How to decide what to work on, when you want to work on everything.

Time keeps on slipping

I recently finished watching the fifth season of BoJack Horseman. This was concerning, because I remember watching the first season of BoJack Horseman, back in 2014, and thinking: 'This is so awesome! I want to make something like this! And creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is only thirty years old, which means I've got four whole years to sort my life out!'

Smash cut to four years later, and – spoiler alert – this has not happened.1

But that's not for want of trying. I always have projects on the go, and I always seem to be writing. (Even now, I'm working on a new stand-up show and webseries – and I'm definitely not procrastinating on both of those things with this blog because it's easier to write and has a faster reward loop.) I worked hard at improving my productivity – after taking an ironically long time to finish reading Getting Things Done – and convinced myself that if I just did more and squeezed extra writing time into every corner of my day, then it would all work out eventually...

Except it didn't.

Don't get me wrong – low productivity is a legitimate problem worth fixing. My problem, however, is that it wasn't my main problem, which is: I'm terrible at prioritising things. As a result, I've spent most of my adult life becoming really great at doing lots of pointless stuff efficiently. It always felt like I was making progress, but I never stopped to check whether the projects I chose were good ones, that actually got me closer to where I wanted to go.2

Luckily, this problem has already been solved by people way smarter than me – so if this sounds like you, here are three handy steps for picking your creative projects.

1 I know, I know: I shouldn't compare myself to other people. The most important thing is that I'm better than I was yesterday. Play the infinite game, etc. But I also know that I should e.g. eat less sugar, and that isn't going to happen anytime soon either.

2 Actually, a more fundamental problem was that I didn't really know where I wanted to go, other than a vague 'please give me some cash for writing jokes please'. This is probably a topic for a separate post, but if you don't know exactly, I'd spend a little bit of time thinking about that first. If you're interested, I now know that I want to run a production company that makes narrative comedy, using a collaborative studio model like Pixar. I think it's a good idea to make your goals public (and hence make yourself accountable), but I'm still too embarrassed to do that outside of a footnote.

Step one: dream big, but keep an eye on reality

First of all, you need to decide what your project actually is, and how you're going to tackle it. I like using this formula from Ray Dalio's Principles, which is a treasure trove of great advice:

Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life

In other words: start with 'audacious goals', understand how things work (instead of dwelling on how you'd like them to work), and put in the hard work and effort to get there.

It sounds simple, but I find it surprisingly hard to get the 'reality' part right. For example: last summer, I was lucky to have two months' leave between jobs – so naturally, I decided to spend them writing. I had a dream, to sell my very own sitcom, so I set myself an appropriate target: to write a complete draft of the pilot episode. It was more of a challenge than I was expecting – especially since my work ethic runs out faster than the pumpkin spice supply at your local Starbucks3 – but I actually managed to do it! And it felt amazing! Sure, it was a terrible draft that should never be read by anyone, but I felt closer to the dream than I'd ever been before. But then I had a call with my screenwriting coach, which went something like this:

Them: In the last six months, have you accomplished as much as you'd wanted?

Me: Well, my original plan was to finish a sellable draft of my pilot. Obviously I've only finished the first draft, but I knew it was an ambitious goal – so I'm happy with what I have done.

Them: Yeah, don't beat yourself up about it.

Me: I'm not –

Them: I mean, you've chosen narrative comedy, which is so hard to write, and – as you know – incredibly difficult to get commissioned! (Laughs)

Me: Haha, yeah. (Laughs awkwardly)

The worst part is that she wasn't telling me anything new. I knew it would be incredibly difficult, because my brain can handle basic statistics. As Lee Jessup wrote on her blog:

"It's been said that 5,000 pitches produce 500 viable scripts; 500 viable scripts produce 50 viable pilots; 50 viable pilots produce 25 new shows, and of those 25 shows, two go onto a successful run. And most, if not all, of those pilots will come from seasoned professionals."

And yet I ploughed on anyway, ignoring reality, because I was convinced that I was the exception – even though I had exactly zero evidence to back that up.

Like I said, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't have ambitious dreamsif anything, they should probably be more ambitious – but the reality check made me realise I was aiming for the wrong thing. I don't want to sell a sitcom, I want to write a sitcom that gets made. Selling a script is just one way of doing that, so why was I artificially limiting myself? And so, at least for now, I've decided to switch focus to a webseries that I could potentially produce myself.4

3 Seriously, why keep the signs up if you've completely run out?

4 Smash cut to six months' time, when I write a blog post about how that was a terrible idea.

Step two: choose systems over goals

That said, the time I spent on that pilot wasn't a complete waste, because I did get fractionally better at writing sitcoms. This was mostly thanks to my patented iterative writing process:

  • Step one: write first draft of thing.

  • Step two: THIS IS A PILE OF SHIT. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO PRODUCE ANYTHING AS GREAT AS FRASIER/30 ROCK/THE GOOD PLACE SO WHY ARE YOU WASTING YOUR LIFE?

  • Step three: oh, maybe if I just tweak this small thing...

  • Step four: THIS IS A FRACTIONALLY-LESS-BAD PILE OF SHIT.

  • Step five: go to step three.

And so the project was valuable, even if I never look at it again. Which leads neatly to the second step, from cartoonist Scott Adams: choose systems over goals.

"[Choose] projects and habits that, even if they result in ‘failures’ in the eyes of the outside world, give you transferrable skills and relationships… Fundamentally, ‘systems’ could be thought of as asking yourself ‘What persistent skills or relationships can I develop?’ versus ‘What short-term goal can I achieve?’ The former has a potent snowball effect, while the latter is a binary pass/fail with no consolation prize." – Tim Ferriss, paraphrasing the idea.

This idea is the same reason why I (mostly) don't regret doing a solo show at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe – even though it didn't get any kind of 'acclaim' whatsoever, and got reviews ranging from positive to: "I fear Hari is labouring under [an] illusion: that he has an hour worth sitting through." 5 I worked on the show every day, and became a better stand-up as a result (I think). It's why I don't mind spending time on this blog, because even if I don't get any readers, it's helping me clarify my thinking and remember things that I've learned. And it's also why I've stopped submitting material to things like Newsjack. It's obviously a cool opportunity, but your material has to be topical – which means that if it doesn't make the cut, then it has no future performance value unless you record it and release it yourself. So then you're left with the skill-building, but – at least for now – I know I don't want to get better at writing topical sketches.6

A pleasant side-effect of this way of thinking is increased happiness. Instead of spending your days worrying about something you haven't achieved yet, you're focusing on adding value to your life all the time, in a way that's completely under your control. A more advanced version of this would be to get rid of goals completely – so that a summer where you aim to 'write a complete draft of the pilot episode' becomes a summer where you 'write for three hours every day'. I haven't quite reached this level yet, because I still find goals too tempting – but maybe one day...

5 This lack of regret obviously came with hindsight, and not immediately after I got this review - on day one. However: my show was structured around the 'six grand illusions' described in Mo Gawdat's Solve for Happy, so I did appreciate the sick burn.

6 I would like to get better at writing topical sketches one day. A few years back, I was invited to be a guest writer for The News Quiz and The Now Show. This isn't a humblebrag, or even a regular brag: across the two experiences, only one of my jokes made it into a script – and it got cut from the final broadcast. But one thing I noticed was that the other, permanent writers were strong at 'all forms of the game': they were writing sketches, working on sitcoms, performing stand-up, etc. Afterwards, I was desperate to work on all of these things at once, but I now know that's a very inefficient approach – as discussed in step three.

Step three: focus

At this point, you should have a bunch of projects that: dream big, get you closer to where you want to go, are rooted in reality, and provide some value even if they fail completely. So now there’s one last thing that’s left when picking your projects: focus. And I don't mean the just do some work kind of focus, although that's pretty important too.6 I mean this kind:

“What focus means is saying no to something that – with every bone in your body – you think is a phenomenal idea. You wake up thinking about it, but you end up saying no to it, because you're focusing on something else." - Jony Ive.

As you can imagine, I'm terrible with this. The frustration of not living my dreams right now makes me feel like I have to make progress on a million different projects at once – which inevitably turns into not making progress on any of them. Because as hard as I try, I cannot escape this simple truth: if you have two projects that take one month each, the only way you'll get them done in two months is if you complete one before starting the other. As soon as you try to juggle two projects at once, you introduce the cost of context switching – which gets exponentially worse as you add more and more projects to the mix. (And that's not even including the day job.)

But even after writing that paragraph, I still can't do it. As I wrote above, I'm currently working on a webseries, a stand-up show and this blog, and I'm determined to make progress on all of them at once. I've compromised by trying to focus on just one project every day, and eventually I'll work my way up to week-long sprints – but if you have any ideas for doing better, let me know!

6 At time of writing: I'm currently staying at an amazing cottage for a friend's wedding, and it's such a perfect space for writing. It's so quiet. And yet I genuinely just wasted the last ten minutes crafting a tweet about how it's such a perfect space for writing. The taxi's arriving in twelve minutes. UPDATE: I didn't even send the tweet in the end, because I felt like an idiot.

Summary

So to summarise, here's what to do when you're picking your next creative project – or even when you're reviewing your current ones:

  • Make sure it's ambitious, but also realistic

  • Make sure it brings you value, even if it completely 'fails'

  • Try and frame it as a system, e.g. write every day

  • Ignore it completely if you already have more important projects to be working on

If you have any more useful tips or tricks, let me know on Twitter!

Header photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.