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Five strategies to get more done with less effort

I aspire to a life that feels effortless.

For this reason, “effortless” is the word I’ve put at the top of my to do list, as an often mocking reminder of how I would like to feel. Because in all the important ways I find I’ve lost the ease of flow.

It’s a problem that feels particularly acute right now; I moved last weekend and am coming off of twelve months of an unfortunate roommate situation which often cost me significant sleep. All of which is to say that I’m tired. Deeply, hopelessly, profoundly tired all the way down into the marrow of my bones.

But I’m sick of feeling mired in exhaustion.

I’ve felt like this off-and on (more on than off) since sometime during my junior year at MIT. I feel that around my twenty first birthday I tapped out and never really managed to find the way back in. And years later, I’m sick of feeling stuck because I’m too tired to manage more than my day-to-day — the cooking, cleaning, and working that eat up so many non-negotiable hours each day.

I’m ready for a new adventure.

And yet I’m so tired that every necessary step feels awful. Every necessary step feels like it requires a Herculean effort, even when it’s as small as writing up a new blog post to share with you each week.

I’m still working on healing the exhaustion, but it’s been years now since I graduated from MIT and I’m done waiting until I feel less exhausted to move on.

Instead, I’m choosing to focus my efforts on effortlessness.

When you’re tired, you only ever do the things that feel easy. If you want to get things done despite being tired, then each individual task has to feel absurdly easy — so easy you’d rather just have it over with. In order to get things done when you’re tired, those things have to feel effortless.

But here’s the secret about effortlessness — it’s not really about the difficulty of the task, it’s actually about the weight of resistance you have to doing the task. Which means that the problem I’ve really been tackling is the problem of resistance.

Whole books have been written on resistance (Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art is an oft-cited example). But most of those books focus on powering through the resistance with grit and determination — the “do it anyway” approach.

I don’t have the energy to “do it anyways” anymore.

I spent my “determined misery” allowance while I was at MIT. I bullied myself into powering through impossible mountains of homework, often staying up multiple days without sleep in a slap-dash effort to make the impossible possible. And for the most part, I demonstrated alarming success.

But this kind of energy is a finite resource — you only have so much to give and mine is all used up.

Instead, I’m having to find a gentler, more effortless way of getting things done.

And what I’m learning is a whole new way of getting things done that feels easier and even (sometimes) effortless.

Here are a few of the forces I’ve been harnessing in my life:

  1. Tiny tasks = momentum and completion. Martha Beck calls this taking turtle steps. Anna Kunnecke suggests we give ourselves the gift of completion. What they mean is that small wins build momentum and are easy to accrue. Hard things become easy when we break them down into tiny tasks so simple we’d rather do them than not-do them. “Finish writing book” is a huge overwhelming task that might be impossible and this brings resistance screaming into the picture. But “Write in bed for 20 minutes before sleep” feels cozy and lovely and so doable that I might do it even on a night when I’ve just moved and am exhausted.
  2. Play and celebration. When I was at MIT I almost never celebrated my accomplishments. Always there were so many pressing items still on my to-do list that I plowed straight from one into the next with hardly a moment for reflection and celebration. But when we celebrate our achievements it changes our to-do list from a gauntlet to be run into a game to be played. Like a game of “hot lava” every time we make it to a new surface without being “burnt” we give ourselves a little cheer — a cheer which bolsters us as we prepare to take the next leap.
  3. Honoring desires and joy. Here’s possibly my favorite trick. Move items from your “to-do” list to your “want to do” list. This was a big help with my writing practice. When my writing was a “to-do” I resisted it because I was tired and I didn’t want to do anything except rest. But I wanted to write, too, I just didn’t want to have to. By honoring my desire to feel prolific and my desire to write I reclaimed the task of writing and moved it from a duty to a joy. Are there things in your life that you love but that you resist doing? Is it perhaps because you’re not honoring your wants and turning joy into a duty? I invite you to ponder the question.
  4. Caring less. This one feels a bit like cheating, but it’s true. I’m not sure who said it first but this is the principle that encourages us to not let “perfect be the enemy of good (or done)”. It’s the wisdom in Anne Lamott’s suggestion to write “shitty first drafts”. It’s about taking a leap, taking a risk, fearing it won’t be good enough and doing it anyways. It’s about letting go of perfection and letting your successes be wildly, improbably imperfect and messy. It’s about making mistakes and not worrying too much about the consequences.
  5. Letting failure be ok. This is important because you’re not always going to succeed. I try to write every day but I don’t manage it. I try to make a plan for the things I need to do every day and I don’t often stick to it. These things don’t mean I’m a “bad” writer or that I’m doing anything wrong. They just mean that life is messy and often unexpected and no one can predict the future. One of my writing mantras has been to “tread gently” — to learn to take it easy on myself and to let it be ok if I don’t meet my own expectations. Because my expectations for myself are usually broken and unrealistically high. And that, too, is ok.

Now it’s your turn! How do you make the work in your life feel effortless? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

 

Father

Happy (belated) Father’s day, everyone! This week I’ve got a companion piece to the flash story “Mother” that I published in honor of Mother’s day. Enjoy!
–Jessica


Father.

The word spills from her lips and my gaze falls to the pregnancy test held in her hand like a weapon. She repeats the word but it falls on deaf ears as my stomach drops down into my shoes. It’s everything I thought I wanted and yet now I’m not so sure.

She stands before me, barefoot in her PJs, and she looks so rumpled and uncertain that she might as well be naked. And I — I am uselessly and incomprehensibly at a loss for words.

Father.

The word crawls its way hoarsely from my throat. My voice sounds breathless, restless, choked. I feel trapped in this moment as the silence just keeps expanding around us until we are two — alone and lost in a bubble of deafening quiet.

I don’t know what to say and I attempt to marshal my courage even as I feel my knees melting beneath me.

Father.

My eyes reach for hers and her whole body is trembling now in some kind of time-delayed reaction. I reach out, almost without thought, and haul her rattling bones into my own. And we lean in to steady ourselves a moment.

Father.

The word trips unsteadily from my tongue once more and I’m waiting for the arrival of joy.

I expected joy. I’ve always wanted kids. And yet here I stand, dumb, trembling and panicked — and joy is nowhere to be found.

My arms wrap around her and I catch us both in the silence.

I catch my breath.

“Hey,” I say. “Hey, it’s going to be alright.”

Her eyes turn to look at me and I can see moisture trembling in her lashes.

“We were planning this, remember? We were hoping for this.”

I can feel my voice picking up confidence with every sentence — slowly gaining strength.

“We’re going to be parents.” Warmth is creeping it’s way back into my bloodstream now, back into my tone.

“We’re going to be wonderful parents.”

I can see her expression lightening a bit now, I can feel her trembling begin to slow as she nods and buries her face unsteadily in my shoulder.

“I’m going to be a Dad.” The words fall from my lips unexpectedly. (Didn’t I already know?)

And there it is: the joy I’d been expecting.

Father.

I think I could get used to that.

 

Now it’s your turn! Let me know what you thought of this piece in the comments below.

 

Mother

A short piece of fiction I wrote as a character study a few weeks back and am now dedicating to all the mothers out there (and most especially to my own mother). You’re each more courageous than I can dare to imagine. Happy (belated) Mother’s Day.

-Jessica


Mother.

The word echoes in my head and I almost forget what it means.

Suddenly that word to which I had dedicated so much consideration trembles on the tip of my tongue — just another confused collection of consonants and vowels.

I’m supposed to be happy. After all, we’d decided it was time to start trying.

But as I stare at the pregnancy test quivering in my fingers I can’t seem to move past the word.

Mother.

I realize that I’ve no idea how to be one. Or how I got to here: alone in my bathroom, clutching the test and all I can think is that I’m not ready to be a mother — that I might never be ready.

And how is it possible that I would only discover this now — in the moment when life has already been planted, seed sprouting into embryo — a tiny clump of cells dividing and differentiating.

Becoming not-me. Becoming other.

I smooth my palm over the flat planes of my belly. It seems unimaginable that soon I will swell with new life.

“Gravid” — from the Latin “gravis” meaning “heavy”.

I have never felt so grave, so heavy, as I feel now, in this moment in which my life seems to be pouring from between my fingertips, even as life is re-born of a single flickering spark — poised on the brink of bursting into flames.

I fear that there will be nothing left of me but ashes when that flame has burned its way into the world — borne out from between my blooded thighs.

Mother.

The word rattles around inside my head and I can feel my atomic structures reassembling to make room for some newer, bigger person I must be becoming.

My hand presses firmly into the flesh of my belly, knowing that there is nothing to feel. The baby (baby!) is not yet bigger than a grain of rice — hardly larger than a dream.

Mother.

I roll the word across my tongue, stretch it out over my skin and am surprised to find that it threatens to fit — just barely — around the size and shape of what it already means to be me.

 

As always, I’d love to hear from you! What did you think of this piece? Leave your comments below.

 

The shooter says goodbye to her love

Just a bit of fun this week — I’m participating in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge again. You can check out my previous challenge contributions here.

This week’s challenge was to use one of the following ten sentences in a 1,000 word story — but I went for the promised “bonus points” (and extra challenge) of using all ten!

Here are the list of challenge sentences, for reference:

  • “The mysterious diary records the voice.”
  • “The stranger officiates the meal.”
  • “The shooter says goodbye to his love.”
  • “A glittering gem is not enough.”
  • “The memory we used to share is no longer coherent.”
  • “The old apple revels in its authority.”
  • “Rock music approaches at high velocity.”
  • “Sixty-Four comes asking for bread.”
  • “Abstraction is often one floor above you.”
  • “The river stole the gods.”

I had to stretch just a bit to get them all in, but on the whole I think the story works surprisingly well!


 

The memory we used to share is no longer coherent. The thought echoes in my mind.

Nothing makes sense anymore — it hasn’t since our last big mission, the one in which we failed to prevent the River from stealing the Gods and I woke up battered and bruised and still reeling in the aftermath of machine gun fire that had sounded like nothing so much as rock music approaching at high velocity.

I’ve never entirely made peace with the way machine guns sound so much like drums — and the beat goes on, and on, and on like a nightmare I’ve forgotten to wake up from.

I woke up aching, and for blissful moments I remained unaware — entirely free of the memories of that mission and the way it had tipped my world over onto its head, spilling the pieces of my life across the floor like so many marbles.

Back in training the General used to say, abstraction is often one floor above you. Over and over he would repeat this — at every briefing, on every training mission. Abstraction is often one floor above you.

We never knew what he meant and he never explained himself, just peered dangerously over the rims of his glasses and spoke the words as though they were the most important message in the world.

Perhaps they were. Perhaps they were some kind of secret code passed down from him to us, from trainer, from teacher (we called him “the old apple” when no one could hear) to us, the pupils. If so, we didn’t get it. Every time he’d trot out his adage, we’d snicker nervously amongst ourselves.

Later we’d shrug off our incomprehension and murmur to one another behind closed doors, the old apple revels in his authority. But our glibness would taste hollow in our mouths, like false comfort.

Now, suddenly and terrifyingly, I think I know what the General was talking about. I used to think he meant for us to keep in mind the bigger picture, to always be playing the larger game. I used to think it meant, You’re a spy and you must think like one. Never forget.

Now I think he meant this: waking up feeling battered and awfully alone — unsure if the game you’ve been playing looks anything like the game you thought you’d been playing.

Suddenly nothing seems certain. Not this. Not you and me. Not our mission. I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe in any more.

None of it feels real. Not even the warmth of your body stretched out beside me in our bed.

You propose after that. Not immediately after, it’s weeks after and we’re out to eat — waiting for the signal, you said (Sixty-Four comes asking for bread). And so I’m shifting in my chair and picking at the roll on my plate, peeling off little pieces of the crust, snipping them up with my fingernails.

I’m anxious. It’s our first real mission since that one — the one that felt like the ground was falling out from underneath my feet and plunging me into some new and mysterious upside-down reality in which nothing makes sense and the memory we used to share is no longer coherent.

And then you pull out a ring and I realize the mission is a ruse and I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say because just a handful of weeks ago I would have said yes, but now the only thing I can think is that a glittering gem is not enough.

Except I can’t say that because you’re not just my partner, you’re my partner, and we have to keep working together and so I nod awkwardly and you slip the diamond onto my finger.

I cannot think that anything has ever felt heavier than the weight of that gemstone, dragging at my heart.

Which is how we’ve come to where we are now. You’ve gone out to dinner for “business”. I’m perched aloft, watching the meal unfold from an empty office building across the street.

A stranger officiates the meal. I don’t recognize him. He’s not one of our regular contacts. I would have remembered that face — grizzled and unpleasant. I would have remembered the way you lean back from his presence, as if in distaste.

I’m not sure if your discomfort means something good or bad. I’m not sure what anything means anymore.

Who are we really working for?

Abstraction is often one floor above you, the General used to say. Now I believe he meant that one day this day would come — the day when I finally saw the sum of our actions from such a great height that everything we’d done and everything we’d become all began to seem, not like a collection of random duties, but a purposeful progression animated by unseen hands. A masterpiece of puppetry on a scale that I find can hardly be comprehended.

I had no idea they might have this much power.

But now that I’ve seen and suspected, the only thing left to do is act.

I have to end the game. I have to put a stop to the madness.

I wonder if you know. I wonder if you saw it too. You were unusually sentimental when you left for this meeting — you’d whispered our old code phrase, the one we’d used back in training.

The mysterious diary records the voice. The syllables had brushed up against my ear, warm and familiar, and my heart had thrilled once more to the nearness of you, to the way you whispered I love you.

And love you, I do. But the time has come to do what must be done.

My finger tightens on the trigger and even as I blink back tears I’m already whispering goodbye.

 

Did you like this piece? Let me know in the comments!

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How to turn an idea into a story

Story is something I struggle with as a writer. By nature I’m a poet rather than a story writer. I enjoy painting with words more than I like telling stories. And I have a hard time turning my creative ideas into stories. For poetry this isn’t necessary — a poem captures a moment, a thought, a feeling. A poem doesn’t have to be a whole story.

In practice, I find that for anything longer than a poem you can’t just have an idea. You really need a story and a character if you are to have a hope of making it all the way through to the end.

Your idea is just an idea, and isn’t a story (at least not yet)

I don’t know about you, but my ideas almost always start off as just little fragments of thought. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a great opening line, an intangible sort of feeling-thing, or an image that fascinates — but I never have a whole story plop down into my brain as if sent from the universe (or at least very, very rarely).

So it’s important that, as a writer, I learn how to fan the flames of these creative embers and turn your ideas into stories.

And, as far as I can see, there are really only two ways to do this: you can write like a “plotter” or a “pantser”. By which I mean you can sit down and think your idea through until you find the story in it, or you can just start writing by the seat of your pants — putting that little ember down on paper and hoping that it catches fire.

I’ve tried both, and they both work — but I think there are important advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Pantsing: It works better with ideas for beginnings

If you’re interested in just starting and seeing where you’ll end up, it helps to know where to start. What I mean is the seat-of-your-pants approach works best with ideas that are already interesting opening lines.

If you’ve got a good place to start then diving in may be a perfectly awesome thing to do. Yes, at some point your momentum will run out (probably within the hour if you’re me), but why not charge ahead while the brilliance of the idea is still gathered close around you? Write down as much as you can, as soon as you can. See where the pen takes you. If you don’t like where you end up, you can always go back and re-work things later.

Which is all well and good, but probably only 10% of my ideas come to me as fascinating opening lines.

So what do you do when you don’t have a clear notion of how your story starts?

Plotting: For when you really haven’t the foggiest

If you don’t know where to start then I don’t really recommend pantsing it. You could, but in my experience where you’ll end up is with a quagmire of vague descriptions and unresolved details that will require massive revision at some future date.

So instead, why not do yourself a favor and set things up for success by giving a bit of thought to turning your idea into a proper story?

Let’s consider an example

Recently I had an idea that came to me as an image: unusually colored eyes under a niqab-like veil. Now clearly that’s not a story. It’s really not even a scene. It’s basically nothing.

I could have taken the pantsing approach and written my vision down as a first line: “The first thing I noticed were her eyes….” or “I watch how his brow creases as he meets my gaze and I turn away — I hate they way they always stare whenever they catch sight of my eyes”.

But you can see the problem already, can’t you? These opening lines are crummy.

For one thing, I’ve not said anything about what makes the character’s eyes weird, for another we’ve got not setting, no scene. Instead we’re floating adrift with no purpose and no reason why the reader should care.

Pantsing isn’t really going to cut it with this one. Maybe I’d get to something resembling a decent story eventually, but not before generating tens of pages of useless floundering that would later need to be re-written — and I don’t have that kind of time to waste in my writing life. I’m guessing you don’t either.

So here’s what to do instead.

Plotting: Using interrogation to turn your idea into a story

Here’s an approximation of my thought process for this eyes-under-a-veil idea I’ve been chewing on the past few days:

  • What if it’s not just women who wear the veil, what if it’s everyone?
  • What if they’re worn all the time, even in the home?
  • If all you ever saw of people were there eyes what would be different about their culture?
    • I posit: you’d have 1000 words to describe the color, shape, and texture of eyes & eyebrows
    • And maybe: you’d have an elaborate verbal/gestural etiquette to make up for lack of visual cues
  • How would you be able to tell people apart? Maybe you wouldn’t? (But it seems like differentiation would be necessary for a functioning society)
    • Maybe your veil would be unique, an emphasis on different colors or different fabrics by which people could recognize you
    • What if you wore your life story embroidered on your veil?

Now we’ve found something interesting

What if there was a society in which everyone was covered head to toe by a veil, but their life stories were painted upon them for all the world to see? What if you embroidered your own veil as part of a coming-of-age ceremony? What if part of what you embroidered was your name?

It’s an intriguing idea. But you’ll no doubt agree it’s still not a story. For one thing I haven’t invented any characters yet, and you really can’t have a story without at least one character.

With the world is better-defined, we can start to see what kind of stories are a good fit

For example, what if the character was transgendered? First, we’d need to answer how gender plays out in a society in which everyone is always veiled — but assuming a gendered society, what if as a teenager/young adult you made your veil in secret, beginning the task of telling your life story in color and thread? What if you were transgendered and made your veil for the gender you identified with, not the gender you were assigned at birth? What would happen when you revealed your veil at your coming of age ceremony? How terrified would you feel?

That could be an interesting story with a scared and vulnerable and very human character at the center of it. There’s obviously a lot more detail that would need to be fleshed out, but at this point I think you could start writing, but I think at  this point we’re getting close. Most of the rest of the details could be made up or figured out as I go along.

As much as I like pantsing it, I think it’s important to start with a story — and not just with an idea.

Now I’d love to hear from you — turning ideas into stories is something I’m still figuring out for myself, so if you’ve got any tips or tricks I’d love it if you’d let me know in the comments!

How do you turn your ideas into stories?