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The Confession of a Self Saboteur

April 18, 2008 Leave a comment

I am procrastinating again. My goal is to write a short story by May 1…well, finish the rough draft at least. Not a tall order when you consider that the outline is sketched out and the characters are already moving around in my head. However, I have yet to get beyond “Let me put in a load of wash first,” “I just have to take the dog out and then I’ll be good.”

Oh and my utmost favorite distraction: “I’ll make lunch first so I won’t have to get up to eat in the middle of a thought.” And you know that I probably will get up anyway. I certainly don’t need to eat if I’m not hungry. No one can accuse me of starving myself.

So, on my way to my other self sabotaging behavior —reading and responding to emails, I paused and read a couple of Randy Ingermanson’s archived ezines. (www.advancedfictionwriting.com) Randy is an ex-physicist turned novelist and writing pundit. One article that particularly interested me was Organizing: Habits, Interruptions, and Achievements. This echoed similar sentiments in my last post. So, if you are having trouble, as I am, getting to down to the business of writing, read this:

    In a recent comment on my Advanced Fiction Writing

Blog, one of my loyal blog readers asked about the time

management system that I’ve been using, the Simpleology

system, which you can learn more about here:

http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/links/s101.php

    This system encourages you to dream big — to define

what your ideal life would be like. You can make a list

of as many things as you want, and they can be anything

you want. Paying off the mortgage. Climbing Mount

Everest. Running a marathon. And, oh yeah, writing a

novel and getting it published.

    HOWEVER, this time management system only allows you to

choose ONE “long-term target,” ONE “medium-term

target,” and ONE “short-term target” at a time.

    Isn’t that rather limiting? Don’t I get frustrated with

that restriction? Wouldn’t it be better if I could

focus on as many targets as I felt like?

    My answers are yes, yes, and no.

    Yes, it’s a limitation on myself to have only one

“target” at a time. Yes, that’s frustrating. No, it

wouldn’t be better to focus on multiple targets at

once.

    That’s not focus. Focus is when you have only one

“target” at a time. Anything else is being out of

focus.

    Those limitations are directly due to a very real

limitation on all of us — time. Each of us gets only

24 hours per day. And worse, most of that is already

spoken for. So the actual time we have in any given day

for reaching for our dreams may be very small. It might

be an hour or two some days (if we’re lucky). It might

be no time at all other days.

    What’s a big-dreaming writer to do?

    That brings me to the title of this article. I’d like

to define three different ways we can spend our time:

on habits, on interruptions, and on achievements. Let’s

talk about each of those in turn.

    Habits are things we do routinely that we’ve mastered.

They may be easy to learn or they may be hard to learn,

but we’re good at them and we execute them routinely

without a lot of intellectual energy.

    Flossing is a habit. Driving to work is a habit.

Answering email is a habit. For many writers, producing

X words per day is a habit.

    Notice that these aren’t everybody’s habits. For some

people, these are major achievements. But many people

have mastered each of these and they do them routinely

without thinking much about them.

    Interruptions are things that pop up every day that

MUST be dealt with NOW. They’re not things that happen

routinely, and so they may take a bit more effort to

deal with.

    Getting the brakes fixed is an interruption. So is the

annual income tax grind. Answering the telephone is an

interruption.

    Interruptions can be good, of course. That phone call

might your agent calling to let you know that you sold

your novel. That’s great, but it’s still an

interruption and it still extracts mental energy from

you.

    Achievements are things we want to do that are worth

doing but require serious commitment for an extended

period of time. You often have to learn a new skill or

expend enormous amounts of intellectual energy.

    Paying off the mortgage is an achievement. So is

scaling Everest for the first time. Or running your

first marathon. Or publishing your first novel.

    Notice that while doing something the first time is

often a major achievement, doing it a second time may

be merely a habit.

    That’s a very important point, and it cuts to the heart

of the matter. Part of success in life means focusing

on one achievement until you reach it the first time.

After that, doing it again may be much, much easier –

so easy that it can correctly be called a habit.

    That is the answer to the problem of “I have so many

things I want to achieve, so why can’t I focus on

several of them at once?”

    You can do whatever you want in life. But if you have a

major achievement, then you are most likely to reach it

by focusing all your available energy on it (for a

time) until you reach that goal. Then, having mastered

that skill, doing it the second time will become far

easier.

    There remains the question of balance. There are things

you pretty much have to do every day. These are

generally either habits or interruptions. Since you

have to do them, my (excellent) advice is that you

should do them.

    On a bad day, that will leave no time to spend on

trying to reach your dream. Tough beans. Some days are

like that. There are one or two days every week when I

end up expending every minute on the routine stuff or

on putting out fires (or both). Life happens.

    On a good day, you’ll have time left over to spend on

those pesky achievements. You can split that time, or

you can focus it. I think you should focus it.

    Focus means applying your time, energy, and money on

ONE achievement to the exclusion of all others. Focus

is risky, because you might fail. But focus is smart

because it gives you the highest chance of success.

    Diamonds are forever, but focus isn’t. When you focus

on one achievement, you are promising yourself that

you’ll actually reach your goal in a finite amount of

time.

    When you achieve something, you may very well be able

to turn that into a routine habit, which doesn’t take

much mental energy. (It may still take time, but the

important thing is that you’ll be able to do it far

easier the second time than the first.)

    Then you can focus on some new achievement. That’s how

successful people operate.

    Finally, let’s ask which are most important — habits,

interruptions, or achievements? My answer is that they

are all roughly equally important. If you allocate time

for all three of them, you’ll thrive.

    What achievements do you have on tap for this year?

That depends on who you are and where you are in your

writing career. Here are some possible achievements you

might want to focus your energy on:

* Learning to write a good scene

* Learning to create a memorable character

* Learning to structure a novel

* Mastering dialogue

* Developing a strong proposal

* Going to your first writing conference

* Finding an agent

* Selling your first novel

* Marketing your novel successfully

Each of these is a major achievement the FIRST time you

do it. After that, it’s just a good habit.

Which ONE of these will you focus on next?