Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Getting it done.


I recently read an introduction to The Man in the High Castle about the author, Philip K. Dick (the book is low-key creepy, I highly recommend it). He was a prolific writer, author of 44 published books and 121 short stories in just thirty years. From his work we get movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. He only lived to age 53. I was impressed with his body of work, and the dedication it must have taken to get all that done. Talk about discipline!

When I posted about him on Instagram, several people (mostly fellow artists and writers) commented with questions, such as: but did he have to raise a family, what did his wife think, and sure but at what price? 

Yes, there was definitely a darker side to his life: he was married and divorced five times, and had three children with three different women. He abused amphetamines to keep his energy up. He struggled with paranoia and attempted suicide. And what ended his life so early? A stroke. So despite the great library of his work we get to enjoy today, his was a difficult life. But there is still something to learn from him, his single minded approach to getting the work done. He made it his priority before anything else. 

Believe it or not, I'm not a very goal oriented person. I can pick a word for the year and then try to align my life to that word, but sitting down and making focused goals has never (yet) worked for me. Nothing about my life has forced me to set and accomplish big goals. We move a lot (18 times between five countries in 21 years). Our plans are destroyed a lot (thinking we'll be somewhere for five years and then finding out we have less than a month to move internationally after just a year). Things change quickly, so I have to stay light on my feet, ready to pivot quickly when required. I'm good at that. Picking something and sticking with it an entire year, no matter what obstacles come my way? Not easy. I'm sure at the end of this year I'll be writing a long, introspective piece about how I did it and what I learned. But as we end of the first half of 2018, let me tell you what has worked so far (and no, it doesn't involve amphetamines). 

1. Writing comes first. 

I have a reasonable daily word count I need to hit Monday through Thursday, and then I take Friday (plus any time that pops up on the weekend) to edit. Life has a way of quickly pulling my focus if I let it. So I don't let it. In the number one most shocking turn of events in my marriage, I've become the early to bed, early to rise member of our partnership. I set my alarm, I get up, I drink coffee and maybe eat something, and then I go straight into my office and write. Generally while still in my pajamas. Sometimes I'm in there writing before my husband has even left for work. I never thought mornings would be my most productive time. I'm a lifelong night owl and insomniac. I've never been a morning person. But when I was leaving that daily word count to the very end of the day once everyone else was in bed, it was way too easy to come up with excuses. And good ones! Some days are rotten and awful and I have a major headache by 7:00 p.m. Or I have a lot on my mind and can't focus. Or some important exam comes up for the kids and I need to drill them on test concepts. Or, or, or... When I make writing the very first thing I do each day, there's no time for any of that to happen. And when I have an appointment on my calendar for the day? I get up even earlier and get it done before I leave. And even if nothing else in my day goes right, starting it off having completed my daily goal makes everything else feel like something I can handle. I don't want to be the master of good excuses, I want to be the master of my time. At least until I get that daily word count out of the way. After that, if I want to be a lazy bum and just curl up on the couch with the dog and read, I can do it guilt free! But funny story about that... an unintended consequence of getting my writing done first thing has made me less prone to lazy days reading on the couch. I'm already up and productive, so why not get other stuff done while I'm at it? Some days I hit a magical workflow where my fingers are on fire and the words won't stop. So I don't stop, even if I hit that word count. I don't think it's a coincidence how that magical workflow visits me quite a bit more frequently now. 

2. Accountability. 

This one is rough. In Shanghai I had a lovely little 'accountability group chat' where each day a few fellow creatives and I would chime in with our goals for the day and then cheer each other on. When we met our goals, we'd comment back in the group chat. It was awesome because even though we were all doing different things in different mediums with different goals, we still had someone out there who knew what we were doing. When you run a race with someone much faster than you, you may end up with your best time. Knowing someone else was creating along side me kept me on task and motivated, even though they were across town. I don't have anything like that here in Hong Kong. Yet. And the members of my little group have all moved off to different time zones around the world, so it doesn't serve the same function. So right now I'm doing a couple of things. First, I write down what I accomplish each day. It's nice to see the days and weeks and months accumulating thousands of words. That's how books are written, one word at a time. Second, I tell my husband. Generally I send him a text when I've completed my writing for the day, and he always sends me back a high five or thumbs up emoji plus some cheerful words of affirmation. I had a daily download of Shanghai Disneyland's construction progress from him for the four years leading up to the Grand Opening, so I don't feel bad for burdening him with a quick text. And third, for one week I posted my daily word count in my Instagram stories. This ended up being wildly popular with the people who saw it, and really great for positive feedback for me (especially on the day it took over five hours to get to my minimum word count and I shared how hard it was). I'm hoping still to find some sort of accountability group/partner, but I'm not allowing it to be a barrier for getting the work done (again, I don't want to be the master of good excuses).

3. More than one project.

I have a good friend named David who has been a creative mentor for well over a decade. I've worked with him on a multitude of projects big and small in a couple of countries. His wife is an author of four books, one of which was a National Book Award finalist (in addition to being a working mom of three). They are an amazingly creative family. I think David has pushed me further and harder creatively than anyone else in my life, most of the time unintentionally. He also writes, and a few years ago I was trying to decide what to do with a book I'd been pouring hours and hours into writing for a couple of years. I was losing enthusiasm for it, but hated to just walk away from it. While I was figuring out what to do, to continue or to abandon it, I was completely frozen. I wasn't writing anything at all. For months. He gave me one of the most useful tips ever... to always have more than one project going at a time. I'm pretty much an all-or-nothing girl, pouring myself fully into one thing at a time, but what he said made so much sense. Especially because of my tendency to go ALL IN on something and then burn out on it. There are plenty of days when the task of writing my Really Big Project is stalling. Not exactly writer's block, more like there is so much to write about I can't focus or concentrate and so I sit there staring at the computer, unsure what to do. So I have two other projects I can work on as well. One is a fun passion project I have no specific plan in mind for. The other is this blog. Right now I don't have any major projects with deadlines, so I can just cruise between these three depending on how I'm feeling. I've never once missed getting my daily writing goal completed while using this tactic. I feel it's made me far more productive than my old style of just working on one project until it's done before moving on to another, especially because working on something else makes me look forward to getting back to my Really Big Project, like meeting up with a good friend I haven't seen in awhile.

4. The Why

Remember, my focus for this entire year is Discipline. What I want that to look like is being so well conditioned to write every single day, no matter the obstacles, that churning out 1,500 words in one sitting becomes something I can do as a warm up instead of a cross-the-finish-line, gasping-for-air goal. Next year my focus will change and I'll have more audacious things to focus on (i.e. what to do with all the words I'm churning out). But the definition of a writer is quite simple: one who writes. Spending my time daydreaming about new publishing contracts, talking about the process, or reading about other people's writing process doesn't make me a writer any more than reading cookbooks, following foodie blogs, and wandering the grocery store makes me a chef. I do of course want the publishing contracts and the income streams and the opportunity to talk about my process, but I don't want those to be the sole focus. I gotta do the work and get to a point where I can successfully do both. And with my all-or-nothing, ALL IN tendencies, I'm not ready to do both just yet. But soon I will be. This year is a gift, and I will squeeze every bit of experience, learning, and best practices I can from it before adding in more. I would love to be like Philip K. Dick and leave a legacy of 44 published books and a hundred stories that have so many great films made from them. But I also love experiencing this amazing life all over the globe, raising both of my boys to adulthood, and staying married to the same guy for 22 years this week. I don't know that I can have it all. I don't know that anyone really can. But I can take the essence of Mr. Dick's single minded productivity and choose to spend the same 24 hours we all get focused on what is most important to me. Without much effort at all, I've seen the other unimportant stuff I used to waste time on quietly slipping out of my life. Pardon me for not throwing it all a farewell party... I've got to get back to writing, so I'm ready to give my focus to my youngest son when he comes home from school to tell me about the Business exam he's currently sitting while we make dinner together.

What about you? Do you have any tried and true ways to accomplish what you most want to do? I definitely want to hear about them! And if not, what is stopping you from going after it today?


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