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Piling it on: expectations and stress

woman with to-do list

In my first job as a programmer, my company’s sales team consistently promised clients super-short turnaround times that we couldn’t meet without working serious overtime, sometimes as much as 16-hour days.

Talk about stress.

Had they given us another day or two for each project, I might not have been so glad to quit when we moved.

Same project, different timeline. The projects themselves weren’t inherently stressful. It was the company’s unrealistic expectations that made them so.

Sadly, now that I work for myself, it turns out I’m not much better than that old sales team at setting realistic expectations. I’m not even talking about big things, like publishing deadlines.

I’m talking about my daily to-do list. In my head there’s this fictional world where I can “handle” my email in 20 minutes, compose and publish a blog in under an hour, and consistently produce 3000 words a day.


That’s called Fantasy Land.

When I plan out my day (poorly) and don’t meet my goals, I get stressed. Over the long term, repeated stress takes time off your life, weakens your immune system (so you feel like crap AND lose more productive time), and turns you into an irritating house companion.

So, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in having too many things to do (though I also need to learn to trim my list), but in not allotting myself enough time in which to accomplish them.

A to-do list with 18 items that I’ve taken care to schedule realistically—with buffer time for things like potty breaks, food, and general miscalculation—might keep me busy, but at the end of the day I’ll be feeling pretty good.

Yet, a list with three items can bring me low if improperly handled.

I’d love to say I’ve slain this beast, but I’d be lying. It’s something I have to re-address every few months or so because I get lazy and start winging it, and then start stressing…

Here’s my current approach to managing my towering to-do list:

1. I’m taking note of how long repeated tasks actually take, and using that to set a more achievable schedule.

2. I’m prioritizing my list so the most important things get done first (Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy has great suggestions). Even if I don’t get to everything, I’ll at least get to the items that matter most.

3. I’m going to bed earlier so I can get up earlier. I’m a night owl, but I’m more productive if I start my day early and get the key tasks—like writing—done before the day “starts” for real.

I actually set several alarms on my phone to remind me to get ready for/go to bed. The key is not to ignore them. 😉

4. I (usually) create a daily schedule. I’ve been hinting at this throughout, but when I know I have a busy day ahead, I’ll plan it out the night before, down to the quarter hour. If I have an appointment or event, I work backwards from it.

I schedule everything that happens prior to the appointment—with a bit of buffer for derailment—and then follow it with a list of other things to get done that day (sometimes schedules, sometimes not).

So it might look like this:

0600 Wake

0630 Run and cool down

0800 Walk dog

0815 Eat breakfast

0845 Shower

0945 Leave for Physical Therapy


Call Jane

Blog post

I’m training for a half marathon, so on running days I go early while it’s still cool outside. (BTW, exercise is great stress relief!) Every other day of the week I start with writing, so it’s the first thing I accomplish, and work out later.

When everything is scheduled for its own time, I can relax and focus, instead of worrying about whether I should be doing something else.

And, yes. Some days I totally fail. If I don’t go to bed early enough, none of this works, so that’s HUGE for me right now. My biggest struggle. But having a plan (and a specific reason to get up) makes it easier.

I have high expectations for myself overall, which I think is important, but I’m learning to keep them real in my day-to-day plan.

How about you? What stresses you out, and how are you handling it (or not)?

Don’t wait

Don't wait to take that first step.

I once worked with a woman in her late thirties who had never seen the ocean, had only been to two States, and had flown on a plane once (for a business trip). She was not poor, afraid to fly, or uninterested in seeing the world. She and her husband made decent money, didn’t have kids, and they wanted to travel, but planned to wait until her husband retired.

I was flabbergasted.

Immediately I thought of all sorts of reasons why she shouldn’t wait. He was ten years older than her, what if he got sick? What if they didn’t have enough money to travel after retirement? What if he couldn’t ever afford to retire? What if, what if, what if…

I wanted to yell, “Don’t wait!” Actually, I wanted to shake her silly and then yell, but I also wanted to keep my job.

About ten years later, my mom died at the age of 58, the same year my dad had originally planned to retire. If they had waited until retirement to travel, my mom would never have been anywhere except where the military sent them. Sure they’d lived in two foreign countries and more than half a dozen States, but it was what they did when they were in those places that made the difference. They explored the local area, and used it as a base to travel further out.

When we lived in Germany, we visited just about every country we could reach within a 17-hour drive–in a tiny Volkswagen Rabbit–even traveling through communist-occupied East Germany to see West Berlin. When my parents were stationed in Okinawa, they not only toured Japan, they went to Hong Kong and Australia.

My mom saw and experienced more of the world in her regrettably shortened life than many people would if they lived to be 100.

I’m a hardcore advocate of travel. I think people learn a lot from seeing how others live, and opening themselves to new experiences, but that’s not really what this post is about. It’s about making what you value a priority in your life.

Are you on target for the life you desire?

If you listed the five most important things to you and then compared them to how you spend your time, would they mesh? Do you value family over career, but are never home? Do you value your health, but eat all your meals out and never work out? You might not be able to change right away, but if you start planning you can. If you start really thinking about how and where you spend your time, you can.

Maybe you’ve decided that two years of long hours now are worth it for the end result. Great. You’re living according to your priorities. But maybe that two years has turned into four, and you want to see your family again. What would you have to do to make a change? Find a new job? Quit a hobby? Trust your employees enough to delegate?

I don’t have a bucket list, per se, but I have places I want to visit and things I want to do or accomplish. Maybe I can’t or won’t check them all off my list, but I’m damn sure going to try.

Yes, money can be an issue, but it’s all about priorities. Which is more important? The daily lunch out with coworkers and the morning Starbucks, or the trip to Europe?

Both are worthy, depending on what matters to you. For me, it was Europe. And when I quit working full time–a move that was also inspired by my need to live according to what I valued–we had to put off the trip to Europe we’d been saving for.

But we still went. It just took an extra two years of tight budgeting to make it happen. It was worth every penny and every extra day we waited. Two years later we’re still talking about it and sharing great memories.

There’s a difference between things that would be nice if they happened, and things that matter.

Maybe you think it’d be cool to have a master’s degree, but if you’re not actually willing to put in the effort, it probably isn't as important as you think. And if it is, and you haven’t found a way to make it happen, why not?

Barbar Sher has a great book called Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. In it, she advocates breaking up a goal into individual steps until you get them small enough that you can start tomorrow. Brian Tracy preaches a similar philosophy–and teaches strategies for tackling goals and managing your time–in Eat That Frog!

Gunning for grad school? It’s easy to start with a search of the university website or a call to the admissions office. You can deal with the year-long admissions process, financial aid, and the GRE or GMAT in baby steps.

If you take it one piece at a time, you’ll get there.

It works for just about anything. My unsolicited advice is: Don’t wait to save for that trip, get that degree, write that book, or learn that new skill.

Take it one bit at a time and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish!

Photo credits: BABY GIRL © Aleksandra Belikova |, TARGET © Lyn Baxter |

Cult of personality

Have you ever met a person who rubbed you the wrong way, but you couldn't figure out why? Have you ever had a boss or coworker you didn't know how to deal with? Did you ever wonder how two siblings raised by the same parents could be so different (like my own boys)?

It's all in the personality.

Understanding your personality style can be valuable for determining career choices and understanding why you act the way you do. Recognizing others' personality styles can help you get along better with the people you deal with every day.

But as a writer, you can use an understanding of personality styles to craft complex characters who act in a consistent and believable way. Besides knowing your character's goals and motivation, choosing a personality style for her will help you create a believable reaction when she meets an obstacle.

Using The Platinum Rule™ Behavioral Styles developed by Dr. Tony Alessandra, here are four potential responses for your character when she's faced with an obstacle:

  • The Thinker might gather information, make a list of pros and cons, and plan a response, finally acting when she has as much information as possible. Her response will probably be timely, but not immediate.
  • The Socializer would probably make a decision based on impulse. Leap then look.
  • The Relater would worry about the problem, try to avoid it, ask for other's opinions, and hope that someone else would take care of it. Head in the sand.
  • The Director would quickly size up the options, make a decision, and execute it, even if others think it's the wrong choice.

It should be clear that the type of character you choose can have a great effect on your story. Each of the four options above could take the same story in a different direction.

If you'd like to find out more, here are some of the popular personality assessments you might want to check out. Take a quiz as yourself, and then take a quiz as your character. You might be surprised what you learn.

The Daily Squirrel: acrobat

In her dreams, she was an acrobat, flying high above the circus floor while the audience looked on with awe. The gasps of the crowd filled her ears, the wind ruffled her hair and cooled her face as she flew from swing to swing. She could smell the popcorn and cotton candy mingled with the scent of hay and animals. With a sudden bang on her bedroom door, the dream vanished, slipping through her fingers like sand. She stared at the loose drywall tape on the ceiling of her ordinary bedroom, in an ordinary house, where her boring, ordinary life took place.

My discipline needs a tune-up

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

According to success guru, Brian Tracy, it takes 21 days of repetition to form a good habit–although bad ones seem to require a much shorter period! So, how does one form a habit of excellence?

Discipline! I've heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert at something. But continued practice requires discipline. I think my discipline needs a tune-up.

Over the years, Brian Tracy's books (try Eat That Frog!) and seminars (Try Psychology of Achievement or How to Master Your Time) have helped me increase my productivity with effective time management strategies, ideas for overcoming procrastination, and goal-setting techniques.

I applied these ideas regularly when I worked in the business world, but somehow when I started writing, I threw it all out the window. Other than a to-do list with deadlines, I haven't been as disciplined or productive as I'd like.

Why? No clue.

So, after a less-than-productive day/week/month (although I did manage to pound out 1,000 words today), I've decided to make a daily plan/productivity strategy. It looks something like this…

  1. Write 1,500+ net words/day at least 5 days/week (I track this in a file in Scrivener)
  2. Finish daily goals on to-do list (e.g. write query letter or synopsis, submit contest entry, critique for partner, etc.)
  3. Only check email three times/day (mid-morning, lunch, before bed) unless daily goals are met
  4. Work out early, or wait until afternoon slump
  5. Limit Facebook and blog visits to once/day unless daily goals are met
  6. No reading for fun unless daily goals are met

I'm trying to pay attention to my best times of day to tackle different tasks. For example, I know I am better at writing before 10:30 in the morning, and again in the late afternoon/evening. Other things, like educational reading, working out, or running errands, are best handled during my less productive hours.

My daily plan is a work in progress–like my manuscript–but if I keep working on it, hopefully I can move closer to excellence.