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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part II

by Marina Darlow

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

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

Good.

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

Part II: Staying On Task and Completing It

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

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

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

Ready? 

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

Stage 3. Staying on Task, and Fending Off Distractions

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

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

How do you stay on task?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

Stage 4. Finishing Tasks

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

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

When is the chapter finished? Hmmm…

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

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

Bonus: The Art of Transition

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

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

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

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

Transitions tend to be harder for visionary creatives.

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

So how can we make transitions easier?

Three elements: awareness, planning, and ritual.

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

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

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

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

Broadly speaking, there are three types of transitions:

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

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

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

To Recap

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

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

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

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

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

Combine these tools and you’re unstoppable.

About Marina

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

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

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

4 Steps to Making Stuff Actually Happen, Part I

by Marina Darlow

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

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

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

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

There are four stages to each task:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we overcome these obstacles?

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

As I mentioned before, each task has four phases:

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

Today we’ll look at the first two phases:

Phase 1. Choosing a Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you do if you still struggle to choose?

Here are two good possibilities: 

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 2. Starting a Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

Stay Tuned for Part II

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

About Marina

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

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

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

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

Highly recommended. 

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

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.

diamonds

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 Power Of Showing Up To Write

View More: http://olimbphotography.pass.us/girl-power-for-goodNote from Jenna: This guest post is from Terri Fedonczak, a parenting coach, author, and Writer’s Circle coach.

I’ve loved working with Terri through the Circle over the last few years, first as a participant, then as a coach. She knocked our socks off by finishing the first draft of her parenting book in just three 28-day sessions of the Writer’s Circle in 15 minute increments of time – after having had the book “brewing” in her for over 15 years. Amazing!

Just Show Up

by Terri Fedonczak

When I joined the Writer’s Circle in 2012, I knew that I wanted to finally get my book out of my head and into my computer. I had been “writing” this parenting book for 15 years, as I knew that I needed to get one kid through adolescence before I could have any street cred with other parents. I put writing in quotations, because the book was mostly on tape. The little bit of writing that I did have was on sticky notes and spread across a dozen journals.

In my first session with the Circle, I thought I would just get organized. My goals were very small: only 15 minutes a day 6 to 7 days a week. Much to my surprise, I finished the rough draft in just three sessions. “Rough” is an understatement as a descriptor for that first draft. It was a 30-page booklet of disjointed ideas. I told myself that I wanted to keep it short, because parents were too busy to read a long book. That was a nice justification for keeping the real story to myself.

When I sent my booklet to my chosen editor, she immediately outed me. She said, “I will edit this book the way it is, but it wants to be so much more. There’s no heart and soul in it. YOU aren’t in your book. There’s nothing about your breast cancer, no struggle, no life coaching journey . . . there’s no mess here. Parenting is messy. You need to show other parents your mess.” She was right. And that started an 18 month journey of re-writes and edits.

Let Go of Expectations

One thing I’ve learned in the Writer’s Circle is that writing is both infinitely easier and more challenging than I ever expected. It’s more helpful if you flush your expectations of how long it will take or who will like it and just keep showing up to the page every day.

As a coach, I see brilliant writers spending lots of time and energy worrying about what other people will think of their writing, or fretting about how long it will take (or is taking). All this worry keeps us in ours heads. Good writing doesn’t come from the head – it comes from the heart. Meaningful writing grabs the reader with its simplicity and elegance and just won’t let go.

As readers, we don’t care about how long the writing took or how smart the author is, we want to care about what we’re reading. You can’t fake that or wordsmith your way around it. All you can do is show up to the page and show us your mess.

From Dream to Reality

Field Guide to Plugged In ParentingMy book went from a dream to a reality. It’s now on Amazon* and Barnes and Noble online, and it was endorsed by the Washington Post as a “must read” in their February Parenting Book Round Up.

But more importantly, I have parents tell me how much the book has changed their parenting for the better. That makes it all worthwhile. 

This Is What Success Looks Like

So, 15 years of vomiting ideas onto paper or tape, one month to a rough draft, and 18 months to re-write and publish. This is what success looks like; it’s not quick and it’s not easy. But with the support of other writers, a dogged determination to show up to the page every day, even just for 5 minutes, and the courage to show us your mess, you will arrive at your own version of success.

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terriTerri Fedonczak wants to live in a world where girls recognize their own power and choose to use it for good. On a trip to South Africa, Terri saw the power of the lioness and how they support their pride; it was a lightning bolt of realization that her mission is to bring the power of the pride to girls and their parents. Terri was a commercial real estate agent for 16 years until a bout with breast cancer transformed her life in 2010. She realized that trading money and status for time with her four girls and patient husband was not quite the deal she thought it once was. She left sales to become a certified life coach and embark upon a journey of spreading the message of girl power far and wide.

Terri is a featured speaker at the Costa Leadership Institute, helping adults balance their lives, and she takes the girl power message into high schools, talking to 9th grade girls about how to thrive in high school. Her first book, Field Guide to Plugged-in Parenting, Even If You Were Raised by Wolves, debuted in 2013. When she’s not speaking, coaching or blogging, you can find her paddle boarding on the sparkling waters of Boggy Bayou, knitting to the consternation of her children, who are buried in scarves and hats, or dancing in her kitchen to Motown.

You can discover your own inner lioness and feel the power of the pride at www.girlpowerforgood.com.

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Thanks for reading!

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

Jenna

 

 

 

* Affiliate link

Learning to finish

Writer's Circle coach and writer Jill WinskiA note from Jenna: This guest post from the highly talented coach and writer, Jill Winski — whom I’m proud to have serving as a coach for my online Writer’s Circle coaching program — offers insights for writers who struggle to finish their writing projects.

Read on to find out about what Jill has learned from her own process and from participating in the Circle.

Learning to finish

by Jill Winski

For more than two and a half years, I’ve been a participant in Jenna’s Writer’s Circle, and I’ve coached a small group in the Writer’s Circle for almost that long.

In some ways, I now divide my life into the pre-Writer’s Circle and during-Writer’s Circle eras. That’s because, in the Writer’s Circle, I’ve learned how to finish a novel draft. Before the Writer’s Circle, I knew how to make it about two-thirds of the way through.

And then — I’d stop.

There’s this quote from Neil Gaiman that one of my group members shared recently:

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

I don’t think this is always true for everything — some things are simply not worth finishing — but there is certainly a lot of truth there for me.

On finishing short stories

When I was in grad school, I learned to write — and finish — a short story. Because I carried my short stories to completion — even if they sucked — I learned a certain amount about the movement of a short story, about the promises set up in it, and about fulfilling those promises to the reader by the end. I wrote a good amount of short stories, and even had some of them published. I still have tons to learn about the art of short story writing, but, in finishing, I was able to let my own process truly sink in, let the story itself sink into my bones, and learn what could be cut away and what needed to emerge in the next draft.

On finishing novels

With novels, I never made it this far. When I joined the Writer’s Circle, I had two unfinished novel drafts. I had stopped writing them because I got lost.

I started writing the second novel because I believed I was bored with the first.

And the same thing happened.

I got lost.

I got stuck.

And I made the fact that I was lost and stuck mean that I was not a good writer. I didn’t decide this one day; it was sort of a “happening” over time, after grad school ended and I was no longer in as much contact with fellow writers.

I forgot — or maybe I never really understood — that all writers struggled. The longer I let my unfinished novels sit, the longer the drafts collected dust bunnies and cat hair in a pile next to my desk, the more sure I became that I had failed.

It’s not failure, it’s information

But one of my favorite mantras of the past couple of years is: “It’s not failure, it’s information”.

And that was where the Writer’s Circle came in for me. As part of logging in our daily progress, we answer a series of questions designed to bring awareness to our writing habit and process.

Awareness. For twenty years it’s been one of the most important themes in my life, but guess what? I never thought to apply it to my writing process.

I believed, for years, that writing just meant sitting down and pushing through even when it was hard.

And that worked. Until I got really, really stuck. And then it didn’t work anymore.

A novel is a vast thing, an unwieldy thing, a thorny thing. The opportunities to get lost, to go off the chosen path, are plentiful.

The more I logged in my daily progress in the Writer’s Circle and answered the questions, the more I became aware that my problem was this: I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of being mediocre. I was terrified of writing a shitty first draft. I just hadn’t known it before.

I actually believed I was bored

I was so afraid to know I was afraid that I’d actually believed I was bored.

It was one thing to write a shitty first draft of a short story; short stories were, by definition, short, and I could take a deep breath, jump in, and hope to come out on the other side in a couple of weeks.

But to write an entire draft of a novel and be, well, bad — for it to be far, far less than the vision of greatness I held in my head — seemed like too much.

Except I realized that’s exactly what I needed to do. And I only realized it by pausing enough to notice the thoughts I was having about my writing, about myself as a writer, and question them.

At the end of my second session in the Writer’s Circle, I finished my novel draft.

And a few months later, I went on to finish another.

I’ve seen this happen for the group members I coach in the Writer’s Circle, too. It’s incredibly exciting to see a fellow writer who’s been on a long journey reach a point of completion. And one of the biggest things I’ve learned while coaching in the Circle is that most of us have more days that feel like struggle than days where we feel “in the flow”.

And yet we’re all learning to finish, anyway.

My completed drafts do not match the vision I held in my head. But only in finishing did I actually see what was there, and only in finishing could I build the foundation for a better draft. I’m not saying we must always finish — but if we truly want to, we owe it to ourselves to give ourselves that gift.

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Jill Winski is a certified life coach who offers her clients support for the vulnerability that comes with creativity. She continues her adventures in the often-rocky terrain of fiction and nonfiction, and you can find her online at www.jillwinski.com.

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Thanks for reading!

Where are you with finishing? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

Jenna

 

 

 

It’s Never Too Late to Finish Your Book Now

TerriMany people have unfinished writing projects that linger for years, but it’s never too late to finish your book. And the time to get restarted might just be now.

I reached out to Terri Fedonczak, a long time Writer’s Circle member, to talk to us about her experience finishing a long-time writing project after 15 years of dreaming and what that’s been like for her. Terri has been such a great participant and gotten so much out of the Writer’s Circle that I recently invited her to join us as a coach for one of our coaching groups on the site.

Read on to find out about Terri’s extremely inspiring project for parents (I’ve seen a preview and it’s terrific!) and how she conquered her writer’s isolation and resistance with the help of the Circle and saw her book all the way through to done.

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Terri, welcome and thanks for being here. First, let’s talk about your accomplishment — finishing your parenting book! What was that like for you?

Thanks for having me, Jenna! When I finished my first draft, it was the culmination of a dream I have had for fifteen years. I remember telling my niece about how I wanted to write a parenting book and discussing topics with her; this was in 1996. When I actually finished my first draft, I thought there would be angels singing . . . not so much! What I didn’t realize was the time involved in the editing process — there’s always more!

How long had you been working on the book prior to joining the Circle?

I spent fifteen years working on the first draft, but I had been jotting down ideas in my journal for ten years before that. In the ensuing years, I wrote little snippets in journals and spoke ideas into my portable tape recorder.

You actually finished a rough draft of the book after you first joined the Circle in 2011, is that right?

Yes, my first session of the Writer’s Circle was spent culling all the bits and recordings into a little 60 page book.

Then what happened that led you to completing this new draft?

I interviewed three different editors, and picked Darla Bruno. She read through my first draft and suggested that the book wanted to be more. I hadn’t put my life into the book or any coaching tools. So, I took the challenge and spent the next year or so rewriting it. The completed book is 214 pages, and it’s everything I envisioned back in 1996!

What can you tell us about yourself and about the focus of the book?

I’m the mother of four daughters: three biological and one bonus girl that came to live with us in 2010. I’m a breast cancer survivor; I mention it, because it changed the course of my life. I left my fifteen-year commercial real estate practice to become a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach, writer, and speaker. Breast cancer changed my priorities completely; the threat of losing my life awakened me to the importance of living my right life.

The title of the book is Field Guide to Plugged-in Parenting, Even if You Were Raised by Wolves. It answers the question of how to be a good parent if you have no role models — you know you don’t want to replay your childhood, but you are lost as to an alternative. It’s a compilation of all the parenting and coaching tools I have used successfully with my kids, with some humor thrown in to lighten the load. I walk you through a process to create your own parenting plan, so that your kids will be starting with an infinitely better foundation, thereby ending the wolf-baby cycle forever. Wolf babies is a term I coined to describe those of us who were raised by wolves and suffer from lack-based thinking as a result.

How did you find out about the Circle and what inspired you to join us?

Jill Winski was in my life coach training class, and she put out an ad for the Circle on our Facebook page. I saw it and knew that I needed help with making my book a reality. It felt like divine guidance . . . and it was.

What have you learned about your writing process from participating in the Writer’s Circle?

I’ve learned that there is no magic pill, place, or instrument that delivers a quality product. All it takes is complete honesty, utter vulnerability, and a daily practice of showing up to the page . . . no big whoop!

What were the biggest challenges you faced before joining the Circle? Have they changed? What’s different now about your writing habit?

I think the biggest challenge I faced was the feeling that I was all alone in my desire to write a book. I knew I had an important message, I just didn’t understand how to deliver it. With the Circle for support and accountability, my biggest challenge now is the acceptance that I am a writer. It’s not a fluke or a pipe-dream; I wrote a book, ipso facto, I’m a writer! The biggest difference in my writing habit is that I’m no longer plagued with resistance, so I write every day. Some days it’s just 20 minutes of morning pages in my journal, and some days it’s three hours working on a blog post or outline for the new book . . . but I write every day.

What advice do you have for other writers?

First of all, join the Writer’s Circle! It’s the best way to incorporate writing into your daily life. Secondly, write every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes in your journal. While your logical mind is busy watching your hand move across the paper, the most delightful tidbits will rise up from your creative mind. When one pops up that excites you, expand it . . . like you’re telling your favorite friend a story. You don’t need anything other than a pen, paper, and a bit of quiet time to awaken your creative side . . . and then you’re off to the races!

What’s next for you and your writing?

I’m developing a program that I will be delivering to incoming 9th grade girls called, “Field Guide to the Wilds of High School.” I developed the program while on safari in Africa (jeesh, that sounds so hoity-toity), and it’s based on the power of the pride. I watched the way the lionesses took care of the pride, and how their raw feminine power ran their world. It reminded me of what’s missing in Girl World. So I’m taking the program into schools this summer, and then I will turn the results into a book for teens and a corresponding book for parents on how to survive high school.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I believe that everyone has a creative person living within them, and that creative energy can turn drudgery into joy. Find some way to nurture your creative side, and your life will blossom in endless and unexpected ways…or at least that’s what happened to me.

About Terri

Terri2Terri Fedonczak has 22 years of parenting experience and is a certified life coach, specializing in parent and teen coaching. After 16 years as a commercial real estate agent, a bout with breast cancer transformed Terri’s life in 2010, making her realize that time with her four girls and patient husband was a much better deal than money and status. It was time to put her mission into action. She left sales and embarked on a journey of spreading the message of girl power for good. When Terri is not writing books, speaking, coaching, or blogging, you can find her paddle boarding on the sparkling waters of Boggy Bayou, knitting to the consternation of her children, who are buried in scarves and hats, or dancing in her kitchen to Motown.

You can follow Terri online at http://alifeinbalance.com and on Facebook here. Look for Terri’s Field Guide to be published in January 2014!

Thanks for reading!

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

Warmly,

 Jenna