Aim Low! (The “A-Little-Is-Better-Than-Nothing” Approach to Goal-Setting)

This post goes out to the procrastinators of the world. The writers who have great ideas bouncing around in their writerly minds, but still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed to transfer those ideas into words. I feel you, procrastinators! But I do have some advice: Set a low daily writing goal you know you can meet and stick to it. Pretty soon, you will be not only meeting those goals, but exceeding them.

How low, you ask? Very low. As low as you think you need in order to get yourself in the habit of daily writing. For some people, that may only be a couple of sentences, even, or a couple of paragraphs. For others, it may be a couple of pages. Whatever “low” is for you.

This is how the medical community motivates people to exercise, after all. If they tell folks who haven’t walked any further than from their bedroom to their living room or out to their car in the last fifteen years to suddenly walk the hour per day necessary for optimum health, they will immediately squash the poor patient’s feeling of agency. “Why even bother?” the patient will think, “I’m gonna sit here and watch Judge Judy. I’ve been fine all my life so far without this walking nonsense.” Instead, doctors tell patients to walk or exercise an achievable amount of, perhaps, “fifteen minutes per day.” An hour seems unachievable, but fifteen minutes–a walk around the block–seems more doable for almost everyone. Of course, once people begin walking around the block, they realize (depending on their health, of course. I’m not trying to be insensitive here) that this is not only doable, but they feel better. So the next week, they maybe walk further. The next week, they may walk further. And pretty soon they are walking all over the neighborhood, five miles a day. But initially, they need to set a small goal and meet it. And even if the goal never grows, fifteen minutes of walking is better than nothing at all.

As a person who suffers horribly from writerly self-doubt and perfectionism, I set my own daily goal at an achievable 500 words. Five hundred words is a pretty easy goal to meet for me and if I’m on a roll, it takes no more than twenty minutes of my day. If I’m not on a roll, it can take longer, but it’s never more than 45 minutes to write a measly 500 words. The goal here is to just get myself writing: It’s “only five hundred words. It’s like brushing your teeth and washing your face. You brush your teeth, don’t you? You have time to do that….” So, I sit down to write my 500 words more often than not, and while I’m writing, I realize I’ve actually written 700 or 1000 because once I cross the “I don’t have time to write” threshold, I remember how much fun it is for me, how relaxing it is for me, how much I fundamentally enjoy writing. If I had never set a low goal, though, I never would have been able to talk myself into it. Because I am ever-so-busy, of course.

I stand by this little trick–it works every time. Would I be more productive to force myself to write 2,000 words per day? Maybe. But for the long haul, sometimes we just need to get into the habit of doing a little bit, every day, consistently. Because in the end, that’s how we live our lives. Bit by bit, day by day.

On Riffing in Fiction Writing (How To Have Great Ideas If You Are Stuck)

Three_little_pigs_-_the_wolf_lands_in_the_cooking_pot_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15661

A few years ago, I found my oldest daughter’s acoustic guitar in the secret attic room and after restringing it and tuning it, I decided to teach myself how to play it. I didn’t make it very far (I really don’t have time to properly teach myself how to play a guitar. After all, if I have any time, I need to be writing), but I made it far enough to learn a few chords and understand the concept that you can take a simple song—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” for example—and then, if you feel so inclined and have the ability, you can add different strum patterns and other dimensions, all based on that same basic song. You can take the skeleton tune and turn it into something entirely new.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this out. After all, almost everything we learn to do is based on this idea of what I call “riffing”—starting with a simple structure and then adding complexity and other dimensions to make it our own.

For example, we do this with cooking.  When we first want to make a new dish, we probably hunt down a recipe to figure out where to begin. Then, generally, we follow the recipe pretty closely that first time, just because we don’t necessarily trust ourselves not to mess it up (depending on what we are making). Once we have made it a few times, however, we decide to use different noodles, perhaps, or add some jalapeños. Oh, and red onion would be another good addition. Maybe some cilantro. Soon, the new recipe is perhaps but a shadow of the original one, with our own flare and probably even more delicious. It doesn’t always work out, but this experimenting with recipes is half the fun of cooking.

We do this with everything, actually. We start with something basic and then make it our own. And so it goes with fiction writing: if you are stuck for an idea, you can hardly go wrong with riffing an urban legend or a fairy tale.

You will start with a basic tale—take the “Three Little Pigs” for example.  With this tale, we have three pigs, one of them a bit lazy, one a bit middle-of-the-road, and one who gets shit done. We then have a wolf who, of course, wants to eat them because they are juicy and that’s what wolves do. Then you have some bit about a fair and rolling down the hill with a butter churn and the wolf meeting his demise by falling through a chimney into a pot of boiling water. All that, however, is old detail for the basic upshot of the tale, which is that the two pigs run to the house of the pig who gets shit done and they work together to foil the wolf. That’s the bones of the story, but you can take this story so many different ways.

In your story, perhaps, the pigs become human brothers (or sisters), who probably all have a bit of emotional baggage about their perfect brother who builds sturdy houses out of brick. The middle brother just wants to be left alone to publish articles on sub-tropical islands he can never visit since the mortgage to his ranch house in the suburbs takes all his cash. The younger brother, who built his house out of hay, lives in his girlfriend’s condo in LoDo because he’s charming and attractive, but doesn’t have a dime to his name and he is resentful of the other two. At some point, he wants to impress his girlfriend (so she won’t kick him out) and he starts a business by borrowing from a loan shark (enter Wolf)….

And, we’re off to the races. Now we have an idea! The point here is not that this would be an excellent story or not—we have no idea because a story like that is in the telling and the details. In fact, we could all write this exact same story and none would be the same, which is the great thing about writing.  The point here is that if you ever get stuck finding a writing idea, you can always start with a basic skeleton of a well-known tale and, with a little riff session, make it your own.

How To Be Efficient

IMG_4041

This post has less to do about writing, but since much of my time (and probably yours) is spent trying to find more time to write, I think it is still relevant. I have a lot going on in my life, much like everyone else, and with only 24 hours in a day, it can’t hurt to let be as efficient as possible to make those hours count. With all I have going on in my life (the five kids, the career, the husband, former grad school, making sure my house doesn’t look like a scene from Cops, etc.) I feel I have a few things to say on the issue. So, here we go:

Focus on the most important things. The biggest thing about being efficient is knowing what is important and what is actually not important and then make decisions accordingly.  We all know that person who spends a great deal of time on X when X is actually not that important in the grand scheme of things. We all silently wonder “Why is he spending all that time on X? Why is he doing charts and graphs for X? That’s going to end up in someone’s inbox of doom.”  Don’t be that person. The first order of business before starting any task is to analyze the task for how important it is in the grand scheme of things—whether professionally or personally—and analyze how much time it is worth to you and the rest of the world. You probably still need to DO most of it, but how much time you spend fretting and stressing over each item will depend on it’s importance in the bigger picture. After analyzing what you need to get done, mentally rank each task and give it the attention it deserves. Don’t spend hours and hours on unimportant or marginally important tasks. Don’t make mountains out of molehills, in other words. For some items, you just need to get them done and move along.

Do one thing at a time. I know, I know, it sounds counterintuitive to do only ONE thing at at time when you have ten to do, but there have been several studies out lately that multi-tasking actually wastes time and energy, plus increases the odds for mistakes (feel free to google this and see the previous item for why I’m not actually providing the links). I used to be the biggest multi-tasker of all time—sitting there with five browser windows open, two Word documents, all while texting the kids, making dental appointments, all at once—but a few years ago, I tried doing just one thing at a time and in my experience, it worked well. Doing one thing at a time allows you to have zen-like focus and completely absorbed yourself in the task, thus allowing you to finish it more quickly and with less errors. To facilitate the “do one thing at a time” approach, I have my own system of creating a set of to-do’s and then once I complete one item, I move on to the other. At work, I use the tried and true “Post-It Note approach,” where, as tasks arise, I will then add them to a series of Post-It-Notes laid across my desk. Once a task is complete, I cross it off the list and then take a break before choosing a new task.  For domestic and personal items, I keep an electronic to-do list on my phone. Don’t ask me why I have different systems for different parts of my life because I have no idea—it’s just what works for me. You may not even like to write to-do lists and that’s okay. You choose what works work you. The important part is that you do one thing at a time and focus on that one item until you are done or have found a stopping point.

Take breaks. Which brings us to the next point—when you come to a stopping place, efficient people take a little break to rejuvenate. Walk around the hallways for a few minutes. Refill your water mug. Pop outside and feel the sun. Have a cookie. Whatever. But take a break for a few minutes and then go back to your to-do list to tackle the next item. If you don’t take a break, though, you will be more likely to make mistakes, rush, or just feel drained. Remember, you are trying to be efficient and you can’t do that if you are worn down and dragged out.

Know yourself and have a plan.  Everyone is different when it comes to how they function.  For me, I am a bit of a morning person and by around 3:00 pm, I begin to lose focus. Don’t get me wrong–I can still function at that time, but I feel my brain getting flaky and you probably don’t want me doing anything too complex much after 3:00 unless I have plenty of snacks. Because I know this about myself, I tackle all of the difficult things as early as possible in the morning (which is one reason I prefer to write in the morning, specifically if I am writing fiction, which takes more concentration for me than other types of writing) and save more mundane things for the afternoon.

Delegate appropriately.  As a perfectionist, I struggle with this. I AM one of those people who will take the stance of “I want this to turn out well, so let me just do it all so I can make sure it gets done correctly.” I am here to tell you that this approach is not efficient.  While I still struggle with delegating, it is important to know how to do it, or at least have a strong understanding of where our own responsibilities lie and where they don’t. It is important to be able to say, to a work group, “I will do X….who wants to do Y?” When you get a volunteer to do Y (or if dont, you then have to say, “Joe, I think you’d be GREAT at doing Y! Let’s meet and talk about what that’s going to look like”), make sure you outline what the expectations are for the task at hand (or you will make more work for yourself by having to harass poor Joe to make sure he is doing Y). This works very well in your personal life as well. Just this morning, one of my teens overslept and said, “You didn’t wake me up!”  I reminded her that waking people up was not my job (I didn’t even add that there is nothing like teaching responsibility to a teen by refusing to wake her up every morning. My refusal to wake her up is actually some rockin’ parenting right there. She just doesn’t realize it yet).  Don’t take on roles by default.  It is perfectly fine to remind people that they are equally accountable for x, y, and z and hold them to that. Having to wake people up in the morning or chase them down to remind them to do things is not efficient.

Have routines.  It can be tiring and inefficient to constantly adjust the plans for the day.  We have to do enough of this as it is, so it helps to know the routine you will have each day waking up, writing, dressing, driving to work, checking email, then looking at the to-do list….etc. You can also have weekly routines.  One big one for me is doing all errands and grocery shopping on a specific day, rather than wasting time going to the grocery store three or four times per week, whenever we run out of eggs. If you run out of something, oh well. Make do. Now, this does’t always work, but I know for a fact that it is not efficient to have to stop by the grocery store to buy cat food after work instead of just driving home and getting on with the rest of your evening.

Wear a “uniform.” This one goes out to my former writing professor at UT Dallas.  He wore the same black shirt, black jeans, and black boots every day of the week.  He claimed to switch it up to a black t-shirt on the week-ends. Why? His uniform freed his mind to do other things in life rather than spend time worrying about whether he should wear the gray slacks or the blue button up. (You can Google this work uniform approach, too, but be prepared to read a lot about Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.)  You don’t even need to be extreme about the uniform, though. Two years ago, I launched an entire system for whittling down my wardrobe and the end result (still a work in progress, but better) is a selection of work clothes that largely consists of a variety of black and gray skirts and dresses, with with red or burgundy accents.  The goal for this system is to have a wardrobe which, while it does not consist of all black, still doesn’t require a great deal of thought in the morning because I like all of the items, they all fit, and they all coordinate with one another. I also know that all my work clothes are right there on the “work” portion of my closet, so I can just grab them. Whatever you can do to limit your energy about anything is a win in the morning. I also eat the exact same breakfast every day as well.

Use technology wisely. I love technology and I am one of those people who is never more than five feet from my phone.  I use software like Evernote for everything and there is nothing more efficient than being able to access all my notes I ever wrote by just searching one word. I, like everyone else I know, lives by my calendar. If it’s on my calendar, I will be there because The Calendar will tell me when to leave, according to the traffic patterns.  Also, I have already written about how I can get a lot of work done in an orthodontist’s office waiting room by using Scrivener, so technology is great. That said,it is also important to also know when to turn it off.  Just yesterday, I went to the grocery store and I somehow managed to forget my phone. I shopped with my son and got done quickly before realizing that my phone hadn’t buzzed once. How odd!  When I looked for it, though, I realized I had just forgotten it (and then went into a panic and felt the shakes of withdrawal until I got home, but that’s another post). No wonder no one texted or called me–I just didn’t have my phone.  When I got home, I saw that actually, I had twenty different texts from family members with their shopping requests, in addition to other texts.  The fact that I got done shopping in record time without my cell phone wasn’t lost on me—the fact that no one could reach me to interrupt my shopping played at least a small role in that accomplishment. So, sometimes, it’s important to unplug and focus on a task at hand in order to be efficient.

Spend time reflecting and adjusting. Finally, at the end of the day, it pays to spend a few minutes reflecting on how the day went.  Did you accomplish what you wanted to do? Did you live a good day? What might you try differently next time? What will you continue to do? It may be only five or ten minutes, but taking that time to reflect and adjust can help your future plans.

Well, that’s it. I hope those ideas work for you, too.  By increasing our efficiency in our lives, we can do more of what we love to do.