I’m one of those people who wants to do a million things. I want to publish dozens of novels. I want to perfect my artistic style and sell some prints. I want to master all the songs from A Very Potter Musical on my ukulele. I want to read several books a week and I try to improve my yoga technique through practice as often as possible. Work, video games, family and friends not withstanding, it’s hard to find the time in the day, but more importantly, the willpower to continually work hard.
Anyone who has ever written a novel will tell you it’s hard work. I’ve been toiling over one series on and off since June 2011 and have only seemingly gotten my head wrapped around it in the last two months. I’ve probably started and stopped about a dozen other novel type projects in this time, and I’ve certainly cultivated a ton of new hobbies such as hula hooping, watercolor painting, clay charm creation, and ukulele. Suffice it to say, I struggle with priorities and time management. For instance, I have a great love of Youtube, which is where you come in, dear reader.
Fight Mediocrity is a spectacular youtube channel which breaks down the concepts in life altering books. You are probably wondering what the hell that means, to which I say, watch this. It’s five minutes long. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Alright. Maybe you’re forging ahead with me, but I promise that video is worth your time. Regardless, in this weeks episode, the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney was discussed, and the overall take away is something everyone needs to here, though this rings especially true for those in the arts.
1. You have a FINITE amount of willpower.
2. You use the SAME stock of willpower for ALL tasks.
This means that if you start off your day with checking your email, or tackling that growing pile of laundry, you won’t have as much focus or energy for the tasks that really mean something to you and this applies to everything that you do in life. Whether you want to workout and lose weight, or learn a new language, or even write a novel. As someone who always has an enormous list of things to do, or that I want to do, I can attest to this being absolutely true. However, I have some caveats to add in from my own experience and I sincerely hope that someone finds use, motivation, or peace from them.
- Separate the things that you want to do from the things you have to do. I have to go to work tomorrow, and I have to do a load of laundry and do some dishes, but I want to flesh out an outline I’m working on, and I want to practice yoga for an hour. I’d also like to read a few hundred pages of a novel. Figure out what it is important to you. In five years, I’ll be much more grateful to have finished my first novel than to have a track record of perfect house keeping. I’ll get around to the laundry eventually, and I have to show up to work when I’m scheduled, but no one said that I can’t do what holds meaning to me before I give my energy and time to the stuff I don’t have a choice about.
- Do something that you want to do, even if only for five minutes, before 10 AM. Most of us want things that will take a while to achieve. Like a size 8 body, or fluency in a language. These kinds of goals take persistent effort over a long period of time and checking off that effort on your to do list can feel so much more powerful than the ten minutes you spent. In fact it can be the catalyst for you spending 15 minutes the next day, or coming back for more of that satisfying productivity later on in the day. In conjunction with this idea…
- Be realistic about how much you can achieve each day. You’re not going to wake up at 5 AM and master the French language by noon. You will accomplish so much more by doing a little bit each day, in bite size, doable chunks, than you will by working 8 hours at a time, once a month. Consistency is key to your success. There’s also burnout to consider because even if you do spend 8 hours a day working on something, there’s only so much that you can improve upon in a day or a week or even a month. Yes, you’ll see progress, but probably not as much as you’d like to, and by setting yourself up for (perceived) failure, it’s easy to fall off the bandwagon and fall victim to the thought that you’re efforts were meaningless.
- Say No more often. It’s really tempting to think that we can do everything and some days, it feels like we really can do everything, but that’s just not sustainable. If the choice is signing up to make something for a bake sale or attend an event and the only reason I’m tempted to say yes is because of peer pressure, or because it will endear me to someone, then I say no. I take priority. The people who care about me know that writing is close to my soul, and while I do make time for them individually, every party or diner invitation I receive from those people comes with the disclaimer; if you’re not busy being a crazy writer, join us, but we won’t be offended unless we don’t hear from you for two months. The people who support you, will understand making your dreams a priority because they have dreams of their own, and it’s often hard to justify giving yourself priority if you haven’t ever done it. They see your fight and sometimes it sparks them to take action in their own lives and that’s beautiful. In my experience, the only people who don’t understand fighting for your dreams, are the ones who are bitter, unhappy, and who’ve already lost the willpower to reach for theirs. Sad but true.
- Discover the things that reinvigorate your willpower and enthusiasm. I’ve found exercise to be a good catalyst for this, as well as reading. Often, I’ll try and write in the morning before work, and when I come home I’m stiff and grumpy and all together ready to curl up and play games with my husband or watch tv and chat. Don’t get me wrong I do those things too, but I limit how much time I give to tv and games since they aren’t my priority. I do, however, try and get on my yoga mat at night. The sooner the better, because it stretches out all those sore muscles, improves my focus and sense of calm, and each time I show up, I feel stronger, more stable, and those endorphins mix with that sense of pride and suddenly I’m ready to go achieve something else. I could write an entire book extolling the benefits of yoga but for me it’s become something that I want to do, that I truly enjoy both doing and having done, and it prompts me to work harder in other areas of my life. On the days when I’m feeling sick or exhausted or injured, reading takes the place of yoga, since exposure to these wonderful worlds and strong characters makes me want to be as strong as them, but also, as a writer, I’m totally jealous and inspired to work on my books whenever I’ve got someone else’s in my hand.
This last point of mine is probably the most important one in my routine. I am an obsessive tracker, taking stock of what I accomplish toward my goals each and every day, as well as keeping an eye after my mood, how many hours I worked, what I did for fun (whether it stole the whole day or not), what I ate, and what I’m grateful for. For the record (and not all of these goals are met every week but) I track:
How many hours I spend writing, editing, or brainstorming, and how many words resulted from that endeavor.
How many hours I spend doing yoga or meditation.
How many hours I spend practicing my sketching, inking, and watercolor technique.
How many books I read a week (the numerical goal being 2-3).
How many blog posts I write (2 per week being the goal).
(Newly added this year) How many vlogs I record and edit. (goal being 6 every 12 weeks)
All of these goals are color coded and I keep one notebook divided into three sections to track them all. The first section just has the date, how many days are left in the year, and a color coded dot to denote that I made an effort in a particular area that day. No other numerical information. No times or quantities. Not even an indicator of whether or not I finished. On average I make an effort in three areas every single day. The second section lists just the item I worked on, the time spent that day, the total time I’ve spent that year, or if the goal is not time related, than the amount I’ve accomplished. The final section is where I keep all the other information about food and work etc, and where I leave specific notes about what I worked on. Whereas in the second section (which is somewhat like a spreadsheet in the way it looks), here I won’t just say art 30 minutes. I write timed sketching practice of anatomy and movement, or edited this particular scene, left off here etc.
This might seem like a ton of time wasting work, but in actuality, it takes me about 3 hours to set up the notebook each time I fill one and about five minutes every night to record my accomplishments. Why is this useful? Well it forces me to take stock of what I did or didn’t do on a given day. It encourages me to be proud of the effort rather than lament that I only got 10 minutes worth of personal writing done that day. It allows me to prioritize better for the next day. Seeing that I worked 10 hours and still managed to read 5 chapters of a book, have a 10 minute yoga session, and write 500 words, feels great even though I try for 3,000 words or two hours of writing on days that I’m off. It’s all about setting up your day so that you have the willpower to do better. A lot of people are familiar with Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar chain for productivity where you mark an X on the calendar every day you work on your goal, and this is a lot like that. I use the first section of my notebook just to see what happened in colors and I can see those chains and endeavor not to break them. I try to read and write every day, and I rotate the other goals around as I have time.
You might be thinking, it’s great that your working toward your dreams but it sounds like there’s no time for fun, family, etc. I’ve actually found that since I track things this way, I expect to only work on three personal tasks a day, and you may have noticed that I track time, but I don’t set time frames any more. I found it to induce depression (which I’m already prone to, being bipolar) and this sense of failure, whenever I couldn’t manage to write for three hours a day and spend 30 minutes doing yoga, and draw for an hour, and read five chapters each day. You think I’m kidding but I’ve had that schedule in a planner before and I can tell you that it sucked, and it didn’t work. It makes me nuts in fact to set a numerical goal per day, rather than per week. You have absolutely no idea what kind of curve balls can get thrown at you on any given day, so you’re setting yourself up for failure, if you think that you’re going to suddenly hit the gym two hours a day every day. These kinds of goals are unsustainable and damaging to your psyche and motivation when you fail. I don’t recommend them.
Truth be told, since I only expect to work on three things, not finish them, or hit some magical number, I often find that I do more fun stuff. It’s easier to take a break and watch two episodes of something with my family, or go out for coffee with a friend, or spend an hour trolling youtube, when I’ve already spent 45 minutes writing, and I’ve read a chapter. Often, I’ll do those fun things as breaks, and find myself more relaxed and ready to get back to work on something personal an hour or two later. And by not setting those unreasonable time frame goals, I actually accomplish more than I did when I tracked my life that way. Also, it’s incredibly important to note, especially if you did watch the willpower video above, that I don’t rank all my goals on an even level. I’m not working to become a certified yoga teacher, and a professional writer, and a professional artist and a professional book reviewer. My single minded goal is to become a fantasy writer of young adult, new adult, and middle grade books; to become prolific in my creation of meaningful stories, and to inspire magic, wonder, and curiosity that will propel my readers into discovering and fighting for their own dreams. I read because it inspires me, introduces me to new concepts and information, and propels me forward. I work on becoming a better artist because drawing or painting my scenes, can sometimes help to solidify the problems I’m having with getting the scenes from my head to the page. I’d like to someday be accomplished enough to illustrate my own middle grade novel. I blog because it helps me connect with people, share ideas, and yes build up that illusive branding thing that I’m not particularly keen on, but is evidently vital to the survival of writers everywhere ( I will eventually
rant write about this topic…). I practice yoga because it calms me down, focuses my mind, and helps to keep my mood swings in check, without which I might never get to my desk to write because mental illness and depression are heady things and the bane of creators everywhere. It’s extra fun when they come on with little provocation, logic, or warning. Talk about a crimp in your best laid plans.
Not everything that I’ve said today may resonate with you and it honestly doesn’t have to. Even if you don’t agree with the way I do things, or you don’t believe these ideas will be beneficial in your life, that’s absolutely fine. Reading about how someone else does something, or accomplishes their goals, even if you don’t share ideals or ideas, prompts inner reflection. If I said something you don’t agree with, did you come up with your alternative in your own mind? Have you been wondering how to accomplish your own goals, but not given this much thought or care to it before and now a million ideas are buzzing around in your head? Have you suddenly found a new tactic that you’d like to try?
Whichever camp you find yourself in, I’ve accomplished my goal, which was to present an alternative method, and hopefully inspire someone to get their shit together and start doing whatever it is they’re meant to be doing. The great books we read, the hilarious and moving movies we watch, the advances in mind blowing tech, none of these things happen overnight. The human race is a diverse creature filled with unlimited potential. Unfortunately, too many of us never get our wings off the ground. Do you have the willpower to live your dream?
Let me know down below what you want to be doing, and if you’ve got other suggestions for how to increase willpower or improve the everyday.