Start where you are

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that teens sure know how to complain. Or is that just mine? But one of the complaints that has struck me is this feeling that oh, if X or Y had happened, I’d be fine now, but because it didn’t, I’m not and how can I ever do (fill in the blank)? Such as, if I had gone to school in-person last year, I’d be fine this year in school, but I didn’t, so how can I possibly do well? Or if I had reviewed more for that standardized test that no one but admissions teams and college publicists care about, I wouldn’t be nervous about taking it next year? Or, if I had joined that sports team at age 4, I would be a professional now at age 16 (note: I am pretty sure I’ve read a study that says the opposite is true, but I try not to mention this because facts should not interfere with one’s need to complain). Some of these complaints include the subtext, or sometimes the direct statement, that if I the parent had forced my child to do something my child didn’t want to do (or, as in the case of in-person schooling before vaccines were available, something that seemed super risky for our family), my child would be on easy street right now. But that didn’t happen and, thus, there’s no hope. It will never happen, whatever “it” is.

To which I say, maybe so, but start where you are. No matter what you want to do, you can never control what happened before, whatever opportunities did or did not flow your way, whether you or your parents made wise choices or not, all of that is in the past, and none of it has to be an obstacle, or at least, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle if you choose not to treat it as such. Just start. So everyone around you seems to be perfect or already crossing the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Let them run their own races. You run yours. Start where you are. So you have no idea when you will get where you mean to go (wherever that is)? Okay, but you won’t get anywhere unless you start. Why do you have to know exactly where it is all going? Does anyone know, even the ones who act like they do? (Narrator whispers: No.) Just start. Nothing happens until you start. Nothing gets better until you start. You can’t even make choices — maybe there are some goals you don’t need to pursue, some actions that should not continue, but you can’t make any meaningful decision —until you start.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for goal-setting, for figuring out what you care about and why. But a lot of that doesn’t mean much if you never start. If I am going for a swim, I may have to decide where and how far to swim, but I won’t get anywhere until I jump in the water.

Start where you are. Build from there. Learn from the past, sure. Dream about the future. Make the best decisions you can based on what you know in the moment. But most of all, focus on the small steps that lie before you now. Take one step. Take another. You may be surprised by what comes next.

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

When do we get to rest on our laurels?

I admit, I tend to be cranky about the phrase “don’t rest on your laurels,” because it invariably accompanies praise for some accomplishment. That is, instead of allowing anyone to feel good about what they have accomplished, there is this sense that effective leaders should nag people to never relax, never stop pushing, never pause to take a breath because if you slow down even a moment, you must be an abject failure.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the ongoing pursuit of excellence—the joy of identifying and pursuing difficult goals. And I get that organizations must find ways to thrive that typically involve movement, not stasis. But ffs (pardon my initials) when do we get to rest on our laurels? Can’t there be any moment to say, hey, that was great, I don’t suck?

No, I think the answer is no.

At least, no matter what we accomplish, no matter in what ways we prove ourselves, we can never expect a respite. We will be prodded and challenged no matter what we are doing, whether we strive to do more or take a brief pause. So, IMHO go ahead and rest on your laurels whenever you choose, including the most modest wins. Sure, eventually start over, get back on the horse, etcetera etcetera. But sometimes, just say, hey, whatever. I’m taking a moment.

Prime time

On a day when I have complete control over my time, which does not happen as often as I wish, I am most focused, most inspired, and most productive around 9 and 10 am in the morning.

I can surprise myself and channel my inner busy bee at other times in the day, but really, by afternoon, I’m much more in an eat-chocolate-and-wish-for-a-nap kind of mood.

I have several important projects on my plate this month, so I find myself wishing there was such thing as a day full of 9 am’s—me at my prime, knocking out the words, drinking coffee (hmm, there may be a correlation, coffee in the afternoon is never worth it, sigh), living the dream.

Perhaps I can’t have that, but I can still try to channel that 9 am energy every hour–that feeling that the entire day lies before me, and I am off to a good start.

And perhaps keep the Ghiradeli out of sight.


How I make time to write

Trying to find time to write is one of the main ways I learned time management, which I went on to teach to college students for over twenty years. I thought I might share some of the strategies that helped me most, with the YMMV caveat (Your Mileage May Vary, that is, your experiences may be different).

1. Write every day. If possible, save one specific time each day to write. Or vow to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes every day.

The power of daily practice amazes me. When I write every day, I find myself solving problems in between writing sessions; little ideas or insights appear as if by magic as I do random activities such as washing the laundry or picking up the kids from school. If I spend time with a writing project every day, the project itself begins to marinate, and even the time in between writing becomes fruitful.

I have also noticed that writing each day makes it easier for me to write.

Note: In order for me to implement this habit, I have to accept that my daily writing results may be meager. On some days, I might put in ten minutes just to honor the commitment. Or I might write for a decent amount of time, but I accept that what I am writing is mostly a warm-up rather than anything worth saving.

2. Identify then eliminate/avoid time wasters.

This was the most helpful strategy for me. A time waster is any activity that takes up time that I did not mean to spend in that way at that moment or that I did not mean to spend as much time doing.

My best example is when I first started teaching full-time, and I identified 8 pm each evening as my “time to write.” Weeks passed. “Why am I not writing?” I asked myself. I replayed my evenings in my mind and saw myself turning on the TV just around 8 pm “for a minute.” The next thing I knew, hours had passed.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

A miracle.

3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t try to get the perfect mood or atmosphere for writing. Just write.

I admit I love to indulge myself in writerly treats—a beautiful journal, a cool writing app, a well-stocked desk. But I don’t need any of these things to write. I don’t even need to be in the mood to write. Once I learned that, I spent far more time writing.

4. Identify a portable system to capture ideas on the go. A scrap of paper works as well as a high tech gizmo. Just make sure you have it with you at all times.

Some of my best ideas come to me when I am far from my writing tools. It has been difficult to make myself record these ideas as they arise because I am so sure I will remember that great idea later. Spoiler alert: I don’t/I won’t. So now I always have something with me to capture ideas, which is also a way to sneak in more writing time without even realizing it.

Reframe your words to boost success

In my work with college students, I have become a fan of Carol Dweck’s concept of the Growth Mindset. Here’s a youtube video on the subject that I quite like.

When all is going well, it may not matter how you tackle your endeavors–a fixed mindset won’t necessarily get in your way. When you face setbacks, however, adopting a growth mindset may increase your ability to overcome them… or at least feel better in the face of them.

One strategy for cultivating this mindset is to change the way you speak of your challenges. Here are a few examples:

Fixed Mindset Language: I am not good at Chemistry, and the professors cover too much material too quickly.

Note–the above statement may be, more or less, factually true. You may not have experienced success when working on Chemistry content, and your faculty may indeed move very quickly. Yet this statement would inspire me to do… very little. It feels as if there is no reason to try when I speak of my challenge in this way.

Here’s the same factual information reframed:

Growth Mindset Language: This Chemistry class is very challenging for me *right now*, therefore I will need to approach this situation differently. I need to dedicate more time every day to working with the material, I will seek out tutoring or study groups, I will visit my professor’s office hours as frequently as I can, I will find extra review materials in the library and online, and I will ask for advice from students and faculty who enjoy Chemistry.

Same facts. Different way of looking at this challenge. Note the phrase *right now*–growth mindset means that we can imagine a future in which there is change.

Sometimes, students run into setbacks because of huge challenges–health issues, family crises, financial woes. Those are the kinds of challenges that can be very difficult to overcome. Yet even when the challenges are significant, and the near future does not look very hopeful, the language you embrace can affect your ability to move forward.

Fixed Mindset version: There’s no way to succeed under these circumstances.

This is an understandable perspective. Indeed, this may be 99% factual. But this language will again inspire me to give up rather than move forward.

Here’s a growth mindset version: I am managing some severe challenges, so I need to be strategic in prioritizing my time and connecting to resources.

This is factually true, and indeed, I did not make any overly optimistic claims about how soon the challenges will be overcome. But I emphasized actions that I can/should take that make sense given the challenges I face. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am focusing on what I can do rather than on what I cannot.


New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a new year, and as those who know me might predict, New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday because of the chance to make resolutions. I actually set goals as often as every day, every week, and/or every month, so of course I like having one more reason to resolve to do something. I am drawn to the potential of the blank slate that lies ahead. Even though people like my husband are often eager to tell me that no one ever keeps New Year’s resolutions or similarly dire insights, I believe it is never wrong to hope or to resolve. I can’t control how it all will unfold, and I may have to adapt or start over, or even fall down and get up again more than I would like. Yet how inspiring to imagine something better and move towards it.

I have taken a bit longer this year to sort out my resolutions due to some kind of sinus infection, but I think I am ready to make a few commitments.

1. I have a list of several books that it’s high time I read, and I will tackle them this year (and buy them, if possible, from our local bookstore). If I love them, I will share more on here later.

2. I have finished the (I lost count)th revision of my novel set during the 1898 Wilmington race massacre, and I have begun seeking feedback from readers. While I work through that process, I will use the time to research and reflect on how I might seek to publish this book.

3. I will post on this blog once a week. Or maybe an average of once a week, since some weeks will be busier and/or offer more inspiration for blogging.

4. I will post on social media once a week, too. I have had such mixed feelings about social media due to the terrible ways our data is being used and our politics have been subverted. But this article was helpful among others that discuss ideas for regulation, something desperately needed even though, like all solutions, it may take time, tweaks, and political courage. Sigh. I also saw a similar sentiment on Hasan Minhaj’s fabulous Patriot Act, which I just now have started to watch. Our checking out of social media won’t change the harmful effect it is having. So we need to explore ways to reclaim it.

5. I will work a few days a week on my YA/SF series. I seem to have lots of choices of next steps for that project, so it may be a bit like tending a garden, just checking in to see what deserves attention right now.

6. My health and fitness goals will chug along as usual. The general theme is to exercise a bit more and eat a little less. Piece of cake, right?

The ride

When I was young, grocery stores often provided a mechanical cartoonish animal, sometimes a horse or a dragon, that children could ride at the cost of several quarters, perhaps for being good during the trip to the grocery store. While I don’t think I was particularly naughty, I rarely got to indulge because my parents did not like to waste money. The one or two times they did give in to my pleas, I had to agree that the ride was very short, going nowhere.

Yet I recall a child’s joy at the thought of it, the excitement of the treat, no matter how brief.

Lately this has been a metaphor for where I am in my life right now. On holidays, I am aware that more of my friends can no longer call or visit a parent. I compare notes with my friends about worries we have about various relatives. I look at my own life and circle of friends and feel the tick of time passing.

More and more, I am made aware how short this ride is, how briefly I get to enjoy the time I have with the people I love so much. I also remember as a child that I could never predict when the ride would stop. It was always a surprise, a sudden jerking halt, as if the creature had never moved at all.

When the time comes, I will beg for more quarters, for just a few more minutes.

On time.

Some friends do not approach time management as I do. I try to control time by getting in front of it, structuring it, protecting it, prioritizing it. As best as I can tell, they control time by denying its existence for as long as possible. If they arrive late to an event, it is not, as it is for me, a failure in time management but a victory—they squeezed out more time for something they’d rather do at that moment. It is not necessarily that they don’t want to do whatever else they were supposed to do, but that they love not giving in until the last minute.

It is an approach that would drive me crazy, and has occasionally driven me crazy as someone on the receiving end of it, but I admit that there is a richness to the way they approach their lives that is sometimes missing from my much more structured approach.

Hmm. Note to self. Slow down. Embrace the richness of this moment now.

Okay, my self immediately answers. As long as I won’t be late.

Music to my ears

Earlier today, I was ready to give up on most of my goals for the day. Instead of writing or working out after work, I crawled in bed for a short nap and kicked myself for not starting earlier. I had a bad feeling I was going to waste the rest of the day.

But a short nap later, I realized a quick work-out was possible. And then that work out re-energized me, and I decided I could squeeze in a short visit to see a loved one in an assisted living facility. Ran back home and convinced my husband to join me at a hastily scheduled protest in downtown, which turned out to be conveniently short so we arrived in plenty of time for my daughter’s evening orchestra concert.

As the music filled the air, I felt a delight at what happens when I actually spend time on things that matter.

Though the nap helped, too.