Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How To Change Your (Writing) Life In 30 Days

30-Day Challenges - from Ben Hardy

The Internet is a big place. I am one of those people that read a lot of different articles about a ton of different topics and ideas that I find interesting: from fake news and media manipulation through to why schools are prisons. Frequently, I save the links to read later - and then don't always get around to looking at them.

Writing materials in place...now what?

However, one person's writing kept appearing in my news feeds, suggestions, and in Medium - Benjamin P Hardy. And what a character he is! His meteoric rise using Medium; his suggestions for action; his ideas on self-development, and his ability to collect ideas and assemble them is masterful. It's also totally accessible for anyone interested and willing to put in the time. His post “How To Change Your Life In 30 Days” sets out "30-Day Challenges" that invite people to cause their growth.

This post is about my 30-Day Challenge. I took on writing 30 blog posts in 30 days for one of my projects - findaniceman.com - my coaching practice that aims to help women discover their unique talents and attract a great guy.

I currently work full-time as a teacher, and I have a middle leadership position* (where I'm also trusted by the senior management team). I was hesitant about taking on this challenge: how would I find the time? What would I write about? What would my wife say? Would it all be worth it?

From completing the 30-Day Challenge I've discovered eight things that could be useful for you - or anyone writing.

1. Separate Planning and Writing

Thinking and action are different. They are different skills. I first discovered this when teaching my pupils about writing essay questions. In the UK for Economics, Business Studies and Psychology A-levels, students need to be able to write answers to essay-style questions - against the clock. I found that they would write answers that were often disjointed and unfocused. The examiners' reports and mark schemes state that the highest marks come from writing that is coherent and structured. I would find that students were writing long sentences - which reflects attempting to think and write at the same time. Or they put arrows or asterisks to paragraphs they added in at the end of their answer - which reflects attempting to plan and write at the same time. Keep in mind also that most of my pupils are not using a computer. For exams they have to handwrite their answers.

No wonder their answers were disjointed and incoherent.

My solution is to plan out your answer, then write it. (Of course the problem then becomes how do you plan an answer - and my frustration with teachers who say this, but then give no guidance about how to plan an answer. I will be writing about a suggested planning process in another post). This is not a revolutionary idea - I've come to the same conclusion from over ten years of teaching.

In my 30-day challenge, I would splurge out all my ideas for a particular topic. From this mess some kind of idea for a title would emerge.

Do the thinking first to make your actual writing easier.

2. Structure

Over the 30 days of the challenge, I needed to find ways to speed up my writing - if I wanted to get to bed at a (relatively) decent time. So, I would always choose the ending insight of each post before I started writing. Again my experience with teaching hundreds of pupils to improve their exam answers, suggests that structuring - in advance - helps writing. I have been telling my pupils for years to choose an overall answer to the question before writing, because this would give their writing a natural direction, purpose and flow.

However, I found myself writing a short paragraph to begin each post that detailed the main point. On the surface it helps focus the reader. In reality, it helped me focus my writing. This was a revelation for me: clarifying the point of my writing in the introduction. On reflection, the reason I needed to do this, was because I was generating content from scratch. I didn't have an exam question to answer. Writing is so much easier when there's an exam question.

On deeper reflection, different media for writing require different structures: the proposal I gave to senior management was put together differently from the essay for my Sixth Formers. I also realised the same is true for a blog post - a blog is a medium unto itself - where there's much more room for providing value (see 3. below) and expressing my unique voice (see 4. below).

Create a point and the insight for your posts to speed up your writing.

3. Provide Value

Not rocket science this one - but as I wrote each post, I became more and more focused on giving something valuable to readers. I would link to my free downloadable material; I started to add Amazon affiliate links for the books I mentioned; I always ended with a question to which you could respond.

It also became natural to link to other posts I'd written. Writing 30 posts in 30 days had me create a body of work. I realised after downloading Hardy's free ebook that it was a collection of his blog posts. Regardless of how I got the material it was valuable - and he has a clear focus on giving us something useful.

This can be very difficult when there's no exam question. In truth it's about creating ideas...actually creating is the wrong word - collecting, finding, discovering, stealing...whichever way I could (see 6. below). In focusing on providing value for readers, I had to hone my ideas. I learned to trust my instincts and the creative process. As I practised, it got quicker.

Identify the value you provide, and plan for it to emerge in your writing.

4. Discover Your Voice

I've been blogging on an off for over ten years. I've been teaching for over ten years. Marking work and teaching is a constant process of reflection, writing, testing, communicating, discussing, measuring, judging...which means over time, I've discovered (some) of what works.

One thing I've found from doing a lot of writing in different ways, is learning to trust my voice. However, the 30-day challenge focused my thinking - because I was writing about a specific, chosen topic. By writing a lot in a short space of time, I got to discover my style, and my voice. When I first started the challenge, there was a big gap between creating and planning the posts and actually writing them. After 30 days of posts, the gap got smaller (that practising thing again). I move from a title to completed post smoothly.

And - it's a constantly evolving process. Like learning, the more you learn, the more you find there is to learn. The more I write, the more I find out about what I like; the more freedom there is to explore. Writing daily means I have experimented with different writing styles and structures to do discover my voice. There is no shortcut to achieving this.

Your voice could grow in all sorts of ways if you embraced a 30-day challenge (i.e. write a lot!)

5. Let Go Of Thought And Opinion

Once I started this challenge, it did get easier...for a while. It became more and more difficult at all stages of the process: creating titles, ideas, structuring - all of it. What I realised was that this happened mostly because I listened to my thoughts including: "I don't want to", "I'm tired", "why did I do this?", "I don't have time","I won't have  time to do anything else" - and many other ruder things.

I started to get that my opinions were actually no different to my thoughts. Opinions don't necessarily make the difference to the actual process of writing. Neither do my thoughts. Letting go gave me a bit of room - a bit like separating planning and writing (see 1. above).

This relates to trusting the creative process (see 8. below). Without letting go of my thoughts and opinions, I couldn't get creative. Of course this is easier said than done because as much as I might tell myself "they're only thoughts" - letting it go is really difficult, because the very fact I'm telling myself "they're only thoughts" is thinking itself. (Mark Manson calls this "The Feedback Loop from Hell") I realised that my head is a dangerous wild-west type place.

How to get round all this? To be honest - I couldn't. And didn't. The phrase "the way out is through" expresses my view. I kept going - and practised. I have a joke with my wife about thoughts: "thoughts are like farts - they leave a whiff, but they pass". As they pass, a bit of space emerges - and that's where I was productive.

Practise letting go of your thoughts and opinions to give your creativity some space.

6. Be Ready To Collect Ideas...But Organise Too

Inspiration can strike at any moment. Ideas seem to come to me wherever, whenever. I've found that it's not that I run out of ideas - it's more that when I sit down to write, I suddenly run out of ideas. A quick internet search of "carry a notebook" will bring up a load of material on the importance of being able to write down ideas as and when they happen.

This is because the brain works partly on associations so anything goes, at any time. Getting them out of your head and into a notebook or onto some mobile version.

I read somewhere (although I'm not sure where - and it kind of relates to Daniel Kahneman's work in Thinking Fast and Slow) that you could approach our thinking as conscious and subconscious parts. The conscious part takes focus and energy; it's linear. The subconscious part is free-flowing and associative; it's non-linear.

The non-linear nature of the subconscious can explain why we suddenly get the answer to the problem we were thinking about yesterday - today - perhaps after a night's sleep. (This idea of conscious and subconscious relates to separating planning and writing, and the actual planning process itself - which I'll write about later).

It's those moments of inspiration that need collecting and capturing. However, that's only half the story -  because I had to find the ideas I'd collected to make them usable.

When I was completing my 30-Day Challenge, I collected lots of ideas and started outlining them in single posts in Evernote. I then used a tag 'blogpost?' to be able to find them quickly. This meant I could get down to writing quickly, or make the most of my lunch hour by planning a post (see 1. above) in 20-30m.

Whatever method you use to collect your ideas - ensure you have some way of organising them for later use.

7. Develop Habits

Speaking to a friend recently (she blogs here with a really cool Instagram @birdflyingsolo) she mentioned that I come across as very disciplined.

I said that I struggle with time sinkholes too (I'm looking at you Reddit/ YouTube/ Facebook/ Instagram) - especially during the holidays. And then my mind kicks in with all its negative thoughts "I should have..."/ "Why did I...?"/ "It would so much easier if could just..."/ etc.

I've found that understanding habits and setting up effective routines helps me. Again, this is something that written about loads. I know I'm at my best in the mornings. And if I'm going to work at other times, I need to complete plans first.

During my 30-Day challenge, I would sometimes be writing sitting on a bench in our bedroom, with the bedside lamp on, with my wife asleep. I couldn't write before bed like that unless I had some kind of plan to follow (see 1. above) which meant I could just focus on writing.

To get to that stage, I had a set morning routine I followed. All ok -  but people often forget the importance of an evening routine too. I had one of those as well (which included completing the washing-up in the sink...sadly it's got to the stage where I can't go to bed unless the sink is empty).

Charles Duhigg's material about habits is brilliant. Setting up these habits meant I could find where I worked best and make the most of my time. I completed my challenge during the school year from February to March. Setting up the habits was so important.

Work out when you work best and create a strong morning/ evening routine to get into writing.

8. Trust The Creative Process

Again there's so much written about the creative process. It's a bit like that phrase I mentioned 'the way out is through'. But at some point during my challenge, I learned to trust that something great would emerge from the chaos.

This trust didn't come from nowhere - a plan helped, structuring helped, finding my voice helped, letting go of my thoughts helped, collecting and organising ideas helped, setting up habits helped - kind of obvious.

But as I wrote a post, day after day, sometimes I would start of with one idea - and keep trying to push through writing. Then this (almost) strange thing would happen - I would let the idea evolve and the post would end up somewhere even better than I could have planned.

Over the 30 days, I learned to go with it - to trust the creative process. I've had a more visceral experience of this (that might have supported me in the 30-Day challenge) when collaging (my collage blog is thismanscollages.wordpress.com)

Plan, structure, let go of your thoughts, collect and collate your ideas - then as you write - start to trust the creative process.

What I Really Got - Action Matters

What I really got from completing this challenge is that action matters. Until I start writing or typing - nothing happens.

I'm also glad I did it because it reminded me that I do have something to offer, and affirmed that I can write. I'm still pleasantly surprised when I go back to old posts and re-read them.

I invite you to choose something and complete your own 30-Day Challenge
Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Friday, November 10, 2017

Why Movember is Failing (One Part of) Men's Health

Before and After - Movember 2017

Movember starts today. As it does every year.

The charity bringing awareness of, and raising money for men's health, started with cancers and have expanded to include men's mental health. This is commendable. As much as this charity does the most - globally - for men's health, they're still failing men in one area. And that area is a blind spot for the medical profession too:

Men's fertility.

I will still participate in Movember. I will grow a moustache every year. Yet as the hairs grow on my upper lip through the month of November, I still feel let down by the charity that states "we're addressing some of the biggest health issues faced by men: prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health and suicide prevention."

I consider myself lucky that I've not been around much conversation with friends and family about cancer - let alone male cancers. But, I've got four people I know (three close friends) whose fathers died through suicide. Movember has done something. People's awareness of men's cancers and men's mental health has increased.

But the silence about male fertility is deafening - even though it's becoming a bigger problem - see here and here. The deeper issue is that the experience of having children has traditionally been associated with women. The medical profession has focused its research around female fertility. Male fertility lacks the funding for research - which therefore means less is known.

My personal experiences reflect this: I almost felt like an aside during our three rounds of IVF. From the lack of support available to men, through to the conversations nurses and consultants had with my wife and myself (most of their attention was on my wife - unless I made my presence felt with a question).

I've written repeatedly about it on this blog and on Good Men Project and Huffington Post. I've even been on a BBC Breakfast News segment and on live radio. I posed the question 'Are you less of a man if you can't have children?'

My friends and family all know why I grow a moustache for November.

I've been in touch with Movember on several occasions about men's fertility. (This is my fourth consecutive year of participating in Movember and about about my seventh or eighth overall).

I've heard nothing back.

Whilst I still participate, my aim is to get Movember to add men's fertility to their list of areas.

My mum thinks I should stop talking about our fertility journey. I can understand why she feels this, and I know she's looking out for me. But she also knows that I'm a loud mouth.

Hence this controversially-titled post.

If Movember claim to be addressing men's health, they need to consider men's fertility.

I invite you to:
1) sponsor me, and
2) share this post.


Saturday, August 05, 2017

It's time to give up the romanticism of the 'entrepreneur' and embrace the 'intrapreneur'

This machine causes intrapreneurship

I have always admired entrepreneurs.

They create. They take risks. They make loads of money. At least that's the stereotype. I'm not saying they don't work hard and live and breathe their idea - they do that as well. There is something attractive about the entrepreneurial spirit. It's as if it embodies all that is good about our society and economy: freedom of opportunity, the space to create, equality for everyone.

As a secondary school business studies teacher, there is a significant part of the syllabus devoted to entrepreneurship. The pupils I teach choose the subject because they associate it with programmes like The Dragons' Den or The Apprentice. They dream (and speak) of being millionaires. They all agree with the idea that low taxes are important to encourage entrepreneurship.

Whilst I disagree with that notion (which is the subject for another post) I'm intrigued by the romanticism and mystique of the entrepreneur. I do wonder if the entrepreneurs we all know and love are feeding unrealistic futures to the younger generation. My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas.

For a long time, I felt inadequate as a business studies teacher - here I was talking about risk taking and creativity, but not doing anything. I was all talk. Pupils ask what I would do if I wasn't a teacher, and if I had any ideas. Some would also say that I went to university and I know about business, but all I did was become a teacher.
"My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas."
It was only realised relatively recently, that I started calling myself an intrapreneur. That is - an entrepreneur within an organisation. And no that's not a made up word. As an idea, it's been around since the early 80s (this article on the Huffington Post gives a good summary) that I stumbled across just after I changed careers to become a teacher in 2003.

Part of the reason it took so long to recognise my intrapreneurial qualities is because I was so enamoured with chasing the idea of an entrepreneur. To coin another phrase from the internet, I was a wanna-preneur. The pupils pointedly asking why I didn't do more that just be a teacher heightened my discomfort. I constantly read articles about people building successful online businesses; my social media feeds started to fill up with adverts to 'become an ideas machine' or 'create a business lead magnet on your webpage' and such like. I could feel the hollow well of not-good-enough growing in inside the pit of my stomach.

I suggest that lots of us feel this way. We feel that we could be so much more; that our potential is more than we achieved at school. Anything is possible if you work hard enough. Keep going with your idea. Fail lots and eventually you will succeed.

All of that might be true, but I suggest that a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. It's actually a much easier way to express our entrepreneurial ability. I think the root of this huge missed opportunity is the romantic notion of the entrepreneur and its media misrepresentation. I suggest that the entrepreneurial spirit is not about making millions. It's actually about being an agent of change. It's the idea generation and creativity that really make entrepreneurship.
"a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. "
Through my career in several industries, I have worked (and currently work) with some amazing people. Not only have they given me space to try out wild and crazy ideas, on reflection, I see that I have learned to push for it. Looking back, the key event that set me on this path was writing a document during my placement year as part of my degree in 1998. I was a wild-eyed,  idealistic, immature 21-year old. And my second truly great mentor encouraged me (mostly by taking red pen to pretty much all the stuff I'd been writing...which pushed me pretty hard). In my spare time, I worked on my project. On completion, my manager read it.  He then gave it to the company CEO. Who called me into a one-to-one meeting a few days later.

I remember sitting in the CEO's office. Partly feeling I had done something wrong, and partly in disbelief. I remember he turned and said to me that I could have written the long-range plan for the company. In the next few days, my student placement project was photocopied and distributed to all the middle managers in the company.

Since then, in every job I've had, I've constantly felt the need to push the boundaries; to question; to try out new things - and make suggestions. Years on, now in my school: if there's a mad, crazy teaching idea; if volunteers are needed to have their lesson videoed or observed; if anyone's writing a proposing a new idea to move things forward...I'm there.

If there's something that has gone some way to legitimising the intrapreneur (and my approach to my career) it came last year when the A-Level business studies syllabus changed (again). There, under the part about 'ways of becoming  an innovative organisation' was a section about (you guessed it) intrapreneurship. I actually felt gratified.

So now what? I do think the entrepreneurial spirit is valuable. But it's time to leave all the romanticised idealistic nonsense that we'll all be millionaires if we keep failing fast - by ourselves. I see that organisations need to adapt as the pace of technological change continues to grow. But it's within our organisations (including - and perhaps especially - our schools) that employees need space to take the risks. I hear my contemporaries (including teachers) talk about career direction, or ineffective systems, or dysfunctional working relationships. I feel business leaders could be empowering and identifying intrapreneurs as a strategy for dealing with our challenging world. This of course requires a high level of trust from leadership, but employees need to take ownership of organisation's goals. Waiting around changes nothing.

To end, I have two questions for you:
- What action are you going to take?
- When are you going to make it happen?