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Running and writing

why-running-and-writing-are-mutually-reinforcing-habits

Running and writing are an excellent pairing.

I don’t mean literally writing while you run. I can’t see how that could work particularly well.

What I mean is that if you write and if you run you develop mutually reinforcing habits that can help you improve your writing practice and stay healthy at the same time.

Since I started running longer distances, I have no doubt that my writing workflow has improved considerably.

This post explains why I think running and writing go so well together:

Working Towards Long-Term Goals

Signing up to a long distance running race when you’re out of shape seems pretty daunting. You can’t go from running a 5km to a half-marathon overnight.

When I signed up to my first half-marathon it was clear that I needed a solid plan to get me over the finish line in one piece. I had 9 weeks to prepare but this plan couldn’t be too detailed – or else it would fall apart when I missed a run – or too loose – or else I wouldn’t do enough training.

My running plan, like any good plan, needed to be flexible in order to be effective.

Committing to a large writing project is also a daunting prospect, especially when you’re starting from scratch. You need a plan, but you also need to bake-in flexibility.

My running has taught me to calm down and focus on creating a flexible but useful plan that acknowledges that I’m human and has plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Life WILL get in the way of both running and writing. For some reason, that took me a while to learn. If your writing schedule doesn’t acknowledge this inescapable fact then you are needlessly setting yourself up for failure and disappointment.

And you don’t want that.

The Great Scottish Run was pretty great

 

Doing a Little Bit Every Day

Good race training is about slowly putting miles on your legs. You need to run enough miles each week to build up your stamina and be ready for the big day.

Daily motivation to build up those miles can be a tricky thing.

Sometimes I’ve planned to run a 5km but it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. I know I can run a 12km, so why bother with a 5km? But the point is to add cumulative miles each week. You need to do the short runs as well as the long runs to get enough miles.

Applied to writing, my lesson from running is that it’s better to do something than nothing. A quick 5km is as good as a 10km just as 150 words is as good as 1500 words.

Consistency is key

Have 15 minutes free? Just make the effort to get some words down; it’s the cumulative effect of putting words on the page that gets writing projects done, not a 3-hour binge session once a week.

 

No Such Thing As Bad Session

Every so often the prospect of going out for a run is disheartening. I just don’t fancy it.

Maybe I don’t have the energy, or my mind is racing, but I still put on my shoes and go out. These are the days where I trust my training schedule, roll up my sleeves (literally, Irun in a long sleeved top :-) ), and do the work.

When I finished my first half-marathon, my better half asked what the most satisfying part was. My initial thought was ‘crossing the finish line’, but that wasn’t it.

The most satisfying part was thinking back to those days that I really didn’t want to run, had no energy or desire, but clocked a 5km anyway. It was completing those hard runs that got me over the finish line and meant that I could I enjoy race day.

Applied to my writing, I’ve managed to convince myself that banging out even 500 mediocre words sometimes qualifies as a good day’s work. It’s showing up and writing even when I really don’t want to that gets projects finished.

It’s too easy to think ‘I’m not in the mood today, I might as well as start fresh tomorrow’. But in both running and writing, it’s so much better to power through and keep going. I now trust that in the end that it will be persevering during those grim days that will get me through the project.

A Time to Think and a Time to Do

I know that a lot of people hate running because they think it’s boring. For me, running is perfect because of the monotony.

It’s the one part of my day when I’m disconnected, uncontactable, and left to myself. I often run without music or podcasts to just let my mind settle and ponder the flotsam in my head.

The interwebs is awash with articles on meditation and mindfulness these days. For me, running ticks all the boxes for mediation best practice: I focus on my breathing; I acknowledge my thoughts; I focus on the present as I watch the world race by.

Running and writing satisfy completely different – but complementary – parts of my brain. When I write I’m processing, tweaking, focusing on the minutiae of words, sentences, paragraphs. When I’m running there’s no agenda and my mind can settle and think about whatever it likes.

Basically, as well as relax I get loads of ideas when I run. When I’m finished, these ideas get written up in my idea diary.

Then, when the time comes, I write these ideas up, applying the planning, consistency, and perseverance lessons I’ve developed through running.

Writing and running. It’s a beautiful relationship.

Summary – Running and writing are ace

I’m no competitor. I run slowly (plod might be a better descriptor). When I run, it’s for relaxation, getting away from the desk, and sweating a bit. There’s no other goal, but the side effects are amazing:

  • Ideas strike me
  • I feel energised
  • I sleep better.
  • Every time I’m in training for a big run I relearn the value of daily work in achieving my long-term goals

You won’t (EVER) see me up on a podium, but I love my running and I think my writing does too :-)

Try these for further reading:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The Way of the Runner: A journey into the fabled world of Japanese running

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

 

Topics to blog about

 

content-ideas

It’s a horrible affliction.

You want to write. You NEED to write – your job depends on it. But you sit down ready to get the work done … and nothing happens.

Inspiration doesn’t strike and you don’t know what to write.

This is blank-page syndrome. The glaring white screen crushes you and forces you to back down. You’ll write tomorrow when you have a better, clearer idea. Maybe.

End This Madness!

I’ve committed to beating blank-page syndrome this year with a content idea diary.

Every weekday this year I’ll write down 10 ideas for blog posts, articles, or ebooks. There are no constraints as the objective is quantity over quality. When I need inspiration for something to write I’ll turn to my idea diary and pick over the ideas I’ve been steadily collecting.

content-idea-diary

Ain’t it a beauty?!

I’m hoping that this new habit will:

  • Establish momentum – It would be great if my mind gets better at conjuring up content ideas with this daily practice
  • Create an idea bank – when I’ve made time to sit down and write I’ll have a collection of thoughts I’d like to develop
  • Banish blank-page syndrome forever – it’s time to banish this terrible affliction. My idea diary is my vaccination.

Separating Out the Writing Workflow

I’ve written before about how I like to be very clear about what specific writing task I’m working on. I use a few different tools so that tasks are broken down into manageable chunks, which helps me stay focused on exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

(You can see which tools I like to use here.)

To get my writing done I schedule time for mind-mapping, for first drafts, and for editing. The point of the idea diary is to add a new first step to my writing workflow. Now there’s a step before the mind-mapping that encourages me to be consistent in developing new ideas.

Every day I allocate time for ideas, mind-mapping, drafting, and editing. It doesn’t matter which project I’m working on, when my calendar tells me to, I switch software and work on another of these tasks. This keeps things fresh and moves projects down the production line. At deadline time things might get fuzzier, but on the whole this is how I work.

The Creativity Muscle

creativity-muscle

The idea diary concept comes from James Altucher. He suggests that creativity is like a muscle, and therefore needs to be exercised to avoid atrophy. You can rarely force yourself to be creative out of the blue, so you need to work at being creative in order to draw on your creativity when it’s required.

To become an ‘idea machine’ James says you should take a notebook, go to a coffee shop, and start making lists of ideas. If you come up with 10 a day, that’s 3650 a year, and – you’d hope – at least some of those will be good.

In my version of this deliberate daily practice I’ve chosen to focus on content ideas (rather than business ideas) because coming up with content ideas for my clients happens to be my job. A stronger creative muscle would be fantastic; it would make my job easier!

What is success?

I’m interested to see how this habit evolves. After 3 working days of 2016, so far so good. My concern is that I’ll end up repeating similar ideas again and again, but I won’t know if that’ll be the case until I try. At the very least I’m going to sit down and ‘be creative’ for 10 minutes each day. Surely that can only be a good thing.

I feel like I should plug my new business at this point :-) – If you’re struggling for ideas to write about on your blog then get in touch and we’ll work something out.

Best of luck meeting your own writing goals for 2016!

 

Going paperless is not the answer

going-paperless-is-not-the-answerThe paperless promise:

To someone who grew up in the 90s it sounds like a futuristic tech fantasy: All your books and notes on one device, instantly accessible, and with perfect recall. It will be as if technology has made your brain obsolete.

Your main task will be merely to add more information to the pile.

Tom Cruise demonstrates the paperless dream in Minority Report.

Tom Cruise demonstrates the paperless dream in Minority Report.

But don’t worry, you’ll barely need to read it, let alone understand it. All this information will be automatically organized, classified, and optimized.

Scarily, this vision is here already.

Do a tinsy bit of googling and you’re certain to find all manner of inventive and clever workflows that automate this, produce that, and encourage you to sign up to the latest hot web tool. You can now achieve the paperless dream.

But is this exciting paperless technology really all that it’s cracked up to be?

I think we should be a little more critical of the technology that’s constantly thrown our way. I’m more guilty than most in buying into the paperless dream, but as I bring one large project to completion and start on the next, I’ve given some close thought to my paperless aspirations.

Here are some thoughts on what paperless is trying to do, the costs of going all-digital, and some of the ways I’ve tried to take the benefits without making the sacrifices.

Your goal:

CC Image courtesy of mrsdkrebs on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of mrsdkrebs on Flickr

Let’s start with a question: besides looking like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, what benefit does committing to going paperless give you?

For you, personally, right now, what’s the attraction of the paperless dream?

Are you looking to make a particular task easier? Or are are hoping something new and shiny will overcome your problems with motivation and procrastination?

“Things would be so much easier if [insert paperless tool here] was part of my workflow…” – Me.

Searching for productivity ‘hacks’ has become a procrastination fetish for many of us. It’s something that I’ve caught myself doing and have aggressively cut down on. There are infinite articles that speak to our anxiety of not being productive enough – we’ve all been down that internet wormhole. [Someone should do a study on the economic cost of our constant search for productivity tips.]

Are the promises that the advice and tools leading us towards the paperless promised-land realistic?

‘You could be so much more productive if only you signed up to our tool.’ – ACME corp.

It’s so easy to buy into that message. Paperless seems to be the way forward, so you ask yourself why you haven’t done these things already. You’re promised that when you get there you’ll be a productivity God/Goddess, so of course you sign up to that new tool.

Before long you’re taking your laptop everywhere, only read on a kindle, and refuse to use a pen. If it’s not digital, it doesn’t matter. (A slightly exaggerated me.)

This might seem like an unrealistic situation and something that you’d never do, but, unchecked, it’s the direction we’re heading in.

The costs of going paperless:

Brokenlaptop

The all-digital, paperless utopia has a darker side.

I don’t want to suggest that everything is awful – there are very obviously useful tools that can massively improve the way you work – but it’s not all milk and cookies.

There are an increasing number of studies that suggest your brain might not like it so much. In fact, much of this research is suggesting that you should go paperless only with extreme caution.

If you’re going to make a commitment to go paperless, you should be sure to understand the sacrifice you’re making by ditching your pen for a stylus and notebook for an iPad.

Here are a few things to consider if, like me, you spend most of your time in front of one screen or another:

  • Taking notes on your computer has been shown to lead to worse comprehension.

The suggestion here is that using pen and paper trumps typing digital notes when remembering conceptual information in the longer term. When you’re typing information up there’s a tendency to transcribe rather than to process and synthesise information in your own way.

Not thinking about your notes before you write them prevents your brain from more fully comprehending the information that you’re attempting to capture.

people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy‘ – Pam Mueller

(The underlying study is available here)

  • Reading digital text has been shown to affect the ability to recall.

A number of studies have suggested that paper reading boosts recall ability. Paper is a physical object, which means that as you read it your brain can relate to it in different ways. This extra-dimension allows for additional memory capacity. Given that it’s important to recall details to truly ‘know’ a topic, this is certainly something to consider.

‘There is physicality in reading, maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.’ – Maryanne Wolf

ergonomic dimensions, the tactile feedback of holding paper, might actually matter‘ – Anne Mangen

people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time‘ – Kate Garland

  • Using technology increases the tendency to multitask (and procrastinate).

Rather than another cognitive study, in this article Clay Shirky writes about his classroom experience of banning technology in his lectures. His observation is that it’s undeniably harder to focus on an intellectual pursuit when using a computer. Our monkey brains will switch to the cheap rewards of Facebook notifications before too long. This is probably why Freedom App and RescueTime get so much coverage in writing circles.

‘Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.’ – Clay Shirky

A suggestion: Don’t choose between paper and paperless:

you-dont-have-to-choose

These studies give pause for thought. We need to think more carefully about what we are doing to ourselves by going paperless.

Clearly, utilising additional paperless tools does not necessarily mean a better, happier, more productive you.

There are clear costs to removing paper from your life and you do need to think carefully about when you should keep a pen in your hand.

But going paperless isn’t an either/or proposition.

It’s important to realise that there is no obligation to go all-in. Rather than committing to paperless, fudge the issue and do what works for you in certain situations. i.e. It’s ok to buy paperbacks and ebooks.

Don’t beat yourself up for not having a totalised, unified, and seamless paperless system – just make sure you can keep track of your notes wherever you put them. Taking notes on paper is going to work best in certain situations; i.e. when you are hoping to recall data in the longer term. It’s more important to have a reliable collection system than for all your writing to be born digital.

Reading and writing technologies have always evolved – and coexisted:

printing_press

Changing Our Textual Minds: Towards a Digital Order of Knowledge is a great book that charts the history of reading technologies. It prompted me to think about all the technologies I use when I read and write.

One of my big takeaways was that these technologies have always existed side-by-side, and with varying degrees of tension between them. But that’s okay.

We’re lucky to have these technologies to choose from in different situations.

To deal with some of the issues that recent studies have highlights, I’d like to see the bundling of reading technologies. Amazon has a feature where you can get the audio version of an ebook with a discount. I’d love to get a free digital version when I buy the paper version. The physical copy would be to read, the digital copy would be to have on file for recall and analysis.

In the past, I’ve digitised books after reading them in physical form and I definitely remember them better than the books I first read digital. I’d like to do more of that.

My solution to the paperless problem:

writing_notes

The evidence seems fairly clear that thinking on paper is better. Better in terms of recall and understanding.

But digital storage makes search and retrieval so much easier.

What to do?!

My own solution is to use my Black n’ Red spiral notebook for most of my jotting. I can scribble, doodle, and then tear out pages to digitise if necessary. (I use Scannable for this.)

In practice, I digitise meeting notes and semi-structured brain-dumps, but not to-do lists or rambling free writing.

I’ll make the effort to transcribe my handwritten book notes for larger, multi-year projects that benefit from text search. This includes my PhD, which I organize with Devonthink.

I mark-up PDF’s with Goodreader, using a stylus to write on the PDF. I make the digital file my own with highlights, notes, and doodles. Marginalia is more satisfying and memorable than appending typed-text notes.

[Side Note: Marginalia, a lost art]

When I want to take in a book – its information and its arguments – in a lot of detail, I will buy the hard copy. Intuitively, I know that I remember the content better, and the science seems to suggest that is indeed the case.

There is nothing like taking a red pen to a new book and making it yours. (Tim Parks thinks we should all read with a pen in our hand.)

My kindle is now mostly for fun books. The highlight feature is far too easy, there’s no real brain processing, and I rarely remember what I chose to highlight. When I do read ‘important’ books on the kindle, I make handwritten notes to slow the process down and aid comprehension.

It’s a difficult balance to make the most of the incredible tech tools we have available, but not to take so many shortcuts that the brain suffers.

I now try to read just as many articles on the effects of e-reading and handwriting than productivity-porn articles. That gives me some way to work out which paperless tools will add convenience, and which will adversely affect my recall and understanding.

Conclusion

Open-book-at-a-beach-001Will grabbing the new shiny paperless technology really advance your personal and professional goals?

This isn’t about restraint or frugality, it’s about making sure that you’re doing your brain a favour. If you’ve made the effort to foster the admirable habits of regular reading and writing, don’t sell yourself short.

There’s a balance to be had, and it’s different for everyone. I still find using Devonthink to organize information for my writing projects is incredibly useful, but I’m no longer deliberately restricting my paper production just to get digital notes into my database. The science is indicating that using pen and paper and reading physical books have too many benefits to ignore.

I’m trying to think more carefully about when I should use my paperless tools, and when it’s better to switch back to the old-fashioned way. Paperless is not always the answer and I strongly doubt paper will disappear anytime soon, at least from my desk.

Links:

The Problem With the Web and E-Books Is That There’s No Space for Them

Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction

Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension

A Weapon for Readers

A Kindle Designer’s Touching Online Memorial to the Marginalia Scribbled in Books

Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away

How to focus on writing

How-to-Write-More

Flow. A zen state of determined and effective activity. ‘The sense of effortless action we feel in moments that we see as the best in our lives.’ Recognise it?

Every once in a while, when I’m lucky, I have that feeling when working on a writing project. I’m entirely focused on writing. Wouldn’t it be great to prolong that sensation? It always seems that something comes along and knocks me out of that effortless state before I’m ready for it to end.

What exactly is flow? It isn’t some gimmicky concept. The notion has existed for a while and has been the subject of a number of well-received psychology books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, including ‘Finding Flow‘.

Here’s a TED talk from Csikszentmihalyi on Flow.

I feel this way regularly while I’m on a long distance run. The steady breathing and regular striding induces a trance-like state. In fact, the running (and walking) trail is where I do most of my real thinking: my mind drifts to what I should write about, and how I should write it. Structure outlines and full sentences form in my head; it’s great.

The problem is I can’t type while I run and dictation isn’t really an option with all the huffing and puffing. Siri isn’t *that* good.

So I’ve been thinking about how to recreate that ‘flow state’ while I’m in butt-in-chair writing mode and tackling the hard work of turning ideas into written words.

I experience my running-like flow sometimes while doing serious writing, but not as regularly as I’d like. And even when I do something inevitably comes along to shunt me out of it.

What if there was a way to prolong that state of creativity and productivity while sitting at my desk rather than running around Edinburgh? My writing sessions would be so much more productive and would also last longer.

I think I’ve found a solution. And it’s pretty geeky.

Slow TV

Which brings me to Slow TV, a concept recently revived by Norwegian public television. A 7-hour train journey from Oslo to Kirkenes was broadcast live in 2009. It was a hit. Millions of viewers have responded to not much happening on their screens.

Even the BBC has jumped on the bandwagon.

Here’s a video explanation of what Slow TV is.

I watched this talk a few months ago and, intrigued, decided to give Slow TV a go.

It turns out that watching trains trundle around Europe for hours on end is the perfect ‘non-distraction for me. Nothing really happens in these videos and that’s exactly the point. There’s no plot: it’s action without narrative. There’s no ‘hook‘, which leaves your mind free to think its own thoughts.

A Way to Write More

What does Slow TV have to do with writing?

Do you listen to anything when you write? I find silence gets boring, but most music is distracting, and Broadcast TV is a absolute no-no. I have some nifty classical music playlists, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood.

Slow TV is one way to avoid boredom *and* distraction while working. When there’s hours of journeying ahead there’s limited demand on your attention from these lengthy shows. I find that I can gaze up, look at some delightful scenery whizzing past, gather my thoughts, and then get back to writing.

Nothing about Slow TV sucks you in and diverts your focus away from writing. You aren’t missing anything when you refocus on work. Glancing up at a moving landscape doesn’t shake me out of my ‘in the zone’ feeling.

I know writers who like to work on the train or bus and I imagine that they benefit from a similar experience. Those of us who get motion sickness can now recreate the long journey writing experience. Rejoice!

When I intend to write for a few hours I now often choose a rail journey, and away I go. It seems to work.

If you can overcome the geekiness of this idea and think Slow TV might work for you, then check out a playlist I made here that will see you through many hours of writing.

I hope that Slow TV can help you write more. Or is it just me?!

4 Ideas on Creating a Daily Writing Habit

typewriter

At the start of this summer I spent some time thinking about how I would structure my day in order to get more writing done. I wanted to find a daily schedule that I could follow consistently, without the risk of burnout.

This post will outline some of the things I’ve learned about how to spend time writing productively each and every day.
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Writing 1000 words a day

lady-sitting-at-typewriter
It’s wrong, I know, but I can’t help thinking that writing is supposed to be easy.

After nearly three years of working on a PhD you would have thought I’d know better.

But I still sometimes feel that I should be able to make a cup of coffee, sit at my desk, and happily churn out thousands of perfectly formed (and cited) sentences that contribute to a tightly argued whole.

This is a fantasy and deep-down I know it. Why is it so hard to look beyond this romantic notion of writing when the reality is so different?

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