Systems and Focus and Goals, Oh My! … Plus the 3 Necessary Ingredients to Finish a Book or Script

I recently read a blog post by James Clear that suggested we forget about setting goals and focus on systems instead. I appreciated his points about how goal-focused thinking can get us into trouble because it can: 1) keep us dissatisfied with the present moment, 2) cause trouble with long-term progress, and 3) create a sense of control we might not actually have. I agree with all of those points.

But I disliked the implication that therefore goals should be forgotten. Like anything else, they are one possible tool to help us create outcomes that we want, and like any other tool, they need to be used wisely. At the end of the article he even says, "None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress."

So despite the fact that it seems that James and I are in agreement about the value of both goals and systems, since there's usually a lot of debate around this time of year about whether or not goals or resolutions are "right," I thought I'd share some of what I've learned from working with hundreds of writers on goal-setting and creating systems to help them reach those goals (writing habits).

The truth is that goals and systems can work hand-in-hand quite beautifully. Here are eight thoughts about goals, systems, focus, and finishing:

  1. There's no one right way to do anything. We each have to find what works for us individually. My way of setting goals might not work for you. Your way might not work for me. You don't even have to set goals if you don't want to. But what I've seen is that when we focus on something specific (a goal) and pursue it, we are much more likely to achieve the outcome we're looking for than by hoping it will happen. 
  2. Systems, habits, and routines alone can get us somewhere, but we can get lost along the way when we use them without an intended outcome. I love, love, love systems. And systems in and of themselves are brilliant solutions for consistently problematic issues, like dishes stacking up in the sink and feeling overwhelmed by them (run the dishwasher every night without fail), or laundry taking up writing time or becoming a magnet for resistance (schedule a time for laundry outside your writing schedule and stick to it), or putting off paying your bills (create a routine for how and when you write checks).

    But if you're attempting to use a system, routine, or habit to achieve a long-term outcome, like writing a book, you actually have to have an outcome in mind in order to reach it, aka a "goal." You can't just write every day and hope it will happen (though it may eventually, assuming you keep working on the same thing without fail, which perhaps sounds obvious but can be a big assumption in the world of project-hopping writerly types). I've seen too many writers get lost in the weeds of writing without writing toward an end, and lose track of what they set out to do in the first place. Even James actually had an outcome in mind for the system he was using (writing and publishing blog posts twice a week).
  3. Goals help us focus our efforts. Honestly, there is so much going on in our lives, that unless we are super clear about what we are trying to accomplish, it's easy to get pulled off track. That writing habit can become a pat on the head ("See, I did my writing today!") unless it is focused. Pick something to finish. Finish it. Pick something else. Finish that. Repeat. Setting a goal keeps your eye on the prize.
  4. Goals set in a vacuum won't get us very far either. Having stated the importance of goals, I see many writers creating unrealistic goals ("A page a day!" ... but what happens when you're in revisions, are you still going to write a page a day in addition to revising?) or using magical thinking to neglect the reality of their daily lives and ending up frustrated at year's end because they don't achieve their goals. Or even worse, they set goals to match what other people are doing, whether or not that's achievable in their lives ("My friends are all writing six scripts a year, so I should be able to do that too, right? Never mind that they don't have kids or that their spouses are independently wealthy."). We have to set goals that work within the context of our lives, even when we're setting stretch goals for ourselves. 
  5. Goals without systems are likely to fail. Goals and systems work hand-in-hand. Want to finish a book, a good one? You can't write it without a writing routine or practice. You have to put in the time, show up, and do the work. It won't happen on its own, and it probably won't happen well if you're binge-writing it at the last possible minute. (And even if it does, the cost on your health, well-being, and future writing energy may be higher than you like.)
  6. Use systems and milestones to counteract flagging motivation on long-range goals. When we set very long-term goals (such as year-long goals), they can feel so far away that we have a hard time staying motivated and engaged with them. Having a writing system helps us manage that sense of disconnection from our distant goals, particularly when we combine it with milestone goals. A system helps us keep writing -- it's a practice we're accustomed to engaging in every day -- so we can't help moving the project forward, as long as we don't stray to another. We can also hugely benefit from setting shorter term goals (one to three-month goals) that are completion milestones along the way to the finish line. That ultimate finish line can feel really far away, so we can give ourselves something to work the system with in the meantime.
  7. Taking stock periodically helps maintain momentum. Post your goals where you can see them, check in with them on a regular basis, and take stock of what you've accomplished so far (add up ALL THE THINGS, even if they seem small) to help you see your progress and stay motivated to continue.
  8. Progress without a finished product isn't particularly satisfying. Yes, as writers we have to be in love with the process and the practice of writing. Yes, we may never be published or produced. There are no guarantees. Yes, yes, yes. But we can still take our books and scripts to their completion points to the best of our abilities and ship them out into the world, and move on to the next project. We can use goals to focus our efforts so we get to the finish line. Working a system and being productive without focusing on an outcome or a finish line can become an endless loop that doesn't feel satisfying otherwise. We have to have both.

The 3 Necessary Ingredients to Finish a Book or Script

From what I've seen, there are three necessary ingredients to finishing a book or a script:

  1. A specific writing project to work on. Preferably just one long-form project. I rarely see writers completing more than one project at a time successfully. Maybe the true pros can do it. Maybe. My recommendation: Pick one project at a time. And finish it. Then do the next one.
  2. A writing system. You can also call this a writing habit, practice, or routine. It means showing up daily or near daily to write. This is what we do in my Circle.
  3. A goal for completion. Yes, set a goal. I'm a fan of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resonant, Time-Bound) because they help us double-check to make sure we're being specific enough about the who, what, where, why, and how. Set a goal for when you'll complete your book or script, and while you're at it, map out the timeline too. 

So put those systems and goals to work, and make your writing happen. I'll be right there with you.

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In other news, Make 2017 Your Year To Write is available in the shop and on sale through January 31. Check it out here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/2017-vision.

 

 

3 Tips for Staying Energized When Writing a Book (or Script!)

One of the biggest challenges I've seen for writers working on long-form writing projects (like books and scripts) is losing heart along the way, mostly because we get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work left to do.

It's not easy to keep our energy mustered toward completion when we've got pages and pages more to write... or harder, pages and pages left to revise (and potentially additional revisions left to go).

Here are three tips designed to help you keep your spirits up as you battle the forces of writing resistance:

Tip #1: Create a Plan

For every stage of your writing, make a plan for it. A plan for the outline, a plan for the first draft, a plan for the revision. For example, if you're writing the first draft, identify the milestones you're aiming to hit, like scenes from an outline or turning points from a beat sheet. Create a timeline for those milestones so you know if you're on track, and if you need to make any adjustments as you're moving through the project.

Even if you're a total pantser, you can still make some estimates for word counts, major turning points, or numbers of chapters.

Make your milestones big enough to be inspiring but not so big that they're overwhelming. I love to use 15-page chunks of a script as a milestone, usually the number of pages between each major script turning point because I know approximately how long it takes me to write or revise a section of that length. (You can see me putting a simple form of this in action here.)

Tip#2: Track Your Work

Once you have your plan and start implementing it, make a point to track your work so you can see how your plan is progressing. I like to use spreadsheets for tracking my writing (there's one in my Ultimate Writer's Toolkit if you want a jump-start with your own tracking).

The core idea is this: Track your time and your word or page counts so you can SEE the progress happening. It's one of the best antidotes I know for project overwhelm. There's nothing quite like seeing your counts climb and knowing you're making progress to help you focus on the progress you are making, as opposed to the work you have yet to do. And this is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers.

We tend to be an intuitive, conceptual bunch (at least the crowd I hang out with) so we can easily see the final, finished product in our minds' eyes -- and then despair when we see how far it is from here to there. But when we learn to use baby steps, and track those steps, we shift our focus from what's yet not done to what is already done, and it's an incredible relief.

Another amazing benefit of tracking your work is being able to see how long each stage and type of work typically takes you, and then you can project approximately how long it'll take to hit each milestone. Such as, how long it takes you to write 15 script pages or 2,000 words in your novel. Or much writing you can do in 60 minutes. Or how long it typically takes you to outline. Knowing your own innate pacing is a big confidence booster, and helps you build trust with yourself as a writer and believe in your ability to complete a project. Knowledge is power.

Plus, when you track your work you'll have the evidence you need to help you stay on track with your writer's schedule. If you've set aside 60 minutes a day for writing, and see every day you're adding 750 words to your manuscript, you'll be more motivated to keep your next writing appointment with yourself because you know in your bones those minutes count.

Tip #3: Keep Your Head Down

And at the same time, let tracking your work be enough of the big picture. Learn to keep your head down and focused on the work at hand rather than on the overall timeline.

Here's what I mean by "keep your head down." Once upon a time, I worked as an intern doing digital 3-D modeling (I made digital houses for virtual architectural walkthroughs and elephants for an animated dictionary, super fun). After I went back to grad school, my boss told me about someone they'd hired. "She keeps her head down," he said.

I wondered what he meant, and he explained that she focused well on doing the work that was in front of her, without looking up and around, chatting, or getting distracted. It clicked for me. And I find that the more I "keep my head down," once I've established the plan for my work, and just do said work, the better off I am.

As a general rule, the time to question and design the plan is not in the middle of implementing the plan, unless something has gone horribly wrong and a course correction is required. But if things are moving forward and no major trains have gone off the rails, stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other and logging the time and tackling the items on the writing to do list.

It's when we stop and question that we flounder. I've seen more than a few writers dropping in and out of the game for reasons like this, and it's just not worth it. The only way out is through. Don't spin your wheels asking "Why is it taking so long?"Just do the work. 

Plan the Work and Work the Plan -- And Track It!

So if you're looking for ways to keep your energy up while writing your epic book or script, remember: Plan the work and work the plan -- and track it along the way. You'll be amazed at how motivating it is to see your body of work building and building over time.

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The Magic of Creating a Writer’s Schedule

Many people think writing is something that happens when we're inspired -- struck by a lightning bolt of ideas, if you will. That when we're inspired we just naturally "find" time to write.

And in a perfect world, that'd be true. (And in a perfect world we'd all have mentors and patrons supporting us to fulfill our creative callings!)

The truth is though, most of us are busy with day jobs, families, and other commitments in addition to our writing, so we have to take a different approach.

Creating Your Writer's Schedule Is About Intentionally Making Time to Write

We don't find time to write. We make time to write.

And making time to write requires being intentional. Writing doesn't "just happen."

When a writer comes to me with a book or script to finish, first I find out about their deadline, and whether it's a self-created deadline or an industry deadline. Then I ask about when they have time write.

Sometimes they have answers, sometimes they don't. Usually it's in the form of some general notions about when they could write or how and when they are already writing (if they are), which is a terrific place to start.

From there I ask a lot of questions about their ideal writing times, other habits, routines, and obligations and we co-create a weekly Target Writing Schedule. We use a weekly schedule because it's a repeatable model writers can carry forward with them throughout the whole year, adjusting as needed when major schedule changes or variations occur. (My Ultimate Writer's Toolkit includes a simple step-by-step process to walk you through creating your personal Ideal Writing Schedule and Target Writing Schedule.)

We call it a target schedule because we know that sometimes life goes awry and we don't hit our targets, but this way we know what to do when that happens -- just flow back into the plan the next day or at the first available opportunity. It's like having a regular work schedule. You get sick and miss a day, and then go right back to work when you get better.

The Magic Happens When You Make a Writer's Schedule

So much magic happens when you make your writer's schedule:

  • You become more intentional about writing, and more aware of any choices you make that stop you from writing.
  • You make writing a priority in your life, and validate that priority as you put it into action.
  • You have an easier time keeping writing appointments with yourself when they're planned into your day.
  • You raise the bar on the professionalism you're bringing to your writing. There's a chasm between hoping to write and scheduling writing, and putting it on your calendar helps you bridge that gap. It's about turning pro.
  • You become far more likely to protect your writing time from scheduling other meetings or events during those time slots.
  • You create a container for your writing, so when you have a project you want to complete, you know just how and when you'll do it.
  • You become much more likely to stay on track with finishing your project without getting burnt out, or ending up in binge-writing mode struggling to meet a deadline at the last minute. 
  • You know when and how to reboot yourself if you get off track one day -- you go back to the schedule the next day.

If you're looking ahead to writing seriously in 2017, start by setting up your writer's schedule, so you'll be ready to hit the ground running when the clock turns. 

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Why I Don’t Recommend Cramming 15 Minutes of Writing In While You’re Waiting In Line or For Appointments

There's this idea floating around that the way to find time to write is to cram writing time into every square inch of your life. Just write while you're waiting for your dentist appointment! Just write while you're standing in line at the grocery store!

I don't think that's sound advice.

The thing is, we already lead crazy, busy lives. Most of us have plates filled to overflowing as it stands, and cramming writing into every tiny pocket of time feels like it will be the thing that finally breaks the dam.

Writing like a maniac looks like a recipe for burnout and stress to me, rather than a graceful fulfilling of one's true calling. I don't know where we got this idea that productivity and just doing more are the same thing. Many proponents of the just find 15-minutes method of writing seem to have bought into this idea.

Having said that, I do advocate writing in 15-minute (or smaller) blocks of time in the following circumstances:

  1. When that's all the time you actually, truly have to write. Look, I'm a writer, a mom, and a business owner, I get it. There really is only so much time to go around. It's okay with me if you say, I have to write, this is what I have, so I'm going to make the most of it. But, and this is important: Ideally, you'll do it in a scheduled, planned part of your day, not as something you race to cram in during a stolen moment somewhere. I wrote a script in 15-minute increments of time, and I've got two writers in my Called to Write Coaching Circle who recently finished projects in 15-minute chunks: one mom who wrote her first novel and the other a coach who wrote her parenting book. It's a perfectly valid way to write!
  2. When you're building a writing habit. When you're first setting out to build a writing habit, it pays to start small. Most of us with big dreams to write have commensurately-sized fears that stop us in our tracks and have us come up with all kinds of excuses not to write. Writing in small increments of time helps us sneak past the fear, kick the excuses to the curb, and get our butts in our writing chairs. There's nothing that says you have STICK WITH 15-minute increments of writing time in the long term, it's perfectly fine to build up to more once you've increased your tolerance for writing (in other words, once the blue meanies stop screaming quite so loudly in your head). Having said that, again, see #1. If that's what you've got, work it, baby.
  3. When you're re-building a writing habit. If you've fallen off the writing wagon, for whatever reason (travel, illness, loss, etc.), you can reboot yourself with a 15-minute writing sprint. If I ever find myself off track with my writing, I usually say something to myself like, "I can at least write for just 15 minutes." And then I set my timer, and I'm off. Note that I usually don't write past the 15-minute mark on a reboot day but just use that to get myself into motion again. I'll often write longer the next day and build back up from there. (The reason not to go past the goal is that you end on a high note and in a positive place for the next day.)
  4. When you actually feel like writing while you're waiting for something. Rather than feeling like you "should" be writing at every moment, notice when you want to be writing. Lately, as a tired mom of a now 23-month-old toddler, sitting and staring at nothing while waiting in the doctor's office is a luxury I'm reluctant to give up for just about anything. But pre-baby #2, I happily wrote while hanging out waiting for appointments because I wanted to. In other words, do it if you want to, not because you "should."

Your writing is your biggest dream. Treat that dream with reverence.

Rather than squeezing writing into the interstices of your life, take a look at its importance to you and give it a proper place in your day. This might mean taking a good hard look at the way you're prioritizing your time and what you're choosing to do with it instead of writing, and it might mean getting creative about how you're scheduling yourself, but I'd much rather see you having moments to breathe AND moments to write.

Let me know what you think.

Coming Up


Coaching CircleThe May session of the Called to Write Coaching Circle starts on Monday, April 25th and the last day to register and join us is Thursday, April 21 by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com.

  

fittingwritingintoyourlifeI'm leading a one-week intensive called "Fitting Writing Into Your Life: Becoming a Productive Screenwriter" at Screenwriter's University starting on April 28th and running for 7 days. It's a three-part online recorded video presentation from me and plus online discussions, interaction, and support from me. Find out more and register here. *

 

 

* This is an affiliate link, which means I'll earn an extra commission in addition to my teacher's pay, if you register through me.

 

 

Free teleclass: Setting Motivating Writing Goals & Intentions

The fourth and final class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and the recording is now available! 

If you missed the series, you can still sign up to get the recordings, which will only be available for another week, through Friday, April 8. You'll get instant access to the recording archives when you register.

Here's what we've covered in the class series:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Part III: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

  • The trick to managing the emotional ups and downs of a long-form writing project.
  • Simple but important ways to take care of your physical body AND your creative mind.
  • 3 energy boosting strategies.
  • 3 nifty techniques to balance and recharge your energy.
  • 5 creative recovery skills for whenever (or if ever!) you get off track.

Part IV: Setting Motivating Writing Goals & Intentions

  • 5 ways to set yourself up for success with your goals in advance.
  • Smart goal setting that works.
  • Reverse engineering your writing timelines.
  • The power of a plan for revisions.
  • Using intentions to supercharge your writing sessions.
  • How to set motivating rewards and celebrations.
  • BONUS: Managing distractions.

I've been getting terrific feedback from the writers who have participated and I'd love to have you take advantage of this opportunity too. You'll find that the series is packed with practical tools and strategies you can put into place right away to help you boost your productivity as a writer.

 

Get the Recordings Here

  

Free Teleclass: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

The third class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and the recording is now available! We had some technical line challenges so I rerecorded the call and the fresh, much better quality recording is now available. It's super exciting to see our list of registered participants continue to grow -- we're up to almost 120 now.

In case you've missed the first three classes, you can still sign up for the four-part series (we're continuing tomorrow with Part IV on Tuesday, March 24 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time). The important thing to know is that each class stands on its own, so it's perfectly okay to jump in at any point in the series.

You'll get instant access to the recording archives when you register and you'll also get the call-in information for the next class. 

Here's what we've covered in the classes so far:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Part III: Keeping Your Creative Energy Vibrant for Optimal Writing Productivity

  • The trick to managing the emotional ups and downs of a long-form writing project
  • Simple but important ways to take care of your physical body AND your creative mind
  • 3 energy boosting strategies
  • 3 nifty techniques to balance and recharge your energy
  • 5 creative recovery skills for whenever (or if ever!) you get off track.

Each of the first two recordings are 60 minutes each and include 15 minutes of Q&A time at the end of the classes. The recording for the third class does not include the Q&A time since it's a do-over recording.

TOMORROW, Thursday, March 24, for Part IV, we'll be covering Setting Motivating Writing Goals and Intentions, plus I'm adding a bonus section on managing distractions.

Join us!

Register for the Series & Get the Recordings Here

 

And don't miss our New Member Special!

New Member Special 

Free Class: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

The second class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and we had a terrific time! With over 110 writers now signed up for the program, I've loved getting to work with the writers who've been able to be there live so far and I know more will be listening to the recordings.

In case you've missed the first two classes, you can still sign up for the four-part series (we're continuing next week with Part III on Tuesday, March 22 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time).

You'll get instant access to the recording archives when you register and you'll also get the call-in information for the next class. 

Here's what we covered in the first two classes:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Both recordings are 60 minutes each and include 15 minutes of Q&A time at the end of the classes.

Next Tuesday, March 22, for Part III, we'll be covering Energy Strategies and Softer Skills to Keep you Operating at Peak Performance, and Recovery Skills for Whenever (or If Ever!) You Need Them.

Join us!

 

Register for the Series & Get the Recordings Here

 

 

Free Class: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

The first class in my free series, Master Your Creative Productivity, was great fun last night. With almost 100 writers signed up for the program, it was terrific to get on the line and share these tips about how to write more productively.

In case you missed the live call, you can still sign up for the four-part series (we're continuing tomorrow, Thursday, March 17 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time). You'll get instant access to the recording archives when you register and you'll also get the call-in information for the next class. 

Here's what we talked about in the first class, "Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively:"

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • Three writing productivity principles.
  • Five time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • Seven writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Tomorrow, for Part 2, we'll be covering the Anti-Creativity Cycle and how to break out of it, as well as covering other obstacles to productivity that trip us up.

Join us!

 

Register for the Series & Get the Recordings Here

 

 

Find Your Three Big Rocks

I mentioned in a recent post that I've written "in the past" about choosing your "three big rocks" for the year. Turns out "the past" was 2007 (!), so I thought it was worth sharing again. 

I believe this idea has tremendous validity in our overly busy world.

Turns out, when we focus our efforts on the important things we want to accomplish and create with our lives, we are more productive and we are happier.

The Three Big Rocks concept has been spread by Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I've heard it told a number of different ways. Here's an abridged version:

A time management expert places a large wide-mouthed jar on the table, and then puts several large rocks carefully into the jar. When the jar is packed to the top, he asks, "Is this jar full?"

Everyone watching says, "Yes."

He says, "Really?" He adds pebbles into the jar and the group watches as they work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he asks again, "Is this jar full?"

By this time, the group is skeptical. "Maybe not," they say.

"Good!" he answers. He adds sand to the jar and it fills in the spaces left between the rocks and the pebbles.

Once more, he asks, "Is this jar full?"

"No!" they shout.

Once again, he says, "Good!"

Then he takes a pitcher of water and pours it in until the jar is full to the brim.

He then looks at the group and asks, "What do you think is the point of this Illustration?"

One eager beaver raises her hand and says, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit more things in."

"No," the speaker replies, "that’s not my point. The Truth is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never get them in at all."

We have to pick out what our "Big Rocks", organize our priorities around those, and only then look at what else we want to add into the remaining interstitial spaces of our lives.

No more of this "I have to take care of [8 million small things] before I can put my attention on my writing." Trust me, it doesn't work. Where you put your attention is what you get more of. 

I've learned to put my focus on only three big rocks for any given day, and for the year as a whole as well. 

Writing, of course, is always one of my big rocks. I manage to get MOST of the little things done as well. And the rest of them? Well, they aren't usually that important.

For this year, my three big rocks are my kids, my writing, and my business.

For today, my three big rocks are working on this blog post, working on my script, and writing two testimonials for my beloved coaches.

What are yours?

Powerful questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the three most important things I want to accomplish today?
  • What are the three big things I want to create or accomplish this year?
  • What truly matters to me in terms of how I spend my time?
  • How well are my choices matching up with what matters most to me?

You might also like this article I wrote for ScriptMag on the subject of being too busy to write.

 

Happy writing!

 

 

3 antidotes for an otherwise “perfect” process

I was raised in a family where there's a right way and a wrong way, and great woe to the one who chose the wrong way. It was my early training program in perfectionism.

I learned to figure out what the right way was, and always do that. It was safer that way. And easier.

But it wasn't very creative. And it certainly didn't foster much in the way of independent thinking.

Over the years I've gotten better and better about doing things -- including writing -- even when I can do them far less than perfectly. I've learned to be willing to make mistakes, to try things, to "ship" before I'm ready, to create tons of accountability for myself so I can push through where I used to get stuck in the past, and to live more on my own creative edge.

So imagine my surprise in discovering that my own perfectionism was alive and well -- raging even -- this year.

It's an evil thing, perfectionism. So sweet at times. We'll talk about "a perfect day" with a sigh -- and we mean it, it was lovely and delicious and wonderful, everything felt just right. But how do we go from that to the paralyzed inaction of perfectionism when we can't figure out the exact right thing to write?

The insidious nature of perfectionism

For the record, perfectionism is defined as a “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” It means having such impossibly high standards that nothing can ever measure up.

Ever.

Including ourselves.

And it mucks up many aspects of our lives, including our relationships, finances, parenting, self-care, health habits, and especially our creativity. It rips holes in our self-esteem and our productivity if we let it.

Let's talk about how perfectionism works in a creative process:

  • Perfectionism triggers procrastination. If we don't know the answer in a creative project, we often stop and wait until we can figure it out (or bang our heads against the wall trying to solve it before proceeding). If it doesn't feel right it must therefore be wrong, but what could the right answer be? This can trigger a kind of obsessive procrastination that sometimes looks productive, but isn't -- researching, discussing, debating, thinking about -- instead of writing.
  • Perfectionism feels safer. If I can't get it done perfectly, then I won't do it at all. It's a very black and white, fixed mindset that doesn't allow for learning, growth, or much creativity. (Creativity is MESSY!)
  • Perfectionism leads to paralysis. If we procrastinate long enough, waiting for the right answers, we can stumble into a lasting paralysis. I don't know what to do, I can't do anything. I'm blocked! I can't figure out which way to go. I better stay right here.
  • Perfectionism keeps us from getting feedback. Perfectionists are often extremely reluctant to share our work with anyone or ask for feedback on it. We are terrified of finding out it's not good enough, not done yet, and will require more work. More work that we can hardly bear to do because it's so painstaking. What if they hate my writing? What if I'm not as good as I should be and they can tell? What if they find out that I am an impostor? Ironically, perfectionists often reject the feedback they receive as well, usually as "not good enough". 
  • Perfectionism keeps us from finishing. There's nothing like not finishing to guarantee that no one will notice that the work is less than perfect. It's much, much "safer" not to finish. It's not living up to what I imagined it would be. It just feels wrong. I'm stuck. I can't finish. I'll never finish. There's no point. But not finishing creates self-doubt and its own kind of paralysis: I must not love writing enough. I'm not a real writer. 
  • Perfectionism is an escape hatch. This is a tricky one that Corey Mandell talks about. We sometimes use perfectionism to let us off the hook. We create situations where we "don't have enough time" to get it done perfectly so we phone it in, require less of ourselves, or rush to do it all at the last minute. So when we turn in less-than-our-best work, we have an excuse for why we couldn't live up to our own impossibly high standards. 

Three antidotes for perfectionism

I've recently experienced a perfect storm of three different antidotes for perfectionism that came together in a powerful way.

Antidote #1: Think of perfectionism as just one of many ways to write

One of my mentors, Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU, has been talking about perfectionism in the Master Screenwriting Certificate program I'm taking. I've been hearing him talk about it for months, but honestly? I kept telling myself that I knew better than to fall for my own perfectionism and that I wasn't falling for it, because I was still writing.

But I was also writing more slowly than I wanted to be writing, and I was finding that I was struggling to "figure out" a lot of my story. The answers weren't coming easily, and I kept finding myself in rabbit hole after rabbit hole of confusion and overthinking.

When Hal described perfectionism as "just one of many processes" we can use as writers, I started seeing it in a new way. 

He says we have many methods to choose from when we write, and perfectionism is an excellent tool for our final, polished draft. But it is not a good tool for getting our first drafts written.

He got me thinking about how I was going about my writing process: I was going along, completing the assignments he had given us, and any time I hit a place I was confused, I would stop, and try to figure it out. Sounds pretty normal, right? But what I wasn't noticing were all the arguments I was having with myself while I was doing that, like:

  • You have to get this right or people will think you don't know what you're doing.
  • You should have gotten a science degree if you were serious about writing sci-fi.
  • It won't be real sci-fi, it'll just be a crummy space opera. (For the record I love space operas.)
  • You need to do a ton more research.
  • You've got to know exactly how this world works or it'll never make sense and the whole script will fall apart.

But after listening to Hal on the subject of perfectionism, I realized that what I was doing was trying to protect myself from failure and rejection by trying to get it done perfectly. But by doing so, I was also stopping myself from moving ahead and was falling further and further behind in class, which is not in alignment with what I actually want.

And something fell into place for me. Finally landed.

Hal has been telling us from the start of the program to give ourselves permission to write crap (I tell people this too, for goodness sakes!) and that if we don't know the answer to something, to either leave it blank or put down a guess and just move on. I made a vow to myself to do exactly that. To work with my outline and my writing process in a more experimental, exploratory way -- a different way to write -- while I'm working through this first draft.

Antidote #2: "Anything other than writing must come after writing."

Around the same time I was listening to Hal, I was also reading Chuck Wendig's latest ebook, 30 Days In the Word Mines, and stumbled onto this little gem about productivity.

"It’s very easy to do a lot of things and feel productive but, at the end, not be productive. This includes:

  • editing as you go
  • research
  • world building
  • networking/social media
  • marketing (before the book is done)
  • talking about writing
  • reading about writing

That’s not to say these are universally unproductive or unnecessary -- but really, when you’re working on a first draft, your best and strongest foot forward is: Write. Nothing else. Produce words. Jam words into sentences. Cram sentences into paragraphs. Paragraphs into chapters. Chapters into stories. Anything other than writing must come after writing." 

What if my "solutions" for my perfectionism-driven fears were manifesting as these kinds of sidetracks? What if instead I just focused on getting it down, rather than figuring it out, as Julia Cameron says?

I made another vow. No more editing. No more researching. No more looking up words in the dictionary. 

Just doing the writing.

Antidote #3: You're not allowed to hate it until it's done.

I also found myself having an illuminating inner conversation last Monday morning.

After my first two vows, I'd been happily outlining on Sunday night, moving along, Getting It Done. 

But then when I woke up on the next day, I found myself thinking, "I hate this script."

(I believe it is highly significant that I was having these thoughts while not working on the project. I find that I get into more trouble with my work when I'm not working on it than when I'm actually putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard.)

My negative thought-stream went on for a few minutes but then I caught myself, realizing that it was NOT helping me. 

So instead I decided, "I am not allowed to hate this script until it is finished. Then I can decide what I think of it. And only then."

After all, even the Pixar folks know you don't really know what you have until something is finished... and then you rewrite!

What if it's TRULY okay not to know the answers?

When this all connected, I realized that I could drastically pick up the pace of my writing if I really, truly, honestly just gave myself permission to NOT KNOW THE ANSWERS. To go with my best ideas, trust myself that I would fix it later if it didn't work, and to move on.

I found myself blazing through my outline as a result, leaving question marks, blank spots, and DKs where I was stuck. (DK = Don't Know, which is easily searchable in a draft since "DK" is an unlikely letter combination.) And I also -- to my surprise and delight -- started coming up with new ideas and solutions for issues I'd been trying to solve in my head rather than through the process of writing.

Since then I've wrapped up my outline and starting writing pages for the script, and it's going faster than I've written in a long time.

It's filled with notes and flaws and details to come.

And that's totally okay. 

Because the biggest win in this small segment of my writing journey is that I'm LOVING the process of writing again. And that's worth more to me than just about anything.

 

What's your perfectionism recovery story? Let us know in the comments!