Notes: 7 Secrets of the Prolific
tl;dr: After you get past the terrible title, this is a genuinely good book to help you overcome procrastination and perfectionism, and make the most of your limited time. It's aimed at writers, but a lot of the thinking is just as relevant to, say, fitness goals.
These are notes about the book for my own reference, rather than a review of the book for someone who hasn't read it.
Most of these notes are direct quotes from the book, or close to it. If you find them valuable, _buy the book.
Do not attribute any of the below to me.
Procrastination : The problem of not being able to reliably do your writing as planned
Prolific : Someone writing at their full capacity. Not some arbitrary standard of : productivity.
Obstacles : An activity or circumstance that competes with your writing for time and : other resources, or that otherwise impedes your ability to write.
Triggers : Feelings that interfere with your ability to write.
Denial : When emotional needs cause you to either selectively consider the data : around a particular situation, or to limit the conclusions you are willing : to draw.
Selling out : When you sacrifice your writing dream to other activities, such as making : money, raising a family, or doing community work.
Stalling out : When you sacrifice everything else to your writing.
1. The Mechanics of Procrastination
1.1. Procrastination is Disempowerment
- People who procrastinate think they are lazy, but that's never the case
- You procrastinate due to outside forces disempowering you
- Some reasons you might not want to write
- project-related problems and feelings
- fear of failure or success
- resource deficiencies
- environmental deficiencies
- workplace problems
- boss problems
- competing priorities (oh boy)
- emotional distractions (yup)
- physical distractions (like, say, a lack of sleep)
- geopolitical distractions
- emotional/cognitive/learning issues
Five key lessons:
- All of the above barriers are 100% valid. It's even OK to procrastinate occasionally, just not habitually.
- They are causes for not want to write, not excuses. "Excuses" are moralistic labels that don't help.
- Our productivity is constantly under siege from many different directions
- Distinguish between obstacles and triggers
- Laziness, lack of willpower etc. are not on the list
1.2 Procrastination vs Problem Solving
There's often a self-abuse litany that runs when you fall short of your goals. Prolific writers don't indulge the litany. They skip the litany and go straight to defining the problem and then solving the problem.
Prolific writers either solve their problems quickly or re-arrange their lives so they don't have the problem at all.
Using shame and coercion as motivational tools is not just immoral, but futile.
1.3 Seven Secrets
- Identify and overcome perfectionism
- Abundantly resource yourself
- Manage your time
- Optimize your writing process
- Understand and "own" their identity as a writer
- Minimize toxic rejection
- Create liberated and empowered careers
These "secrets" get more specific to writing as they go forward
1.4 Procrastination's Quintuple Punch
- convinces us writing is easy
- leaves us terrified of failure
- perceives bullying as the only solution to procrastination
- makes us afraid
- is addictive
1.5 Block vs Snarl
The word "block" is an impediment to overcoming blocks. Think of it as a tangled snarl that needs to be untangled.
Banish both the inner & external voices that aren't assets to your process. Everyone has to pass the asset test.
Write out your snarl.
Procrastination is duplicitous. It uses denial, so be conscious. It uses deceit, often by mimicking productive work. Also, many people and society will cheer you on for choosing to do this other work rather than your writing.
Physical discomfort matters. Solve the problem. Invest in yourself.
Indecision can be debilitating. Practice making quick decisions. You will get some wrong, but don't punish yourself for mistakes. Fix them and move on.
Procrastination is not the enemy. It's a part of your psyche and is trying to help you, it's just not very good at it.
2 Overcoming Perfectionism
- hold unrealistic expectations of success and punish themselves harshly for failure
- are grandiose
- prioritize product over process
- over rely on external rewards and measures of success
- deprecate the ordinary process of creativity and career building
- overidentify with their work
Perfectionism isn't about setting high standards, it's about setting unrealistic ones.
Even reasonable goals can be grandiose if you're not willing to pursue them strategically, or make the needed investments. Success comes as a by-product of work.
Whether they realise it or not, many believe writing should be effortless.
If you overidentify with your work, then any "failure" of work becomes a death of self.
- Invidious comparisons (all the bloody time)
- Dichotomous thinking
- Negativity / cynicism
- Labeling and hyperbole
- Blind spots
To solve perfectionism and procrastination, major techniques:
- Cultivate a mindset of compassionate objectivity
- Develop the habit of abundant rewards and no punishments
- Arrive at a more mature understanding of failure and success
- Use the three productivity behaviours
- Build your capacity for fearless writing by doing timed writing exercises
- Choose the right project
- Learn to balance creative and non-creative aspects of your career
Compassionate objectivity is foundational. View yourself with abundant empathy and understanding, seeing things accurately, with all their nuanced and complexity.
Perfectionists see compassionate objectivity as permissiveness because they see everything through a harsh, judgemental lens—and they dread permissiveness because they feel that constant harshness is the only thing keeping them from devolving into useless monsters.
The voice of compassionate objectivity is sometimes described as a good grandparent or a wise teacher.
Acknowledge every success and reward yourself lavishly without fail, every time.
This will help you:
- recognize your success
- celebrate it, which reinforces the successful behaviour
- heal the burden of shame and guilt you are probably carrying around
- build your confidence and hope
- as a perfectionist, you are probably undervaluing success
- all successes are partial
- all big successes are really just compilations of small ones
A reward can be:
- a thing (gold star, cake, DVD)
- some time (celebration)
- an activity (stretch, dance)
Failure and success
Failure is an essential element of any ambitious plan, and probably our most potent path to learning and growth. It also doesn't feel very good.
Success isn't nirvana. It has its own problems.
- Showing up on time
- Doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing
- Doing it uninterruptedly for long periods of time (except for small breaks)
Timed writing exercises
- set a timer for 5m
- write in a low-stress, low-expectation, free writing way
- no pondering
Your goal is to finish your interval while maintaining a non-judgemental focus on the writing itself, as opposed to any outcome you hope for it.
When the timer is done, reward yourself! Tomorrow, do 5 minutes again. Once you can easily and consistently handle 5 minutes, gradually increase the timer.
The right project
- smallest simplest project you can
- rework to make it even simpler
- keep focus tight
- choose right goal
- creative goals
- external goals
- overall career goals
These are cumulative. Process always trumps product.
Once you can reliably write non-perfectionistically for thirty minutes, move to stage two.
If you don't care about getting paid, stay in stage two.
- anticipate plateaus and backsliding
- create a lifestyle that supports your writing (Stephen King, "I stay healthy and I stay married")
- create a supportive community
- get an instructive hobby
3. Resource constraints
- ambitious activities require many resources
- guessing at the requirements for an ambitious activity isn't enough
- requirements are: material, psychological, community
- money is a huge blind spot
- the more resources, the greater your odds of success
- it's not enough to provide a resource, you must also optimise it
- although there may be resources you yourself don't need, there are no trivial resources
- luck is crucial
- belief in self and process, a strongly held mission and/or identity are crucial
Provide yourself with abundant resources.
When working to overcome procrastination, you should have zero internet connectivity.
It's your job to articulate your needs (time, space, privacy, a new computer).
4. Time constraints
Writers need lavish time to write, think, experience and feel.
The goal of time management is to align your actions with your values.
- Time is the most valuable resource
- Invest it, don't spend it
- Things you invest quality time in improve, things you don't, won't
- Remove as much as possible to get important things done to a high degree of quality
- There is no such thing as unmanaged time. If you don't manage your time, others will manage it for you
Most valuable resource
Who'll get stronger? Someone who spends £3,000 on barbells, power rack, etc. and never uses them, or someone who does push-ups every day?
Time can create value that money cannot.
People who value their time are intolerant of wasting it. They optimize, knowing that:
- trivial savings add up
- trivia often take longer than planned, and lead to more trivia
- trivial activities can add stress or distract from more important things
The optimising voice is always gentle and helpful, never harsh or punitive.
- value small amounts of time
- invest time and money in time management
- don't do lots of housework, busywork, maintenance, don't overgive
- shorter business meetings and conversations
- invest in automation
- avoid personal and professional drama
- resilient in the face of criticism
Invest, don't spend
An investment accrues value time. An expense loses value.
Common time investment categories:
- health and fitness
- healing and recovery
- personal growth and development
- planning and management
- community / civic work
- any kind of serious vocation or hobby
- replenishing recreation
Allocate as much time to these as possible!
Most investments are fun, and when they aren't it's often because we're being perfectionist about it.
When you can't get motivated to do something you absolutely must do:
- work to overcome perfectionism and internalised oppression around it
- go deeper into it, making it an interesting challenge rather than a chore
- reframe it as empowerment
- do it with help of supportive community
The line isn't always clear. If you truly enjoy it or find it rewarding, it's probably an investment. If you doing it because you have to, or to kill time, or because it's the done thing, it's probably an expense.
Recreation has two types: replenishing and escapist. Escapist recreation like TV, videogames, social media leave us bored and depleted. They are "soft addictions" that "cost us money, rob us of our time, numb us from our feelings, mute our consciousness, and drain our energy".
Obviously people use escapist recreation when they are totally exhausted. But even then, it's serving as a bandaid covering up serious lifestyle problems.
Helping others is complex too. In non-emergencies, help others using their investments and only when you can help by leveraging your strengths in a way that's congruent with your mission and impactful.
- Frugality is a fundamental element of a successful, happy life
- Long-term consequences of not managing time are far worse than temporary inconveniences of managing it
- Scrub the housework
- Live simply and in a small space
- Delegate when you can
- Lower your standards
- Budget your time based on the goals you have for each investment category
- Schedule your week based on the budget
- Follow the schedule and track time use
- Tally your time use and the end of the week and compare with your budget
Revise and repeat.
Budgeting is the hardest step.
- List all your investments
- Break each down into sub-investments
- Allocate the ideal amount you'd want to invest each week
- Cut back to 112 hours
The easiest way to cut back is to eliminate entire investments, for now. It frees up time and creates enormous relief. Then try to prune some sub-investments. Then try to get quicker at the other things--it adds up.
- Budget in 15m increments
- Move from easy decisions to hard ones. Reward yourself.
- If you're not sure about something, jettison it
- Boundaries are within you
- It's your responsibility to state your needs
- Be a specialist surrounded by other different specialists
Robert Heinlein is silly.
We treat too many of our emails as if they were important, then we labour over them. They are also an excellent mimic of productive work.
- terse answers
- use the phone
- proactive management
- create a weekly schedule
- try to schedule same activities at same times on same days each week. Routine is great!
- follow the schedule, track time use
- track wake up and go to bed
- record time on expenses (more than you think!) and investments
- tally your time and review your weekly process
Be compassionate. Reward yourself.
Saying "no" and delegation
- Saying 'no' is a skill. Practice it.
- Delegation isn't as hierarchical as you think.
- Delegate small tasks as well as big ones.
- If someone asks for a favour but doesn't give you all the information you need, ask them
Help is abundant, people, mostly love to help.
Cooperative problem solving
- State the problem and how it makes you feel
- Propose a solution
- State how solution won't hurt things, but rather make them better for person you're dealing with
- Listen with care & respect
- Incorporate concerns as soon as possible
- After you reach an accord, give recognition
- Confirm in writing
5. Optimize your writing process
- Use a free-writing process for all your work, and do many drafts
- Develop a "smooth" writing process; minimise interruptions [don't get caught on details, leave a blank and move on]
- Write non-linearly; leverage your project's easy parts
- Write backwards in the piece
- Show your work frequently; read it aloud
- Learn to write on the fly [use tiny time intervals to get writing done]
- Achieve mastery
Writing projects have lots of stages:
- Conceptualization (aka, note-taking, noodling around)
- Planning and outlining
- First draft
- Final draft
- Cash the cheque
We'll all like some stages more than others.
- take shorter breaks, focus them on relaxation and recovery
- time breaks
- get enough sleep [hah]
- use deadlines
- expand on recalcitrant stuff
- delete recalcitrant stuff
- track progress
- add a physical component
- slow down
The next three chapters are interesting, but less relevant to me, as they are about ones perception of oneself as a writer, about dealing with rejection, and about writing as a career. Perhaps I'll revisit them when I write more.