Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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Your Feelings Don’t Get A Vote

I know what I am supposed to do. I also know what I shouldn’t do. It’s as clear as black or white and yet, there is a struggle in my choice to do the right thing. Why is that?

According to Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, that struggle comes from the resistance that lies inside of you. As Pressfield put it:

It’s not writing that’s the hard part. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Resistance comes in many forms and its goal is to win small battles. Resistance understands that the more you give in, the stronger it gets. So, the snooze button helps resistance gain an immediate victory. It plays into the soreness you are feeling so you think it’s a good idea to skip the workout. It’ll tell you that you are too hungry right now and that it’s best if you start your work an hour or two later, once you’ve eaten something. Knowing full well that in a couple hours, it’ll come up with another way to procrastinate. It’ll pick at that negative voice in you that tells you that you’re not good enough or that what you are doing isn’t worth the trouble.

A simple way of understanding when resistance might show its ugly little head is:

Any act that rejects immediate gratification for long term growth, health or integrity.

What makes resistance a hard enemy is that it is self-generated. It comes from within. Also, it can never really be beaten. It can only be overcome for that day and then, the next day it is another battle with that inside voice.

If you don’t understand resistance, you can be easily manipulated. If you don’t know who the enemy is and cannot see the signs of the enemy then how can you expect to win? To be free?

The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.

Resistance can be that master. It can run your life and ruin it. This might not be in the usual sense, for you can still live a good life with Resistance but you will never be able to live the life you wish to live if your actions are dictated by Resistance. So, in this sense, ones life being ruined does not come from financial bankruptcy or poor relationships and things of that nature but rather, this understanding in you that you caved in to the struggle and hardship that comes with aiming at the highest possible life for yourself and that you settled for some worse version of yourself.

Finding the enemy is half the battle, the other half is actually beating it. One way to fight resistance is to change your perspective on it.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

In this manner, you can gauge the authenticity of your action if you feel this need to not do it. To delay the action. To do what is opposite and to take the easy path. All of this can bring clarity to your mind for you know that you are on the right path when there is a great deal of Resistance in you. So, you can be thankful for that voice inside of you.

Another way to do combat resistance is by controlling your mind.

This is where, the former Navy Seal Commander, Jocko Willink’s advice on mind control matters. For Jocko, mind control means controlling ones own thoughts and impulses rather than that of someone else’s, as it’s traditionally understood. You can control your mind and fight resistance in a simple way: just don’t give resistance a vote.

You have control over your mind. You just have to assert it. You have to decide that you are going to be in control, that you are going to do what YOU want to do. Weakness doesn’t get a vote. Laziness doesn’t get a vote. Sadness doesn’t get a vote. Frustration doesn’t get a vote. Negativity DOESN’T GET A VOTE! Your temper doesn’t get a vote. So next time you are feeling weak or lazy or soft or emotional, tell those feelings they don’t get a vote.

 

 

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Reflections on Routines and Scheduling

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey sets out to demonstrate the importance of small daily activities which can add up together to fulfill one’s vision.

I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself and vice versa.

Positive habits which are a result of a good routine can allow one to perform tasks to the best of their abilities. Rather than having to force yourself, trying to make up for wasted time, a routine allows designated time for each task where one can chip away at their craft, slowly improving, getting closer to their goals.

One’s daily routine is also a choice or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

The book is filled with many lessons. Each individual mentioned in the book has their own routine and their own reason for needing a routine. However, an underlying theme that is present is that many view their routine as a necessary part of their work. Meaning that the routine aids their craft. It allows them to focus, stay disciplined and complete projects.

From the many lessons, the following are a handful that I found useful. Later on, I will do a follow-up post for other lessons.

A lesson from Mozart: Find the pocket of time that works for you and stick to it, without making any excuses. This lesson is drawn from the fact that Mozart was a busy man. He was wanted by many people, his time was limited and so, he would wake up early and compose and then compose for a little while before going to bed. Making time for his craft, rather than excuses.

A lesson from Voltaire: Have a pocket of concentrated work, followed by a break, then more concentrated work, break and so on. Simply stating, Voltaire divided his day into small portions which allowed him to focus on his tasks and then get quick relief in the form of meeting someone, eating snacks, drinking coffee before returning to his work for another period of effort. Such a routine is manageable.

A lesson from Thomas Mann: First, get the most essential work done. For Mann, he would write from nine to noon. In this period of time, no one was allowed to call him, disturb him or contact him. Having finished the most important work by noon, one can then continue the momentum of positive action and flow throughout the rest of the day.

A lesson from Haruki Murakami: Do not deviate from your established routine. When working on a novel, Marukami’s day started at 4 am and ended at 9 pm. The day was filled with writing, which he did first thing in the morning and then he went running, swimming and spent time with his wife. Essentially repeating the same day over and over, one comes to build their focus and endurance and most importantly, the work gets done.

A lesson from Samuel Johnson: You’re not the only one who falls off the path and gives into laziness. As Johnson writes:

“My reigning sin, to which perhaps many others are appendant, is waste of time, and general sluggishness,” he wrote in his diary, and he told Boswell that “idleness is a disease which must be combated.” Yet, he added, he was temperamentally ill-equipped for the battle: “I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.”

It may be that you find it hard to stick to a routine. Chances are you’re not the only one. Artists throughout time have failed, recalibrated, adjusted their routines, shifted to working in the morning, or in the evening, and then failed again but that does not matter. Never accepting the failure is more important, for even if you are unable to stick with a particular routine, you can still get back on the path easier once you have fallen off.

Routines then allow one to see what the path looks like and what you should be doing, how you should be acting, rather than being blind, trying to navigate through this world.

 

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Reflections On Productivity

Laziness and procrastination often come in my way of having a productive day. Having spent years honing these two terrible habits, now I’ve become good at the things I don’t want to be good at. The worst thing is that when I am being lazy or procrastinating, I am well aware of what I should be doing and so, these habits just produce feelings of guilt and shame after having failed to do the right thing. The next day, those feelings of guilt may rule my action and make me stay on the proper path but then the day after, it is back again, fighting these habits, it seems to be an endless struggle if one agrees with Steven Pressfield and his thoughts on Resistance. Which I do and so, this understanding makes the feeling of guilt even worse, for I knowingly give into resistance.

However, there are good days, many of them and those good days are a product of two things. Scheduling the day and following my routine. I work best when I am less “free”. By that I mean, if I know exactly what I need to do at each hour of the day from waking to when I go to sleep, this includes resting, then, I am more likely to follow through with my schedule. In his book, Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins issues ten challenges to improve one’s own life through your own actions. One of the challenges is to start scheduling your entire day so you can realize how much time you really have, how much time you actually waste and how you can always find time to do the things you want to do. This has been incredibly helpful. Goggins suggests starting this process by taking small steps. This is true with most things. First, simply block out the time that is dedicated to priority items, such as work or school. Once that is scheduled in, one can see what time periods are “empty”. Pockets of time prior to or after the priority items. The second step is then to fill out these “empty” spots with things that you want to do. Goggins says to start simply by scheduling a 20-minute block of time dedicated to a specific want, where you are completely focused on that want for that period of time. Over time, that block can grow and change and each night, you schedule your next day in several blocks of time and one comes to an understanding of how much time they really have and how best to use it.

Scheduling has helped with my procrastination. If I was “free”, meaning I simply had a checklist of things I wanted to do today, I often found myself wasting the day and then trying to cram in my checklist in the evening when I’m tired and lazy. Such a combination often resulted in failure. However, by starting early in the morning and making use of my day, evenings can be more relaxing and I can be at ease, having done the things I wanted to do.

Laziness is still an issue. Which is why a routine is so important. Laziness can be countered by being almost in a robotic state, where one can dial in and focus on their daily routine and start to act without allowing the mind to interfere. Of course, this doesn’t work every day. Resistance wins every now and then but most of the days, I am able to overcome my impulse to do nothing and follow my routine.

Routine and schedule also have an additional benefit. Simply, you can see what you were supposed to do today. If you fail, you can see what you failed at and you can pinpoint the exact part of your routine or schedule where you got off the path. You can also remember the train of thought that made you get off. Reflecting on such things, you can do better next time, see the warning signs coming, know the moment of weakness is approaching and that resistance is fighting back. Here, by saying disciplined, tuning out the mind, and following your routine, you can win the day.