January 6th, 2017

How Bad Times and New Starts Affect Our Writing

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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When I sat down to write this post I intended to write about writing. It’s what I love doing, and why folks tend to invite me to guest post on their blogs (which I appreciate). But this came at a time when I’m feeling reflective and optimistically hopeful about the new year after a rough 2016.

For me, it was a year of always being behind (raise your hand if you were here with me). No matter what I tried to do, something came along and knocked my schedule off track and prevented me from getting  much done. Ever worse, when I did have time to work, I was unable to write anything decent–if at all. I let the bad times bother me way more than they should have, which only exacerbated the problem.

Because the trap here is…

When we’re stressed, we often gravitate toward the easy tasks that make us feel productive, when the opposite is usually true.

I’ve caught myself spending time doing smaller, easy tasks that didn’t need to be done right away because doing them made me feel like I was accomplishing something–look, I crossed three things off my To-Do List! I was effective today! Problem was, none of those tasks needed to be done right away. I might have felt as though I was accomplishing something, but I was just getting more behind.

What I learned from this: When life spins out of control, prioritizing my day helps reel it in. Taking some time to determine what I need to do and what I can realistically get done that day lets me ignore the things that distracted me with a false sense accomplishment. Because just like our characters…

Sometimes, we have to let go to move forward.

There was a point late in 2016 when my To-Do List was rivaling my WIP in size. Just looking at the dang thing every morning made me feel helpless. There was no way I was going to catch up, especially with the holidays bearing down on me. I had to make a choice–keep struggling with an impossible task, or accept that my year was over and I’d gotten done pretty much everything I was going to manage until January.

What I learned from this: There’s no shame in saying, “I took on too much, I need to cut back.” It’s okay to wipe the slate clean and start over at a time when I’m more capable of handling things. Time away also creates necessary distance so I can better identify what’s a critical task and what’s just something that needs to be completed “at some point.” Because no matter how much we may want to…

We can’t do it all.

I know this, I’ve told myself this year after year, but I still keep trying. I was better in 2016 with letting things go and accepting my limitations, but I haven’t quite broken the habit of expecting more than I can reasonably do. But I have gotten better and using those high goals to motivate myself, and understanding that not meeting those goals doesn’t equal failure. Reaching for the stars and landing on the moon is still pretty darn good.

What I learned from this: That I still have a lot to learn here about saying, “no.” It’s not something I do once and move past, it’s a daily battle to not take on more than I can handle. Just because I want to say yes, doesn’t mean I have the ability to say yes. Which can be hard because someone gushing, “thanks so much, you’re the best for doing this,” takes some of the sting out of feeling like a failure. Because…

It’s easy to feel like a failure when we have too-high expectations.

Even though we should never compare ourselves to other writers, let’s face it, we do anyway. I stopped logging into Facebook for months during a particularly rough time last year, because seeing my fellow writers announce new books or great writing news made me feel like I was failing–even though I had new books and good things going on as well. I was happy for them, but also envious that they were doing what I was “failing” to do–meet those too-high expectations I’d set for myself. I also ignored the fact that dealing with personal difficulties (family deaths and illnesses) took a lot of my time and energy, and it was unrealistic to expect to be productive under those conditions.

What I learned from this: As the clichรฉ goes, s*#t happens, and rolling with it is far easier than letting it sidetrack me. When life is demanding more time and my writing needs to take a back seat, I can’t beat myself up over it. All that does is make me feel worse and keeps me from getting anything done when I do get time. It’s okay to cut myself some slack when I need it. I can only do what I can do, and trying to match someone else is a waste of time and energy I should be using to write.

Three Things You Can Do to Make a Fresh Start

A new year means a new start, but any day can be the first day of a new routine (I like using Mondays). I’m starting 2017 with fresh goals and a new schedule to help me keep those (hopefully) realistic goals. If a fresh start will help you, here are some things to try:

  1. Make a work schedule you can live with.

Figure out what you need to do, where your priorities lie, what tasks run you off track, and plan accordingly. For example, Writing is my main priority, so that comes first (which is when I’m most creative, but if you’re creative at night, adjust your schedule to suit your needs). Checking and answering email is a major distraction for me, so my schedule includes time chunks to focus on email. I don’t check it outside of those times.

If you’re unsure where all your time goes, spend a week tracking what you do all day and how much time you spend on those tasks. Create a schedule that allows for the actual things you do all day, not what you think you do.

  1. Prioritize your goals in smaller time chunks.

Looking at the entire year makes me feel like I need to fill that year with projects, so this year, I’m focusing on three-month chunks. My goal of, “send my WIP to my agent by March 1, and have the next project ready to begin” is less daunting than a list of four books I want to write in 2017. It’s easier to see what I need to do and how much time it’ll actually take than a lofty goal.

  1. Keep a running list of tasks that need doing, but aren’t priorities.

I’ve added “free time” in my schedule to handle the unexpected. I know there will be days when I finish a task and have time to work on other things. It’s easy to go back to, say, my main writing project, but extra time on my WIP doesn’t help me re-organize my blog or line up those guest posts I want to do. A free hour is time I can use to knock one or two smaller “get to it someday” tasks off my list.

For this list to be effective, be as specific as you can about the tasks. For example, “redesign the website” is a huge project that can’t be done in a free hour. But “research web templates” is. Break the tasks down into manageable bites so you know exactly what needs to be done and can jump on it quickly. You can even organize these tasks by size, grouping all the quick tasks that might take 15 minutes together, followed by 30-minute tasks, then hour-long tasks. Pick a task that fits the free time you have.

A new year is an opportunity to reevaluate our lives and how we work. It’s filled with the promise and possibility that this year we can achieve our dreams. Take advantage of this opportunity to cast off old doubt and frustrations and embrace a fresh start toward your dreams.

 Are you making a fresh start this year? How do you plan to work toward your dreams?

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Janice HardyAbout Janice

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy, including The Shifter (2014 list of “Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and The Truman Award), Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She’s also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft, and the author of multiple books on writing, including the bestselling, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It).

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42 comments to How Bad Times and New Starts Affect Our Writing

  • Janice, you can say it…you wrote this for Orly and I, right?

    God, how I love to-do lists, but as I age, I can’t check off as much in a day as I used to. It’s maddening. I have to let go a little.

    I tend to look on my list as a MUST DO TODAY deadline, instead of setting realistic goals. It’s hard though, when the damned bar keeps moving!

    Okay, letting go . . . oooohhhhmmmmmm…..

    • Janice Hardy

      I hear you, oh do I hear you ๐Ÿ™‚ I have a weekly to-day list, then a “today” section where I put the things I know need to be done that day. I shift as needed. Since I started my new schedule on Monday, I’ve been doing okay with it. Not perfect, but I’ve seen enough forward momentum that I feel good about this working. Fingers crossed for us all!!!

      • Orly Konig-Lopez

        I do something similar – I always set month goals, then on Sunday I create a weekly list and break down the weekly list into individual days. Things shift by the day but for the most part, I can get through a week with the majority of things checked off.

        I love lists. But every once in a while, I have the strongest urge to introduce my dateplanner to the shredder. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Holly Robinson

    One thing I do at the end of each day is make a list of what I DID accomplish, so that I can 1) feel like I actually spent some of my time wisely and 2) see where I might have gotten off track and prioritized the wrong things. Great post–thanks!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I do that too, Holly. At the end of the day, I write down what I accomplished, what kept me from doing some of what I’d wanted to do that day, and one extra special happy moment from the day.

    • Brilliant, Holly! I don’t actually write it down, but before I leave my office every day, I review in my head what I did, Good way to end the day.

    • Fun seeing your comments here, Holly. I JUST finished reading Chance Harbor. You’re one of the reasons I’m behind in my goals – I couldn’t put the book down!! ๐Ÿ™‚ It was an excellent read – really enjoyed getting to know the family from Cambridge, Newburyport, and PEI. I live in the Boston area, so fun to see familiar sights, also. Excellent. I’ll go write a review on Amazon today.

  • Janice Hardy

    That is an AMAZING idea. I love it. What a great way to encourage yourself and keep you on track. If you had a to-do list, you could even just shift it to a “done” column and see everything easily, too.

  • Thank you Janice! After a rough day of everything going slower than it should have yesterday, and me not getting done the things I’d hoped to, I woke up this morning with this very thing on my mind. I read your post, took a deep breath and planned this day with a little more wiggle roomโ€ฆ thanks again!

  • Thank you for this, Janice! When my parents health issues continued into 2016, my life never really got back under control. Even as they finally got better, I had a hard time getting back to my normal. This helps. You rock!

    • Janice Hardy

      You are most welcome. 2016 was like that for so many people, and we’re all finally starting to get things back under control. I think that’s the magic of a new year. Nothing *really* changed, but January has a way of making things feel new and possible.

  • Frances Caballo

    Although I accomplished quite a bit in 2016, I didn’t finalize two large projects, which make me feel sad and unproductive. So they are on my goal list for 2017 (again!) and I plan to really tackle them. I do tend to over-commit myself in terms of goals and this year I’m trying to keep my list more realistic. Wish me luck. Your post is giving me hope!

  • What a kindhearted, insightful post–thank you for this!

  • This spoke to me so much. 2016 meant I had to put writing aside for life much more often than I wanted to. I, too, persuaded myself I was getting things done by crossing off small tasks that left me feeling more empty than accomplished. In order to solve the problem, I then made unrealistic expectations and goals for my writing that I in no way would be able to accomplish due to the demands the rest of my life was putting on me. I set myself up for big failure then blamed myself for every last little bit of it.

    For 2017, I set out a writing routine that, although not terribly different from what I had attempted before, is now protected. There are two hours every day where I refuse to answer the phone or be interrupted. I will not schedule appointments, run errands or otherwise compromise that time. The rest of my writing time is flexible in terms of “assignment” and amount, but just knowing that there are two hours for me and the WIP has been completely liberating and productive. I’m also giving that routine a few weeks to settle before I commit to any concrete goals so that I’ll be able to create realistic ones, not doomed for failure ones.

    Good luck to you this year!

    • Janice Hardy

      Sending hugs to a fellow 2016 survivor ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m doing exactly the same thing you are (my schedule is more structured, but my days allow for it). It’s taken me a week to clear up last-minute tasks and fully embrace it, but I’ll be there come Monday. If I can do it, so can you. We WILL have a better, more productive year. Luck to us both.

  • You have no idea how I needed this. You described my 2016 so well, but I’m determined to feel more productive in 2017. And that does mean a re-prioritization of my goals. Thanks for all the tips. May your year be one filled with blessings and success!

  • I took a class a year or two ago from Margie Lawson that really changed the way I accomplished things, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It was called Defeating Self-Defeating Behavior – incidentally, it’s starting again right now at her site.

    When I’m cruising along at top speed, I can have a big list and not get freaked out. When I’m stressed, I can’t do that. The list itself will freak me out. Completely paralysis ensues and everything goes in the crapper. Her recommendation worked for me.

    Here’s a quick do-it-today summary:

    Every day, your list contains no more than the following:

    3 Winner Goals
    (and if you finish those)
    3 Superstar Goals

    If you are so beyond stellar that you finish those, either make another list or go enjoy yourself. The language is positive and the list is small. Best of all, you actually feel successful for doing what you were SUPPOSED to do that day. The only required behavior is the 3 Winner Goals.

    Whenever I start feeling overwhelmed, I go back to this type of to-do list until the feeling passes.

    • Janice Hardy

      That’s a great idea. Three is about what I can manage most days, too. Unless they’re small. I’ll have to look that up. Thanks!

  • Fae Rowen

    Much as I don’t like (read: abhor) making lists, I started practicing all three of your ideas a couple of months ago. Voila, my writing life smoothed out, things are getting done–and I’m happy. I can live with a list (or two) if my life gets easier and I get work done. Thanks for putting this all together, so when I miss one of the juggling balls, I can reread your words and get back on track!

    • Janice Hardy

      Kudos to you for doing it even though you hate it. That holds so many people back, but as you discovered, something you dislike might be the very thing that saves you. I’ve had it happen, too.

  • Thanks for this post! I am a list-maker but find it hard to stick to a schedule I write down in one of those fancy-dancy planners. I like the idea of setting goals in smaller time chunks and seeing what needs to be done for the coming week and adjusting for unforeseen events that come up. Love the idea that someone suggested of every night listing your accomplishments of the day. Great way to end your day on a positive note!

    • Janice Hardy

      I use the sticky notes program on my computer ๐Ÿ™‚ Though this round, I did set up reminder alarms in Outlook for some afternoon tasks so I don’t work though them.

      Nothing says this has to be fancy, so whatever motivates and works for you is good.

  • Thank you for this great post. I was there with you all the way.

    “s*#t happens, and rolling with it is far easier than letting it sidetrack me. When life is demanding more time and my writing needs to take a back seat, I canโ€™t beat myself up over it. All that does is make me feel worse and keeps me from getting anything done when I do get time. Itโ€™s okay to cut myself some slack when I need it. I can only do what I can do, and trying to match someone else is a waste of time and energy I should be using to write.”

  • Linda Lee

    Last year was particularly difficult for me. I lost two people I love–a dear friend and my mom. Other issues stood in the way of my creativity, too, including health problems. I fell behind with most everything, but I was smart enough to ease up on myself. Sometimes, we don’t have the mental or physical stamina to press on. We have to be satisfied to do the best we can and then move forward when we’re able. That’s what I did, and this year I’m making a fresh start. I may not accomplish all of my goals, but I’ll be striving toward meeting them. I wish the same for everyone else!

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Janice. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Janice Hardy

      So sorry to hear that. It’s hard, but we should try to be happy with any movement toward our goals, no matter how small. All progress is good progress!

  • You’re very wise, Linda. That reminds me of a quote: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes, it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering, I will try again tomorrow.

    Hugs to you.

  • I’ve always had a difficult time, writing a ‘to-do’ list – when I get to my writing desk, I just want to DO. But I love the idea of writing a ‘done’ list at the end of the day, when I’m too tired to be creative, but not too tired to figure out exactly what I accomplished that day. Excellent.
    I empathize with Linda Lee’s comments. Our ‘life’ certainly gets in the way of our writing. With a sick mom who lives far away, my hours are eaten up at times, but of course, they’re important hours. I find that writing a blog post every week keeps me on focus with what’s important in our lives – those we love and writing about them, fictionally or non-fictionally, when we finally get to our writing pad or keyboard.

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  • I had a rough 2016 too. I hope things are better for you this year. They have been for me, but I still find myself not being as productive as I want to be. Thanks for the sound advice on how to make the most of my time. Being critical of yourself only hurts. I know, because last year it sent my recovery off track.

    • Janice Hardy

      Thank you, they are better, and like you, I see the improvement, but it’s not quite what I had hoped. But I’m doing my best to be glad of the steps forward and not stress over not hitting what I’d hoped for. I’m close, and that’s worth being happy over ๐Ÿ™‚ And just because my year hasn’t unfold exactly how I’d hoped and planned, it’s not over yet. By the time 2018 rolls around, I could get everything I’d wanted to do, done.

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