07 January 2015

Swallowing the Atlantic

Over the last few days I've been having a conversation with another writer friend of mine about our plans for this year and all the creative projects we want to complete.  In both our cases, our heads are full of ideas; there's so much that we want to do, we're excited about doing it, and we want to DO ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW. It's like trying to swallow the entire Atlantic Ocean in one gulp. Not possible. Not until we figure out how to split ourselves up into multiple bodies or clone ourselves, and even that solution comes with some pretty serious undesirable consequences. (Trust me, I've spent a lot of time thinking this through.)

Anyway, the point is that, at least in my case, I start to feel overwhelmed and then become paralyzed. I put so much pressure on myself to get everything done well and quickly that I end up not doing anything at all. No bueno!

So what can one do instead of trying to swallow the whole ocean in a single gulp?

Write down your goals
The first step is to know where you're headed. What do you want to accomplish? If you're already suffering from overwhelm paralysis, it likely means you have LOTS of goals. Write them down.

While you're at it, make up some new ones. Why not? I love this part - the dreaming part, the scheming part, the part full of all kinds of possibility. I like goal-setting so much that it probably means there's something wrong with me.

I have long-term, mid-term and short-term goals.
  • Example of a long-term goal: Learn to speak 7 languages fluently before I die.
  • Mid-term goal: Make $25,000 a year off my writing within 5 years of starting my business (3 years to go!).
  • Short-term goal: Drive out to the countryside on a clear night to admire the stars.
Writing down goals not only clears out some space in my head but also is the first step toward examining whether the goals are achievable and within my control. (Sadly, I had to ditch my goal to "Sprout wings and fly away.")

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
The whole reason we get into this swallowing-the-Atlantic mess in the first place, really, is because we don't have a clear sense of our priorities. Maybe we're not done wrestling with the fact that we are human and have limitations, but at some point, if we're going to make any progress at all, we have to accept it and then starting picking things to do first.

It doesn't have to be one thing. It can be two or three projects I work on simultaneously. But even that sets priorities because I'm saying I'd rather give 30 mins/day to three things and take longer to get anything done than give 90 mins to one thing that I finish sooner.

Break goals down into manageable tasks
I know what I want to accomplish and what I want to work on first, but I still might suffer from overwhelm paralysis if the goal is too big and I don't have a sense of how to tackle it. It's all well and good for me to say that I want to make $25K/year off my writing, but that doesn't happen overnight unless I find a genie in a bottle. (Lemme know if you run across one.) How do I get to that $25K?

After doing some research on successful indie authors, I decided that two of the things I need to do are write at least one book a year and invest money in marketing. Which means that I need to write, publish and promote a book this year.

Still too big. "Write a book" can be broken down into more manageable chunks. Which is where a project plan comes into play. Once I lay that out, I go to my to-do list and start breaking up the weekly work into daily tasks.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
That's not a typo; I'm talking about prioritizing again. I have my to-do list for each day, but what do I do first?

I have a tendency to tackle the easiest items on my to-do list first. Or the ones I feel like doing in that moment. This can work sometimes. Just as often, though, I end up getting a sense of accomplishment from the first few things I've crossed off the list and getting lazy, leaving the harder things undone and getting behind schedule. It's not a big deal if the hard things aren't all that important or urgent, but what if they are?

It helps me to decide what 2-3 tasks are most important that day and start with those. Once they're checked off the list, I choose three more priorities and do those, and so on until I'm either done with my to-do list for the day or have run out of time/energy.

Tap into a support system
Even with to-do lists and a clear sense of priorities, it's easy to fall behind or lose motivation. It's hard to stay on track when it seems like we're the only ones who care about what we're doing and there aren't any immediate rewards for doing it.

What we need are support systems - individuals and/or communities - to whine to when we're having a hard day, to celebrate with when we accomplish something, and to kick us in the pants when we're having a hard time following through. Here are some ideas for sources of support to keep us on track:
  • Friends/family who occasionally ask how it's going
  • Writing community on Twitter for commiseration & ideas
  • #writeclub on Twitter when we need help showing up to writing
  • ROW80 to keep us in touch with our goals and priorities
  • A writing coach to help with goal-setting, reality checks, project plans, accountability, commiseration, celebration, and to help brainstorm when we get stuck

Where does writing - or your creative life in general - fit into your list of priorities this year? What projects do you want to finish and what support do you need to make it happen?


  1. I completely agree with this list. Breaking large goals like writing a novel into smaller pieces--write 1K words/day or something along those lines--helps make them more manageable and less overwhelming. Writing/revising is definitely a priority for me at the moment, since I want to start submitting later this year. I hope to have two-three submission-ready projects this year, so that's at the top of the list. And the ROW80 community is a great place to find support and accountability. It's really pushed me to keep myself on track.

    1. Me too, Denise! (RE: finding ROW80 helpful) As for your 2-3 projects you want to submit, are you talking short stories or novels?