4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part II, with Guest Expert Marina Darlow of Systems Meet Humanity

Today I’m pleased to welcome back Marina Darlow of the Systems Meet Humanity podcast as a guest expert for the second part of her two-part series, 4 Steps for Making Stuff Actually Happen.

(If you missed it, my interview with Marina on her podcast aired last week. You can check out our interview on the podcast here: http://vision-framework.com/podcast/jenna-avery.)

Marina is a systems expert who focuses on helping people be more productive by putting workable, human systems into place. I invited her to write about how to help us make our work actually happen. 

Enjoy!

4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part II

by Marina Darlow

Hello again, Marina here, thanks to Jenna’s gracious invitation.

Have you chosen to do something exciting since we saw each other last? Maybe a task you’ve been avoiding for a year, looking at you accusingly from the to-do list? Have you started it already?

Good.

Today, in the second part of our series, we’ll see how to keep at a task, and then to finish it, completely and unquestionably. We’ll also touch upon a rarely-mentioned and hugely time-hogging matter — the transition from one task to another.

Part II: Staying On Task and Completing It

As a refresher, there are four stages to each task:

  1. Choosing – deciding which task to start NOW.
  2. Starting – starting is often the hardest thing to do.
  3. Staying on Task – keeping focus and fending off distractions.
  4. Finishing – knowing where you draw the line in the sand and consider something finished.

In Part I, we discussed Choosing and Starting. Today we’ll be covering Staying on Task and Finishing.

Ready? 

Let’s start with Stage 3, staying on task.

Stage 3. Staying on Task, and Fending Off Distractions

My mind runs at such a fast pace I get so far ahead before one task is finished. I am thinking about the 2nd and 3rd things on my task list way before task 1 is complete, or get deathly bored and skip to something more engaging.”

This is a quote from a client. Can you relate?

How do you stay on task?

Keeping your mind from racing ahead of you and instead staying on task ultimately comes down to how you handle three key variables:

  • Managing your environment,
  • Matching the right task to your available energy levels, and
  • Choosing the right level of stimulation for you.

1. Manage Your Environment. The key idea is to have your environment be as distraction-free as possible. Close the door. Put on headphones. Clean your table. Leave only a handful of tabs open. Hang your personal list of rules for creative tasks somewhere you can always see it.

Important: Don’t make it too sterile. Who wants to work in the OR? Unless you’re a surgeon, of course.

2. Match Your Tasks to Your Energy Levels. Brain-dead? Don’t try to write your next masterpiece. Do admin stuff instead. Find your most productive times of day, and schedule demanding tasks then, whenever possible.

In most cases you already know when you’re at your best: morning, afternoon, or evening.

3. Choose Your Stimulation Levels. This one is tricky and usually achieved through some trial and error. However – there are some guidelines. The “mind-racing” often happens in one of the following scenarios:

  • You’re doing something mundane, or only mildly demanding, and kind of boring.
  • You have a lot on your plate and you haven’t made a very clear list of priorities.

If you’re doing something that doesn’t require all your mental faculties, you’re using the spare brainpower to think about unrelated tasks. Naturally, you start feeling stressed, bored, disengaged, and probably resentful. Time to strategically multi-task.

For example:

  • Listen to a podcast while folding laundry instead of worrying about doing the dishes.
  • Fill out forms while choosing a design (or a venue) for your presentation.
  • Fidget with your favorite spinner while taking meeting minutes.
    It often helps if you have a “lead” and a “supporting” activity. It also helps when activity A is more cerebral and activity B is more physical.

If your mind is racing in a handful of directions, and you feel all of them are equally stressful, time to take a pause, and get back to your plan. Look – what should you be focusing on NOW? This week? Today? Give yourself permission to worry about the later stuff… later.

Stage 4. Finishing Tasks

The key here is to know when the task is finished. How do you know? You define the criteria at the outset.

Some things are easier than others. Clean the office! When is the office considered officially clean? When there’s no more boxes left, just a table, a chair and a laptop.

When is the chapter finished? Hmmm…

When you have said all you planned to say? Sure, but how do you know? Outlines help. Deadlines help too. Sometimes, when you’ve worked on it for 3 hours, after the initial “good enough” version is ready is where you draw the line in the sand.

The important part is to decide ahead of time when you’d consider your task DONE.

Bonus: The Art of Transition

Now that you know how to finish, let’s task about how to transition from one task to another or return to a task after an interruption. “Transition” is a fancy name for making this shift.

Here’s what happens, most often at a subconscious level:

  • You become detached from a task.
  • You experience a drop in your energy.
  • You then re-attach to a new task.

This process requires your brain to get back to higher energy and focus levels, consuming surprisingly huge amounts of time and effort.

Transitions tend to be harder for visionary creatives.

  • It’s harder to start, because of the all-or-nothing perception.
  • It’s harder to stop, because you’ve either been hyper-focusing, or you’re lost in the details.
  • Your emotions – anger, confusion, frustration – cause an unpleasant drain on your mental resources. (That’s actually true for everyone, creative or not.)

So how can we make transitions easier?

Three elements: awareness, planning, and ritual.

  • Awareness. Allow time and energy for transitions to occur. For example, schedule at least 15 minutes between meetings. Give yourself permission to get up from your desk and walk around the office after you’ve finished a tricky piece of code, and before you start the next one. Stretch and sit there for a moment after writing a proposal, and before you make your next call.
  • Plan for transitions. Have a well-defined plan ahead of time. A plan makes it easier to both detach and re-attach, because you know what’s coming next. Anxiety levels go down, and you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what’s next. We talked about this in Part I, around the process of choosing a task.
  • Design “transition rituals.” A ritual can be absolutely anything, as long as it is short and easy. The meaning of the ritual comes from you. But it helps if a ritual is connected to tasks at hand.

    For example: a ritual to transition from research to writing can look like this:

    1. Bookmark the browser tabs you’ll need later.
    2. Close all research-related tabs.
    3. Get up and jump 3 times.
    4. Open a Google Doc.
    5. Click Tools->Voice Typing.
    6. Start with 30 seconds on talking gibberish into the mic.

A ritual anchors us, helping us along on the path from the detachment from one task, through energy drop we experience, and into attachment or re-attachment.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of transitions:

  1. From task A to task B.
  2. From task A back to task A after someone interrupted you.
  3. From task A back to task A after you’ve interrupted yourself.

You may design one transition ritual to rule them all, or you may come up with a different ritual for each type. Or you may want a ritual for each key activity you’re doing – a ritual for transitioning into writing, a ritual for doing house chores, a ritual for getting back on track after someone has interrupted you, and so on.

The rituals you develop will ideally become habits, because when an action is a habit it saves you tons of decision-making energy, or in other words, activation energy.

To Recap

Execution is rarely effortless (otherwise me and a host of my productivity-geeky colleagues would be forced into another line of work). But a strategic approach to your workload at each of the four phases (choosing, starting, staying, and finishing a task) makes the shiny “getting things done” goal tangibly more achievable.

Choosing a task becomes way easier if you follow a plan, broken down into bite-size chunks.

Reducing activation energy really helps to start anything, however daunting – remember the 20 second rule?

A fitting environment coupled with the right stimulation levels keeps us on task and fends off pesky distractions. Finally, (no pun intended) setting criteria for “what’s considered DONE” at the outset is absolutely essential to, well, finishing.

What about the twilight zone between the tasks? Developing quick and easy rituals for mastering transitions will make a huge difference in your ability to make things happen.

Combine these tools and you’re unstoppable.

About Marina

Marina Darlow is a systems expert and a productivity geek. She sees her job as helping impact-driven entrepreneurs get 10-20 more productive hours a week, stop leaking money, and prevent stress-fueled breakdowns.

An engineer by training, Marina came to a realization a couple years ago: working for a conglomerate was not as inspiring as she wants her life work to be. Her quest for inspiration brought her to found Vision Framework, a company that builds small, purpose-driven businesses from the inside, helping entrepreneurs run their companies with ease by putting effective, easy-to-use, and fun (yep!) systems in place.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part I, with Guest Expert Marina Darlow of Systems Meet Humanity

Today I’m pleased to welcome Marina Darlow of the Systems Meet Humanity podcast as a guest expert.

My interview with Marina on her podcast just came online this week and I encourage you to check it out. We had a terrific conversation about systems and writing, including working in small chunks, how emotions can be “signposts,” and more.

You can check out our interview on the podcast here: http://vision-framework.com/podcast/jenna-avery

Marina is a systems expert who focuses on helping people be more productive by putting workable, human systems into place. I invited her to write about how to help make work actually happen for us here. 

Enjoy!

4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part I

by Marina Darlow

First, thanks, Jenna for bringing me to be a guest on your wonderful blog.

As a systems geek with a penchant for implementation coaching for creatives, I love to write about making stuff actually happen.

I’ve noticed that people love setting goals, even making plans, but when it comes to implementing, never mind doing it consistently, from week to week… then we have a problem.

So let’s talk about the real, tangible implementation of the tasks currently residing on your plate. And, hopefully, on your calendar.

There are four stages to each task:

  1. Choosing – deciding which task to start NOW.
  2. Starting – starting is often the hardest thing to do.
  3. Staying on Task – keeping focus and fending off distractions.
  4. Finishing – knowing where you draw the line in the sand and consider something finished.

This two-part series will help you glide through each of these phases, from decision to completion. Today we’ll start with Choosing and Starting. 

Part I: Choosing What To Do and Starting the Task You Chose

What, in your opinion, are the biggest barriers to execution?

In my experience it’s the trio below. I wonder if you can relate:

  1. The all-or-nothing approach.
  2. Time-blindness, or as a client of mine once said “What do you mean what’s my timeline? I have “now” and “not now.”
  3. Trouble with transitions.

If we don’t address this unholy trinity, it can cause a lot of damage: by making you feel “always behind,” getting in the way of making decisions, leaving you overwhelmed, and working yourself to the point of acute burnout. As Jenna mentions in our interview, visionaries are particularly prone to overwhelm. They’re able to imagine the result very clearly, and therefore they can see the gap between “here” and “there” in all its mind-boggling glory.

So how do we overcome these obstacles?

The first step is to dig deeper into the Anatomy of the Task: what it’s made of, where the implementation breakdowns tend to happen, and how to address each scenario.

As I mentioned before, each task has four phases:

  1. Choosing
  2. Starting
  3. Staying on Task
  4. Finishing

Today we’ll look at the first two phases:

Phase 1. Choosing a Task

Last year I did a large round of interviews as research for a course I run.  “Setting priorities” came up as one of the four top challenges my interviewees mention. No wonder – this is where both “all-or-nothing” approach and time-blindness come to mess with your head.

You want to do All The Things, and you’re at loss how long will it take.

If you read Jenna’s blog, or better yet, work with her, I’m going to assume you already have a plan and even that you’ve broken it down into small chunks.

You might even have a calendar that tells you what you’re supposed to do this afternoon at 2 p.m.

Even it’s not an exact task, your choices are now blessedly limited. This is will make your life much, much easier.

However, you might still have two to three options to choose from. What do you do, if no obvious choice presents itself? (Obvious could mean a looming deadline, an especially exciting task, or a task you’ve been prompted to do with someone else. It can also be just an easy decision for whatever reason.)

What do you do if you still struggle to choose?

Here are two good possibilities: 

  1. Choose randomly. Flip a coin, if you wish. Any decision is better than no decision.
  2. Make a good enough decision. For the perfectionists among us – making a “good enough” decision is a huge step forward.

Here’s some surprising motivation: making a decision stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, increasing dopamine activity.*

In a fascinating experiment, two rats are given cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever to receive an injection. Rat B didn’t have to do anything, it just hangs out there. Guess which rat gets a bigger boost of dopamine? That’s right, the lever-pulling Rat A.

An active choice creates a change in the brain circuitry responsible for attention, and in how we feel about the action we chose. We choose –> we get dopamine. If we just hang out, like our friend Rat B, we get little to no increase in pleasure.

So make that decision. You’ll feel warmer and fuzzier.

Phase 2. Starting a Task

You’ve chosen a task? Great! Let’s start.

Hmmm… easier said than done. You should’ve seen me shuffling around the house, sitting down, staring at the screen, opening and closing the browser, anything to delay the start of writing this very post. Starting a task, especially if it’s something big or important can be daunting.

Here’s a tactic I’d like to share: the 20 second rule. It was developed by Shawn Achor to build better habits, but I found that the concept works just as well for starting a task.

“I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit.” ~ Shawn Achor

The idea is to reduce the barrier to a desired behavior. He coined this rule by moving his guitar from the closet to the middle of his room – right next to him instead of just 20 seconds away. “Three weeks later,” he says, “I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.”

The task in question can be a part of forming a habit, or a one-time undertaking. Either way, starting a task requires “activation energy,” and our job is to reduce it to minimum.

How?

  • Adapt your environment and design a ritual. If the task in question is something you do often, like writing, editing, or putting books in order, the best way is to adapt your environment and design a ritual. For example, I start most of my writing sessions by talking into a mic. (Voice typing is a fantastic invention!) So I always have my microphone next to my laptop. However, I only plug it in before a recording session. The ritual of plugging the cord into the port signals to me that I’m about to start recording.
  • Start with the tiniest action. If the task is a completely new, or unusual, or just happens rarely, start with the tiniest action. Really small. No, even smaller. You’ll gain momentum. Remember, no “all-or-nothing.” Small, incremental steps are the way. If you’ve decided to clean your new office, start with removing a book closest to the door.
  • Design a “new task” ritual. Another approach you can employ: design “new task” ritual, for everything new or unusual. Making a cup of coffee, slowly and deliberately, does the trick for me.
  • Partner up. If you’re really struggling, find a person to help you kick-start. I can’t think of anything more effective than a friendly sounding board, someone to hold your hand, and frame the here-and-now for starting your task. A presence of another person is… binding. We tend to pull ourselves together, our focus increases, and we suddenly find ourselves perform and stay on task. For instance, when I was floundering, trying to assemble different pieces of information into a coherent article, I ended up calling a friend and begging her to spend a few minutes just listening to me ramble. What do you know, 15 minutes later I had a detailed outline, with all the references in the right places.

A side note: Sometimes, you’d need to mix it up. With the creative crowd, a ritual works for a while, until it doesn’t. You get bored, your brain finds a way around the ritual. So if you feel that opening a blank document and talking gibberish into it doesn’t help you start writing anymore, time to invent a new ritual. Maybe you’d want to choose a radio station with a soundscape to keep you focused, then open a blank document.

Stay Tuned for Part II

That’s it for today. Next time we’ll discuss how to stay on task, and then how to (finally!) complete it. Amazing, isn’t it?

About Marina

Marina Darlow is a systems expert and a productivity geek. She sees her job as helping impact-driven entrepreneurs get 10-20 more productive hours a week, stop leaking money, and prevent stress-fueled breakdowns.

An engineer by training, Marina came to a realization a couple years ago: working for a conglomerate was not as inspiring as she wants her life work to be. Her quest for inspiration brought her to found Vision Framework, a company that builds small, purpose-driven businesses from the inside, helping entrepreneurs run their companies with ease by putting effective, easy-to-use, and fun (yep!) systems in place.

 

*The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, byAlex Korb PhD
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Race to the finish

On Finishing (and Perfectionism!): A Review of Jon Acuff’s Finish

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of DoneI’ve just finished reading Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done* by Jon Acuff. It’s a delightfully irreverent book packed with useful insights — sometimes counterintuitive — about how and why we stop ourselves from finishing (hint: perfectionism is the root cause).

It’s been a particularly fun read right now for three reasons.

First, I’ve been reading it alongside several of my Circle members and we’ve been discussing it on our online site. I have a feeling we’ll be doing this again. It’s a mini online book club. Yay!

Second, I’m just about to lead the goal setting call for the Deep Dive Writing Intensive I’m running (we start writing next week!) so I’m looking forward to incorporating some of Acuff’s principles into our goal setting work. And since the Deep Dive Writing Intensive is designed to help people finish (or make major progress in that direction), it’s particularly apropos.

Third, I know I’m a recovering perfectionist. Or at least a perfectionist who’s trying to recover. (The first step is admitting you have a problem!) So this book was useful on both professional and personal fronts.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  1. The “day after perfect” is the make-or-break day. Acuff says the “day after perfect” often turns up as soon as day two of pursuing a goal. I see this happening with writers who put in a big burst of enthusiastic writing for their first day out (sometimes later), then crash and burn the next day by going into massive writing aversion and avoidance the next day… which can lead to despair and giving up. I much prefer to see writers pacing themselves for the long haul. Acuff makes the point that we have to focus on “moving forward imperfectly” and “trying again… today, tomorrow, or next week.” I’ve always been a fan of “starting over tomorrow,” whenever I get off track with my goals so I’m right there with him.
  2. There’s a difference between commitments and distractions. Acuff makes a useful distinction between the things we’re committed to doing, like our day jobs and our kids, as our commitments, and things like Netflix — and those side projects you turn to when it’s time to write — as distractions. See how simple that is? I found this useful for reinforcing what I do when I write out my Three Big Rocks list, which is to focus on the key things I want to accomplish for my goals that day. I don’t include my standing commitments (taking care of my kids and exercising, for example), because I think of them as “givens,” but prioritize the three major commitments I’m making for the day.
  3. You can look for your own sweet spot with rewards or penalties (or both) when it comes to goal setting. Acuff says, “make it fun if you want it done,” and recommends establishing a reward or a penalty for your goal. I’m more motivated by rewards than punishment, but his writing had me think more about deciding on really fun rewards, and deciding on them in advance. I’m particularly thinking about how I can do this on the daily and weekly scale (one example he gave was how author Sammy Rhoades would reward himself with a Friday afternoon movie for meeting his writing goals, which sounds right up my alley).
  4. Pay attention to where you “hide” from your goals. Acuff describes both “hiding places” — where we go to avoid our goals — and “noble obstacles” — the clever schemes we design to make it so we can’t possibly focus on our goals because we’re serving some higher purpose. I’ve seen so many writers over the years come up with the most fascinating and suddenly highly important non-writing or OTHER writing projects than they originally come into our programs with. This is really worth paying attention to and short-circuiting.
  5. Put your new idea at the finish line for your current one. If you tend to come up with a new idea that’s much more appealing than your current project the minute you start (in the coaching world, we call these Bright Shiny Objects), Acuff recommends making the new idea the project you “get to” work on when you finish your current one. With writing, I recommend what I call a “Project Queue” (tips on how to do this with writing projects are in my free guide, “How to Choose Your (Next) Book“). The core idea is to promise to work on the new idea next. In a sense it even becomes a reward for getting to the end of the current one. Yay!
  6. Aim a little lower with your goal setting. Acuff recommends cutting our goals in half, either by cutting the quantity or output in two, or by doubling the amount of time we give ourselves. This is because most of us are entirely unrealistic about how we set our goals. I’ve personally been setting fewer and fewer goals over the last few years, after seeing myself being unable to attain the multiple, too-fast-paced goals I was aiming for, and I can see right now from checking my 2018 goals list that I may have a bit more tweaking to do after reading Finish, especially after the hard start to the year I’ve had. 
  7. The “day before done” is another place many of us go astray. I’ve witnessed this in my own writing, suddenly becoming apathetic toward a screenplay, telling myself I’ve just lost interest in the story. Acuff identifies three primary fears triggered by a looming finish, including a fear of what happens next (Amazon reviews!), a fear it won’t be perfect, and a fear of “what now?” The key, he says, is addressing these fears with a combination of trusting yourself to figure it out and being open to seeing what happens.

More my favorites in this book are the “secret rules” we use to sabotage ourselves (“If I lose all this weight, then I’ll have to go dancing/be looked at/feel more vulnerable”), choosing what to “bomb” (where you’re strategically choosing to suck at something in order to prioritize your goal), using data to track your goals and “celebrate your imperfect progress,” and many more.

While there were times I wasn’t 100% sure if I thought Acuff was actually writing about resistance and not so much about perfectionism (which I consider to be a subcategory of resistance), I loved what he shared and he has stirred some useful thinking and insight for all of us who have read it. 

Highly recommended. 

* This is an Amazon affiliate link, which means Called to Write will earn a small commission if you purchase the book after clicking on this link, for which we are greatly appreciative!
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash
Working hard

Is It Time for a Big Burst of Progress on Your Book?

There are many stages of writing.

There are the practical stages — inspiration, idea, concept, development, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, polishing, and proofing.

There are the emotional stages of a writing project — from eureka! to discouragement to resolve to despair to euphoria to apathy to completion. It’s an up and down journey sure to delight the most ardent theme park enthusiasts. Or not.

There are also a set of career stages in a writer’s life. We might experience them as a progression as we evolve from feeling the call to write to treating it the way a professional does, or we might move in and out of these states along the path to writerdom.

For example:

  • Wanting to write but not writing.
  • Writing occasionally, ephemerally, but not quite getting anywhere. 
  • Binge writing in a big burst of enthusiasm, to meet a deadline, or in a NaNoWriMo-fueled burst, but then crashing into writing aversion/burnout for a long period of time, maybe even months or years. 
  • Writing regularly and consistently, but maybe not as productively as you’d like to be, possibly struggling with creative blocks along the way.
  • Writing like a pro.

Before you hit the pro stage (and sometimes even then), these stages can be sometimes more fulfilling than others, depending on where you are in your writing career. 

For example, if you’ve been wanting to write forever, and you’re finally writing every day, even for just a few minutes day, that’s a huge win. On the other hand, if you’ve been plodding away at a draft, day in and day out, and feeling like you’re never getting anywhere, it might be time for a push with your writing.

I generally work with writers in my Called to Write Coaching Circle who want to go from not writing to writing. From writing sporadically and inconsistently, to writing daily. (Or as one of our writers put it, writers who want to go from whining to writing. LOVE that.) 

In the Deep Dive Writing Intensives I run, I work with writers who are ready for more. They might have the daily writing thing down, but want to put in a focused burst of work on their books or screenplays. This usually happens when they have a goal they’re trying to reach and want a boost of progress to get there. 

Here are some examples of times you might be ready for a big push with your book or script.  

Signs You Might Be Ready to Go for a Push with Your Writing

  • You’re willing and able to carve out the time and space in your life for an ultra-focused period of writing. This means being willing to clear your schedule of any and all extraneous commitments and otherwise scaling back where you can (stockpile your freezer now!) to make it easy on yourself. 
  • You have a story idea you want to develop or outline and want to (need to!) carve out some time to do it. Putting in a few weeks of intense attention can get you to the finally “ready to write pages” stage and feel incredibly satisfying. 
  • You’re writing, but you’re stuck in a rut or feeling complacent about your work and your progress. There’s nothing like doing a big push on your book or script to get you out of your comfort zone and operating at a higher level of productivity. You’ll want to make sure you have a way to keep writing once you get to the other side of a focused burst of writing so you don’t crash and burn afterward.
  • You’ve done all the prep work for a new project but you’re hesitating and holding back from diving into the actual writing. If you’re sitting on the edge of the pool, scared to even dip in a toe, now might be exactly the right time to take the plunge. It can be easier to face all the resistance in one go, especially if you find a way to write alongside other writers to help support you.
  • You’re in the middle of writing a book or a big rewrite and you’re struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The dreaded middle of any stage of book is called the dreaded middle for many reasons, including that it’s just plain hard to get through. Remember — when you’re going through hell, keep going. This is a good time to put on a burst of speed, keep your head down, and keep working. 
  • You’re staring down a deadline and procrastinating or struggling to pace yourself and you want to avoid the binge-burnout cycle you’re setting yourself up for. Many writers (especially those dealing with second novel syndrome, I find) get stuck in procrastination when there’s a deadline coming up — not close enough to spur you into action, but not far away enough to totally ignore. This makes for a constant and uncomfortable low level of guilt and anxiety. Whether you’re working on a self-imposed deadline, a publisher’s deadline, or other submission deadline, using a focused, structured burst of writing to help pace yourself can be life and sanity saving, plus you’ll be far better positioned not to lose your writing habit on the other side. 
  • You’re making progress, kind of, but you’d really like to put some mileage on this thing and see your page count climb. Along the same lines as the “dreaded middle,” sometimes you just need to see somethinganything happening to feel some sense of progress and accomplishment (so helpful with these long form writing projects).
  • You need a safe space to write. If when you’re part of a critique group (or even just hard on yourself in your internal mental conversations), you may want a separate, critique-free writing “space” where you’re just committed to the process regardless of anything else happening. It can be both healing and relieving to “just write” and is particularly so when you’re writing with a group of like-minded writers who help you normalize the experience of writing.
  • You wish you could go on a retreat or disappear to a cabin in the woods but you can’t quite swing it with your budget (or your family, job, or other commitments). Finding a way to create a writing retreat for yourself from the comfort of your own home is a lovely alternative and can fulfill much of that desire in you to “get away and write.”
  • You know what you want to write but you’re having trouble overcoming resistance. That monster called resistance can be handled in a couple of ways. One is by sneaking past it in small increments of writing time, which is an excellent way to get started. The other is to jump in, full bore, and write like your life depends on it. The trick is having a structured support to help you keep going afterward. 

If You’re Ready to Go Big, Here’s How

If you’ve decided you’re ready to make a big focused burst of progress with your writing, while there are certainly options, like creating a self-led writing intensive for yourself or attending a writing retreat (if you can swing the travel, lodging, and retreat costs), I’m a fan of online writing intensives like my Deep Dive to help you focus and get the most bang of your buck. 

Here are some resources to get your started:

There are certainly times when a writing intensive is NOT the way to go — if you’re dealing with creative wounds for example, or having trouble figuring out what to work on. If you’re wondering if you’re ready for a big burst of writing progress, shoot me an email or ask me a question in the comments and I’ll be happy to talk it over with you. 

Featured image photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Getting Out of Writing Overwhelm and Into Action

Let’s talk about writing. And overwhelm.

First, a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on high Sierra backpacking trips. They were hard. We’re talking about high-altitude, have to hit 10,000 feet before you get to the lake kind of hard. With backpacks. On super steep trails. In the blazing sun. I was also prone to altitude sickness, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go higher, other than the incredible beauty of the alpine lakes and the satisfaction we had once we reached our destination. 

Which was actually a hell of an incentive. 

Every summer my sister and I would slog up the steep trails, managing the weight of our packs on our sore shoulders, the blisters forming on our feet, the headaches creeping in, the tiredness, and the whininess that would sneak into our voices. My dad always brought up the rear, even though he was the fastest and strongest hiker. 

In every trip, there were always points along the way where I begged to stop. I’d despair that we’d ever get there. My dad was my coach at those times. Giving up wasn’t an option. He was always patient, calm, and quiet. He’d just wait with me until I was ready to get up and keep going. 

He’d say, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about how far it is to the top. Just look at the trail right in front of you, and focus on getting to the next bend in the trail. Then the next, and the next.”

And bit by bit, we’d get there.

Overwhelm In Writing

As writers, we often hear the line from E.L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Usually this quote is used to describe the process of figuring out a story and how we find our way through it, bit by bit. But we can also use it to describe and understand the entire process of writing, from first draft, to rewrite(s), to publication, and to marketing, including dealing with any and all overwhelm at each of those stages. 

When we’re writing, the big gap between here (where you are right now) and there (where want to end up — done! finished! published!) can feel pretty darned overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you might be wondering if you’re even capable of making it. 

Underlying Causes & Solutions for Addressing Overwhelm  

Let’s dig a little deeper into where you might be feeling overwhelmed, and then look at some solutions to help you find your way through.

6 Underlying Causes of  Writing Overwhelm

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, no matter what stage of writing you’re in, here’s what might really be going on:

  1. There’s so much left to do, and it really is overwhelming. Writing a book is a long haul project. So is a screenplay, when you consider the many drafts a script often goes through before it’s produceable and marketable. There’s a ton of work left to do, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when staring up the face of the enormous mountain you’re attempting to scale. (Hint: You’re looking at the mountain, not the trail.) 
  2. You’re scared to put yourself out there. Writing a book can trigger self-doubts, fears, procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance. When you’re conscious of it, you can feel overwhelmed by the enormity and responsibility of it all. When you’re less conscious of it, you can get stuck in writing overwhelm as a kind of “safe haven.” It can feel easier to go around in circles than to take the risk of fulfilling your big dream. 
  3. You’re doubting that you’re up to the challenge. Hand-in-hand with #1, above, you might not even feel sure you have what it takes to write at the level required to succeed. You might be losing confidence in yourself, your book, and your ability to write. If you’re in this place you may be so overwhelmed that you’re considering giving up on your book, or worse, giving up on writing altogether. This is the kind of overwhelm that comes from a crisis of confidence. 
  4. You’ve lost your way. Sometimes you can end up feeling lost, like you’re not sure how to solve the story problems you’re facing (or even to figure out what the problems truly are), or you’re overwhelmed with a sheer quantity of content and disorganization, and you can end up going around in circles, feeling paralyzed, dazed, and confused. The fear here is that you’ll never find your way.
  5. It feels like you’re running out of time. Many of us have this ticking clock inside our heads about when it’s okay and when it’s too late to “arrive” on the scene with our finished books. The fear here is that it’s too late for you, which creates a sense of overwhelm around trying to fit way too much into too little time.
  6. You’re feeling overwhelmed by life, too. We’re busy. All of us. Our culture, our world, and our lifestyles seem to be busier than ever and only getting worse. Finding time to write seems darned near impossible when you’re juggling a job, kids, friends, pets, family, spouses, and more. The fear here is that you don’t have the time and space in your life to actually pull off making time to write, which again leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

6 Solutions for Moving Past Overwhelm and Into Action

Here are six solutions to help you overcome the overwhelm and move into action with your writing.

  1. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, just like my dad taught me. The most basic antidote for overwhelm is to take the smallest possible steps, one by one, to move through it. This means making a plan for how you’ll approach your writing (or rewriting), and working on it in the smallest possible pieces until it’s done. In fact, the more resistance, fear, or doubt, you’re feeling, the smaller the chunk you’ll want to work on (even if you spend all day working on small pieces). If you keep your focus on the next step right in front of you, you can get through to the end.
  2. Get mad. Resistance is a smothering force. It paralyzes you and bogs you down, until you begin to feel hopeless and like you’ll never succeed. Anger, on the other hand, holds the powerful energy of action. When resistance gets you down, get mad. Use the energy of being a little (or a lot!) pissed off that resistance is trying to beat you to get fired up and get back to work. When I feel discouraged, my fighting spirit rises up in me and says, “No way! I’m not letting resistance win.”
  3. Use a map, aka, remember your Big Why. When you’re lost and overwhelmed, remind yourself of your Big Why. Think about (and write down, for next time) WHY you’re writing this book. What do you love about it? What are your deepest reasons for wanting to write this book? Reconnect with your passion and love and energy for the book. Pair that with the energy of anger to light a fire inside yourself.
  4. Get help for the climb. Sometimes, you need help to reach the top of the summit. This could look like working with a coach, joining a writing group, or partnering up with a buddy. Someone who will be patient, supportive, kind, and compassionate without giving up on you for a single second. 
  5. Make a push of progress on your book. A nifty trick for dealing with overwhelm is making a focused, concerted burst of progress on your story. Writing solidly, with focus, helps you regain your sense of identity and your confidence in yourself as a writer. This is what Tony Robbins calls “massive action.” And though I generally advocate for regular daily writing as the primary antidote for resistance, sometimes we need to take powerful action to restore our confidence, energy, and momentum. You can do your own focused writing intensive or join mine to help you make that happen.
  6. Remember your ultimate destination. Not only are you writing this book or screenplay right now, you’re also working to fulfill your overall writing career goals. This project, right now, is part of the map you’re using to get there. While this might sound like contradictory advice, holding the big view of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it can help with taking the small steps along the trail.

The reward?

Reaching that ultimate destination. Seeing the world you want to see, from the great heights you’ve earned, step by step.

 

1. Featured image by AJ Yorio on Unsplash
2. Unsplash

11 Tips for Revising Your NaNoWriMo Draft

It’s mid-January. If you “won” NaNoWriMo, you’ll have 50,000 words of raw material for a new novel. If you didn’t make it to the 50k mark, you’ll still have pages to work with.

But now what?

Where do you start, in shaping your big block of marble into something with legs, something that works, something that’s marketable?

Although many writers, already know this, it’s worth stating: Under most circumstances, do not revise from the beginning to the end of your draft in order.

When you’re working with a first draft, you first have to assess what you have before you start revising. At this stage, editing, polishing, proofreading, and wordsmithing are premature, unless you’ve written a near perfect draft, which is unlikely at this stage.

Unless you’re a thoroughly seasoned writer (in which case you probably aren’t doing NaNo), if you revise chronologically, you’ll most likely find major structural and development issues in your story and end up cutting or substantively changing the work you’ve just spent hours editing, which can be heartbreaking and a big deterrent to getting to a truly final and finished product.

What you’ll want to do instead is craft a revision plan

Here are 11 tips to get you started.

11 Tips for Revising Your NaNoWriMo Draft

1. Think of your NaNo draft as an “intuitive draft.”

We’ve all seen and read the Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is sh*t,” and while that can help us overcome our perfectionism and get something down, I’ve come to see labeling our first passes as a “sh*tty first draft” or a “vomit draft” does a disservice to this valuable and important stage of work.

The term “intuitive draft” is thanks to one of my screenwriting mentors, Corey Mandell. I love his notion of seeing a first rough draft as a window into the souls of our characters and the feeling tone of the story. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but from it you gain valuable raw, fresh writing to guide your next steps.

Other names I like are “lightning draft” or “speed draft.” While this isn’t a hard and fast rule — you get to call it what you like, after all — I want to encourage you not to devalue your rough work but instead celebrate it as a valuable start.

2. And speaking of celebrating, did you?

And before you begin revising, celebrate! It’s important to acknowledge the work you’ve done. In the long-haul of writing a long form novel, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the work you have yet to do, and to dismiss or diminish or forget what you have already done.

I mean, dude (can I call you dude?), you just wrote 50,000 words! That’s not nothing! So celebrate and reward yourself for the good work you’ve done.

3. At the same time, keep “finishing” in perspective.

I can’t tell you how many first-time writers I’ve met who think their first draft is a finished book.

(Most non-writers think that’s how it works, and is probably the source of that endlessly annoying conversation that starts with something like, “Are you still working on your book?”)

But the truth is, unless you are a genius or meticulously plotted your draft from start to finish and wrote your draft in “pitch perfect authentic” form (another Corey term), this is first draft is essentially only that intuitive draft we were talking about, which means… the real work is about start.

4. Start by cataloging what you have.

One of my favorite and most beloved (if hard) steps from Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k book is the notion of “reverse-outlining” your draft, where you note the primary story event for each scene, along with any other key tidbits of information, like POV and word count.

The idea is to capture what happens in each scene in one brief sentence in a spreadsheet or document so you can easily see what you have, at a glance. It’s hard to grok what you’re working with in full length form, so creating a reverse outline will help you get a good overview.

Since I write in Scrivener, I like to use the synopsis area to write my brief one sentence story event summary for each scene. Then I switch over to outliner mode and export the outliner contents as a comma separated values file (CSV) and import it into my favorite spreadsheet software (Numbers for Mac) so I can work with it further there.

Recommended resource: 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron *

5. Then, do your macro story work, either again or now.

Now it’s time to do the macro story work. Take a step back and look at the story as a whole. What kind of story are you trying to tell? What genre is it? What values are at stake? Are you meeting the conventions and obligatory scenes for your genre? Who are your characters? What are they trying to get or do? What’s your premise line?

There are many tools you can use to answer these important macro questions. 

Over the last few years, I’ve become an ardent admirer of Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid. His take on understanding genre and how it influences audience expectations has been groundbreaking for me. 

And lest you think he’s prescribing dreaded formulaic writing, take another look. The brilliance of his work is that he clearly demonstrates what an audience will need to experience in order to feel satisfied by a story — but ALSO highlights the importance, and the difficulty, of a writer innovating on those conventions and scenes.

For example, if you’ve seen it, think about the “Lovers Break Up” scene in the movie Passengers. It’s a perfect love story scene, in the sense that one character discovers a betrayal by the other. But the writer innovates on that “typical” scene in a totally unique way with incredibly high stakes (life or death). 

This piece of work is about stepping back and thinking about what story you’re intending to tell and what the story needs to contain in order to work, in terms of story, plot, and character development. You can use The Story Grid and/or many of the other excellent tools available for helping you take that step back.

Recommended resources:

6. Review your desired story beats.

However you like to plot — or not, you pantser, you — now’s the time. Write out your major plot points, not necessarily based on what’s in your intuitive draft, but rather what you want them to be based on your macro story work.

I use a funny combination of plot points from working with ScreenwritingU.com, Chris Soth’s Mini Movie Method, and Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot approach to identify my major overarching plot points:

  • Opening
  • Inciting Incident
  • End of Act I, Lock In, Plot Point #1
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint
  • Second Pinch Point
  • End of Act II, Cave Moment/All Is Lost, Plot Point #2
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution

I ALSO use Shawn Coyne’s Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff method, with each of those broken down into what he calls the 5 commandments of Inciting Incident, Complication, Crisis, Climax, Resolution. Yes, this is redundant. And, it helps me cross-check and make sure I’m not only building the plot across the entire story, but within each act (and ultimately each scene as well).

7. Write out your Revision To Do list.

Using your macro map of what you want to create, compare it to what you have cataloged. Very quickly you’ll discover missing scenes and also where you’re already on the mark.

Use this process to create your Revision To Do list (another tidbit from Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k book) so you’re clear on the steps you’re going to take to revise.

At this stage, you’re still looking at the big stuff rather than the fine details of individual scenes.

For example, you’ll be identifying which scenes to cut, which scenes to add, what character or plot changes you’ll need to make, etc.

(Tip: Once I’m doing this work, in addition to saving a copy of my intuitive draft, I also I make a “compost” folder in Scrivener for scenes and raw material I cut so I can refer back to them easily retrieve them to pull back into my new draft. Alternatively you can use “snapshots” in Scrivener to help with this.)

8. Decide what you’ll tackle first.

Once you have your Revision To Do list, put it in order.

I recommend starting with the macro (biggest level) and then working your way down to the smaller stuff with your revision work.

If you’re restructuring the story, start there. You might begin by deleting all the scenes you don’t need any more (make a backup of the intuitive draft first) and insert placeholders for the new scenes, for example.

If you’re changing specific characters, devise a strategy for tracking and changing their development through the story. 

9. Plan a timeline for your revision, if you like.

Optionally, you may want to plan a timeline for your revision.

This is usually most relevant when you a) have a deadline by which you either have to or want to finish by, and b) when you actually know what your writing pace is.

If you were tracking your time during NaNoWriMo, you probably have a sense of how much time it took you each day to hit your 1,667 word count. And if you know you have approximately, say, 20,000 additional new words to write for new scenes, based on your revision plan, you’ll know approximately how much writing time you’ll need.

On the other hand, you won’t necessarily know how long it will take you to take each revision step, so you’ll want to give yourself time and space to figure that out as you go along. Be aware that you’ll be highly likely to stumble across various “black hole” sections in your work, as one of our Circle members calls them, where you’ll end up spending many times longer than you expected, sorting them out. This is normal. :) 

10. Work with the smallest chunks possible.

Now that you’ve got your Revision To Do list and your timeline, you have a plan.

But you may still have a case of the heebie-jeebies facing all that work.

The trick here is to pick out the small chunks possible to work on. 

Even the macro work can be broken into smaller actions, such as backing up the first draft (I make a duplicate of my entire draft in Scrivener and label it 1.0, then label the new draft my 1.1 or 2.0 draft, depending on where I feel like I am in the process), cutting unneeded scenes from the first draft, putting in placeholders for the new scenes. Those are each small steps that can be taken, one by one.

If those are too big, make them smaller, e.g. cutting unneeded scenes from first act, or first section of the first act, for example.

The idea here is to craft your overall plan, and then forget about it while you focus on these day-to-day small steps. I call this willful blindness, and it’s a lifesaver when dealing with a major revision. Sure, check in with the bigger plan from time to time to make sure you’re on track, but in general, keep your focus on taking the smaller steps each day.

11. Get support.

Facing a rewrite can be daunting. (It’s even harder when it’s your fifth or seventh major revision.) I highly recommend getting a support system in place for yourself.

This is part of what we do in the Circle. You can also work one-on-one with a coach, join a critique or writer’s group, or set up a buddy system where you’re supporting a fellow writer and vice versa.

The important thing to have in place, in my opinion, is not just the practical support for staying accountable for doing the work of your writing, but also for the emotional journey. There are a lot of ups and downs and dark nights of the soul with rewriting, and you’ll not want to be alone for those.  So do establish a support system for yourself. 

I wish you all the best with your revising!

Get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

Join the Called to Write Coaching Circle for the upcoming session starting on January 29th and save up to 32% depending on the package you choose. Registration closes Thursday, January 25th at Midnight Pacific Time.

Find out more and register here: http://justdothewriting.com

 

 

Make This Your Year to WriteMake This Your Year to Write

Jenna’s Visioning & Goal Setting Guidebook and Journal Prompts are now on sale!

Find out more and pick up your copy for only $17 here: 
https://calledtowrite.com/vision

 

* This is an affiliate link, which means Called to Write receives a small commission from any purchases you make using this link, and which we deeply appreciate.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Join us for a free New Year’s Day Writing Sprint

Some people believe how you spend the first day of the year influences how you will spend the rest of the year. Let’s start off the new year “write”!
 
Called to Write is hosting a free New Year’s day writing sprint. Our Writer’s Coaching Circle runs online writing sprints at 9 a.m. Pacific Time on weekdays and on the first day of the year, we’re inviting everyone to join us! This is a terrific way to start off the new year WRITING.
 

Author Insights: On Publishing Personal Essays with Janis Brams

It’s time for another installment of our “Author Insights” series. In this series, I’m introducing you to writers who’ve taken their writing all the way to the finish line of publication, and they share their “lessons learned” with you. There’s nothing quite like learning from a writer who has made to the other side.

Meet Janis Brams, personal essayist and author of The Event

I’m so happy to introduce you to Janis Brams. Janis has been a member of my online Called to Write Coaching Circle since the beginning of 2014, and is a personal essay writer. Over the years of working together through the Circle, I’ve been delighted to watch Janis develop a number of personal essays and pursue getting them published. While she’d had already had pieces published in an anthology and elsewhere, this was a big win for her for a number of reasons, including how unexpectedly satisfying it was for her to be published online.

I asked Janis to share her insights about her writing process and having this essay published. 

Janis Brams on Publishing Personal Essays

Janis Brams

Sometimes we wake up to find our lives racing down a path we haven’t chosen. In March 2014, I opened my eyes to discover Michael, my husband, sitting on our bed unable to speak. The challenges that ensued became the topic for a personal essay I wrote, called, “The Event: Two Perspectives.”

Through the process of writing, revising over time, and finally publishing the essay in July 2017, I learned a number of valuable lessons.

1. Allow time to walk away from emotionally charged writing before declaring it ready for others to see.

I began “The Event: Two Perspectives” soon after my husband suffered his stroke. In many ways, I think the writing process served as therapy, a way to work through my doubts and fears. Although I wrote a number of drafts before declaring the piece “ready-to-go,” I hadn’t allowed enough time to pass between our initial trauma and my decision to submit my essay for publication. After several rejections, I was discouraged and shelved my story until I felt better equipped to deal with such challenging subject matter.

2. Focus on the writing process and not how others might react when reading what you’ve written.

After a year passed, I revisited my essay. At the time, even the title was different, “Perimeters of Love.” I remember thinking the title didn’t work, and I’d included too many paragraphs explaining what I felt instead of showing readers. I also decided I’d provided unnecessary back-story, sharing information that didn’t contribute to the narrative.

I made revisions and then posted the new draft while participating in an online class. After receiving comments on the draft, I made more changes and continued to do so until I felt at peace with what I’d written. Still, I made no move to submit my new “final” draft; something seemed to be missing.

While workshopping my piece, I posted about my progress in the Circle and discussed my hesitancy to submit my latest effort. The members in my group and Jenna, during conference calls, supported my decision to sit with my revised draft longer.

At some point, I recognized that an important part of the story was missing, Michael’s perspective. After all, he’d been impacted most. If I was to share an authentic retelling, we both needed to be heard. Michael agreed to an interview, and I used what he shared to write the second part of my essay, his “Silent Monologue.”

3. Researching where to submit a piece takes a lot of time and emotional energy.

Having researched journals I thought were appropriate venues for this piece once, I was reluctant to initiate that process again. I was working on other stories and felt this was not a good time to move my focus from writing to submitting.

Someone in the Circle mentioned Writer’s Relief, a service that researches venue options for authors and even helps to polish query letters. I decided to pay for their expertise. While I experienced a few glitches, I found them to be responsive when I had questions and easy to work with. They read my essay, sent me a list of twenty-five journals they felt were a good fit along with names of editors, their submission requirements, and other pertinent information.

While I still had to send out my piece, I felt I was using my time wisely, targeting journals that might be better alternatives for my writing.

4. Navigating the acceptance/rejection process presents its own challenges.

After skimming submission guidelines for the journals suggested by Writer’s Relief, I found twenty-two to pursue. I earmarked several days to spend submitting and then waited to see what would happen.

The first seven responses were rejections, but two were what I call “good rejections.” Those journals took time to critique my piece and encouraged me to submit to them again. The editors explained, however, that they disagreed with my decision to include Michael’s perspective and would not be publishing this piece.

I began to question my vision. I shared my doubts with Jenna and my group members in the Circle. They reminded me that this story was mine and suggested that I give myself more time before making any changes. In the end, “The Event: Two Perspectives” found a home. I won’t ever forget how thrilled I was to read “Congratulations” in their email’s first line rather than “I’m sorry.”

Thinking back, next time I submit a story, I may prioritize the list of venues and then stagger my submissions. That way, I’ll have better control over where my work is published.

5. Publishing online was uniquely satisfying.

While I had published in print before, this was my first piece published online. Although having a magazine or journal to hold in my hand was exciting, I realized that more people read my online piece because it was more readily available. All a reader had to do was access the site, and my article appeared. Since my goal for a published piece was to reach as many readers as possible, the online venue was a great option.

6. The replies and comments made in response to my piece reaffirmed my feeling that others would find the topic compelling and that sharing our story was a worthwhile undertaking.

While not everybody who responded to The Event had the same reaction, they felt the need to share what they thought. Most said the topic was difficult for them but appreciated making the journey with Michael and me.

Overall, it was gratifying to hear from readers and have an exchange with them. I was amazed at how many old friends learned about my essay through social media and reached out to share their responses. It was a moving and validating experience because, finally, friends and family who knew I wrote had an opportunity to read something that was mine.

Read “The Event: Two Perspectives”

“The Event: Two Perspectives” is a personal essay written in the aftermath of Janis’s husband Michael’s stroke. The story centers on the first few hours of his “event,” from the time he realizes what is happening to the moment he is airlifted to a University hospital center. The piece is told in two perspectives, Janis’s in the first section, titled “The Storm,” and Michael’s in the second half, called “Silent Monologue.”
 

About Janis

Janis BramsJanis Brams has been published in the High Desert California Writers Club Anthology, The California Writers Club Literary Review, Plymouth Writers Group, and a community magazine entitled View.

Janis holds two master’s degrees, one in Education from the University of Pennsylvania and one in Writing Composition from CSU San Bernardino.

Janis is an educator, having taught students of all ages for over 25 years. Now retired, she enjoys running, yoga, hiking, travel, spending time with her grandkids, and cooking. She founded a book club in her community that has been meeting for over forty years.

Find Janis’s other work here:

* This is an affiliate link, which means Called to Write receives a small commission from any purchases you make using this link, and which we deeply appreciate.
Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals, Part IV: Set Yourself Up for Success

Welcome back for the fourth (and final) post of my series, (You Can Still!) Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals. 

In my prior posts I wrote about Clearing the Decks for your writing, Reverse-Engineering & Revising Your Writing Goals, and Boosting Your Writing Progress (Or, How to Design a Writing Intensive). Today I’m writing about setting yourself up for success.

Part IV: Setting Yourself Up for Success

When you’re aiming to set yourself up for success with an intensive writing effort, there are a number of things to keep in mind. I discussed some of these in the free clear the decks teleclass (which you can still listen to, if you’re interested), but they are worth reiterating in this context as well, along with some other keys to making your writing work.

  1. Have a Clear Writing Goal and Plan. We’ve already discussed this in prior posts in more detail, but having a crystal clear writing goal and a plan to meet it are a critical part of setting yourself up for success. You can’t “succeed” if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. This is one of those “so simple it seems obvious” things but you’d be amazed at how often we skip this step in our thinking and lives… and our writing.
  2. Manage Your Mindset & Expectations. You will also want manage your mindset when designing for success. This came up on our goal setting call yesterday for the Deep Dive. If we set goals, and don’t meet them, we worry we will then feel disappointed or feel we have “failed.” This can be a deterrent to setting goals in the first place. So you’ll want to be mindful of striking a balance between an inspiring goal that stretches you just outside your comfort zone and is achievable, but doesn’t scare the pants off you, make you want to stop before you even start, or fear feeling wretched if you don’t make it.
  3. Do Your Best Dance. When you embark on an endeavor like this, you will want to give it your very best shot so you can feel proud of yourself at the end, no matter what happens. Play full out and have fun, celebrate the ups and downs as being part of the process, and make sure to get a high-five at the end.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. When you’re a writer, sleep is not a luxury, it’s a requirement. One of the biggest things I work on with writers in my 1:1 coaching sessions is helping them set up a realistic writing schedule that includes getting enough sleep.

    This often means going to bed early enough in order to be able to write early in the morning, or get through a work day and then have the reserves to write in the evening. Sleep has a big impact on your decision making abilities and your fortitude in sticking with your plans, so when you mess with sleep, your resistance is likely to be higher and your commitment to your writing is one of the first things to falter. So make sure you get enough sleep. :) It’s one of the simplest things you can do to support your writing habit.

  5. Make Smart Choices and Eliminate Distractions. In order to free up time for writing (and getting enough sleep), you’ll need to make some super smart choices. You’ll probably have to stop staying up late, surfing the internet, playing Candy Crush, watching Netflix, reading your email, or whatever else you’re doing that eats time.

    You don’t have to stop doing these things, necessarily, but you can turn them into rewards for doing your writing. Just keep them corralled into an appropriate amount of time so you are putting your writing first and reserving the energy you need for writing. Oftentimes we do these things to “recharge” our energy, but it is worth checking in with yourself to see if they are actually recharging, especially past a certain amount of time spent.

  6. Take Care of Your Physical Body. When we write, we’re sitting for long periods of time. We have to take care of our bodies with stretching and exercise. I’m a fan of Pilates and yoga, myself, as well as eating lower carb, especially at lunch time, so I don’t zone out in the afternoons. I also make a point to drink plenty of water and other non-sugar beverages like tea and sparkling water. Think about what keeps you functioning optimally and be sure to put that in place alongside your writing time.
  7. Set Up a Support System and Create Accountability for Yourself. Embarking on a focused writing intensive is highly likely to trigger uncomfortable feelings. You’re taking a big step closer to reaching your overall goal of being a published writer or produced screenwriter, after all. That can trigger a cascade of doubts, fears of success and failure, and resistance. So set up a support system in advance of people you can turn to and lean on for help, if you feel yourself faltering.

    You can also create a system of accountability for yourself. This may be the same support system or it may be different. In my own case, I have outside supporters (friends and writing coaches) who are my support system, and my writing programs for accountability (the Deep Dive and the Circle). The primary distinction for me is that I tend to process challenging emotions with my supporters, while I rely the accountability for helping me stay on track and true to myself with my goals. The important consideration when setting up accountability is to have clearly named your goal and timeline so you feel that sense of internal responsibility to follow through.  

  8. Set Daily Goals to Support Your Overall Goals. While you’re working on meeting your larger writing goals, you’ll want to have broken them down into incremental daily goals too. Do this so you’ll know when you’re done for the day, and if you’re staying on track with meeting your larger goal. During the Deep Dive, we’ll be checking in every morning with our daily writing goals and our writing intentions for the day (see #9).
  9. Set an Intention for Your Writing. Setting yourself up for success includes being intentional about your writing practice, including thinking about the energy you want to bring to your writing each day. When I’m setting my daily writing goal, I like to think about the intention or energy I’ll focus on that day. I usually write it in capital letters somewhere, like PURPOSEFUL or FOCUSED. It helps to bring my attention to my intention when I do it that way.
  10. Reflect on Your Day, Each Day. At the end of the day, notice how it all went. What went well? Where did things go astray? Is there anything you can tweak or adjust for tomorrow? In writing, self-reflection is huge. It’s not about noticing “failures,” it’s about gathering information and learning and improving … and having fun with piecing together a puzzle that works. 
  11. Reward Yourself. Plan in advance how you’ll reward yourself at the end of your hard work, each day, each week, and at the end of your writing intensive. Is there a great treat you’ll reward yourself with? Something you wouldn’t normally give yourself? This might be just the right time to get it. :) 

Got questions?

Leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer. 

And check out Part I, here: Clearing the Decks, Part II, here: Reverse Engineer and Revise Your Goals, and Part III, here: Boost Your Writing Progress (Or, How to Design a Writing Intensive).

 

Make Massive Progress on Your Book (or Script!)

The upcoming two-week Deep Dive Writing Intensive starts on Wednesday, September 20th and the last day to join us is Tuesday, September 19th. Join us and get tons of support and accountability to make deep progress on your book or script. Find out more and register here

 

Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals, Part III: How to Design a Writing Intensive

Welcome back for the third part of my series, (You Can Still!) Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals. 

In last week’s posts I wrote about Clearing the Decks for your writing and Reverse-Engineering & Revising Your Writing Goals. Today I’m writing about boosting your progress. Next time I’ll talk about Setting Yourself Up for Success, so stay tuned for that posts, coming up soon.

Part III: Design a Writing Intensive

In my last post, I wrote about reverse engineering and revising your goals. The reason to assess your 2017 writing goals now is that we’re within spitting distance of the end of the calendar year, and therefore the “deadline” for meeting 2017 goals …before the clock strikes midnight. 

Even if you’ve decided to shift your goals forward into 2018 (I’ve done this with one of my writing goals), you may still want to do an extra “push” with your writing this year to boost your progress and move the ball down the field a little farther than you might get if you a) aren’t writing as much as you’d like to, b) are catching up after a summer writing hiatus or slow-down, c) still want to try to meet your original goal, or d) need a leg up with your motivation.

Doing a focused burst of writing — a short-term writing intensive — is like doing a runner’s wind sprint, where you alternate slower, steadier walking or slow running with more intense bursts of faster running. So doing a writing intensive is about temporarily picking up your pace, then downshifting back into your regular writing habit. (You have a regular writing habit, right? If you don’t, check out my Circle for help.)

A focused stretch of writing can also serve another purpose: It allows you to go deeper into your writing. It’s about putting the focus more intently on your writing. It’s not just about writing faster or more — but it’s also about a quality of experience. Almost like carving out an at-home, immersive writing retreat for yourself. 

In the Deep Dive writing intensive I’m running (starting next week), we’re creating this deeper experience by “clearing the decks” — making space for focused, daily writing at a more intense level by eliminating obstacles and distractions. One of the things I talked about during the free clear the decks teleclass (which you can still listen to, if you’re interested), is mentally making space for your writing, including thinking about what you’re reading, watching, and thinking about during your writing intensive. 

Set Up a Writing Intensive for Yourself

Here’s a simple strategy for creating a writing intensive for yourself:

  1. Give yourself a clear time period within which you’ll complete your intensive, whether it’s a day, weekend, week, or month.
  2. Clear the decks for your writing. Eliminate distractions, set up your life so you can focus on your writing.
  3. Get crystal clear on your writing goal for your intensive.
  4. Have a plan for how you’ll complete your writing goal (more on this below).
  5. Implement your writing plan, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, step-by-step, task-by-task.
  6. Have a reward in mind you’ll receive when you finish.

Have a Plan to Meet Your Writing Goal

When you’re aiming to write efficiently, wind sprint style, you’ll make more of your writing time if you go into it knowing exactly what you’re working on. Sometimes writing is unwieldy at best, but you can still go into it with a clear intention and plan. 

The type of plan you develop will depend on where you are with your current book or script.

Here are samples of plans you could create for your writing intensive. The idea with all these plans is to give you a clear list of tasks to work through, one by one, so you can stay focused and efficient during your intensive rather than feeling overwhelmed, spinning in circles, or getting lost along the way.

  1. Story Development Intensive. If you’re developing a new story, you can create a list of items you want to have answered before you start writing, so you can be crystal clear on your work plan (and so you’ll know when you’re done!). For example, you may want to have your plot points identified, your premise line written, your character profiles developed, and a scene-by-scene outline created, among other things. Here’s my “Must Have” list before writing pages.
  2. New Writing Intensive. If you’re ready to start writing pages, you’ll hopefully already have your own list of story development items complete and ready to go so you can just jump straight into writing pages. If you don’t yet have your story developed, you could go back to the Story Development Intensive, and make your writing intensive about doing that work, or perhaps you prefer to just go for the “pantser” approach and write an intuitive stream-of-consciousness draft. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, and many writers swear by it. I would be remiss in not saying, though, that it can create one of the biggest challenges I see for writers who then have a potentially massive, disjointed draft they then have to face revising and editing.
  3. Organization Intensive. Perhaps you’re at a different stage of work — the organization stage. Many writers spend years drafting various versions and pieces of a manuscript and then find themselves overwhelmed with all the parts and sections. If you’re in this boat, you’ll want to make a plan for how you’ll address getting it organized. I recommend you start by cataloguing what you have and where it’s located, along with a single sentence summarizing each section. While you’re at it, you may want to develop a numbering or naming scheme for your digital and paper files. Once you know where everything is, and what it is, you can move into developing a plan for adding additional writing or moving into the revision stage if you have everything you need (writing additional scenes or chapters can be a natural part of a revision plan, after all). Organizing is a great thing to tackle in an intensive because it’s one of those onerous tasks often best handled in a big burst of work.
  4. Story Analysis Intensive. If you’re at the stage where you have a draft, but you’re not ready to begin revising because you know your story needs more in-depth work, you may want to check out Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know * as a process for analyzing your work. Tackling this level of work could potentially become the entirety of what you do for a writing intensive, depending on how much time you have set aside, or it could be the first stages of a revision intensive.
  5. Revision Intensive. If you’re revising, I strongly recommend having a revision plan in place before you begin. You could use a Story Grid plan, or use a different approach. I’m a fan of Rachel Aaron’s revision approach in her book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love,* where she has you make a to-do list, a reverse outline, and a timeline for your story so you can more efficiently dip in and out of your story to make corrections and revisions. It’s also worth prioritizing your to-do list from largest to smallest changes, so you’re not undoing work if you suddenly cut a large swath of text.  
  6. Polishing Intensive. If you’re at the final stage, you can do a polishing intensive to spine and proofread your final draft. This may involve first doing a pass through the manuscript to make small changes throughout the text, then printing and proofreading the draft, then making the changes in the final version.

In my own case, I’m currently working on revising pages for the screenplay I’m working on. Since it’s a fairly major revision, the steps I’ve taken to get to this stage include:

  • Meeting with the producer I’m working with and getting his feedback and notes on the prior draft.
  • Summarizing our notes so I could see what needed to be changed and what would stay the same.
  • Reverse outlining the prior draft.
  • Reworking the GMC for the characters.
  • Reworking my Story Grid Foolscap for the overall story (and all of the many things that entails).
  • Reworking the plot points and handling the ripple-effect changes they created.
  • Creating a new scene-by-scene outline for the story, including a scene event, goal, motivation, and conflict for each scene. 
  • Collecting all the scenes from the prior draft that are rework-able and adding them into my new draft in Scrivener.
  • Starting to rewrite those existing scenes and write new scenes as I move through the script — and this is what I’ll be continuing to do before and during the Deep Dive.

Got questions? Comments?

Leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond. :) 

And check out Part I, here: Clearing the Decks, Part II, here: Reverse Engineer and Revise Your Goals, and Part IV, here: Setting Yourself Up For Success.

 

Make Massive Progress on Your Book (or Script!)

The upcoming two-week Deep Dive Writing Intensive starts soon. Join us and get tons of support and accountability to make deep progress on your book or script. Find out more and register here

 

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