrope walk is how I feel most days. I’m trying to keep my career, my home life, my family life, my writing life in balance.

Are you envious of that sort of fluid life-writing experience that selling writers talk about? Do you wonder how you can weave writing or more writing into the moments of your day?

But for the most part, the thing of it is, you just have to do it. And that’s way easier to say than do.

First, figure out which days and for how long you can write. If it’s going to be one hour a day, if it’s going to be only two hours a week you can write.

Then, whatever time you can take to write, you do it religiously.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you write, as long as you mean it, and you stick to it. Make your routine rigorous – not hard – just rigorous. What I mean by this is that you train yourself to lock in and do it. If you miss your writing session, get right back on the horse at the next writing session time.

Here’s why: You must sit down and write. You can fix a page that has words on it. You can’t edit ideas.

Everyone’s life is busy. So, because of how life is, there will times when you just have to do things and you don’t have time to write. One on hand, it’s incredibly important than you be loyal to yourself and make your writing time happen. But on the other hand, don’t beat yourself if something interferes. Things are going to happen that you can’t foresee. As soon as you can, just get back to your writing.

Do. Not. Beat. Yourself. Up.

Be disciplined about your writing, because writing is what you want to do; but when life gets in the way be forgiving to because that’s what you need to do.