Tag Archives: getting started

How Not to Backslide

I talk a lot about how hard it is to do the thing, and especially how hard it is to start the thing. There are endless ruminations — here and all over the web — about how difficult it is to start: how scary and intimidating the blank page is, how difficult to even step out the door in the morning, hell, just the challenge of getting out of bed itself, of reaching for your shoes instead of the snooze button.

And there are endless examples of people asking how to start. Looking for the magic bullet, the one piece of advice, the secret techniques to start them on the path. (s if there were just one. Or even a collection that might work, that wouldn’t require retooling and retweaking every time you go to employ them.)

And you know what? That’s fine. Starting is hard, it’s arguably the hardest step in a project, because you have to get past all that built-up doubt and insecurity, you have to give yourself permission to suck, and all that. Starting the Thing is basically like a mental version of the twelve labors of Hercules.

But Starting the Thing is only one piece of the puzzle, and as important as it is — and it is important, super important — it’s actually one of the smallest pieces of the puzzle.

The bigger piece? Probably the biggest piece? Maintaining.

Maybe this is on my mind because so many of us are entering another week of quarantine — be it self-imposed or otherwise — and we’re getting a little squirrelly. Week 1, we panicked and then we locked it down; week 2, we started getting some routines in place, now week 3 … we’re starting to feel the grind. This is when you need to focus on that other piece. When you have to focus on Maintaining.

See, when you Start the Thing, there’s this bait-and-switch that happens. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it seems impossible. Yes, you can’t see the end from where you are — you can’t even see beyond the first turn in the path. But the moment you do Start, there’s this incredible positive feedback loop that kicks into action. It’s immediate. “Oh, man, I wrote a few words on my space zombies fighting dinosaur pirates novel and it turned into two hundred — that feels great!” Or, “Whew, I was dreading starting this run, but I had to take my dog out to pee anyway and it turned into a mile before I knew it.” That happens. It happens often. You do the Thing that you’ve been building up in your mind as SO HARD, then you do it, and you get this great big payoff.

But dopamine is a kind of drug, innit? And like any drug, the more you get, the more you need. The high still hits as you keep Doing the Thing — as you keep adding to your word count, as you keep running the miles, as you keep making that progress — but it’s not like the first time. So you do a little more — you go harder, better, faster, stronger — and that picks up the slack. Sooner or later, though, you hit your limit, whatever that may be. You can only carve out so much time in the day, after all, and the body and mind can only take so much strain … so you can’t just add to the workload ad infinitum. For me, I peaked out at writing for two hours a day, and at four miles per run during the week. That’s what my schedule would allow, and that’s about all I really wanted to do.

That was enough.

So when you’ve reached “enough” — what then?

Then you move to the next phase: Maintain.

And Maintaining is hard. Way hard. Super way harder than starting. Because Starting comes with its own reinforcement. But Maintaining does not.

Gone is that rush of GoodFeel from just showing up, from just getting something done; you know what you’re capable of, so you now have a series of expectations for yourself. You don’t get bonus points for opening your project up, or from just jogging to the end of the street. You’ve got a quota to make. It begins to feel more like work than a new, exciting project.

Worse than that, when you Maintain, you’re by definition doing the things you’ve already been doing. I’ve been stuck in edits on a series of three chapters for the last several work sessions, because there is just so much to be fixed in there. And I’ve run the 5k loop near my house, and all its sundry variations, more times than I can count. These things are no longer new and shiny and exciting. They have become routine.

And to face that every day? To cope with the harsh truth that this thing you wanted to do — this thing you Started full of hope and excitement and a deep sense of purpose — involves, in no small part, drudgery? That’s a harsh truth.

It’s so easy not to maintain the progress, to let slip the work rate. Ahhh, I wrote extra yesterday, I’m gonna let it slide today. Well, I ran long this weekend … I can take it easy during the week. You know, I’ve been plugging away on this project … I’m gonna take a day off. You can be forgiven for thinking that way, and in truth, you’re not wrong to think that way. Accomplishment merits rest. Getting things done should earn you some downtime.

Problem is, you let it slip a little bit, and it becomes easy to let it slip a lot. That rope starts to pull through your fingers and all of a sudden, it’s moving too fast to grab hold of as it whips itself away. The rock rolls past you down the hill, and it’s all you can do to get out of its way as it crashes down toward the bottom.

The only way to Maintain is to return to the work with the same perseverance, the same sense of determination and drive that got you to Start in the first place.

How do you do that?

Simple. You don’t.

Whatever it is that got you to Start the thing carried with it a little spark of magic, a little shock to the system that spurred you to motion where you were once at rest. Like a germ that hits your immune system and forces it to adapt (to use a really troubling though apt metaphor), once it’s struck once, it won’t hit you the same way again.

What you have to do is re-evaluate. Remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing. Check in on yourself now and then, see if you’re still on the path you want to be on, if you’re still making progress toward that goal you set so long ago, or whether you’re simply coasting along. You stop being driven by the dopamine hits and you start being driven by knowing that it matters.

Turns out all those jerks who told you all your life that hard work is its own reward were right, even if they never explained why (or if they could even articulate it themselves).

There’s no easy way to flick this switch. It comes only from introspection and from a willingness to look yourself in the face and tell yourself the hard truth: that you’re slipping, that you could be doing more, that the work still needs doing and nobody is going to do it for you.

There’s no secret, no magic bullet.

I know, I know. I wrote this whole post out only to reveal that I don’t know a damned thing about how to stick to it, how to keep coming back to it, how to keep your head down and keep pushing forward when it gets hard. Fact is, the only secret that will work is the one that’s buried in your own brain already.

And you’ll either find it, and keep putting in the work … or you won’t.

(I hope that you will.)

A Day of Spiders and Fire

*Tries the door*

*Rust flakes off the stuck knob*

*Lowers a shoulder*

*A cascade of spiders from within*

*Returns with fire*

Well. It’s been a minute, hannit?

The show is over, and after a few-days’ refractory period, it seems like there’s very little left to do but return to normalcy around here, whatever that is.

Time to pick up that dusty manuscript that, despite my sincerest hopes and prayers (and you know what they say — nothing fails like prayer), has decidedly not edited itself in the meantime. Well, let’s just see where I left off heRRARGH


Turns out that even my computer files are full of spiders after two weeks away. Webs all over everything. Know what’s worse than getting spiderwebs caught in your hair? Getting them draped across your bald head. *shudders violently*

And, of all days, I picked a Friday to come back to life and get back to work. A Friday! As if to symbolize and cast in bronze the truism that there is absolutely no rest for the wicked, I bend my shoulder and descend into the word mines again, on a Friday.

A payday, even. When my thoughts should, as any proper teacher’s do, turn toward happy hour margaritas and a dogged denial of the looming parade of bills coming due.

Nope. I’m going back to work on the novel.

Why? Because it’s time.

It’s been almost two weeks since I wrote a creative word, and the stagnation of that clings heavy to me, like the funk of a ten-mile dead-of-summer run, a funk that permeates everything in the house. A dead squirrel going sour in the attic. Pipes dripping away in the walls, turning the drywall into sweetly rotten pudding. No escaping the stink, only denial that it’s there — a denial that feels pretty ridiculous when your eyes are watering from the smell. It just won’t dissipate until you burn out whatever’s causing it. Offer it up to the old, eternal gods of destruction and smoke.

And if I don’t buckle down and return to it today, then I’m not just missing one more day, I’m missing three — because I’m darn sure not going to be able to focus on it over the weekend — my first weekend without work in almost a month.

Nope. Momentum matters, and it’s time to break the cobwebs off this thing and get it rolling again. Lest it become a haven for spiders til the sun swallows the planet. Wish me luck.

No, don’t wish me luck. Just arm me with fire.

For the spiders.

Any Words Are Good Words

Writing is a little bit like owning a dog.

You have to deal with it every day: give it some attention, let it out to poop in the yard, feed it, love it, clean up its poop from the yard — elsewise it gets antsy and angry and starts chewing on the furniture, peeing in your shoes, snapping at the kids. Except in this metaphor, the furniture is your sanity, the shoes are your productivity, and the kids are your own kids.

Writing is a monster, in other words, in a cute, lovable outer shell — one that needs taming every day. Not a lot of taming, of course — a well-exercised writing habit remembers who its master is and will generally come when called — but a neglected writing habit will turn on you faster than you can say “bad dog.”

Problem is, unlike a dog, who, when it needs water or food or to go take a dump, will paw at the walls, nose at your feet, and generally bug the hell out of you, the writing habit will quietly turn sour when you neglect it. It won’t snap at you right away — it takes a passive-aggressive approach. The words don’t come as easily. Or even when they do, they turn to hot sewage on the page. Or the urge to write just doesn’t show up.

Which is where I found myself this week. Lots going on at work and at home. Little time and energy left over for writing. Neglected the habit a little bit and found myself struggling to even want to do it.

But in that situation, any words are good words. Because if a writing habit is like owning a dog, the writing itself has the attention span of a dog. Ideas and words aren’t flowing on your main project? Just take the words for a walk — write about anything: Donald Trump, ridiculous naming conventions, whatever — and the dog will quickly get distracted just being out in the world. They’re flowing anyway, and all of a sudden, the ideas and the words are bending themselves toward what you wanted to write in the first place, just because you let them out of the house.

Writer’s Block is only as real as you allow it to be. It doesn’t block you from writing, it just blocks you from writing what you want to write. It’s your dog saying, I’m not gonna eat that new kibble. So what do you do? You give it something else it wants to eat, and mix some of the kibble in. Write about anything — any words are good words — and soon enough the kibble, which looked so unappetizing a moment ago, is disappearing from the bowl.

The same principle works on almost anything. Breaking the momentum is the hardest part. Don’t feel like going for a run? Put your shoes on anyway and jog to the end of the block — odds are you’ll feel like continuing. Any miles are good miles. Don’t feel like cleaning? Wash a single dish or pick up a single toy off the floor, and you’ll feel silly when you think about stopping before it’s all done. Any thing cleaned is a good thing.

Any words are good words.

Have you walked your dog today?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.

We’re Never Ready. Do It Anyway.

When you’re starting something new, there’s a lot of hullabaloo about picking the “right time” to do it.

“I’d love to write a novel, but I just want to have the perfect idea first.”

“I’d love to start exercising and dieting, but I’ve got a vacation coming up (or the holidays, or whatever). I’ll start afterward.”

“I’d like to have a kid someday, but things are just too busy for me at work.”

The excuses all sound decent and reasonable, and they’re never specifically wrong. If you’re going to start writing a book, you should have the best idea you can muster in mind before putting pen to paper. If you’re going to start getting fit, you should eliminate as many barriers to success as you can. If you’re going to have a kid, you want to do so at a time when you can give the child as much of your attention as possible. And so on, and so on. The problem is, you can use that excuse (and here I mean whatever excuse you may have concocted to justify the thing you’re not doing) ad nauseam, and there is always another “perfect” excuse. Sure, I have a good idea for a novel, but what if I have a better one in a month or so? Okay, I cleaned the junk food out of my kitchen, but who wants to take up running in the middle of the summer? Yeah, my job is secure, but money’s tight right now, so maybe we can think about having a kid next year.

You can always find a reason why you’re not “ready”.

President Kennedy said of going to the moon that “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing regardless of the time frame in which you do it. There is never a “perfect” time. You’re never really “ready”. And chasing after perfection is the surest way to never get anything done. If you’re waiting for the perfect opportunity, you can prepare to spend your whole life waiting.

If you have the inkling that you want to write, pick up your pen (okay, crack open your laptop), open a word document (or notepad if you must) and write something. Now. Today. Brainstorm ideas for the novel. Do a little outline or a character sketch. Write an opening scene. It won’t be perfect — hell, it may not even be good — but at least you’ll have started, and taking that first step is the only way you’re going to change your momentum.

If you want to start exercising or watching your diet, do something. Now. Today. Go for a twenty minute walk around the neighborhood. Bang out a few push-ups during the commercial break. Have an extra helping of veggies before you hork down a bunch of bread, or stay in and cook your own dinner instead of driving to McFatty’s.Your exercise may not be graceful or impressive, and your dietary choices may not be the best, but at least you’re doing something. At least you’re making the effort instead of hiding from the opportunity.

If you want to have kids, well, the clock never stops on life, right? I had my kids at the age of 31 and 34, which means I’ll be about 50 when they graduate high school and head off to college. When my wife first started talking about having kids a year or two earlier, I told myself “I wasn’t ready” to be a father. But I did the math and realized I didn’t want to be a geriatric school parent. I have a colleague who just had his first baby at the age of 46. He’s going to be over 60 by the time his kid graduates high school. He told me he and his wife were just waiting for the right time, until they suddenly realized in their 40’s that there was no right time and they were on the verge of missing their chance completely.

The point of all this is, change is hard. Momentum matters. It’s easy to sit on the couch and get fat, easy to watch movies and TV endlessly instead of chasing after a dream, easy to stay a kid forever. The human animal seeks the path of least resistance by its very nature. We have to fight against evolution, against society, against ourselves to achieve the things we want to achieve.

We’re never really “ready.”

Which is why, whatever the change is that you’re chasing, there’s only really one thing you have to be ready for. And that’s being ready to say goodbye to the old you, the old way you did things. If you’re ready to move on, you’re ready for the next thing, whether you think the time is right or not.

Just start. Do something. It won’t be perfect, it may not even be good. But you’ll never get good if you don’t start sometime. And as somebody famous once said, there is no time like the present.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The Long Con

I’ll be honest, as I’ve been in the past: I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m making this all up as I go along. All of it. Life. Fathering, writing, teaching, running, husbanding… you will find no stores of expertise here, and precious few pearls of wisdom in a heap of dusty crumbs of idiocy. But you’ll also see that that doesn’t stop me from pretending.

I use this blarg all the time to talk about things I pretend to know a lot about. I dispense all sorts of marginally intelligible writing advice, I wax eloquent about the virtues of distance running, I tell funny stories about baby poop that hint at, but never actually deliver, profound lessons about life. Why bother doing all this, when I’m not actually a writing guru, not actually a running yogi, not actually a SuperDad?

Because I want to be those things.

But here’s the trick: you don’t get to flick a switch and start being those things. The road from where you are to where you want to be is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the weak and the tyranny of evil men. (Or maybe that’s only if you’re Samuel L. Jackson.) Oh, you want to write? There are thousands of writers out there. What makes you think you’ll make it? Good point, you think, and give it up, wisely saving your efforts for more productive endeavors. Oh, you want to start exercising? What’s the point? Most people fall short of their exercise goals and give it up anyway; you might as well hang it up now and save yourself the heartache. Too right, you think, and cancel your gym membership.

But where do those voices of doubt and dissent come from? Sure, there are haters out there that will poop on your dreams and ask you to thank them for it, but the louder, more convincing voices are the ones in our own heads. I know I can speak for myself when I say I’m my own worst critic. The voice in my head that tells me I can’t do things speaks like Morgan Freeman with a 50,000-watt station broadcasting down to the very marrow of my soul. It’s overbearing, constant, undeniable. How do I overcome it?

By pretending.

I’m not an expert writer, but I can pretend to be one. And I can bang out over 1,000 words a day on average despite my full-time job and part-time daddy duties as if I were an expert writer. And I can shovel out advice like a steamshovel about my experience and pretend to know what I’m talking about to give the illusion that I actually do know what I’m talking about. Because that’s what experts do. They look confident. They walk the walk and talk the talk. You wanna be that thing? You have to start doing the thing.

Nobody’s born a brilliant novelist. No athlete pops out of the womb running ultramarathons. The people that do those things have the same voices of doubt that you or I have. The human experience, for all its vast variations, striations, complications and salutations (whatever, I ran out of good rhymes), is actually pretty standard. We get a life, we get some challenges, and we either overcome them, or we don’t. If you want to get ahead, you have to learn to be a con man.

But not so that you can run a swindle on some unsuspecting rubes. (Though I guess that helps, too.) The con you want to run — the long con that you work for years and years — is on yourself. You have to fool that inner voice of doubt into believing that you’re not to be doubted anymore. You have to fake it til you make it. That means pretending to be the thing you want to be, every day, in public and in private, until one day it’s no longer a con and you are that thing.

Wanna be a writer? Write buckets of garbage. Drivel, drivel, drivel. Pile it on and pile it on and write boring stories and hackneyed narratives and cliched tripe and nonsensical dialogue until one day, when you’re not even thinking about pretending to be a writer anymore, you’re simply writing because that’s what you do now, you write something and it’s not half bad, and your inner voice of doubt will say, as if you’ve just demonstrated that the world is not, in fact, flat, as he previously believed, “oh. Well… I guess that makes sense, then.” And BLAM KAFIZZLE, you’re a writer.

Wanna be a runner? Get outside and run until you can’t anymore, and then stop and walk home. Then do it again. And again. And again and again and again, until you can run for a mile, and then for two miles, and then one day you’ll be out for your daily torture session, except you’ll realize it’s not actually torture anymore, it’s rather enjoyable, come to think of it, and you’ll start looking forward to those runs. And when people ask you what you’re doing this weekend you’ll respond airily, with a casual wave of your hand like you’re just going out for eggs, “oh, I’m going out for a 10k this morning,” and they’ll be all like “whoa, you’re running in a race?” and you’ll be all “no, that’s just what I do — I’m a RUNNER NOW.” And you’ll stomp on their toes for emphasis. Or maybe not. The stomping is optional, though it sends a good, strong message.

Point is, all the old adages are true. If you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right. A thing always seems impossible until it is accomplished. You have to fake it until you make it.

The power of sticktoitiveness (not a word, but yeah, totally a word I love) cannot be overstated. If you wake up every morning determined to accomplish a thing, and then take the steps and do the work necessary to take one step on that journey EVERY DAY, you can get there.

But what do I know? I’m not an expert.

I’m only pretending to be.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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