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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

 

This week I’ve rounded up a collection of my favorite Called to Write articles for you, designed to inspire your writing life, offer guidance and support for times you might be feeling stuck or overwhelmed, and even help you stay on track with your writing during the coming holidays. 

Enjoy!

“Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things”

Feeling burned out?

While you might feel like you “should” be rested from staying at home so much this year, the truth is, this has been an exhausting, tumultuous, and difficult time, so giving yourself time to recover is important.

Here are two of my past favorite articles with suggestions about how to recover. 

7 Steps to Recovering From Creative Burnout

When you have nothing left

 

Wondering if you should be pushing to write when you’re sick, exhausted, or grieving?

Here’s one of my favorite articles about when to write, and when to take it easy:

When to Write and When to Call It a Day

 

What counts when it comes to writing?

On a lighter note, when it comes to writing regularly, sometimes writers twist themselves into knots thinking they have to be writing “new words” every single day of the year.

My opinion? Not so.

Hint: This article will help you adjust your mindset about what “counts” as “real writing,” and is critical when it comes to setting goals and resolutions for the coming year. 

What “Counts” as Writing?

 

Having trouble staying motivated to write in these uncertain times? 

Here are two articles designed to help you navigate these choppy waters and keep writing.

Living and Writing In Uncertain Times

7 Mindset Perspectives to Motivate Your Writing — On the Final Draft Blog

 

Want to keep writing through the holidays? 

Here are articles to bring holiday cheer and practical strategies to help you keep writing. 

What has writing given you that you’re grateful for?

10 Tips to Help You Keep Writing Through the Holidays

 

I hope you enjoyed this collection of articles and I’m wishing all the best to you and your writing in the coming days and weeks.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

Morning Writing Challenge Wrap-Up

We’ve reached the end of the Morning Writing Challenge! This week has not been an easy one to do this in, what with everything going on with the election and all, but we did it anyway. You have all my respect and admiration for sticking with your writing through thick and thin.
 
And, if you’ve been following along with the writing tips but haven’t participated in the challenge, two things: 1) well done for learning more about how to have a successful morning writing practice, and 2) I’m going to tell you today about a chance for a do-over if you’d like one. 
 
First, let’s review what we’ve accomplished and what we learned + one more bonus tip. Then I’ll tell you about how to keep this all going.
 

Celebrate Your Accomplishments

 
With writing, it’s SUPER important to celebrate any and all accomplishments or successes. It’s waaaaaaay too easy to focus on what we didn’t do, and discount what did do. 
 
Here are some accomplishments to consider celebrating this week:

  • Committing to the Morning Writing Challenge and saying “Yes” to your writing (whether you wrote or not)
  • Reading and learning from the writing tips I’ve been sharing.
  • Showing up for any number of attempts at morning writing.
  • Showing up to write at ANY time of day to write.
  • Writing successfully for any length of time. 
  • Writing more regularly than you’ve been writing.
  • Writing in the face of incredibly intense distractions. 
  • Cataloging the writing you DID do and tallying it up. 

 

What We Learned This Week ✓

 
In order to help us more fully integrate what we learned this week, let’s briefly review the writing tips we’ve studied together. 
 
I’ve shared them here in a clickable list so you can click through and read more about each one. (Note that there are two tips in each blog post so the links for #1 and #2 will take you to the same place, for example.)
 

Tip #1: Set your “lights out” time. 

We set a “lights out” time to guarantee we get enough sleep AND are able to get up more easily for our appointed morning writing time.

Tip #2: Have a single project to focus on. 

When we focus on a single project at a time, it reduces decision making paralysis and makes it easier to jump in and get to work each day.

 

Tip #3: Be ready for the “day after perfect.” 

When we have a “perfect” writing day, we may be more likely to self-sabotage the next day. Similarly, when we far exceed our day’s writing goals or push ourselves to keep writing, we may experience a resistance backlash the next day, making it harder to write.

Tip #4: If you didn’t write today, start over tomorrow. 

There’s always a new day, and we don’t have to wait around for a far off perfect time to restart. If we didn’t write today, we can start over at the earliest next available opportunity.

 

Tip #5: Boost your focus with timed writing sprints. 

We can use timed writing sprints to help us keep our focus on our writing — and track our writing time too, which helps us better appreciate all the hard work we’re doing and progress we’re making.

Tip #6: Supercharge your writing with group writing sprints. 

We can write with other writers in group writing sprints to heighten our determination, commitment, energy, and passion for writing. Writing with people who understand what we’re doing helps end writer’s isolation and helps us feel like part of a team.

 

Tip #7: On tougher days, try focusing on “ebb writing.” 

Even when the going gets tough, we can keep moving our writing forward by focusing on easier writing tasks like making minor revisions or checking for continuity, to keep our hands in our drafts and keep our momentum going. We can also write for super small chunks of time to jumpstart ourselves. 

Tip #8: Block out the distractions. 

We can use distraction blockers and tools to help ourselves stay focused on our writing and protect our writing time.

 

Tip #9: Create “sacred writing time.” 

We adjust our mindset and our logistics and boundaries to create dedicated appointments with ourselves for writing, knowing and trusting in the value and importance of writing in our lives.

Tip #10: Set yourself up for success.

We design our writing lives for success by setting up our physical and digital environments to make it easier to write instead of doing other things.

 
 
And here’s a last bonus tip for you:

Tip #11. Writing begets more writing.

A long time ago I was taught about a study of academic writers by Robert Boice, where he found that writers who write regularly (5 to 7 days per week) are TWICE AS LIKELY to have frequent creative thoughts as writers who write intermittently.
 
Have you noticed this over the course of our 5 days together? It might be a little early to tell, but what I’m noticing myself is that words and writing and writing actions are coming even more quickly and easily to me this week than usual. It’s exciting to see and remember how when I up my own writing game, I really see and feel the rewards. How about you?
 
 

How to Keep This All Going

 
If you’ve benefitted from this experience this week, first, I’m truly thrilled. I could not have hoped for a more lovely group of writers to participate! 
 
If you’re interested in keeping your momentum going (and I hope you are!), here’s my recommended plan:

  1. Set a regular writing schedule for yourself and put it on your calendar.
  2. Find a way to create supportive group energy around your daily writing practice. (Pro tip: Join our Called to Write community and be part of our daily writing sprints!)
  3. Fine tune your writing practice as you go along. Any “failure” is not an actual failure, it’s information about what’s working and what’s NOT working, and gives you insight into what you need to adjust to make it easier to keep going, e.g. writing for shorter lengths of time, adjusting your start time, tweaking your distraction blockers, etc.
  4. Reach out to me for help if you need it. I offer short 15-minute laser coaching sessions at an affordable rate and we can do A LOT in that time span, especially because you’ll already have a shorthand understanding of the kinds of recommendations I make, so we can easily fine tune them for you together. My booking link is here. Note: If you haven’t had a free writing plan session with me yet this year, you’re welcome to start there. 
 

A Chance for a Do-Over… or a Do-Again!

 
If you didn’t write this week or participate in the challenge as thoroughly as you wanted to or just plain want to do it again, there WILL be a chance for a do-over or a do-again. We’re setting up a course based version of the writing challenge inside my Called to Write community, which means that if you join us, you’ll have a chance to do it all again, alongside other daily writers. 
 
Please note we do have financial aid available. 
 
Look what we shared, writers! 👇
 
Images of morning writing spaces

 

Thanks so much for following along with me!

Morning Writing Challenge Tips 9 & 10

Welcome back to the Morning Writing Challenge Tips series.
 
Regardless of whether or not you’ve participated in the challenge, these tips are useful for building and sustaining a lasting writing practice. 
 
 

Morning Writing Challenge Tips #9 & #10

Today I’m sharing two new tips, #9 & #10.
 
 
And here are today’s tips:
 

Tip #9: Create “sacred writing time.”

 
Now that you’ve had some experience with writing in the morning, I want to encourage you to create ongoing “sacred writing time” for yourself. 
 
Sacred writing time is time you specifically set aside for writing each day, and nothing else. It’s an appointment you keep with yourself, and hold as highly important. You treat it the same way you would as if you had an appointment for a job interview or a meeting with an esteemed mentor. You wouldn’t dream of not showing up for those, right? The idea here is to mentally establish the value — the sanctity — of writing in your life. 
 
Creating sacred writing time involves making both mindset and logistical shifts.
 
Sacred Writing Time Mindset
 
In terms of your sacred writing time mindset, this is about deeply internalizing how important writing consistently is to you. Your reasons may vary from mine. I encourage to reflect on this or even make your own list.
 
Here are some examples of why writing regularly is so important:
  • It keeps us grounded in who we are as writers, even (especially) in difficult times.
  • It helps us move our writing careers forward (if we’re not writing, we can’t produce or advance).
  • It creates a sustainable path to developing and finishing work we can then put out into the world.
  • It makes us happier; when we’re writing, we are more fully actualized, happier human beings. Which makes it good for us, sure, but ALSO for the people around us and the greater world.
  • It fulfills our call to write. There’s nothing like writing regularly to help you know, in your bones, that you are a writer.
  • It’s a way to say YES to yourself and your hopes, dreams, and desires. 
 
Sacred Writing Time Logistics
 
In terms of practical applications, creating sacred writing time also involves some logistical considerations. Here are some things to consider implementing to help create sacred writing time in your life. 
  • Create regular appointments on your calendar dedicated to writing time. Don’t schedule anything else in those hours. No appointments, no errands, nothing.
  • Let your household members know you’ll be writing within those hours and are not available for chatting, dealing with issues, etc. ALSO let them know when you WILL be available and make sure that’s true. If you tell them you’ll be available again after your writing time, be available then. Don’t keep writing, even if you’re in the flow. This lets them know they can trust you, and makes them less likely to interrupt you while you’re working.
  • Similarly, let your close friends and family members who might expect fast responses from you via phone, text, email, etc. also know you’re not available during certain hours. Ditto on being available afterward.
  • And, set limits with yourself, too. Using the tools I shared yesterday, block out distractions. You also have to keep yourself from interrupting your own writing time. No checking email, texts, etc. If you find yourself faltering, shore up your writing boundaries, and protect your sacred writing time like a mama lion protecting her cubs.
Having said this, don’t beat yourself up if you get off track. Learn from it, and start over the next day.
 
Putting this into practice: Consider writing out a list of reasons why writing regularly is important to you. :) When you write tomorrow morning, have a planned start time, and see how it feels to hold that time as sacred for just you and your writing.
 

Tip #10: Set yourself up for success.

 
Writing consistently in the long term is easier when you set yourself up for success. Something I’ve noticed as a fun side effect of the Morning Writing Challenge is that because I’m taking a picture of my writing spot each morning, I’m straightening up and getting all my tools ready before I begin. This makes it easier to get started.
 
I’ve also gotten in the habit of making sure whatever I’m going to be working on is the first thing I see when I come to my computer. For example, I’ll make sure I have my script file open on my laptop and the Forest App open on my phone even if I’m going to grab my cup of tea first. That way, when I come back and sit down to write, I’m far more likely to just dive into it than get distracted by anything else.
 
I’m reminded here about a story I came across about a man who wanted to stop watching so much TV and start reading more. He took the batteries out of his remote control and set them next to a stack of magazines. Every time he sat on the couch and reached for the remote control, he was forcing himself to make a choice: go to the trouble of putting the batteries in and succumbing to watching TV, or take the easier path to reading and fulfilling his true goal. (James Clear references this idea also in his book Atomic Habits, excerpted here.)
 
The idea here is to make it easier and easier to keep writing, and harder to do other things.
 
Here are some ways you might experiment with doing this:
  • Keep your current writing files open on your computer at all times. (I make sure to save frequently though, and close them over the weekend so I’m certain my backups are happening).
  • Strive to always know what you’re going to be working on tomorrow. If I’m in the middle of something when my writing sprint ends for the day, I’ll leave myself a note about where to pick up and what to do when I come back, right in the draft.
  • Leave a “ragged edge” in your writing. When you finish with your day’s writing, it’s almost preferable to leave something undone, even stopping in the middle of a sentence. That way, your subconscious mind knows what it’s going to be picking up the next day.
  • End on a high note. Rather than pushing to keep writing, even if you’re in the flow of writing, I recommend stopping when you planned to stop writing. Ending while you’re in place of flow and inspiration (rather than wrung out or exhausted) reinforces your energy for writing and makes it easier to come back to tomorrow.
  • Aim to know what you’re going to be working on next. I typically have both daily, short-range, and long-term plans for my writing. I tend to focus on increments of work for my short-range goals, like completing the next 15 pages of my screenplay. In the longer term, I have a mental queue of which project I’ve got lined up to work on next. While I can always adjust it, it helps me to be tracking ahead into my future so I don’t get lost when I finish something.
  • Strive to keep the gap between your writing sessions to no more than 20-24 hours, at least 5 to 7 days per week. The longer you go between writing sessions, the more resistance has time to build up, making it harder to write. Keep it shorter to make it easier to get right back to it. No warming up required. :)
  • Always know when you’re going to start writing again, if you take time off for a day, weekend, trip, vacation, illness, etc. I take weekends off, which means I have a longer gap of 70-72 hours from Friday writing to Monday morning writing, so I make sure I’m committed to a writing sprint first thing Monday morning to keep me on track.
  • Have a dedicated space (or spaces) for your writing. The more you regularly write in a specific spot, the more being there becomes a trigger for you to write.
  • Consider using short writing rituals to spark your writing time, like lighting a candle, making a cup of tea or coffee, or reading an invocation aloud. (Even setting your timer counts!) These co-habits reinforce your writing rhythm and routine. This is a bit like always brushing your teeth before you go to bed. They just go together.
  • Write in timed, group writing sprints, as we’ve discussed.
  • Write while using distraction blockers, ditto.
Putting this into practice: What might you experiment with tomorrow morning? Is there anything on this list that speaks to you? Something else?
 
Cheers!!
 
 
 

Thank you for following along with the Morning Writing Challenge!

Morning Writing Challenge Tips 7 & 8

Welcome back to the Morning Writing Challenge Tips series.
 
If you haven’t joined the challenge, it’s (really!) not too late to join us. You can still find benefit in participating for the next two days. Find all the details here. 
 
Either way, these tips are useful for building and sustaining a lasting writing practice. 
 
 

Morning Writing Challenge Tips #7 & #8

Today I’m sharing two new tips, #7 & #8.
 
 

Tip #7: On tougher days, try focusing on “ebb writing.”

 
When the going gets tough, sometimes we need a back up plan for writing. A way to keep writing, keep moving forward, even when our minds and hearts are not quite in the game.
 
On days like these, I focus on “ebb writing.” (Hat tip to Naomi Dunford, formerly of IttyBiz, for this idea.) 
 
Ebb writing is about doing the easier writing. On days when I’m distracted, stressed, frustrated, extra resistant, or tired, I might do something like check my script’s scene headings for continuity, run spell or grammar checks, or make simple edits. I made a point yesterday to do heavier lifting on my script revisions (redlining the draft of my current section, which required more focused thinking) so I could make those changes in the draft today. Easy peasy lemon squeezy 🍋, as my niece would say. Then, because my brain got deeper into writing mode, I was able to begin a slightly harder revision of a scene I’d flagged yesterday. I’ll finish it up tomorrow.
 
As Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.” So if I can get myself to my computer, minimizing distractions and other inputs along the way (more on this in Tip #8, below), and start with something easy, I can get off and running. On the other hand, if I don’t find myself rising to the challenge for the day, I can stick with ebb work, and feel good about having moved my writing forward, no matter what, free to begin again anew the next day.
 
Ebb writing can also look like simply putting your focus on ANY writing for the day. Want to write a poem today? Go for it. Need to vent about the state of the world? Awesome, get it on the page. Write your way through it. 
 
Here are some examples of ebb writing you might consider, in no particular order:
  • Doing administrative writing tasks like organizing you writing project files on your computer (this is a great time to figure out which “New Final Final” is the real current draft).
  • Running spelling and grammar checks on work you’ve already written (assuming you have a work in progress).
  • Formatting chapter/section headings and checking their numbering.
  • Checking for continuity with your scenes, like time of day. 
  • Reviewing your outline or story development work. 
  • Reading over sections you’ve already written and making notes about what’s working well and what needs revision.
  • Writing intuitive dialogue exchanges with your characters to find out what they think.
  • Freewriting scenes “outside” your draft (like backstory scenes that won’t make it into the final draft but teach you about your characters or story).
  • Making simple edits.
  • Writing morning pages.
  • Bullet journaling.
  • Freewriting about anything.
A bonus tip: Sometimes you just need to START. When I’m feeling particularly resistant, I’ll often tell myself, “you only have to write for five minutes.” Then I’ll set my timer, and open my script files and start reading through where I left off. Next thing I know I’m tweaking a few words and lines and then I’m off writing the next scene in my outline, writing to meet my original goal (usually 50 minutes). Just starting works wonders.
 
Putting this into practice: Think about what kind of ebb writing you might be able to do on hard days. Just having a mental catalogue of possibilities really helps you be able to think about what you CAN do, instead of what you can’t. :) 
 
 

Tip #8: Block out the distractions.

 
On tough days and regular days alike, writers need to find ways to block out distractions. (Sometimes the distractions are good things too!)
 
Remember today’s quote from Austin Kleon? “The biggest task in the morning is to try to keep my headspace from being invaded by the outside world.”
 
Here are some my current favorite ways to block distractions and keep your headspace clear:
  1. Use app and website blockers to keep yourself from getting distracted. (My list of current favorite apps is below.)
  2. Put your phone in Airplane or Do Not Disturb mode to prevent interruptions and distracting messages from popping up while you’re working. (I’ve set my phone to allow emergency interruptions in DND mode if needed.) If you’re writing first thing in the morning, you might sleep with it in airplane or DND mode and just leave it that way until you’re done with your morning writing time.
  3. Turn off most (if not all) notifications on your devices. I have a few I leave on, but I periodically go through and turn off app notifications so they don’t steal my attention from my work.

    This includes laptops and desktops too. On my Macs I have notifications disabled between 10 p.m. and 9:59 p.m. ⏰ (Yes, you read that right.🙂 I couldn’t find a way to disable them all quickly so I just turned on Do Not Disturb for essentially 24 hours.)

  4. Remove addictive apps from your devices. Just take ’em right off there. You’ll be surprised how quickly it calms down addictive behavior. Yes, you might miss them. But most of that same content you can access on a computer, and changing up how you access it breaks the addiction cycle. You may find that you can put them back on later, or you may find that you take them off/put them on periodically. In my case, I’ve taken off Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter, though I allow Twitter back on during fire season for up-to-date news. If I start addictively perusing anything though, off it comes.
  5. Write in writing sprints with a timer running, as I mentioned yesterday, preferably a timer that makes it hard to use your phone, like the Forest app I also told you about. (No one wants to be killing trees!)
  6. Limit yourself to news reading AFTER your morning writing sprints. If you cannot resist, ONLY allow yourself to read trusted, grounded news sources.
  7. Stay out of email (and texts if needed) too. Don’t let other people’s desires, demands, and needs hijack your attention. Keep your field of focus as small as you can until you’ve finished writing for the day (another good reason to write first in the day).
  8. Stay away from social media until after you’re done with your writing (I know I’m steering us to post on social media for this challenge; my method has been to quickly post from my phone, then get to work writing, then come back later to check on other writer’s posts. It’s worked well, so far, with only minor dalliances putting hearts on a few extra Instagram posts this morning 🙂).
 

Focus Apps & Tools

 
During the pandemic, I’ve found that I have had to increase my use of distraction blocking tools to help me stay on track. I keep an eye on myself, and if I find myself straying, I ramp up my blocking efforts until I’m on track. ;) 
 
Here’s a list of my current favorite apps and supports to help me focus.
  • App blockers like the Focus App (Mac) allow me to block social media websites and other rabbit holes like Quora during scheduled hours. I can also block apps on my computer from running as well, like Tweetdeck. Focus also makes it so I can’t access my email until my scheduled focus time is over (5 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. is my scheduled block ⏰).
  • (The Freedom App is an alternative to Focus for PCs and works across multiple devices as well. They seem to have a November special running right now too.)
  • Screen blockers like HazeOver (Mac) is another current favorite of mine, which I use to make everything disappear except the current window I’m working in. (Not sure about a PC alternative.
  • Full screen mode in writing apps. Most apps we write in have a full screen mode or composition mode to make everything else disappear, as an alternative to something like HazeOver.
  • Timers that block phone use. I use both the Forest App and Block & Flow App for my phone, which I know I mentioned yesterday too. These timers stay on the lock screen on my phone, which stops me from picking it up to “check” on things. See also Freedom, above, which apparently has a way to block apps on devices too. I use one exclusively for script work and the other for various other writing projects.
  • Group writing sprints with my Called to Write community. The more sprints I attend, the stronger my writing habit and focus, and the less likely I am to get distracted. I know it’s not an app, per se, but it’s a huge anti-distraction tool for me so I’m including it here. 
Putting this into practice: See if there’s something in Tip #8 you might use to shore up your writing boundaries and limit distractions. Even picking one thing could be huge!
 
 
 

Join the Morning Writing Challenge!

Sign up for details, tips, and prizes, here:
 

Morning Writing Challenge Tips 5 & 6

Welcome back to the Morning Writing Challenge Tips series.
 
If you haven’t joined the challenge, it’s not too late to join us. Find all the details here. 
 
Either way, these tips are useful for building and sustaining a lasting writing practice. 
 
 

Morning Writing Challenge Tips #5 & #6

Today I’m sharing two new tips, #5 & #6.
 
 

Tip #5: Boost your focus with timed writing sprints.

 
If you haven’t tried timed writing sprints, please give this a try.
 
A timed writing sprint is a short, focused period of writing time, tracked with a timer. In advance, you’ll decide on a length of time you’ll be writing for (and ideally a start time like we’re doing with the Morning Writing Challenge). Then, you write, doing nothing else, for your planned duration of time.
 
A timed writing sprint can be as short as one minute and as long as about 90 minutes (we need to get up and move our bodies periodically after all). You get to decide. If you’re not sure how long to sprint for, try 15 minutes as an experimental place to start.
 
Since the pandemic began (and writing seemed to get a whole lot harder), I started writing in 25 minute increments rather than in 60 minute sprints. Oddly enough, I usually do two 25-minute sprints back-to-back. It’s just a Jedi mind trick, but it works for me right now because my brain trusts that I can handle 25 minutes of writing without getting distracted. Then I’m usually in the flow enough that I just hit the timer button again for another 25 minutes, until I’ve put in a total of 50 minutes. I also find that when I participate in group writing sprints (more on this in Tip #6, below), which are often 60 minutes long, aiming for 50 minutes gives me a little wiggle room for getting an extra cup of tea, taking a bathroom break, or things like dealing with unexpected kid interruptions without feeling “behind.”
 
The VERY cool thing about using a timer is that there’s this sense of hitting a “Go” or “Start Now” button when starting it. And it makes it harder to stop when you know there’s a clock counting down your writing minutes!
 
Ready to give this a try? Next time you sit down to write, decide how long you’ll be writing (suggestion: 5 to 15 minutes for your first time out), set a timer, and write!
 
Pro tip: This gets even more powerful when you also TRACK your writing time, which means logging and paying attention to how much time you’re investing in your writing. I’m currently a fan of the Forest App for both tracking and timing. Another good one is the Block and Flow App
 
 

Tip #6: Supercharge your writing with group writing sprints.

 
If you want to quintuple your writing sprint experience, try participating in group writing sprints. 
 
We run group writing sprints in our Called to Write community several times each day on weekdays and have weekend sprints too. You may also sometimes find on-the-fly group writing sprints happening on Twitter. (John August periodically leads them and I’ve seen others doing the same.)
 
With this Morning Writing Challenge, we’re experiencing a variation on this idea; a kind of asynchronous group sprint where we’re all writing based on our own local morning time, and cheering for each other by finding each other’s posts online.
 
Inside Called to Write, the way our group writing sprints work is that we gather in on online private chat room at the same time, tell each other what we’re going to do, kick off at our official start time, and all go write on our own. At the official end time, we come back into the chat room and celebrate what went well together (even if what went well is simply showing up). Note: We aren’t sharing our writing with each other but rather the camaraderie and support for each other’s writing.
 
Our members tell us that these sprints are grounding and have been simply life-saving during the pandemic. 
 
At Called to Write, we’re currently writing together at 6 a.m. PT, 7 a.m. PT, 9 a.m. PT, and 3 p.m. PT on weekdays, and 9 a.m. PT on weekends. 
 
Ways to try group writing sprints: Whether you join us, find group sprints on Twitter, or create your own writing sprints with your writing buddies via text or Zoom, I encourage you to try this! The shared group energy is incredibly motivating, fun, and inspiring. Plus when you do them consistently, you can create a regular writing habit almost without even trying. :) 
 
 
 

Join the Morning Writing Challenge!

Sign up for details, tips, and prizes, here:
 

Why I Started Writing Early In the Morning + The Morning Writing Challenge Tips 1 & 2

 
Huzzah! The Morning Writing Challenge starts tomorrow, Monday, November 2. 
 
 
Today I’m sharing some tips to help you rock the challenge, but first…

…a few thoughts on WHY writing in the morning is so very awesome:

When our first son was 2 or 3 years old, I wanted to write, but I just … wasn’t. Despite all my plans and intentions, like planning blocks of writing time in the day, setting aside full days to write, once 9 a.m. or so rolled around, I was doing anything but writing. My levels of resistance were at an all time high. I was terrified but I didn’t know it. I’d make endless promises to myself about writing, but “somehow” it never seemed to happen. And then I’d just feel guilty. All day. Ugh.
 
Eventually I read enough articles about professional writers getting up early to write that I figured I’d better at least give it a go. And I will tell you, I did NOT consider myself a morning person. Not in the slightest. I would have much rather stayed up until 11 or 12 and sleep in. (My son “cured” me of that, so I did have that to help.) 
 
While it was initially painful to tear myself out of bed at 6 a.m. and get to my desk by 6:15 a.m. (I didn’t know the tricks I’m going to be sharing with you this week), after a week or two of writing first thing in the morning I was filled with a passion and energy for my writing I didn’t even know existed.
 
Plus, my inner critic seemed to still be too sleepy at that hour to give me much in the way of trouble.
 
A protective fierceness arose inside me, and I knew then that I would never stop writing.
 
I want that for you too.
 
During the Morning Writing Challenge, we’ll give you an experience of morning writing to build a morning writing practice, create a new block of writing time, connect you to your passion for writing, and maybe just maybe move you forward on your current writing project. Join us.
 
 

Morning Writing Challenge Tips #1 & #2

 
Over the course of the week, I’ll be sending Morning Writing Challenge participants writing tips each day around 3 p.m. Pacific Time and a morning quote and reminder message around 2 a.m. Pacific Time (I’m aiming to time this for early risers on the East Coast too, while hopefully also catching some of our European writers by late morning at least).
 
I’ll also be posting the tips here on the Called to Write blog. 

 

Tip #1: Set your “lights out” time.

When you want to build a morning writing habit, one of the first things to do is set a “lights out” time. This is the time when you’re already in bed and all lights, devices, books, etc. are all turned off/put away, and you’re closing your eyes to go to sleep. It’s not “bedtime” because that suggests when it’s time to start getting ready for bed. Nope, this is for real, go to sleep time. 
 
The best way to determine your lights out time is by counting backward from your writing start time to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, enough time to fall asleep, and enough time to wake up in the morning before your slated writing time.
 
Here’s my standard schedule:
  • Lights out time: 10 p.m. (includes time to fall asleep)
  • Wake time: 6:30 a.m. (8ish hours of sleep, plus leaves time for getting up, making tea, etc before writing).
  • Writing start time: 7:00 a.m. 
With the end of Daylight Saving Time, here’s my new schedule:
  • Lights out time: 9 p.m. (my “old” 10 p.m.)
  • Wake time: 5:30 a.m. (my “old” 6:30 a.m.)
  • Writing start time: 6:00 a.m. (“old” 7 a.m.)
The fun thing about this new schedule is that it feels the same to my body, but I’m shifting an hour of time away from night (when, ahem, I often end up doomscrolling) into morning writing. I usually start getting ready for bed about an hour or so beforehand (yep, boring, I know :) ) so I’m truly ready to go to sleep at lights out time.
 
While I’m not suggesting you follow MY schedule (unless you want to, of course) I want to encourage you to design a simple schedule that lets you create a new block of writing time in the morning that’s actually sustainable.
 
If you’re not leaning on the end of Daylight Saving Time to set this up, you could alternatively gradually nudge your lights out / wake time schedule earlier in 10- to 15-minute increments over the course of the week until you have the amount of morning writing time you want. 
 

 

Tip #2: Have a single project to focus on.

If at all possible, have a single writing project to focus on during your morning writing time. This means: one book or one script that you’ll work on each morning during the same window of time. Alternatively, use your morning writing time to write morning pages, freewriting, or use writing prompts or exercises. 
 
The big reason for this is so you’re NOT deciding each morning what you’re going to work on. Decision making in the moment is a weak point for resistance to creep in and paralyze you with indecision. So tonight, before tomorrow’s kick off (assuming you’re joining us!), decide what you’ll be working on this week. 
 
(Hint: for now, it’s far more important to show up and write consistently than it is for you to make substantive content progress, though that’s an excellent bonus to strive for!) 
 
 
 

Join the Morning Writing Challenge!

Sign up for details, tips, and prizes, here:
 

Use the End of Daylight Saving to Create More Time to Write

If you’ve been wanting to establish a morning writing habit, I’m going to challenge you to give it a go starting on November 2 with my #MorningWritingChallenge. 

But first, let me tell you why now is the PERFECT time to do this.

With the end of Daylight Saving Time, we’ll be getting a natural boost for setting up earlier morning writing time. This time change happens next Sunday, November 1 in the U.S. (the time changed on Sunday, October 25 in Europe and elsewhere).

Here’s why, and how the time change helps us MAKE (not find, mind you, make) more time to write:

Your Internal Body Clock vs. the Clock Time

We’re all setting our clocks back by one hour, so what was 7 a.m. in Daylight Saving Time will now be 6 a.m. in Standard Time, for example. 

But your internal body clock is still set to 6 a.m. feeling like 7 a.m., so you’ll feel fresher and more awake “earlier” in the day according to clock time. In other words, if you’re used to waking up at 7 a.m., 6 a.m. will feel entirely normal, but you’ll be up an hour earlier by the clock.

Your internal body clock will also help you feel ready for sleep an hour earlier than what the clock says. If you’re used to going to sleep at 10 p.m., for example, that will be the new 9 p.m., so your body will be ready for sleep an hour earlier than it was before the time change. 

What this means is that because your body clock is attuned to going to bed earlier and waking up earlier than what the clock will be saying, this is an excellent time to adjust your schedule to allow for writing time in the morning.

Yes, you COULD allow yourself to recalibrate to the new clock time and get used to staying up till 10 p.m. again (or whatever your current schedule is), but you don’t have to. If you’ve been wanting a morning writing practice (or an earlier one) this is a great opportunity to make a change.

Here’s what this could look like.

Normal bedtime: 10 p.m. Daylight Saving Time

Normal wake time: 7 a.m. Daylight Saving Time

 

New bedtime: 9 p.m. Standard Time (feels like 10 p.m. still)

New wake time: 6 a.m. Standard Time (feels like 7 a.m. still)

New writing time: 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. 

 

Common Objections … & Solutions!

But Jenna, I need downtime at night…

If your first response is to shudder about giving up the “downtime” you’re used to at night, I want you to ask yourself how valuable that time truly is compared to making time for yourself to write in the morning.

I don’t know about you, but my night time “downtime” these days isn’t actually that restful and it doesn’t necessarily help my writing. I’d much rather get myself to bed earlier, be fresher in the morning, and ready to write than get caught up doomscrolling or whatever else is distracting me. I’m going to use this time change to give my writing habit a boost.

But Jenna, my kids will wake up early too…

“But wait, Jenna,” you say, “my kids will also be waking up early too!” Why, yes, they will. But you have a chance to do something about it, right now (at least if you’re in the US because we have a one week lead time).

You can do this by gradually adjusting their body clocks to match the external clock time.

The way to do this is to incrementally have them stay up a little bit later each night over the course of the coming week.

Let’s say they normally go to bed at 8:30 p.m. Each night, for the next 7 nights, let their bedtime be about 5 or so minutes later, so that on the last night (Halloween in the U.S.!) their bedtime would be 9:05 p.m. We’ll change our clocks that evening. Starting the next night, you’ll push their clock time bedtime a little bit the OTHER way until it matches up with 8:30 p.m. again. 

(And Halloween will give them a push of excitement staying up later too — bonus!)

Here’s how this works out night by night, starting on Sunday, October 25. 

Bedtime at:

  • 8:30 p.m. Saturday, October 24 (tonight, stay with regular bedtime)
  • 8:35 p.m. Sunday, October 25. 
  • 8:40 p.m. Monday, October 26. 
  • 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, October 27. 
  • 8:50 p.m. Wednesday, October 28. 
  • 8:55 p.m. Thursday, October 29. Night 5. 
  • 9:00 p.m. Friday, October 30. 
  • 9:05 p.m. Saturday, October 31. + Change your clocks!
  • 8:10 p.m. Sunday, November 1. (old 9:10 p.m.) 
  • 8:15 p.m. Monday, November 2. (old 9:15 p.m.)
  • 8:20 p.m. Tuesday, November 3. (old 9:20 p.m.)
  • 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, November 4.  (old 9:25 p.m.)
  • 8:30 p.m. Thursday, November 5. (old 9:30 p.m.)

And NO, you don’t have to do this perfectly, this is meant as an example of a gradual process. You can even make the switch in 10 minute increments if you want it to move faster. My experience is that 5 minutes is easier. :) 

Bottom line: you change their body clocks but you don’t change your own.

YES, you might be going to bed early while they’re going to bed later for a week, but it’s a small investment in order to free up writing time for yourself in the morning. If you don’t make this adjustment, they may well be up when you’re wanting to write. 

But Jenna, I don’t like writing in the morning…

Okay, fair enough. While I’ve found early morning writing to be one of the best times to write for many writers, primarily because our inner critics are quieter then and we feel the pull of other obligations less strongly then, it’s not for everyone, and that’s 100% okay.

If you prefer to write at night, you may want to use the body clock adjustment method I describe above in order to keep your hour at night without feeling jet lagged. :) 

The Morning Writing Challenge

Want to give this a go? 

Stay tuned for all the details of the #MorningWritingChallenge coming soon!

If you’re not on my mailing list, sign up now to make sure you get all the details.

 

Want an extra boost of support to make writing happen?

Join my Called to Write coaching circle where we run writing sprints at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on weekdays, 9 a.m. Pacific Time daily, and have bonus community led sprints at 6 a.m. Pacific Time and 3 p.m. Pacific Time.

We’ll be starting a new theme for the month of November, so it’s the perfect time to join us!

In addition to our sprints we offer weekly Zoom meetings (no meeting Thanksgiving week), goal setting and check in support, writing progress journals, and more. 

Financial aid is available. 

Find out more and register here.

 

Have questions?

Email us or leave a comment below and we’ll respond.

Stay safe, and happy writing!

 

 

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash
woman gazing out window

Living and Writing In Uncertain Times

We’re living through an unprecedented event in our modern era. Life has changed, radically, in what felt like over night. The word “unprecedented” feels wholly inadequate, honestly. Surreal? Unholy? Disastrous? LIFE ALTERING. Nothing will be the same after this. At least I very much hope that will be true, in the sense of the many broken systems in our world improving for the better as a result of all this. 

I’ve been watching this virus since January, feeling like Cassandra, but hoping I was wrong (usually my fears DON’T become reality). And yet, here we are.

I (fortunately or unfortunately?) just read two books about pandemics right before all this started. So. There you go. Lots of swirly bits of fear, dread, terror, hope, and love all twirling around together in an angsty pile of … angst. It’s not like I didn’t already have a full soundtrack of existential dread playing in my mind, what with the state of our government and climate crisis already in play. 

So. Mostly, I’m working to stay as calm as I can (which is entirely variable from moment to moment), take care of myself and my family, look for ways to help, and write as I can. And “can” sometimes means “can’t.” Sometimes it means writing articles like these, just to keep putting words on the page. 

And speaking of writing, writers everywhere are suddenly facing new circumstances. Some of us have kids at home, for an unknown duration (my guess is the fall start of the school year). Some of us (like in California) have been under a “shelter-in-place”/”stay at home” order for some time already (thank goodness). Some of us have more time on our hands than we’re used to because we’re working from home or unable to work. Some of us have less time than usual to write because of all the other external impacts on our time, plus the internal stresses we’re managing. 

It’s easy to think we “should” be writing and writing and writing. But it’s not like this is just some kind of global vacation. There’s a lot going on, constantly, much of which we can’t see. 

In some ways this could be a writer’s dream. Lots of forced time at home, with potentially lots of time to write. But that’s only a percentage of us. If we’re homeschooling and working from home, things are actually more complicated, not less. 

So what do we really do about writing during times like these? 

On Writing

Here are some thoughts on writing for you in this current period of uncertainty:

  • Please don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing (yet). This is an entirely unusual situation and we’re all grappling with a massive reorientation of how life even works on this planet. Give yourself space and time to be, rest, think, and process. If the moment arises when you’re struck by the urge to write (anything), go for it. Some are pointing out that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. That’s lovely. Did he have his kids and family home 24/7? Who was getting him food? You don’t have to be Shakespeare. Everyone’s circumstances are different. 
  • It’s okay if your pre-pandemic writing projects change or hold less interest for you mid- or post-pandemic. Your interest may return in a few weeks, months, or never. Your projects may change. (Stephen King tweeted about this recently.) Regardless, it’s okay to trust yourself and see what comes. Intense times result in massive shifts in culture, consciousness, and creation. We are likely to have epiphanies about what we want to write mid- and post-pandemic. I expect an entirely new wave of creativity to explode as a result of this period of time. 
  • It’s also okay to keep working on what you were working on before. If you’re able to keep writing, go for it! Writing is a sanctuary for writers. A place to escape, as well as our job as professionals. In many ways this can be an incredible opportunity to hunker down and focus. (I’ll be sharing an article on the Final Draft blog soon about some tech tools to help.)
  • It helps to hold writing as your important work in the world. Even if you’re not working professionally as a writer, thinking of writing as your calling, vocation, and/or profession can help you remember — even in the middle of a pandemic! — who you are and what you were put here to do. Of course, if the house is literally burning down or you’re sick, you won’t be thinking about writing. Of course not. But assuming you’re healthy, safe, and have your basic survival needs taken care of, writing becomes more possible, and sticking to your work is your job.
  • If you’re writing with kids at home, get really creative. I’m doing most of my writing while my husband takes care of the kids (a rare treat since he can’t go in to work and he can’t work from home) as well as getting up before the rest of the family to write when I’m alone. For other writers, we might have to write later in the evening, or at lunch time, or while the kids are having some screen time. (And yeah, we’re letting our screen time rules be looser, while also having them do their homeschooling work.)
  • On the hard days, write from bed, do “ebb” writing, or write morning pages. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with grief or fear, it’s hard to be creative. I’m finding that sitting in my bed with the covers drawn up, the cat on my feet, and my laptop on a bed table helps create a little cocoon of coziness that’s easier to write in. You can also focus on the easy stuff (that’s the “ebb” writing, hat tip to Naomi for that one) and work on formatting or continuity checks. And sometimes morning pages or love letters to yourself are the way to go. Writing is writing. 
  • Even if you suddenly have tons of time on your hands to write, you’ll be dealing with resistance, maybe even more than usual. Writers often fantasize about writing in isolation (cabin in the woods, anyone?). But the reality is that suddenly having lots of time can trigger more resistance. And especially when fear and uncertainty take hold, it’s super hard to focus on ANYTHING, let alone write. Remember that writing also involves a high level of decision making, also difficult in times like these. However, you CAN make small moves and take small actions to move forward, even now.
  • Reach out and connect. Writers are often used to working from home, but we’re not used to being limited in our interactions quite this much. There are lots of lovely ways to connect with other writers at this point, including on social media. In my Called to Write community, we’ve switched over to meeting on Zoom so we can see each other’s faces. We’re also meeting more frequently, and the turnout for our daily writing sprints is high. It’s SO nice to write together. (Please come join us if you’re looking for structure, support, and community for your writing.
  • Know that writing and art have a huge role to play in survival and recovery. Art, entertainment, fiction, and non-fiction are needed right now, and will continue to be needed as time goes on. How we deliver and receive writing and movies may change. It may not. We don’t know yet. But as writers and artists we have a role to play in the emotional well-being, mental health, and recovery of our global community. The world needs us.

On Self-Care and Grounding

And a few thoughts on self-care and grounding:

  • STAY HOME and take care of yourself and your loved ones. At some point or another, we’re all likely to confront this virus personally, somehow. Above all else, your health and well-being must come first. This means doing all the things we’re reading about online, like washing hands, wiping down surfaces, staying home (please stay home, no matter how low risk you might be, in order to help flatten the curve for everyone), using social distancing if you must go out (and making sure it’s a “must” not a “want”), touching faces only with clean hands, staying hydrated, eating healthy food, getting as much sleep as you can, exercising in creative ways, and resting.
  • Do things that feel good to youAt my house, with the kids home, in addition to homeschooling, we’re playing games, working on a garden project, baking, exercising, and watching movies together. 
  • Acknowledge the grief. This is a massive change and loss we’re all experiencing right now, together. We’re grappling with hardcore survival fears right now and seeing the world change in a way we’ve not experienced in our lifetimes. This means we’re grieving. Grieving the restrictions we’re facing, grieving the future, grieving personal losses. So much. And the sensitives and empaths among us will be particularly affected by the collective energy of grief, fear, anxiety, and sadness right now. IT’S OKAY to be having a hard time right now. Grief is heavy, and hard. It helps to acknowledge what we’re feeling. This is grief. 
  • Remember that things will change, eventually. Elaine Aron mentions this in a blog post written for highly sensitive people (many writers are HSPs). Things may change for the worse before they get better, but they will change. If or when you can, notice that we may see some positives ultimately coming out of this situation. I hope already that voting by mail could become the norm, which will help so many more people be able to participate in our democracy. Carbon emissions are dropping, and we may realize we can make more radical changes to protect the climate. We now have a much, much better understanding of what it means to share a planet and be in this together. There are dolphins in Venice. 

A few things helping me right now…

Your turn

How are you? Are you able to write? What are you challenged by right now? What’s making it easier to write? 

Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you right now, and I’ll happily answer questions in the comments if you have them. 

Image credit: Photo by Trent Szmolnik on Unsplash
lighthouse

How to Craft a Writing Plan + a Downloadable Worksheet

While you might think you don’t need a writing plan, you’d be surprised how many writers I work with who get partway into their process and realize they don’t know what they’re doing and get lost. This tends to lead to a lot of painful self-berating and self-doubt. But why? Many of us come to writing without training, and even if we’re trained in the craft, we aren’t necessarily trained in the practice of writing.

This will help. 

Mapping out a step-by-step plan can eliminate a lot of headaches. Not all of them. There are always surprises. We also want to leave lots of room for the Muse to inspire and guide us — and there are unexpected challenges along the road.

So this isn’t about getting locked into a rigid framework and then getting frustrated when things don’t go according to plan. Instead it’s about getting clear on what we’re working on and how and when we’re doing it, so we can find the thread again when we get lost in Daedalus’ Labyrinth. 

One of the things we’ll be doing for my upcoming Deep Dive Writing Intensive is putting together a writing plan. Here’s how you can create one for yourself, whether you’re joining us or not (and make sure you pick up my free downloadable worksheet at the end of this post). 

Here’s how to develop a writing plan for your book or script: 

1. Assess what stage of writing you’re in.

Are you at the beginning? Doing story or character development? Drafting a first draft? Or revising your 7th draft? Being clear what stage of writing you’re in will allow you to craft a successful plan, because each stage requires a different kind of writing, mindset, and/or approach.

2. Establish your next milestone goal.

While you can attempt to make a writing plan for the entirety of the writing process for a book or script, it’s more effective to plan and work in smaller increments. For example, you might be aiming to complete an intuitive/lightning draft, or your story development work or outlining. Pick a target you can break down into smaller chunks. This step flows naturally from first identifying what stage you’re in, because you’ll usually be aiming to complete that stage or the next one.

3. Identify the steps you’ll take or tasks you’ll need to complete to hit your milestone.

If you’re writing a first draft, for example, you can estimate the number of scenes you’ll be writing, and approximately how many words or pages you think each scene will be, to generate an estimated word or page count.

(Useful approximate rules of thumb are 2,000 words for a chapter, with 250 words per page, double-spaced, and you can look up the general word counts for your genre to get a sense of where you’re heading, e.g. approximately 80,000 words for an adult novel. The number of scenes per chapter can vary. Screenwriting is different, with about 15 pages until each major turning point in the story, and usually between 90 and 115 pages for a spec script.)

Other examples:

  • For story development, you might make a list of the issues you want to have solved and other meta story items you want to have pinned down. (Here’s My “Must Have” List Before I Start Writing Pages.)
  • For character development, you might use a character profile template and a list of characters you want to flesh out. (Here’s my Character Profile Template.)
  • For a revision, you might first reverse-outline what you have, then assess what needs to change, and then develop a new scene outline. 

4. Set a completion target date or deadline.

If you’re not working toward an external deadline (e.g. a publisher’s or producer’s deadline), you’ll want to set either a deadline or target for hitting your milestone goal. If I don’t have a hard deadline, I still like to have a target I’m aiming for to give myself something to work toward, even if I’m also allowing myself some wiggle room. 

Give thought to why and how you’re establishing your deadline to help with staying motivated. For example, I want to revise my sci-fi script (again) during the next Deep Dive Writing Intensive, so my current goal is to finalize my list of revision changes before we start writing on September 20th. 

Another way to do it is to look ahead in your calendar for “natural” deadlines. For example, you might have a big life event coming up that you’d like to have this stage of work completed by, or a big work project on the horizon coming up that you’d like to be free to focus on. The idea is to give yourself a reason to stay in action.

5. Be clear on what “done” or “completed” actually means.

I’ve made the mistake of targeting “finishing” my current draft but I wasn’t 100% clear on what that meant, in my own mind. Did done mean, I’d written all the way through the end of the draft? Did it mean I’d done that plus a read-through and a polish and was ready to submit to beta-readers for feedback? Did it mean that I was ready to submit to my producer? Being clear helps you know what you’re actually trying to accomplish.

6. Estimate your writing pace.

If you’re a newer writer, this is a little harder to do. And even if you’re an established writer, sometimes certain sections just take longer. But taking a stab at estimating how long something will take you helps you craft your writing plan. How many words or pages do you usually write in an hour? How long does it typically take you to revise pages? How long to develop a character?

In my experience the heavy lifting usually comes in the story development stage, whether I’m writing a new draft or revising, so I allow a lot of time for either story development or assessing what I have and how I’m going to take it to the next level. 

7. Gauge your available time.

Look at at your calendar, and then your completion timeline.

How much time do you realistically have between now and then? How many actual writing hours can you set aside, allowing for life, sleep, eating, other work, family, exercise, and anything else you’re doing or committed to doing? (And is there anything you can eliminate or reschedule, while you’re at it?

8. Check the math.

Now check, does the math work? Do your pace, your deadline, your available time, and your writing plan actually work

For example, if you want to write 10,000 words, you have 60 minutes a day available every day for 2 weeks, and you write 500 words in an hour, you won’t quite make it. You’ll only get to 7,000 words in that amount of time, so you’ll need to adjust. 

Or if you’re targeting 5,000 words in 60 minutes a day, every day for two weeks, and you typically crank out 800 words per hour, you’ll have left an overly generous allowance. Also a place to adjust.

9. Adjust as needed.

Once you do the math, you can tweak the variables as needed until you have something that works.

Extend or retract your deadline, increase or reduce the time in your schedule, or adjust your goal to make it work.

10. Write down your plan and schedule it.

Once you have a workable plan, write it down. Writing really can become a labyrinth, and it’s surprising how easy it is to get off track or lose your way. Having your plan in writing will help you stay the course. 

Make sure you schedule your writing time on your calendar too. 

11. Leave space for life and divine intervention.

Even while you’re crafting this plan, make sure you’re mentally allowing for life to happen and divine intervention to occur. It’s far better to set yourself an easier set of tasks and succeed even if something goes wrong or is unexpectedly slower or harder, than it is to lock yourself in and be disappointed or be hard on yourself if something goes awry. This is about having (and learning) resilience as a writer.

Or you may be inspired by the Muse and something will end up being easier or different than you expected. Or you’ll discover that the Muse won’t allow you to write the “easy” version and you’ll be doing something harder. That’s all about trusting yourself, her, and the process.

Make room for yourself, life, and the Muse, and you’ll be good to go.

Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash

Download Your Writing Plan Worksheet Here

Click here to download your Writing Plan Worksheet to help you craft a plan for your writing or get a jump on prepping for the Deep Dive if you’re joining us. 

 

Interested in possibly joining us for the next Deep Dive?

Find out more and register here: 
https://calledtowrite.com/deep-dive

 

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.

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