How do I manage a hectic schedule that is always changing? (Part 3)

How do you optimize your workflow in the course of routinely hectic days? This is the third post in a five-part series, so don’t begin here. First, decide on your Blue Sky — even just for today — then audit what creates chaos in your schedule, along with any fixable patterns you can identify for yourself and your team. Now, note the reframing of the original question in this post’s first sentence. Your new focus is “How do I optimize my day?” rather than “How do I manage a hectic schedule” because, again, what you focus on ignites

Your new focus is “How do I optimize my day?” rather than “How do I manage a hectic schedule” because, again, what you focus on ignites. 

In my work as a strategist, I use tech best practices in non-tech spaces. There’s a reason tech companies tend to quickly and powerfully disrupt the non-tech ecosystems they enter. Part of it is their approach to big picture executions. Where analog world amplifies ideators and their ideas (“I have a vision!”), techies obsess over customers and their pain points (“We solved a problem!). Since customers are the currency of success, tech companies dismantle whole industries that are still top-down, visionary-leader-celebrating entities. Tech companies are bottom up, constantly iterating worlds. Until they get big enough that their visionary leader becomes the central focus of the company. And then…well, you know what’s going to happen.

Tech has the edge in small executions, as well. In addition to their customer focus, tech cos (Okay, it’s us. We’re tech cos.) liberally incorporate data into daily thoughts and processes like Himalayan salt. Data inspires, drives, and validates some part of every decision, no matter how minor. So where and how your data is stored, cared for and retrieved is mission critical to your success.

Your hectic days are filled with multiple small decisions and requests, too, the many “Tasks” and “Asks” that collectively add up to overwhelm. Each one of those events is its own data point you may need to reference for great decisions. So here are three tech-inspired tips to transform your current approach to time and task management:

  1. Commit to getting everything out of your head and into tangible form. To start, you absolutely have to decide that the minute any idea or task pops into your head, you’re going to put it into tangible form. No exceptions! That fleeting reminder to call someone, that nagging question of did I do that thing, that fun gift idea for two months from now? Every piece of information, without preference, fail or exception, must be written or typed into a form that can be saved, retrieved and reviewed.
  1. Commit to storing every one of those things in a single place. Tech teams often speak of the “single source of truth,” or SSOT, for their data. As obvious as that seems, it’s rarely practiced in analog OR tech world! Think about all the places you currently squirrel away information. Your email inbox is in the thousands. You have sticky notes or a notebook for things you want to speedily capture. You use a digital notes app on each different device you use. You stick your head out of your office to ask your assistant, “Remind me to…” And that’s just from the first few hours of any day. You cannot get a handle on your days if you can’t immediately and simply see what the demands of your day and life currently are. And that requires a single place where all things live. That includes ideas, brainstorms, tasks, etc. — the content doesn’t matter. And if you have a team, hear this clearly: the entire team needs to work from a single source of truth. 

There are many ways to do this. If you decide to write things down, then a single notebook has to be with you at every moment. Bring the fanny pack back in style, but let there be a pen and notepad in it. If you decide on digital task lists or note apps, then sync them across all of your devices. And for speed, use your keyboard mic to speech-to-text items straight into the app. Whatever you choose, commit to it. And no matter what, back it up! (Yes, even your notebook has to be scanned at least once a week.)

There’s a lot to learn by doing this. With my clients, we discuss the times of day they’re most inundated with ideas and asks, the buckets or types of items on the list, and the trends in volume over times or periods of the week or year. Please don’t create additional steps with interim sources of truth. Don’t make a list on your phone and a written list on your desk and decide you’ll cross-check them later. You shouldn’t, and you won’t. Decide on and stick to a single source of truth. It won’t last forever — it’s just a starting point. Whatever’s the easiest right now, choose that so you can begin the practice of and shift to maintaining a single source of truth.

  1. Commit to reviewing and prioritizing your SSOT at least once a day. Once you’ve consolidated all of your piles of information and to dos into a single place, you’ll finally be able to build an organizing workflow that delivers for you and your team. The goal isn’t to clear your list. By nature, to-do lists are always replenishing. Instead, the goal is to plan your day. Ideally at the top of the day, every day. As you start this approach, it’s helpful to review and plan at the end of the day, to, because many things may shift over those few hours. It will give you peace of mind to read and even reorder your list in preparation for the morning, so you wake up to a clear sense of purpose and possibility. 

Don’t make a list on your phone and a written list on your desk and decide you’ll cross-check them later. You shouldn’t, and you won’t. Decide on and stick to a single source of truth.

Years ago, at a job where my daily schedule constantly changed throughout the day, I remember checking in with my team in our Friday EOD about how to make their experience better. To the one, each said, “I just want to feel like ‘I’ve got this!’ at the beginning and end of each day.” I loved that, and I related to it, and I committed to having a solution for us on Monday. Reader, I had NO idea how to accomplish this. But I know what decisions do for the universe, so I committed and began my research. And within an hour, I received a phone call that included a random mention of a book that was, indeed, a system for reaching your goals. It was "4DX" by Sean Covey and Chris McChesney. In that book, they leveraged Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approach to prioritizing to dos. Whereas we often evaluate items strictly based on “Urgency,” Eisenhower expanded this to include “Importance.” And prioritizing tasks requires a combination of both. We'll put that on its feet in the next post.

I added that framework to the lean methodology and design thinking from my professional background, and I had a way forward for my team on Monday. Our productivity skyrocketed, and we were having fun at work, with the even heavier load that landed on us right after.

Before moving on to the execution of an optimal day, commit to all three steps above. Braindump relentlessly. Put that SSOT into practice. Highlight it, use different colored pens, make it your own. Because it’s about to change your life.

How do I manage a hectic schedule that is always changing? (Part 2)

In the first post in this series on how to manage a hectic, constantly changing schedule, we reframed individual hectic moments within a big-picture lens of your “Blue Sky.” What’s a higher, meaningful purpose for your being in that space today and/or every day? Applying that filter to those smaller moments will focus and motivate you.

In this post, we’re tackling the elements of your day that make it “hectic” and “constantly changing.” You might initially think this is as easy — or impossible — as just clearing your schedule. Don’t mass delete just yet! To truly fix an issue, you have to understand its root cause, then solve for that, or the issue keeps cropping up like a weed. So your next step towards effective time management is another internal one (of course!). It’s asking yourself where you fit in all this chaos. You might assume you are the victim or target of other people’s bad time management — and you may be at least partially right. But an earnest audit of how you arrived at where you are will help you permanently fix what’s actually causing the upheaval.

Your next step towards effective time management is another internal one (of course!). It’s asking yourself where you fit in all this chaos.

Here are three questions to ask yourself in a quiet moment:

  1. What specific experiences made today feel hectic? Write them down so you can interact with them as information, not emotionally resonant memories.
  2. For each one, ask: “Why did this make my day feel hectic?” Write the literal answers down. For example, you might say, “I already had two meetings set first thing this morning, and a third one was too much.” Or “I was running behind when they stopped me in the hall and asked for that favor, and it set me even further behind in the day.”
  3. What would have made the experience better? (And how active, vs. passive, can you remain in your answer here?) If you’re resisting any possible options, write them down anyway…then ask yourself why “better” isn’t a possibility. Yep, write that down, too.

As you’re conducting your audit, especially the last part, check for any internal reasons your day might be overbooked, in addition to external things you don’t control. Are you seeing patterns of leaving or arriving late that quickly back your day up? Are you suffering the consequences of putting off prep work until the last minute? These are common habits that you’ll more easily undo after your Blue Sky starts connecting even routine or dreaded tasks to meaningful possibilities. Now go deeper: ask yourself, “Is my feeling hectic and overscheduled in any way in service to myself?” For instance, do I have a fear of saying no and being disliked or marginalized…do I associate being busy with relevance or value…do I stay extra-busy to avoid bigger or more complicated tasks, conversations or thoughts? This isn’t to blame you for your too-busy days; it’s to see what part of your scheduling issues might be in your control to fix.

Ask yourself, “Is my feeling hectic and overscheduled in any way in service to myself?” This isn’t to blame you for your too-busy days; it’s to see what part of your scheduling issues might be in your control to fix.

Write this down: “When my day is busy, I feel bad about ______. And I feel good about _____.” It’s important to think about both of these things, because in trying to eliminate the things that make you feel bad about a jam-packed day, you want to preserve the things that actually make you feel effective and even proud. As an example, you might feel bad about missing lunch or not spending enough time prepping for an important presentation. But you might feel good about having interacted with every team member that morning or about having solved a critical problem for someone. 

With all of this information before you, there’s one more step: rewrite your hectic day as a blissful one — but only change the things you control! Do you wake up 20 minutes earlier to allow for unpredictable commute times? Do you tell the friend you chatted with in the garage that you’ll check in with them after your morning meeting instead? Do you stay after the meeting to review priorities with your boss after being given a second big assignment that's due the same day as one you’re already working on? Write down multiple possibilities for each of the hectic moments on your list. Bonus step: now write alternate responses to the “constantly changing” moments in your day. How might you respond differently to a last-minute meeting being added to your day or to a critical meeting being canceled? We’ll talk about this more specifically in a later post in this series, but brainstorm even small moments of agency on the page now, to continue shifting away from feeling like a passive participant in your own day. Remember to connect all your choices to your Blue Sky as you go!

With all of this information before you, there’s one more step: rewrite your hectic day as a blissful one — but only change the things you control!

Once your audit and do-over are done, it’s important to socialize what you’ve learned and decided. Tell a colleague, friend or boss that you’re working on optimizing your workdays and may have questions, conversations or requests of them over the coming week. And if you’re a leader, go through the same steps and questions with your team members about their hectic days. That will help you find patterns within the team you have the ability to fix with new workflows or technology. And, at minimum, it can earn you trusted partners in prioritizing and executing when your own days get way too full. Then you can begin the actual work of overhauling your hectic days with support behind you — and possibly help others take control of their days, too.

Ready for the next step? It's time to optimize.

How do I manage a hectic schedule that is always changing? (Part 1)

Korgi recently asked users for questions to help them get organized and realize their goals. This question is a great fit for everyone who’s trying to get out from under an overwhelming schedule. The answer is in a five-part series of posts, to give you time to reflect and practice each step before moving on to the next.

The first step in shifting away from being caught in a hectic, always changing schedule isn't fixing your environment. It's changing your focus.

  1. What is making my schedule hectic? An audit of your day will help fix this, along with clear steps to create and retain calm in what once was chaos.
  2. When and why is my schedule always changing? This calls for another audit because the right fix is grounded in the reasons for those constant shifts — and whether those reasons are internal, external or both.
  3. How do I manage my schedule better? Whether your days are hectic or calm, it’s important to create a consistent, effective approach to your day.

Before we solve for those, let's lay a new foundation for your day. The first step in shifting away from being caught in a hectic, always changing schedule isn't fixing your environment. It's changing your focus. I regularly say, and firmly believe, that what we focus on ignites. So focusing on an overwhelming or disrupting daily schedule will create more of the same.

The first step in shifting away from being caught in a hectic, always changing schedule isn't fixing your environment. It's changing your focus.

Instead redirect your focus to your “Blue Sky”: What is the most meaningful possible outcome of my being in this role or space? Why should you think “Blue Sky” before solving your problems? Because Blue Sky adds context that, at best, transforms those problems into opportunities, and at worst, usually lessens their daily blow. Limitlessness is very forgiving of granular stuff and moments that aren't perfect or rewarding and may, in fact, be irritating or upsetting. Chaos-inducing things can't compare to the vastness of anyone’s Blue Sky (think of the tiny cars and houses you see when you’re flying in an airplane…they’re little postage stamps from the window where you are). So getting to a Blue Sky mindset is your first step towards joy and freedom in the exact environment you’re currently feeling hectic in.

Focusing on an overwhelming or disrupting daily schedule will create more of the same. Instead redirect your focus to your “Blue Sky”: What is the most meaningful possible outcome of my being in this role or space?

Even better, unlike the meetings and tasks and drop-ins that disrupt your day, Blue Sky is something you completely control. It’s internally defined. It doesn't depend on what your job or family or friend group, etc. thinks your role or usefulness is in that space. It is your own true north, from your mind, heart or spirit. And it can — and will — evolve or change as you do. So when you step outside of the chaos to ask, “What is the best possible outcome, to me, of my being in this space?” That’s when the shift towards tranquility begins.

I was in a difficult role many years ago where there was a lot of chaos and friction in everyday moments. But my Blue Sky absolutely was leveraging my position to create limitlessness and career opportunities for all of the young, amazing people on my team and outside of my door. Everything I did, I led with that lens. And each time chaos materialized, it became easier to navigate because whatever the issue was would always pale compared to being an invested mentor and champion. That’s why the internal shift to thinking about and articulating and embracing and leading with a Blue Sky is the first step in changing your current hectic situation. You’ve heard that you can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to them. Blue Skying offers even more agency: you can’t control events, but you can define your opportunities inside of them.

You’ve heard that you can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to them. Blue Skying offers even more agency: you can’t control events, but you can define your opportunities inside of them.

What does this look like in practice? Here are two examples:

  1. You’re a staff-level writer in a room, a short-content editor at an agency, or a social media volunteer for a non-profit. Enter Chaos and Friction. Recently, you’re being inundated with additional work requests, added to a two-hour weekly standing meeting, etc. Before Blue Sky mindset, you’d be looking at your schedule and trying to move things around, maybe frustrated about even more being put on your plate. Now stop and think about your Blue Sky in this space. You might say: this role is an outlet for your endless creativity. Next, reframe the new demands as more possible opportunities to be creative. In your writers’ room, maybe you're asked to write dummy text for the magazine article prop that one character waves at another. It's not your job, no, but...is it an opportunity to be creative? To write something that deepens the moment for the cast and show? At the non-profit, you’re asked to do an email blast to upcoming event attendees. How beautifully can you design that? How inspiring can the language be? That is the power of leading with Blue Sky.
  2. In my own Chaos and Friction experience I referenced earlier, I was Blue Skying career and personal championship of my younger colleagues and team members. So asks to do more became perfectly aligned for me. I started saying yes to every big or little request. Then I'd let people know I'd be working with a team member. And that team member would join me in the beginning, then replace me over time. It was a great mentoring opportunity, and suddenly, the constant shifts and requests made me joyful.

What does reading this inspire or reveal for you? As you face another frenetic day, can you pause to do this Blue Sky exercise? It will help you build a practice of reframing everything that doesn't necessarily matter to you so that it's in service to something that truly does. 

Blue Skying is the first step to getting out of experiencing a hectic, always changing schedule and into a state of constant possibility. Next up? The audit.

What to do (immediately!) when your story's lead character ISN'T your story's protagonist.

Quick! Who was the star of The Office, A Different World and The Big Bang Theory? If you said Steve Carrell, Lisa Bonet and Johnny Galecki, you're right (at least at the beginning of each series).

Now, slower: who was the protagonist of those shows? If you said Michael, Denise or Leonard...well, and I think you know where I'm going with this...that isn't right. I'm going to explain why so you can review your existing or upcoming projects and make sure your main character actually is your protagonist, as understood by the industry you're shopping your projects to.

As I may have mentioned a few times before, sellable stories are driven by conflict, and conflict is rooted in character (NOT plot). Not conflict of the moment — a missed bus, an argument with a friend, etc. Conflict that is informed by who your character is and by the new world you've dropped them into. Your main character may experience conflict within themselves, with other people, and with cultures, rules, norms, the environment, etc. And all of that conflict, ideally, is driven by the core trait they lead with in most spaces and by the organic population, rules and environment of the new world.

Sellable stories are driven by conflict, and conflict is rooted in character (NOT plot).

This makes identifying your protagonist a breeze: whoever's in active, continuous, escalating conflict with their new world is your main character. Use this simple checklist to review your projects:

  1. Who's entering a new world? Remember, the new world isn't required to be a new physical environment, though it often is. It also might be a new circumstance in the old world (a new boss, being asked for a divorce, discovering a magical gift, etc.).
  2. Who is rejecting the new world? Multiple characters may collectively experience the new world (e.g., all of the co-workers, the parent and their kids, etc.). But we are laser-focused on the one who doesn't accept the change and takes steps (however tiny and always ineffective) to return to the old world.
  3. Who is in multiple layers of conflict with the new world? This is the key - whoever has the most layers wins because all of those layers of issues are where your character arc and evolving relationships and episodic possibilities are going to come from.

Whoever's in active, continuous, escalating conflict with their new world is your main character.

In the pilot of The Big Bang Theory, Penny moves in across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. Both Leonard and Sheldon now have a new neighbor, so they both are in an altered world. But Leonard moves towards the change — it's love at first sight! Let's invite her to do something! It's Sheldon who rejects the possibility — they already have plans for the afternoon. And with that, incredibly early in episode 101, we know it is Sheldon we'll be following through the journey of this show. Add to that the conflict that Sheldon's central trait always generates with others and with the rules of a world he believes he's above, a world that says he is "wildly racist" and, "apparently ridiculous" yet fails to penetrate his superior point of view...and you have an undeniable protagonist.

That's why when we see shows like A Different World or Fresh Off the Boat, it's inevitable that the central story of the show will shift to Whitley and Jessica. Denise was not in conflict with her new college life; the world of the show was as besotted with her as the real world itself was. It was Whitley who felt the school, the students, the men, the campus and even Denise were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. She was in conflict at every turn. The same with Jessica versus her son, who was delighted to move to this neighborhood, found friends, etc. It was Jessica who felt the neighborhood, neighbors, etc. were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. (Hmm...if we reflect on Frasier moving to Seattle...and Diane taking a job at Cheers before that...you'll see at least one clear archetype for protagonists that drive conflict and have room to arc.)

It was Whitley who felt the school, the students, the men, the campus and even Denise were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. She was in conflict at every turn.

So how to fix a missing — or misidentified — protagonist in your own story? Here are two options:

  1. The easy way. Make the person in conflict with the world your protagonist. Done! Why wait for Season 2 or a "retelling" of the story? Ah, you don't want to do that? Is it because...the character you want to be the protagonist...is the one that's based on you?
  2. The deeper way. Often, when we write passive or flat protagonists, it's because they're representations of ourselves. And we're writing them into a world in which they are good, blameless and mistreated by others who can't appreciate how awesome they are. To keep "them/you" absolved of any accountability for the things that go wrong in their worlds, you sanitize them. You strip them off a governing trait because that would make the things that go wrong their fault. Does this resonate at all?

    Here's how to get past your protectiveness of your alter ego on that page. Core traits aren't inherently negative traits. "They/You" doesn't have to be greedy, rude, selfish, etc. They just have to have a central, go-to, defining trait (and we all do!) that is in conflict with the new world. Their flaws are only "fatal" in the new world. In Enchanted, Giselle isn't a wicked princess. She's just a fantastically naive one from a fairytale land. You drop all that innocence and warbling into New York City, and ta dah! You have conflict. So get real about a central trait for "they/you," then adjust the new world so that trait will be a liability

Core traits aren't inherently negative traits... Their flaws are only "fatal" in the new world.

With your eye on characters with core traits that conflict with new worlds and who arc over the course of the series...which character would you say is the protagonist of The Office? Of Friends?

And most importantly, of course, who is the real protagonist of your script?

The Single Quote that Changed My Life...and is about to Change Yours.

I spent my 20s jumping on planes to places I didn't tell my parents about until I got there. "Collect call from Taipei" remains my dad's favorite side-eye memory. I had an enormous vision for my life, astonishingly little street sense, and the limitless sense of possibility and agency that is the birthright of youngest children everywhere.

(I see you, older siblings — you know what I'm talking about! Years ago as a showrunner, I would informally poll the entire team about their birth order. Consistently, my line producers, accountants, HODs and other wildly responsible colleagues were oldest children. Our hidden team members making the set run or quietly editing, mixing, transcribing and sweetening away in post: middle kids. And the freelance, hop on a plane, who-knows-where-the-next-job-is-coming-from creatives were a smorgasbord of "babies" and "onlys." When you've had a safety net of parents, guardians and older siblings reliably snatching you out of oncoming traffic all your life, your gauge for what "risk" is does not exist.)

Multiple collect calls and exhilarating career leaps later, at 30, my list of what I'd planned to accomplish in life was fully checked off. To be clear, I had not become POTUS; I had, instead, removed that item from the list after working in politics for two years and abandoning it summarily for even wilder times trying to walk the runway. With nothing specific remaining to pursue, I faced an unusual challenge: What do I do next? I had no answers. There were several opportunities in front of me I'd recently dived into, and I loved them all. So I pursued them all, simultaneously and sleeplessly, and figured the universe would decide for me. And every time, it did.

I pursued them all, simultaneously and sleeplessly, and figured the universe would decide for me. And every time, it did.

That's when I began to grasp that whatever I focused on with action and intention would deliver a response. Never what I thought it would be, and usually bigger and better than I'd even known to imagine. (And I'm a youngest child, so the imagined version already was ludicrous.) When I first started sharing my career story as a speaker, people would say that my trajectory was unique, or I was lucky, or I probably hadn't experienced the pushback others faced. And that certainly wasn't the case. I had primarily experienced resistance and friction, particularly in entertainment. Every job, from my first fellowship until I sold my first show and beyond, was filled with people actively opposing my presence and role, along with a few amazing champions who impacted the course of my career. I leaned into the latter! Later, when people would ask, "Did you prove your detractors wrong?," I would say, "No. I never tried." Because what you focus on ignites, and focusing on people's negative reactions to you predictably delivers negative outcomes. Instead, I would speak up then focus on a vision for myself in, and after, this experience. Then I would learn what next steps were required and make the choices to get myself there.

You're wondering where the quote is. It's coming. I'm sharing all of this first because I didn't change my behavior after I read the quote. I read the quote years into my professional life, and it finally explained why my behavior had delivered so much reward. I'd never taken a job solely for the paycheck and never taken myself out of consideration for a "reach" position or experience. That's not because I didn't many times need a paycheck, and quickly! Or that I didn't have to push hard for a big opportunity when someone couldn't see the "me" in me that I saw.

Instead, for each "what's next?" moment, I opened with the biggest possible vision I had for myself and pursued that. Why? Because I understood that it was just as much work to pursue an opportunity I didn't want as it was to pursue one I deeply, definitely did. And as I say in presentations, if it's the same amount of work, then it isn't the work that's keeping you from turning your dreams into firm decisions and excellent outcomes.

I understood that it was just as much work to pursue an opportunity I didn't want as it was to pursue one I deeply, definitely did.

Then, one day, I read a quote online that made me yelp out loud at my screen. It was such a stunning, searing truth. I called my (middle!) sister to read it to her. I turned it into multiple graphic designs. I shared it with everyone who would hear me. And now, finally, let me share it with you:

We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.

— Robert Gault

Again.

We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.

— Robert Gault

Think right now on a vision for your day, your year, your life that you are not actively pursuing. That you make no time for because you have allocated all available hours and energy to that thing that is or is going to pay the bills. Your vision can pay the bills, too. Not in its "vision" form, but in its "strategic" form, in the moment after you decide it is what is going to pay your bills. Then you begin to take the steps and learn the things and meet the people and pursue the roles that will make that vision a reality.

Or you will not. You will see that clear path to a "surer" thing. A thing that, in reality, you have invested enormous time in and is not delivering for you yet. And you will pour more into that thing you don't want, that doesn't appear to want you either, not because of obstacles, but because of clarity. You will do it because you know how to do it, or who can help you do it, or some other thing that you think reduces the chance of failure or losing your place or your kids not eating.

And there it is. That thing you're really focusing on, that's really igniting: What could go wrong. What you could lose. What you don't or won't have.

So I will amend and extend the magical quote that put my wild ride into such sharp focus for me: "We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal...and by following that lesser path, we focus on scarcity rather than abundance. And that is, inevitably, what we create for ourselves."

By following that lesser path, we focus on scarcity rather than abundance. And that is, inevitably, what we create for ourselves.

Clearly, I write — and lived! — all of this from the relatively fearless perspective of a youngest child who was never held responsible for the meals, laundry, and literal lives of her siblings, never had a curfew, never had to overcome a parent's hyper-protectiveness of their first few kids. But it wasn't the circumstance of birth order that made my particular experiences possible. It was the mindset that came with it. So while none of us can change our relative roles amongst our siblings, all of us...ALL of us...can change — can set — our minds to a new perception of our own possibility and agency.

As ever, I say, begin.

These Two Short Words Will Change Your Career — No Matter What Level You're At.

If you want to:

Make this commitment right now, today:

Make your first response to a Yes or No question: "Yes" or "No."

Literally.

When the person you asked to read your script says, "Are you repped?," you aren't, and you may want to say, "It's really hard to get an agent when you can't even get people to read your script. Hollywood has so many gatekeepers." When they then decline to read you, that's further proof to you of how impossible it is to get to the next level of your creative career.

Instead, just reply, "No." And stand by for why they ask. Or politely include, "Why do you ask?" If, in fact, they don't read repped writers, they may ask you to sign a waiver. Or they may recommend a reader or competition they trust. Or they may say sorry and wish you well. Doesn't all of that seem simple when you read it? And incredibly quick? On to your next request - with this relationship still intact for when you are repped.

When your boss asks you if you were in the office at 9 a.m. yesterday, and as a manager, you're always the first one in, you may long to say "I'm here at 9 every day!" Because you know what they really mean is "You're an unnoticeable or ineffective team member." The shift in your boss's tone then further confirms your sense of how underappreciated you are in your role.

When your boss asks you if you were in the office at 9 a.m. yesterday, as a manager, you may long to say "I'm here at 9 every day!"

Instead, reply, "No." And wait for the follow up. Years ago, when I was the boss in this conversation, my planned next question was, "Do you know anyone who was? I got a message my package was left with someone, but I can't read the signature." But we didn't get there immediately because my team member came back with that surprising response. I knew we needed to pause right then to connect so I could clearly state how hard-working and conscientious I believed them to be...and so they could relax some of the guard they'd put up after a series of horrible bosses (as I learned in that chat).

Leaders, the same approach builds team trust and wipes out a lot of unnecessary confusion. The answer to "Can we set time to talk about a raise or promotion?" is not "Well, we're looking at a pretty tight budget this year." It's "yes." That's right. "No" is off the table. Their question wasn't "Will you give me a raise or promotion?," even if that's the goal. The question was "Will you talk to me about it?" Answer the question that is asked. And as a leader, strive to over index on the "Yes" side.

For the rest of your day today, practice saying a simple (not a defensive or hesitant or snarky) "Yes" or "No" in response to a Yes or No question. Then breathe. Don't fill in any blanks for the person who's talking to you based on: 1) what happened in the past (with them or with others) or; 2) what might happen in the future (based on this conversation or others). Stay right in the moment and allow the present to unfold before you. Be open to the unknown neutral, or even beautiful, possibilities on the other side of your simple answer. Then be confident that you have both the brilliance and the boundaries to calmly navigate whatever follows after you reply.

Be open to the unknown neutral, or even beautiful, possibilities on the other side of your simple answer.

Will you give it a try?

☐ Yes

☐ No

☐ Why do you think I won't give it a try?

Why your script's first page has to be the last page you write. (Trust me.)

You've done it. You've fleshed out realistic, compelling characters with conflict-driving dynamics, you've beat out and outlined a solid story based on that work, and your treatment urges the reader forward, eager to know where the protagonist is headed. (It even propels you forward, and you already know what happens! Or so you think...)

You've just opened your screenwriting software and confidently typed up your title page. It's time, at last, for page one. One of two things is about to happen, and there's a fix for both:

You confidently fill page one with paragraphs of descriptive text and audio and visual references, believing you are providing critical context to the reader before your story begins.

When you're in "Unbridled 'World-Building'" mode, this is what you see:

And, gently, this...is what your reader sees:

Of course, when you're in blank page syndrome, no one's seeing anything. Even a tumbleweed rolling across the page would be welcome. Maybe you could make it a Western!

Breathe in, breathe out. The answer to both dilemmas is simple. You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4 (or 5 — we see you, genre, fantasy and period pieces). If you've enjoyed exercising your craft to get here, you have a clear storyline that's ready for the page. That's what you'll begin writing. And, as you know, once you type that first character's name, they're going to take over. They're going to sound like they want to sound, thanks very much. They're going to spar with the antagonist in a surprisingly different...unexpected...wait, are they flirting with each other? Anyway, they're going to snatch the keyboard away from you and bring you along for their ride.

You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4.

Congratulations! You've entered pure creative, channeling mode.

If you haven't entered script stage with strong character and story development already in place, this may still happen, but it won't make the remaining pages any better than the first one that you're struggling with. Shut down your screenwriting software and do the preparatory work that will make this part easier and delightful and sometimes fascinating and often, honestly, still terrifying. Let's just focus on the "easier" piece and call it a win.

The time to write your real page one, and the rest of your 1-4 page Set Up, is after you've typed the very last word of your script, stepped away, revisited a few times and adjusted, and shared with a trusted reader. Is the character consistent on the page? Do they arc in the course of the story? Is there a single theme? Do the relationships evolve; does the tension keep escalating? Do you care what happens and feel driven to find out what does?

Once all those answers are yes, it's time to, literally, start your script. And now you have the building blocks you need for a memorable and effective set up, one that clearly establishes your main character's core, governing trait and why it works for them in their current world. You absolutely cannot know that until you finish the script. Believe me! Your characters will take on lives on their own. Let them. Then capture that lightning in a single moment that helps us understand why they are accepting of their "old world," no matter how awful it may be, and why, as a result, they are going to reject the "new world" that's about to be sprung on them in a few pages. As I write in "Write It, Pitch It, Sell Your Screenplay":

"The Set-Up establishes the normal existence and expectations of your Main Character.  But not every minute and action and person in every typical day! Just the specific values and relationships necessary to give meaning to the upcoming Unexpected Change." — DMA Anderson

If you save the Set Up for last, you will find yourself facing a wide world of possibilities again, but this time, they come with a clear, filtering purpose: prepping your protagonist and the reader for the ride ahead. And this time, it's based on establishing your character to center your story in their change, rather than establishing the physical environment to center your reader in the location. Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no? That's what makes them want to know how you're going to organically force your protag reluctantly into that journey anyway. (And not because someone is going to die and grant them an inheritance if they say yes. Remove that beat!)

Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no?

Of course, there's a third possibility as you face that blank screen: you've done all your foundational work, you know exactly how you want to kick off the story, and you're ready — and prepared! — to begin. Still wait. Let your characters have their day and their say and their way with what will soon become their words. You may end up using the same Set Up at the end; you may come up with several more. But you'll have all the insights you need to make an impactful choice that draws a delightful, indelible line from Fade In to Fade Out.

Now take a moment to revisit that title page. Are you suuuure that's the best name for your script?

What you focus on...ignites. (The simple shift that will change your 2024.)

Over the next few days, a lot of us will be thinking about resolutions and goal-setting and envisioning what lies ahead in the new year. Let me offer this guiding principle: What you focus on ignites.

You might read that, then think back on 2023 and say, “Uh, it certainly does not!” Maybe you had big wishes for 2023, and you know for sure you are not living those dreams right now.

To which I say: you may have wished for that thing, that experience, that turn of events…but what did you actively focus on in 2023? Were your thoughts, words and actions lasered in on that outcome? Or were they elsewhere instead? Deep in your heart, you may have longed for a new job, financial independence, a great romance or more. But in the course of each day, was your mind more set on:

Again, where was your actual focus? Because that is what you will manifest. The universe is moving in exactly the direction and at exactly the speed that you are. So if you’re all about “just getting by day-to-day” or “sticking things out a while longer,” then the universe gives you more things to survive. Or if you’re just sitting there, waiting for something good to happen, the universe says, “Oh, we’re sitting and waiting.” And it sits right there with you and waits.

More importantly, if you’re leading with or letting in thoughts on the limitations of life and the likelihood of failure, know that the universe doesn’t have time to parse out “negatives” and “nots” from your thoughts. As you focus every day on “not being stuck in this job,” or “giving up unhealthy habits” or “outperforming that ascending rival,” the universe doesn’t pause to strike out the “not being stuck” or the “giving up” or the “outperforming” parts of those thoughts. The universe is about nouns. So you just manifested yourself more of “this job,” “unhealthy habits” and your “ascending rival.”

The universe is moving in exactly the direction and at exactly the speed that you are.

From this moment forward, know this and live by it: you can’t successfully not do something. You absolutely have to move towards something, because moving away from something puts your focus on that thing, and you will only manifest more of it. Does that resonate?

As you face — and, I hope, embrace — the astonishing possibility of 2024, please, frame it enthusiastically in the affirmative. What will you feel? What will you do? Who will you become? What will you change and for whom? Make it as big and bold and amazing as you can! Then take one active step towards it each day. Each. Day. Read a how-to article. Connect with someone in that space. Take an e-course. (Use your library card for free newspapers, LinkedIn Learning classes and much, much more!). Learn, then list, the steps towards success — not as you wish them to be, but as information and relationships start telling you they actually are. Then take those steps. Get the molecules of agency bouncing all around you.

You absolutely have to move towards something, because moving away from something puts your focus on that thing, and you will only manifest more of it.

Move the universe.

One last thought if doubt starts creeping in about what might go wrong: I don’t believe in “be careful what you wish for.” I believe in “be ready for what you speak up, write down, think about and act on…because it is going to happen.” Of course, it rarely happens in the way you expected it to. And you may be well into the experience before you realize…wait, this is a manifestation of work I did. I created this. Along with the universe, of course.

It’s waiting for you. Begin.

Does your script’s page one indicate your script's a “page-one” (rewrite)? Here’s how to fix that.

Every week, the hardest part of reading a script is flipping from the title page to Page One. (Unless the title page itself is awash in various fonts and images. Or has a typo. In which case, much of my hard work already is done.) When I take the plunge and turn to that first page, I know what I’m excited to see: an intimate, distinct — and if it’s a comedy, laugh-out-loud funny — character reveal. I want to eavesdrop into a micro-moment in the main character’s day where they make a micro-choice that clearly demonstrates their core trait…and teases two upcoming things:

  1. What imminent Unexpected Change, what applecart upset, will thrust this character reluctantly into a New World where their core trait absolutely cannot succeed; AND
  2. How will this core trait, which they invariably lead with and cannot turn off, constantly cause them to be the Architect of their Own Demise (ideally for 100 episodes)?

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star. First, your New World is defined by its diametric opposition to your main character’s central, governing trait. If your protagonist can succeed in the New World exactly as they are on the first page, then I have nowhere to take them. Survival in the New World won’t require them to learn lessons, grow, fall down, and pivot, so there’s no basis for conflict or character arc in the story. Second, your secondary characters exist only to create friction and growth opportunities for the main character. Their roles and traits must put pressure on your main character, so if there’s no core trait, there’s no magnetic center to build your other characters in reaction to. And finally, the thing that makes main characters both authentic and relatable is that they feel real. And real people have real dominant traits that really inform the really awesome to really awful things they really do. Those traits are why we really love, despise, long for and run from the people we encounter in real life. For real.

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star.

Some glorious examples of classic page one protagonist gold include:

All right, we’re going to leave the deeper conversations about controlling female protagonists (and about the ending of LTWB — LOVED IT! FIGHT ME!)  to another post.

What I want to, long to, cannot wait to, am always thrilled to see on your script’s page one…is a small, simple, human moment in the main character’s familiar old world that showcases how they move, innately, through a space. What trait they lead with and fall back on the most. When I see that, I settle in for the read.

But I rarely see it. Instead, I see a lot of text on the page. Paragraph-long action lines. Sometimes detailed descriptions of shots, camera angles, posters on walls, and music lyrics. Always skylines for the city, and, inexplicably, quite often scenes of the character brushing their teeth. Pause on all of that for now. Just open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear? If so, do they make a character-revealing choice on that page? If so, does that revealed character trait directly inform and propel the rest of the script?

Open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear?

If not, that’s the opportunity for infusion of craft that lies immediately ahead. If you have a completed script, ask yourself what your character’s single, dominant trait is (or might be, if you’re not sure). Then go scene by scene through the script and precisely note which scenes are driven by that trait, which characters are in friction with that trait, and how the character shifts regarding that trait, however infinitesimally, near the end of the script. Make no assumptions or adjustments for things that don’t perfectly match. It has to be that exact trait in action on the page. And ideally, it shows up and starts driving the story on page one. In the course of this review, you will most likely find that your main character has absolutely no dominant trait that’s informing anything…or you might find that the character you thought you wrote became their own person on the page by the end of the script.

For example, if you saw LTWB, you’ll notice Amanda’s core trait is repeatedly articulated on the page/screen as “misanthropy.” So the new world would have to introduce human connection (and, spoiler alert, it certainly does), which would be a clear, organic core conflict. No misanthrope wants to be forced to intimately connect to others. However…to me, her choices and conflict most frequently were rooted in controlling outcomes. So, maybe she hates people as a consequence of not being able to control them? That’s why reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

Reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

One final note: your main character’s dominant trait-revealing choice doesn’t always have to appear precisely on page one. In sci-fi, fantasy and period pieces, writers first might briefly establish the culture and mores of their world or times, or briefly establish the “before-times” to give context to the new order and, more importantly, to provide necessary information to understand how the core trait of the character fits in this world. Then we narrow focus to a character-revealing moment and choice to anchor the story and hook the reader. In these genres, you’ll still need that choice to appear in the first three pages of a script, but please feel free to wow your reader by getting right into it on page one.

And if it’s not on page one? What I’ve learned from reading, literally, thousands of scripts, is that the script itself most likely is a Page One rewrite. Because if the most essential element of character — their core trait — isn’t yet on the page, none of the other elements of story and structure are anchored in anything. The script may be entertaining to read as a one-episode sample, but it’s not yet a 100-episode story…because those are guided, always, by a clearly drawn character with a central, core, dominant, governing, go-to, North Star trait.

Why your red-hot writing sample isn’t a shoppable pilot (YET)

I'm writing this on a Friday, and like many execs and producers across L.A., I’m facing my weekend read with apprehension. Not because of the height of the stack (typically smaller at this time of year), but because of the temptation of it.

I...LOVE...reading writing samples.

They’re like a literary first date with a writer. And unlike driving behind a stop-and-start delivery truck on a narrow canyon road en route to an L.A. restaurant that inexplicably has no parking lot in a restricted residential parking neighborhood, every writing sample offers the promise of something delicious: an unexplored slice of life, a relationship beat that resonates, a laugh-out-loud scene, the perfect cadence of that one character’s dialogue… That’s the role of the writing sample: to show how well, and how specifically, a writer captures character, voice, choices and moments on the page. The whole idea is to say, “See? Now imagine what I will do on YOUR project!”

To be clear, most samples in a given stack are decidedly NOT great. Maybe 1 in 30 will be. That’s the one that compels you past the first 10 pages all the way to the fade. And the next thing you know, you’re calling the rep (or following up on your waiver) to say, “Let’s meet.”

To be clear, most samples in a given stack are decidedly NOT great. Maybe 1 in 30 will be.

Why do I call? I’m always wildly curious about what motivated a writer to create a great writing sample. I want to ask tons of questions, see what else is underneath a character, a world, a moment, a sentiment I caught a glimmer of. And when those calls go well, and how I love when they do, sometimes I take an unexpected next step in the relationship and say: “I’d like to develop this.”

And this moment, like those dimly lit, parking-ticketed dinners, is where Producers are from Mars and Writers are from Venus. Because we often aren’t yet having the same conversation. The writer, and sometimes their rep, thinks I “really” mean: I want to take this script, as it is written, and start shopping it to my Rolodex (Gen X)/Contacts (Gen Y)/Out-of-Life-Balance, Aging Co-Conspirators (Gen Z. They’re not wrong). Or that I'll give them notes on a couple of passes and then take their script, again, pretty much as written, out to market. And no matter how clearly and repeatedly I explain my true intentions for their project, which I sincerely have feelings for, I very rarely succeed in explaining that we often will have to do a page 11-rewrite to transform said writing sample into a sellable pilot.

That’s because a writing sample delivers a one-episode character. Your great writing sample protagonist has a clear voice and memorable dialogue, moves with granular and escalating choices through a defined mini-mission, and/or showcases secondary characters vividly on the page. A sample’s goal is to demonstrate your skill as a writer, to close or wholly eliminate any gap between what I need done on my show and what you will be able to do on Day One of your hire. To shift you from “drive on” to “parking space,” from lunch at home to team lunch order…after team lunch order…to bringing your own lunch from home to the room.

A writing sample delivers a one-episode character.

Your great writing sample doesn’t have to worry about setting up the core trait of a protagonist that drives their every self-limiting choice…deftly building the authentic new world you’re going to drop them into so it constantly and increasingly conflicts with that trait…finely crafting distinct secondary characters and placing them in organic roles in that world to fully dimensionalize that protagonist…establishing the stakes, jeopardy and glue that will challenge your lead on their new mission…or weaving in a clear, relatable, resonant theme that guides them like a reluctant, recalcitrant, resistant little North Star on their way.

That’s because when you’re staffed on a project, the show’s creator(s), producers and executives already have done that work. They just need you to flow with the characters and world they’ve already fought the beautiful battles for.

They already wrote, shopped and sold…a PILOT.

A pilot absolutely has to unveil a 100-episode character. Not something entertaining in a single read; something absolutely undeniable in the vision it unfolds for a character season after season. (Okay, yes, our industry has changed, so your pilot may only make it to eight episodes before social media begins decrying its untimely demise, but it still needs 100-episode-level vision.) (Okay, okay, I also know you’re not going to make old-fashioned 100-episode residuals if it isn’t a broadcast show, but the creative rules of our “show” have not changed as much as the financial rules of our “business.”)

A pilot absolutely has to unveil a 100-episode character. Not something entertaining in a single read; something absolutely undeniable in the vision it unfolds for a character season after season.

A 100-episode character has to be clearly set up, on page one, with a singular and memorable, core trait-revealing moment. Then within the next few pages, that new world has to arrive. And the reluctant mission must begin. Meanwhile, each character must arrive organically, with their own mini-mission and traits and relationship dynamic, applying their specific pressure to the protagonist, starting their own dovetailing stories. The protagonist must fully arc in the episode, yet somehow only move a grain of sugar (or salt) towards evolution, so we have somewhere to take them...for 99 more episodes. And the single, solitary, crystal clear theme has to be established and sewn into the fabric of every scene and into the choices, wins, losses, escalations and retreats of our characters.

A great pilot is so well-executed that through its synopsis alone, a roomful of writers can instantly start pitching possible episodes and generate laughter, familiarity, tension and even tears because they all immediately know what these characters would do. Not what they did that one time, in your great writing sample, but what they will do 100 times, in an ever-evolving fashion, towards becoming better people and making the world a better place. (And before you say it, yes, even if it’s Walter White. Watch that series finale again.)

Of course, not every writing sample could be a great pilot, and not many great pilots start from writing samples. But in the event yours IS that great sample, and you’re ready for it to become a great pilot, the first step is to reframe. It’s not your premise, or the plot, or that one joke, or that moment everyone mentions, or the characters themselves that make a sample pilot-worthy. It’s the promise of one or a few of those things. And like all relationships, building out that promise and making it great will take dedicated work.

Or, you can shop and sell your sample as-is without doing all that work. It happens! But should you find yourself in development hell as a result, here’s a weekend read especially for you.