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Can We Really Trust These Types of Techniques to Make Us Productive?

View City

Maybe it’s a control issue. I do not like the thought of being told to stop writing. I do not like being interrupted. Especially by a machine. And I’m not alone in this.

Most creative people will take your head off if you butt in while they are flowing. Man.

But that’s exactly what the Pomodoro technique does, a time management trick designed to boost your productivity.

The concept is simple: set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes and work until it rings. Then take a short break.

Eugene Schwartz swore by a similar method. He gunned for 33.33 minutes (not sure how he managed the .33 part given he wasn’t using a digital clock — I guess he eyeballed it).

During those 33 plus minutes he could do anything he wanted: stare out the window, drink coffee, drool on his wrist, or write the ad.

The hitch? He couldn’t leave his seat for nothing.

The hope was he’d get so bored he’d just write. And soon enough that’s what would happen.

This burst of focus time is getting longer

Julia Gifford and her crew studied the habits of the most effective people and spotted what they thought was the productivity sweet spot: fifty-two minutes on, and seventeen minutes off.

The headline says it all: “The Rule of 52 and 17: It’s Random But It Ups Your Productivity.” The article, however, focuses less on the 52 and more on the 17. It’s the breaks she emphasizes that make us more productive.

I’m down with that.

And the fifty-two minutes sounds more like my style, but still, don’t interrupt me. Let me keep pushing and pushing until the end of that article. It could be my first draft or my thirtieth revision.

Sometimes it’s a straight four-and-a-half hours on, and an hour off. Yes, sans bathroom break.

Why? Resumption lag: “the time that is needed to collect one’s thoughts and restart a task once the interruption is over,” as studied by Erik M. Altmann from the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University and J. Gregory Trafton with the Naval Research Laboratory.

And if it takes roughly sixteen minutes to resume work, then under the Pomodoro regime you’ve only got nine minutes of focused time. Under the Schwartz scheme you have a little longer, say seventeen minutes. And much longer if you follow the average from Gifford’s study.

The point of this post is two-fold, though. One, find a rhythm that fits your disposition. And two, focus for long periods of time. See if you’re not a more efficient writer in the end.

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Publish Your Ideas So You Are Forced to Come Up with New Ones

Bend in the Road

Some times I wish I’d not published a certain article on my site (or a guest blog) so I can publish it on Copyblogger.

While I’ll reach the largest audience there, the wait list is long, meaning I’d be sitting on more ideas than I’m comfortable with.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this: that that content is out there is a good thing. It is territory I’ve already covered.

I covered it out of necessity. The schedule demanded it and the audience needed it.

Now, I can move onto something else. A new challenge: how to write something without repeating myself. How to repackage an old idea so it seems new.

One of my greatest fears (outside of obscurity) is going stale.

Publishing what I write on a regular basis forces me to stay fresh. To limit over thinking and encourage more writing. It forces me to come up with new ideas.

And even if I don’t always succeed, I’m still practicing.

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Tricks to Capture Ideas (Without Using Your Hands)

Brains

It’s funny. How we forget things. Sublime reflections and exalted ideas. Like they were never even there. But if they were so sublime and exalted, why did they not remain with us?

And it’s funny how we fear losing these ideas. The lengths we will go to preserve them. The legends are legion.

Keeping waterproof slates in your shower. Talking into your phone’s voice memo while you pump gas on a dusty August day. Scribbling in your tiny notepad in the dark of night so you don’t wake your spouse. In the morning light, however, the handwriting is illegible. You might have well been drunk.

I know. I’ve done it.

The first four of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing are all about preserving your work. That’s forty percent. The other rules, the ones devoted to the craft of writing, have to share the remaining sixty. Think about that.

The premium we place on ideas.

But at what point do you draw the line when it comes to stopping what you are doing to record an idea: how many times do you interrupt the family dinner? The mowing of the lawn? The cross-country run?

Not to mention, there’s the risk you may interrupt the full blossoming of an idea if you prematurely stop what you are doing to write it down.

Well, this is what do you do when you can’t — or don’t — want to stop to write down an idea: either memorize it or concoct a narrative around it.

Let me show you how these work.

Memorize the idea means nothing more than repeating it until you burn it in your memory. Perhaps it was a cute little sentence that will be perfect for opening up an article. Repeat it over and over again. Just like you would memorize any other fact.

Concocting a narrative means nothing more than allowing the idea to unfold. For instance, the roads I run on are surrounded by woods and farm fields. We are outside of city limits. We are in the country. And people shoot guns in the country.

I don’t go a day without hearing a shot fired. Somewhere far away, of course. Maybe they’re scaring away a coyote or banging a quail. Nevertheless, near enough to send my brain into a creative rampage. And the only way I can corral these ideas is to embed them into a story — with vivid milestones.

When I get home I take a shower and eat breakfast. When I finally sit down at my desk I open one of my notebooks, mechanical pencil in hand, and use those milestones to walk my way back to the original idea.

By the way, the last three posts were inspired by this podcast.

Image source: Brains

Blank Page? Pillage the Cutting Room Floor

Drive In Movie

Johnny Depp, based on his performance in the television crime drama 21 Jump Street, acted in Oliver Stone’s anti-war movie Platoon. This included two major dialog scenes with William Defoe. Those sections of the film, however, fell to the cutting room floor, victim of Oliver Stones’ ruthless editing.

This is not unusual.

Directors cut scenes for many reasons: a subplot doesn’t push the story forward, a scene disrupts pacing, or the director has entirely too much material (see Malick’s Thin Red Line).

Deleted scenes aren’t thrown out. Instead, they are labeled and stored for later use.

Writer, you, too, have deleted scenes. Content that hits the cutting room floor. Don’t give up on it. Repurpose it.

  • Fish through cut material when looking for new ideas.
  • Keep a series alive with related chunks from the past.
  • Resurrect once two-bit content when the topic finally becomes hot (for whatever reason).

And where do you find your cut material?

  • Look through your revision files on WordPress (section just below your text editor).
  • Label Word documents different versions as you rewrite.
  • Dig through old emails to find older versions of your documents you sent to a friend or editor.

Who knows, you might find an idea you once thought lost.

Share your thoughts on Google+.

Image source: Valley Drive In Theater

How to Find All Those Good Ideas Lost in Your Head

Smith Corona

We hoarde ideas so we don’t have to deal with the blank page. And we accumulate, store, and organize those ideas.

Some of us are better at this than others. If you are like me, then you are a vacuum. Nothing is sacred. You swallow the world around you like a renegade sink hole.

Books, articles, videos, movies, songs, images, conversations. The best of us can’t keep up with it all. It is the back of a cereal box at breakfast. An American Scientific article in the bathroom. A TED talk while you sit in your dentist’s chair.

Then there’s the stack of notebooks. The stack of notecards. Napkins and sheets of paper covered with drawings, concepts, and objectives stuffed into a leather legal portfolio.

Yet we still stare at the blank page. Disabled in the face of so much material. Material that seems, after re-reading, weird at best. Wasn’t there something more profound than this?

Possibly it is still in your head. Buried. All you need to do is kick up the dirt. By picking up your journal or opening your laptop and writing: “I had this idea. Now it doesn’t seem very good, but there was something else … oh, yeah ….”

A page later and a catalog of good ideas are marching toward you. A page later and a catalog of ideas are forming a circle around you.

Here’s the moral of the story: trust the process. The mind engaged will pillage the ideas in your head. It’s an act of discovery. And the act of writing initiates it.

Share your thoughts on Google+.

Image source: Smith-Corona

How You Begin a Sentence Matters, 1946 Study Says

five words in bad neon

And how you end a sentence, too. What is in the middle, not so much.

We know this from some studies that flushed out a couple of effects you are probably familiar with.

The first one is primacy, and it refers to our tendency to remember items at the beginning of a list. For example, read the following words:

  • wanweird
  • pluvial
  • williwaw
  • punnet
  • mot
  • slake
  • wayfarer
  • contiguous
  • coxcomb
  • farceur
  • hibernaculum
  • schmaltz
  • fiddlesticks
  • cathexis

Now, without looking at the list, how many of those words do you remember? Write them down if it helps.

More than likely you will only remember the first word. Maybe the second. Chances are you’ll also remember two or three words at the end of the list (which is known as the recency effect).

What you won’t remember are any of the words in the middle.

Furthermore, studies suggest you’ll always remember more words from the end of the list than from the beginning simply because those are the last words you read. Thus, recency.

Together primacy and recency make up the serial position effect, a term coined by German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus (1850 – 1909). This can be seen in the serial position curve:

Serial_position

In 1946, Solomon E. Asch upped the ante with studies that evaluated the impact the position of words had on people. He shared these results in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The study we care about involves how we position adjectives to describe a person.

Read the following two sentences.

  • “Steve is smart, diligent, critical, impulsive, and jealous.”
  • “Steve is jealous, impulsive, critical, diligent, and smart.”

These two sentences contain the same information. However, when a group of participants were given the first sentence, they reported “Steve” in a positive light. The group given the second sentence? Yep. They reported “Steve” in a negative light.

The uses for this should be obvious (Frank Luntz anyone?)

Thirty years later William Crano decided to sharpen the distinction the impact order has on meaning. His studies uncovered additional effects, particularly with the use of adjectives:

  • Change of meaning hypothesis: Early adjectives establish an expectation, which the reader then filters all the subsequent adjectives through.
  • Inconsistency discounting: Adjectives presented later that don’t match earlier expectations are downgraded.
  • Attention decrement hypothesis: Early adjectives wield considerable influence than later ones.

These conclusions are important when it comes to persuasive writing for several reasons.

For instance, we often bury critical information regarding instructions in the second or third sentence of a paragraph. Most people only read the first sentence of a paragraph. And of that first sentence, because of the unbreakable law of the web, most people only read the first half before moving on.

In such cases, primacy is more important. But there are times when recency is just as important.  Take this long-winded sentence from Lisa Miller’s 2012 article “Listening to Xanax“:

Twenty years ago, just before Kurt Cobain blew off his head with a shotgun, it was cool for Kate Moss to haunt the city from the sides of buses with a visage like an empty store and for Wurtzel to confess in print that she entertained fantasies of winding up, like Plath or Sexton, a massive talent who died too soon, “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven.”

That it ends with “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven” is not an accident.

Decisions had to be made when crafting that sentence. Guaranteed it did not flow from Miller’s mind in the published form. It was a piecemeal affair, an experimentation with effect.

And this is the craft of writing. The creativity that can’t be rushed.

Drop me a comment here.

What Creativity Must Mean to a Copywriter

Bridge Lights

Christian Menn. Jenn Muller. Eugene Figg. John Roebling. Joseph Strauss. Santiago Calatrava Valls. Charles Alton Ellis.

Civil engineers who built beautiful bridges. That worked.

This is why I bring this up:

Great copywriting, in its way, is not unlike engineering. Engineering can lead to art, but when it does, the art must flower on top of dozens, even hundreds, of practical considerations.

No one will deny that the catenary curve of a bridge is a lovely and sweeping thing. However, the bridge is built for a purpose other than art; it must conform to engineering principles; and we know that it will stand.

A pure artist might design a much more wonderful and aesthetic bridge; but it might not withstand hurricane winds, or the pounding of thousands of heavy, eight-wheel trucks.

From pages 85-86 in Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves.

Albert Lasker. Mel Martin. Eugene Schwartz. Robert Collier. Victor Schwab. David Ogilvy. John Caples. Maxwell Sackheim. Bill Jayme.

Like Reeves, these were copywriters who wrote beautiful copy. That drove results.

This is the point. Advertising comes in two flavors: artistic and mechanical.

One obscures the message and is judged by its originality. It conforms to principles of art. The other clarifies the message and is judged by performance. It conforms to principles of copywriting.

One is a monument. The other is a tool. One is meant to attract attention at a distance. The other is meant to absorb traffic. To steer readers into action.

In other words, it is meant to work. Share your thoughts on Google+.

Crash Course on Creativity

News from Afar

Here are four articles and six TED Talk videos to boost your creativity right now.

5 Habits of the Most Creative People | Drake Baer

“What do a startup king, a social network innovator, a hip hop prince, perhaps the best actor on television, and two absolutely hilarious dudes have in common? They’re all among the Most Creative People–and we can learn quite a bit from the way they work.”

Nabokov on Inspiration and the Six Short Stories Everyone Should Read | Maria Popova

“Nabokov addresses the dismissive attitude many “serious” writers take toward the notion of inspiration — an attitude that E. B. White had expressed three years prior in his famous Paris Review interview, stating that “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

How Creative Parents Influence Their Potentially Creative Children | Freakonomics

“A short paper published by NBER from authors Albert N. Link and Christopher J. Ruhm takes a simple but oft-neglected look into patents and creativity; namely, how creative parents influence their potentially creative children.”

How to Break Out of a Creative Rut | Blue Glass

“We’re all inherently creative, but to varying degrees we allow that natural gift to be blocked. So, here’s a handy resource with some of our favorite way to get your creative juices flowing.”

Here are the TED Talks …

How to build your creative confidence | David Kelley

“Is your school or workplace divided into “creatives” versus practical people? Yet surely, David Kelley suggests, creativity is not the domain of only a chosen few. Telling stories from his legendary design career and his own life, he offers ways to build the confidence to create.”

Taking imagination seriously | Janet Echelman

“Janet Echelman found her true voice as an artist when her paints went missing — which forced her to look to an unorthodox new art material. Now she makes billowing, flowing, building-sized sculpture with a surprisingly geeky edge. A transporting 10 minutes of pure creativity.”

Your brain on improv | Charles Limb

“Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds. (Filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic.)”

Your elusive creative genius | Elizabeth Gilbert

“Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.”

Schools kill creativity | Ken Robinson

“Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.”

Embrace the remix | Kirby Ferguson

“Nothing is original, says Kirby Ferguson, creator of Everything is a Remix. From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, he says our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform.”

If you love what you just read, then subscribe to CopyBot. And follow me on Google+.

Originally published on Google+: Crash Course on Creativity.

Image source: News from Afar

A Crash Course on Storytelling

Air Mail

Here are three articles and six TED Talk videos to help you bone up on the art of successful story telling.

How to Tell a Story — Right Now — From a Master of Improv

“Upright Citizen Brigade founding member Matt Besser is one of the world’s leading improvers. Here, the off-the-cuff expert offers wisdom on how to free associate your way to solid spontaneous storytelling.”

How to Captivate Your Audience with Story (From America’s Greatest Living Playwright)

“David Mamet, America’s greatest living playwright, has forgotten more about all this than ten internet marketing gurus sipping mojitos in San Jose will ever know. A few years ago, a memo surfaced, written by Mamet to the clan of writers working on his television show. This little memo is actually more a master class in writing and storytelling.”

How to tell a story like a stand up comic

“Telling a story like a stand-up takes practice and there are key points to remember. Believe it or not, most stand-up comics are not wildly adventurous individuals who have hilarious things happen to them every day. What they’ve learned, however, is that it’s not the story, but rather how it’s told.”

Here are six TED talks on storytelling 

“Why do we love our favorite stories? Do they need a beginning, middle and end, and a character who changes by the conclusion? Masters of storytelling explore new answers to age-old questions of the craft.”

And for those who are counting … I’m just about two weeks behind on my Education of a Writer series. But I promise you a new chapter on this Monday, July 1.

It’s called “Still Life.”

This will be totally different from the preceding fourteen chapters. I promise. In fact, I’ll have to explain what is going on so you aren’t totally scratching your heads.

Until then, feel free to catch up on the series. I appreciate every single one of you. Thank you!

If you love what you just read, then subscribe to CopyBot. And follow me on Google+.

Image source: Air Mail

Top 10 Worst Creativity Tips of All Time

Electric Candles

What do you get when you cross a cranky writer with an opium-induced dream? Nothing to gawk at, normally.

But English poet Samuel Coleridge defied the odds and cranked out an unforgettably creepy poem called “Kubla Khan“. [Read more...]