Five minute journal: how could today have been even better?

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]R[/su_dropcap]eviewing fifty days of using the five minute journal for better wellbeing and productivity. Does it work? Is it nonsense? Such mystery, wow.

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Peer reviewed scientific research suggests “expressive writing” can improve mood disorders and boost memory as well as “lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness”.

This sounds one of three things:

  • Cool
  • Wrong
  • Self help bs

I’m normally pretty skeptical about such claims, but whilst a body of academic research could be wrong, it’s highly likely there research is making at least a decent point.

So if the research is right, how does one harness the benefits in an actually useful way?

Introducing the five minute journal

I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelancer for the last six weeks or so. In that time I’ve been practicing the five minute journal.

I came across it from Tim Ferriss. Whilst Tim recommends a lot of things (and probably the vast majority can be safely ignored), he cites the journal as the one thing that makes the biggest impact on his day and life outlook:

“The five-minute journal is a therapeutic intervention… that allows me to not only get more done during the day but to also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person.”

The idea comes from author Julia Cameron, who developed the practice of morning pages “as a mind dump to get rid of the clutter in your brain”. Julia’s practice involves writing 750 words – or three A4 pages – every morning on whatever you like.

The five minute journal is a more structured, shorter and more accessible version of the morning pages. The concept is very simple: you spend five minutes at the start of your day setting out what you’re going to do that day (and what you’re grateful for) and five minutes at the end of the day reviewing.

The journal gets its structure from three set questions in the morning and two at the end of the work day:

The five minute journal template, showing the questions asked in the journal.

You can get the journal as an expensive purpose made thing or just use any journal (I like hard cover large ruled Moleskines cause they look nice) and write out the questions yourself. I have a document saved in Notion with the questions I load up every morning.

For your convenience here are the set questions for the morning:

I am grateful for:




What would make today great?




Daily affirmations. I am:


And then in the evening:

Amazing things that happened today.




How could today have been even better?


Try it out, does it work?

I’ve been doing the five minute journal for the last 50 days or so in a row and feel reasonably well qualified to comment on its usefulness. The verdict is very useful.

I start work reasonably early and may not be totally awake when I sit down at my desk, but writing what I’m going to achieve and then “I am ready to get going now” really helps set intentions and kickstart progress.

Reviewing progress at the end of the day is also helpful so I can see clearly what I’ve achieved and properly switch off from work after I’m done.

The most interesting question the journal asks is “how could today have been even better?”. I usually answer this quickly, close my journal and am finished with work for the day.

I don’t tend to look back on previous days’ entries – they’re relatively self contained – but the last question is one that is reviewable. Not for checking up how any given day could be a bit better, but for picking up on problems I’m consistently having – and working out how to address them.

How could today have been even better?

I reviewed and categorised all my answers to my self assessment of “how could today have been even better?” and came up with the following simplified list of common problems:

Five minute journal review results.

Clearly, I have a problem focussing on deep work. I kinda knew this, but the extent to which I have a problem focussing for sustained periods of time on single, difficult tasks, hadn’t really struck me until I reviewed my journal entries. I now know what I need to work on.

It’s also fun to analyse how the most common categories change over time. Review this in another fifty days: have I made any progress?

Exercise is a good example here: I work from home where my commute is approximately six seconds and have no obligation to go outside, so it’s perhaps surprising I’ve only felt once like I needed more exercise. Since noting it down, I’ve consciously scheduled in a proper running routine and don’t find it a problem any more. Progress.

Taking ten minutes out for a better day

If you’re doing any kind of modern creative work the morning pages approach is well worth considering. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what is responsible, but in general I would say my happiness is higher since starting the practice.

The practice also helps me better switch off from work at the end of the day (Deep Work is again good on this), which is more important and harder when working from home.

The five minute journal takes five minutes to set you up for a better day. You don’t need any fancy tools: any notebook and piece of paper will do fine. The accessibility means there’s really little excuse to try it, at least for a couple of weeks. I’d highly recommend giving it a go.

Survivorship bias: understanding “how to” case studies that make everything look easy

A mainstay of the modern product creator’s marketing toolkit is the case study. They typically walk you through step-by-step what the creator did and show how you too can do this.

They typically come with a title that looks something like:

  • I made this many thousand dollars in this many hours whilst doing surprising thing.
  • I got this much traffic whilst not doing thing you expect me to do and in this timeframe.

After all – after you’ve made said achievement it’s easy to milk it a little bit extra by sharing the tantalising secrets to your incredible success.

survivorship bias in marketing case studies

The problem with these case studies is they make it look easy. Whatever “it” is, it’s always just a straight road from a blank page all the way to watching the money flood in.

I have a problem with this: very very rarely is any of this easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already executed your idea.

The notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing – who doesn’t want to do that – but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.

In misrepresenting reality, I argue these case studies are of exceptionally limited use. They satisfy a curiosity to check up on how other people are doing but fail to offer anything actionable you can take away and implement.

This is classic survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the tendency to focus on only those processes which have “survived” and overlook those which failed. It’s typically seen in medical and investing fields, but applies well to marketing – and especially mega case studies.

Ian Lurie explains the concept nicely:

In marketing:…We only write about the winners. If we only write about the winners, then you only read about tactics as part of success stories.

Survivorship bias often makes the wrong tactics look right. We see those tactics and stop digging…. Always ask ‘Why, really, did this work?’

Given learning from people with a track record of success is a pretty good idea and these articles have the potential to be useful, how should one analyse them? How do you account for the bias and take away something actually useful?

Here are some of the questions you should be asking.

What preconditions for success are there?

Start by asking what role preexisting audience, network and influence play. How does this compare to your situation? Will this work as well if you have none of the preconditions the author is able to leverage?

If preconditions are important (they probably are) then can you get to the same point? If you can’t (say the author leverages five years of networking and you have three months) then is this a deal breaker? Probably not, a deal breaker but may have an impact. If that’s the case, ascertain the impact this is likely to have on your own execution.

At the same time, if a post is promising to show how I increased x by xx%, what was the starting point? Going from 20 visitors to 100 is a 500% increase, but 100 visitors is rarely something to write home about. Where stats are relative, be cautious.

What’s the one thing success is reliant on?

This is a great thing to be asking: work this out and you can establish where to focus your efforts. There’s often one pivotal point which accelerates the success of the project, but it’s rarely highlighted.

Social media posting is often pivotal here. Prominence on any one of a number of social sites can put rocket boosters on all sorts of metrics, but there’s often a huge amount of luck involved here.

Social sharing was a big problem we ran into with MasterWP. We produced a free email course and needed to get it in front of people. Week one posted on a host of social sites and got nothing. A week later tried again and hit the top of the /r/wordpress subreddit. Without this we wouldn’t have had enough interest to move forwards. It seemed whether our social posting was successful or not was random.

Chance and luck play a big role and it’s hard to account for them. Were you just unlucky, or does your product suck? Still, working out social sharing isn’t a level playing field gives you time to work out how to get an advantage.

Social media posting is a good example but by no means an exhaustive list. Working out where those pivotal moments are lets you plan and mitigate for them.

Is this ethical?

The most sensational case study headlines often rely on the sketchiest of tactics:

  • Pre-order numbers that rely on deception.
  • Signup numbers that rely on really annoying popups and/or other misleading tactics.

When startup speak meets a desire to make the numbers work no matter what, you end up with (actual) case studies which say this:

“we ultimately relied on a bit of deception to validate the idea”

It may be possible to achieve sensational numbers with the tactics described in these case studies, but do you actually want to use them? Think about the long term damage to your brand.

How much work went into this? Am I prepared to commit and make sacrifices?

This is one of my favourites. Let’s call it the “totally unreasonable amount of work required hack”. Case studies often hide behind phrases such as we wrote the whole course over an intensive weekend or repeat these steps with everything you publish.

Often these are disguising the truth: the “intensive weekend” turns out to be ten days without doing anything else at all (and conveniently not having a regular job or bills to pay in that time) and the “couple of steps” you have to repeat takes up an entire day’s work which I’m sure you happened to have spare.

It’s so easy to take the advice of those who are already successful as the gold standard, but you’ve got to ask if the level of commitment required is desirable.

A year ago whilst I was doing my degree I experimented with getting up at 6am to write blog posts (#6amclub) on the basis of Sean McCabe’s recommendation. I’d watch Casey Neistat and be super inspired to work unreasonably hard. It fell to my girlfriend to remind me: these people are workaholics. Their lifestyle resolves solely around work and that’s totally undesirable.

You know what – she was right. I have things other than work that are important to me. When a case study is making something look easy, take a close look at how much work they’re advocating.

What am I not being told?

It’s fun to portray a story of vast success in which there were small challenges but these were triumphantly overcome. The big challenges detract from the narrative of I know precisely what I’m doing and are thus glossed over with some literary gymnastics.

Working out what you’re not being told is important as when you come to do it, it’ll never go to plan. There are going to be difficult challenges and you need to know what those are. There may be points where it looks like the project is fucked and it’s not worth continuing and you need to know how to respond.

The reason you’re reading a case study from someone who’s done something successfully is they’ve had the tenacity to keep going, even when shit got tough. Sure, they’re under no obligation to share the difficult details with you, but it’d be a hell of a lot more practical use if and when you come to use the case study and feel like giving up yourself if you knew how those offering themselves as models reacted when things got really shit.

Take inspiration from the one-sentence clues that things might get really difficult and if and when things don’t work out, use these clues to help you decide how to respond.

 Product launch case studies that are useful

Case studies can be useful and inspiring resources. They can also, however, be thoroughly misleading and give the impression of ease when it’s definitely not the case. A case study offering only the good bits is showing off, not sharing anything useful.

To demonstrate my point about well-done case studies being helpful, these are a couple I got a lot of value from:

Take off the rose-tinted glasses, settle down to the reality that hard things are hard and remember if what you’re doing was easy, someone else probably would have gotten there first.

The editing process for taking blog posts from good to great (five fast editing wins)

Nobody looks forward to editing blog posts. This is sad, because the blog post editing process is where posts can go from good to great. Refine your thoughts, tighten your writing and produce something of real value.

Getting out of the habit of hitting publish the second you finish a blog post is really valuable. Spend just a quarter of the time you spend writing on editing and you’ll come away with a much better piece of writing. In this post we’ll cover:

  • Making sure you always get the basics right.
  • Styling techniques to highlight key points and make content ultra-readable.
  • Cutting quantity in favour of quality.
  • Writing a really good conclusion.
  • Graphics better than shitty stock images.

All sounds pretty great to me. Sound good to you? Let’s get to it.

1. Spelling, grammar and good English

All the shine in the world on your blog posts goes to waste if you don’t get the basics right. Typos, spelling and grammar slips are inevitable so it’s imperative you spot them and fix them.

Getting the basics right means actually reading through your posts a couple of times and correcting as you go. It’ll only take you a minute. Don’t skimp on it.
Of course, technology can make things easier. The Spelling and Grammar module built into Jetpack does a pretty good job. It’ll pick up spelling mishaps, grammar mistakes and make stylistic suggestions.

Covering the basics is essential, but there’s a little more to it than that. As Sue Anne Dunlevie writes there are some “fussy” grammar points to check:

  • Speak like you’d write: use contractions like I’ll, or she’d rather than I will or she would. It looks unnatural and unnecessarily formal.
  • Use apostrophes properly. Read this if you’re unsure.
  • Look out for homonyms (words which sound the same but have different meanings), i.e. you’re/your. Spellcheckers often miss these.
  • Be consistent: if you’re wrong at least do it every time and readers will think it’s your writing style.

How do you catch every mistake? Sagan Morrow recommends printing posts out to check through them. I used to do this when checking really long college essays. It’s probably overkill for all but the biggest and most important blog posts, in which case reading in “preview” mode on your site will do a good job.

Bonus tip: ask a friend. A second set of eyes can be very helpful. Any friend will be able to give you feedback on spelling, grammar and content but a friend with expertise in what you’re writing about can do the above plus feedback on your ideas and arguments.

The latter is much more valuable – establish mutual blog post feedback arrangements and you’ll be a huge help. Don’t let this be an excuse to skimp on checking content yourself, though. Make it easy for whomever is checking your posts by doing the bulk of the work yourself and getting them to give the feedback you couldn’t figure out yourself. Public Post Preview will allow you to share your post before it’s published.

2. Use styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points (and keep it readable)

Annoyingly, people don’t tend to read whole blog posts. We’re all busy, right? It’s much more common just to scan a post, grab some vague platitude and move on.

Two questions arise from this:

  1. If some readers stubbornly scan posts, how do you make sure they get something useful?
  2. How do you hold a reader’s attention throughout the post?

Let’s look at the first question. Highlighting quick takeaways throughout your post and then recapping again at the end can ensure even those who scan your content are going to learn something.

Doing this can be as simple as using the same template you use every time. Sean McCabe’s podcast show notes have precisely the same format each time, with an introduction followed by “Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins”.

Sean McCabe's "highlights, takeaways and quick wins" are really well done.
Sean McCabe’s “highlights, takeaways and quick wins” are really well done.

Sean lists roughly ten things you can learn from the podcast immediately, without even listening to it. The value you get is immediate but you’re also encouraged to stick around and learn more about the points raised.

A good conclusion is also essential in this. We’ll get to them later.

You’ll also want to highlight key points throughout your post. Bold and italics are really useful for this and for making web-writing readable.

How much emphasis you want to use is up to you. I generally prefer italics for single words or very short phrases and then bold for longer clauses or whole sentences. Generally you’ll want to only bold one or two sections per paragraph; if everything is emphasised it loses its effectiveness.

Styling breaks up the text nicely and draws the attention of readers scanning through what you’re saying.

Another useful trick for highlighting key points ties into our secondary goal of holding a reader’s attention throughout the post: using short sentences and paragraph breaks. These are a key tenet of web-readability and the web would be a better place if more people used them.


There’s research backing this: frequent paragraph breaks improve readability. Baymard Institute reports on the optimal line length for your content, advocating between 50 and 75 characters per line on average:

“If a line of text is too long the reader’s eyes will have a hard time focusing on the text… In order to… energize your readers and keep them engaged, we suggest keeping your text within the range of 50-75 characters per line.”

Design, styling and line breaks all intersect. Nail all three and your readers are going to have a beautiful experience consuming your content.

3. Cut a quarter of what you’ve written

It’s easy to get obsessed with word counts.

My post won’t be good unless it’s 1000 words.

If I’m not writing long form nobody will be interested.

This is the wrong way to think about it.  Think about your posts in terms of value created, not word count.

Cut the crap, keep the value. Quality beats quantity every single day. Be concerned about what you’re writing, not how many words you’re writing it in.

You don’t have to specifically cut a quarter of what you’ve written, but you want that kind of approach. Once you’ve finished writing, make a note of the word count and go through cutting out anything that is superfluous or isn’t directly providing value. You’ll probably have ended up cutting out a quarter.

Hemingway is a great tool for helping here. It will analyse your writing and give you a readability rating, highlighting complex sentences, errors and passages which are hard to read.

If you’re writing with sentence structures that are difficult to understand Hemingway is going to tell you and you can make the appropriate adjustments. You don’t have to make all the changes Hemingway recommends (it can level-down too much), but a quick check and correcting any serious mistakes is worth the time.

Making sure your writing is comprehendible and concise is going to make a huge improvement to your writing.

Bonus tip: check you’re not overusing words. This tool is handy for seeing if you’re frequently repeating anything. Hat tip Akshay Hallur for this.

4. Write a really good conclusion

Once you’ve written the main bulk of your post, conclude. The conclusion is not a place to say “and that’s that! follow me on twitter and let me know what you think in the comments”.

The conclusion does so much more and understanding this is key to crafting really good blog posts. Here’s what you should be doing:

  • Show how the ideas introduced in the introduction have been developed or achieved.
  • Tie everything you’ve said together (don’t introduce any new ideas).
  • Recap the key points you’ve made.
  • Link to further study and analysis.
  • Encourage further discussion.

You need to be bringing everything together here and make it easy for readers to be clear what you’ve just said, what they can take away and where they can go next. This is why a conclusion is important 🙂

5. Have really good images, kinda

I originally wrote this post about a year ago and included a section on having really good engaging images. I linked up to Nathan Barry’s post on killer graphics and again mentioned Sean McCabe’s hand drawn graphics. I advocated using better stock photos.

This is all good advice and if you want better images you should check out all of those. But – I don’t practice what I preach. On this site I’m using images sparingly, preferring to focus on writing and where I do use images I like to use photos I’ve taken in order to add more personality (hat tip Tynan). Adding generic stock photos for the sake of having photos seems a bit of a waste of time.

What I do like doing instead of images is screencasts. These add something really unique to posts and are easier to do than ever. Opentest is a free Chrome addon that lets you really really easily record screencasts. If it suits you can add camera and voice narration. Upload the finished video to YouTube and you’re done. Really convenient and useful.

Your editing just seriously improved your blog post

We’ve explored a pretty formulaic approach to editing posts but it’s a highly sound method which will result in better content. It’s kinda a pain to do but if you’re serious about the quality of your writing it’s well worth the time.

Here’s a handy recap of what you want to be checking:

  1. Check spelling and grammar. Actually read your post fully + look out for uncommon mistakes then ask a friend to read it through (and use this plugin to do that).
  2. Make sure your content is easy to read. Use paragraph breaks and styling for emphasis.
  3. Cut words viciously. Leave the good stuff, bin the rest.
  4. Make sure you’ve got a really good conclusion with easy takeaways.
  5. Add images if it’s appropriate. Otherwise, don’t.

I can’t stress enough how much better you’re going to make your posts by following these steps.

This is the kind of stuff that gives your blog the edge.

Let me know your thoughts @AlexDenning.


Successfully managing freelance work through college (how to balance study, work and social)

Freelance work is one of the best jobs for college students. You get to pick your own schedule and work from home. You can pick up part time work and fit around your schedule.

I spent my first year of college (or University, as I called it), thinking it wasn’t really possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life. On these grounds, I sold my blog, stopped doing freelance work and basically disappeared from social networks.

In my second year I added a ton of responsibilities running societies, started taking my academic work more seriously but started accepting a little bit of freelance work.

In my third (and final) year, concious I wanted to transition to freelancing full time after graduating, I took on roughly one day a week of freelance work – the very thing I thought two years ago wasn’t possible. It was possible, but required a lot of forward planning (this all looks very similar to freelancing next to a full-time job).

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College is a normally a tripartite beast where one is required to stay on top of:

  1. Academic work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing



Adding freelance work throws a spanner to the work. Now you have:

  1. Work
    • Academic work
    • Freelance work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing



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You don’t really want to compromise on any of these, which is where the difficulty comes in. It can be done though. Here are some of the things I learned about successfully managing freelance work for college students.

Finding part time work for students

I’m not going to spend too much time on this as I was able to leverage contacts from building and running WPShout to get work. If I had no online presence and was starting out, I’d ask these questions:

  • What skills do I have or could I develop?
  • How can I position myself in a market where my skills are valued, rather than a market where there’s a race to the bottom?

[su_note]Here’s an example: writing is a frequently recommended field and for good reason: there’s no problem working remotely and as a student you’re already well skilled in writing.

The obvious problem is lots of other people are also good at writing. Instead of working in the very low end of the market, writing for $5-a-time content mills, how can you add value? Look at how you can leverage your writing skills to break into other markets.

For me that was WordPress, later social media and later still marketing. For you? What do you find interesting? Does this offer a route in? Do some Googling and think about it.[/su_note]

Once you can identify a market to be working in, you can establish yourself as someone whose skills are to be valued and an authority by setting up a website and blog and publishing regularly. I’d recommend using WordPress for this.

Start publishing good stuff and promoting it in the market you want to work in. After a month of regular content creation you can start advertising you’re available for hire or – the more effective method – get in touch with people who you think would want your services, tell them what you can do for them and ask them to hire you. I got the vast majority of my early freelance work this way.

You don’t need to mention to clients that you’re a student. As long as you get the work done, it’s not a problem (although you may wish to have some time off around busy academic periods – more on that later). I’ve never had a client value my time less because I’m also in full time education, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens.

Be exceptionally disciplined

You must be exceptionally disciplined. You will not succeed as a freelancer if you don’t show up without fail and reliably do the work.

I liked to keep a schedule. I had one day of contact hours (lectures and seminars), one day for study for each of my four modules) and then one day for freelance work. The seventh day in the week provided some leeway for fun or essay writing when necessary.

Knowing what work was to be done on which day meant I spent no time working out what needed to be done, I just got on with it. I liked to use weekly repeating tasks in OmniFocus (expensive but well worth the money imo). Plus, the regular schedule meant I always got my academic work done (and often did more reading/seminar preparation than my peers) and also always got my freelance work done.

Having a schedule is one thing, but you need to religiously stick to it. This is where the discipline comes in. By taking on freelance work next to your academic work you’re reducing your leeway for spare time, so you’ve got to show up and get the work done.

Be exceptionally disciplined. Set a regular schedule, show up and do the work

Say no to things so you don’t burn out

Saying no to opportunities was something I’d rarely done before, but realising I needed to do it was a big eye-opener. Clarity on this came from reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism.

The book makes the same point again and again, but it’s a good point so it gets away with it: identify what’s important to you and focus on it, and cut out everything which is secondary to your primary focus.

If your focus is on the tripartite beast we discussed before – work, social and wellbeing – then things secondary to that focus need to go.

I cut out a number of commitments after this minor revelation, declining to continue my involvement with running societies, turning down extra client hours when I thought it would negatively impact on other areas and making a call on when my own projects were not worth pursuing (this meant putting my blog on hiatus).

Identifying your focus is of extreme importance here. I’m making the assumption work, wellbeing and social life are important, but for you that may be different. Well worth thinking very seriously about what it is you’re focussing on, and how all the work you’re doing fits in around that primary focus.

Be smart about academic work

Successfully managing freelance work through college involves being successful with academic work. You don’t want to compromise on academic results or the growth from pursuing interesting ideas and asking difficult questions.

We’ve established keeping a schedule is important, but a schedule only works if you can consistently get work done in the time you’ve allotted. You can resolve needing to do all your academic work but only having a fixed time to do it in by being smart about it.

Keeping on top of studying is a lot easier when you’re smart about it.

The arguments of the pareto principle, that 80% of work comes from 20% of effort, are well rehearsed. Given students don’t start from a point of doing 100% of work (does anyone do 100% of the reading lists for semianrs?) you can’t just cut your work to a fifth and expect to maintain results. You can, however, make intelligent decisions about which work to do.

As a Politics student a lot of my work was reading for seminars which wasn’t assessed. A lot of my peers did the bare minimum reading, but turn up knowing nothing and you’ll take nothing from the seminars. So how to do the reading, just faster? A number of things:

  • Find tools to work faster. I needed to read books and journal articles and take notes. I wanted digital notes but most PDF readers don’t let you copy text, so I’d just type out notes. Solution: get a dedicated PDF highlighting app and switch to Evernote, which can handle notetaking better.
  • Know when to do more work, when to do less work. I had a lot of choice for what I was assessed on. Identifying topics I wanted to choose way in advance, from looking over the schedule at the start of the year, would mean I could focus especially on those weeks. Equally, if I definitely wasn’t planning on doing any assessed for on a topic I could safely cover the basics but leave the advanced reading.
  • Start early. Being a week ahead with reading brings a huge amount of leeway into your schedule. It’s really easy to do: in the long holidays just start on the next term’s work the week before term starts. Knowing you’ve got a week spare brings a huge amount of flexibility.

Subjects with more frequent assessment may find this less effective, but there will definitely be ways to work smarter and work less whilst maintaining results.

You also need to know when to prioritise academic work above all else. Around exam times and when essays are due you need to be able to focus exclusively on those. This just involves keeping on top of those dates. Let clients know way in advance when you won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks and there shouldn’t be a problem. Try and squeeze everything in – and that’s just not going to work.

Practice deep work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work over the summer and virtually everything there resonated very strongly with me. A grossly simplified summary of the basic thesis is for maximum productivity one should schedule “deep work” sessions where you focus wholly on the task in hand. All distractions are to be ignored, Facebook and Twitter are to remain unchecked.

This is really good advice. Working out how to be really productive is the final piece in the puzzle of making this all work.

I swore by the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a productivity system whereby you work in 25 minute blocks with no distractions, then have a five minute break. You then repeat. I adapted it to work in 50 minute blocks followed by 10 minute breaks. Do whatever to make it work best for you.

My entire work schedule revolved around these 50 minute “deep work” sessions and I’d highly recommend it. The time pressure guilts you out of any (or at least most) procrastination and facilitates the getting done of a lot of work. I liked using Pomotodo to track my sessions. Sara Laughed has some interesting ideas worth thinking about on this. See also Ransom Patterson on this.

I’d also recommend starting work earlier. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme – just starting at 7.30am instead of 9am makes a huge difference. You can still finish at 6pm, just you’ll have gotten a lot more productive hours done each day.

It can work and it can work well

Writing this has made freelancing through college seem herculanean, zero fun and stoic. I’m probably guilty of slightly overdramatising; it’s not like you make the choice to earn money in place of having fun.

I wanted to do freelance work but I didn’t want to compromise my academic work, so the solution was just a lot of work. A lot of my friends and peers were doing just as much work, but where I was working freelance they were teaching and marking, running societies, working more traditional jobs and/or engaging in hobbies. Freelance work was just a different type of demand on my time.

It is absolutely possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life whilst at college or University. You just need to keep on top of everything, make strategic compromises and make your work count. I’m now graduated but if I was doing it again I’d probably do slightly less freelance work and trade it for more time off, but on the whole I have no regrets about the experience.

I hope this post inspires some action. If you’re wondering about the feasibility of work, go for it. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences – let me know @AlexDenning.

Get my new free course: Becoming a WordPress Master

I wrote a couple of months ago I was planning on setting out freelancing full-time after my graduation (and a trip to Japan). This has now all happened and I’m entering my third week working for myself 100% of the time.

I’m excited to be writing regularly again, and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be transitioning some content from BlogBettr to here and publishing a new post every fortnight. You can grab a newsletter subscription if you’d like to stay updated.

One of the first projects I’ve been working on is a free course for WordPress users to become WordPress masters and do everything they want, themselves.

There are a ton of WordPress courses for beginners and a second ton for experts, but nothing that bridges the gap – and that’s where MasterWP comes in.

I’m producing the course with Ben Gillbanks. Ben and I have worked together for years and have eighteen years of working with WordPress between us (me as a power user, Ben as a developer), so we cover all aspects of the WordPress spectrum.

The free course runs for a week and empowers you with the skills to set up sites how you want, manage sites for clients and vastly increase the value of your WordPress skills.

The full lesson breakdown looks like this:

  1. How to choose the perfect WordPress theme
  2. Get the most from theme support
  3. Theme customization basics (+ helpful plugins)
  4. Make your site load really quickly
  5. Using CDNs for extra speed
  6. Integrating email marketing with WordPress
  7. Keeping your WordPress site secure

The lessons are thoroughly detailed and packed with quick tips and convenient takeaways, so it’s worth grabbing the course even as a refresher. After all, it’s free 😁

The course starts next Monday (12th September) and signups are only open until then, so signup for free here.

We’re hoping to follow-up with a more detailed advanced course, so would love to help develop your skills and hear your thoughts. Let me know on Twitter.


A couple of months ago I published a post called “Now“, highlighting the things I was doing now, when now was then. I was in the midst of the final year of my degree when I wrote the post so wanted to update with what’s happening next.

The big news is I’m now a graduand and will be setting out on my own to be a self-employed freelancer who does WordPress-based writing, marketing and teaching.

My degree in Politics and International Studies will be put to excellent use making snarky comments on Twitter, but for the moment at least, that’s it.

I’ve got a couple of clients and projects lined up but have space for a couple more so get in touch if you think we should be working together. I’m excited to look at new options and projects.

In the immediate future I’ll be undertaking another backpacking trip, this time visiting Japan. After that I’m moving into a non-student flat (which is momentous indeed – no more living in squalour!) and will be getting stuck in to my new working reality.

Being self-employed brings about a degree of uncertainty but right now I’m 22 and I have comparatively little to lose right now, so now’s the time to do it.

I’m very much looking forward to having some time off in Japan and bringing some focus to where the next year or two are going. After that – can’t wait to get stuck in and get moving on what’s next.

2015 in review: what I’ve done/what have I done

I like doing these year-end review posts (see 2013 in review and 2014 in review). The year-end is an excellent opportunity to sit down and reflect on what’s happened, as well as strategise for the year to come.

2015 can be summarised as a year of focus, productivity and learning.

I learned to identify what’s important, to say “no” much more and to really focus on the stuff that’s going to make a difference. I learned how to focus on happiness and how to get a hell of a lot of work done.

Let’s get to it.


I can also honestly say adopting the Pomodoro Technique has completely revolutionsed the way I work and I’m a very significant amount more productive as a result. I genuinely can’t imagine working without it or something similar.

I’ve done some really good work this year, including stuff for my degree, freelance work for clients that I’m really proud of and a post every week since September on BlogBettr.


The long essays I had due at the end of my second year were the first where I looked beyond the reading list and really went out to find research which excited me. From there, spurred by my dissertation, I’ve seriously narrowed in on what it is I’m actually interested in. I’ve now started independently pursuing those things and trying to understand them better.

I’ve also started just appreciating learning much better – which is amusing, because I have about five months left in full-time education, something I’ve been doing for the last eighteen or nineteen years. Classic timing.

Books on the right hand side are my rapidly expanding “to read” titles. I actually cleared last year’s list for the first time in a long time.

One of my goals for last year was read more books and – probably for the first time – I can honestly say I’ve done that. I’d like to better document what I’m reading, but highlights include:

  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Really helped me get clarity on what I needed to focus on.
  • A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. A slightly odd tale of travel and pilgrimage. I just really liked this.
  • Cameron’s Coup by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. A fantastic, no-punches-held analysis of the last five years of government in Britain.
  • Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. The book which got me interested in my dissertation topic. It’s the book on tax avoidance and extremely well written.
  • The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. A sustained thesis on why equality is better for everyone which is extremely thoroughly argued. Everyone should read this.

I have a huge list of books to finish currently, and another list of books I’d like to read after that. Hat tip Nat Eliason for his excellent advice here.

If you actually want to read more… you first have to stop lying to yourself. You have plenty of time to read. You simply choose to spend it on other things.

Habits and goals

At the start of the year I appreciated that habits were the key to getting traction in doing things consistently, but something I didn’t appreciate was habits need to be paired with purpose.

Just saying (as I did at the start of the yearI want to do Headspace every day because I’ve read that over time it’s healthy is insufficient. Saying I appreciate my physical and mental wellbeing so I’m going to replace half an hour of work with half an hour of meditation and working out is much better.

Initially I only stuck sporadically with the habits I wanted to adopt, but since I’ve started pairing them with purpose I’ve made much more significant and consistent progress.

Pairing mental with physical wellbeing has been a big bonus for me this year, and the New York Times’ 7 minute workout is now something I do every day right before meditating. It’s only seven minutes (so short enough that you don’t have an excuse not to do it) but that’s enough time for it to still be decent workout. Once a week I’ll run 10km, as last year.


I’ll be honest, having done two big travelling trips now I’m increasingly over the whole fetishisation of travel for travel’s sake. I’m much more appreciative of what’s here rather than what’s to be found elsewhere. That said, travel remains a big goal for me and in 2016 I’m planning on taking a month-long trip for the third year in a row.

I had the privilege of taking a month to visit the Balkans and Turkey this Summer with my friend Joe and we had a really excellent time. Met some interesting people, saw some incredible places and had some wonderful experiences. We also spent a good chunk of time reading and writing and just appreciating the time we were having.

We went slightly further off the established track than last time and were appropriately rewarded with adventure. I also went to Austria and Strasbourg.

The future

I’ll be graduating in 2016 and from there I’ll be able to do anything I want. Within reason, of course. I’m looking to freelance as my full-time gig and I’m excited about that but also aware it represents a significant challenge.

In 2016 I’d like to get better and working out when not to work (and focus on relaxing + friends + family) and also try and reduce my food waste to more or less zero. The two aren’t related at all, but are both changes I’d like to make.

I’d generally like to continue with a lot of progress with what I started this year, including regularly exercising and meditating, writing (mostly) every day and generally increasing my productivity. Also reading more, mini-breaks and generally having a good time.

I think that’s everything for this post, for this year. Here’s to an awesome 2016.

2014 In Review: What I’ve Done/What Have I Done

2014, I think, has been an excellent year. If in 2013 I learnt a lot, in 2014 I developed a lot. I’m a lot more confident, I feel better, I’m a lot more adventurous. I don’t know I’ve been more creative, but I’ve certainly continued to pursue my creative endeavours and developed new ones.

I said a year ago I wanted to travel more and that’s been a major success this year. I’ve visited a ton of places, with my major excursion being a month-long trip around Europe this summer. I went with my friend James and he was great at making sure I pushed boundaries of what I’d normally do and I’ve certainly kept some of that spontaneity and yes attitude with me.

Having done one backpacking trip I’m absolutely going to be doing more and I’m a lot more confident about going to more adventurous places. Next Summer I’m hoping to spend a much longer time travelling in one go, hitting Morocco, Istanbul and the bits of the Mediterranean I missed this year. Travel remains very high up on my agenda.

I’ve always vaguely prescribed to a kinda minimalist attitude, but living out of a backpack for a month really demonstrated how much stuff one needs. I’ve not been very good at really applying any of this thinking/philosophy/whatever you want to call it either at home or at my house in Coventry. I’d like to get better at that in 2015.

Along similar lines I started using Headspace at the same time as I started my European travels. I’d always been curious about meditation and it was definitely a very positive move to start doing it and applying mindfulness to everyday life. So that’s been a plus. Negative has been I’ve not been very good at regularly practicing, going in fits and spurts and never managing more than two or three days in succession.

I’m toying with the idea of being unnecessarily aggressive in goals for doing Headspace in 2015. Literally every day? It’d be an interesting way of doing it.

I announced that I launched my new blog a couple of months ago, but since then I’ve not actually published anything. I say this ever year but I’d like to majorly fix that in 2015.

We’ve also reached the two-year anniversary of sevenironcows. I started this site up at the start of 2013 cause I wanted my own little space of internet and I whilst I initially planned on blogging once a week (and did so for the majority of last year), this year I’ve become less fussed about frequency of writing; I write a lot more when I’m at home and that’s fine. I would have liked to have published a couple more posts this year, but I’m pretty happy with my content output, especially the adventure posts.

University obviously dominates my entire existence during term time and the first term of my second year (ie the most recent one) was extremely busy. Being on the executive committees of both Warwik Labour and BrassSoc meant my evenings were always busy and whilst I like being busy and will always fill whatever quantity of time I have available with stuff, one can be too busy and I think I reached this point a couple of times last term.

I’ve been really enjoying my degree, though, and I’ve definitely allayed the fears I had before I joined that it would be a bit of a waste of time. Whilst arguably my learning about the abstract workings of capitalism doesn’t really help anybody, I at least find it interesting to better understand the world and whatnot.

All in all, good work in 2014 Alex. It’s been a very exciting year and I’m very much looking forward to what 2015 has in store. Onwards!

I released a record

I very rarely write here about the creative endeavours I involve myself in, but I wanted to take a minute to publish a note linking up to the new record my band put out at the end of last month.


Our self-titled album, ellipsis, celebrates the three years we’ve been writing, making and recording music by bringing together the best material we’ve created to date — six new tracks and new mixes to five previously-released ones — in a single collection.

For the first time in Ellipsis’ history, I can wholeheartedly say absolutely everything on the album sounds actually quite good. I’m really proud of it. It’s to listen/download, so if you’ve got a minute to check it out, please do.

What I’ve Done/What Have I Done: 2013 In Review

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a convenient time to sit down and evaluate how the last year has gone; what’s been good; what got done; what kinda sucked and what can be done better in the next year.

For me 2013 was a year of changes and rapidly growing up. I spent the first half of the year interning and then working at Miniclip where I learned a ton about pretty much everything. That whole experience was great fun and a wonderful opportunity; my decision to have a gap year was definitely the right one.

After finishing up at Miniclip I had two months off to enjoy my summer and then started university at Warwick at the end of September. Uni has pretty much dominated my life since, and as I wrote about a couple of weeks after arriving it’s been pretty fun and — once again — another big learning experience.

That’s the uber-simplistic view of the last twelve months. There have been other changes, too, though: in September I parted ways with the site that pretty much taught me everything about blogging and the web, WPShout, the site I’d set up when I was fifteen. That was a big decision, but Fred and David doing an awesome job with the site has really vindicated the move to sell. I was essentially neglecting the site, and it’s brilliant to see the kind of content I should have been writing showing up on the site.

I’ve also been blogging “once a week” here on sevenironcows. The end of 2013 brings about the first anniversary of this site, and I’m pretty pleased with how things are going here. I don’t really give a crap about readership numbers, which is fortunate as they’re pretty abysmal, but it’s nice just having a corner of the interwebs to just write without having to think too much about it. This post is number 101, which slightly misleadingly implies I’ve published something twice a week. The majority of those posts are either haikus (I failed at writing 100 haikus in 2013, in case you were wondering) or pics, but it’s still a decidedly Not Bad content-count for the year.

The redesign the site underwent back in the summer was definitely a good move, too; pulling in my Instagram feed to the sidebar works really nicely, and I’ve even considered switching back to a one-column setup where photos are incorporated (and would dominate) the site’s main feed.

sevenironcows has basically been an entirely personal project, so with no real goals to validate and nobody to justify to, I’ve been pretty pleased with how it’s gone so far.

Looking forward to 2014 I’ve been quietly working away on a new blog which I’ll probably launch early in the new year. I’ve tried and failed to launch it before, but I’m much better prepared to make it work this time round, and I’m determined to at least give it a pretty good shot. I will nodoubt drop a post here if/when the site launches.

I’ve also decided 2014 is going to be the year I get out and see more of the world. I’ve got the first bits of a plan to travel Istanbul -> London over the summer sorted, and I’d love to get outside of Europe too. Travelling is definitely more-or-less top of my personal agenda for the next year. I’ve even kitted myself out with a new camera in anticipation.

It seems naive to try and round up everything of significance that’s happened in the last year into a single blog post, let alone a 600-odd-word one. Indeed, it is; there is a metric ton of stuff I’ve missed out here. In brief, though, 2013 has been good. 2014, however, will be better. Honest.