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in Filmmaking
on Jun 11, 2006

Over at his blog Self Reliant Filmmaking, filmmaker Paul Harrill is beginning a two-part series discussing books on productivity and their effectiveness for artists. He starts with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is the bible-of-the-moment for productivity seekers. It has even spawned a website, 43 Folders, which applies its principles to computer organizational systems and various lifehacks.

Harrill starts by summarizing some of the key points of Allen’s simple system:

Something comes across your desk. What now?

First, you process it:

If you can’t act on it, you trash it, file it away for later, or you save it for reference. Examples: junk mail, an newspaper article you might want to adapt into a short film someday, or a new phone book, respectively.

If you can act on it then:

1) You can act on it immediately if you can accomplish the task in 2 minutes or less. (Great for email.)
2) You can delegate someone to do something about it.
3) You defer it to be acted upon later, preferably by putting it on your calendar or by assigning a “next action” to it.

#1 is the most immediately satisfying, in the sense that you’re dealing with stuff very quickly.
#2 is useful if you have someone to whom you can reliably delegate.
#3 is for the important (or at least time consuming) stuff.

I won’t go into details about the actions (this is most of the book), but Allen stresses that you must define what the next actionable step is. Failure to do this means you’ve just pushed it aside and you’re going to end up spinning wheels. But (theoretically, at least) if you follow the system, you’re going to figure out a meaningful action that you can take and then you’ll do it.

Harrill’s been playing with Allen’s ideas for a year, and he goes on to summarize the good and the bad:

I also found that its orientation towards specific, actionable tasks was immensely helpful. It’s not enough to say “I swear I’m going to finish editing my documentary.” And it’s even worse to say, “I’m going to figure that problem scene out.” Figuring something out isn’t an action. You have to say, “I’m going to try to cut it from character X’s perspective and see if that solves the problem I’m having with the pacing.” That’s action, which, um, gets things done. Again, as I said, some of this is straightforward, common sense stuff, but even applying the slightest bit of theory to your productivity can help you become aware of what is and isn’t working for you.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad:

Beyond some of the most basic concepts (like the ones outlined above) I’ve largely abandoned the GTD system. In fact, some of the more advanced concepts in the book — like the fabled 43 folders — I tried for only a few days before dropping. At times I felt like I was pushing paper and not getting much done. At other times I stressed more about the system than the actual tasks I was using the system to accomplish. Wasn’t this supposed to be stress-free productivity?

I definitely relate to Harrill’s comments; I read Allen’s book about a year ago too. For me, there were simple tips in the book that were great, like the “two-minute rule.” Basically, if something comes up that you can do in two minutes, you have to do it because the time to organize it, come back to it, and do it will take longer than two minutes. (The book never seems to really address what happens if your day becomes comprised of a series of incoming two-minute actions that wind up taking your mind away from bigger projects.) The “next action” rule Harrill described above is also excellent. But like Harrill, I found that the system’s relentless mental categorizing creates a drone-ish, non-creative feeling. And what’s very interesting about the book is that it’s tailored to high-powered executives but never really addresses the role of an assistant — which most of its readers obviously have — to achieve some of the goals defined in the book.

Has anyone else out there tried Allen’s book or one of the other ones out there? Comments, please.

I’ll be looking forward to Harrill’s part two, in which he looks at a productivity book just for artists.

And, on a related note… the 14-Day Screenplay Challenge is a website that is structuring the energies of its readers to finish a script in two weeks. There are downloadable progress bars, forums with postings by various writers, links to stimulating and related blogs (all of which, it seems to me, might distract you from finishing your script). The current round started June 3.

Here’s what the site has to say:

In the 14 Day Screenplay we challenge you to write a feature length screenplay (90-120 pages) in just 14 days. It may sound crazy but that is less than 7-9 pages a day, each day for the 14 days. With a little preparation it should take less than two hours a day. Most people can find bits of time through the day, and what’ss getting up early for a fortnight if you have a screenplay written at the end?

This is a competition, however there are no prizes. You are competing with yourself and the grand prize is the satisfaction of knowing you too can write a script. The point is simply this – finish a screenplay!

It doesn’t matter if your script is no good. If it’s your first then odds are it won’t be, however consider it a first draft. Consider it proving to yourself that you can writer a script and use your new found confidence to continue writing. After all, a lousy first draft is better than no draft at all.

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