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The art of finishing

To do

At the beginning of the year, I was writing Blindsided, the forthcoming third book in my Men of Steele series (look for it in February!), while simultaneously creating a new training platform and expanding my Scrivener course materials to include more screenshots, more detail, and videos.

I set deadlines for both, happily announcing them to my newsletter recipients, thinking this would force me to meet them.

But my deadlines were unrealistic given the scope of each project and the number of significant events/changes going on in my life. I made myself sick trying to stay on schedule for both projects. If I was writing, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working on the class. If I was creating course content, I wanted to be writing.

It doesn’t help that I’m my own boss for both. I don’t miss working for someone else, but there are some advantages to the typical day job, one being that your non-writing work hours have already been prescribed to you. (Others include a steady paycheck and face-to-face human contact…)

Setting my own hours is the hardest part. I either don’t work enough or I never stop.

So, I was struggling until I read a short article that had a huge impact (I’m sorry I don’t remember who wrote it). The gist was this: You will never finish anything—at least not in a timely manner—if you constantly divide your attention. Instead, list your projects in priority order and work on the first one until it’s done. Then move to the second. Repeat.

Despite the fact that I knew this approach was more effective—and applied the same “single-tasking” idea to my daily priorities—I had rebelled against it because I didn’t want to stop writing for two months to update my classes.

But the reality was that if I didn’t, the courses wouldn’t be done before we moved to California, which meant they probably wouldn’t get done until fall, if at all. And the book probably wouldn’t be done either.

So I quit writing (so painful!) and focused on my class platform and lessons. Then I got back to the book. Now I have a new site and a finished manuscript, despite the huge distraction in the middle of my year where I accomplished very little.

Moving forward, I’m trying to set my schedule such that I can still work on training and writing, but one always has precedence. The other gets attention when I need a break.

Right now, my manuscript is with an editor, so my main focus has shifted to creating a Scrivener for iOS course. Research, craft reading, and fleshing out the next book are secondary activities that I do when I need a break. My plan is to finish the course before it’s time to work on edits.

The single-focus concept is simple, but my daily process is a perpetual work in progress, and I have to fight the urge to work on everything at once to feel productive. Occasionally I have to stop and ask myself which is more valuable: Many unfinished projects in various stages of completion, or a single finished project?

The answer is easy.

So, do you struggle to tame your project list? I'd love to see your tips for tackling it.

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)?

Thanks for a good life

Happy Thanksgiving image

I like Thanksgiving. Unlike the über-materialistic-buy-buy-buy madness of the four weeks that follow, Thanksgiving encourages us to focus on being grateful for the people and things we already have in our lives.

Who doesn’t enjoy gadgets and clothes and vacations and a nice house? But I don’t think they make us happy. Not really. (Okay, well, travel makes me pretty damn happy, but it’s best when I’m not alone.)

I’m most grateful for the things I can’t buy:

– My family and friends

– Good health

– The freedom to pursue the career I want

Boys with clown faces

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all I need. I could even live without the last one as long as I had the first two. Though I’d rather not. 😉

My iPhone might make my life easier, and even more fun, but I’d never trade it for my husband or one of my kids, or even a friend. Honest!

You laugh, but the rat race that so many of us are on because we feel like we have to have that car or live in that house or wear those clothes—just to impress a bunch of people who don’t love us—forces us to give up our time with those who do love us.

When my first son was born I really, really wanted to stay home with him, but I couldn’t because we had bills to pay. It never—not once—occurred to me that we could adjust our lifestyle to lower our expenses so I wouldn’t have to work.

(BTW, I’m not saying that staying at home is the right thing to do, only that it was the right thing to do for me.)

By the time I had my second son, we had been introduced to authors like Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and Thomas J. Stanley (The Millionaire Next Door), and we were thinking very differently about our money, our lives, and what matters.

I had quit my job to start a consulting business and wanted to continue working from home. We sold both of our newer cars and paid cash for an old van. I drove my husband to work on days I needed the car. We cut down eating out to once or twice a month at cheap restaurants. We budgeted everything down to the penny (still do).

Best thing we ever did. Tightening the belt doesn’t feel good—it’s hard to cut back on the lifestyle you’re used to—but it was worth it to be home with my babies.

Boys standing in the rain

It was worth it again in 2008 when I quit my 55+ hour/week job as a manufacturing engineer. That time was even harder because we had a big house in a nice neighborhood—the kind where everyone is trying to keep up with the Jones’—new cars, and a trip to Europe planned.

But we had learned our lesson. Since we’d been living below our means, we were able to get creative with our budget, postpone the trip to Europe for two years, and keep the cars and house.

The stress levels in our house plummeted. My kids finally had someone at home to help with their homework and pick them up from sports practice. My husband and I weren’t both getting home late and scrambling to put dinner on the table. We no longer had to spend our two precious days off each week running all the errands we couldn’t get done while working.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about stepping off the treadmill, backing away from the culture that tells us we need more, more, more to be happy, and refusing to be owned by the things we own.

We had less money and less of “the good life” and a lot more happiness.

Which would you prefer?

Boys sitting on grass facing away

A simpler lifestyle requires less cash. When you need less cash, you suddenly have more freedom in the work you choose.

Sure, we all need enough money for the basics, and not everyone can afford a safe roof over their head or good, healthy food on the table. But if you can, I’d encourage you to think about what you’re truly grateful for this year.

Does the life you live let you enjoy those people and things that matter most?

If not, are there things you’d be willing to give up so that you can enjoy them?

I hope I didn’t get too preachy, but I feel very strongly about making the most of this life we’re given. At the end, none of us will care if we’re surrounded by cars and computers, wearing fancy clothes and lying on satin sheets. We’re going to want our loved ones at our side.

I hope you have yours by your side this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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?

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) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], 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.