Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Challenging Who We Are

I thought my theme for this year was tackling my weaknesses and gaining new skills in these areas. But the more I think about it and the more I work towards my goals, another theme is emerging: challenging who I think I am. 

Inspiration from Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Projects
Yesterday, I bought the ebook version of Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I had been wondering whether to buy it for ages, because I loved The Happiness Project and this is the sequel, but it focuses on Gretchen Rubin's home life, which is very different to mine. For a start, I have neither a husband nor kids! Two chapters in, I am loving this book and Rubin mentions something that made me stop and think: that you can find evidence for the both sides of any argument.

For example, if you say 'I'm shy' it's easy to think of evidence to support your argument. However, Rubin also discovered that it's easy to find evidence to support the opposite statement, i.e. 'I'm outgoing.' While we usually err to one trait or the other, the truth is that there are many times in our lives when  we were shy and many when we were outgoing. By choosing to 'argue the positive,' we open up more possibilities and feel better.

Fooling Ourselves
We assume we know ourselves better than anyone else, but we are also experts at fooling ourselves. We make sweeping statements about our abilities and personalities, then we scour our memories to find evidence to support them  ignoring all evidence to the contrary. There are benefits to doing this, although most are short-term (they don't call it a comfort zone for nothing), but it's also very limiting.

I'm starting to discover the reality behind my hitherto constant claim that I'm not technologically-minded. The effect of telling myself this for years was that I avoided doing anything technological unless I absolutely had to, or wanted to. I am particularly good at using Word and the internet, because I love writing, reading stuff online and shopping. I dreaded spreadsheets because I was never motivated to learn to use them. When I did a computer course at the beginning of this year, I discovered that not only did I pick things up pretty easily, but I had fun learning.

Stepping Outside Self-Imposed Limits
That I find it fun to learn new things wasn't a complete surprise, but these things were usually related to my strengths and current areas of interest. To have fun learning a different skill, one I both avoided and disliked in the past, was new. It spurred me on to try other new things  so I am now doing a Web Design course!

I've always been a geek, but never considered myself a computer geek. I thought I would find the course extremely difficult and was ready to spend hours feeling perplexed while trying to figure out what HTML is all about. But... I like it!

It challenges me, but I'm picking it up well enough to build my confidence. I won't be winning awards anytime soon, but I hope to be able to build a basic website by the end of the course. There's also a logic behind my enjoying it: websites combine design and communication, both of which have interested me since I was a kid. I wish I'd tried it years ago, but I was too busy telling myself I wasn't technogically-minded!

A Multiplicity of Possibilities
So I've been trying to challenge the assumptions I make about myself. I believe this is especially important as my mental health improves. Mental illness makes you lose yourself  in my case for several years  and it's all too easy to accept assumptions that are actually symptoms of the illness. I find myself thinking 'I'm not the type of person who can walk into a dance class on my own,' but that's purely because of my anxiety. It has nothing to do with the type of person I am. 

Challenging yourself is scary. It forces you to accept that the 'truths' you've clung to for years are nothing more than schemata you formulated at some point in your life. Maybe these schemata protected you by forcing you to stay within your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean you still need them. Challenge your limitations and see what happens  perhaps what's really scaring us is the enormity of our own potential.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Why I Disagree with Science

Okay, I think I need a disclaimer: I don't disagree with science in general (far from it!), but there is one scientifically proven piece of information that I must rally against. Evolution? The big bang? Gravity? Um, no. The theory in question is that it's better to have just one goal at a time.

Sorry if that was an anti-climax, but I'm fed up with reading that I should be limiting myself to a single goal at any given time. Here are my reasons:

1. Pursuing different goals means at least one is bound to be going well
Instead of feeling down about not progressing quickly enough in one of your endeavours, you can get a confidence boost from reminding yourself that other goals are on track  or even ahead of time.

2. Goals can be complementary
This is the case even when goals seem unrelated. Running has improved my writing. Well, not so much my writing skill, but it's given me more energy to write and the motivation to submit my work. When I was learning to drive, it helped me to focus and stay (relatively) calm when tackling my university studies. Some of the benefits of pursuing 2 goals at once are obvious, but others are surprising and may only be realised in retrospect.

3. Time is short
I'm not saying you should overload yourself with goals, but aiming to do things 'someday' often means they never get done. If a goal is important to you (which it should be), it's worth doing now  or at least in the near future. 

4. Not all goals fall into discrete categories
Sure, if your goal is to run a marathon, it is either 'done' or 'not done', but many goals are about improving your situation and are best assessed using a continuum. Mini-goals along the way may be specific enough to categorise, but they don't, in themselves, represent your actual goal.

Example: I want to earn a living from writing. Because it is a continuous goal, I will need to achieve it again and again. There are thousands of mini-goals that I need to achieve to stand a chance of achieving this goal. If I focused on just one of these goals at a time, I would never get anything else done. 

I find this type of goal easier to stick to than what I call ultimatum goals, like saying 'I'll never eat chocolate again' instead of 'I will eat more healthily'. Some goals need your total attention, but others are best tackled in conjunction with other goals and/or just generally living your life.

5. Priorities change
My approach is flexible: I'm working on all of my goals, but 2 or 3 are usually prioritised at any given time. Flexibility is important to me, because as my plans change and life gets in the way, my priorities change. My goals also need to change and adapt.

Over the past few weeks, for example, my running goals have been on the backburner due to my getting massive blisters. My career goals, though always a priority, came to the fore and I spent more time on them. In a month or two, I want to prioritise goals that involve improving my social confidence, in preparation for one of my closest friend's wedding in June.

6. Making changes inspires you to make more changes
Getting fitter makes me want to eat more healthily. Learning that spreadsheets are nothing to be scared of has given me the motivation to improve my skills in other areas that intimidate me. Improving my mental health so that I feel less depressed means I want to work on my anxiety and get out more. 

Small changes accumulate and lead to you achieving more goals and creating new ones  with relatively little effort. Limiting yourself to one goal also limits your ability to take advantage of this momentum.

7. It can be fun
Maybe I'm just weird and this is my perfectionist streak talking, but I enjoy pursuing a variety of goals. Several years ago, I was too depressed to even make goals. For the first time in my life, I like myself and I'm proud of my achievements. That's a major buzz!

Working on multiple goals works for me, but I know this approach doesn't suit everyone. Experiment and see what works for you, whether or not it's endorsed by science. I wrote about achieving your goals last week, which details the strategies that work for me  most of which have been scientifically proven to work!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Stop Pre-Wasting Time!

I recently talked about Killing Time Thieves but today I became aware of another time thief: pre-wasting time.

I worked on a couple of projects this morning, then ran on the treadmill for 25 minutes. When I got out of the shower, I found myself thinking 'by the time I eat a late lunch and watch Neighbours, it's going to be 3:30pm. That's pretty much the whole day gone.' But wait  I don't go to bed until 10:30pm at the earliest. That's 7 hours — longer than I had been awake!

I was ready to write off the whole day before it was half over. I was pre-wasting time.

Sure, it's harder to concentrate when my parents and brother come home from work. But it also means there are other people to keep an eye on my very naughty puppy. There's no reason why I shouldn't get things done in the evenings, especially as I'm often more alert, yet I tend not to plan my work for the evenings.

Perhaps it's just laziness, but I think it's more complicated. When scheduling work, it's easier to imagine filling the long, blank spaces in your day  even with lots of things  than it is to imagine getting work done in the gap between walking the dogs and cooking dinner. Yet this time is just as valuable as time during the day,

I find it easier when I have deadlines to meet; I grab all the time I can, even if it's 10 minutes here and there. I know from experience that using chunks of time in the evening can be productive, yet I only think of using it when I'm under pressure. I could create pressure by Powering Through, but I need a longer term solution. I need to change my attitude.

Pre-wasting time can lead to more than a lost evening of work: how many of us write off goals because we think we'll never achieve them or it's too late in our lives? I used to think I was too old to go to university  at the grand old age of 22! In my defence, I was very depressed at the time. I was also very wrong.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that although life is short, there's plenty of time left. Mindfulness is a great aid for reminding yourself to live in the moment. I've been dabbling with it for a while now and saw this great post today, which has mindfulness exercises that are easy for anyone to use.

So whether you're in danger of pre-wasting your day, your week or the rest of your life — stop!

You have time and how you use it is up to you. You may not see how you can achieve your goals in the hour between the kids going to bed and the 10 o' clock news, but you can. By the way, I went to university at 24 and loved it so much that I stayed on to do my MA — and I wasn't the oldest on either of my courses. As for tonight... I have a story that needs drafting and some reading to do and some organising I'd like to complete  wish me luck!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

How to Stick with your Writing Goals (Or Any Other Goals)

Inspired by my recent post, Refresh: My Quarterly Review, I've been thinking a lot about how to achieve my goals, particularly those related to writing. How can you cope when goals change? Does a change of objective indicate failure? How can you stay motivated and committed to your goals? I don't claim to have all the answers, but this is what works for me...

1. Write down your goals and keep them where you can access them easily.

I use a notebook, but a phone or computer will also work well. The key point is that you can review your goals at frequent and regular intervals. This keeps your goals at the forefront of your mind, even when life, work and other distractions get in the way.

2. Divide and conquer.

Split your goals into mini-goals. It's essential that you do this for the first steps of your goals. It's preferable that you create mini-goals to lead you right from step one to completion. Don't worry about detours: it's important to have a map rather than nothing, even if it's not 100% accurate.

3. Embrace change!

Don't be afraid of changing your goals as you progress; just change them for the right reasons. If your original goals are no longer appropriate, it's better to jettison them than to waste time and effort trying to achieve something that's not important to you.

However, if you want to abandon a goal because it's harder than you anticipated or because you're procrastinating, remind yourself of why you chose the goal in the first place.

4. Blaze your own trail.

Choose goals that you want to achieve for your own reasons (i.e. not because everyone else has similar goals or someone said you should do it) and make adjustments as you see fit. 

Just because X famous writer self-published their first novel doesn't mean it's right for you. You may have heard that writing nonfiction is a sensible option for getting established as a writer, but if you find it soul-destroying and would rather focus on writing fiction, maybe you should  and good luck to you. 

There are plenty of mavericks who find success in their own way and there's no reason why you can't be one of them. In fact, a large proportion of successful people are successful precisely because they went off the beaten track.

5. Never strive for perfection. 

It doesn't exist and leaves you drained. Read my post Fighting Perfectionism for more on why being a perfectionist means you're constantly fighting a losing battle. Perfectionism sucks up your time and energy: you either spend too much time on unimportant things, or you're so paralyzed by perfectionism that you end up doing nothing. It's far better to focus on doing things as well as you can within a sensible time limit.

6. Make small, continuous adjustments.

I've posted about kaizen before: Kaizen in Writing and How Kaizen can Motivate Writers. It simply involves making tiny changes and making them often. These changes accumulate and turn into big changes with minimal effort.

As you review your goals and mini-goals, think of how you can adjust your actions in order to achieve them. It could be as simple as deciding to write a haiku every day (kaizen is Japanese, after all!). Once the habit becomes ingrained, you could then decide to write 20 words of a short story every day. 

These tiny pieces of writing are far better than writing nothing and you'll probably end up writing much more than you planned. Kaizen takes the pressure off, allowing you to progress without too much emotional turmoil.

7. Remember, you will fail.

Yep. And this is why failing is good. Writing involves many failures, big and small. Failing means you're trying. If this thought gets you down, read Positively Productive Writing. If a goal is important to you, keep working on it. So what if you fail hundreds, or even thousands, of times? At least you're trying  that's more than a lot of people manage.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Refresh: My Quarterly Review

I'm determined not to be one of those people whose New Year's resolutions fade into the past by springtime. That doesn't necessarily mean I will complete every resolution; priorites change over relatively short periods of time and life gets in the way. However, it means I have to take the time to review my goals every few months to ensure I'm still working towards something, whether or not I'm following my original plan.

I've completed 2 of my New Year's resolutions so far: I finished the computer courses I enrolled on and I can run for an hour (albeit very slowly). There are 29 altogether, but I'm unsure about a few of them and several are aiming to change my day-to-day habits (such as keeping a spending diary and doing yoga), so they are assessed rather than achieved. I'm working on the rest of my goals, but tend to be erratic when it comes to completing actions that count towards them...

So how am I progressing on my writing goals?

Hmmm... I have been submitting more work over the past few weeks, so should meet my aim of submitting at least 12 pieces within the next couple of months. However, I've been neglecting my novel and haven't yet finished the first draft, let alone finished the novel 'to a decent standard' as my resolution says.

Most of my writing progress has come about in ways I hadn't foreseen at the start of the year. I'm doing writing activities as volunteer work for a local non-profit and I'm trying to build a freelance career in writing nonfiction alongside my fiction. I forced myself to join LinkedIn and write a profile, which was terrifying — I'm announcing to the world that I take my writing seriously and want to be paid for writing!

Connected to this new change of direction are 2 courses for which I've just registered... I will soon be starting the first, which is on Web Design, and will be doing a 12 week Open University module called An Introduction to Bookkeeping and Accounting in May. The theory is that both courses will give me skills that will enhance my freelance writing career, plus they will be useful when applying for clerical jobs. 

Neither computer skills nor numbers come naturally to me, so both courses will be challenging. I have to remember that facing these challenges is the only way I'm going to improve my skills. In fact, a lot of my New Year's resolutions for 2014 have this theme — because facing challenges is always better than running away from your fears.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Validation Matters...

I've been published. Don't get too excited — it's a 300-word column in the local newspaper, not a book deal with a major publisher. Having said that, seeing my words on a page not printed by myself is an odd experience. It makes me think 'maybe I could be a real writer.' Whatever that means.

Someone else thinking my writing is good enough to publish (or good enough for anything other than the bin) validates that writing. It also validates my writing ambitions. It makes me feel a little more confident.

It's stupid: my writing being published doesn't mean it's better than my unpublished work. It doesn't automatically transform those 300 words into something good. Besides, there are thousands of mediocre writers whose work is published in some form. Many of them make a lot of money from terrible books. I know all of this, so why should such a negligible achievement make me feel validated?

I suppose it's evidence; one or two people, at least, think my words are worth reading. Or at least worth filling a few inches of blank paper. If one or two people think my writing is okay, perhaps more people will think it is okay. Perhaps it is worth taking the time to write and the trouble to submit work.

That's why validation matters: it gives writers the extra iota of confidence they need to keep going. So much of writing is a solitary struggle that it's good (even essential) to be reminded that it's not a waste of time. I'm pleased to be published in my local newspaper not because it's the culmination of a dream, but because it encourages me to keep pursuing my dreams.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Positively Productive Writing

I bought The Positively Productive Writer by Simon Whaley a while ago, after reading good reviews, and finally got around to reading it at the beginning of this week. I'm glad I did. If you're assuming it's full of hippy-trippy tripe about how everyone is a fantastic writer, you're wrong. Yes, it's unabashedly optimistic, but it's also realistic.

Simon Whaley provides loads of practical advice and encouragement. The book's key theme is coping with rejection: what to do instead of crying and quitting writing forever when the inevitable rejections pile up. The flip side of that is, of course, having the courage to submit work in the first place.

If you've read my recent blog posts, especially How to Be a More Assertive Writer, you will recognise how closely The Positively Productive Writer fits my current state of mind. In fact, my favourite idea in the book is similar to one I suggested in How to Be a More Assertive Writer using booster cards.

I suggested a classic CBT technique: writing your negative thoughts and more realistic responses to them on flashcards. For example: "I will never be published" and "If you never submit work, you never will be published. If you submit your writing frequently, there is a good chance you will be published because your writing is just as good as a lot of published work". 

Simon Whaley's booster cards, on the other hand, are reminders of your strengths and achievements. If you've ever had anything published - even a letter in the local newspaper - he says you must write "I am a published writer" on a card. If you write, you should write one saying "I am a writer! I am writing now!" and if you submit your work and get rejections, you should celebrate having the courage to submit by writing "I get rejections!"

So which is better?

Neither. Both sets of cards are valuable. Simon Whaley's are great for when you feel the sting of a fresh rejection or the despair of thinking you're not a "proper" writer. The negative thoughts/responses are good for those times when you're sure you will never be successful and anything you do is futile. I'm certainly going to use both sets of cards.

If you're in need of a boost, I recommend you buy The Positively Productive Writer by Simon Whaley and try his other ideas too. Or just read - it's like being given a good pep talk and a kick up the arse!