How to be a lean, mean writing machine

The 2017 MaWSIG Pre-Conference Event was held in Glasgow on 3 April. This post, by Daniel Barber, is the first write-up of several talks given in the PCE. Here, Dan talks about the process of writing and describes his experience of working with a coach to increase his productivity. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

Change takes time. We can’t expect to self-improve in the wink of an eye. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, spend more quality time with the children, or in my case, become a more productive writer, it’s usually a question of two steps forward, one step back.

I’ve often wondered whether it’s just me that wastes so much time farting around, not getting down to work when I really should be. One of the few advantages of lurking on Facebook is that it’s great for gauging distraction rates among your peers. A friend posts: ‘OK. 6 pm. Have found enough fiddly stuff to avoid main task for today. Luckily, tomorrow is another day …’ It’s clear I’m not alone.

We all get distracted. And it’s a problem for everyone. When was the last time you got sucked into a YouTube-viewing chain reaction or wasted an hour on Candy Crush? Composer Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve something you need a plan and not quite enough time. Teachers have immediate deadlines, called students. In my experience, they are very effective motivators to plan lessons. But when we try to do something for ourselves, without daily deadlines – get that book written or create the staffroom resource bank you’ve been talking about for ages – the self-management tools may simply not be there.

The good news is that there is lots we can do to change. There are things we can do to physically change, and there there’s the mindset needed to internalise change. According to Timothy Gallwey, a tennis coach and creator of ‘Inner Game’ theory:

In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.

Let’s look at the outer game first. There are straightforward ways of blocking off distractions: switching off notifications and pop-ups, downloading site blocker add-ons to your browser to deny yourself access to your favourite websites, and removing your browser from the task bar, making the Internet two clicks away instead of one. There are time management apps that help you control the balance of work and play time. Other self-management apps help you organise your to-do lists, schedule larger projects and count your hours. Toggl, Trello, IFTTT, Todoist and others can help you sort your work life into neat columns. Personally, I found that these were all too complex for my needs; I’ve settled on Google Calendar to plan my work time, and that seems to be working well.

Ultimately, these tools and techniques are all well and good, but they aren’t the whole answer. They can help with the outer game, but not with the inner game, where the match is lost or won. My coach helped me see this.

Rachel Playfair is an English teacher, a trainer and a language strategy coach. I was interested in her work because while I’m not a coach, I co-wrote a book called From English Teacher to Learner Coach, which explores ideas in coaching and recommends a coaching twist for the language classroom. I wanted to know how her take on language coaching compared. I got my chance when Rachel gave a talk last year. She got me thinking: Do I need a coach? I identified reasons why I might say Yes, and the obvious person to ask was Rachel. She agreed to take me on.

So how has coaching helped me in my endeavour to become a more efficient worker? Firstly, it is a way of reflecting on your behaviour. By paying a coach, I’m saying in no uncertain terms that I’m willing to devote time and energy to this issue. From the start, Rachel emphasised the stance that I should be taking throughout this process, one of curiosity. Whether or not you employ the services of a coach, an attitude of reflection and curiosity must be the first step in making change.

Secondly, coaching forces you to address the root causes of your problems. Even with a clear notion of your goal, you may harbour thoughts and attitudes that prevent you from meeting it. Do you tend to set unrealistically high standards that don’t take into account the realities of your life? Do you retain ideas of self-doubt or fear of failure that can sabotage your best-laid plans? I’ve been a writer for a few years, and I even have my name on a few books − but to be honest, I still haven’t fully convinced myself that I’m cut out for this.

Coaching can help you find balance in your thinking. I know that I’m not as productive as I could be, but I forget that many of the reasons for this are out of my control (such as my family commitments); and there are many times when I am productive, I do get organised, I have met my deadlines. Rachel reminds me of these things, and she reminds me to celebrate them as well. She puts distance between me and my frustrations so that I can look at them objectively rather than listening only to my negative inner voice.

Finally, coaching gets you setting achievable, concrete goals. Rachel helps me break goals down into smaller steps, and she makes sure I approach them right. For example, she identified the hedging I do when I’m talking about plans. She says things like: I’m hearing lots of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘I could try and do x’ … What three things are you. Going. To. Do?

Of course, just as teaching is to learning languages, so coaching is to learning to change: they can’t do it for us. In the end a coach is only successful if the client makes the change. It’s a terrible cliché to finish on, but really, the secret lies in you. I’d love to know what techniques you use for playing the outer game, and what realisations you’ve made for battling the inner game.

Reference

Gallwey, W. T. (1974). The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House.

Daniel Barber has been a teacher and trainer for 22 years. And for five years he’s been learning how to be a freelance writer. The writing isn’t the problem … it’s the freelance bit that’s a struggle. He co-wrote From English Teacher to Learner Coach, available at The Round (the-round.com). Dan can be reached at danieljamesbarber72@gmail.com. Rachel Playfair can be reached on facebook.com/languagestrategy.

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2 responses to How to be a lean, mean writing machine

  1. Katie 10 May 2017 at 6:06 pm #

    Geia sou, Dan!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences as a freelance writer that resonate so deeply with me. I’ve also struggled and keep struggling with keeping the work-personal life balance right, setting realistic goals, finding self-motivation and the self-awareness to resist my negative inner voice. You’re definitely not alone and I really look forward to reading your next book and post. Keep up the great work!

  2. Katherine Bilsborough 11 May 2017 at 10:46 am #

    Thanks Daniel. I really enjoyed reading this, just as I enjoyed your talk at the PCE.I see myself in so many things you say and I really like the whole idea of coaching. It’s something I’m seriously thinking about. One thing that I’ve noticed is that the busier I am, the more extra things I manage to do. When I haven’t got much to do I get even idler. I don’t see this as a problem though, I think it’s probably my body telling me to be busy and productive and then to slow down and chill.

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