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.

 

 

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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Your top “7’s” writing posts from 2014 (your favorite one is no surprise!)

Apparently I think in sevens a lot, at least when it comes to writing about writing. 

As I was reviewing the most-read posts of 2014, apparently sevens were appealing to you, too. 

These “7’s” posts were among the most popular last year, counting down to your favorite (and there’s no surprise to me there about why that one was the favorite — it’s something we all deal with!)

So, in reverse order, our lucky sevens:

7 steps to recovering from creative burnout

reclinerWhen you get burned out, it’s hard to do anything, let alone be creative. In this article, I outline seven steps you can take to go from creative burnout to creative recovery, so you can bring back the joy you feel when you create. This is an important skill to master because sometimes — even when we’re doing our very best to keep the creative well filled and do our writing at a sustainable pace — resistance, deadlines, life, and fate conspire to the point where we’re scrambling to finish a project under a big time crunch, binge-write, and exhaust ourselves as a result (sometimes doing so for days, weeks, even months on end). And once we’ve hit that bottom of the creative barrel, writing anything sounds entirely miserable. Read this article to find out how to bring yourself back into creative balance.

7 ways to recommit to your writing

writing wordle 3Sometimes as writers we get into a good writing practice but still manage to become complacent about actually FINISHING projects and moving on to the next one, rather just making small amounts of progress or endlessly rewriting and editing. When that happens, it’s time to recommit, and raise the bar of our own expectations. In this article, I discuss seven ways to stop phoning it in and require more of yourself as a writer. Read this article to find out how to to recommit to your own writing

7 ways to overcome fear and uncertainty about writing 

Overcome fear and uncertaintyIn this terrific guest post, Writer’s Circle coach and produced screenwriter Sarah Newman talks about how to stay in action and keep moving forward with our writing even when fear and uncertainty rear their ugly heads. She shares a list of seven great ways to get unstuck and keep writing that I’m sure you will find both handy and inspiring. Read her article and discover how to get into action with your writing.

My 7 part series, “Make 2015 your year to write”

reflectionOur most recent “7’s” post was my seven-part series, called “Make 2015 Your Year to Write”. If you missed it, it’s not too late to work with the writing prompts in the series that will help you design and create goals and resolutions for your writing year (2015 or otherwise!) so that they are well-aligned with what you want in the big picture. That way you can make sure you’re working grounded in the reality of where you are right now as a writer and where you want to end up. 

7 tips for staying motivated by self-created deadlines

ticking clocksThis article ties in neatly with the article on recommitting, because self-created deadlines can be a powerfully motivating when it comes to hunkering down and doing the work. In this piece I talk about seven strategies you can use to make your inner deadlines actually mean something. Hint: It often involves turning those “inner” deadlines into outer ones. Read more about mastering your self-created deadlines here. (And see if you can guess which one is my favorite!) 

And your favorite “7” post: 7 ways to beat procrastination 

If the goal is too big, make it smallerThis article was your favorite “7” post, and it’s one of mine too. And it’s no surprise. Procrastination is one of the biggest things we struggle with as writers. In the piece I talk about the most common reasons for procrastination and seven ways to beat it, including some things you may not have thought of, like setting super small micro goals, telling others about what you’re doing to create accountability for yourself, and knowing when to STOP writing. Check it out here and bust your own procrastination habit while you’re at it

Enjoy, writers!

I hope your 2015 is off to a great start.

Happy writing.

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Make 2015 your year to write (Part four!)

Welcome back to the Make 2015 Your Year to Write series. 

If you’re just joining us, here’s what we’ve been up to: In our we began with part one, on reflecting on your writing life so far, then in part two looked at your patterns, challenges, and insights, and in part three began tapping in to what you want for your writing life.

Today in part four, we’ll look at how to close the gap between where you are right now and where you want to end up so you can start making real plans for how to get there.

Remember, if you have questions, thoughts, challenges, comments, or problems, I’m your coach this week! Just post them in the comments section on the blog and I’ll be sure to address or answer them for you. (And if you’re joining us “late” in this process, not to worry, just jump in, the water’s fine. :) )

On to part four!

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Examine the gap in your writing life

Whenever we have a goal we want to meet or a place we want to end up, there is a certain amount of distance between now and then, or here and there. 

Since we spent some time looking at where you want to GO in our part three work, now we can take a clearer look at what’s currently in the way of you getting there.

For instance, you might be bumping into a whole variety of obstacles like:

  • Being too busy or not having enough time to write
  • Having too many other obligations with work and family
  • Dealing with the kinds of creative or life challenges we talked about in part two
  • Trying to “find” time to write instead of making it happen
  • Getting caught up in other people’s needs or drama

But you might also be need to make changes about the way you are approaching your writing life.

You might right now be:

  • Not setting strong boundaries to protect your writing time
  • Not making writing one of your topmost priorities (It really needs to be in the top 3 to 5 to become a reality.)
  • Thinking about your writing in a negative way
  • Creating fantasies about what you need to write instead of just writing
  • Constantly debating about “IF” you are going to write each day instead of being clear about “WHEN”

When we look closely at these we can see that some of these are things we need to remove from our writing lives, while others might be things that we can add. Both would have a positive result in our ability to write more, or consistently.

So think about what you’ve learned from the last few days of exploration and then answer these questions: 

1. What do you want to remove from your writing life?

When you think about things you might want to remove from your writing life to make it flow more easily, what comes to mind? 

For instance, you might notice that you feel ready to let go of:

  • Extra obligations that have outworn their welcome, like the volunteer job that’s not fulfilling anymore, or social commitments you don’t feel nurtured by
  • Limiting beliefs about your ability to write
  • Outdated relationships with people who don’t hold your writing in high esteem
  • Excuses and stories about why you can’t write
  • Unprofessional writing relationships and groups
  • Writing projects that have outworn their welcome
  • Bad writing habits like perfectionism or binge-writing

2. What do you want to add to your writing life?

On the other hand, sometimes the gap can be closed when you start adding things in to your writing life, like:

  • A regular, daily writing practice
  • Boundaries that teach people to respect your writing time
  • Urgency and deadlines so you feel motivated to write daily and to finish projects consistently
  • A writing schedule, as in, on an actual calendar with actual times where you will show up and write
  • Accountability and support from people who know how much writing means to you and help you show up and actually do it
  • A writing community of friends who believe in you and support you to make it happen, day in and day out
  • A special place to write in your home, your office, or elsewhere
  • Making a life decision to treat your writing professionally
  • The proper tools and training

Again, there are no right answers here, only what fits best for you. Take some time with the writing prompts today to see what no longer fits for you and what might be a welcome change.

Here are some responses from my Writer’s Circle members:

From Helen, a Writer’s Circle member:

“This year, I added what I wanted to add: A positive, loving, caring support group that positively encourages my progress. This is your Writer’s Circle coaching group, Jenna. What I wish to remove is the negativity that comes from my current academic environment. Constant negative criticism and nagging do little to motivate me; on the contrary, they usually block my creativity and desire to write.”

From Sonya, another Writer’s Circle member:

“I’ve spent the last year in Jenna’s coaching and writing circle. I chose to do it after listening to her four-session course, ‘Design Your Writing Life’. It inspired me to get my writing act together, so to speak. I had been writing sporadically for my own blog, without a real purpose other than to share information and practical advice. I wanted to get more consistent about writing and find a more sustainable writing habit.

“Over the year, I have written a lot more, and a lot more consistently but it has still been what I call sporadic. I’d like to remove this sporadic behavior from my life. I’d like to get into an even more consistent, regular writing habit. I’d like to add writing time that is sacred. I have not been holding writing time sacred. I have been running it over with a Mack truck on a regular basis. That needs to stop. I need to be more consistent and sit down and write, every day, no matter what. No matter for how long.

“I have this unrealistic picture in the back of my mind of having a tiny house in my back yard and having it totally devoted to my own creativity (really, a room of one’s own), for writing, music, quilting, sewing, scrapbooking, photography. It’s about a $10K investment to do this through a friend’s company who makes them. I don’t have an extra $10K lying around to use for this purpose so I currently tend to sit at the kitchen table or on the couch to write. I know I should find a writing space in my home and write in that spot consistently. But to date, I haven’t been able to get comfortable in any space to write consistently. 

“I also don’t like to write when others are around so I tend to do other things when I have my kids (every other week). All of these things feel like excuses, one after another. I need to stop making excuses and just do the writing.

“I guess what it comes down to is that I want to remove excuses from my (writing) life and add an attitude of ‘write anyway’ to my life.”

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pen coffeeWriting prompts for Part four: Close the gap

Now it’s your turn. Here are your writing prompts for today. You can write about then in your journal, discuss them with your writing buddies, or just mull them over when you have a quiet moment. Then if you’re inspired to do so, please share your responses and/or insights in the comments section on the blog. Free to leave questions for me too, if you have them.

  • What do you want to remove from your writing life?
  • What do you want to add to your writing life?

And don’t miss tomorrow’s installment, where we’ll tune into the vision for your longer term writing career. It’ll be fun and inspiring! See you then. :)

 

 

 

 

The struggle with creative identity

Last week I met with a group of 13 moms to talk about “Designing Your Writing Life as a Mom”. I was struck by the disconnect many of the mothers were experiencing around their creative identity, which is something many writers struggle with, parents or not.

Observations about creative identity

Here’s what I noticed about creative identity through talking with these moms and working with writers through my Writer’s Circle. And certainly the question of creative identity is not specific to writers, either, it translates across all forms of creative expression.

  1. When you aren’t owning your creative identity, you can feel out of step with yourself, like you neither belong here nor there. This is about not being in touch with a sense of thinking of yourself as a “writer” or an “artist” yet — or ever. (Some people don’t like labels of any kind, but that’s not quite what we’re talking about here.) It’s about having a deep sense of inner rightness connected to how you think of your answer to the question, “Who am I?”
  2. Coming to terms with your identity as an artist or writer can require dealing with old expectations and limiting beliefs about what it means to be creative. Sometimes, I find that these thoughts and beliefs revolve around negative perceptions of creativity as flaky and ungrounded. Sometimes this can also mean letting go of expectations — and previous self-incarnations — of wild and prolific creativity, especially when faced with Real Life challenges (like parenting, care giving, careers, and day jobs).
  3. As a culture we tend to diminish or devalue writing and creativity, so sometimes we resist calling ourselves by those identities. We’re afraid to be laughed at or seen as not being serious by our peers in “real” jobs.
  4. As a culture we tend to also exalt creative expression only for certain types of artists or writers (usually “talented” or “successful” in a certain way), and we feel ashamed to try to claim our creative identity “too soon.” I see this a lot in the debate about when we can consider ourselves “real” writers. Do we have to be published first? Do we have to be paid first? Many writers, including me, feel that if we’re writing regularly we can call ourselves writers. I see this showing up when people say, “I am a struggling writer” or “I am a wannabe writer.”
  5. Going through a major life transition can challenge your creative identity, like motherhood, major loss, career change, or divorce. I imagine this challenge could come in a good sense — helping us more fully claim our identities — or in more challenging one, where we lose all sense of ourselves and can’t seem to find our way back. Often this comes about when we make a transition from one career to another (even if it’s from one creative career to another). When I became a coach and left my urban design work behind, it took a long time to feel like a coach. When I became a writer as well as a coach, it took another solid chunk of time to transition into seeing myself as a writer.

Identity challenges coming out of an MFA program

One thing that also struck me when I listened to the mothers the other day was about how many of them had been through MFA programs and then into motherhood and now weren’t writing. I suspect there are a few components to that process. In the first place, an MFA program can be an extremely intense phase of writing time — even binge-writing — which can be quite exhausting and requires time to recover from. I can still remember how finishing graduate school myself felt like hitting a brick wall — intense action followed by a sudden, total full stop that left me adrift, much in the way a rushing river spilling out into a lake or ocean suddenly loses its force.

There’s also a major shift in community. One writer I interviewed about going through an MFA program said, “There is a sense of loss in leaving an MFA program. You’re surrounded by people who really care about writing, and then when you leave, you need to find a way to get continued support for your writing, and it’s not easy.”

On top of that, while an MFA program can be about becoming a writer in a very real sense, the focus is primarily on craft, and not so much on developing a consistent writing practice. My interviewee commented, “When I graduated, it was like I reentered the ‘real world’ and realized that, while I’d no doubt become a better writer, I hadn’t developed consistent, sustainable writing habits, which was about learning a whole new skill.” So it’s easy to imagine that writers coming out of an intense program might suddenly feel at a loss about how to continue — and even start to wonder who they are as their entire foundation changes.

Next time we’ll talk more about how to reclaim your identity as an artist or writer if you’ve lost it or you’re struggling to claim it.

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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The biggest summer writing stumbling block

This week I taught a class called “Get Ready For Summer Writing” with an eye toward looking ahead to the summer and getting a writing plan in place to deal with the various obstacles and opportunities that arise around the summer time, like the kids being home, schedules changing, more traveling and vacations coming, and dealing with weather changes like it being unbearably hot (or suffering through the summer fog here in the Bay Area!).

(If you missed the live class, you can check out the recording by signing up here.)

We walked through a planning exercise to give some thought to where we want to be at the end of the summer and how we’re going to get there in terms of words or pages per day over the specific duration of the summer.

I also shared some tips, tricks, and strategies to keep writing during the summer, deal with the challenges, AND have the summer fun we’re all longing for.

The biggest stumbling block

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when it comes to summer writing (or writing at any time, for that matter) is taking an all-or-nothing approach. Many people think that if they want to travel or be outside or take care of kids or even deal with major life transitions, that means they can’t write.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The key is being willing to adjust your writing goals to match to your circumstances, not give up writing altogether.

Binge versus balance

While I know that some writers have a tendency to binge-write (and some people even advocate for it!), I remain highly skeptical of its sustainability in the long term, particularly for more sensitive types. I put in an extra effort a few weeks ago to get my script to my mentor in anticipation of submitting to a contest today (gulp) and even that extra effort set me back a bit.

It’s all a system of checks and balances, and while there are people who will tell you that balance is a myth, to that I say, are they highly sensitive or introverted types who need careful energy management? And are they finding themselves settling into long term burnout? I’ve talked with more than a few writers who feel burned by their own efforts, have started to feel like they hate writing, and even question why they’re doing it in the first place. Why wouldn’t they, when they’ve committed (consciously or unconsciously) to a program of writing aversion therapy?

Try small doses of daily writing instead

Instead, I like to see people writing in a long term sustainable pattern, including taking regular days off (I’m not a fan of “don’t break the chain“). It’s easier to maintain in the long haul, and helps keep your momentum and ideas flowing.

So if you’re looking ahead to the summer and asking yourself how you’ll get your writing done AND do the other things you’ve got your eye on, give some thought to a highly achievable small increment of writing you can commit to on a small scale. Even five to fifteen minutes a day will keep you in touch with your project and keep you moving forward. I’ve seen more than a few writers in my Writer’s Circle move to completion with projects again and again, using just small increments of time and showing up regularly to do the work.

You can do it too.

Your turn

What’s your biggest summer writing stumbling block? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

If you want more on this subject, make sure you check out my free teleclass recording, “Get Ready For Summer Writing“.

You may also be interested in my article on “Thinking ahead to summer writing“.

Join the Writer’s Circle

Join the Writer's CircleIf you’d like to experiment with writing in small increments of time, get a solid writing habit in place, and stay on track with your writing this summer, join the Writer’s Circle. The next session starts soon! Go here to register and find out more: http://JustDoTheWriting.com.

Warmly,

 Jenna