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A new theory of getting things done

This story starts with burnout.

You see, I’ve been trying to recover from burnout for what seems like forever. Some days it feels like sleep I lost a decade ago still haunts me today. Some days it feels like I carry a weight of exhaustion so heavy it will never be lifted.

And on other days I feel great. Sometimes I even feel great for several weeks in a row.

But always, inevitably, it seems like there comes a point when I crash again. When the sweet zing of excitement wears off and I come staggering back into my body to discover how deeply, truly, and utterly tired I am.

Maybe you have this problem, too. Maybe you, too, have the skittish, delicate kind of energy that can take you oh so far — but only if you treat it oh so gently and carefully. And only if you put it to bed often and for longer than any body should reasonably “need” to rest.

Or maybe you are nothing like me and your energy is strong and robust, in which case you should tell me all your secrets in the comments below. For years I longed to have the kind of strong, robust energy that I so admired in others.

But the truth is that I don’t — I have the quiet, delicate energy of a dreamer. And my constitution requires a lot of rest, a lot of time for night-dreaming, and a lot of time for day-dreaming and quiet contemplation.

Which is why I need a new theory of getting things done — because my old way was clearly not working.

My way of pretending my energy was strong and robust. My way of gritting my teeth and digging my heels in and just pushing through. My way of shouldering should-dos and have-tos until I felt like Atlas with the weight of a life lived by other people’s rules resting on my shoulders.

For the past couple of months I have been experimenting with a new way of doing things.

It’s a way that I shan’t take credit for inventing, but it’s new-to-me and it seems to be working — so this week I’d like to invite you to try it, too.

The new way involves not-doing more than it involves doing. The new way means sitting down and resting when my back hurts even though the cooking isn’t done yet. The new way means typing out this missive to you because I felt the words pattering in my heart even though I didn’t “have time” to write to you today. The new way means trusting that I will find the time I need, that I can write this missive and that things will work out anyway. And, most of all, the new way means sleeping — it means a lot of sleeping.

The new way looks nothing like “working” the way I’ve always conceived of working — the slogging away, the grinding through I’ve always envisioned and pursued.

But here’s the thing. For the first time in possibly forever, I achieved everything I set out to do in March.

Since last summer I have set goals at the start of every month, and at the end of every month I reflect on what I achieved and what I didn’t achieve and I recalibrate and set my goals for the coming month.

Every month I note that I failed to achieve roughly ⅔ of what I set out to achieve.

But in March I did it all. Even the wishy-washy, maybe-if-I-get-around-to-it stuff I thought would be nice but didn’t really plan to achieve.

In the spirit of total honesty, my top priority in March was to rest — so maybe some of my success is just that I’m getting better at setting more attainable goals.

I don’t think that’s the whole story.

I think there’s a kind of magic to living this way. Free of rules and have-tos and should-dos. Free to rest when you’re tired. Free to do whatever you want when you’re not. Free to play and go for a walk and take a nap and write a book.

I think that getting things done works like this:

Motivation + inspiration = joy

Motivation – inspiration = toil

Inspiration – motivation = guilt

If we want to get things effortlessly and joyously we have to align our doing with our inspiration.

And in order to do that we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Because no one feels creative and inspired when they’re tired.

We need to give ourselves permission to tend to our quiet, delicate dreamer-energy and care for our bodies and our needs. We need permission to break the rules. Permission to be imperfect and flawed. Permission to suck at it — to fall back into our old patterns and habits and to realize we were still following rules without realizing it.

Because permission is the key to everything.

And when we give ourselves permission to live like this we unlock the door to getting things done in a way that feels easy, playful, and joyous instead of hard, burdensome, and exhausting.

After all, who wouldn’t want to live their life like that?

Much love,
Jessica

P.S. If this sounds brilliant but you’re not sure where to start, I’d love to invite you to work with me as a private coaching client.

I forgot I needed a plan

It’s been a while (months, I’m afraid) since I’ve mentioned the book I’m writing. Or rather, I suppose I should say “the book I was writing” because if we’re being honest I haven’t worked on it much since July.

There’s plenty of excuses for why I haven’t been writing — my book notes and thoughts were never properly unpacked after I moved in early July, I became busy with another major project at the end of July that’s been eating up a lot of my free time, etc.

Excuses are cheap and easy to come by.

But the truth is that all of those pretty excuses are just excuses.

It’s not that I don’t have the time to work on my book.

In fact, I’ve had “spend 20 mins writing” on my To Do list every week since July and there’s only been a handful of times I’ve actually crossed that item off.

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out why I wasn’t writing.

I tried most of the tricks I know — I used to set the goal of writing for an hour but when that didn’t work I made the goal smaller, just 20 minutes. Surely I could find 20 minutes?

But no.

I started to work on other intangibles, trying to sleep more and working to tidy up my physical space — both of which are important but neither of which helped me.

And then I started to toy with the idea of doing just five measly minutes minutes of writing.

If I didn’t have 20 minutes then I absolutely had five. I’ve had great luck in using five minutes to re-build flagging habits (an idea I heard first from the lovely Anna Kunnecke).

What if I wrote for just five minutes?

It was a question that haunted me for weeks. Surely 5 minutes wasn’t enough to produce anything meaningful?

Usually when I write I need at least 20 minutes to get into the swing of things, remember what I was doing, and produce something useful.

But 20 minutes wasn’t working and I kept wondering about the tantalizing possibility of five.

Which was, naturally, when I figured the whole thing out.

Because five minutes might totally be enough time to write something useful — but only if you sit down at the beginning of those five minutes knowing exactly what it is you plan to write.

Five minutes wasn’t working for me because I didn’t have a plan.

[Photo of index cards on wall]
The “Wall of Book” that now exists in my bedroom.
This not-having-a-plan thing is the problem I’ve run into every time I’ve declared I was writing a book — from my first attempt at age 11 to my most recent failure during NaNoWriMo 2012. And it nearly got me again, this time around.

Every time I have a book idea, I jump right into the writing. I draft pages and pages of story (sometimes as much as 100) and inevitably, eventually I get stuck.

I get stuck because the story grows so large that I can’t keep it all in my head.

I get stuck because I have a million and one good ideas and none of them quite seem to fit.

I get stuck because I only kinda-sorta-maybe know where I’m going.

I get stuck because I don’t have a plan.

So this time I’ve brushed off my index cards and painter’s tape and I’m putting together my plan.

One scene, one idea, one paragraph at a time.

And you can bet that once I’ve got the plan worked out I’m going to write my way to the finish line — even if I have to do it five fucking minutes at a time.

 

What about you — do you have a big project you’ve been stalled out on? If so, what’s been holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

 

Making the shift from consumer to producer

I want to talk about a pattern in my life that’s been unfolding over the past several years — a pattern I’ve only recently become aware of. Slowly (so slowly I didn’t notice!) I’ve been making the shift from consumer to producer.

I started this blog more than a year ago and, at the time, I thought I would start writing again. I thought I would start writing regularly (I imagined myself writing poetry and stories, not essays) and publishing those stories and poems on my blog.

But it didn’t work out that way.

I do write regularly these days, but the blog post I publish each week are nothing like the creative pieces I had initially imagined.

Instead, my blog drifted from poetry and stories to essays and my creative writing practice (although it has experienced periods of productivity) has, more often than not, floundered.

Creativity and building a creative writing practice is a subject I’ve devoted any number of blog posts to, and yet it’s still not a code I feel I’ve cracked.

I feel like I know all the things to do creatively and yet I never actually do them.

In other words, I often feel like a creative failure.

And yet, there’s a thought that’s been percolating in the back of my head for the past couple of weeks — a thought about making the shift from consumer to producer.

What exactly do I mean when I say “the shift from consumer to producer”?

Increasingly I am convinced that creativity happens in the margins, in the pauses and the white space we build into our lives. And in today’s hyper-connected, always “on” culture — consciously cultivating white space is getting harder and harder.

And I’m not just talking about the seven TV shows you follow religiously (my number back in the day).

There’s actually two different kinds of consumption:

  1. There’s the physical, tangible stuff we consume — the news articles, the blog posts, the podcasts, the TV shows, the books, etc.
  2. But there’s also the intangible stuff — the stuff we don’t so much buy as buy in to. These things are the stories we tell about what people are supposed to do, who a person is supposed to be, what daily practices and habits a person is supposed to cultivate.

In my experience, it’s this second kind of consumption that’s most toxic to creativity.

For every bad habit of tangible consumption I’ve cut out (the food blogs with recipes I never cooked, the health blogs that left me feeling more anxious than I started, the writing blogs that reminded me daily that I wasn’t writing enough, the hours of TV I used to numb myself on weekends so that I didn’t have to feel my own discontent), I’ve bought into a half-dozen new stories about how TV is a waste of my time and how my writing practice should be a perfect expression of my creative soul and how my cooking is too utilitarian and my recipes should always be effortlessly delicious and look like art.

My inner perfectionist dive bombs into these stories about the perfect person I’m supposed to be — and the subsequent guilt of not living up to my own expectations entirely zaps my creative energy.

My white space is still filled… just not with physical clutter so much as clutter of a different, more poisonous kind.

And I believe that in order to develop a sustainable creative practice you have to throw out *all* the clutter, in all of it’s various forms.

Creative brilliance begins in the blank moments and the empty spaces when you’re caught adrift somewhere between existence and boredom.

Whether your clutter is physical or mental, the end result is always the same: you’re busy filling in the blank stretches of your mental space.

And without that empty space there’s never going to be room for something new and beautiful to grow.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation and not a monologue! Are you interested in making the shift from consumer to producer? Which kind of consumption do you struggle with more, the tangible or the intangible? Let me know in the comments below.

 

How do you feel about saying no?

It occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that I may have a dysfunctional relationship with the word “no”.

The topic came up this week as I was tasked to some new projects at work and while, on the one hand, I don’t mind (I like it when other people ask me to help and the tasks are useful, just not interesting), on the other hand, some of the tasks that I was asked to do aren’t things that make me feel zippy inside. Some of them feel more like a weighty ton of bricks.

There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I shouldn’t have said no.

This state of self-inquiry is particularly acute because I have been reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and it’s been really useful for crystallizing a lot of the ideas about priorities that I’ve been toying with for a while.

The basic tenant of his book is that we should do “less, but better” — i.e. say “no” to more things in order to focus on that which is essential. It’s a great idea, a great theory; I found myself nodding along with something on nearly every page as I read.

And yet this week I didn’t think to say no when asked to do things that I already know will not be my highest contribution.

There’s a lot packed up in this idea. On the one hand, I think saying no is just hard: it is an act of rebellion, a distancing of oneself from the rest of the tribe.

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of my personal baggage wrapped up in it, too.

I wouldn’t bother to share my baggage, except that I’m beginning to learn that it’s all the same baggage — we use different words and have different reasons, but our issues are usually the same: at the end of the day we’re generally insecure, worried that there’s something wrong with us, and that the rest of the world might find out. We therefore conclude that our wrongness means we’re not worthy of whatever good the universe offers to us.

For me personally, this means I’m often overly-eager to play the drudge. I operate from a place of “it’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it” and because of my feelings of unspecialness (my own particular flavor of unworthiness), I feel like that person might as well be me.

The consequence of which is that I wind up working on projects I don’t love and feeling like everyone else gets to solve problems that are cooler than mine.

My rational brain knows that to some extent “the grass is always greener”, and other people’s problems probably aren’t any more exciting than mine. But then I wonder — is that true? Or do I just think that’s true because I believe that important work is often unpleasant and has to be done anyways?

Our thoughts get slippery when we try to work our way around them.

I don’t know my answers yet. I know that it’s easier to agree than to say no when I’m at work. And I know that it’s easier to say no than to agree when someone invites me to a social outing (even if there is a part of me that wants to go).

And I know that, as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us… We often think of a choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice — a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.”

This week I felt myself not-choosing, rather than sincerely saying yes.

The point of this blog is not for me to whinge on about my inability to set boundaries around my time at work. The point of this blog is to perhaps help you think a little more critically about what it is you are or aren’t saying “no” to in your life.

My hope is that by shining a small light into my dark and nebulous corners, you might find the shadows a shade lighter in yours.

Where could you do “less, but better” in your life right now? What would you need to say “no” to to make your highest contribution — whether at work or at home? Let me know in the comments below!

 

The systems that make your dreams come true

Here’s a problem I’ve been pondering lately: when you have big dreams how do you make them come true?

There are obvious, unhelpful answers like “you pursue them!” or “you don’t give up!”. There are more practical, but still unhelpful answers like “you just write” and “you just do it”.

Because here’s the thing, often just wanting the dream isn’t enough to get it done. Lots of people want to write books, but very few of them ever do. You need more than just desire, you need systems.

Systems are like magic.

At their most basic, I think that systems are just habits that help you make progress on what’s important. Ten minutes of journaling before bed is a system that might help you get clear and accountable on how your actions that day have furthered or hindered your goals. Turning off your email notifications is a system that helps you remain focused on what really matters.

Systems can also be more complicated, the structures and scaffolding from which your sculpt your life. They can be complex creations with moving parts that flow throughout your days and help keep you on track.

And the system I want to talk about today is like that. It’s your productivity system, your calendar, your to-do list, your inbox. It’s the clutter in your house and the mess in your closet.

I’ve been deeply engrossed in the work of Anna Kunnecke for a couple of months now, and she places a lot of emphasis on how clearing up and clearing out one’s physical environment can have a huge positive impact on one’s internal world. Having tried it out for myself, I find I couldn’t agree more.

And yet the change that has made the most significant impact on my life isn’t so much to do with my physical world; it has to do without I keep track of all the moving parts that make up a life.

And my system is based heavily on Anna Kunnecke’s recommendations and on David Allen’s suggestions in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

If you’d told me two years ago I needed to improve my personal productivity, I’d probably have laughed at you.

I’d have pointed to my two degrees from MIT and said “me?!”. But the truth is that MIT didn’t teach me good productivity habits — what MIT taught me was how to fight fires with incredible efficiency. At MIT every assignment was a crisis, every week was overloaded and I raced about in a kind of dazed panic from problem to paper to exam without a moment to gasp for air.

Which means that when I graduated I didn’t have any skills for getting things done in a less-stressful environment. In real life there aren’t so many deadlines. The book I’m writing doesn’t have due date. There’s no teacher leaning over my shoulder, fingers shifting restlessly in anticipation of each completed chapter. There’s really no reason to finish writing my book except that I want to.

The truth is that it’s very hard to find the time to write.

This is a truth that so many writers seem to gloss over and so many aspiring writers can’t seem to move past. So much writing advice boils down to “just write” including the oft-cited quote from Neil Gaiman to “write one word and then another”, or this recent post from Chuck Wendig. And this advice is not untrue — it’s perhaps the truest advice there is — but my quibble with such advice is that it also doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help the aspiring writer finally start writing the novel they’ve always dreamed of. And it doesn’t help them keep putting down words every day, even when the story takes a left turn somewhere on page 50 and suddenly they haven’t got a clue what the story even is anymore.

I’ve spoken about some of the tricks I use to help make my writing feel effortless, but when we get down to the nitty gritty of it, no amount of desire or effortlessness is sufficient to help me prioritize my writing over all the other things that need to happen in my life. Should I do my writing or my cooking first? Well… I’d really rather not starve. Should I do my writing this morning or be on time at my job? Well… I’d really rather not be late.

So in order to actually get my writing done I need to find a way to hold myself accountable to actually doing it — otherwise, I can say I’m writing a book till I’m blue in the face but if I’m not actually putting words on the page then (as Anna Kunnecke would say) “it’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?”

And the system I’ve found myself turning to with great efficacy is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

On the surface David Allen’s system is simple.

It really boils down to just five steps:

  1. Capture. This is where you identify and catalog all of the things that you need to do from the mundane (empty the dishwasher) to the complex (finish the first draft of my book).
  2. Clarify. What is the very next physical action I need to take to move forward on this? This is where you determine what actually needs to be done next for each of the tasks you captured in step one.
  3. Organize. This is where you organize the actions and projects you identified in steps  one and two into a system that presents them to you at the appropriate time and prevents things from slipping through the cracks.
  4. Reflect. David Allen suggests we need to take time weekly to reflect, to capture any new tasks from the week, to look ahead and make sure nothing is sneaking up on us, to look behind and make sure there’s nothing pending we should follow up. It’s also a moment to take a look at the bigger picture and reset one’s priorities.
  5. Engage. This is where the rubber hits the road and you act on all those next actions.

As David Allen says, there’s really three kinds of work: the work we plan to do (the stuff that is on our to-do lists), the work that shows up (emails, bills, etc.), and the work we do to define our work. After MIT I was fantastic at doing work that shows up, but not so fantastic at doing the work I’d planned to do and I’d never really learned to do the work to define my work at all. My next actions had always been decided by due dates and professors.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve been increasingly thorough in implementing David Allen’s system, I can tell you that being able to take control of defining the work you do is one of the most powerful systems I know for making your dreams come true.

Suddenly I’m finding time to write because my lists keep me accountable and they help me understand everything else I might also need to be doing so that I know that if I sit down to write for 30 minutes or an hour on a Tuesday that I’m not suddenly going to find Wednesday morning I don’t have any food for breakfast. And it turns out simultaneous accountability, security, and a deep honoring of my priorities are just the things I need to make my dreams (and this book) come true.

Now it’s your turn! What tools do you use to make your dreams come true? What systems support you in your life? Let me know in the comments 🙂