Change is hard. When we are striving towards big goals, whether personal or creative, it can feel like an uphill struggle. In the short term, it can be difficult to see change taking place. And even when we do see the difference, the results can be fragile. There are several reasons why making big shifts in life can come to a halt or even slip backwards.
Despite the adage that habits take only 60–70 days to establish, we all know that that they can disappear in a much shorter time. We can wipe out the habit of good nutrition in one holiday or the ritual of daily yoga during a minor illness. Moreover, the fact of having been successful can make us complacent. After the initial euphoria we find ourselves on a plateau, feeling stuck.
How do we keep the vision alive? What is it that allows passion to thrive and grow rather than wither?
Part of the answer lies in knowing how the vision has become dimmed in the first place and there are plenty of possible reasons.
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‘To do’ lists can be deadening and demotivating. We all have things we have to do and some of those things are routine and don’t set the world on fire. But all too often we allow those things to take far too much time and energy. So what can we do to transform ‘to do’ lists so we don’t get stuck spending most of our time on the small, time-consuming stuff?
1. Think about your use of time
A great journalling exercise I did recently was to make a huge list of all the ways I spend my time. Then I divided the list into three groups:
routine things that have to get done, but which are uninspiring and can multiply to take up lots of time (C)
essential tasks that use my skills and are enjoyable (B)
the core goals that I’m most passionate about (A)
For me, the category C activities are things like emails and routine admin. This includes organising book launches, doing business accounts, buying train tickets etc.
I estimated I was spending around 40% of my time on category C activities. With another 40% on work, that left 20% of my time for family, relaxation, writing … How can core goals and values be so squeezed and thrive? Of course, they can’t. So the questions then became, what could I eliminate? What could I automate or streamline? And what could I delegate?
One of the things I noticed was that I was repeating the same information to lots of people in serial emails. I set about writing a series of information sheets for authors. These covered what to expect during the publishing process, information for launches etc.
They are all online and available for authors to download on a resource page.
We added an invaluable office manager to our team at Cinnamon Press. We employed a virtual assistant to do a routine task uploading competition details. And I started time blocking so that emails are all answered once a day. I batched other admin too, so I’m not wasting time going back and forth between different types of activity.
My category B is either work-related (editing and mentoring, for example). Category B activities are harder to limit in some ways as they are more essential and more enjoyable.
I love my work, but I don’t want to be co-terminus with it. Having supportive authors who help with these tasks makes a huge difference. I gain a lot from editing the work of others, but I’m also grateful to have trusted editors to delegate part of the process to.
I get huge satisfaction from teaching and mentoring, but sharing the load is also rewarding. I have no desire to cut the category B activities from my timetable, but a team can achieve much more than an individual. Once again, time-blocking enables me edit and mentor when I’m most focussed.
And I’m learning to say no. Loving my work does not mean I have to take on more and more until it overwhelms me. Greg McKeown asks:
Have you ever said yes when you meant no, simply to avoid conflict or friction? … the very thought of saying no brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. … But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes or say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months or even years.
We all have the same amount of time each day, but how we use it makes the difference. We can spend a bigger percentage of our time on the important things if:
we eliminate non essential activities (no one needs to be available to a phone or messages every minute of the day)
streamline and/or delegate some of the routine activities
use blocks of time for different types of activity so you focus on the important things first and one task at a time
build a team to share the more essential and rewarding work
don’t imagine we can do it all and learn to say no
These strategies have helped me shift from spending 40% of my time on the routine ‘to do’ list to around 20% and I aim to get that down further this year.
This frees much more time for editing and mentoring, but also for my category A activities. These include writing, travel, learning, family time and relaxation.
2. Think about why certain activities are important to you
We all have different goals, different category A activities that are more ‘quest’ than ‘to do’. It’s sad that the pace of life often relegates these to the ‘add-ons’ that we hardly have any time for. But the more passionate we are about these things, the less we will find excuses for not doing them.
As I said in recent post:
Your goals should be your passion and, if they are, then it’s no longer a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.
It helps to know why we we value certain activities over others. This is what Benjamin Hardy advises:
Think about what it is you want, and ask yourself this simple question:
What about ___________ is important to me?
If your goal is to work from home, then ask yourself the question:
What about “working from home” is important to me?
Your answer might be something like, “to have a more flexible schedule.”
You then put THAT into the previous question.
It’s good to go at least 7-questions deep into this exercise.
Don’t overthink it. Let the answers come and move on and you’ll find your thinking is much clearer than you imagined.
Writing is the most meaningful and transformative activity I undertake. It’s fundamental to how I reflecting on life and connect with others. Becoming a different story is my life’s work.
Travel puts me in unfamiliar places and situations. This in turn stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work.
Family (including an extended family of close friends) makes my world make sense. These are the people who teach me to live from abundance rather than scarcity. These are the people who confirm for my that generosity is the key virtue.
Keeping fit facilitates other goals. I’m less than 5 feet tall and have a slow metabolism so to maintain my energy I need to be fit, of moderate weight, flexible and well-nourished. It’s about valuing my most basic resource: myself, so that I can give.
Personal development is also foundational to my goals. When my daily rituals, habits, learning, attention to values and relaxation are in harmony, the rest follows.
If we are clear about what matters most and why these things matter, we are more likely to live life as an exciting quest rather than a tedious to do list.
3. Think about building your life on values rather than ‘oughts’
When we face a long list of things we have to do, resistance sets in. Life becomes drudgery sustained by a diminishing supply of willpower. Even if we manage to achieve everything on the list, we’re not likely to take much pleasure of pride from it.
When we manage our time by eliminating, streamlining, delegating, sharing, time blocking and saying no, we find we have ‘more time’.
When we know what we are passionate about and why, we release energy that is much more effective than willpower.
And when we act from our deepest values rather than ‘oughts’ imposed on us from outside, then this energy increases beyond our imagining.
Living from values gives us this bigger vision. Living from values comes from intrinsic motivation rather than from something imposed on us.
As with goals, we will each have different value sets. But something I’ve found useful is to use a system attributed to Benjamin Franklin. He decided on thirteen key virtues and each week of the year would focus on one of them so that over the year he’d concentrate on each value four times.
I’ve written my values into a tiny book (less than two inches square) that I can carry with me. The first two for me are generosity and abundance. It was fascinating to spend time journalling to reach my list of thirteen. And starting each day thinking about how I can show that value in my life is much more motivating than starting the day thinking about a to do list. It doesn’t mean that there are no routine jobs to do, but it keep them in perspective.
4. Think about taking time out
When you know how you want to live and why; when you know the values your life rests on, life becomes a quest rather than a mundane list of demands on your time. This is exhilarating and motivating and it demands that we redirect our energy to what matters to us. How do we do that?
i. We need to take space to think
I’m currently rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own— it’s an important text and the idea that we need a dedicated space in which to write is essential. Over the last week I’ve set up a dedicated writing room in which to work. It has 23 years of past journals, all the books I’ve bought but still need to read, and important texts that have informed my current thinking. It’s a place I can go to think or write. If you can’t take a whole room, find a desk, a corner, any space that you can call your own and where you can think and write.
ii. We need to create a mindset that helps us to focus
Whatever your daily commitments, journalling morning and evening can make all the difference. Five minutes of writing about how you envisage your future. Five minutes of reflecting on how you have used your time, lived your ‘why’ or values, makes an enormous impact on how you see the world and interact with it. Take time every day to affirm and reflect and watch your world change.
Environment is crucial to our perspective and when we take control of it, things happen.,
iii. We need time in other environments
This is why travel is so important to me. It places me in unfamiliar places and stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work. If you can’t leave the country, go for a long walk; swap houses with a friend for a week. Do something that shifts your perspective and in the unfamiliar situation you will find yourself having new thoughts.
If you want your life to be a quest rather than a mere ‘to do’ list; and want to make a difference, there are a few simple strategies:
think about your use of time — you have as much time as anyone else and it’s up to you how you use it.
think about why certain activities are important to you — dig deep until you find what matters to you.
think about your values and build your life around intrinsic motivation, not what someone says you ‘ought’ to do.
think about taking time out, whether in daily journalling or unfamiliar environments that challenge you to adopt new perspectives.
When you begin to make these changes you’ll find life is no longer a mundane to do list, but a quest of your own making. Enjoy!
It’s the time of the year when we begin making resolutions. By the end of January lots of those resolutions will be waning and by Spring most will have been forgotten. Why? Because lots of resolutions are not things we desire, for a start. So often we focus on things we ought to be doing, whether it’s dieting or writing the magnum opus rather than things we want to be doing. This stacks the odds against us before we begin. Or we set off armed with willpower and good intentions, thinking we can resolve to do a hundred things a day (preferably before breakfast), but find that willpower is an exhaustible trait. We end up overwhelmed, achieving none of the resolutions on the list. At other times, we fail to set up environments that nurture success or don’t leave any time for looking after ourselves. How do we break through this self-defeating pattern? How do we move beyond the kind of resolutions that we admit we have no confidence in from the outset?
1. Keep your list focussed
You don’t have to have twenty resolutions, or even five. How about a couple of big priorities? Or one important project? As David Allen says:
You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.
When we are overwhelmed we give up. If we try to expend energy in lots of areas, then even if we make progress it’s likely to be by increments. To achieve an important goal takes focus and attention so the more you hone your resolutions the more likely you are to stay with them. If you want to write that book this year and you also need to get fitter and lose weight, of course you can do both, but try making one of the goals the key priority for the first 90 days of the year to get the rhythm established. Once you’ve given it the time it needs you are likely to be able to keep the diet going while you prioritise the next big goal for 90 days. And while you are majoring on overhauling your nutrition you can be planning the book. Then, when you are ready to refocus, gather your notes and drafts and work on the creative project.
2. Make your environment work for you
If your environment is full of distractions, it will be much harder to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to write a novel or learn to dance, you need to focus. If you are serious about your project, having a routine that gets you into the right head space is vital. It might be meditation, journalling or listening to particular music. It might be eating protein for breakfast or sitting with a bowl of mint tea. It might be starting your day with a walk to find the creative flow, as Virginia Woolf describes in her 1953 diary:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
Or as John Berger describes when walking:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
(From Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos)
There are lots of ways to find the luminous moment or the state of flow in which to create. But it’s unlikely to be through from Internet surfing, checking your friends’ Facebook updates or sending tweets. It’s unlikely to be sustainable if your phone is six inches away and pinging to let you know you have a new message, a new text or that five apps need updating. Whether you’ve resolved to do daily yoga, read for an hour every day, improve your photography skills or write and post three blogs a week, you need uninterrupted, undistracted time.
A creative environment will eschew the endless noise in favour of something deeper. In the words of T.S. Eliot:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
3. Eliminate the small stuff
Achieving goals takes time and energy. Focussing on a couple of important aims and creating an environment in which you won’t be distracted make a huge difference, but you also need time. That book won’t write itself. A great way to make time is by saying no to many calls on our attention that land in our inbox. If you’re a people-pleaser this can be hard — some of us feel we should say yes to every request. But that way lie frustration and breaking promises to yourself. Being in reactive mode is draining, not only in time, but emotionally, leaving us scooped out and in no state to be creative.
You need to think about how you use your time. We all have important commitments to family or work or simple life processes, but there will also be things we do that could batched into one time-efficient block to. I now answer emails at one time each afternoon. It’s still a timely response to those who email me, but it prevents me go from and back and forth to the inbox all day, wasting time in the process. Some tasks might not even need doing at all. I used to reply to every email. Now, I no longer respond to emails sending unsolicited manuscripts for publication. Many of these arrive while we’re closed to submissions and contain genres we don’t publish. The senders have no sympathy for the press or they would have taken the time to find out anything about Cinnamon Press so I delete the emails. It was a big step for me to do this. It felt ungracious and harsh, but it makes me less distracted and ragged with more energy for essential Cinnamon work and my own writing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism:
To eliminate non-essentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion.
4. Nurture yourself
It seems obvious, but a lot of busy, creative people forget to look after themselves. I’m not talking about being selfish, but we do need nurture to achieve our goals and to make a contribution to the world. Quoting Greg McKeown again:
If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.
If you don’t get enough sleep, if you can’t remember the last time you laughed, if you haven’t done some relaxing activity in the last week or month or … (for me it’s long hot bubble baths) then achieving dreams is going to be harder. If your nutrition is poor or your diet is full of sugar, you’re likely to be more sluggish and less focussed. And the same applies to the way we choose relaxing activities. Several hours of low-quality TV every evening only serves to sap time and energy. A challenging film that makes us think, a great book or taking up fencing or yoga … is much more likely to be relaxing. And high quality relaxation feeds the mind and body, making us more energetic, more full of ideas, more creative.
5. Find a partner in resolution
Trying to goad ourselves forward through a major project is demanding and if we have only ourselves to account to we’re more likely to give up. When I was writing the poetry sequence Slate Voices, I had a co-writer who was writing a sequence about the Scottish slate islands while I focussed on a tiny Welsh valley. If I hadn’t kept up the writing, I’d have been letting down another poet. The current trilogy of novels I’m working on, beginning with This is the End of the Story, has a publisher. I have a commitment to an editor and to Liquorice Fish Books. This year I’m working within a mentoring programme that includes small groups of people with similar goals. We aim to hold each other accountable. I also see the value of this when working in my capacity as a writing mentor with Cinnamon Press. Goals that are public and shared are much more likely to be sustainable.
You might find a mentor or agree with a friend or small group that you will keep one another accountable. However you do it, make the promise to yourself bigger than your own willpower.
6. Break the big goals into manageable steps
If you need to lose 40 pounds it’s going to take time. You will have to make a lifestyle shift to a sustainable long-term diet, not starve yourself for a month. If you are going to write three interlocking novels, you need to think about what to do first. Are you the kind of writer who starts with character studies or a seed for the story? Do you plan chapter outlines or dive in and restructure it later? Will the books need a lot of background research?
In the last couple of days I’ve broken my 2018 goals down into tiny steps and hand-written them into a diary with an entry every day. I’ve got a plan for how many words per week I need to write for novel 3 whilst finishing the editing and beginning some promotion for novel 2. I have a morning routine of journalling and yoga, which I’ve entered daily. And I’ve written in deadlinees to plan trips, buy train tickets and book accommodation for travel to research and write. The problem with a lot of New Year resolutions is that we make them as though we are making three wishes or asking Father Christmas for new toys. It’s not surprising that they fail to materialise. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry says:
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
7. Choose goals you care about
Resolving to do things we ought to do or things that others expect of us won’t make for lasting goals. The truth is that if you have no intrinsic motivation you’ll give up. On the other hand, if you choose goals that you are so zealous about that you have to do them, then you are setting yourself up for success. Your goals should be your passions and, if they are, then it will no longer be a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.
Writing about home education (home schooling) in the book, Doing it Their Way. I argued that intrinsic motivation is the key to real education. Children learn best when they are engaged with the learning, when they are making choices and pursuing their passions. We are no different as adults. The most important way to transform your New Year Resolutions into plans that you will put into action is to ask yourself what you most want to achieve. What is it that’s so important that you have to do it in 2018?
I’m going to prioritise my writing in 2018, completing the third novel of a trilogy for publication in 2019 and publishing at least one blog each week. I’m going to take some time out to travel for research and writing. What is it that you absolutely have to do in 2018?
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