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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.

 

How to know when you’re ready to leap

I’ve been thinking about “taking the leap” a lot lately as I’m considering what comes next for me. I’m writing a book right now, and writing this book feels like a fitting end to this chapter of my life — a chapter defined by academics and MIT and growing up, a chapter defined by becoming the person I am today: a person who blogs and reads and writes, one who is writing a book.

When you start writing a book it’s impossible not to think about publication.

It’s impossible to put words down on the page and not wonder about the people who might one day pick up those pages and read those words. It’s impossible not to wonder what will they think? will they like these words I have written? how will they judge me?

The question I keep coming back to is: how will I know when I’m ready?

How will I know when I’m ready to leap, to dare to be seen, to just freaking do it already? Because I’ve been waffling a long time, one foot in science, one foot in poetry, one foot in some nebulous future I can’t even imagine — and I can’t help but worry over the thoughts, the fears that keep holding me back.

It’s easy to start writing a book full of the feeling that writing your book is somehow “safe” because probably no one will ever read it anyways. But as I’ve continued working on mine I’ve realized the most important thing: I’ve realized that I don’t want my book to be just words that linger on my digital desk. I want, some day, to share them with the world. And sharing my book with the world will require an unimaginable leap of faith.

So I wanted to boil it down today, because it occurs to me that the question of when will I be ready to leap? can be put like this: Will I regret not doing it more than I would regret trying and failing? I think that’s the only question I need to know the answer to. And, as I commit ever more words to the page on this book, the answer to that question is rapidly becoming yes!

The more I write, the more I invest in this book, the more I begin to feel that I can’t back out now — I’m already in.

I’ve got some 80 (double-spaced) pages tucked away on my hard drive these days and with each page I feel a little like I’m deepening my own grave — because very, very soon I know I’ll have reached the point from which there is no turning back. The point at which the cost of quitting is higher than the cost of failing — because there comes a point beyond which the most important thing is that you really tried.

And I’m almost to that point with my book. I’m almost past the point of no return.

If there’s something you’re dreaming of but can’t quite dare to do in your life, here are five tips for getting to the point of no return on your project:

  1. Start small. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. Start small. Start so small it feels stupid. Write one paragraph or one scene. Write for 20 mins. If 20 minutes feels like too much, then write for 10 or maybe even 5. Start so small it feels easy. (Start so small you’d feel worse about not doing it because it’s so ridiculously easy.)
  2. Grow slowly. Celebrate your first paragraph or page or chapter but don’t overdo it. Don’t finish your first 20 minutes and then binge on a four hour tear. This is how you achieve burn out. Instead, when your 20 mins are up, STOP. Stop while you’re still excited, because that way you’ll be looking forward to 20 more minutes tomorrow.
  3. A timer is your friend. I resisted the timer so much when I first started writing, but now I don’t really know what I’d do without one. I set timers for everything. Pick one that doesn’t make you jump when it goes off. Pick one that goes off gently. And then set gentle, sacred boundaries around your time.
  4. Don’t over think it. The middle is the most dangerous part. The moment where you’re almost to the point of no return. The moment when it is your absolute last chance, the last moment in which it might still be ok if you fail, if you quit, if you cop out on your dreams. I just didn’t have it in me, I couldn’t do it, I guess it wasn’t for me. The excuses are already piling up in your head and this is the moment when you need to stop thinking. You need to just keep setting your timer and do it.
  5. You win. Really. Because here’s the thing — even if my book never gets published, even if no one ever reads it, even if people do read it and they hate it, or me — whatever might happen I win if I tried. I win if I put my life on the line, if I took a risk, a plunge, if I dared to do different, to be different. I win if I dared to expand until I was as big or bigger than my dreams — even if I never achieve exactly the dreams I set out to achieve.

If you’re struggling with taking the leap in your own life, here’s some related reading:

Now, it’s your turn! Do you have a project you’ve been dreaming about getting started on? If so, what’s been stopping you from taking the leap? Let me know in the comments!

 

Does writing have to be hard?

Here’s the question that’s been plaguing me ever since I started working on a book a few months back: does writing have to be hard?

I desperately wanted the answer to this question to be no, of course not. But everywhere I looked I seemed to find authors bemoaning the agony of their fates as they birthed books into the world — a process often likened to a woman’s labor in childbirth. (More than a little melodramatic, no?)

And yet, as I committed to writing my book and got to work it seemed that every sentence was a struggle. I labored over every word. I worried that I had somehow managed to bungle the book before I had even really managed to start. I wrote the beginning over and over again — never really satisfied with my efforts, always feeling like somehow I’d already missed the mark.

I’m two months in now and I’m no longer struggling as much to write.

Which isn’t to say that my writing is always easy, but it’s no longer always hard.

There’s a lot of narrative among writers that suggests the writing process must be hard if the work is to be good. If you don’t struggle over each story and labor intensely over every word, then somehow your writing will never be truly great.

It’s a narrative that has been perpetuated by many unhappy writers — the myth of the tortured artist is alive and well in many artistic fields today. But personally, I think it’s just that: a myth.

For the past couple of months, as I’ve dived into the writing this book, I’ve been reaching for a new goal: I want my writing to feel effortless. I want my writing to feel joyful and fun and easy. I want the words to flow from my fingertips with grace.

Because this is the real truth: writing a book is a lot of work.

But I think that the work doesn’t have to be hard.

What if, instead, your writing could be joyful?

As I’ve embarked on this book-writing journey I keep remembering how I used to write when I was a little girl. Like many writers, I started writing young. I wrote my first stories in elementary school and by age 12 or so I had written the first hundred pages of my very first (and still unfinished) book.

When I was 12 writing was easy. And more than that — writing was fun. I delighted in dreaming up worlds and characters for my stories and once I had them dreamed up the words seemed to flow from me.

When I was 12 I didn’t struggle so much with self-censorship — that dreaded inner critic that we writers like to spend so much of our time talking about. I didn’t worry about writer’s block — writing ideas were plentiful. I never worried about finding a “great” one, I just sat down, stared at the blank page, and then charged forward with the first idea that popped into my head.

When I was 12 my writing wasn’t great. I’ve been back and re-read the beginning of that book I started writing in middle school and it’s cringe-worthy in places. And, yes, when I was 12 I wrote a lot of crummy stories that had faulty plots and fragile characters — stories that didn’t hold together very well on the page.

But among those failures are nuggets of gold. Poems I wrote not long after that, at age 14 or 15, that really do hold up. Stories that start to catch my attention, to draw me in as I look back at them again, more than a decade later.

Among the wealth of garbage, I also managed to write some things that were unexpectedly good.

I’ve made it my goal to reclaim joy in my writing, and I’m doing it with play.

As adults in America (and this is especially true for women) we don’t play. I’ve been reading Brigid Schulte’s fantastic book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and it’s a fascinating portrait of leisure time for parents (mostly focused on mothers) in American families. But the chapter I’m reading right now is all about the absence (and huge importance) of play.

I think that play is the secret to falling back in love with your writing.

When we talk about writer’s block or the inner critic what we mean is that we’re letting our fear get in the way of the words. Writer’s block is not a state of having nothing to write about — it’s a state of fear that none of those ideas are “good enough” to be worthy of writing down. Writer’s block is an existential crises, not a literal one — because story ideas are everywhere.

There are lots of articles about “20 ways you can beat writer’s block”. But I think the real truth is that you only need one. You need to play.

What if writing was a game? What if your writing was where you went to play?

When I was 12 and I wrote, my writing was a game. It was a game of dreaming up ideas and putting them down on paper and seeing what happened. It was a game of experimentation and getting messy.

Most importantly, when I was 12, my writing was a game at which it was ok to fail. It was a game I always got to keep on playing — even if the story in question turned out badly.

As an adult, I’m finding that the same thing is true. If it treat my writing like a game the words pour out and I don’t worry about them. The story ideas come and I don’t worry about whether or not they’re good enough — I just start writing them and see if they turn into something interesting. (And if they don’t, no big deal, I just move onto the next one).

This new approach has been invaluable. I’ve stopped worrying about finding the “right” beginning for my book. I’ve stopped worrying about whether the scenes I’m writing are the “right” scenes — if they are the ones that will ultimately tell the story.

I’ve stopped worrying. And in exchange the scenes pour out of me easily, effortlessly, and not always in order. The words come out rapidly, joyfully, and with a surprisingly lyric grace that is more artful than anything I could have dared to achieve with a more painstaking approach.

Most of all, for the very first time since I was 12, I feel like my writing has become prolific. Free of worry about doing the writing “right”, I’m finding that the words come at the speed of thought and the pages have been stacking up at a rate I can hardly dare to trust.

If it keeps going like this I might even have to rethink my position on participating in NaNoWriMo — because maybe, for the first time, I’ve finally unlocked the secret.

After all, I just wrote more than 1,000 words of this blog post in 30 minutes. At that rate NaNoWriMo can be achieved in less than an hour of writing each day.

Of course, many of these words will fall to the floor as I go back and revise and tighten up my thoughts and turn this post into something someone else (you!) might want to read.

But I think it’s an excellent example of the point I’m making.

Your writing need only be as hard as you want it to be. And if you want to write with ease, I strongly encourage you to try thinking of your writing as a care-free act of play! 🙂

 

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.

The Paradox of Publishing in Literary Magazines

The accumulation of rejection letters from publishing houses and literary magazines is an infamous rite of passage for authors. The writing world is full of stories of heartbreak, stories of quitting, and stories of wearing rejections proudly like a badge of courage. As I myself have recently started collecting rejections, I’ve been giving some thought to their implications on our writing.

In the past few months, I’ve started submitting my writing to literary magazines with nothing but rejections to show for it so far (admittedly, my sample size is small). But one of the magazines from which I’ve recently been rejected indicated in their letter that they had accepted work from only 2% of authors who submitted work for that issue.

A 2% acceptance rate is a number that stops me in my tracks.

Just to put a 2% acceptance rate in context, the year I was accepted to MIT (2008) they had an acceptance rate of 11.9%. And with a 12% acceptance rate, I considered myself extremely fortunate to have been accepted to MIT.

Getting submitted to a literary magazine is an order of magnitude more difficult than getting accepted to MIT.

Well ok, these days the MIT acceptance rate is down to 8%, but still.

And unlike MIT, where qualifications are at least more-or-less based on measurable achievements and performance (grades, courses, standardized tests, extracurricular engagement, etc.), literary magazines are in the business of grading art and art is unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) a matter of not just quality but also of taste. Which means that as authors our work is judged not merely on merit, but on the vagaries and whims of editorial taste.

I think we can learn a couple of things from this staggering statistic:

1. No really, do your research.

Editors often like to tell writers to read the magazine before they submit. Because acceptance rates are so small it’s very important that the submitted pieces actually be a good match to the tastes of the editors in charge of the publication.

If you submit a piece to a journal that doesn’t fit the “ethos” of the journal, your chances of acceptance are less than zero. You’re really just wasting everyone’s time.

2. If you don’t feel like doing research, submit everywhere.

This is the shotgun approach and I’m naturally not inclined to this sort of approach because it’s so inefficient — but it might also be your best bet if you just want to get published and don’t particularly care where. After all, if a literary magazine has a 2% acceptance rate and you submit your piece to 100 qualified markets you’re likely to get two acceptances.

There are however a few problems with this approach: there may not be one hundred qualified markets for your piece (likely there aren’t) and you have to do all the overhead of finding the markets, writing cover letters, etc. for each submission.

3. Submitting to literary journals might not be worth your time.

I don’t really know the answer to this because I haven’t been published in a literary magazine, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suppose that 90% of literary magazines have a very small readership and that those that do have a significant readership are extremely hard to get in to (of order 1-2% acceptance).

Because of this, it may simply not be worth your time to polish and submit pieces for publication in literary magazines. If your goal is simply to get your words in front of an audience you may do better with a more grassroots approach utilizing platforms with a lower barrier to entry.

4. Don’t take your rejections personally.

With such low acceptance rates, a rejection really has no bearing on the quality of your submission. Significantly more submissions were qualified for acceptance than were actually accepted for any issue.

This means that your piece was most likely rejected on grounds other than merit and you shouldn’t feel disheartened by your rejections.

Which all adds up to what, exactly?

Here’s what I’ve concluded for myself, (but feel free to draw your own conclusions!).

Literary magazines and story contests are an inefficient way of building a platform for fiction writers.

I think there are lots of free ways to get your words in front of readers with a much lower barrier to entry than literary magazines (places like Wattpad or Medium.com, using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, etc.). Although, with that said, I have no actual experience with how effective these platforms are so please correct me if I’m wrong.

I think that submitting to literary magazines is kind of fun

I particularly like writing pieces for magazines running themed issues! Because I think it’s fun, I will likely keep submitting work at the rate of a piece every few weeks. I don’t expect to see any positive result from this for at least the first year, and I don’t think it’s a great use of my time except that once those pieces have been rejected I can take them elsewhere: I can publish them on my own site or on another platform.

I won’t be taking the shotgun approach to literary magazine submission.

I hate researching markets and forever rewriting form cover letters and I would derive no joy from the process. The shotgun approach might yield results faster but I wouldn’t enjoy the process, so I’m not going to do it.

I think the only real argument for submitting to literary magazines at all is that it grows your credibility as a writer.

And growing your credibility as a writer is awesome — just don’t count on literary magazines as your primary route to platform building.

 

What do you think? Do you submit your work to literary journals? What strategies have you found most effective for building a platform? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Is resistance ruling your life?

How are you living your “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver)? Do you struggle to do the things you want to do? Do you feel like you’re four steps behind where you want to be? Do you feel like you work and work and work but that your work never gets you anywhere you want to be?

This is exactly how I have felt for the past two or three years. Ever since I graduated from college I’ve been stuck in a rut that I know isn’t where I want to be, but from which I seem unable to free myself. It was a state of affairs that left me feeling frustrated and baffled and kept me from living my best life. Until recently, that is, when I read this article by Martha Beck, in which she writes:

“As every life coach knows, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. The same thoughts… torture me when I’m writing, emailing, even sleeping. I should be going faster, getting somewhere. I should have more to show for this. I shouldn’t have to double back, to revisit old emotional issues, to wipe the same damn kitchen counter every day. These thoughts burble along just under the surface of my consciousness every day. They make me slightly anxious—okay, some days irrationally terrified—and lend a driven quality to moments when I could be relaxed and present.” [[Emphasis mine.]]

And, you guys, it was like a thunderclap in my head as, with a whooshing sound, I realized something incredibly profound:

I do everything in my life with resistance.

Every single thing I do I treat as though it’s a struggle. Getting out of bed in the morning is a drag. Making my lunch is a drag. My day job — a double drag.

By the time I get home at night I’m so tired from dragging myself around all day that the things I actually wanted to do with my evening turn out to be… you guessed it, a drag!

Because my chosen after work activities (like my writing!) felt like a drag, I would often avoid them. And then I would feel terrible guilt for having avoided doing the things I was “supposed to” do. (Even if they only person who had decided I was “supposed to” do them was myself.)

But what if it didn’t have to be like that?

What if your life could be effortless and joyful instead of a drag?

What if you could make your life effortless simply by choosing to stop resisting what is? These questions have been plaguing me for the better part of a week  — and I have to tell you, the results so far have been nothing short of amazing. Already my life feels lighter and more joyful. Already I am beginning to find space to breathe for what seems like the first time in years (decades even).

I’m finding myself sitting down to happily do tasks that I have resisted for years. Suddenly my writing practice, which I have struggled to grow into anything robust, feels almost effortless.

I used to fall into a trap where I knew I wanted to write, at least in theory. But whenever I had the time to write I would find myself doing something else — anything else.

If you find yourself struggling to achieve your goals, I invite you to ask yourself this question:

What are you really resisting?

Because what I now realize is that I was resisting becoming the person I really want to be.

Somewhere deep down in my lizard-brain I was still struggling to hold onto my vision of myself as I am/was: the good student, the scientist, the professional. I wasn’t allowing myself to set aside those old dreams in order to step fully into the person I am interested in becoming: the adventurer, the poet, the writer.

So if your dreams seem continually out of reach, or you’re always struggling but never really satisfied with your success, I invite you to question what it is you’re actually struggling against.

Because if you are like me, you might just find that you’ve been struggling against yourself.

And the only thing I know for sure is that that is a battle we’ll never manage to win.

 

I’d love to hear from you! What are you struggling with in your life? What seems to be holding you back? What is it that keeps getting in your way?

Let me know in the comments below!