A Year in Review and a Plans for a New Year

March of last year, I set myself some goals. Or, rather, I whittled down the impossible number of goals that I had and tried to concentrate on fewer. Although it’s not been a year yet, it’s easiest to do goal reviews on New Year’s, so let’s have a look at what I have (and haven’t) done.

The Review

1. Conversion. I am actually close to finishing this goal. I have finished my classes and have to meet privately a few more times with my rabbi. I don’t have a time set yet, but I anticipate having this finished sometime this spring.

I’ve been a bit more spotty with my Hebrew study, but when I looked at a portion of Torah recently–as it actually appears in the scroll–I thought, “I can do that.” Once I know which portion I’ll read, some concentrated studying will get me through my first Torah reading.

2. Home Improvements. Yeah, these haven’t happened. Even if we had the money for them, I haven’t had the time. And now that I’m unemployed and have the time, I especially don’t have the money. So scrap that goal going forward.

3. Writing. I had three sub-goals for this.

1) I wanted to finish the edits on Acceptance and submit it to a publisher. I did finish those edits, but I ended up self-publishing it. That took a lot more effort than just querying agents and publishers, but I did finish it. And I’m very proud.

2) I also wanted to finish the edits for The Flames of Prague. Instead, I’ve decided to totally overhaul it and turn it into two separate books. I have not made much progress on fleshing out the first novel, but Acceptance turned into a bigger project than I originally intended.

3) I wanted to publish two more short stories (I had already published The Last Golden Dragon). I did publish a second short story, The Widow, but I fell short of my goal of three for the year.

4. Exercise. Yeah, that was hit-or-miss (mostly miss).

5. Gardening. Nope, still didn’t have the time to do it. I think I better give this up until I either become a full-time writer or I retire.

The New Plan

1. I’m going to make myself eat right and exercise for the month of January. Hopefully 31 days of it will make it a habit, but I may have to make a conscious decision to pursue it longer than that. I still want to hit my two markers of physical fitness: do a pushup and touch my toes. (I doubt I’ll manage either by the end of January, so we’ll call that a year-end goal.)

2. Since I lost my job in November, I have to make an unexpected goal: get a new job. This may or may not require a move. (And, needless to say, if a move is involved, all other goals will be temporarily suspended.)

3. Publish another book and hopefully one or two more short stories. I also want to do enough Bloodsuckers to release a fourth volume (which means dropping my weekly output to a monthly output–something I need to do now that self-publishing takes up so much more of my time).

My current goal is to publish The Flames of Prague by the end of next year, but I’ve been doing a lot of work on my Acceptance Trilogy lately and have been rethinking its publishing schedule. Right now I’m still up in the air, but I may push Flames back a year and do the second Acceptance book instead. (I made the cover for it last night!)

4. Finish my conversion.

So, those are my big goals for the upcoming year. What are yours?

What to Do When You’re too Creative

I have been slowly coming to the realization that this is my life. I feel pulled in too many directions; there’s too much on my plate; there are things I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but never seem to have the time and/or energy to do it.

I sat down one day and accounted for my time. I found that I have 2.5 non-consecutive hours per weekday for working on projects and relaxing/ having fun, plus two weekend days.

Then I made another list of things which I am trying to get done or would like to get done. I had fifteen items on my list. And that doesn’t count the fact that one of those items–medieval re-enacting–has many sub-hobbies, such as sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, illumination, basketweaving, shoe-making, etc. If I were to count up all the sub-hobbies that I do or want to do, my project list would nearly double.

Is it any wonder, then, that there has been dirt and containers sitting on my porch for a year because I never got around to gardening last year? Is it any wonder that when I started seedlings last year, I neglected them and they died and I never replanted? Is it surprising that I started a costuming experiment (and, if successful, I would like to publish a research paper on it) but I put it aside when it was only half-completed and I still haven’t finished it 3 (or has it been 4?) years later? Or that I have a large embroidery project about 1/4th complete and sitting in a frame in my living room, collecting dust?

Even more embarrassing is that all I need to do on my first book are some grammar and typo corrections. When I have those done, I can send it to a publisher. Yet I’ve barely completed any of them and it’s probably been close to a year since I started. My second book needs its first round of edits (I think of these as serious edits, where entire scenes and even parts of the plot may be changed), but I’ve not worked on it in quite a while. I’ve made no progress on my third book either. And my romance book needs its first round of edits, then a round of typo edits so I can send it to a publisher.

I think this is probably true for a lot of creative types. We don’t get a great idea or want to learn a new skill–we have a lot of ideas and want to do a lot things. I know when I’m in a creative mood–and this was true of me even when I was a child making crafts to sell–I come up with ideas faster than I can implement them–each better than the last. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I can’t type it fast enough. Woe be to me if I’m somewhere where I can’t immediately write down a new idea in my head; if I wait, I’ll lose it. (This is, incidentally, why I write my stories out of order; I have to write what’s on my mind and figure out a way to connect the pieces later.)

Judaism talks about the fact that there are two forces in the world which are ultimately represented by male and female (this concept is also found Taoism–as most commonly illustrated by the yin-yang symbol). One force, which is male, is creative and contains unlimited potential. Men make millions of sperm, any one of which–or all of them–can become a child. The female force, however, is limiting action. A woman’s ovary only produces a single egg per cycle and she’s born with a limited number of eggs. But once the child is conceived, she builds it into a human being.

Male = potential, but also procrastination and incompleteness
Female = action and completion, but also limitation and stagnation

If you look at a yin-yang, there is no hard dividing line between the two opposites; they’re supposed to flow gently in and out of each other. Also, a solid kernel of each must reside in the other.

My problem is that I’ve been too yang lately; I’m not in balance. I’m constantly coming up with ideas for projects–even starting some of them–but finishing next to none of them. That’s why I have to give up some of my hobbies/projects to work on others. As the old saying goes, something has to give.

Blogger/Writer Scott Young mentions in a post that he has the same problem:

My old notebooks are filled of half-started ideas, vague projects and uncompleted dreams. It took me awhile to realize that this enthusiasm was great, but unless I was able to direct and focus it, my ideas would forever remain inside my head.

What changed was that I realized being a quick starter and rare finisher is just another form of debilitating perfectionism. Instead of sticking through the practical realities of my goals, I wanted to start again, where every idea was perfect in conception.

Once I realized that finishing, not starting, was the key, I started putting emphasis on it. I’d finish projects that had flaws, just because I had committed to finishing them. I’d try to make my existing path work instead of finding a new one. I’d start less, because I took my commitments to start more seriously.

Sound familiar?

He goes on to an interesting idea. He essentially separates experiments from commitments. What’s the difference? My understanding of the concept is that an experiment is something you do for fun–something you just try. In short, you have no goal. For instance, I took a class on basketweaving and later bought myself a kit to make a basket. I need to be realistic: while I enjoy basketweaving–and it’s great to have a basic knowledge of the skill, in case, you know, I ever live through the apocalypse and I need to make myself baskets to aid me in my fetching and toting of foodstuffs–I don’t want to become a professional basketweaver. I don’t even want to make it my primary hobby. I just want to learn the basics and then be done with it.

However, I do want to be a professional writer. That’s my goal, and I need to do work which will help me reach (and retain) that goal.

That’s the difference between an experiment and a commitment: one is generally short-term, one is generally long term; one is for fun and has no real goal, but the other is serious and has a goal which needs to be obtained; one you try out, to see if you like it, but the other you commit to finishing.

Once you have identified what you actually want to accomplish versus that which just seems like something fun which you might like to do, then what? My thought is that you need to limit both, but much more so the experiments. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any experiments–you should–but I think one at a time is plenty. Do one and do it until you’re bored with it or find something you’d like to do better. Then, instead of telling yourself you’ll do both, drop the first thing and move on.

You can handle more commitments, but how many depends on how much time you have. I’m thinking one commitment per 8 hours of free time. I have roughly four 8-hour periods per week. So which four commitments will I undertake? (Remember, this is down from a list of 15+!)

  1. Conversion. I am going to spend the next year working with a rabbi to convert. This means reading and writing assignments, plus meetings and synagogue attendance weekly. If I also throw in a little Hebrew study on my Sabbaths, boom, there’s one 8-hour period filled up. Needless to say, my goal is to become a Jew and to read a portion of Torah.
  2. Home Improvements. As finances allow, I want to do some redecorating–namely I want to faux plaster and paint our paneled walls. This will cover a multitude of sins–like cat-scratches–and get us out of freaking 1986. (I think this will also make us enjoy our home more; when something is ugly to you, you can hardly appreciate it.) My goal is to redo the bedroom and the kitchen over the next year. This, along with general home upkeep (i.e. cleaning) will take up my Sundays.
  3. Writing. This also includes blogging, marketing, and publishing. I do this mostly in the evenings after work. My goal this year is to 1) finish the edits on my first book and submit it to a publisher; 2) finish the edits on my romance novel and submit it to a publisher; 3) publish 2 more short stories. Notice my goals are about finishing my work; I never lack for energy to start it.
  4. Exercise. The only way I lose weight is if I exercise. Walking a half-mile every once in a while or doing yoga on the Wii once a week is not sufficient. My ass needs to be out of the bed every morning and doing 20-30 minutes of something 7 days a week. Plus, I need to leave the house early so I can park 1/2 mile from work and walk the rest of the way. Being outside twice a day has the added bonus of getting me some Vitamin D, plus I do some good thinking while I’m walking. My goal for this year is to be able to touch my toes and do a real/full push-up (you may laugh, but unless you’re a gym rat, you likely can’t do them either; if you don’t work on your strength and flexibility regularly, you lose both).

My experiment for the year is gardening. As soon as I get back from vacation next week, I’m going to start some seedlings and plant some things. And when funds allow, I also want to turn the section of our backyard known as the “Lawnmower Death Strip” into a rock garden (so we never have to attempt to mow or weedeat it again). If I kill my garden, I don’t like doing it, don’t do it at all, etc. then I will forever abandon the idea of one day turning our 5 acres into a self-sustaining mini-farm or a thing of landscaped beauty and I will give away my containers and dirt. So, worst-case scenario, come October I will be rid of buckets and dirt sitting on our porch. At best, I will like gardening and eating what I produce, so it will become a yearly commitment.

Everything that’s not part of one of those goals is going to be suspended. I am going to shelve my sewing machines and clear off my sewing table (which is really a junk table right now, there are so many unfinished projects on it) so I can use it to pursue one of my goals. (Imagine being able to sit down at a clear table and draft story outlines, gardening plans, or read!)

Now it’s time to evaluate your life and:

  1. Find out how much free time you really have. When I figured my time, I subtracted time spent sleeping, eating, bathing/grooming, working, and commuting from 24 hours. These are the things that I do everyday, 5-7 days a week, all year long. You may need to subtract hours for watching television, reading, playing on the computer or anything else that you do religiously and/or can’t do without.
  2. Figure out how many 8 hour blocks of time you have available to you. If you have a partial day, you may want to round up so you can do another commitment, or you may want to round down and give yourself some down time. If you have a very small chunk of time, you may want to go back up to #1 and see if you’ve allotted time daily for something (like TV watching) that you might be willing to give up in order to do something else.
  3. Pick one commitment to do per 8-hour block of time, plus add on one experiment. Whatever is not on your to-do list, don’t do it.

What if your problem is not having too much to do but not doing anything at all? (I.e. you’re stagnating or feel bored with life.) This list works for you, too, only instead of narrowing your focus, fill up your time. At least do an experiment (everyone should do an experiment; it’s what keeps life interesting).

If you’re feeling constantly stressed, have health issues, or are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then don’t take on the maximum number of commitments. Leave time open to just relax. Veg in front of the TV or with a book; nap; spend time alone in a park or quiet place. Sometimes your “commitment” has to be to your health and sanity.

The other benefit to defining (and limiting) your commitments and setting goals is that there is suddenly no room for anything else. If you are a person who constantly says “yes,” making a list (and putting it where you can see it regularly!) will help you say, “no.” If you are asked to chair some committee or lead some project, or bake cookies for the entire school, you can just consult your list of commitments–if that sort of volunteer is not on your list, then just say “no.”

My list is a year-long list because it’s going to take me a year to accomplish #1 and #2. I’m hoping to make exercise an integral and habitual part of my day, so next year–when I sit down and do all of this again–it will be a line item on my day, just like sleeping and eating. There’s also the hope than in a few years my writing will become my full-time job, so I’ll be doing it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I will free that slot for something else.

I suppose you could make your list for less than a year–namely if your commitments are short in duration. If you are the type of person who seems to live life on fast forward, you may take on one experiment and/or one commitment per month, two months, or quarterly. If you have more leisure time than the average American, you may reach goals in 6 months that would take others a year to do. So there’s some flexibility, but do remember this is not about setting short-term goals but things which require a lot of time and effort.

Update on “The List”

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been battling procrastination with the aid a reasonable task list. So how’s the experiment coming?

Some win, some not-so-win.

Win:

Not me, but my boxes look like that... minus the shelves.

I have accomplished a lot at work. I managed to catch up all the filing (two banker’s boxes full of papers which had to be integrated into 40 other storage boxes full of files). I finished cleaning out an old office, stored the old files, reclaimed some office supplies, and threw away a full trash can and a bit of recycling and part of a can of regular trash. I’ve caught up the billing and file-making. This office is looking s-h-a-r-p.

In fact, I’ve pretty much done everything I can do which is outside my usual, daily work; no more low-priority, time-consuming, boring projects hanging out in the background.

Not-so-win:

The List becomes less effective the longer you use it. It’s gotten to point that I write things down, but will ignore some of the tasks, not caring whether I get them done or not. This was especially true on the weekends (I was better about sticking to the list at work, where there are fewer distractions and I’m, you know, actually supposed to work. When I’m working for myself, pfft, I’ll blow things off.)

I suppose for some people (maybe people who are a bit compulsive) they might not get list-fatigue, but I have never been one to keep a list or a schedule or anything like that long-term. I thought that was because I was being unrealistic, but it’s probably because I’m creative and don’t like to have everything in my day planned; it allows for flexibility, in case I get in the mood to do something else. (This is the same reason why I won’t plan what I’m going to eat for dinner more than one day in advance; when I wake up, I decide what I’m in the mood for that day.)

So, I think instead of making a list every day, I need to save it for emergencies–those times when I really need to buckle down and either tackle a long-term, tedious, boring task, or I have a pile of stuff which I really need to do. Interestingly, that is the way I used to make lists. Prior to the end of the term in college, I always ended up making a list of things I had to get done before I could leave for the holidays. It ran the gamut from turning in term papers and taking exams to putting out the trash and stopping my mail. While not everything on the list got done (because I always put too much on the list and/or waited until late to start), all of the most important stuff always got done in a rush of activity that Karen Kingston calls “a white tornado.”

And, I admit, I loved the thrill and the adrenaline rush. Doing a lot of things at once makes me feel really accomplished; doing the same amount of work over a long period of time (i.e. a little bit every day) does not make me feel accomplished and does not give me a rush.

Are we starting to see why I procrastinate?

On a slightly different, but somewhat related note, is this blog post about new research showing that the longer people make decisions, the worse their decisions become (or they more they procrastinate and don’t make them). I believe they’re talking specifically about the decisions we make over the course of a day, but I believe that this probably holds true for people who make decisions day in, and day out (CEOs, judges, teachers, etc.). That’s why some countries/corporations/schools recognize the need for people to take a sabbatical; it keeps them from becoming permanently burned-out.

But, back to decision making on a daily basis. If you are aware of the fact that you tend to make worse decisions as the day gets longer (or, in my case, the procrastination level goes higher), then you can structure your day to account for it. Schedule meetings where you need to plan or make decisions for the morning. Team meetings should also be in the mornings, so the entire group isn’t making bad decisions (or making none at all). Negotiations, court cases, mediation and similar should be scheduled for the morning whenever possible. Save your afternoons for mindless tasks: filing, paying bills, handling e-mails and phone calls which do not require decisions. In fact, if you structure your day this way, you can spend your last hour getting your filing and piddly work caught up so you start the next day with a clean desk. Theoretically.

Procrastination Confession

I had a four day weekend because of the Christmas holiday and boy, did it ruin me. I got off my exercise schedule, then I got off my sleep schedule, and by the time Tuesday came around, I drug out of bed late, didn’t exercise, and went to work and accomplished next to nothing. Then I did the same thing Wednesday.

Disgusted with myself, I vowed to get back on the wagon Thursday

Regardless of what wagon you’ve fallen off, the first thing you need to do is identify why you fell off; that’s the only way you have any hope to change yourself for the better.

The long weekend and messed-up sleep schedule is not what made me procrastinate when I came to work. Breaking my rhythm certainly contributed to my decline, but it’s not what kept me there.

The number one cause of my procrastination? Temptation. Presented with a pleasant distraction versus a tedious task, the distraction will always win out for the procrastinator. My worse distraction? Oddly enough, not the internet (although that’s up there). Actually, my writing is my biggest distraction. So the first thing I did was leave the USB key at home (I carry my writing around on my USB key). That eliminated the temptation of writing and editing instead of doing work.

Secondly, I fell into the fallacy that because nothing on my list was terribly important or time-consuming (back to filing and billing), I could wait until the last hour of the day and get it all done. Remember, I confessed to being a person who gets a high from rushing to complete tasks; I was setting myself up to get a high.

Only it never came, because by the last hour of the day, I was not saying, “Let me run around like a chicken with my head cut off and get this stuff done.” Instead I was saying, “Eh, it’ll wait until tomorrow.”

I know, from long experience, that I am most productive shortly after waking up (studies show that the vast, vast majority of people are this way, regardless of what time they wake up). As the day goes on, my output drops exponentially. This is why I can’t exercise or clean house in the evenings after I get home from work; my energy is used up for the day.

So, when I came to work Thursday, I knocked several things off my list first thing. Accomplishment is like a snowball rolling downhill: if I make a big enough snowball early, it will continue to gather momentum as the day goes on.

And before I even got to work Thursday, I drug my ass out of bed and did some exercise. It was lame exercise–sitting on the couch, reading a book, peddling a mini stationary bike–but it was better than laying in bed and not moving at all. (Not to mention I’m reading non-fiction, so I’m being edified in the process… theoretically.) I did that for 15 minutes, then I got up and spent 15 minutes picking up the living room (which is also a form of exercise, believe me).

Everything combined, I was able to get my list done yesterday, plus I picked up 1/3rd of the living room. I did the same thing this morning and my to-do list was more than halfway done before lunch. And this morning consisted of purging old files and making new ones for 2012–not high on the excitement list, you know.

My boss asked me today what my New Year’s resolution was. I said, “The List.” 2012 is going to be about getting more crap done. All hail The List.

Recapping Week Two of The List

I accomplished my list on Monday, but Tuesday and Wednesday were not good. Having only two or three things of importance on my list, I filled the remainder of my tasks with filing, etc. And promptly didn’t do any of it. Oh, I still accomplished the important stuff (which is still an improvement), but I didn’t do any of the piddly stuff. It just didn’t seem important enough to motivate to do.

Thursday, I had more regular work to do, so I only put one piddly task on it. I thought, surely I will feel motivated to do the one piddly task in order to have a clean list. But Thursday was filled with procrastination. I had a serious case of the holidays, and it didn’t look like I was going to get much of anything on my list done. (The more time you spend procrastinating, the harder it is to break out of the cycle. As Sir Isaac Newton postulated, “An ass at rest tends to stay at rest, unless some force acts upon it.”)

But in the last half hour of the day, I pulled myself up and knocked out the last few things on the list–including the filing. I walked out of the office for the holidays with a sense of accomplishment. The day’s list: done. The filing task I set for myself: finally done. A list ready to go for Tuesday: done.

As I had today off, I made myself a list of housework, sticking to my new idea of 5-6 items. I put 6 on there and I only have three items left on the list to do. And although it wasn’t on the list, I changed the sheets and made up the bed, and while I was waiting for my lunch to cook, I put out the trash, picked up the kitchen, put away the clean dishes and washed about half of the dirty ones. Which proves Newton’s other theory: An ass in motion tends to stay in motion unless a force acts against it.

Time now to go do that most dreaded of all chores: empty the cat’s litterbox.

Procrastination Update Delivered On Time!

I had an ugly task on my list today: drafting a long, annoying document, printing 19 copies, and mailing all of them out.

I broke it down into three tasks and then filled up the rest of my day with less annoying tasks. I came into work resolved to knock out my annoying tasks this morning (because I have better concentration and stamina in the morning), and while it went into the early afternoon (namely because I had to stop and do an emergency task in the middle of it, and, oh, my copier jammed several times while printing all of it), I got it done, then I promptly kicked the rest of the list’s ass. Inbox: caught up completely. Tomorrow is a day of filing and billing.

The list on the weekend is not working as well as the list at work, though. I put 10 things on my Sunday list and got 5 done, plus did a couple of other things which were not on the list but which were chores that needed to be done (so we’ll say 7). Saturday was a jammed-pack day, with religious service, a holiday party, cooking for said party, 4 hours total spent in the car traveling to various destinations, etc. While we didn’t get home late, both my husband and I were so tired that we went to bed immediately and slept very late.

So I should hardly find it surprising that I was less than enthusiastic about spending my one day off (my one day when I didn’t have to set the alarm clock) doing a lot of cleaning.

I still got enough cleaning done that, overall, progress has been made. (In other words, I’m cleaning more every week than we’re messing up.) I think, however, that I still need to lighten my expectations. After all, the weekend is my time to relax, and I do spend half of Saturday at religious services. So I’m thinking I can keep the 10-item list, but I need to give myself all weekend to do it. Or, when I only have one day free (like this past weekend), then I cut it to 5 items (7 if a few of them are not time-intensive).

Procrastination Busted… This Week

Here’s my one-week update on the procrastination list.

It worked.

It’s Friday evening and I got all of my Friday list accomplished. Admittedly, yesterday I didn’t do so well. One of my tasks–which should have been easy–became terribly complex and drawn out, plus I ended up having to work on something which I thought was already wrapped up. That depressed me to the point that I gave up on the list partway through the day. Obviously something I need to work on. But, yesterday’s incomplete tasks ended up on today’s list and I got them all done.

In fact, I ended up getting everything done this week that I wanted to, with the exception of my weekly chores: some billing and filing. But given the amount of work I’ve done this week (much of it catch-up), I feel really accomplished, and I should have some slower days next week which will allow me the time to do the piddly tasks.

Lesson learned: when I put something on my list that I KNOW I’m going to hate doing, I need to lighten my entire load for the day, because it’s going to take me a while to muddle through that hated task. Also, 7-10 tasks is the most I can do in a day (not counting the things I have to deal with on the spur of the moment–tasks from my attorney, the phone, clients, etc.).