x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Too busy writing 'to do' lists to actually get anything done

Whatever you're trying to accomplish, you can be sure it won't get done until you finally actually start really trying to do it.

Once, when I was thinking about renting a small office to write in, I looked at a space being vacated by another writer. The place was bare and bright and perfect, except for an index card, taped solidly to the wall at about the height where the writer's desk was.

On the index card he had written: "9AM START" in big capital letters. "10.30 Stretch, 15 push ups. 12.00 LUNCH, do notes, emails. 1PM START in big capital letters. 3PM Break, coffee, calls. 4.30PM notes on fixes, revisions. 5.30 workout."

I don't know who the writer was, but I really, really hate him. Because he'd figured it out. Not the silliness of the entire schedule, of course, but one part of it. The word START in all caps.

The only way to write a great script is first you have to write a bad script and make it better, and that's not the hard part. The hard part is, you first have to start.

That's true of everything, of course. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player who ever lived, didn't make it onto his high school team on his first try. He wasn't good enough. So he spent the next year practising his skills with relentless devotion. He made his high school team, then his college team, and … well, everyone knows the rest of the story. It ends in a pair of Air Jordan trainers and a blizzard of million-dollar cheques.

Jordan knew what it was to look at his watch, pull himself together, and START. And that's just one more thing that Michael Jordan and I don't have in common.

For the past week I've been reading an excellent book called Getting Things Done by a very interesting guy named David Allen. The book's title sort of gives it all away: it's a book about, well, Getting Things Done, and it's a pretty thorough, compelling system for organising your life and work for maximum productivity.

There's a fair amount of work on my plate for the next three weeks - two scripts due, and another one in the works, and I've started a small venture with a colleague to produce television for international markets - so the fact that I spent the past week reading Getting Things Done rather than, say, getting anything done, has a certain cheap irony to it.

Like all lazy people, everything I do during the day that isn't what I'm supposed to be doing - like staring at the ceiling, checking e-mail, clicking around the net, updating my list of enemies - packs a specific sting.

Put it this way: if you spend your days surfing the web and reading Variety, the show business publication, instead of, say, writing a script, it means you would rather read about people in show business than be a person in show business. And let's be really honest - for writers, anyway, an enemy is just someone who does exactly what you do, but more successfully. An enemy is someone who knows when to START.

Where a book like Getting Things Done fails, for me anyway, is that it assumes that the reader isn't catastrophically lazy. Which this particular reader totally is.

The book does a great job helping people who have a normal work ethic, and it probably does an enormous service to people who are run-of-the-mill lazy, but for the laziest among us - and here I'm referring mostly to every single professional writer I've ever met - it kind of misses out.

It's not written for the person who can sit down at 9am with a laptop and a ton of good intentions and then look up and it's suddenly 4pm and all you've really done is Google yourself, in various permutations, and compile more and more to-do lists, like the following: "To Do - take shirts; address studio notes re: script; replace light bulbs in kitchen; printer paper; begin novel; e-mail inbox; make career plan; lawyer re: lunch next week."

Not exactly a recipe for success. The unformed hodgepodge of categories and projects almost guarantees that nothing will get done. David Allen offers a way to organise all of these scattershot impulses. His system, which I'm trying to implement, really does help clear the mind of distractions. Devotees of his system insist that it's the best path to a productive and efficient work life.

For me, though, as good as it is, Getting Things Done is like a terrific war novel. It's something I'd rather read about than do. I'd prefer to conjure up horrible tortures for the writer with the START sign above his desk than sit down at my own and, well, start.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood