A corollary to Spoon Theory, about overcoming resistence to asking for help when you feel undeserving.Read More
A blog about productivity and mental health for writers
How do I go from scrolling on social media to typing away on a draft? Why is it that some writers would rather do their taxes than start writing for the day, despite writing being the most fulfilling thing in the world?
Bear with an anecdote for a sec.
Last week, I went to write at my favorite coffee shop. My roommate was having friends over that evening, so I’d spent the morning cleaning with my roommate so we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves with overflowing trash cans and cat-hair tumbleweeds. It was about noon when I got to the shop, and after the usual pause to chat with baristas, I went upstairs and snagged a seat by the front window.
This shop is great—all warm wood tones and exposed brick, the scent of freshly-ground coffee and the occasional thunderous vibration from the train tracks out front. Third places are crucial to me—if I find the right one, I know I can live in a city. It’s what made me love Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, and what made me dislike living in rural NC, where the only places to go were the Starbucks (where I worked) and an Olive Garden (where they side-eye you for eating alone).
Recently, though, I’ve had trouble working. That day, despite being at my ideal third place, I fiddled around on social media, chatted with the baker who brought me my sandwich, and watched a motivational YouTube video. I reread my previous scene to procrastinate. Despite prizing my own time, it took me forever to finally get started using it effectively. I’m talking two hours from door to draft.
It hasn’t always been this way. I remember in college and in Japan I would run to my third place between classes. No sooner would my butt hit the chair than I was scribbling. Even now, once I’m writing, I don’t usually have trouble continuing to write (except for RSIs, but that’s a separate issue). Occasionally, I can tap back into that instant connection—I did it with UNMAKE, the second book in the Spellhounds series. I had an inkling of what it was—familiar characters and world, exciting conflicts, a return to something established. I wrote so fast and hard I had to ice my arms.
But then I finished,and when I wrote something else, I couldn’t get back in the same groove. It was so much harder to just GET STARTED on anything.
This problem of getting started was buried at the back of my mind, unaddressed, until I came upon the concept in Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before. She said something I found at once profound and intensely recognizable: every action has an ignition cost.
Ignition cost. That phrase captured me. “Ignition” calls up the words “ignite” and “fire”, words we often use to describe creativity and momentum. The word “cost” was a total revelation. I always thought of beginning something as requiring effort, but I had always thought of it in terms of giving. I exert effort to begin a thing. I’ve never thought of it in terms of beginnings having a cost, though it seems obvious. I pay for a sweater. Which means the sweater costs money.
So looking at the idea of ignition cost, I could see why it took me so much fiddling to begin work on my drafts. It costs far more energy to ignite a flame than it does to keep it going, because combustion, just like creativity, creates a self-sustaining energy. The blaze might be our goal, but it’s that initial spark, the friction of a match head on grit, that requires the most effort.
That’s where we need to focus if we want to get stuff done: starting.
“Triggers” are a term I came across a few years ago, when I was first having trouble with this. That word has come to have a negative association in terms of mental health, but the origin remains true—a trigger is something that activates a certain thought or behavior. We all have these. I get in the car, which triggers me putting on my seatbelt, without fail or question. There was a time when the first action after opening my laptop was clicking on Google Chrome, no matter what I had grabbed my computer to do.
The advice I read at the time was to establish a work trigger. I’m not sure the term works in 2019, not in a way that sounds healthy, and not in association with the greater world of routines and habits. Also, thinking of creating a trigger also means you have to decide to start the trigger. You have to decide to put in the headphones and bring up your word processor.
I have some things that are designed to be triggers. I make playlists for every property or genre I write in, and they’re a good touchstone—I’ve so often written to these playlists that I’m conditioned to writing when I hear them, or at least dreaming about the world as I drive.
Rubin identified something similar to triggers, except instead of it being a single Pavlovian response, it was a sequence of actions—a transition between one task, like dropping kids off at school, to the next, like working out at the gym. The actions between (getting a coffee at a drive through) can serve as a sort of mental prep, and the more ingrained in to routine they are, the more effective they will be. As a sequence, they are the catalyst for getting started.
Catalyst. There’s a 2019-appropriate replacement word for trigger.
I would like to establish a more routine writing habit. I don’t write every day, and I don’t know that writing every single day is physically healthy when I work 10-hour shifts doing repetitive work, bookended by 45-minute drives. I sometimes write in my down-time at work, but flow-state is impossible when zoning out could mean someone doesn’t get a necessary test.
This just means it’s even more necessary for me to use my weekends or mornings well and dive right into writing. I can’t faff around for two hours first. I need a transition.
How do I figure out my transition?
With ALGEBRA. Oh no.
A + x = B
If B is writing, X is my transition. But what task is my A, the thing to which I tie my transition? The whole formula hinges on the existence of an A. This might be my fundamental issue—I have no idea what a consistent A could be. It has to be something I can immediately tie to this task.
Getting out of the car? No. I get out of the car at home and at the grocery store and at work.
Walking in the coffee shop door? This seems a bit more like a transition, as do the actions of putting in my headphones and starting my playlist.
I need a task. What can I do on my days off, right before I drive to the coffee shop to get writing done?
The idea that comes to mind is yoga. I try to do it every day, which would disqualify it, but maybe if I use a particular yoga sequence and set an intention with it, that will work. There is a particular yoga sequence I like that is a wrist and hand care.
I’m going to try this for a while and see if it starts to help me. Even simply knowing that it’s ignition cost stopping me and not some personal deficiency has helped. Whenever I’ve failed in the last, I’ve beaten myself up. In the spirit of the gentler approach to creativity (and myself) I’ve taken this year, understanding that I might not have the energy to pay the ignition cost has been valuable—not least because it sometimes spurs me to strike the match, just to be contrary.
Do you use catalysts and transitions to write? If yes, what are they? If no, can you think of how you might establish one? What will you try?
Batching is a great way to increase your productivity because it helps to eliminate multitasking, thereby decreasing stress and increasing the likelihood of reaching a creative flow-state. You can be successful with batching your time by following the four steps outlined in this blog post!Read More
On the first, I told you I didn’t like New Years resolutions because they teach people to choose half-baked goals when they (you, I, we) may not be ready to make a change. Society then excuses the rapid abandonment of that goal with the infuriating notion that “nobody keeps New Years Resolutions”.
This is what I did instead.
January 1st happened to fall at a good time for me to make changes. 2018 was a challenging year during which I went through two lengthy battles with depression. They came, I crashed, I didn’t so much conquer as endure, but at least I came out the other end alive and ready to effect change.
The second of these began in October and spiked in November, at which point I also contracted walking pneumonia. I was capable of little besides going to work, coming home, and watching Netflix. I shoved my planner back in my bag and tried to ignore the mounting stack of unchecked boxes.
It wasn’t until the last few weeks of December that I noticed myself beginning to reach for my planner—a sure sign that I was ready to get back into the productivity groove. I couldn’t just go back to my old habits, though—that way lay the broken war-carts of obligations unfulfilled. I needed a careful review of my year, and a review of the scheduling strategies that almost lost those battles with my brain.
I pulled out my notebook (a yellow dot-matrix beauty by Minimalism Art) and wrote down my wins of 2018, all the great things that happened, the people I met, the adventures I took, and the exciting projects begun. This part can be hard because, as those of you with anxiety and depression well know, the good memories are often harder to call up than the bad. Luckily, I wrote many down in my planner throughout the year, so I had that to reference.
The next part wasn’t as hard. I keep my failures close at hand, even if I refuse to look at them most of the time. Turning to stare them in the face took one big breath of resolve, but once I’d done it, it was easy to let them pour out. I can contribute much of this ease to my intention of fixing what was broken. That inured me to the full effect of digging through last year’s hardest truths.
inconsistent with medication
2 major depressions, spring & winter (little/no productivity)
didn’t write as much as I planned/wanted
dropped commitments (narration)
didn’t go to Krav Maga for 3 months
didn’t save any money
at heaviest weight
still connecting those last two
not enough time with friends
didn’t read enough
not enough time costuming
Laid out, there weren’t as many as I’d feared. There were still a lot, but once I’d gotten them into the light of day, I could see what I was dealing with. Much like the adage that you can’t edit a book you haven’t written, you can’t fix a problem you haven’t admitted to.
My biggest problems in 2018 could be grouped into three categories: emotional health, energy, and time.
I looked at each category and brainstormed ways in which I could improve myself in those categories. I ended up with things like eating better, taking my meds consistently, and not scheduling like a maniac. I also ended up with things on my list like “take time to decompress” and “read for fun” and “spend time with friends”. Those are all things I feel guilty for doing most of the time, because I’m not spending my time “productively”.
Obviously, my relationship to the concept of productivity also needs to change.
Once I had a list of things I needed to do, I broke those down into actions. To eat right, I needed to make sure I had good food in the house. To make sure I got creative work done without overwhelming myself, I settled on a schedule based on chunks of time, not amount of work, and those chunks of time aren’t locked in.
One of the things I noticed with these specifics actions was that most of them required preparation/supporting actions. As that is also something that takes time, I listed those preparatory steps out as well. My end result looked something like this:
How can I increase my energy?
Wake at 5am
use your light clock, be in bed by 9:30, put phone across room, don’t take naps, no caffeine past 2.
build into routine - meds on desk by journal, make tea in the morning, backups in purse
Go to martial arts
lay out workout gear, don’t nap after work, eat light, prep tomorrow before going to dojo
A MORNING/EVENING ROUTINE
Why create a routine?
Routines are something every successful and healthy person seems to have. In the book “My Morning Routine” by Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander, they describe 64 of today’s most successful people with one thing in common: a solid morning routine, and an evening routine to support its success.
As my mom, my roommate, and my cat could tell you, I have never developed a single routine—morning, evening, writing, shower, coffee—in all 34 years of life. Part of this is my craving for novelty. Most of it is ADD and anxiety causing me analysis paralysis whenever I have to make a simple decision. Also, the inability to go the f#$% to sleep.
There are lots of reasons why routines are beneficial. Consistency—something that is as unnatural to me as eating pizza is to a snake—is one of the main things it provides. Twyla Tharp, in her book “The Creative Habit”, touts her routine as being a big part of her success as a choreographer. She works out and dances every morning, almost before she’s awake enough to think.
Routines also limit a person’s decision fatigue. Decision Fatigue is a concept that states you have limited decision-making willpower in any given day, and the more decisions you have to make—whether it’s what tea to drink or whether to go with The Doctor on a time-space adventure—the more tired your brain gets, until it starts defaulting to the easy options.
People with routines don’t experience as much decision fatigue, because many of their decisions—when to get up, what to wear, how to make the most of the morning—have already been made for them. Meanwhile, I’m making decisions from the moment I swat the snooze button (decision #1).
The idea of morning and evening routines is daunting, but I see the benefit of limiting decisions made in the spaces bracketing the day.
AVOIDING THE OVER-SCHEDULING PITFALL
Then the strategic part of my brain immediately looked for ways to make the routine incorporate everything and make my routine as efficient as possible.
THIS TIME though, I recognized I was setting myself up for failure. I let myself write out that step-by-step glory of efficiency, which I would need a printed sheet to remember.
Pro tip: something becomes a routine only if you do it enough that you don’t have to think about it. If your routine requires a manual, you won’t stick with it.
Still, that strategic part of my brain can be useful AF. So over the past week, I’ve allowed myself to write down and organize those ideas, to figure out what order to do things for both efficiency and personal neuroses (hint: yoga needs to come after journaling, because I won’t get out of bed if I have to do yoga first thing).
Then I did probably the most useful scheduling thing I’ve ever done: I categorized these things into BENEFIT ZONES.
These are the broad areas your specific actions benefit. For example, taking my medication affects my mental health, and doing morning pages or my EVO journal gives me a chance to dump what’s in my brain onto the page and organize it. Those both went into the BRAIN Benefit Zone.
I ended up with five benefit zones:
FACE (skincare and dental hygiene)
ATMOSPHERE (make my bed, light a candle or oil mister)
BRAIN (take medication, do morning pages or my EVO journal)
BODY (drink green tea, do yoga, eat breakfast)
VOCATION (spend 45 min to one hour on narration, writing, or reading)
I can’t remember to do ten separate things, especially when some of them require multiple steps, but I can remember five areas that will help me, especially since Face Atmosphere Brain Body is an easy acronym. I just have to remember FABB+V and I’m good.
In the spirit of gentleness, and trying to make a schedule that doesn’t create more problems than it solves, I’ve also told myself that as long as I do one thing from each of the categories, I’m good. Except meds, obviously. Those need to be every day.
Thanks to Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before”, I’ve gotten some great tips on making habits. One of the top things is to decrease barriers. We instinctively seek the easiest way to do things, so it follows that by making the things that you want to do as easy as possible, you increase your chances of actually doing them.
It’s kind of similar to sales. You want to eliminate the number of times you customer has to click on things in order to get to the payment page, because each click is an exit point. Just the same, you want to eliminate the number of things you have to do to start.
For example. I decided I wanted to drink green tea in the morning while I did my journaling. I’m self aware enough to realize that the last thing I want to do at 5AM is walk all the way to the freezing kitchen and turn on the kettle. That means I have to, like, put on pants. Personally, I’d exit the habit highway there.
To counteract that barrier, I put a tiny electric kettle in my bathroom and set up teapot, mug, and leaves next to it. Every evening, I fill the kettle and prep the leaves. Now, when I stumble senseless into my bathroom in the morning, all I have to remember to do is flick the switch.
My supporting routine basically consists of all the things I need to do to make sure my morning routine goes off without a hitch, plus a little down time for reading, which is something I want to do a lot more of, both for my vocation and for my mental health and general happiness.
HOW IT’S GOING
So far, I’ve done FABB+V for almost three weeks, and it’s worked well for me. Maybe this kind of thing is a no-brainer to morning types and/or neurotypicals (or neurotypical morning-types (a.k.a. unicorns that I’m sure prance out there in a sunshiny bliss of sparkly productivity)). The truth is, it’s been one of the biggest lifestyle changes of my life. And that includes learning to sort my garbage in Japan.
I am tired when I get home most days, but that’s partly the mesmerizing 45-minute commute. My current struggle is balancing that 5AM wake up with a martial arts class that goes in the evenings. I’m trying to find whether it’s better to give myself a bit of extra sleep on the days I intend to go, or the mornings after, since I often find it harder to sleep after exercising.
Think about your last year (whether that's a calendar year or not) and write down all your positives. All your wins, trips, fun, accomplishments, and things enjoyed. Then write down all the things that you struggled with or regret. This might take some time and some soul searching. It might be hard. But you can’t strategize if you don’t know what you’re fighting.
Look for things that stem from the same root problems. You might find the majority of yours are due to stress from work, every levels, money, etc. Once you sort those into categories, it’s time to drill down and brainstorm all the things you can do to improve your life in those areas, then figure out your specific actions and supporting preparations.
For me, a morning routine has worked the best. If you’d like to try that, I suggest organizing those actions into benefit zones. See if you can’t create a morning routine that takes daily baby steps toward your goals. Then figure out your supporting routine, to prepare you for that routine of morning success.
What’s your morning routine? What little rituals work for you? Does 5AM sound hellish?
BOOKS I REFERENCED
Let's talk about resolutions.
It’s New Years Eve 2018, which means people are thinking about the year that’s passed, the year yet to come, and that trash-panda of goal-setting, New Years Resolutions. Like raccoons, their positive public image hides a reality of rabies and euthanasia, of talk show hosts loudly asking everyone about their goals while the folks at home ready their wallets for six months of gym memberships they secretly know they’ll never use.
Raccoons get great press: funeral rights in Toronto, second billing as Disney-sidekicks, a hilarious internet moniker. Their grabby paws are so cute, you can’t even be mad when they take a hot bath in the electric kettle you left out at your campsite. The second you move the raccoons out of the theoretical, meme-worthy, or cartoon settings, however, the public narrative changes. Ask anyone in the American South about raccoons and you’d think they were all rabid burglar demons that destroy neighborhoods and titter as dogs bork their way toward fatal aneurysms.
It goes like this: you think there’s a possum under your house and so you call someone to catch it. You’ll pay them $7k. They bait a live trap with lemon-pepper tuna. You wonder why you didn’t just buy a damn live trap and some lemon-pepper tuna. Then it turns out there isn’t a possum under your house but a fuzzy little trash panda. Hooray!Not hooray. Because state law apparently requires euthanization of captured raccoons. Now there’s a dead Disney sidekick, and it’s your fault, you’re out another $7k on therapy, and they still haven't caught the possum.
New Years Resolutions are like that. The media loves them, capitalism capitalizes on them, and everyone else talks about them with that knowing gleam in their eyes, like someone’s just said they’ve accepted a job teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at a wizard school in Scotland.
Because Everyone Knows You Don’t Keep New Years Resolutions.
That’s bullshit. It cheapens our goals by teaching us that we, as a society, don’t expect ourselves to succeed. Lots of us pick something like losing weight, finally learning to play the guitar, or reading a book a week, and we choose it in a half-assed kind of way, knowing that no one actually expects us to succeed. We can sneak off the proverbial bandwagon with the rest of the crowd, give each other a conspiratorial wink, and laugh off any hints of shame because it’s a New Years Resolution, cursed to fail.
Even worse, the people in your life who have already jumped off will be waiting for you to reaffirm the okay-ness of their failure, and some of them might feel threatened if you start succeeding. Instead of giving support, they will treat you like you've committed some cultural faux pas by doing what you said you would.
Resolution comes from resolve. It means commitment and determination. It doesn’t mean settling for complacency. Because goals are hard. They’re really, really fucking hard. They take time and energy and resources—they take sacrifice. It's a lot more than most people are willing to face after five days of pie and holiday-themed reruns.
The sad part is, I actually love the idea of a New Year’s Resolution—an entire society taking the time to sit down and reflect on the past year, to decide what we want out of the next 365 days. Can you imagine what would happen if we, as a culture, spent December 31st in reflection, and January 1st sitting down, charting a course that might take us through the untraveled year, closer to something we truly want?
I’m getting inspired just thinking about it. Of course, that might also be my reaction to the idea of consumer holiday machine creating planners, schedules, books, guides, stationary, and tv shows about achieving goals… I'm fanning myself with one of my planners.
Here’s the biggest problem I see: we’re not always ready to make a commitment at the same time every year. We’re not constellations, always near the same place on January first, looking down from the same vantage. We might not be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, energetically, astrologically ready to make a change.
It’s just that the New Year feels like a clean slate. It feels like a reset button, a fresh start. It feels like you can leave all your baggage behind in 2018 and start fresh.
I'd love that. I definitely want to forget the deadlines I missed when depression took me out at the knees and pneumonia came in for the kill. I want to forget the words I wrote on things that died in the water and the words I didn’t even try to write at all. Forget my failure to lose weight, to find love, my continued failure to be okay with being alone. I wish I could leave the girl who sucks at routine, at consistency, at the things everyone knows are necessary to success behind and walk into this fresh new year, totally unencumbered.
Those things aren’t gone, though. The things I did, the things I failed to do, won’t cease to exist just because I can throw away that calendar full of unchecked boxes.
And that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Those first few days—weeks, maybe—where you feel revitalized by the idea of a fresh new year don’t last forever. The traits and thoughts and habits that led to those unchecked boxes will eventually catch up, and that’s when that easy exit onto the Cursed Resolution highway starts to look attractive.
This is where I think I’ve gone wrong in the past. Reflection is more important than I ever gave it credit for. I’ve let those unchecked boxes be a drag-anchor, when they could be a signpost. I know I schedule myself onto unreasonable timelines. I know I do far too many things as once. I know my fear of missing out is responsible for a lot of my too-tight scheduling.
I schedule my ideal. I assume I’ll have a bad writing day during the week, when the reality is, I tend to get only one good one. I manage two weeks of waking up at 5am and kicking my schedule’s ass, and forget that I have clinical depression, and that focus and drive could slip for a week. Or two. Or six. And that it will be even harder to get back on it when I pull out of the dive.
I don’t allow myself to be who I am when I set goals. I set goals for the person I would like to be, because somewhere in my brain there is a murky limbo where I stash things I don’t have the capacity to think about—commitments I’m late on, promises I made myself, things I don’t want to admit to wanting. These things stay in limbo because I don’t have the energy or the time or the balls to look at them, and they also refuse to be forgotten. I see their silhouettes stalking me when I’m tired, the flash of ambition like a fish vanishing, when my friends tweet their successes.
Reflection needs to be a thing. Reflection is when these ugly and self-shaming things get pulled out and examined, where you look at the shit you’ve refused to acknowledge and mine it for information. You make it do work to help you.
Things that live in my murk
I have no energy. I’m an emotional wreck 75% of the time. The other 25%, I’m like a Labrador retriever trying to carry a stick and twelve balls while that fucking raccoon is scratching around in the crawl space and my master won’t call a wildlife control service because she’s a Hufflepuff and doesn’t own a live trap.
Most of the time, I feel like time is racing and I will never, ever be able to do enough with it. I hate that I “waste” my time writing fanfiction, when I'm trying to make a career and need to be writing original work. I hate having obsessions, though they're the mechanism of both my failure and success.
I bet every single person who reads this can empty out that murky place in your head and find all kinds of ugliness you’d rather not see.
But if you're not ready to do that on January first? Fuck it. Don't. Leave this arbitrary set of dates with its seduction of champagne and blank calendars behind and take the time you need. Build your resolve. Get yourself to a place where you're ready to make change. Don't set yourself up for failure by feeling that it's New Years or never. Start when you're excited, angry, frustrated, inspired, and focused enough to succeed.
And if that’s now? Awesome. Grab a journal. Grab your phone or a sketchbook or pull up a word document on your computer. Write down all the crap that’s living in your limbo. Every shortcoming, every failure. The hard truth about your productivity and habits. All the raccoons under your your house. Put it out there. Now it’s out of your head and on the page, where it can't jump-scare you at 3am when you're trying to fall asleep.
Now you can see it, and use it. So what's next?
For me, it's an honest look at my time and energy. Not only what I can do in the time I have with the energy I have, but what I can do to increase both. I started doing this in 2018…or I thought I did. What began as an endeavor to farm marketing out to my friends accidentally turned into a new business, but…Yeah, okay. I'll write that down: attempts to decrease work should not create more than it offloads.
Alright, brain penners. Take a look at all the junk that came out of your limbo. Are there themes? What are things you honestly believe you can improve on or change? What is just a part of you that you will have to take into consideration when you set your goals?
For some questions to jumpstart your reflection-session, take a look at this post from Marcia Reynolds on the Outsmart You Brain blog. Join me again in the new year to take a look at these reflections and start looking at strategies to build resolve, set intentions and goals, and forge a plan to make them happen.