Category: Procrastination

Why you can’t get started and what you can do about it.

Seven Toxic Habits That Could Wreck Your Writing Career

“It is a great thing,” said Cicero, “to know our vices.”

With that in mind, let’s dig in and take a look at some positively poison habits that could dash any aspiring copywriters career. No, I don’t mean the biggies like gorging yourself on pizza… quaffing gin with breakfast… or hanging out with loose women and/or using that exercise bike you bought last year only as a towel rack.

Arguably, these are the habits that just make copywriters more interesting. But in this post, I’m only talking about the little work-related habits. Each of them all too easy for any copywriter, even one with the best intentions, to develop…

Bad Habit #1: Compulsive “Inboxing”

Here’s one of those bad habits where yours truly was once guilty as charged.

I’ll be frank. I’m a nut for technology. The nerd gene, in our family, runs long and deep. In 1981, my brother and I were using an early Apple desktop with a cassette tape drive and 300 baud phone line to log onto local “bulletin boards.” In the early 1990s, I was among the first in our office to use Compuserve via dial-up… and first to tap into search engines (remember “Archie” and “Veronica?” Way before Google’s time)…

 And even now, I’m about as armed as you can get with POP accounts, instant messaging, and all the rest. There isn’t anything I can’t FTP, bit-transfer, or digitally find. But still, I’ve learned one has to be careful. Even the best technology is a distraction if you let it intrude on your deadlines.

 Email especially.

 Over the last year, I consciously re-prioritized my email activity to fall later on my to do list. Emails no longer get answered instantly. Unless they’re urgent, they can wait for my reply. The results have been liberating. And profitable.

Ironically, you can find dozens of “productivity websites” offering exactly the opposite advice. Along with elaborate systems for keeping your inbox clear at all times, including how to empty out your inbox early as part of the “fresh start” for the day. And to those I say… baloney.

 Don’t get me wrong.

 Email is a valuable tool. It makes my laptop career possible, in more ways than one. But just answering emails around the clock won’t get the job done, no matter how productive it makes you feel at the time.

Which is a good way to segue into…

Bad Habit #2: Inverting the Checklist

 This too, is something I was once more guilty of than not. In fact, I still find myself slipping into this poisonous practice from time to time. By “inverting the checklist,” I’m talking about when you take your list of ‘must do’ items and flip it so that you end up doing the things of least importance first.

 Think about it.

 Most people write their checklists starting with the small details, especially the pressing items and immediate tasks. As you finish the list, the feelings of urgency fade and your imagination kicks in. You write out the big stuff, the life-defining things, the things about which you dare to dream.

 The next day, on the next to do list, you change the details on the front to much the newest, most pressing, undone stuff…

 Pick up dry cleaning. Send fax. Order paperclips.

 But the back half generally remains unchanged. And still, very general about the things you hope will eventually happen in your lifetime. Become a copywriting guru. Write the novel. See world. It’s an easy rut to fall into.

 But every success story you can imagine begins with somebody flipping that personal checklist around. The big, ambiguous accomplishments become the priorities. And the little niggling daily stuff gets pushed back, even dumped from the list entirely (though, hopefully, not to the level where personal safety, relationships, or hygiene will suffer TOO dramatically.)

 This, of course, is just as true for copywriting as it is for any other endeavor. You’ll make the most happen if you aim to get the big stuff done first. The secret is to pick the big goal and break that down with the same detailed fervor you applied to the less important details of past “to do” lists.

For instance, do you really want to be a six-figure copywriter? I get lots of emails from people telling me they do. But who also don’t think they can. I’m shocked, after digging deeper, to find out how many of those who have quit on the idea have yet to try landing even one client… have yet to try writing a full promo… have yet to even finish the exercises in whatever copywriting course they’re following.

 Each time, I lay it down: Yes, it’s true. Not everyone can succeed at this. Because not everyone has the “stuff” to do it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be such a lucrative career path. Still, you’ll get nowhere if you don’t get started. And getting started means more than sharpening pencils every morning. It means approaching and hitting the big milestones, step by step.

 Make a daily game plan to finish the course. Get on the mailing lists and read OPC (other people’s copy). Get that one client… offering to write on spec if you have to… as the first step in building your client list. And THEN come and talk to me, yah?

Bad Habit #3: Chronic Cathode Overloading

 Oh boy, is this one a tar trap.

 I’m talking of course about television. And here too, I want you to know I’m not throwing stones. I was notorious, as a child, for getting sucked into the boob tube. Turn one on a mile from where I stood, my jaw would drop and my eyes would go wide. Think the torture scenes in Clockwork Orange, but self-imposed and self-supervised.

 Then, by circumstance, I found myself without a television. For eight years straight, it stayed that way. And I couldn’t believe what happened. I started reading. A lot.

 Mind you, I was always a reader. But not like this. I plowed through books end to end, like a chronic smoker facing the firing squad. I bought classics for 50 cents a pop at the used book store. I picked up how to books on advertising, fiction writing, and guitar. History books. Philosophy. Biographies. And more.

Where my TV wasn’t, I had IKEA bookshelves eight feet high and filled to bursting with text. Even better, I couldn’t imagine how — during my TV watching days —  I had managed to find and then waste all that time.

 I confess, we have a TV again.  We rationalize it as a learning tool, for language, since the one TV we own we keep in our apartment in France. DVDs are now the danger. And the Internet. Both have a similar power for sucking up time. Still, I read plenty. Less fiction, since I don’t find as much of the modern stuff nearly as satisfying. But lots of books and articles related to what I’m writing about. Plus, I’m a heavy user of audio books on all kinds of subjects, from trade and finance to science and ideas of all different kinds.

 You don’t have to toss your TV. Especially not if it’s one of the brand spankin’ new flat screen variety. But do try switching it off… or even unplugging it… for awhile. A week. A month. And see what happens. You might be surprised.

Bad Habit #4: Writing from the Mountaintop

 No question, one of the things I love about my copywriting career is the isolation. An open window, a quiet room, the clack of the keyboard. It’s how I prefer working, most of the time. And it’s usually all I need to feel like the master of the universe.

 Still, there’s a danger to be aware of. Even as a writer, you can’t be alone with your ideas all the time. Because writers, even the great ones, grow stale in isolation. It’s the energy you draw with contact from other people that keeps your writing interesting.

 In copy, that means regular if occasional contact with colleagues and customers. Brainstorming meetings. Trade seminars. Company cocktail parties and, yes, happy hours. If you get the invitation to mingle with like minds, you shouldn’t pass it up. Make a point of staying in touch. Phone calls will do, but a few hours of face time is even better. Both social and professional.

Bad Habit #5: Tossing the Road Map

 What’s the point of speeding if you don’t know where you’re going? If you never get where you’re headed, it doesn’t matter one lick if you’re making great time. Germane to copywriting, I’m talking about passionate writers who consistently miss the point of why they’re writing or what they’re writing about.

 Exhibit A, the new writer that’s passionate about the idea they’re pitching… without a game plan for how they’re going to lay the whole thing out. Start with at least a general outline. An end and a middle, not just a beginning.

 Before you pile up research, ask yourself: What’s this product really about? Who’s this customer and where does he stand? Where do I need to take him to make the final sale? Early in my own career, I wrote without a map.

 I started and let my research pull me through, heading down this path and that. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time it did not. Then I started dissecting other pieces to see how they came together. I “lifted out” the outlines and stuck it together again, with my own research draped over the skeleton instead.

 Now I write my own outlines. Because I’ve got the basic structure imprinted on my memory already. Once you’ve got this, it helps all kinds of you make all kinds of choices about how to the whole piece will come together… just as planned.

 Bad Habit #6: Radical Revisionism

 The opposite of too little planning is, of course, over-planning. And this too, in copy, can happen to the best of them. After all, great copy has the feel of being written fast and spontaneously. Yet, we’ve also always heard that great writers revise.

 So when do you stop perfecting?

 Where do you draw the line?

I once knew a writer who spent over a month writing and re-writing his headline. Once he had it, he moved on to writing his first line. How long would THAT take him? Nobody waited to find out. The company had to fire him. See, here’s the thing. You’ve got to recognize what all the editing you’ll do is actually for.

 You’re going back to tighten, yes. To take out the clumsy phrases, to clarify the ideas, and more.

 You’re revising, too, so you can hide the seams and stiches, the girders and rivets, and all those other pieces of your construction that need to be there but remain hidden so as not to impede the flow of your prose.

 After that, though, there comes a time when you just… have to… let… it… go. Let it mail. Let if flop. Let it win. But get it out there to get tested, where all good (and bad) copy belongs.

 Polish the writing, yes. But remember that you’re nothing as a copywriter if your copy never, ever mails. Speed up that process to get it out there, in as many ways as you can.

 Bad Habit #7: Thin-skinned Amateurism

 It’s not easy, in this biz, not to take lots of things personally. You spend a lot of time alone with the things you’re writing, after all. So when a critique feels extra harsh… when a client seems less than happy… when a mailing flops… at least once in awhile, you’re going to feel personally let down.

Don’t.

It’s great to throw yourself into your work. It’s great to feel responsible for results. But the truth of the matter is, it’s also a sign of a real pro if, whenever you get knocked down, you get up brushing off the dust and ready to go all over again.

 Instead of defending yourself during a critique, ask questions that open you up for more. On flopped mailings, study the results. Do a post-mortem on the copy to find out what happened. And them move on. Maybe getting the flop out there was the best way to unveil the newer, better idea that will work the next time.

You never know until you give it a shot.

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The Single Secret to Success?

mountainMy old friend Michael Masterson ran a fascinating piece of info, which he had picked up from a book by writer Tom Bay, about Harvard Business School Grads and their financial success — or lack of it. About 10 years after graduation from what’s supposed to be the echelon of rockin’ good business brilliance, here’s how the students’ status reports came in:

  • As many as 27% of them needed financial assistance.
  • A whopping 60% of them were living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A mere 10% of them were living comfortably.
  • And only 3% of them were financially independent.
  • How could that be?

    Shouldn’t a guy who paid top-dollar for Harvard wealth-making acumen get an automatic reserved place on the Forbes 400 list of worldwide wealthiest?  You would think. Yet, the reality proves different.

    So what was it that made or broke these genius grads?

    Per Michael and the book he borrowed this from, it was very simple.

    See if you can spot it in this next set of data from the same study…

    • The 27% that needed financial assistance had absolutely no goal-setting processes in their lives.
    • The 60% that were living paycheck to paycheck had only basic survival goals.
    • The 10% that were living comfortably had only general goals.
    • The 3% that were financially independent had written out their goals and the steps required to reach those goals.

    Really incredible, don’t you think?

    The difference between living on the dole or high-on-the-hog was, very simply, setting goals. And not just any goals, but actually working out the specific steps needed to achieve those goals over time.

    I mention this because, sure, it’s just as vital an insight to your copywriting career as it is to anything else you’ll try in life. But also because it gives me a chance to send you over to Michael’s blog, where you can also sign up for his e-letter, “Early To Rise.”

    You can find the original full article from Michael, right here.

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    How Other Writers Get “In the Mood”

    typewriterTennessee Williams wrote from sunrise until noon, had lunch (washed down with lots of bourbon), and then edited all afternoon. Meanwhile, novelist Walker Percy did his writing in bed.

    Toni Morrison does hers sitting on the sofa, in longhand, and while wearing a robe. E.B. White worked in a sparse wooden cabin by a lake.  Stephen King and Susan Sontag surround themselves with clutter.

    What’s the parallel between writers? No matter how different their writing routines, each of these writers — and thousands of others who actually produce — had just that: a routine.

    A little over 2300 years ago, Aristotle called it the “soul of genius.” He wrote extensively about “habits of virtue.”  And if you’re serious about what you do — no matter what it is — you’ll go out and get yourself some of those virtuous habits, too. And don’t think that aiding and abetting those virtues with a few of the regular kinds of habits is such a bad idea.

    For instance, if you need a favorite writing hat or a lucky pen, go ahead and get one.  Even better, if you’ve got a place you like to write, stick to it. Go there at the same time every day.  And write. Here’s something more: Make sure you stop writing at the same time every day too. The routine is actually better for your productivity than allowing yourself to rely on working overtime.

    That said, here’s another lesson we can borrow from other writing realms: set a goal.

    For example, author Evelyn Waugh sat down to write every day and refused to get up until he’d cranked out at least 2,000 words (roughly five typed pages). And Hemingway didn’t call it a good day’s work until he had worn down seven number-two pencils.

    Then there’s Anthony Trollope — who pumped out 47 novels while working in the post office — wrote exactly seven pages every day except Sunday, 49 pages a week. Never more, never less. How? Trollope started writing every morning at 5:30 am.  And stopped at the same time, just a few hours later, to go to his regular job as a postmaster. He did this without fail for 33 years — and became one of the most prolific writers in literary history.

    The message: Setting a regular writing goal can work wonders.

    So… how many hours should you, a copywriter, aim to write per day?

    That answer might surprise you too. I’m going to suggest… four.

    Simply because writing — actual writing — is fatiguing work. If you’re doing it right, you should be wiped after a four hour stint. But hang on. Because before you head off to happy hour at lunchtime, remember that there’s plenty more you can and will need to do — including more research, meetings, and yep… sure… even answering email.

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    Gene Schwartz’s 33-minute Secret

    eggsaredoneGet a kitchen timer and put it on your desk.

    Set it for 33 minutes. Now start writing.

    Write anything.  Just fill the page.

    If you can’t write, then sit there and stare until you start sweating blood.

    Here’s what copywriter Gene Schwartz, who’s credited with this idea, used to tell other writers about this technique:

    “When I press the start button, I can do anything I want. All willpower is dissolved. I can do anything as long as it relates to the piece of copy in front of me. I can ignore it. I don’t have to touch it. I don’t have to look at it. But I can’t get up from the desk, and I can’t do anything except ignore or relate to the piece of copy…

    “So finally, after a good deal of looking around… I get bored. So what do I do? I start reading down the copy! As I start reading down the copy, a phrase says to me, ‘Oh, hey, aren’t I beautiful? Why don’t you pull me out and put me on top?’ Or, ‘Why don’t you change this phraseology? It’s extremely ineptly put’…  What happens is that I begin to get into it.  Within about five minutes I am working…”

    I’ve tried this before (I have a downloaded software “timer” on my desktop, pre-set to 33 minutes). Not once has it failed to get me started.  Not once have I been able to stop after the buzzer rings.

    Here’s another trick to help you get or at least keep your writing momentum.

    At the end of a day, resist the urge to continue until you hit a natural stopping point. Instead, stop in mid-thought, mid-page, even mid-sentence.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, because it sets up your subconscious up to work out copy challenges overnight.  Second, because the following morning, you’ll actually find it much easier to get right back into the text and get started all over again.

    And with that, I’ll…

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    10 “Speed-Copy” Secrets

    speedy

    The better you get at writing good copy, the more clients will want access to your time. In the beginning, you’ll want to give it to them.

    But as time goes by, you won’t be able to.

    You’ll try to cherry pick projects, taking on only those that won’t bog you down disproportionately to what you’ll get in return.

    But what happens when you have no other choice than to just… write… faster?

    You can try these tips…

    1) Really DO Cherry-Pick Projects

    It’s great to be eager.

    But you’ll find there really are some copywriting jobs that just aren’t worth it. Which ones? Be wary, for instance, of poorly baked products with no clear audience or no clear benefit for the audience they’re meant to target.

    Likewise, look out for projects without a passionate champion on the client side. If there’s nobody who can sell you on what you’re supposed to be selling, there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard time selling it to prospects, too.

    And finally, look out for projects that don’t have at least 85% of the pieces in place before you get started. Unless, that is, you’re also being paid to help develop the product… a different and more involved job than just writing the sales letter.

    2) Know Your Load

    Four solid hours of writing, day in and day out, with rest of the day for calls, meetings, and email is actually a pretty solid pace. Sure, one can go longer when needed. But writing can be physically draining, if you’re doing it right.

    Copywriter Bob Bly once told me that, while he also logs only about four hours on each project per day, he stays fresh by working keeping two projects going at once and switching to four hours on the second project in the

    I’ve tried that. And sometimes it works. But frankly, once I start working on something — anything — I get too caught up in in it to let it go. So I actively try to avoid other projects until I’ve got the first one completed.

    Your style will be up to you.

    3) Gather Your Resources, Part I

    One of the best ways to accelerate the pace on any writing project is to feed it the nourishment in needs to get started. That nourishment is information.

    Read up, interview, discuss.

    Call the most central figure for the product that the client can offer and do a phone interview. Record it and start typing as you play it back. You’ll need other resources along the way. But this is where you’ll need to begin, if you want to make sure you burst out of the gate with as much power as possible.

    4) Build Your Framework

    Once you’ve got a grasp on the general direction you’ll need to take in the promo, you’ll want — no, need — to make an outline. Too many early writers skip this step. Many say they don’t need it.

    Yet, for all but a rare few, unstructured writing shows. The benefit of an outline is that you know where you need to go. But you also know, as you pile up research and ideas, where you DON’T need to go.

    And that’s equally important.

    5) Gather Your Resources, Part II

    Once you’ve pulled together a rough outline of where you’re headed, you’ll immediately start to see the additional holes you’ll need to fill.

    Now it’s time to go out again and start digging. Pile up links, magazine clippings, notes from studying the product and the customer base. Notes from talking to the client.

    Just for the record, the research part of your copywriting process should almost always take the most time. How much longer?

    A fair breakdown, if you’re working with a product you don’t know well, is about 50% of your total time available spent on research. And then 30% on writing the first draft. Plus another 20% for polishing and revision.

    6) Try Writing in 3D

    You would think that writing the beginning first, the middle second, and the end last would be the best way to go. And for many writers, that’s precisely the path the follow. However, I’d personally recommend creating a writing system that’s a little more non-linear.

    What do I mean?

    Research, ideas, phrases… tend to arrive in a disorderly fashion, just like a conversation that leaps from one topic to another entirely.

    So what I do is write in sections. I actually create separate, labeled parts of my file in Word. These sections match my outline or “mind-map” of the message I’d like to deliver.

    Then, as I research and revise, I jump back and forth between sections, adding to one, tightening another, copying and moving pieces of ideas.

    Each area fleshes out at roughly the same time, then I reorganize them to fit the more logical, linear outline that will underlie the final piece.

    7) Write Your Close First

    Here’s an interesting idea — start at the end. And I can give you at least two solid reasons to do this.

    First, because the offer you write will, word for word, have more impact on the prospect than any other section of the promo — save for the headline and lead. If the offer stinks, you haven’t got a chance no matter how brilliant your copywriting.

    Second, because knowing specifically how you’ll close the sale gives you a target to shoot for. This, too, is a great defense against the tangents that can knock you off the trail of your sales message all too easily.

    8 ) Give Your Lead Room to Breathe

    I know perfectionism is a killer problem for a lot of new writers. Get over that. Really. Why?

    Because you’ll kill yourself and your career trying to get the right word line-by-line. Especially when you sacrifice writing the bulk of the rest of that promo while you tinker and tinker… and tinker… with the lead.

    Here’s an alternate idea… put the headline and lead copy in a separate document or somehow cordoned off from the rest of your promo. Open that alternate writing area whenever you’re working on the main document.

    Whenever you have an idea about how to make the lead stronger, dip into that alternate writing window, make the changes and then jump back to the rest of the piece.

    I do this a dozen or more times while I’m writing, with the headline and lead changing 10… 20… or more times before I’m through.

    9) Learn to “Copyify” Your Notes As You Research

    This takes practice. But you’ll through your copy much faster if, when you take notes from resources you’ll use, you record the notes directly into copywritten form.

    For instance, not “Mention last year’s booming commodity market to support resource buying op”… but rather “Last year’s booming commodities market is the perfect example. Had you subscribed to my ‘Dirt, Rocks, and Other Investments’ advisory service then, you’d already be up XXX% on Mud Futures alone by now.”

    You get the picture.

    If you can record your ideas quickly in a form that’s close to the sound you’ll want for the final draft, obviously that cuts back future writing time.

    10) Use Markers and Shortcuts

    This last one is a small thing. But very, very handy.

    Let’s say you’re writing and you need to cite a stat you don’t have at your fingertips, try just dropping in “XX” where that falls.

    Or let’s say you need a subhead to transition between sections but the perfect one escapes you at the moment. Don’t get stuck. Instead, drop in “[SUBHEAD HERE]” and keep moving.

    The idea is to preserve the momentum at all costs. Just make sure you search the replacement phrases and fill things in after the writing is done.

    This list could go on, of course. But that’s a pretty good start.

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    Thinking Inside The Box

    theboxWhat is creativity?

    I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that gets kicked around, about the value of thinking “outside the box.” But in my experience, that’s the opposite of true.

    In fact, there was a time when I considered becoming a cartoonist. And I was a big fan (still am) of the cartoons that appear in the New Yorker. While reading a collection of essays by repeat cartoonists in those pages, I was struck by what one of them said.

    The best way, he reported, to get an idea for the perfect funny moment… was to draw an empty box. Those were the bounds of the space you had to work with. And that reminder was enough to help you focus on what could — and couldn’t — go inside.

    Maybe that’s why I was also struck by a quote I found years ago in BusinessWeek, courtesy of Marissa Ann Mayer, a VP at Google:

    “Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, and religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.

    “They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.

    “Yet constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.”

    Well said, Marissa. Well said.

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    The Curse of the Modern Age

    3DD92E8C-7CDE-4F5A-8C69-C3B6EA13D930.jpg “For a list of the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” says Alice Kahn, “please press three.”

    I’m sure you know what she’s talking about.

    And even if you don’t, let me ask you this: How often do you, you know, do “it?” Maybe once in the morning… and again in the afternoon?

    I’ll bet. Or maybe you like to do “it” just before lunch… or just after lunch… or before and after and during? That wouldn’t surprise me either.

    And then there’s your coffee break… what else are you going to do while waiting for a pot to brew? Not to mention just before meetings… or during meetings… and as soon as one ends.

    Yep, you do “it” all the time. You just can’t stop yourself. Sadly, you’re not alone. Because the rest of us probably do “it” too often too.

    Of course, I’m talking about checking your email… your tweets… your texts… and your Facebook alerts.

    Not so long ago, it was a non-issue. Now every computer in the world seems to ding all day with new message alerts. And if not the computers, it’s the cell-phones. Or even iPods and iPads, since they connect too.

    It’s everywhere.

    You can even log in on your way to the bathroom… or IN the bathroom… (please tell me you’re not reading this in a stall).

    And how about that quick download before dinner… or during dinner… or just before drifting off to sleep?

    How about in the elevator… at a stop light… or in motion. Maybe even over the shoulder of your loved one, during a warm but, let’s be honest, not so time-efficient embrace.

    If any six of the scenarios above sound familiar… or if you’ve wondered if a Ziploc bag could protect your iPad in the shower… you might have a problem. And you wouldn’t be alone again, you wouldn’t be alone. Or so says Matt Richtel, a tech-writer for the New York Times.

    Maybe this comes to you as no surprise.

    This is, after all, the age of high tech multi-tasking. Or is it? Not according to a handful of studies cited in one of Richtel’s recent articles.

    And if you’re wondering why you feel busy all the time but you don’t get anything done — this might be the reason why.

    In short, our brains just aren’t built for the perpetually “plugged in” lifestyle. It may, in fact, be costing you.

    Now hang on there, cupcake.

    Yes, I DO realize the irony.

    After all, I’m a direct response copywriter. My bread and butter relies on people opening messages, including email. And yes, I also write an e-letter, which is delivered by email and in which this article originally appeared (sign up in the box to the right).

    But between you and me, have you noticed your relationship changing at all with your inbox? Mine certainly has.

    Case in point, in the beginning days of Compuserve, I could barely get enough. I too was a serial email reader. I must have hit the “get mail” button a dozen times a day, eager for contact.

    Not so much anymore.

    I now have, for example, 778 emails sitting waiting for an answer. Some are dated from last summer. I want to answer them. I feel compelled to answer them.

    But I won’t. I’ve even actively decided not to.

    Why?

    Like anything, it’s complicated.

    I recently heard a radio host sum up at least one part of the problemlike this: each email is a moment on someone else’s agenda. Tell me this, answer me that, find and send me this info.

    How true.

    And yet, she said, she can’t resist knowing if anything new has come in. So she checks — just for a second — and finds herself lost, an hour or more later.

    Sound familiar?

    I don’t want that. I can’t afford that. So I stay away. These days, much as I want to, I try not to start checking email until after 4 pm… 3 pm if I’m feeling weak. Because it’s the only way.

    How about you?

    I ask because I know what it is to be writing, like you’re aspiring to do. And whether it’s novels or sales copy, it’s the same.

    You’re either in the zone… or you’re not.

    When you’re in it, you know. Because that’s when even a five alarm fire would have a tough time getting you to move from your chair or stop what you’re doing.

    I’m sure you “get” the feeling. So, you might still be asking… how did we get so hooked on email and tweets and Facebook and the rest in the first place, especially when the cost to productivity is so obvious?

    Say California researchers, the reason you have such a tough time stopping yourself from checking your email or whatever other inputs you’ve got going is simple.

    It’s because it delivers dopamine “squirts” to your brain. You get hooked, it turns out, to that series of tiny excitements as one email after another rolls in.

    Not unlike the smoker taking his first puff after a long international flight… or a drinker getting a martini after a long day in the salt mines.

    It’s a joy to get the jolt, over and over again. And without it, you learn to feel perpetually bored. But it’s a bigger issue now than ever, says Richtel.

    Today, we’re hit with three times as much daily media as we were in the 1960s. What’s more, your average computer user visits 40 web pages per day.

    Think about that.

    We email colleagues at the next desk. We tweet our insights to friends, then meet up with nothing to talk about. We bask in the glow of unending online Facebook reunions, without actually seeing the people we’re “talking” to for years on end.

    It’s all got its merits.

    Business-wise, it’s been amazing. Many a direct-response company has been saved thanks to new media. Some have learned how to turn it into $100s of millions per year. And I’m happy to be one of the beneficiaries.

    But what’s it tell you when even the Pope feels like it’s time to weigh in? Here’s what he told the NYT:

    “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world…

    “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

    (Intrigued? You can check out Papal (no, I didn’t mean to write “Paypal”) proclamations like this one in eight languages, courtesy of the Vatican’s iPhone app. I kid you not.)

    But addiction and virtual loneliness are just the beginning of the problem. Even bigger, in my opinion, is the illusion of productivity that goes with all this message fueled effort.

    It gives us the illusion, yes, that we’re getting lots done. We are, if the email feeds are to believed, multi-tasking our way through lots of things that demand our attention, all at once.

    The document feedback, the afternoon call, the kid’s b-day party… when you bang out a message on each in under a few minutes, you feel like you’re changing the world.

    But multi-tasking, says Richtel’s research for his article, is bunk. An illusion. If you think you’re good at it, he suggests, there’s a likelihood you’re kidding yourself.

    How so?

    First, let me freely admit, I’m not a multi-tasker at all. I never have been. Walk and chew gum? I’m lucky I get through breakfast without falling out of my chair.

    Without 100% focus, I can’t work.

    That makes me a pain in the you-know-what to be around during the day. I scowl when I type, I’m told. And look up at interruptions like I’m ready to bite.

    And I don’t doubt it. Because I now that once I stop, I’ll need another half hour to get rolling again.

    I’ve always felt a little bad about that.

    But it turns out, according to what Richtel says is “half a century of proof,” many more of us are that way than I ever imagined.

    What’s more, you’re probably better off resigning yourself to focusing on one thing than you realize.

    Even though, with your email alerts dinging and your cell-phone vibrating, it doesn’t always feel that way.

    When you multi-task, says a particular set of scientists from the University of San Diego, it might feel like you’re doing a lot at once.

    But what you’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks. And most likely, you’re not doing it well.

    Think cocktail party and trying to register two conversations simultaneously… think airline pilot tweeting to his girlfriend during a landing… think surgeon calling the deli for a roast-beef on rye, while he’s wrapping up a brain operation.

    If we’re paying attention to one process, say the tests, our brains are hard-wired to ignore everything else. Even if only for microseconds at a time.

    So what, if we get it done, right?

    I know one guy who writes with the TV on, he says. And he’s good. I know others who keep IM and email windows open and cell phones within reach. And they all still earn a good living.

    But you have to wonder, how much better would they do without the willing distractions? Maybe a lot better, if these findings are right.

    In fact, the research even shows that those that cling their multi-tasking beliefs end up being SLOWER in tests than the single-minded simpletons, who score better at both noticing small details and juggling when forced to balance between different assignments.

    I guess what I’m saying is… wait, hang on a sec… I just got an email… this is good… ha… I’ll be right back, I swear…

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    Is Social Networking… TOO Social?

    crowdTime magazine did a back-o’-the-napkin calculation.

     Suppose you estimate about five million of these “25 Random Things” messages in circulation in a single week.

     Given 25 details in each note, that’s 125 million random facts making the rounds. Even at just 10 minutes to come up with each list, that’s roughly 800,000 hours of time… probably at work… spent on Facebook.

     Okay, I’ll admit it… I don’t ‘get’ it.

     That is, I get the technology. It’s the appeal that escapes me. Not just Facebook, but MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reunion, and all the rest.

    Yes, I know that makes me sound like a curmudgeon.

     Don’t get me wrong. I’m on it, if begrudgingly. Simply because so many friends invited me, it seemed rude to keep on ignoring the invitations.

     I’m now at around 140 or so friends… ranging from my hometown acquaintances to faraway college friends, an ex-girlfriend or two, old work colleagues, grad school friends, and so on.

     I haven’t invited any of them myself. I just accept the connections as they come. And sure, watching the network build… the status updates… the pictures of their kids… the details of their lives after we last saw each other… these really are good things.

     But I can’t help question the opportunity cost.

     For instance, where does everyone find the time to update a status or tap in all those notes? I can barely keep up with my email inbox. Now I’ve got to worry about forgetting to “Facebook” Mom too?

     Plus, the lost privacy. Not that I have anything to hide, but in all the time I’ve had a Facebook account, I’ve never entered a “status” update. Not once.

     Not that I have anything to hide… but some details just don’t feel important enough to share. (“John F. was just typing… and he’s still typing. There he goes again!” Welcome to the endless status loop.)

     Certainly, there’s a massive marketing benefit to this whole social network phenomenon (can you say ‘self-expanding, self-selecting mailing lists?’).

     But… well… let’s just say that when they throw the Facebook friends and family reunion about a dozen years from now… you’ll find me over by the digital punchbowl.

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    How to Write Faster

    Regardless of what kind of writing you do, says a study from the National Writing Project of Louisiana, three key components seemed to have the biggest influence on how creatively productive you’ll be.  What are those components?

    1) A More Consistent Working Environment:

    Almost all of the writers in the study had a designated ‘place’ where they did all their best writing.  Simply being there gave them focus. I concur.  I can write almost anywhere — but I prefer dark, quiet spaces.  I travel a lot, but have a designated spot in each of the five spaces I typically find myself in during a given year.

    I also need certain “supplies” to get going.  A long yellow legal pad or a tab of French graph paper.  Black Bic pens.  My ever-present Macbook Pro.

    Environment includes sound, of course.  Personally, I work best with dead quiet.  Or sometimes, music.  But anything with lyrics is poison.  I know other many other writers –including copywriters — who agree.

    Classical or jazz.  Bach Cello Suites or the Goldberg Variations.  Chopin Etudes.  Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  “Kind of Blue” or “Some Day My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis.  Old Coltrane (but not the crazier, more recent stuff).

    (Caveat: I know at least one brilliant copywriter who keeps the TV droning on in the background!  I couldn’t do it.  But it works for him.)

    2) A Set Time For Working:

    If you’re a freelancer, working outside of an office environment, this might be a hard truth to face. Yet, almost all the writers in the study said they wrote better if they did so at a certain time, the same time, every single day.

    And best of all, if you write in the morning. I know, I know. I sympathize with anyone who says they prefer to work at night. I used to be one myself. But having young kids, who don’t understand why Dad won’t come away from the computer, has changed that. And for the better.

    Not only am I much more productive when I get good work done early, but I’m happier too. And yes, all the best copywriters I know also get started early.  And not just early, but make sure the first thing you do is start working on your largest project, too.  No e-mails.  No phone calls.  Writing first, trivial stuff later.

    (Remember when there was no email? Could you imagine wasting two hours a day sending and receiving faxes with your buddies? Of course you couldn’t. Just because email is more automatic doesn’t mean it’s any better for you.)

    And then there’s the intelligent use of deadlines, as long as we’re talking about time for writing. Even daily deadlines. It’s the pressure — the end goal — that makes you move more quickly. Consider the famous Eugene Schwarz story. Everyday, to get himself started, he’d set his egg timer to 33.33 minutes. Then he sat down to write, even if it just meant staring at the blank page until beads of blood formed on his forehead.

    3) Last, Rituals that Boost Confidence

    This last component — writer’s behavior rituals — was the broadest category of observed creativity patterns.

    It’s critical to how productive you are.  Unfortunately, it’s the most ambiguous.

    For instance, some of the rituals writers had in the Louisiana study didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing at all.

    Sharpening pencils.  Wearing lucky sweaters.  Using a certain coffee mug.  The theory was that the consistency of the rituals bred confidence, and helped melt away potential “writer’s block” anxiety.

    That may be true.  What seems just as true is that some rituals manage to mildly distract your senses so your subconscious can get to work.

    Walking, for example, seems to work for writers. The next time you’re feeling around for an idea, fast track it by filling up your mind with information about what you hope to sell… and then stepping outside for a stroll.

    If not that, then a drive.  Or a shower.

    4) Bonus Tip:

    You say you’ve tried all that and you’re still stuck?

    Try re-working your diet.  The January 19 issue of “Science” reports a single protein in the brain – SCN – that controls your entire ‘master clock,’ allowing you to feel awake or tired, hot or cold, bleary or focused, etc.

    Just two days of tinkering with eating schedules in lab rats threw off the SCN balance in the brain.

    Eating a light, protein-centric breakfast can help you stay focused on anything.  Lunch, on the other hand, should be light or even skipped. A lot of people claim they can think better on an empty stomach (yours truly included).

    I hope all those ideas help.

    Okay, some more last minute ways to get jumpstarted — most of them, a rehash of ideas we’ve talked about in past issues.  Ready? Write out ideas on index cards.  Talk ideas into a tape recorder. Sketch out the pages of your promo, even before writing a single word.  Copy a strong lead paragraph two or three times. Go to bed early tonight.  Study the outline behind your last great promo.  Start re-reading your pile of research from top to bottom. Good luck!

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    The Procrastinator’s Creed

    Somebody wrote this, somewhere. But as far as I can tell, he or she never got around to signing it. So how about we just run the following under the byline “anonymous”…

    1. I believe that if anything is worth doing, it would have been done already.

    2. I shall never move quickly, except to avoid more work or find excuses.

    3. I will never rush into a job without a lifetime of consideration.

    4. I shall meet all of my deadlines directly in proportion to the amount of bodily injury I could expect to receive from missing them.

    5. I firmly believe that tomorrow holds the possibility for new technologies, astounding discoveries, and a reprieve from my obligations.

    6. I truly believe that all deadlines are unreasonable regardless of the amount of time given.

    7. I shall never forget that the probability of a miracle, though infinitesmally small, is not exactly zero.

    8. If at first I don’t succeed, there is always next year.

    9. I shall always decide not to decide, unless of course I decide to change my mind.

    10. I shall always begin, start, initiate, take the first step, and/or write the first word, when I get around to it.

    11. I obey the law of inverse excuses which demands that the greater the task to be done, the more insignificant the work that must be done prior to beginning the greater task.

    12. I know that the work cycle is not plan/start/finish, but is wait/plan/plan.

    13. I will never put off until tomorrow, what I can forget about forever.

    14. I will become a member of the ancient Order of Two-Headed Turtles (the Procrastinator’s Society) if they ever get it organized.

    Any of this sound familiar?

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