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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.

Hahahahahahaha.

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

Write

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)?

Letting go

LettingGoBalloonSometimes, we have to let go of our expectations. Of life, of others, and of ourselves.

Okay, well, we don’t have to, but we’ll probably be really unhappy…

I got a good reminder of this last week when I had a couple of trusted writer friends read my upcoming book. While they had good things to say, they also made some valid points about things that need to be fixed.

What? Now? But, but…this book is supposed to come out on May 13th. I already had it edited, got the cover designed, had the proofreader scheduled, and…well, everything.

But what’s more important, speed or quality? For me, there’s no question. Quality trumps speed.

So I had to let go of my plan and adjust my expectations. The book needs more work, simple as that.

I’m incredibly thankful to my (honest) friends for bringing the story’s issues to my attention. (Funny how you sometimes can’t see these things until someone points them out to you, and then you think, “Duh.”) I’d rather have it be my friends/beta readers than my paying readers!

To those of you who were looking forward to reading Blind Justice in May, thank you, I love you, and I’m sorry. I hope when you finally read it, you’ll think it was worth a few more months’ wait. I sincerely believe the book will be much stronger.

And I’ve learned something about myself. I will continue to strive for better books at a faster pace, but I need to honor my process and be true to my characters and their stories. There are authors out there who can produce a book every two to three months. I applaud them!

At this point in time, I’m not one of them.

I’m trying to let go of unrealistic expectations—both in my personal and professional life—and focus on creating the best books I can. I know that little spot at the base of my neck that carries all of my tension will thank me. 😉

Has anything forced you to let go of your expectations? Please share!


 

Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Apprentice Eric Cutright (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

My 2013 hits and misses

512px-Emoticon_Face_Smiley_GE512px-Emoticon_Face_Frown_GEI’m not big on waiting until January to make resolutions. If there’s something I want to start—or stop—I don’t see a need to wait. But I do like using the new year as a time to reflect on my accomplishments and missteps so I can set better goals and determine what I need to work on going forward.

What I noticed this year is that my productivity plummets during the summer, especially in terms of writing. You can see in the charts below that my word counts and writing hours dropped significantly in the middle of the year.

Some of this is due to conferences and personal travel, some due to my kids being home and visitors (good distractions), and some probably due to me getting out of my good habits (bad distractions). I did start to pick up my good habits again in the fall, but I need to be better about this in 2014.

I wrote more words and worked more hours in 2013, and it paid off with a fully edited, ready-to-go manuscript, and half of the second book in the series. My increased hours also reflect that I’m doing more online courses, in-person workshops, and individual training.

2013 Stats

I wrote 164,592 total words, including blog posts (new to this year's stats). 131,486 of those were fiction words, almost 20K more than 2012. Travel, visitors, conferences, and online courses really messed with my summer writing habits.

2013WordsChart

I worked 930 hours, not including reading craft blogs, small snippets of research reading, volunteer hours for my writing chapters, or travel time (I did include blogging and author-related social media for 2013). That works out to about 18 hours/week.

2013HoursChart

 

Hits

– Taught two Scrivener online courses (actually four).
– (Partial hit) I was definitely better about putting off email and social networking until after writing on many days, but still totally failed on others. Need to keep working on it.
– I did better this year confining my work to weekdays between 7am-6pm. I wasn’t 100% successful, but I’d say I managed it about 90% of the time. Weekends are hardest.
– Blogged weekly. Thanks for reading! 🙂
– Completed revisions on BLIND FURY with a professional editor, which means I have the first book in my series ready to go.
– Published PRODUCTIVITY TOOLS FOR WRITERS, which wasn’t on my original goal list, but is a definite “hit” for me. 🙂

Misses

– I did not get 60-90 minutes of writing or editing in every weekday, nor did I always hit 1000 words during writing sessions. But I’m not too disappointed. You can see from my chart that I still wrote a lot of words this year.
– I didn't complete two new manuscripts, but I figured out my real goal (self-published series in 2014), which caused me to stop a book halfway through. As a result, I only wrote half of the second book in the series, and half of another that might be part of another series someday, and spent a lot of time revising book one.

Goals for 2014

– Self-publish a three-book series and novella. (I talked about why here.)
– Teach two Scrivener full-length online courses.
– Create and deliver at least one short, specialty Scrivener course.

Seriously, I think that may be enough to keep me busy night and day. 😉 Throw in my travel for fun, conferences and workshops, and the fact that we’re due for a move this summer, and I think that’s plenty.

How’d you do in 2013? What’s on your list for this year?

Image credits: By Granny Enchanted (Own work) (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

If you aim at nothing

“If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”
~ Zig Ziglar

Aims.I didn’t win NaNoWriMo (again) this year.

I’m okay with that.

The first two years I participated in National Novel Writing Month—2010 and 2011—I won. It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but I managed it.

The last two times I attempted NaNo were a different story. In both cases, I was in the middle of editing another manuscript while trying to work on my 50K. It was probably unrealistic of me to expect that I even had a chance when I wasn’t going to be able to devote myself more fully to writing. So why bother?

Because it’s not really about the 50K for me, it’s about the push.

Sure, I didn’t make my goal, but I still wrote 37,735 words! I accomplished that even though I only wrote on 20 of the available 30 days, which gives me an average of about 1887 words per day. For me, that's a really good average. If I’d done that every day, I would have hit 50K three days ahead of schedule.

The main thing is that I now have almost 38,000 words that I didn’t have on November first.

Score! If I got nothing else out of NaNo, that would be plenty. But I always get more out of it.

Michael-Jordan-Picture-QuoteI’ve reminded myself that I can keep writing even when I think I can’t. Those times when I thought I didn’t have any words left, but I still needed to squeeze out 200 more (or ten more minutes), I somehow found a way to keep writing. Several times I got on a roll and kept going for significantly longer.

In fact, some of my best work came after I pushed through a block.

My most productive day was 4.5 hours of writing that yielded almost 3200 words. It’s easy to forget that I have the ability to tune everything else out and do that, then repeat the feat again the next day. It’s a capability I have to keep in mind if I’m going to be as prolific as I’d like.

Participating in NaNo is the annual adjustment I need to remember what’s really important (the writing), and how to make sure I get it done (turn off and tune out distractions, keep putting my rear in the chair until I’ve met my daily goal, push through the hard times, write even when I don’t think I have nothing to say).

The more I write, the more the ideas flow. Somehow I always forget that. I tend to get stuck in a story and want to dwell on the fix for days by brainstorming, making outlines, reading other people’s books… 😉 But if I just sit and write—maybe even another scene or just random notes and ideas—the solution comes. Every time.

The few minutes after I awake each day are more productive than ever when I’m writing consistently. They produce very few ideas when I’m in “brainstorming mode.”

So for me, it’s not about the 50K so much as the rejuvenation of my writing mind and soul, the cultivation of the habits that help me get the work done, and the increased output that is still a huge leap for me, even if I don’t “win.”

For me, that is a win.

Image credits:
Aims, By Youth Hostel (Own work) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons
Quote, by http://addicted2success.com/quotes/60-colorful-picture-quotes-to-empower-your-life/

2012 hits and misses

As_janus_rostrum_okretu_ciachNo matter what plans might have fallen by the wayside in 2012, I can’t be too disappointed since it’s the year I became a published author. Hard to beat that.

Well, except by becoming a published romantic suspense author with a fat advance, awesome covers, a multi-book deal, and a gazillion sales. 😉

Hey, I need something to strive for in 2013, right?

I’m not much on resolutions, and my goals tend to morph a little as the year goes on, but I like to start the new year by evaluating the previous year’s performance and set goals for the next 12 months. It’s become a tradition for me to share with you how I did, what I learned, and my plans going forward.

2012 was an abysmal failure from a fiction writing standpoint. But professionally speaking it was a great year in other ways. I got the contract for and wrote Scrivener For Dummies, and it released in August. What a whirlwind!

So here’s my look back, and forward.

2012 Stats

I wrote 113,384 total words, not including blog posts (regardless of purpose/site). June and July were busy spent on revisions and attending conference, so I have hours there, but no words.

2012WordCounts

I worked 768 hours, not including blogging (except promotional blogs), reading/answering email, networking on Twitter or Facebook, reading craft blogs, or volunteer hours for my writing chapters. I count hours for long stretches of research or craft reading, but not the little snippets I sometimes take here and there.

2012WritingHours

Hits

– Completed and polished a manuscript, though it wasn’t the one that I’d anticipated. Not that I’m complaining. 😉

– Taught two Scrivener courses for both Mac and Windows, and moved to running them myself.

– Researched, tested, and paid for new online class platform.

– Attended RWA National Conference and my local chapter retreat.

– Read several craft and research books.

– Blogged weekly.

Misses

– No completed fiction manuscripts. I got one about half finished, another about half edited, and a new one outlined.

– I didn’t come close to my word count or revision goals.

– No NaNoWriMo three-peat this year.

Goals for 2013

In an effort to focus on putting in the time instead of just words, I’m changing things up a little. I’ll talk next week in more detail about what I’m doing to make these goals more likely to happen.

– 60-90 minutes of writing or revisions every non-holiday weekday. Striving for at least 1000 words during writing sessions.

– Teach two Scrivener online classes for both Mac and Windows on new WizIQ platform.

– Check/respond to email, Facebook, Twitter, or other blogs after morning writing is done, but by 9:30am.

– Set more boundaries between my personal and professional life by limiting my “work” (writing, business emails, chapter volunteer duties) to weekday hours as much as possible.

– Continue to blog weekly.

So that’s how I did and what I’m looking forward to. How was 2012 for you? What plans do you have for 2013?

Image credit: By Ultima Thule, 1927 (Ultima Thule, 1927) , via Wikimedia Commons

Detour to success

Have you ever noticed how even when things don’t work out the way you planned, often the experience leads to something good? Maybe even better?

Here’s an example. Back in 1998, bored to tears in a programming job that was likely going to be eliminated anyway, I quit my job to start a training and support company called—in a flash of brilliant inspiration—The Help Desk.

Through some serious soul searching I had decided I really wanted to be a professor, but lacking a PhD—and the time and funds to get one anytime soon, especially with baby number two on the way—I figured teaching adults was really the key element that I craved.

I started by looking for jobs at the local community colleges and training centers, with no luck. No surprise, since I had a couple of years of programming under my belt, and several years heavy experience with Windows and Office, but no actual teaching experience. And at this point, I hadn’t even started Toastmasters.

But in my heart I knew I could teach if given a chance, and The Engineer, as usual, was willing to let me try. (Have I told you that man is the absolute best?)

And being my own boss sounded really, really good.

So I dug deeper into the Microsoft Office programs, bought a cell phone, printed out some business cards, put an ad in the local business newspaper.

I actually got some work too. Several one-on-one training sessions, some Outlook and Word classes, and even a live, televised PowerPoint training with a reporter asking questions.

A couple of non-training projects came my way as well, the most important one through a personal property appraiser I met through the chamber of commerce. She hired me to write a database to catalog items for her clients and create the final reports.

It took me over a year to complete, forcing me to learn Microsoft Access to levels I’d never dreamed of, including integration with Word, and lots and lots of Visual Basic for Applications to make it all seamless.

I also learned the definition of project creep, and the importance of a good contract.

Despite all that, by the time we left Oklahoma for Ohio 18 months after starting The Help Desk, I was feeling like the grand experiment was a failure. I had learned some good—and hard—lessons along the way, and maybe earned a little beyond my investment, but I wasn’t making enough money to justify starting over in Dayton.

If nothing else, the experience taught us that we could live on a much tighter budget. We could live with only one car. We didn’t have to eat out every week. And I learned how much I loved being home with my kids. I figured I’d enjoy my babies, and start saving up to go back to school for my Master’s.

And then it happened. Two weeks after the move, I saw an ad for an Access instructor at a local business college. Turned out they needed someone who knew Access well enough to pass the Microsoft Office User Specialist exam.

That's the beauty of the universe, right there.

Two years earlier I wouldn’t have been qualified for the job, but after all the grueling months of working on that appraisal database, I was an expert. I passed the test, got the job, and spent the next four years teaching software and business classes at private colleges and a computer training center.

No PhD necessary.

Looks like that failed business wasn’t such a failure after all.

Photo credit: By Mr. Matté , via Wikimedia Commons

Completion and progress

The Celtic triskelion symbol (at right) represents completion and progress, and a sense of advancement. A fitting metaphor for reviewing the past year and looking toward the next one, I think.

There’s something to be said for accountability. Writing down how much I spend, eat, or write makes me more likely to stick to my goals.

In 2010, I only tracked my word count, but that didn’t tell the whole story. Some months I had almost no words, but I’d still been working hard. So for 2011, I tracked all of the hours that I deemed directly contributed toward publication or making money: revising, researching, reading craft books, preparing query letters and contest entries, taking workshops, and teaching Scrivener classes.

Because you wouldn’t expect anything less, here’s a snapshot of my productivity for 2011.

  • Total (net) words written: 173,617 (14,468 words/month average)
  • Total writing/revising hours worked: 377.25 (31.5 hours/month average)
  • Total hours worked on all writing-related activities: 736.25 (61 hours/month average)

Words by Month - 2011



(Note: Word counts are net. During NaNo my manuscript contained 50,200+ words.)

Hours per Month (blue=writing/revs, red=total) - 2011



May and August have a low writing/total ratio because I was teaching classes. June was similar because of the RWA conference.

What’s not included is the time I spent on writing-related activities that don’t directly contribute to more words, better writing, or making money in some way: blogging, tweeting, checking my Facebook author page, reading/answering emails, volunteering for RWA groups/events, and Citizens Police Academy classes.

Hits:

  • Golden Heart final, The Sandy Contest win, Between the Sheets Contest 2nd place
  • Attended RWA National Conference and pitched to an agent and editor, both of whom requested
  • Received eight full requests and four partial requests
  • Received four rejections with specific feedback, including one request for my next project
  • Won NaNoWriMo
  • Proposed and taught two Scrivener online classes, and figured out how to host the class myself in 2012

Misses:

  • Only met hours-worked goals in four of 12 months
  • Didn’t meet manuscript completion goals

Plans for 2012:

  • 1500 words/day, 5 days/week when writing
  • Two hours of revisions/day, 5 days/week when revising
  • Complete and polish current manuscript, and one additional MS
  • Stay off email, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs until writing/revising goals met
  • Teach two Scrivener online classes
  • Attend RWA National Conference and WRW Retreat
  • Win NaNoWriMo
How did you do in 2011? Are you going to make any changes in how you work? What are your plans for 2012?

Photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triskele-Symbol-spiral.svg