Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: productivity

Getting Things Done

I’m a busy dude.

But only because I want to be, so that’s nice.

Talk to me sometime.  You’ll discover that I’m full of energy.  I’m motivated.  Ambitious.  I want to get stuff done.  And I want to do it well.  The things I do, I want to be the best at them.

I’m a husband and a father, and I feel threatened by folks who seem to pull those jobs off better than I do.

I’m a writer, and I get chills of joy when I read a published book that’s worse than what I’m writing and chills of agony when I read something that I know is better than what I can do.

I’m a preacher and there’s nothing better than seeing a crowd of people inspired to love more.

I’m a student and I want to write essays that make the professor smack his forehead and say, “Wow, I never looked at it in that way before!”

I’m a friend, and I love everyone I know and want them all to know it and feel empowered through their friendships with me.

I want to excel at all these things, and I don’t really think it’s unreasonable.  But, wow, sometimes I just tank out.

I’ve never been the most organized person.  I leave things to the last minute and I get emotionally crushed under the knowledge of all the things I’m trying to pull off.  It’s not that I have too many things on my plate.  It’s just that I’m not so good at organizing my plate.  Stuff keeps falling off and I keep making messes all over the table.  My writing suffers, I lose touch with friends, I miss important family things.

All this is to ask, how do you do it?  How you you keep yourself on track with all the life-roles you want to excel at?  How do you organize your time?  How do you organize your emotional and mental energy?  How do you keep the things you love from falling through the cracks?

Tell me, people of the interwebs.  What solutions help you to get the things done that you want to get done?

Sliding Up

All my life I was cautioned against doing things, not because those things were bad, but because they could have led to bad.

Don’t drink because you might become a drunk.

Don’t watch Nova because you might become an atheist.

Don’t have sex because that could lead to dancing.

Don’t open your mind because your brains may fall out.

Seeds of fear, sown from childhood on.  Not from my parents, interestingly enough, but from teachers and preachers.  You’ve felt them.  You’ve probably sown some yourself.  People live in constant fear and refuse to do things they’d like to try purely on the grounds of what they may want to try next.  Fear of the slippery slope.

But can’t the slippery slope go the other way, too?

If I walk to work instead of drive, could that lead me to a healthier lifestyle?

If I cut down on my clothing expenses, could that lead me to a less materialistic attitude?

If I write up a cheesy scene about a guy on a bus, could I write something bigger some day?

I’m not afraid of the slippery slope anymore.  I used to be.  I’d turn the channel whenever a science show came on, fearing I might become an atheist again and go to hell because I guess God hates it if you think the universe is as old as it looks.  I’d stay away from booze because, even though I have a normal person’s self-control, I figured I might become a raging drunkard.  I said ‘no’ to many good things, purely on the grounds of where they might possibly maybe lead me in the future.  It was a stupid fear.  A self-destroying fear.

I think the slippery slope concept is true, but mostly in the opposite way.  You want to excel at something?  Start it.  The slope will carry you.  Because your spirit wants to soar.  The universe wants to hear what you have to sing.  Just start sliding.  Walk to work one day a week.  Get up early to pray or meditate for a couple minutes.  Write that cheesy bus scene that’s been in your head.  It’ll take you somewhere.

Can’t Have it All

     You can’t have it all. Where would you put it?

     I never really wanted it all. I wanted a lot. But not all. Some things just don’t appeal.

     I wanted a lot, though. And it seemed reasonable. I wanted to excel as a family man. I wanted to write novels and get paid for it. I wanted a stellar blog that was updated every day and earned a million positive comments. I wanted to get a degree of some kind, like mathematics or anthropology. I wanted to like under a Neem tree in rural Sindh. I wanted to rock faces at WoW, 3v3 (Shadowplay ftw!). I wanted to read every book ever written. I wanted this. I wanted that.

     But where would I put it all?

     A day is like a room. It only fits so much. And when it gets overcrowded, you run the risk of damaging some of your stuff.

     Can’t have it all. Gotta toss some stuff out. Or at least cut back.

     I tried so hard to blog every weekday while writing sermons and novels and playing with my kids and dating my wife and practicing guitar and doing yoga and reading Urdu and playing craft and doing protests and going to work and reading Hemingway and HOLY CRAP ARGH!

     Can’t do it all. Because when you try to do it all, you suck at everything.

     So I’m going to do it some.

     People first, of course. Especially the wife and kids. Because that’s where love and the future are.
Writing second. That’s the dream and I’m not ready to let it go after so much progress.

     Everything else?

     Don’t rush me. Still trying to find shelf space for the first two.

     How much are you trying to accomplish? Is it too much?

Writing Tools I’ve Used

Pen and Paper
        I used to resort to this quite often. I was enamored by the organic classiness of it. I was in love with that conservative idea that whatever we did in the past is better than whatever we’re doing now. It made me feel pretty cool and puritanical. And, yes, sometimes those two can go together.
        There were even a few benefits to this system. It forced me to write slower, which gave me a chance to think clearer about what I was writing. But, in the end, I did not accomplish much. It was too slow and my hands are not used to long periods of pen-writing.

        I nearly swooned when I saw the electric typewriter in Goodwill. It was glorious. I bought it instantly. Visions of becoming the trendiest writer in the world danced in my head. I could see myself, in the middle of the night with one light hanging above me from the ceiling, pounding away at the typewriter, the gratifying tack-tack-tack encouraging me as I went.
        I imagined that the typewriter would have freed my eyes from the distractions of a word processor. And it did, I suppose. But that tack-tack-tack got mind-numbing rather quick. And it was hard to read what I was writing, as the paper kept falling backward. In the end, I packed it up and put it away.

Generic Word Processors
        Not very romantic, I know. But what do I care about? The romance I write or the romance in the way I write it? I wrote my first novel using Microsoft Word. It was … fine. Nothing especially good or bad about the experience. It only became difficult when the novel inched toward 100k words and the chapters threatened to get disorganized.

        And then I found it. And, lo, great was the finding of … it.
        Scrivener is a word processor made for creative writing. When I first downloaded the demo version a little voice in my head started to whisper. ‘Another fad for your writing, Matt? Another nifty thing to distract you from the work you’re supposed to be doing?’
        I’m so very happy I did not listen to that voice.
        Scrivener has blown my mind. I’ve been using it for months and I can hardly imagine what it was like to use anything else. Why so cool? I tell, I tell.
        Scrivener organizes your work into parts, chapters, scenes, notes, research and more. You can write them together, move them around, organize them however you want. All your work goes into one file.
        Scrivener has a very sexy full-screen mode. All you see is your writing. Distraction-free.
        Scrivener formats your entire project automatically according to traditional manuscript standards. Or according to whatever standards you want.
        Scrivener helps you to take a step back and look at your entire work at once. It’s hard to do that when your manuscript is over 130k words and spread across different files on your hard drive.
        Scrivener automatically backs up your work to wherever you want it backed up. This is important, as I learned the second after my daughter poured a glass of milk over my old laptop.

        I was only two weeks into my demo version when I bought it. And I haven’t looked back since. At the time of this writing, it’s only available for Mac. But I hear rumors they’re making a Windows version. Check it out. It has taken a lot of the clutter out of my process.

        What do you use to write? Why?

Pakistan, Productivity and Why I’d Rather Write Books

     My wife and kids are off to Pakistan in a week. I’ll be following them a month later. I’m stoked. I tend to get all glossy-eyed when I talk about Pakistan. Kinda like a high-school girl talking about the head of the football team. What can I say? Pakistan is my lover.

     That tends to freak people out a little. Then they ask what I love about it. And I have a really hard time answering them. I mean, the place is pretty rough. It’s hot. Stinky. There’s a few shady characters. Not much chance for the trendy nerd conversations I like having. But I love it anyway.

     My wife is running an informal little charity thingy. Helping out widows and orphans. She calls it i117, go check it out. That’s one of the reasons we’re going this summer. Hunting down folks suffering in extreme poverty and coming alongside them to make life better.

     I get bothered when I think about how much my country suffers. I have friends who are malnourished. Literally. I have family who had to cut their caloric intake when American bio-fuel companies started buying up all the rice and grain that used to be used for food. For four years I lived among a people who simply did not have enough.

     But now I live in Canada. And we have too much. Way too much. So I don’t really want to be productive. Because we’re producing so much that most of what we work 40hrs a week for ends up in a dump before it goes stale. Because we buy new printers instead of refilling toner. Because the average household drill runs for 16 minutes during its entire life. Because everyone on the street owns a lawnmower that they use once a week in the summer. Because we eat so much we’re dying because of it. We’re just producing too many things. We aren’t even consuming them anymore. And it can’t go on, friends. It won’t.

     So I’d rather write books. I’d rather sing songs. I’d rather dance. I’d rather do plays and cook fancy meals and drink tea with strangers and tell funny stories. Because those things don’t take up space and don’t take away from my friends in Pooristan.

     My old protestant work ethic is yelling at me right now. He’s telling me that hard work and productivity is a virtue. I figure he’s wrong, though. Our craze for being productive has made us the economic lords of the earth, yes. But you can’t have lords without serfs. And I think it sucks to have either.

     So I’d rather write a book.

In the dark, but not alone

Do you know what to do when it hits you?

When my dreams are large but I can’t pull them off. When I feel the desire throb within me like a wound. When it aches and spreads through my chest into my head. When I want it so bad I feel like I’ll die without it. And then, when the pain is at its height, I try to get up and fulfill the dream, but I cannot. Do you know that feeling? When you could do it – for there’s nothing really in your way – but you cannot? Your heart dies as you approach your dream and suddenly all the pain of desire turns on its head and becomes a pain of revulsion. Resistance. Anger. And then you sit back down and you wonder to yourself – “Do I hate my dream? I thought I loved it.” And you cannot tell what is wrong. And you cannot understand the depth of how screwed up you must be to passionately love and hate the same thing at the same time. Do you know that feeling? Have you felt that? Do you know what to do when it comes upon you?

I think that’s the time when it’s best to find somewhere dark and quiet, and pray.

And it helps, y’know. It actually helps.

When You Don’t Want What You Want

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever been overtaken by a dream so vast and shiny that it becomes nearly all you ever think about? A dream that is attainable, for sure, if not for that one problem you face every time you sit down to carry it out.

You just don’t want to do it.

And who can blame you? There are so many other things in the world that you could be doing. Reading books. Playing games. Sitting in a soft chair staring off into the abyss of the nether-realm. Lots to do.

And the dream tickles and pokes you from behind. “Hey! Look at me!” it says. “You said you loved me, so where are you?”
“I’m right here, I just don’t feel like drawing you into existence just yet,” you say as you fill your mouth with candy.
“When, then?”
“In a minute.” But in a minute you’ve passed out, and when you awake you have nearly forgotten your dream.

What gives? Why don’t we want to do what we want to do? Or, better yet, how can we want it?

I don’t really know, but I have some guesses. For whatever they’re worth, here they are.

  • Discipline is the price of freedom. That’s an old adage that has clung to me since college. The truth of it seems stronger every day. Without discipline, you’ll never get out of the chair. The trick is getting it. Wooing discipline is like trying to flirt with a nun.
  • Remind yourself of why you love your dream. When you can’t seem to work up the will to work, close your eyes and imagine the day when the work is done. In fact, take a second and do it now. Nice, eh? That could actually happen, y’know. Fall back in love with the dream.
  • Look at the next step only. I once heard that imaginative people are the worst procrastinators because they can very clearly imagine all the work required to finish a project. And that drains. So quit looking at the whole thing. Just look at what needs to be done today. Look at tomorrow’s stuff tomorrow.
  • Stay in shape. The body and mind and spirit are all woven together in a beautiful and frustrating dance. When one goes, they all go. So jog or something. And stay away from the donuts!
  • Do it now. Quit planning. You don’t need to plan nearly as much as you want to. Good plans are useful, but not nearly as useful as doing the work. So just do it. Now. Don’t worry, this blog will still be here when you’re done.
  • Don’t be perfect. They always say ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’ True enough. But anything worth doing is also worth doing is also worth doing half-arsed, too. Better a shoddy dream that lives than a perfect dream that’s dead. Besides, with most things you can always go back and tweak it when you’re done.
  • Stop talking to others about it. We want others to endorse our dreams. And so we blab and tell them. But the response we get is almost never what we’re looking for. In fact, it seems that most people can’t understand our dreams. And why should they? The dreams are yours and yours alone! So keep it to yourself, or a small group who thinks like you, and truck on!
  • Enjoy it. I often don’t know how to do this. But having it as a goal in my head seems to help a little. Enjoy your work. Enjoy building your dream. Heck, if you can pull that off, you won’t need to worry about any other strategy.

    PS – Congratulations to Eric and Alex Edwards who won the shameless contest. Send me an email letting me know which book you want and it’ll be shipped out to you pronto!

  • Resist Resistance

    I read a good blog post the other day.  You should read it, too.

    Have you ever had an idea?  One of those, I’m-going-to-turn-the-world-upside-down ideas?  One of those It’s-so-crazy-it-just-couldn’t-work-but-wow-if-only-it-could-it’d-be-great ideas?  I did.

    You’ve have one or two, too.  You know you have.  Hasn’t everybody, at one time or another?

    My wife’s got one.  She’s gonna share it in a little while.  She’s moving forward with it.  I find myself wondering, why?  Why is it that my wife has started moving forward with her idea while most of us just tuck our ideas deep down inside and wait for them to suffocate and die?

    That post I linked at the beginning has some good reasons.  They’re all the reasons that I haven’t moved forward with my earth-shattering ideas.

    But isn’t it better to just move forward with those ideas?  I think it is.

    You know who had a great idea?  David.  There’s this nasty giant guy who threatens the nation.  That’s a problem.  Ought to be solved.  And the king’s offering his hot daughter to whoever solves it.  Logic screams, “Be the one to solve it!”  Resistance simpers, “They’re all going to laugh at you.”  David takes care of business, saves the world and gets the girl.  No one’s laughing at him now.  They probably laughed at him when he started, but not when he finished.

    Yeah, they’ll probably laugh at you when you start.  They might laugh at you the whole way through.  But it’s better to be laughed at and save the world, than to be ignored and…not.

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    3 Labels

    Think about what you are going to do today. Get at least six things. I’m pretty sure you can break them down and organize them into three labels:
    – Things you need to do. This is your basic, I-do-this-so-I-can-eat stuff. Your bread and butter. Your 9-5. This is what puts food on the plate and money in your landlord’s pocket.
    – Things you ought to do. These are things that are good, in and of themselves. Hanging out with family. Talking with neighbors. Volunteering. Telling people about Jesus. Working out. Good stuff.
    – Things you want to do. That which is fun. Hobbies, games, travels, etc.

    On how many tasks can you put more than one label?

    For most people, I think, very few of their tasks can hold more than one label. The things you need to do are usually very different from the ought and want lists. And as our tasks get more and more separated and are more and more exclusive in regards to these three labels, we get more stress. Think about the man who works a 9-5 job moving money around in a bank. He needs to do it. But it’s not what he wants and he can’t see much of an ought being fulfilled in it. Once he does what he needs we goes home and, since his day is mostly gone, he has to choose to either do what he wants or what he ought. Sucks.

    But what if we pulled the three lists together? What if you could put all three labels on one task? Or on most of your tasks?


    That’s the dream, I think. To support yourself and your family while doing what is right and fun. How many people get that? How many of you are there? Are any of you on your way?

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    Productive World-Building

    You may never have heard of the oft-deadly World-Builder’s Disease. But you may have suffered from a strand of it. Let me explain.

    Among fantasy writers, World-Builder’s Disease is a debilitating disease that makes you feel wonderfully productive. Rumor has it that Tolkien struggled with it. Basically, it’s when a writer is so focused with creating his world that he pretty much forgets to write the stories that make people like me care about the world. There are many aspiring sci-fi / fantasy writers who have been robbed of potential novels because of it. Usually they just degenerate into role-players.

    But there’s another strand of this disease that affects anyone concerned with productivity. It’s symptoms are often elusive. Generally, the infected individual will spend most of his time reading productivity books, making task lists and organizing work spaces. But very little work is actually done. The subject generally earns the title of ‘workaholic’ without the benefit of true productivity.

    And then there’s another strain that affects those who value spirituality. It’s pretty much the same of the productivity disease. The victim starts spending all his time reading about how to be spiritual, how to pray, how to love his neighbor and how to live a radical Christian life. But he reads so much that he doesn’t have time to put any of it into practice.

    Be wary of these diseases!

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