Kick Analysis Paralysis to the Curb

I’ve struggled with analysis paralysis for years. Should I be cold calling new clients, or working on my novel? Should I be blogging, or working on my book launch? Should I be pitching guest posts to sites my clients read, or pitching my novel to review bloggers?

It was excruciating! No matter what I was doing, I felt like I should be doing something else. Plus, at any given point I had a half-dozen creative projects I was halfway working on. I was totally overwhelmed.

(Sound familiar?)

But over the past few months, I’ve discovered an easy(er) way to help me choose what needs to happen in any given day.

It’s all about identifying the One Thing you can do to achieve your overall goals. The One Thing to Rule Them All.

(Sorry.) 

You might hear this referred to as the Most Important Task, or Most Important Thing (MIT).

I discovered that because my business essentially is content-driven, my One Thing is creating content: if I’m not writing novels, blog posts, and books that contribute to my body of work, I’m on the wrong track.

On any given day, my priorities suddenly become crystal clear.

Sounds simple, right? But it’s amazing how many people (myself included) operate without their One Thing clearly defined.

Why one thing?

I can already hear you saying wait up, Jessie, I have way more than one thing that’s most important to my business. Can’t I pick a half-dozen priorities?

(The voice in my head is saying the exact same thing.)

In response, I invite you to think about that sentence for a minute. The word prioritydidn’t even have a plural form until sometime in the 1900s — it simply meant “the thing that came before other things.”

By default, you could only have one priority!

Of course, word meanings and dictionary definitions change over time. But even though the English language now allows us to have priorities, forcing yourself into restrictive thinking helps you come up with stronger solutions.

In a recent podcast, Ed Gandia talks about this principle. In his list of questions to ask himself during his yearly review, he includes “What would I spend my time on if I was forced to spend only two hours a week on my business?”

Clearly, you can’t get much done in two hours a week. But if that’s all you had, you’d be forced to choose the most impactful tasks, rather than noodling away your time on non-critical things.

Right?

That’s why I’m asking you to get seriously brutal with your priorities and pick the One Single Thing that will make the biggest impact this year.

What’s yours?

It can shift over time — it might not always be to create new work. It might be to hone your skills. Write that business book. Get a degree. Build your network. Land awesome assignments. Start a nonprofit. Pivot yourself to a new market. Develop a new course. Solve a pressing societal problem.

Whatever it is, let it be your number one priority. Let it guide you when you choose what tasks to prioritize today, and what obligations to say yes to tomorrow.

Have you always been guided by your One Thing? Or are you still warming to the concept? Let me know in the comments.

Ready to tame the chaos in your life so you can get your best creative work done? Sign up for the Monday Morning Blast-Off. Each week I’ll send you one quick, actionable tip to help you start the week off right.

(Originally published on LinkedIn.)

(Cover photo by Evan Dennis, via Unsplash)

Hit Your Writing Goals by Setting Smarter Quotas

Yesterday I wrote 3,300 fiction words in one day.

This isn’t usual for me — even when I’m on a pretty good writing streak. This especially isn’t usual for me lately — after all, I’ve been in a 2-month-long fiction slump.

(Need proof? I wrote 2,650 fiction words in the entire month of October.)

Part of that has been busyness (I had my biggest freelancing month ever in November). Part of that was burnout (I finished up a massive revision of a fantasy novel in September). Part of that was the stress of the current political climate (ugh).

But a lot of it was just a lack of momentum on any particular project.

Nineteen days ago, I knew something had to give. I had just come back from the annual retreat with my business mastermind group, the Trifecta, and while the other two members of the group clearly sympathized with my feelings of ennui when it came to my writing, they had no time for complaining without action. Write or don’t write, they said (super nicely), but stop complaining about not meeting your writing goals if you’re not going to do something about it.

To quota, or not to quota

I’ve used word count quotas to try to get in the daily writing habit on multiple occasions, but something never clicked for me. No matter how small the quota, I would still have a hard time fitting it in with client work. If I tried to do it before, I would be too anxious about upcoming deadlines to really focus. If I tried to do it after, I would be too brain-dead.

Plus, if I ended up between projects or in the editing or planning stage, I wasn’t sure how to track my progress. David D. Levine once told me he counts every word deleted during the editing phase as progress toward his daily word count quota, which is great, but somehow also didn’t click for me. For some reason, the logistical problem of how to count the words, combined with never knowing how long writing 500 or 1000 words would take out of my day made it difficult for me to stick with a word count quota.

Nineteen days ago, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of a word count quota, I just told myself I had to work on fiction for 30 minutes.

That was it. Just 30 minutes. I could write character bios, scene sketches, snippets of dialogue — whatever. I could edit something I’d already written. I could just stare out of the window for 30 minutes thinking about the plot.

The point was that I spent 30 minutes every morning working on a piece of fiction.

For some reason, that was ridiculously easy. Even during the height of last month’s client work crush, I could find 30 minutes in the morning to play around with a project. Because I knew it was only 30 minutes, it was easy for me to compartmentalize the stress about client deadlines. I just turned on Freedom and got to work.

Baby steps add up toward writing goals

The first few days were nothing to write home about. Because I was starting work on a brand-new novel*, I wasn’t sure who my characters were or where anything was going. The first few days I logged two to three hundred words of exploratory setting descriptions — but, hey, that was two to three hundred words more than I had written any other day for weeks.

At first, the work was mechanical. The muse was far from the room — I was just putting fingers to keyboard and making them plod away.

But after a week, I started to get into the story. I started thinking about it outside of that 30 minutes. I started writing down snippets of dialogue on my lunch break or before bed.

Soon, I was even scheduling in a second timed writing session later in the day — 15 minutes here, another 30 minutes there.

I was gaining momentum. And all of those little snippets of writing sessions have added up: 19 days ago I wasn’t working on anything; today I’m 12,000 words into a brand-new novel.

For so long, I’ve put off writing unless I can have a large chunk of time to work on a project. I had no faith that I could accomplish so much in so little time.

Man, was I wrong.

How much progress could you make toward your writing goals in 30 minutes?

*Sorry mom. I’ll actually finish one of my many works-in-progress for you to read soon.

(Feature image by Bartosz Gorlewicz, via Unsplash.)

Setting Boundaries as a Ward Against Anxiety

At the long-ago recommendation of Erik Wecks, a local-to-me author and friend, I started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

(I’ve been picking up books like this lately because I want to dig deeper in my work – both my fiction and my non-fiction. The authors that I admire the most are the ones who bare their souls on the page – something that’s hard to do if you’re someone like me who hates digging in to her own feelings.)

In it, Brown talks about learning to let ourselves be vulnerable in order to live more “Wholehearted” lives. To get a taste, check out this TED Talk she did a few years back.

Brown’s insights on the way we as humans shield ourselves from being vulnerable have been eye-opening to me. I haven’t come across a single chapter yet that doesn’t cause me to say, “Oh, yeah. I do that.”

Last night, though, I didn’t just see a glimmer of myself reflected – instead, it was as though I came face-to-face with myself in a mirror.

Numbness as a shield against anxiety

In the section, Brown talks about how people try to shield themselves from uncomfortable feelings like vulnerability and anxiety through alcohol and pills, drugs, television, and anything else that takes the edge off the pain.

We’ve all done this, at least on occasion:

  • A glass of wine – or three – at the end of long day.
  • Binge watching a TV show until we fall asleep on the couch.
  • Scrolling manically through social media and email to keep from thinking why we’re so anxious in the first place.

What struck me last night was an observation she made on how her research participants could be divided into two camps:

Group A defines the challenge of anxiety as finding ways to manage and soothe the anxiety, while Group B defines the problem as changing the behaviors that lead to anxiety.

“Clearly, I’m in Group A,” I told myself, despairing. “I’m constantly stressed out, always trying to do too much.”

Brown goes on to talk about how differently Group A and B deal with things like email and voice mail:

  • Group A goes to great lengths to control everything, answer everything, deal with everything.
  • Group B goes to great lengths to minimize the distractions: unsubscribe, tell people they won’t be available, set expectations and boundaries.

And the strangest thing happened. As I read on, I realized that somehow, even though I still think of myself as being in Group A, I’ve transitioned into Group B.

I’ve spent years trying to do it all and failing miserably. Too overwhelmed and anxious to sleep, finishing a bottle of wine on a Wednesday night just to try to dull that both of panic jolting through my chest so I can finally relax.

When my husband used to tell me that I needed to cut back on things because I was too stressed, my answer was that I should be able to do it all.

That I just needed to get better, faster, tougher. Smarter. That my inability to do everything was because I was a failure.

This quote from Brown hit me hard:

“The participants who struggled the most with numbing, Group A, explained that reducing anxiety meant finding ways to numb it, not changing the thinking, behaviors, or emotions that created anxiety.

“I hated every minute of this part of the research. I’ve always looked for better ways to manage my exhaustion and anxiety. I wanted help “living like this,” not suggestions on how to “stop living like this.” My struggle mirrored the struggle that I heard from the folks who talked the most about numbing.”

Learning to set boundaries

Reading this last night made me realize that slowly and without even quite realizing it, I’ve learned to set boundaries in my life.

Now, when I find myself overwhelmed by responsibilities, I take a look at how I got there and create a plan for avoiding that path in the future. I create new sets of rules and boundaries for myself. I add new items to the list of things I say “no” to.

As I read through the section, I began to realize just how many boundaries I’ve set in the past year:

  • I set aside time in the week for writing fiction, and tell my clients I’m unavailable.
  • I no longer check my email first thing in the morning.
  • I honor myself and my pre-existing deadlines by saying no to work I don’t have time to do.
  • I keep from letting the world hijack my day by not listening to the news or checking social media in the mornings.
  • I no longer work on evenings or weekends, except in very rare cases.
  • I no longer say yes to social events I don’t want to go to.

Until I read this chapter, I hadn’t realized just how powerful these boundaries have been in reclaiming my life from anxiety.

I waited so long to set them because I was afraid – afraid to say no to clients, afraid to say no to friends and family. Again, it’s as though Brown is living inside my head when she writes these words:

“We have to believe that we are enough in order to say, “Enough!” For women, setting boundaries is difficult because the shame gremlins are quick to weigh in: “Careful saying no. You’ll really disappoint these folks. Don’t let them down. Be a good girl. Make everyone happy.” For men, the gremlins whisper, “Man up. A real guy could take this on and then some. Is the little mamma’s boy just too tired?””

It took me too many years to realize how to set boundaries, because a voice inside my head kept telling me, “Who are you to say no? Who are you to think you deserve the weekend free? Who are you to be all high and mighty?”

Well, I have an answer.

I’m me.

And I don’t have to answer to anyone for the boundaries I’ve set for myself.


What are the boundaries you’ve set up in your life? How do they help you cope with anxiety and overwhelm? Let me know in the comments!

Jessie and the Dictator: an Update

Since I wrote my last post on using Dragon Dictation for writing, several of my friends and internet acquaintances have jumped on board with the software. More and more people are seeing dictation as a way to live a healthier, more productive writerly life.

It can still be a pain in the butt, though, as I outlined in my last post.

I’ve been using dictation more and more as a tool in both my fiction and in my freelance work over the last six months. Despite my initial frustrations and the steep learning curve, I’m starting to be quite happy with the results.

If you’re just starting out and as frustrated as I was, take heart. There’s hope!

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Fiction

When I first started dictating, I had a tough time making it work for fiction. I think in part by typing, and it was awkward to force my thoughts to flow as I spoke them. I could puzzle out plot problems, but I couldn’t draft a scene.

In the last few weeks, though, I’ve actually switched to where I’m dictating my first drafts more often than typing them. One reason for this is that I’m feeling easily distracted these days. Even when I turn on Freedom and turn off my phone, I still have a hard time sitting down and doing the work.

When that work is drafting a new scene, I’ve found the fastest way to get words on the screen is to take myself on a distraction-free walk and just talk it out.

Originally, I felt like the first draft quality of a dictated draft was pretty terrible. But as I’ve gotten more accustomed to speaking my scenes instead of typing them, the quality has improved drastically. I’m now really happy with the scenes, and they require only a small amount of editing.

I’ve also gotten waaaay better at writing a scene from scratch, imagining it as I go rather than having to dictate a scene where I already know what happens.

(I almost always outline my books, but at the scene level I often feel like I’m wandering in the dark. Outlining will definitely be a topic of another blog post.)

Freelancing

While dictating fiction turns out to be a good way to get away from my desk for a while, when writing for clients I’m normally still tethered to my computer as I dictate. That’s because I need to have my research, interviews, and reference materials in front of me – unless I’m dictating an opinion-based blog post or something that I can fabricate out of the information that’s already in my head.

This was already going well in the last post, so I’ll just say it’s continuing to be a productive way to write non-fiction for me.

The software

Some of the frustrations that I had using Dragon Dictation came from my own quirks, and those are mostly all ironed out.

Mostly.

Here’s a few tricks I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make the process easier for you, too.

“New Line” vs “New File”

For the longest time I’ve had a problem where Dragon would open a new file about 30% of the time I said “New Line”. It would drive me batty, but I finally realized just yesterday that you can disable built in commands.

Just go to Manage Commands in the menu, search for the command you hate, and click the box that says “Active.”

Dragon dictation screenshotHopefully that will solve my “new file” problem.

The right microphone increases accuracy

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to buy a new headset and see if that helps. I ended up getting the Andrea NC-181VM USB On-Ear Monaural Computer Headset, and that helps tremendously. According to the internet, the USB connection provides way better accuracy, and the Andrea NC-181VM seemed to offer the best quality for the cash. (It’s $32 on Amazon.) It’s relatively comfortable – even while I’m wearing my glasses – and seems to do a good job of recognizing my voice.

Plus, it makes me look extremely professional.

Jessie wearing headphones
How may I take your order?

Quirky capitalization and punctuation

I often edit as I’m going along, if I’m standing in front of my computer. For that reason, where the cursor is on the screen doesn’t always correlate to where Dragon thinks the cursor is.

It took me forever to realize this.

For example, if you tell Dragon to correct a word and then manually move the cursor back to the end of the line, Dragon still thinks it’s back in the middle of the sentence. Therefore, if you say the word “period”, Dragon will add a period, then automatically attempt to capitalize the first letter of the word it thinks is still to the right of the cursor. If you notice this happening, simply commands Dragon to “go to end.”

Rampant running backwards

This still happens from time to time if I try to correct a word, especially once the document becomes large and cumbersome. If any of you know how to stop this, let me know. It makes me crazy.

It’s worth taking the plunge

Overall, Dragon has really been a worthwhile investment for me, both in terms of getting myself up and moving, and also in how productive am able to be when I’m writing. It still has its quirks, but it’s definitely worth it for me.

My biggest takeaway over the past few months is that it’s worth it to make the investment in a good microphone, and to take the time to get up the learning curve. You’ll be grateful you did.

Jessie and the Dictator—Increasing Productivity with Dragon Dictation

About four months ago I finally bit the bullet and threw down the $150 for a copy of Dragon Dictation by Nuance.

It seemed like every writing podcast I listened to was extolling the virtues of using dictation software.

  • I was going to write 5,000 words an hour.
  • I was going to be 1000% more productive.
  • I would never have wrist pain again.
  • I was going to lose weight, and probably live longer.

It sounds like a lot to ask from a speech-to-text program, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably as skeptical as I was as I typed in my credit card information. Would using Dragon Dictation really cause a magical unicorn to appear in my office and put rainbows in my coffee every morning?

(No. The answer to that is no. Sorry.)

Well, I’ve been using Dragon fairly regularly since I bought it – both for my freelance writing and for fiction – and I have some thoughts to share.

First up, dictation is pretty rad. But it has its challenges.

All the things that people say about dictation are fairly true. It does make you more productive, and reduces the physical strain of typing. You can use it while you’re out on walks. I’ve dictated blog posts and scenes from my novel while cooking dinner.

There’s also quite a big learning curve, and sometimes Dragon becomes infested by gremlins that are incredibly frustrating.

(Gremlins, but no unicorns? Get your priorities straight, Nuance.)

Nonfiction vs. Fiction

Because I’m using dictation for both freelance copywriting and for fiction, I’m basically having two different experiences with it.

Nonfiction

When it comes to my freelance work, dictating is faster. I can definitely speak faster than I type and so long as the dictation software gets it right the first time, it saves me time. Because my freelance client work is mostly fairly analytical – I’m writing about things like adaptive learning software and sales CRM software – I’m finding it fairly easy just to gather my thoughts and say what I want to say.

My freelance clients are pretty specialized, so there’s always a bit of a learning curve for the Dragon dictation software to pick up new industry jargon and terms. I’ve found it’s pretty good, but when it comes to proper names – like my clients’ company names – I’ve had a hell of a time training it to type certain things. In that case, I just develop shorthand and then use the find and replace function during the editing process.

The other aspect that I’ve found dictation software to be helpful in is transcribing interviews. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe an interview and you’re not a pro at it, you know that it sucks. You spend a lot of time tabbing back and forth between your document and your audio file, rewinding, typing, rewinding, typing….

Previously, I had budgeted at least twice the amount of time as the interview itself in order to transcribe it. So that meant a 30 minute interview would take me an hour to transcribe.

Now, with the dictation software, I just put on my headphones, play the audio file, and speak along with the person that I’m interviewing. I still have to rewind from time to time, but it normally only takes me about five minutes longer then the interview itself. It’s become a huge timesaver.

Fiction

Using dictation with freelancing is been really great, but I’m not having is easy time using it for fiction. It slows me down in ways I, frankly, expected it to.

What I mean is this. Sometimes it seems like when I’m writing fiction, my best work pours straight out of my fingertips, bypassing my brain and thought process altogether. (You know what I mean, right?) When I’m dictating, I think a lot more about what I’m trying to say, and have a tough time getting into that creative fugue state.

In a recent podcast, Joanna Penn talks about her experience dictating the first draft of her latest novel. She’s just been getting started with Dragon, too, and I resonated with her observation that dictating produces a poorer quality first draft than she’s used to.

But I also think that learning to write fiction via dictation is just something that will take time. Some days it seems to work, and some days it doesn’t. I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop typing up first drafts, but I am committed to getting better at first drafting by dictation.

Why bother with dictation?

For me, dictation has two main benefits.

The first is that I can often the get first draft done faster then if I type it out – with my freelance work at least. I don’t have to wait for my typing skills to catch up with my thoughts – especially when I’m typing a lot of jargony technical words that I may end up getting my fingers twisted around. I haven’t found it to be a timesaver in my fiction yet, but in freelancing – and in blogging – it does save me time.

The second benefit is increased activity. I dictated the first draft of this blog post while out on a walk. I’d been staring at a computer all day long, and was starting to get what I call “screen sickness” – that slightly nauseous, glazed feeling when you’ve been staring at a screen too long.

In the middle of particularly busy days it can be really hard to get myself out and go for a walk. I’m already behind my schedule by an hour today, and I know I’m not going to check everything off the list – do I really have time to go wander around an hour?

(This is the subject for totally different blog post, but the answer is a resounding yes. If you want to live a healthy, happy life you don’t not have time to go for a walk.)

But, with dictation, I can take a walk without falling even farther behind. On a brisk stroll through my nearby neighborhood rose garden, I can get a fairly serviceable first draft blog post of 1500 words.

Yeah, I may sound a little odd as I’m walking by people speaking punctuation, but hey, it’s Portland. I could be on a unicycle playing bagpipes.

Here’s a devils advocate thought for a moment, though: sure, it’s good for my body to go walk around, but I’m really giving myself a break if I’m forcing my brain to continue composing first draft materials as I walk? Would I be better served by leaving my phone and headphones at home, and letting my mind wander aimlessly?

Maybe. But that’s a luxury for a week less busy.

It’s just not not just walks in the park speaking into a headset though. When I’m dictating straight into my computer, it gives me more freedom of motion, as well. If I set up my computer up on my standing desk (a.k.a. my dresser), and use a Bluetooth headset, then I’m not tethered in one spot through the tips of my fingers. Instead, I can paced back and forth, do squats, dance around, etc.

My dresser – my standing desk.
My super-sophisticated home office standing desk.

 

What equipment do you need?

Beyond the software, I haven’t bought any other fancy equipment – and my results have been pretty good. I’m considering purchasing a better headset that’s really designed for noise canceling, etc., because if I was able to improve the software’s accuracy even more, it would save me even more time. As it is, I think the software is about 90 to 95% accurate for me.

Right I’m using either those white Apple headphones that come with every Apple product, or one of those dorky Bluetooth headset by Jabra, which I bought for about $20. The plug-in headset seems to be a bit more accurate, and from my research it looks like you have to spend quite a bit on a Bluetooth headset for it to match the quality. I’ve tried just using my laptop’s internal speakers, as well, and I find that accuracy rates goes down.

Hey, wait. Doesn’t my Mac come with dictation software already?

Yeah, yeah it does. And although it’s fairly decent, it was frustrating enough to me that I decided to drop the money on Dragon Dictation.

And I’m happy I did.

The Mac’s native software doesn’t have as robust an ability to correct mistakes or navigate through your text. Also, it doesn’t learn in quite the same way that Dragon Dictation does. Dragon will take things that you commonly correct into account, and can be trained both by you speaking, and by feeding it chunks of text that you’ve written with all of your industry jargon, etc. in it.

Also, the ability to dictate things while I’m walking and have it translate audio file has been really helpful – that’s a feature Mac’s native dictation didn’t have.

Is dictation always super magical?

No. Sometimes Dragon makes me want to throw my laptop through the wall.

Sometimes I’ll say something totally innocuous, and because the software for some reason thought that I said “Capitalize Grand Canyon”, the cursor starts scrolling madly through my document trying to find the phrase Grand Canyon – which of course, is nowhere to be found.

I haven’t figured out a way to stop this in mid-run, which means that I just have to wait it out – extremely frustrating if I’m in the middle of Deep Important Thoughts and the document is large. With Scrivener, I can just close out of the program and restart it. In Pages, however, you’re screwed until the curser gets all the way to wherever it’s going.

Nuance’s support is pretty non-existent, too. I’ve sent them a few support tickets when I had problems, and I’ve never once gotten a response. Googling solutions to specific problems normally revealed other people asking the same questions in forums – usually to be told that there is no solution to that problem. The software is constantly being updated, though, and it sounds like Dragon is getting better with every iteration.

Is dictation for you?

I don’t know. I can’t answer that for you. And, of course, purchasing Dragon is a big chunk of cash to plop down. If you’re curious to try dictation out and you have a Mac, you can always experiment with the native dictation program. Here’s how to set it up.

(Sorry, I don’t know anything about PCs.)

You might, like me, get addicted and want to pay for something better. Or you might figure it’s not for you.

Either way, Dragon offers a 30-day money back deal, so you can always give it a shot and see what you think.

Have you used dictation software? What did you think? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

(*Disclaimer: Nuance didn’t give me one red cent to write about this – I’m just sharing my personal experiences.)

A Creative’s Guide to Staying on Track with Resolutions

This is about the time of year when shiny New Year’s resolutions start to look a little tarnished.

Those thousand fiction words a day I was writing at the beginning of January? Yeah, not so much now. All that sugar I’m not supposed to be eating? Well, I may have made brownies a few days ago. And I may keep sneaking bites of my husband’s desserts.

I wrote last week about one important tool you can use to keep on track with resolutions and goals: accountability groups. But I think one of the biggest things you can do on your own is to create a system designed to support your new goals.

I’ve noticed a pattern in the goals of mine that have succeeded. It goes something like this: resolutions that begin life without intention and support never last for long, while those that I boost with good habits tend to get met.

I don’t know about you, but as I look back over the last month I can definitely see that same pattern emerging. The goals that I built up support around have actually gotten met. The ones that I just wished out into the universe? Nope.

Here’s the problem I see a lot with creatives, though: we resist building structure around our art.

We tell ourselves that we’ll wait for the Muse to strike, instead of committing to carving out 30 minutes every lunch break to practice our craft. We tell ourselves we’re too tired at the end of the day to write or paint or play music, instead of making the effort to arrange our schedules to support our art.

But I say that building structure around your goals is especially important for creative people.

Are you willing to take that step?

Do you want to carve out time for the work you love?

Or do you want to make the same resolution next January?

Set your intentions

I love this fantastic post by James Clear on setting intentions. In it, he talks about a study in which three groups were asked about their exercise habits. The first group (control) was simply asked how often they exercise. The second group was given a motivational pamphlet and speech. The third group was given the same motivation, but also asked to complete the statement, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Two weeks later, the third group was 3 times more likely to have exercised than the first two groups.

The moral is that simply saying “I want to write and submit a short story this month” isn’t nearly as effective as saying “I’ll write 300 words every morning before breakfast.”

Give yourself the best chance at hitting your goals by explicitly stating where, when, and how you’ll do them.

Set up a system

Great goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum – rather, they’re reached as a result of hundreds of tiny steps. Try thinking of your goal not as one single thing, but as a system of steps and habits.

For example, I’m working on the rough draft of a novella that I hope to have done by the end of February. To do that, I need to write to 20,000 words. Taking into account that I normally only write five days a week, I need to start writing 1000 words a day. I can write 1000 words in an hour – less time if I’m really into the story.

Knowing all that, I know I need to sit down at my desk one hour earlier every day during the week and get out those thousand words before I check my email and get sucked into client work.

Once I’ve set this system of Time + Place + Avoid Email into place, sitting down at my desk to write becomes easier.

Clear away your obstacles

As humans, we’re often our own worst enemies. It’s so easy to let excuses, inconveniences, and obstacles get in the way of working towards our goals – and so hard to let them go.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself as a creative person is to identify what obstacles are going to be get in the way of your goals, and nip them in the bud.

If I want to write fiction first thing in the morning, for example, that means I need to finish that pressing client project the night before, and install Freedom on my computer so I can block the internet. If I want to cut down on my sugar intake, I should probably (maybe) give away that box of chocolates grandma gave me for Christmas. If I want to stop getting distracted by Twitter, I should take it off my phone.

Track your progress

How do you know you’re improving if you’re not charting your progress? If you’re technologically minded, try using a goal-setting site like Lifetick or an app like GoalsOnTrack to keep track of goal progress. (For a nice rundown of different goal-setting apps, check out this post from Michael Hyatt.)

Or you can go old-school like me, and just hang a calendar above your desk with a color-coded system of check marks. (Feel free to give yourself a gold star when you’ve done extra well – I totally do whenever I hit 1000 words!)

Check in, and tweak as you go

The important thing is to not view your goals as static, but rather to allow them to adapt and change.

If writing three times a week before breakfast just isn’t working, try writing at a different time of day. Or try dictating while you walk, or some other form of writing that gets the words out. Scheduling yourself regular check-ins gives you the ability to adapt your resolutions as you go, rather than simply deciding they’re failures if they don’t work out on the first go around.

I saw this great post today on ZenHabits.net about conducting a monthly review. In it, Leo Babauta talks about taking a few minutes at the end of every month to check in with yourself and see where you’re succeeding, and where you could be doing little better.


 

How are your creative New Years resolutions going? What are you finding to be the biggest obstacles to making time for your creative projects? Let me know in the comments!

(This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote for GovPilot.)

How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Keep

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

The new year is a traditional blank slate for most people, but despite our best intentions most of us don’t keep our New Year’s Resolutions much longer than January.

The problem with the usual way of making resolutions is that they’re not often made in the context of our lives. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, so I want to propose a new way: rather than simply picking a goal (“lose weight,” “volunteer more,” “get promoted”), take time to really evaluate your dreams and ambitions, and set goals that are truly in line with your life.

Want to join me?

A note about last year’s goals.

In my post about looking back on 2015, I talked about considering the goals that you didn’t hit. Writing New Year’s Resolutions can seem like a deja vu if every year you put the same goals on it that you failed to hit the year before. Rather, set your goals for 2015 to build on your accomplishments from last year – and give yourself permission to let go of any goals that no longer fit your plans.

OK. Here’s my 3-step plan for setting goals:

Set a theme for 2016

This sounds super cheesy, but I swear it works. How will you evaluate success in 2015? By your career growth? By your side projects? By how much time you’ve spent with your family?

  • For me, 2014 was all about getting work done at all costs. My husband and I had moved to a new city without many friends to distract us, and were both in new work situations. We’ve worked some crazy hours, we’ve worn ourselves out, and we’ve both built tremendous momentum in our jobs. It’s been an exhausting ride, but it’s been worth it.
  • The year 2015 was about harnessing that momentum and taking back time for myself. My theme for 2015 was “Balance and Health,” and I although I haven’t been perfect, I’ve definitely achieved a better sense of balance in my life. I’ve made huge strides in tailoring my freelance client list so that I’m doing the work I want to do, not saying yes to everything that comes across my plate. I’ve been exercising regularly, and making conscious decisions to practice self care, rather than running myself into the ground. (Most of the time.)
  • For 2016, I’m going to stick with the “Balance and Health” goal, since I know I still have lots of work to do in that area. As I ramp up my fiction business, I know I can too easily get carried back into the overtime-stressed-burnout mode of 2014 – so I want to make sure that I’m making each decision with this theme in mind.

This theme is your rubric for making decisions.

When you’re making your goals or deciding what kinds of obligations to take on next year, weigh it against your theme.

One great tool to help you out is a Will-do/Won’t-do List. As you plan for 2016, make yourself a list of possible projects or opportunities you will and won’t do, so that when new opportunities come across your plate you can make a quick decision and move on without regret.

Plan big, but act small

OK, we all know what SMART goals are, right? They’re: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-related. But when most of us write our resolutions, we aim big and vague, writing down things like “I want to get in better shape,” or “I want to spend more time with my family.”

Dream big, but make sure your goals for 2015 are SMART. For example: “I will lose 10 pounds by March by cutting out sugar,” rather than “I want to lose weight.”

Once you’ve got your big goals in place, think about the small daily actions you’ll take to get there. If you want to cut out sugar, like in the above example, maybe start by making a little change. Only allow yourself candy between the hours of 12 and 6, perhaps, or switch to only putting one spoonful of sugar in your morning coffee rather than two. If your goal is to write a novel, set a daily habit of writing 200 words on the bus ride home, or on your lunch break.

If you focus on forming small daily habits, you’ll have a much better chance at achieving your goal than if you try to accomplish it in one fell swoop.

Start preparation

You’ve got until 2016 to turn over a new leaf, right? But what you can do for the next few weeks is to start dreaming so that you’re ready to hit the ground running on January 1st.

Ask for running shoes for the holidays. Start googling alternate careers. Check out a book on gardening from the library. Start a Pinterest board for healthy recipes. Research MBA programs.

You don’t have to make any changes right now, just use the next six to let your imagination run with it. This is a fertile time to let your mind wander, and will help make sure you’re not just throwing goals on your list because think you should.

Is your imagination sparked? What will your theme for 2016 be?

Get In the Habit of Yearly Reflection

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time uses the word “time confetti” to describe the harried mishmash of time in modern life. Our days are sliced to ribbons by hordes of overlapping responsibilities, our constant connectivity to work allows it to seep into our personal lives, and the demands of our families seep into our work days. And any free time we manage to find? It gets contaminated by planning or worrying about what will come next, or what we’re forgetting to do.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

The ability to plan and reflect on our lives has become increasingly difficult, which is why so many of us complain of being constantly overwhelmed, and rushing headlong through life.

The year’s end is a traditional time for reflection, but although most of us probably make the obligatory list of resolutions, most of us don’t take the time to truly, deeply reflect.

Part of the reason is that it’s hard to find the time. Between year-end work sprints, holiday parties, family visits, and the usual chaos of everyday life, it’s tough to carve out as much time as a true period of reflection takes.

But here’s the problem: If you’re never taking time to reflect on how your previous year went, how can you expect next year to go any differently?

  • You promised yourself that 2015 would be year you wrote that novel, but it never got written. Why will 2016 be any different?
  • You swore you’d quit your dead-end job and start making a living at your passion project in 2015 – but you’re still punching the clock and hating it. Why should 2016 be a better year?
  • You promised yourself you’d start taking care of your health, but you’re still in as rough shape as you were this time last year. What’s to change next year?

Part of making your dreams and aspirations actually take shape is to understand what factors are standing in your way.

  • If you want to be happier, it helps to understand what has been making you unhappy.
  • If you want to have more time, it helps to understand where you’re spending the time you have.
  • If you want to have better relationships, it helps to understand what relationship habits you’ve been in.

If you want to have a healthy, happy, amazing 2016, it helps to understand just what happened in 2015.

To do it, I want you to schedule an entire afternoon to yourself in the next few weeks – no distractions, no obligations, no excuses. You can take more time than an afternoon, if you want. I have a friend who takes a weekend vacation by herself every year on her birthday in order to reflect on her life and examine her goals.

In the time leading up to your Afternoon of Reflection, grab a fresh notebook or Word document (notebook is better, because no internet), and start jotting down notes as they come to you. Then, when you actually sit down to reflect you’ll have a head start and can dive in deeper.

In a season of celebration and giving, make this the gift you give to yourself.

Here are some topics to get you started.

Celebrate yourself

Think back through your year. What goals did you achieve? What personal or professional milestones did you pass? Maybe you were too busy to celebrate at the time, or maybe it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. But this is your time to remember those achievements. Take the time to list your accomplishments, and to do something fun to celebrate them. I can think of several for myself this year that I’ve completely rushed past without acknowledging!

Your first assignment – leave a comment with a goal you achieved this year, AND how you plan to celebrate it.

Celebrate others

You’re not the only one rushing through life without celebrating your accomplishments. Think about your friends, family, and coworkers. Did any of them meet a goal or do something huge that they haven’t gotten recognition for? Take a moment to help them celebrate it, or to spread the word (such as writing a note praising their accomplishment to a supervisor, if appropriate). Who made your year a little brighter? Who helped you out? Celebrate these people’s positive influence in your life with a heartfelt “thank you.”

Start a list, but don’t let yourself get caught up in the enormity of it. Just send an email today, take someone out to coffee tomorrow, and work your way slowly through your list.

Consider your time

How did you spend your time last year? Probably a mix of at work, at home, and on other duties. Think back through your biggest time commitments, and evaluate what you liked or disliked about each. What did you love doing the most in 2015? When where you happiest? What times were the most stressful, frustrating, or dark? What can you do to shift that balance for next year? What could you have done differently this year?

Get specific – don’t just say “I liked spending time with my partner,” rather, list out your favorite moments and remember how they made you feel. Remember to list out the hard moments, too, and try to understand what you learned from them.

Consider your regrets

This is a tough question, but it’s not meant to get you into a funk. Think about the frustrations of last year. What opportunities (both professional and personal) did you pass up? What do you wish you’d spent more time doing? Less time doing? What words do you wish you could take back? What words do you wish you’d said? What fears or procrastinations held you back?

Take time to learn the lesson in your regrets. Some things may have been out of your control, but others may hold important lessons to help you live better in the future.

Consider the goals you missed

Was 2015 definitely going to be the year you changed careers, wrote that screenplay, started a business, or ran a marathon? Did you not, in fact, do that?

Rather than simply saying, “Well, then 2016 is the year I’ll finally do X,” take a moment to really examine why you didn’t accomplish the goal this year. Did life get in the way? Did you forget about it? Did you go in a different direction? Is it a goal you feel obligated to do, but don’t actually want to do?

Don’t simply transfer goals from one year’s to do list to the next without truly thinking about it. Then, decide either to let it go and be at peace, or to double down in 2016 and actually accomplish it.

Make a list of what you want to leave behind

Along with goals that aren’t aligned with you anymore, make a list of hurtful emotions, unhealthy relationships, bad habits, and anything else that you’d like to leave behind in 2016.

All these lists and considerations will help you hone in on your goals for 2016, and form the basis for a great year. I’ll talk about how to turn them into action steps and goals in my next post.

Dealing with overwhelm

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with overwhelm.

Some days, I can feel myself skirting up against the cliff that is total burnout, only to shift myself back on course at the last minute with a weekend off with friends, or taking a long bike ride in the middle of the afternoon.

As my freelance business picks up, I’ve also come up against some pretty pressing deadlines in my fiction biz – which means that my usual strategy of dropping the fiction to accommodate client projects won’t work.

A very regimented productivity and scheduling system allows me to make it all work pretty seamlessly, and, guys, I’m now taking weekends off from client work – an amazing novelty after my first 18 months as a freelance writer!

But overwhelm is still a constant companion, always hanging out in the wings and ready to pounce.

Since it’s been on my mind, I’ve been writing about it a lot recently on GovLoop.

I don’t feel like I have a complete solution just yet, but I do feel like I’m circling closer to one.

How I deal with overwhelm

Step 1. Write down EVERYTHING I need to deal with – from ‘hem the curtains’ to your most pressing deadline. Just get it out of my head. This in the absolute first step – otherwise I get so stressed out by the sheer load of things that I won’t be able to concentrate and accomplish what I need to.

Step 2. Take my most pressing deadlines and prioritize them – by work load, by due date, whatever.

Step 3. Figure out which ones are negotiable. Are any of these projects less pressing than others? If I need to push things back, I talk to those clients and see if I can create a more realistic deadline for myself. This is a last resort for me, since I hate hate HATE missing deadlines, but if I know a client won’t have time to look at it for a few days anyway I’ll sometimes ask for an extension. I’ve found most people are pretty understanding.

Step 4. Understand which items are urgent-must-be-done-today (like write a blog post for a client, or respond to an email), and which are important to my life’s work, but could be put off until tomorrow (like write 1000 words).

Step 5. Schedule those important things to happen first, because I know I’ll always find time for the urgent things. But I won’t always make time for the important ones if I don’t do it first thing. (If I’m on the edge of overwhelm, however, I’ll scrap Step 5 in favor of Step 6.)

Step 6 (optional). Figure out which things are causing the most amount of stress and anxiety. Do them first, even if they’re completely not related to your real priorities. For me, they’re often things like “clean the kitchen” or “pay these bills” or “rearrange the office and figure out what smells like rotting bananas.”

I set a timer for 30 minutes and sprint through as many of these items as I can, and when the timer goes off, I take a deep breath and try to assess if I’m still as stressed out by life, the universe, and everything. If doing the dishes has made me feel better, I go back to Step 5 and try to tackle actual work that needs to be done.


How do you deal with being overwhelmed? I know I’m not alone as a writer who’s day job is also writing. How do you figure out what needs to get done first, and how do you make sure your most important work actually happens?

How Changing Two Letters is Simplifying My Life

I wrote this post originally for GovLoop’s blog on November 13th

In November, I took a fiction-writing class with a local author and singer extraordinaire, Ken Scholes. As we went around the room to introduce ourselves, a common theme emerged.

Most of us thought we should be writing more words, we should be submitting more short fiction, we should be taking more classes, we should be reading more books. “My best time to write is in the morning,” said the woman to my right. “I really should get up two hours before my kids so I can use that time.”

Around the table, we all nodded. We should probably do that, too.

As often happens during classes and conferences, I was scribbling furiously. The list of tricks and tips others use in their writing life was positive and invigorating, but as the list grew so did my sense of anxiety. Where would I find time to do all of this?

After introductions, Ken noted that most of us were lamenting the things we should be doing. “What if instead of looking at what we should be doing, we say these are things we could be doing. I propose that for the rest of the class, we replace ‘should’ with ‘could.’ I’ll try to do it, too, and if you catch me, you should call me out.”

We all laughed, and he caught his mistake. “Right,” he said. “You could call me out.”

Strategies or imperatives?

At our jobs and in our personal lives, most of us are striving to do better. Most of my posts on GovLoop are intended to give people ideas – you should update your LinkedIn profile, you should network with your coworkers, you should volunteer for new projects. I eat up this kind of advice myself, consuming article after article about how to market my business better, how to eat healthier, how to be a better friend – and every time I finish reading one, I’m left feeling a bit more anxious.

But what if, instead of constantly telling ourselves that we should do something, we tell ourselves we could do it? Doing laundry tonight is, after all, a choice. So is going for a run. So is going to that networking event, or reworking your LinkedIn profile.

What if we thought of each of these things as a strategy we could choose, rather than a command that’s been issued – or a bar that we’re failing to hit?

The Empty Container

I subscribe to Zen Habits, which when I’m feeling swamped with life can be sometimes infuriating in its quiet simplicity. But last week, right when I needed it this post showed up in my inbox.

After a discussion of how our lives get so complicated, Leo Babauta says:

“Instead of thinking, ‘How can I get rid of this complicated mess?’ … let’s ask, ‘What if I started with a blank slate?’ What would you do if your life was a blank slate? If it were an empty container, with limited space, what would you put in it?”

Instead of trying to tackle this whole mess of obligations, possibilities, and “shoulds,” what if you could just empty your bucket of life out, then sort through each item, only putting it back in if it fits your criteria?

Starting small

It’s posts like that that makes me want to hurl things at Zen Habits.

Sure, it’s actually quite good advice – but who has the kind of life that they can simply rearrange? I sure don’t. I have clients, family obligations, events that have been on the calendar for months, and deadlines that are rushing toward me like toppling dominoes.

I may not be able to clear my plate all at once with a magic wand, but I can start small.

This week my challenge to myself – and to you – is to take a look at your life. Pick just one “should” that’s been stressing you out, and look at it as a “could.” Maybe it’s a conference you feel like you should attend, or a work responsibility you feel like you should take on, or a project around the house that’s been bugging you. Think of this “command” as a strategy. Is it one that will help you? Is it worth the stress it’s adding to your life? Does it belong in your empty container?

If not, toss it out to make room for something more fulfilling.