Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
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 cliché 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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).