Category Archives: be positive

Going resolution-less and unscripted in 2015

it's a great way to start the year

lego man sweating while lifting barbell

Ahh, one of the perennial favorites… CC image Resolution 2105: exercise more? courtesy of clement127 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the dreaded “R” word. Tradition and bane of many at the start of every new calendar year.

Well, screw it.

This year, I’m thumbing my nose at detailed advance planning. Because that’s what sucked out my soul, last year.

At the start of 2014, I had sat down with a friend to discuss the loooong list I held in my hand — not bulleted, but indented and almost like a bulleted list in that I had grouped goals and plans by theme. I had plenty of goals relating to my freelance business, creative life, travel and finances. I’m an associative thinker — once I get going I can keep up a long stream of related words. The list, therefore, was not brief.

I had made one concession to being orderly in preparation for our meeting. I had taken my handwritten list (complete with arrows and different colored ink, where I had to add an idea to an earlier section that I had missed on the first pass, thereby messing with the overall organization and layout) and typed it into a word document that I printed out from the computer. At least the printed copy was more legible than my handwriting.

As 2014 wound to a close, I thought about that list with some frustration.

Year of the List

2014 was the Year of the List. I had my annual “big picture” list, just discussed. I’m also a fan of Dan Miller’s work in 48 Days to the Work You Love, and was using his monthly goal sheets as a tool to keep my focus throughout the year. Miller breaks down goals into seven broad categories: finances, personal development, social, physical, family, and career. All year (and before 2014 too), I printed out the sheets and considered my 1-year and 5-year goals, and what I could do today to get myself closer to achieving them. By October this time around, my relationship with these tools was clearly on rocky footing. I think I growled at them once or twice, with my pen hovering over the page like a dagger.

Some categories were easy for me to fill out; for others, every month was like pulling teeth. Most of us have heard about the aspects of a goal we should keep in mind, if we really want to be successful: goals should be SMART:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Results-focused (outcomes, not activities)
Time-sensitive (have a deadline)

Finances? That was easy. That’s all about numbers. Personal development? Again, slam dunk. I have way more cool ideas and plans and projects than I could ever hope to get done in a finite amount of time. But social? Family? As an introvert, it’s kind of horrifying to have to set goals about how often to make a big social splash. As someone without kids, yet great relationships to her relatives, the family category made no sense to me whatsoever.

The listing didn’t stop at the monthly level though. Oh, no. In trying to keep on top of my monthly goals, I was putting together a weekly list, which then informed my daily list.

All in all, I was surrounded by an accumulating assortment of slips of paper, some with words crossed out, sporting different dates. I felt like I was becoming obsessive.*

Listing vs doing

I didn’t feel like I was getting much done; I felt like the time I was an office temp doing straight numeric data entry for eight hours a day. The numbers came in, I typed them all with my right hand, the numbers went out, I went home and never knew what happened to the numbers before or after they swept through my brain. I even dreamed about those number combinations. Fortunately that assignment lasted less than a week. I haven’t started dreaming about lists yet. Though I feel like if I tried, I might remember some of those number combinations…

Now I’m supposed to come up with a list for 2015??? Roll me in a mound of porcupine quills!

I need a new framework. I’m not reviling Dan Miller — the man’s work is an inspiration and I highly recommend reading him if you have not already — I’ve just come to understand this framework isn’t working for me anymore.

I do have tangible goals and events in 2015 that I don’t need to construct a list to know about. I don’t need any “R” words to keep them top of mind. They are specific and measurable, they have a deadline and depend on results.

At this point, that’s good enough for me. Unless a more useful frame of reference springs to mind, I’m going to let the year go unscripted.

*Dear reader, if all was as self-evident to the characters as it is to you, what then would happen to the story? I ask you.

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What do you think about the usefulness of resolutions (new year’s or otherwise)?

Submit that writing!

(otherwise you’ll never get published)

large button reading Submit mounted on the wall

CC image Submit Button courtesy of johannes p osterhoff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Has anyone else noticed that submitting work for publication involves a lot of decision-making?

You need to figure out which piece you want to submit. Which means you have to figure out if it’s ready to submit. Which means you need to make a lot of editing decisions, and before you know it, you might be sucked into a total re-write.

You need to figure out where you’re going to submit it. This involves the monumental task of finding places that publish. Do I want to publish online or in print or both? What genre am I looking at — or more than one? Am I willing to pay a reading fee? How much? Do I want to consider contests?

What are the deadlines? What are the guidelines? Do I need to trim words? Add words? What font and spacing do I need to use? Have I put the appropriate contact and identifying information in my piece (or refrained from using it if asked)? Dammit when was that deadline again? OK, next market!

Then there is the actual packaging. Find the submission website. Click through the options, enter the information, upload the file (this stage involves a revisiting of all the previous questions, as to whether the manuscript is ready, whether this is the best work, if I should edit it some more, if this is really the venue for me, whether I’ve formatted everything according to their guidelines, etc etc etc), SUBMIT.

This spring, I began the process of submitting in earnest. I’ve got all sorts of flotsam and jetsam pieces floating around, and I need to actually send them on their way. Along with a group of other people who were using each other for mutual support, I gathered to talk about places to submit what types of writing, and pulling together my choices for what I wanted to submit and where. The idea was to get at least six submissions out that day.

To be honest, I haven’t gotten to that last button yet [SUBMIT!], because I’ve been waylaid by all the other stages.

Dilemmas, dilemmas

First, I thought I had all these pieces ready. Turns out, I didn’t, because I rejected them for one reason or another. Only two or three were close enough to send-worthy, and even these, I wanted to edit.

Then I looked up a number of promising venues to submit these two pieces. That one sentence describes more than an hour’s worth of research — see paragraphs 3 and 4, above. Finally, I got my targets organized, and went back to my chosen pieces to make a few — only minor, really — fine-tuning changes.

The time for our group to meet ended, and I still hadn’t submitted a thing. That’s fine, I told myself. I can go home, have lunch, refuel the brain, and finish up the task from there.

You know what happened to that.

The death of good intentions in the fires of creative flip-flopping

My good intentions DID carry over, at least for a little while. I sat down to make the final polishing-edits on the one piece. The more I pulled it together, the better I felt about the prose, and I lost track of the time going by. When I got up for a drink of water, the afternoon was gone.

Damn. I had had other plans for the rest of my day. After all, I was going to submit in the morning, so all the rest of the hours could be allocated for other things.

That’s fine, I told myself, as I had to make a few phone calls and buy food for dinner. I have the rest of the weekend. I have the rest of the week — by next weekend, this will all be taken care of.

I could write you a list of all the other things I had to do during that week, but I won’t. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Research shows that we have a finite amount of energy for decision-making processes. Making a decision is a lot of work for the brain. We may start out fresh in the morning (or not, if you’re me, and the alarm goes off way too early), but throughout the day we deplete our stores of mental energy through use. Come mid-afternoon, I’m tapped out. Which is sort of sad, since I’m doing work for other people for most of the day, and my own time in the evening is then relegated to a period of vegetation on the couch, with a restorative book in hand or Netflix queued up on the computer… ah brainlessness… Pending the decision on what I’m going to watch or read, of course.

It seems to me that I’m just too stubborn.  My will will not submit.

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What about you? Do you submit?

Sweating the small stuff:

how to get creative work done

golden retriever makes a snowman

But I like making stuff! — CC image “Chevy Worked Hard Building His Own Snowman” courtesy of Chevysmom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Going to the library should not have been a big deal.

It’s pretty small stuff. Question: where will I do my writing today? Answer: the library.

Done.

It’s like the dilemma about changing the channel on the TV when you can’t find the remote. Truly, not worth thinking about for more than 2 seconds. Library: quiet, air conditioned, no distractions. [1] A good place to do thoughtful work.

Except I questioned that should take that step, and almost got zero writing done that day as a result.

The easy way out of creativity

Have you ever known you needed to do something, but were looking for the easy way out?

Like most creative people, I’m fairly bruised from falling off and jumping back on the wagon of disciplined work. On a recent foray into more structured creative behavior, I came across this article from the Huffington Post outlining five bad habits that freelancers fall into. Number 5: Working From Your Bedroom caught my eye particularly.

“Working in your bedroom is only one step away from doing the laundry, two steps away from taking a nap, and three steps away from cooking in the kitchen,” #5 says. “Studies also show that working from your bedroom can cause you to have problems sleeping and resting when you’re not working.”

Hmm.

I’ve written before about the benefits of literally taking a new perspective — sitting in a new seat in your room or office when you work, for example. So I responded to the common-sense nature of Voakes’ advice right away. Great, I thought. Today I’ll go to the library!

Then I thought, If only it wasn’t 90 degrees outside…

Artists’ no. 1 excuse: If only…

Beware this phrase. Have you ever caught yourself using it? “If only” is the number one way our Inner Procrastinator brainwashes us. “If only [XYZ condition were met], I’d have this all taken care of…”

Which really translates into, “I’m letting myself off the hook by choosing a precondition that I know won’t be met. Sorry, art!”

Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? The library is air conditioned! Staying at home, faffing on the computer, would have been just as absurd as refusing to change the TV channel because I don’t want to get up out of my chair and the batteries are dead in the remote.

I had a goal to do creative writing work. I had decided to take both my own good advice on changing my physical perspective, and the accepted wisdom of freelancers everywhere that sometimes, we really do need to get out of the house to get things done. Going to the library would accomplish both goals.

Except getting there meant walking for nearly half an hour in the heat, getting even more hot and sweaty than I already was.

Now, I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Work should make you sweat

Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic swimmer by sitting on his hands. Charles Dickens didn’t publish more than 30 books (but who’s counting?) by fretting about the temperature. And neither will you or I ever get where we want to be, creatively, if we’re afraid of a little sweat.

Which is why I think sweating the small stuff is a great strategy for getting creative work done. Working at the library versus working at home? Not a big deal, really…

Getting zero words on paper versus three hours of focused, dedicated writing and nearly two completed drafts?

Definitely worth the sweat.

===

What did you sweat creatively this week?

1. Unless you count books, of course. Those distract me all the time, but ironically, the otherwise siren call of literature becomes a soothing hum when I’m doing my own work surrounded by hundreds of tomes.
Back to the text

Declaration of Dependence

why it's sometimes a good thing, and what we can learn from being dependent

(Remember to send me your Mad Quotations! So far, song lyrics are well represented. What else have you got up your sleeves?)

American Statue of Liberty from the back

CC image “Statue of Liberty” courtesy of rakkhi on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve begun to think a lot about Dependence recently.

This is a change of pace. Generally speaking, I haven’t thought much about Dependence as a positive trait. I hadn’t considered it a virtue. It mostly surfaced as a counterpoint to a theme I’ve thought a lot about throughout my life thus far, namely Independence.

I’m not just talking about big geopolitical ideas of Repression versus Freedom for groups and in the political arena. I mean personal self-reliance, a sense of individual freedom, the concept that the individual is capable, and therefore responsible, for arranging the circumstances of their life. But before we get into the thorny issue of responsibility, a comment on the idea pair dependence/autonomy. You can take this pair any of a number of ways: physical dependence, which happens when we cannot care for ourselves physically in some way because we are ill or incapacitated, temporarily or for our lives; financial dependence, in which we rely on someone else to supply the money necessary for us to procure the things we need to survive, like food and shelter; emotional dependence; and so forth. So while there are variable permutations of dependence/independence, the root identifying characteristics are the same across all cases.

Generally, I’ve seen dependence as a negative, a burden. Worse yet, I’ve interpreted my own episodes of dependence as pushy neediness and a sign of personal weakness. I didn’t learn this from my immediate family; somehow I taught myself the Stiff Upper Lip principle. I am the oldest child in my family, and (on one side) the oldest of all my cousins, so I got to be a trailblazer by default. I was rewarded with lots of praise whenever I did something well. Perversely, instead of increasing my confidence, throughout my formative years I developed a sustained fear of failure.

An independent personality

Not every aspect of my life was fraught with such deep psychological angst, but if I was unable to do something or figure something out for myself, I got annoyed (with myself). I had something to learn, and pronto.

I don’t like asking people to do things for me. I don’t like owing people.

I can usually figure out how things need to get done. If I don’t know the answer right away, I probably know where I should go to find it. If you give me a task, I’ll take care of it  — and do it well — whether I have to stop at the beginning and sort out a few basic principles or not.

So where does this leave us with our current discussion of Dependence as a virtue?

I’ve gone through a lot of life transitions in the past year and a half. When I embarked on my adventure two thousand miles away across the country, I thought I’d be trailblazing. However, as with any good enterprise, there have been a number of substantial immediate challenges. To my chagrin, I’ve had to accept help, and, more often, ask for it.

I’ve found that Dependence is a great teacher. I’m having to learn — repeatedly, it seems — that it’s OK not to be perfect, and that no one is, overnight, anyway. Also, with each overlapping obstacle, I am learning that there are only certain aspects of my life that I have direct control over or even significant input into. Despite my being fabulous, transition is hard, and it takes time. It takes other people. So I am bumping into my own hubris. I’m learning that the ideal of the Rugged Individualist can be really selfish.

“Collaborator” is a reflexive term: it takes at least two.

Most of all, I’ve had to learn that accepting help can sometimes be a great gift to the giver. Whether it’s time, resources, or an actual physical gift, it’s a blessing to be giving. So I’m learning to accept with grace. Do I still want to be self-reliant? Well, I still would like to know how to fix my car. And I still don’t want to be a secretary. But if I have to learn how to receive now, in order that I can give like crazy later, I’d say that’s a fair trade.

Depend upon it.
====

What about you? Have you discovered any virtues in Dependence?

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!

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Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!