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Fitting it all in

CollageAt a conference in Montana a couple of weeks ago, I gave a speech called “Fitting It All In”. It was about how I set things up to balance being a writer, instructor, mom, and world traveler.

Sometimes I do it well, other times, not so much. I talked about both.

But what I love about giving speeches or writing blog posts on a topic like goals is that it helps remind me of what’s worked in the past, and what I’m not doing now that I should be.

Since returning from that conference, I’ve intensified my efforts to align my daily activities with what’s really important to me. That means setting aside time to work on the things that matter most, but are often left undone. Like writing.

It means finding the discipline to limit my social media, email, and other distractions.

It also means setting daily targets so that when I reach them, I can move on to another task without guilt or danger of burning myself out.

So far it’s working. When I get the urge to play hooky or procrastinate, I remind myself that I’ve chosen this work as my job and that I have goals (ones I really care about) that won’t be met if I slack off. I ask myself how I’ll feel about it later if I don’t do it now. Once I sit down to start, it’s a cinch. That first step really is the hardest.

For tasks like writing, I find it helps to work early in the day when my mind is fresh. That way, even if I get distracted later, I’ve already accomplished my main goals for the day. And I can always find the energy to read email or post on Facebook. The same cannot be said for writing, editing, or creating class lessons.

I’ve even gone so far as setting “office hours”—which can change from day-to-day depending on what’s going on with my family or my non-work schedule—to help me stay focused. An unexpected side effect of working from home is that I feel like I’m always on, always at work. I can’t just leave at five and leave it all behind.

By setting work hours, I have an endpoint to my day, a specific time to look forward to. When I quit at five, if I’ve made a nice dent in my to-do list, I don’t even feel guilty about leaving my laptop closed for the rest of the night. That’s more incentive to get it all done during the day.

About now, you might be wondering why I stay home to write and teach if I dislike it so much. Actually, I love it. But it’s still “work”, not just a hobby. As such, my brain views it that way. Add in all the fear of failure and rejection and low rankings that authors face, and I have to force myself to sit down if I ever want to reach my goals.

But once I start, I often don’t want to stop. That is the best benefit of all.

How about you? Got any tricks up your sleeve for fitting it all in?

Don’t fatigue your discipline muscle

WeightLifterI read somewhere recently that discipline is like a muscle. Not only that it gets stronger as you exercise it, but that it fatigues over the course of the day. Every time you call upon your self-control to make the right food choice or push through to the end of a mind-numbing task, your discipline muscle weakens.

With all the decisions we face daily, it’s no wonder that candy bar looks so good a few hours after lunch, or that our motivation to work out has waned by the time we clock out.

My discipline wears out just as quickly as anyone’s, but I’ve found a few things that help.

Timing. If going for a walk after work just isn’t happening, find another time that’ll be easier to stick to. Can you fit it in before your morning shower? On your lunch break?

My problem is ensuring I get my creative time. I work best before nine in the morning and after nine at night. Knowing that helps me make better choices about when to write, when to check email, and when to work out.

Routine. When you make something a habit, there’s no decision to make, no willpower required. It’s just part of your daily routine and you don’t even think about it.

It’s easier to add a new habit to your life if you can replace an old—preferably undesirable—one. Maybe instead of going out to lunch, you can bring your own. It’ll save you money, be better for your waistline, and leave you extra time for that walk.

According to time management guru Brian Tracy, it takes 21 days to form a habit. Just remember to work on only one new habit at a time, otherwise that old discipline muscle will be exhausted before noon!

Schedule. Why are we more worried about letting down other people than ourselves? Schedule your most important items on a calendar and treat them like any can’t-miss appointment. Writing time, workouts, family time, relaxation. Whatever your priority, put it down in ink (or pixels). You’re worth it.

If that’s not enough to make it happen, find a friend to schedule the activity with. We know you won’t let her down.

Remove temptation. Can’t resist the vending machine at work? Leave your cash at home and bring a snack. If the ice cream in your freezer calls to you every night before bed, do your grocery shopping early in the day (when your discipline is still strong) and don’t buy the ice cream!

I often struggle to set aside a good book even when I have other things I must get done. If I have a busy day or week coming up, I won’t even crack open a new read. Or if I'm desperate for some reading time (yes, it's an addiction), I’ll choose a short story or novella that I can start and finish during my lunch break or workout.

And lest you think I have this all figured out, I don’t. My discipline muscle still gives out and I skip the run, eat the candy, and get immersed in a book for half a day.

Sleep helps. Schedules help. Habits help.

And at the end of the day, I just have to forgive myself and keep trying to be better than I was the day before.

Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #497570 / Vitaliy Saveliev / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Editing my life list

LifeListI have this list. Call it a bucket list, list of things to do while I’m alive, life goals, “beginning with the end in mind” (a la Franklin Covey), whatever.

It’s really—really, really—long.

And somewhat prioritized. I have a vague sense of which things are more important to me than others, and I use that when making decisions. Like where to spend my money first, and how to allot my time.

Sometimes, I even stick to those decisions. 😉

I’m always telling my kids to focus their energies on the things that make them happy. I blabber on about the importance of doing the things that really matter to you, and not putting them off (taking into account personal responsibilities and fiscal soundness, of course).

So, it’s funny when my son throws it back at me.

Machu Picchu has been on my list since I was ten.

Visiting Machu Picchu has been on my list since I was ten.

Invariably when we discuss foreign languages and how well they’re doing in French class, I lament that I’m still not fluent in my chosen language of study: German. Well, the other day, my son said, “Then you just need to make it a priority and work on it, Mom.”

(Apparently they do listen!)

Which is when I realized that while I really do want to master German, it can’t compete with some of the other things on my list. At least not right now.

And that’s okay.

I’ve decided to devote my time to other things that I care even more about.

Now, someday, when I’m in a position to fulfill my “Live in Germany (or Austria)” list item, learning German will become a higher priority. I’ll have a reason to put some serious effort into it. And then some of the things I’m doing now will fall aside for a while.

And that’s okay too.

I don’t want to languish with an unfilled wish list for the rest of my life, but I can’t do everything right now. It’s not a competition. It shouldn’t stress me out. It’s supposed to be fun.

So, I’m going to savor what I’ve done and am doing, and look forward to those things I’ve yet to accomplish. No stress, no guilt, no feelings of failure.

Or at the very least, I’ll add nurturing that attitude to the top of my list. 😉

Macchu Picchu photo credit: By Martin St-Amant (S23678) (Français : Travail personnel English: Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons

My big, scary goal

I couldn’t talk blithely about my goals today without stopping to mention the tragedy in Boston yesterday. My heart hurts for all those affected. It also swells at the stories and pictures of those who raced in to help just seconds after the bombs went off. After such devastation, we need a reminder that most people still care about their fellow humans.

♥♥♥

Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can. ~ Unknown

LadderLast week I talked about being bold and setting big goals. Not just big, but scary goals that represent what you really want out of life in the long term.

Since I’ve been challenging you, I figured it’s only fair that I set my own goals and share them here. Talk about scary. If I put my goals on the Internet for everyone to see and then fail…

Here goes. My overarching goal:

To make enough money from my teaching and writing activities that my husband can quit working when he’s eligible to retire from the Air Force in 2016.

(Excuse me while I go breathe into a paper bag for a minute.)

That’s my big, scary goal. It used to be just a dream, something that would hopefully happen one day after I finally got published. But wishing for something—which often means you think it can’t really happen—does not get help me get things done. Nor does it help me figure out which path to take. Goals, on the other hand, can be broken down into progressively smaller pieces until you get to something you can start today.

I’m already making some money from teaching—and from Scrivener For Dummies—but I really want to generate income from my fiction. With that in mind, I started thinking about the best way to do that.

Keep working toward traditional publication, or self-publish?

Even a year ago, this would have been a no-brainer for me. New York all the way, baby! But times have changed. While I would love to be on bookstore shelves—if there are any left in a few years—and would love the ego stroke that getting a traditional publishing deal would bring, I don’t need either one to consider myself successful. Neither is a guarantee that the money would follow.

So, my plan is to self-publish. I think for all but the best writers among us there’s more money to be made going it alone.

That said, I don’t want to self-publish just because I’m not good enough to get a deal. I’ve seen enough work by authors who should have waited a few years to upload their books to Amazon, and I hope to not be one of them. But the kind of feedback I’ve been getting tells me I’m close. With a little help from an editor, I hope readers will never even notice my book doesn’t come from Avon, Signet, or St. Martin’s.

Am I averse to risk? Oh, yes. But there are different types of risk. While I’m loath to plop down the cash (that I might never earn back) for an editor and book cover designer, I’m even more worried about giving up my rights indefinitely to a publisher.

I also like to be in control. By self-publishing I can choose my covers, titles, release dates, book lengths, and story lines. For better or worse, success or failure is all on me.

(Where'd I put that paper sack again?)

By defining my ultimate goal, and determining that I intend to reach it by self-publishing, something dramatic happened. My daily priorities changed drastically.

I dropped my current WIP cold. It doesn’t fit with my new plan to release a trilogy in the spring of 2014, so it had to be pushed aside so I can work on revisions for the first book in the series and get to work finishing book two.

Without defining my goals so carefully, I would have kept pushing really hard—25,000 words in January, for example—on the wrong thing. Productive, yes. Helpful, no.

I can now make more informed decisions about how to utilize my time.

Sign up for editor/agent pitch appointments at a conference? Nope.

Read a blog post on writing great query letters? Pass.

Take a class on self-publishing? Sign me up.

See? A month ago, the answers to those questions would have been very different. There’s the real value of creating specific goals and plans for achieving them.

There's no guarantee I'll succeed, anymore than there was ever a guarantee I'd get a publishing contract. But at least I know I’ll be heading in the right direction.

Photo credit: By SOIR (Own work) (GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)), via Wikimedia Commons

Be bold, set a goal

Fortune befriends the bold. – Emily Dickinson

Climber_at_Stanage_Edge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_578912Do you have long-term goals for your writing?

I’m listening to a recording of the Bob Mayer workshop I missed while I was in California a couple weeks ago. A lot of his advice is centered around facing your fears and moving outside your comfort zone, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

But what really struck a chord with me is his suggestion that we should all create a plan for what we want to accomplish, with clear, measurable goals. Not just measurable, but visible, just like the goals we create for our characters.

Whoa, talk about getting uncomfortable.

Sure, I have goals. I have goals for things I have direct control over. Like how many words I write per day, how many query letters I send, or when I want to have a manuscript finished.

But he thinks we should go beyond that and think sales and money. Money, people!

I have no control over money. How can I possibly know what I’ll make in one, two, or five years? How can anyone plan for such a thing?

But if I don’t set a goal, how will I know what I’m shooting for? How will I know if an opportunity that comes along supports my vision of success or hinders it? How will I know if I'm a success or just spinning my wheels?

This is where the fear sets in. I feel silly picking a number, but it’s really fear talking.

What if I say I want to be making $50K/year on my writing and teaching activities by the end of 2015 and I fail? My number might be too unrealistic, just wishful thinking. But now that I’ve asked myself the question, what seems silly is worrying about not reaching my number. If I don't, so what?

Will I likely be better off than I am today? Will I have made decisions that move me toward what I want instead of away from it?

Yes!

And if I end up making $70K, then I’ll really know it’s time to party.

So, great, you’re convinced. Me too. I’m setting a goal. Several of them.

The next step is to share it with those who have a stake in it—family members who have to put up with you closeting yourself away to write and spending money on conferences, books, and workshops—so they’ll understand why you’re working so hard. They’ll see that you’ve thought about it and you’re serious. Hopefully, they’ll support you. (Just tell your spouse you want to make enough so he/she can retire. Might help.)

But spreading the word is scary, because now you’re committed. Tell your mother you plan to be a New York Times #1 bestselling author and she’ll ask you how that’s going. Every. Time. She. Calls. See if that doesn’t spur you on.

Finally, a goal doesn’t really have meaning if you don’t have a reason behind it (and this helps you sell it to your stakeholders too). Like Bob points out, just as our characters have a motivation for everything they do, so must you. It’s great that you want to make $30K on your self-pubbed books next year. But why $30K? Why next year?

Wouldn’t you be more likely to stick to your plan for achieving your goal—another topic for another day—if you kept in mind that the money means your graduating senior can go to college? Or you can take the trip to Australia and New Zealand you’ve always dreamed of. Or you can quit your day job to write full time?

Now there's something to keep you motivated.

I challenge you write down your goals and the motivations behind them today. Even better, since the goals should be something visible/tangible, see if you can find a picture to represent each one and put them somewhere you’ll see them every day.

Take control of your fear, figure out what you really want and why, and get to work on making it happen.

Be bold, and may fortune be your friend.

Photo credit: J147 , via Wikimedia Commons

Be the master of your fears

Never let your fear decide your fate.

~ From “Kill Your Heroes” by AWOLNation

Scared_Child_at_NighttimeIt's okay to be afraid. It's natural. But fear also holds us back at times when a bold move would serve us better. I love the above line from the AWOLNation song because it's a good reminder not to let our fears get in the way of what's important.

I’ve been trying to live by that philosophy for years, and while I do pretty well, I still have to fight the angst that often accompanies a new opportunity. In fact, I’ve decided that whenever I feel the fear, it’s a sign that I should probably do whatever it is that has me running the other way.

Okay, this doesn’t apply to things like surfing in a tsunami, diving off a bridge, or anything that usually starts with, “Hey, ya’ll, watch this.”

I’m talking about personal and professional risks where the reward is great but the fear is strong. Things that force me to stretch outside my comfort zone.

When Wiley offered me the opportunity to work on Scrivener For Dummies, I was scared witless. Could I really deliver a 400-page book in three months? S-T-R-E-T-C-H.

Turns out, yes. And, man, is that a boost to the self-esteem.

Korea-Busan-Cliff-Bunji.jump-01Suddenly your confidence soars. The next opportunity comes along and the fear stirs, but you give it the ol’ side kick to the knees and grab the chance with both hands.

You know how easy it is to spiral downward. We turn down chances we really want because we’re afraid we’re not good enough, and then we hate ourselves for being cowards.

Well, you can spiral upward too. But it requires a risk.

Start small.

My first one was Toastmasters. All through college, I didn’t give speeches or presentations in class, I merely survived them. Often with no memory of the event. After three years of Toastmasters and many years of teaching, I looked forward to speaking opportunities. Each one was another chance to prove to myself that I had mastered that fear.

Was I still nervous? Hell, yes. Still am.

But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing in front of the crowd, being fully in the moment, aware of where you are in your speech, aware of the individual faces and expressions of those before you, and knowing exactly what’s going on. You can liven things up, change the mood on a dime, speed up, slow down.

You are in control, not the fear.

It’s incredible.

After Toastmasters—and listening to lots of Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, and Franklin Covey—I made a habit of going after what I wanted. Maybe not as quickly as I’d like, but I did it.

Grad school. New career. Quitting my job to stay home. Becoming a writer. Blogging. Teaching classes. Saying yes to the book.

Next it’s delivering in-person workshops for writing groups (starting this weekend in San Jose, CA!), speaking at a regional conference, and my first national conference workshop appearance (RWA in Atlanta).

Who knows what’s after that?

Self-publishing? Rock climbing? Purple hair? (Okay, probably not purple hair.)

Whatever it is though, I’ll decide, not the fear.

What’s the one thing you’re afraid of that could change your life for the better if you did it? What’s holding you back?

Photo credits:
By D Sharon Pruitt (CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons
By bzo (http://flickr.com/photos/bzo/14417381/) CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Fitting it all in

ChecklistLast month I wrote more than 25,000 words.

And—don’t hate me—it was easy.

It’s been a long time since keeping a pace like that was doable. Last year I only had two months that good, and those were when I was writing Scrivener For Dummies under deadline. Not since I first started writing—back when I didn’t belong to any writing chapters, didn’t know any other writers, didn’t blog, tweet, or have a Facebook author page—has writing come so easily.

Part of it is the joy of a new story. But it’s more than that. A couple weeks ago I wrote about how I’m scheduling out my day, holding myself accountable to write every weekday morning before I get sucked into everything else that goes on in my day.

Well, it’s working.

Mainly because I don’t allow excuses; I have to write for 90 minutes. Once I get started, after I’ve read through the previous day’s words, time usually flies. In fact, even though I’m guilt-free for the rest of the day if I don’t write more, I find myself wanting to get back to my story because it’s on my mind. Which means I often add words again in the afternoon.

Productivity is contagious.

I don't know the science behind it, maybe we release endorphins every time we keep our promises to ourselves. I don't really care why it's working for me, I'm just glad it is. Not only is my new schedule now a habit, my new normal, but it feels good to end each day with 1000 shiny new words instead of a day full of busyness without anything meaningful to show for it.

The positive feelings I associate with my workday (or those endorphins, whatever)—and the fact that I can end it at 5pm without guilt or stress—get me out of bed in the morning.

Sure, there’s always more I could be doing. I’m a whiz at finding things to add to my growing list: more research reading, plotting on that other book I never finished, edits for the manuscript I need to resubmit. The list is nearly endless and overwhelming sometimes.

The key is to define each day’s priorities in advance (I usually do it the night before), and then schedule accordingly.

How’s your writing coming? Have you tried a new system to get on track? Have one that already works for you? I’d love to hear about it.