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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor, and leader of the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats. Come say hello at AWP!

 

 

The Year of the Writer

December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments

Vintage sepia photo of young girl with dark curly hair sitting at desk holding a paper and looking thoughtful

Next year definitely the Booker longlist

How was 2017?

OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?

Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.

When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.

What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.

What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.

I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018! 

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