Are You Making This Dangerous Mistake?

This week, we've had a lot of fun, but let’s get serious for a minute …

I’ve seen something pretty disturbing on the AWAI forum lately. I see a lot of folks who, although excited about their writing careers, are falling into a dangerous trap.

They say things like, “Next year will be my year,” or “I’m going to be a six-figure copywriter next year.”

By putting success off until next year and not taking concrete steps to make it happen right now, they could be pushing it away forever.

You might be making this same mistake if you find yourself saying things like:

“I’ll start studying tomorrow,” or “I’ll contact that client next week,” or “I’m going to apply for projects next month.”

Let me ask you something: what are you waiting for?

Why not study now? Why not call that client right now? Why not apply for a project now?

What’s going to change tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year?

Nothing. If you don’t do something about it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to plan ahead and have ambition for the future, but not at the expense of taking action right now.

Sometimes we’re afraid. But most of the time, we don’t take action because it’s easier not to.

It’s easier – and more fun – to make plans for the future than it is to take action right now.

But if you allow yourself to put off action for one day, it’s easier to put it off the next day – and the next. The cycle repeats itself over and over until we look up and our goals are nowhere in sight.

I know because I used to let myself get by with doing nothing quite often. I had a task list, but none of the items had deadlines, so I would just push them to the next day. Avoiding work was far from fun; instead, I had that nagging feeling of dread that comes when you procrastinate.

Now I have a system in place that helps me finish what I need to get done.

1. Create an action plan.

I keep a running to-do list in my phone that syncs with my computer so I always know what’s coming up next. I also have a syncing calendar with all my meetings, deadlines, and appointments.

Every time I have a new task or appointment, I immediately add it to my to-do list or calendar. This eliminates any fear or anxiety about forgetting an item or a deadline because I know everything is right there.

Rebecca Matter has perfected a Post-it note system for keeping track of her daily to-dos:

“When it comes to planning my day, I’ve found that writing my day’s to-do list on a Post-it note is effective at making sure my plan is realistic. I’ve learned that if the day’s list can’t fit on a Post-it note, it’s usually impossible for me to get it all done.

“So write it down, stick the note to your computer, and the next morning, you’ve got your plan.

“If you finish early and want to tackle something else on your master to-do list, great! Go ahead. And if for some reason you don’t finish the Post-it, write anything you didn’t finish on the next day’s Post-it, fill it up with a few new items, and start again.

“I’ve been using my Post-it strategy for almost a year now. And I’ve yet to find a better system for actually getting through my to-do list … and therefore accomplishing my goals.”

My system is similar to Rebecca’s. But I find I need a little more space and a place to keep all my daily notes, so I use a spiral notebook.

I limit myself to five daily tasks and write them at the top of the page. Then beside each item, I write how long it should take so I don’t drag items out when I start doing them.

I use the rest of the page for notes and ideas as they come to me throughout the day.

I like this system because I always have one place to write everything. And if I want to know what I did on September 28th, all I have to do is turn to that page. Plus, knowing how long – or short – my workday will be if I stay on track keeps me motivated.

Later, I’ll transfer any ideas or notes I want to keep into a file on my computer.

No matter what organization system you use to get things done, the important thing is that you do get things done. Once something is on your daily to-do list, don’t let yourself postpone it.

2. Stay on task.

One of the hardest things for me to learn when I started freelancing was to stay on task. I would start writing, but easily get distracted by the Internet, a phone call, or my dogs barking.

I knew I needed to get better. So I went in search of a way to manage my time and stay focused. I tried everything I found. One method, Eugene Schwartz’s, really worked.

Eugene Schwartz was a copywriter and author of the must-read book Breakthrough Advertising. He used to set a timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and focus on one thing only until the timer went off. For example, you could focus on a current writing project you have for the allotted time period.

I’ve been doing this for months now, and the 33 minutes and 33 seconds flies by. Many times, I want to keep working, but I force myself to take a five- to 10-minute break away from the computer. I take a short walk, check the mail, or use the Total Gym.

Then, I sit down, set the timer for another 33 minutes and 33 seconds, and get back to work. Sometimes I work on the same project for another session, and sometimes I work on something else on my list.

It’s not always easy to keep working, but Eugene’s method has helped me get a lot more done. I’ve been able to increase my productivity by not just eliminating distractions, but also my habit of multitasking.

I used to be proud of my ability to multitask. But over the past year, I’ve determined it’s actually keeping me from being as productive as possible. I find when I multitask, I split my focus. I’m not able to work as long, and I get less done.

33 minutes and 33 seconds is the perfect amount of time to focus all your energy on one thing.

3. Take regular breaks.

As I mentioned above, after the 33 minutes and 33 seconds is over, I take a five- to 10-minute break. This break is very important to keep working all day. It gives your mind a chance to relax and get away from what you’ve been working on. Then just five or 10 minutes later, you can go back refreshed and ready to start another session.

The next time you think about doing something tomorrow, next week, or next month, remind yourself that there is still time in the present, and if you don’t get started now, it might never get done.

Use the tips above to take action today and stop missing out on money you could be making now.

Then read this article about my favorite ways to overcome procrastination and envision your future.

How do you stay focused and take action? I’d love to hear about it – please leave a comment below.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tackle why you should never work when you’re taking time off if you want the writer’s life to be as fun as you imagine it will be.

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Published: January 19, 2012

3 Responses to “Are You Making This Dangerous Mistake?”

  1. Wow!! Christina, did you over hear me thinking this today? I have a ton of stuff needing to get done but I schedule 2-3 hours for me to do it. Then my mind starts to wonder with email, kids, etc. and I feel like I'm not as productive as I should have been. I use the Post It note to some degree and I plan my day every night but I'm going to follow these three things to the T and let you know what happens. Thanks for the articles, they're always great!

    Guest (MikeCrespo)January 19, 2012 at 6:47 pm

  2. Thank you, Christina. I especially like the idea of the regular 5-10 minute break after 33.33 mins of concentrated work. I've only recently realised the bane of multi-tasking. I used to think it was a virtue, but now I know that this can be very counterproductive. Again, thank you for your article - it helps me believe that the writer's life is a doable thing! I needed that very practical and creative motivational boost.

    JoyRJanuary 21, 2012 at 5:38 am

  3. Right on target! I struggle with the same things everyday, and have tried all of the tactics you've listed. Still working a full time IT job, so my writing interests and To Do lists have to slide. But I'm really trying to stick with the first hour of the morning to accomplish one task like M. Masterson advocates. And using another suggestion, I think I'll use Boomerang to get this article sent to me every other week for a focus update!

    Lane SJanuary 21, 2012 at 11:27 pm

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