Tiny Water Bottles

March 28, 2019 § 34 Comments

Many people think I’m an overachiever with everything under control. If you’re also an overachiever, you probably understand the hollow laughter that inspires in me. So often, the symptoms of organization—paper planners, to-do apps, regular social media appearances—mask what feels from the inside like abject laziness.

But Allison, you reassure me, you do a lot. You blog! You edit! You write! You travel all over!

Thanks. That’s true, and I’m privileged to get to do those things. Paradoxically, I often feel the most lazy when I’ve gotten the most done. Sure, I checked six things off my list…but I know in my heart I did them because they were easy instead of working on a larger, more difficult goal. I vacuumed instead of working on my proposal. Ran errands instead of analyzing the structure of my novel. Read 100 pages for clients instead of writing one of my own.

Often, what feels like “laziness” is actually procrastination, anxiety about the outcome, or not knowing where to start. And no matter how many tasks get accomplished, I feel lazy when the most important thing isn’t done. When I’m avoiding something with big stakes, or that takes a skill I don’t have yet. Sure, I’ll learn the skill as I go, but I’ll start out uncomfortable with my own incompetence and unsure how I’m going to finish. Or I’m faced with a big job I don’t yet know how to break into steps. I’ll move it to tomorrow’s list instead of tackling any part of it, because starting would also mean admitting I might not know how to do it.

Here’s what helps.

The cartoonist Jessica Abel, who also runs workshops for creatives learning to control their time, pointed out in a recent webinar:

Priority means one.

You can’t have multiple priorities on a list, because a priority is one thing. Sure, your priorities may change throughout the day, or as you shift from your artist self to your family self or from the office to the studio to the home. But at any given time, you can only have one priority.  Likewise,

Many projects=no projects.

The amount of great ideas we have and are capable of executing far exceed the number of hours available to work. Being able to do a thing well doesn’t mean the thing fits our plans. It’s OK to put great new projects on the back burner while focusing on one project until it’s done.

About two months ago, these two ideas changed how I work. I started picking one project and doing it until it was done. I hedged a little: one personal project and one client project at a time, but rotating lets me rest my brain. I can work for 6-8 focused hours, but I can’t really do more than 4 hours in a day (plus breaks!) on one thing.

The third key to feeling less lazy?

Tiny steps.

Like, ridiculous tiny. Like instead of “be healthier” which is not a doable goal, because really, what would you do if I pointed and said “your job right this minute is to be healthier”? Um, I’ll get right on that?

So I backed up. I want to drink more water.

Still not a doable step.

I need a water bottle I can carry around and also wash out and re-use.

That I can do. I figure out it needs to be small and lightweight, because I won’t carry it if it’s heavy. Step one isn’t even “buy water bottle”—it’s “look online to see what lightweight water bottles exist,” so when I walk into the store I know what I’m looking for.

The last piece that finally fell into place, that helped me feel less “lazy”?

External deadlines.

I wish I could put “finish X by this date” on my calendar, but I just don’t. It doesn’t always have to be a deadline imposed by another person, but I need a reason beyond “I want to be done by then.”

I want to finish my new writing retreat website before attending a festival where I’m talking about writing retreats.

I want to finish my book proposal before going to AWP so I can meet small presses and be ready to send to anyone who seems interested.

Are these actually any more solid than “finish X by this date”? Nope. But it works, so I’ll keep doing it.

My one-project-at-a-time-with-a-deadline plan is working so far. I finished the website. The proposal is well under way. I’m flying through client pages. At a cafe, my writing buddy looked at my water bottle and said, “It’s so tiny!”

“Yeah, but it’s a doable goal!” I said. “It’s little enough I can drink two or three refills while sitting here, and that feels like I’m getting something done!” Then I went and peed for the third time in two hours.

Next time you’re feeling lazy, ask Am I anxious about the outcome? Worried I don’t have the ability to do this? Overwhelmed by where to start? Made helpless by too many ‘priorities’?

Then pick one tiny step.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 34 Responses to Tiny Water Bottles

  • ccbarr says:

    Mom always said ,”if you can’t do it right then don’t do it at all.” This trips me up. The suggestions are excellent. Thanks.

  • Sandra says:

    Going to fill my water bottle as your words have filled me. Thanks.

  • Reblogged this on Rust Belt Girl and commented:
    If there’s one blog I read every day, it’s this one–BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog. Outside of writing for my blog, I mostly write fiction, but, boy, those CNF and memoir folks really do a good job of pondering their work and the writing life in general. Often, Brevity’s blog features guest posts, which are generally excellent, but when their Social Media Editor, Allison K. Williams, posts, I find myself nodding along. “This is it; this is just what I needed to read this morning.” So, while I plan blog posts downloading the highlights of my writers retreat, last weekend; and writing advice about reading and researching outside one’s usual genres, I’m re-blogging this gem today… I hope you find it as useful to your life–writing or otherwise–as I did. ~Rebecca

  • Thank you, Allison. Re-blogged on my site. Just exactly the message I needed today. Busy-ness is not going to get it done. Thoughtful (tiny) steps are. Much appreciated!

  • nixy says:

    Thank you for this 🙏🏼

    Sent from my iPhone


  • mjhowes says:

    Allison, thank you, once again, for helpful ideas about actually living life as a writer – in this case, addressing those internal questions with deliberate, directed action.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It’s astonishing how much of being a ‘beautiful free-spirited artist’ is about deliberate actions!

  • Thank you, Allison. As always, I owe you.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You are so welcome – and I think you’re at AWP this weekend? I’m dying to meet you!

      • I will be there Saturday specifically to see you and track down Dinty! Grandchildren here today so that blasted my plans for Thursday/Friday and I will miss his panels. (But grandchildren!)

  • johnrieber says:

    I was hired to help finish a major project due in 5 months, and oversee a small team that had no idea how they were going to get it done. So I put all of the goals on a board, cross-referenced them with their names, and then created a timeline to the completion date. I walked everyone through it, and instead of 1,000 elements due in 5 months, it became 1.7 per person per week, and suddenly it wasn’t daunting. Tiny steps indeed

  • Just what I needed to read this morning – and probably to re-read every morning. A big project looms, and it’s a new direction for me. Your suggestions just might help me move past the fears of incompetence. Thanks!

  • leagpage says:

    I was just thinking: how do I decide–work on the proposal for the book I’m querying or revise the new first draft? Submit essays or work on my platform? So, of course, I checked my email and boom! Here you are. Every word resonates. Thank you so much.

  • So exactly what I needed to read this morning–thank you! I’m going to print out and put near my desk.

  • Devisha Shah says:

    Wow, you so aptly describe this weird feeling, something that was experiencing but never really said out loud even to myself. Thank you so much for some helpful tips!

  • equipsblog says:

    Such distilled wisdom. Thanks for breaking it down for us to sip on.

  • Jessica Abel says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Allison! I’m glad the workshop helped. Was it the habit-building one in Jan https://www.crowdcast.io/e/creative-habit ?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Hi Jessica! Yes, that’s what reminded me most recently, but I’ve been following you for several years now. And loving everything you have to say!

      • Jessica Abel says:

        Thanks for that, and glad I can help! I am really glad to now realize you’re there in the mix when I send out my email and do events!

    • stacyeholden says:

      It was good to see a reminder of Jessica Abel’s work. I always get so much food for thought from her posts and book! And thanks Allison, for a fantastic reflection. I think I’ll start the next few days by reading it.

  • writerIgnatiusBambaiha says:


  • Maya Brewer says:

    Tiny water bottles! I love the image! Baby steps get the job done. Reminds me of “Bird by Bird!” Thanks for the encouragement. So needed this right now!

  • […] via Tiny Water Bottles […]

  • Elizabeth Losa says:

    Right to the point today. I do enjoy your posts, Allison.

  • Ittutra says:

    I’m so new to exploring WordPress, and a brand new user/blogger, myself. Thank you for your inspiring perspective!

  • Joanne says:

    Great post, excellent (and inspiring) points as I procrastinate on several upcoming deadlines.

  • Barb Knowles says:

    It’s great reading this, because it helps me to take pressure off of myself. I am now fortunate enough to have at least a slight relationship with a number of writers, either through social media or workshops/conferences. I look at them and feel they accomplish so much more than I do. Which probably has to do with
    1) my self-esteem issues and
    2) I’m an all or nothing kind of a person

    Tiny Steps. Doable Goals.

    Thank you!

  • Shelley says:

    I’m so pleased that Rebecca at RustBelt girl re-blogged your post. Thank you for sharing your tips. I can relate – and I agree, tiny steps work best. Now, where was I, I got side-tracked.

  • thefeedspace says:

    Great article. I am huge fan of setting milestones in dealing with a huge large projects.

  • This is everything I need right now (and always) — thank you!

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