Tag Archives: getting things done

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.)


Resolutions Suck. (Make them anyway.)


It’s sort of my style to gripe and complain about things around here. Every year I take more than a couple of posts out to pooh-pooh the things that tend to wind most people up: New Year’s Resolutions. National Novel Writing Month. Birthdays. Puppies. Maybe it’s my skeptical nature, maybe it’s some deep-seated, culturally-cultivated urge to strive against, or I dunno, maybe at my core I really am just a grinch.

But here at the end of 2017 I find myself looking around and I see I haven’t done quite so much of that. Hard to say why off the cuff, except to point out that 2017 seems to have been a generally crappy year for lots of creatives, particularly those of us who lean liberal. No politics today, except to point out that it’s been hard to exist in the world without taking a higher-than-usual interest in politics, which comes at the expense of the fargos you have to give every day.

Still, it wouldn’t feel right to finish up the year without taking a big, hearty piss on a beloved American tradition, so here it is:

That New Year’s Resolution you’re contemplating?

You’re going to eff it up, and probably eff it up badly.

face

It’s just not going to work.

Or, at least, it’s not going to work right now, if you’re making the resolution because it’s the end of the year and you figure it’s time to get off your ass. We know this. Most NYRs fail, sure as the Browns taking the field on Sunday. We fail to plan, or we don’t have the resolve, or we don’t actually care that much. We’ll make it for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, but we’ll run out of steam, lose momentum for a day, then two, then we fall off the train completely and we’re right back where we were on December 31.

That’s because we make resolutions at the new year because we feel like we’re supposed to. Which is bullsharknado. The time to make a resolution is when it’s time to do the thing, when that little voice inside you — your conscience, the twin you absorbed in the womb, or god if that’s your thing — tells you this thing has to happen NOW. When, if you don’t do the thing now, you will suffer.

If that voice happens to speak up around the new year, great. Probably it won’t.

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t make the resolution anyway.

Just because you’re going to fail at a thing, and probably fail badly, is no reason not to try it. Failure is the best teacher, after all, and once you fail at the thing, well, you know the mistakes not to make when you try the second time. And when you fail that time, you know even more mistakes to avoid. And if you’re lucky, eventually you learn to avoid enough mistakes that you just might finally make it through the mine field.

All of which is to say that 2018 feels like a great year for making mistakes.

Or, put another way, a great year to go out there and fargo some sharknado up.

Dang, I was supposed to be dumping on resolutions.

Okay.

Resolutions suck.

(Make them anyway. Whether it’s a new year or not.)

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


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

Ahem.

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.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: On Not Belonging


You can’t get there from here.

That thing you want to be? It’s an elite club. Elaborate membership initiation. Dizzying ivory tower across a raging, flood-fed river from where you are now. They actually get money to do the thing you’re trying to do for fun. They probably even have a secret handshake, and even if you made it across the river and climbed the tower, they wouldn’t teach it to you.

Italy, Pisa, Tower, Sky, Monuments, Buildings Italy

In short, you’re a pretender, and you will always be a pretender. You don’t belong there. This is impostor’s syndrome, and it’s a bitch. Impostor’s syndrome speaks with the voice that came pre-installed in your own head, which makes it particularly credible. And worse — it’s true! For the first (insert arbitrary period of time here), you will suck at the thing you’re trying to do.

(Here we talk about running and writing, since those are my two primary extracurricular jams.)

Those first runs suck worse than anything has ever sucked. You can’t even finish them, the best you can hope for is to do a little bit better than you did last time before your legs give out and you literally dissolve into a puddle of sweat on the pavement. You’re as graceful as an elephant on roller skates. You wheeze like a Chevy Malibu on its last legs (god help the designers of that car if I ever meet them in an alley).

Somewhere in the distance, you see the Ivory Tower of the real runners. Olympic Athletes, sure, but not even that — just people that run races for fun are in the tower. Marathoners. Half-marathoners. Even running a 5k seems a monumental and impossible goal at this point. And that voice kicks up in your head: you don’t belong, you’re not a real runner and you never will be, this is stupid, you’re stupid, stop trying!

Or writing. You set out to write a book or a story or a play or whatever, and maybe you start off okay, but soon the work turns into real, actual four-letter-word-WORK. The inspiration won’t come no matter how much you crank the engine (metaphors, whee!). The words that do come feel idiotic, stilted, hackneyed, or worst of all, just fargoing boring. You are the World’s Worst Writer, and it’s immediately obvious to anybody who reads your fetid pile of word-gerple.

And there, the Ivory Tower again. Real authors making real money with real readers, writing two or three or a dozen books a year, their books on the shelves at the mother-trucking Target, for god’s sake, so you can’t even pretend not to be aware of them while you’re buying TP and Chex Mix. Then the voice: your crap will never be on the shelves, just think of all the time you’re wasting, you don’t belong, you’re not a real writer, stop fooling yourself!

And maybe you believe it. Or maybe you don’t. Perception is reality, after all, and that Ivory Tower, metaphorical as it may be, exists in your mind, and all the barriers keeping you from it exist just the same. Hours, weeks, months, years of training and practice. A few lucky breaks along the way. Tenacity. Bull-headedness. Maybe even a little dash of crazy. Even if you’re doing the thing a little bit right now, it’s all pretend. You’re not a runner, you’re not a writer, you’re not THAT THING, whatever that thing is.

You’re just you, playing in the sand. Building up a joke of a castle and watching it wash away with each new wave.

Castle, Beach, Sea, Sand, Sand Sculpture, Artwork, Wave

You suck so bad.

But here’s the trick:

To build a castle, you actually need a bit of water. You can’t build anything without a healthy dose of the stuff that will bring it all tumbling down. And that Ivory Tower on the horizon?

It’s just a sand castle that somebody else built while they were feeling just as doubtful as you feel right now.

The trick is not to find the magic key to get into that Ivory Tower. You don’t have to guess the password, you don’t have to break yourself doing exactly what everybody else did to get there. The trick is to build your own Ivory Tower out of the sand, no matter how many times the ocean knocks it down for you, no matter how many times you wreck it yourself because you don’t know what the hockey-sticks you’re doing.

And it won’t be their Ivory Tower. You don’t have to belong to the super-secret, super-elite club, to be able to call yourself THAT THING THAT YOU WANT TO BE. It’ll be your Ivory Tower, where it’s okay to suck, where it’s okay to miss a day because you feel like puke run through a garbage disposal, where it’s okay to do something the completely wrong way and then turn around and re-do it the next day if what’s what it takes.

You build your own Ivory Tower.

Sand Sculpture, Structures Of Sand, Tales From Sand

And then you shine the beacon out to the other poor souls who think you did something magical to get there.

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.


The Summer of (Not) Getting Things Done


It’s Friday!

Hooray, Friday!

And it’s also summertime!

And my wife and I are teachers, so that means we’re doing nothing at all for the next two months! … Because that’s what people believe about teachers, right?

Actually, I try to live as close to that as possible. You see the arguments break out online (because the internet is made of stupid arguments) between people who think teachers just chill over the summer and teachers who retort that they work just as hard over the summer. You know. Professional development. Curriculum planning. Building and organizing.

Hogwash. Summer is for slacking. I’m not saying those teachers don’t exist, but I did not catch that particular brain parasite that compels them to slave through the summer months in preparation for another long slog through another school year. Summer is the time for doing daddy things, like taking kids to playgrounds, to the pool, to the beach, and … maybe some day there will be time for doing some actual daddy things, too.

Problem is, it’s summer, and regardless of whether we’re working or not, we’re not going to work. Which is great, but it sort of screws with the concept of time. We build our schedule around a few set points: This is Monday, this is the working week, this is Friday, this is the weekend. And the workday is likewise punctuated: Here is when you have to get up, here is when you have to leave the house, here is when you need to gird yourself because that class is coming in with that child in it, here is when you go home, here is when you need to be in bed to do it again tomorrow. The routine is regular, necessary, and natural.

And in the summer it disappears entirely. You wake up everyday (or, more correctly, the kids wake you up) and it’s like, “what are we going to do today?” (The answer, of course, is: “The same thing we do every day. Try to take over the world.”) And you sloth around a little, or maybe you even wake up and exercise, and you rustle up some breakfast, and then what? Naptime is a long way off, and these kids aren’t going to entertain themselves, so you cobble something together — a trip to the playground or the pool or, and let’s not get all high and mighty or anything because we all do it, a movie day at the house. Then they sleep, and while they sleep, you try to restore some semblance of order to the house (because the kids have somehow managed to trash it, even if you went out to do something specifically to keep them from trashing the house). Then they’re up again and you have to figure out the afternoon and then dinner, and then you’ve got an hour or so with the wife before, holy crap, it’s bedtime again, and where did the day go?

I feel like I write this post or something very much like it every year, but that’s only because after six years of teaching and four years of daddying I still don’t have it figured out. Getting Sharknado Done over the summer should be easy. With no J.O.B. taking up eight hours of your day, theoretically there should be more than enough time to do anything that needs doing during the day, and a few things that you didn’t even know needed doing. Yet somehow, it feels harder than ever to find time for things like writing, or exercising, or playing fix-it around the house.

Why is that?

Is it just the kids? They expand and spread out like humanoid black holes and engulf time and space and your entire life over the summer?

Is it the lack of routine?  The absence of the workday and the order it imposes on your time?

Is it the relative position of the earth and sun? The longer daylight hours tricking you into thinking there’s plenty of time left when in reality there is no more or less time than ever?

Is it the heat? Maybe it’s the heat.

All I know is, it’s hard to get stuff done over the summer. Maybe doubly so for teachers.

We start off summer like this:

And after a week, and for the rest of the summer, it’s like this:

lazy forever alone friends college seinfeld

Happy Summer!


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