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  1. From “To-Do” to “Done”

    May 26, 2019 by Diane

    A writer friend wrote a poem a day during Poetry Month in April. He said, “I get an idea for a poem, write it in the evening, polish it the next morning, and then,” he brushed off his hands, “done!”

    Oh, how I envied him, getting to done.

    My problem is, I’m always doing. I’m rarely done.

    I rewrite the first page of my novel endlessly.

    I check out five books from the library, and before reading any, I check out five more. The towering stack taunts me.

    I flit from one project to another at work, and if it wasn’t for external deadlines, I’d continue to flit and polish and perfect and whatever it is I do to avoid getting things done, while my To-Do list grows longer than Rip Van Winkle’s beard.

    I need to get to DONE!

    Squirrelly thoughts

    Part of my brain thinks along these lines…

    If I finish (fill in the blank), then what? There might not be another novel in me. The book I want at the library might not be available, so I better check out everything. If I don’t do (fill in the blank) perfectly, I’ve failed.

    This is poverty mentality. It’s scarcity thinking. It’s a trap.

    Another part of my brain reminds me…

    Half-baked is better than burned.

    There will always be another book to read.

    A job that’s good enough and off your plate is preferable to a job that wears you down in your quest for perfection, which, as the saying goes, does not exist.

    And no, you don’t need to take on more than your plate can carry. The eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome results in nothing more than heartburn. No joy in that.

    Why can’t I get things done???

    I could just throw away my To-Do list. Done!

    But then I’d turn into a sloth who watches Wheel of Fortune into the wee hours, if such a feat is possible.

    It seems to me, three things are holding me back from getting to Done. See if any of these resonate with you:

    1. Lack of Time

    I mean, come on! I’ve got THINGS TO DO. Look at the list! How can I possibly get them all done?

    Well, I can’t. At least, not all at once.

    If I decided to run a marathon, and the most I’d ever run was from the couch to the refrigerator during a commercial, would I lace up my Skechers and line up at the starting block with well-seasoned athletes? Probably not. Besides, I don’t even run from the couch to the fridge, because I live in a miniature playhouse and can just reach over.

    But I can run for one minute. And if I add a minute a day, by the end of the month, provided it’s not February, I’m running 30 minutes a day. Or thirty-one, if it’s January.

    What if I applied that same logic to the dreaded To-Do list?

    Let’s say I start at 10 minutes a day. I can get a surprising amount done in 10 minutes.

    That stack of magazines? I’ll plow through them, ripping out articles I want to read, tossing the rest in the recycle bin. Done!

    I’ll read two of those articles. Done!

    I’ll edit one page of my novel. Done!

    I’ll weed out a file cabinet. Vacuum. Make salads for lunch. Draft a blog post. Done, done, done, done!

    Add a minute a day, and by the end of the month, I’m spending 30 minutes on tasks. Think of how much I can accomplish in 30 minutes! Makes the head spin, doesn’t it?

    There’s just one catch: Anyone who’s read my ramblings for any length of time knows I’m commitment-phobic. I’d sooner watch Wheel of Fortune than commit to 30 minutes on a task, because if I commit to 30 minutes of anything other than TV, I might actually get something DONE. God forbid.

    Scary thought.

    Plus, I have the squirrelly belief that I can do everything all at once to perfection.

    Talk about high expectations. No wonder I’m burned out. No wonder I can’t get started. Which brings me to hurdle number two (and three, but let’s not skip ahead):

    2. Overwhelm

    When I print out my To-Do list at work, it’s as long as one of those receipts from CVS pharmacy. My eyes glaze over. My stomach tightens into a hard ball. I have the urge to surf the net, spiral down the email rabbit hole, or cram something sugary in my mouth.

    I’ve discovered I can accomplish three tasks a day. Not fifty. Not five. Three. If I complete three tasks and have time left over, I tackle another. Three items on a To-Do list leaves plenty of white space. Room to breathe. And for an introvert like myself with limited energy to spare, breathing room is good.

    Many days, I accomplish more than three tasks. But tricking myself into focusing on three helps me overcome the feeling of overwhelm.

    What if my boss expects me to accomplish more? Well, if I work X number of hours a day, and there’s just one of me, and I need to eat and go to the bathroom X number of times during those X number of hours, the math might not add up. In which case I’ll say: “This isn’t sustainable. If you want me to be accurate, and finish the jobs you’ve assigned, something needs to go.”

    Yeah, in a perfect world.

    Some bosses are open to that kind of honesty. Luckily, mine is. If you’re not so lucky, all I can say is: pace yourself. Remember, doing more than is humanly possible isn’t sustainable in the long run. And no job is worth dying over. At the very least, don’t overload your plate on your off hours. While many organizations expect an employee to be plugged into the system 24/7, it’s my firm belief that we worker-bees need to educate the powers-that-be about what’s realistic, and what’s in the realm of: “in your dreams, bucko.”

    But I digress.

    Which three things do I choose to tackle on a given day?

    Whichever three would keep me up at night if I didn’t accomplish them. Not everything on the list is numero uno. Some are fives. Or sevens. I start with the most important, and work my way up. This applies to my task lists at work and at home.

    Sometimes, that number one item is so important, I can’t muster the energy to start. Like submitting my short story to a literary magazine. Or rewriting my novel.

    Which brings me to point three:

    3. Resistance

    In his book “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,” Steven Pressfield writes:

    “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

    Yeah. That bugger, Resistance, disguises itself as perfectionism, procrastination, laziness, fear, and whatever it is that keeps us from acting on those projects that feed our souls.

    For me, the disguise is perfectionism.

    In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard’s famous command was: “Engage.” He meant, begin. Go forth. Picard never added, “But only if you’re positive you’ll make zero mistakes.”

    No, settled in his captain’s chair, legs comfortably crossed, he commanded, “Engage.” It was outer space, fer crying out loud! He didn’t know where the ship was headed, or what lay ahead, or how he’d deal with whatever crisis occurred—and there was always a crisis. Didn’t matter. With a casual flick of his finger, Picard was ready to brave the unknown.

    Occasionally, someone on board would request, “Permission to speak freely,” which, if granted, gave the officer a free pass to say whatever was on his mind without being punished.

    What if I applied Star Trek logic to those Things I Want To Accomplish that makes Resistance sneer? With those nifty words, “Engage,” and “Permission to fail,” and “Granted,” I might actually get to “Done.”

    Wow. What a concept.

    So, for those of you who have hung in reading this 1,466-word post, my formula for getting from To-Do to Done is:

    Make your task list manageable and realistic
    Choose the three most important tasks to work on
    Do the work in a set interval of time
    Give yourself permission to fail
    When you’re done, let it be. It’s as good as it’s going to get.

    Which, in my book, is Done.


  2. Do it for the Joy

    April 28, 2019 by Diane

    I was listening to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR, and the guest was Laird Hamilton, a champion surfer who never entered a competition except as a teen when the prize was a T-shirt. But when money became involved, he lost all interest in competing.

    Laird, who spends his life doing what he loves doing, made the cover of National Geographic, became the subject of an indie film, and just released a book, LifeRider, about navigating the turbulence of life.

    When asked how he makes money as a surfer, he said he has sponsors. Paula Poundstone, one of the comedians on the panel, tried to reason that out. “You’re a guy with a surf board, and you go to the beach and there’s a wave and you surf it, and then somebody runs over and gives you a check?”

    And Laird said, “No, you ride a giant wave, somebody takes a picture, they put it on the cover of National Geographic, and then a company says they’d love to give you money, and try to get on National Geographic again.”

    The point is, the dude was just living his joy. No goal, no quest for fame or money or followers. Just doing what he was born to do.

    What were you born to do? Are you doing it?

    I love writing fiction. When I write for the joy of it, an amazing thing happens. No writer’s block. I’m learning my craft, exploring my writer’s voice, letting my subconscious loose on the playground. No expectations, no goals, just doing the thing I love.

    Enter a goal, and I freeze. My subconscious takes a nap. My writer’s voice is strained. Craft becomes something I wrestle with, rather than a game to master.

    Why not take a lesson from Laird, I tell myself. Ride the wave for the joy of it. Compete with yourself, expand your own boundaries. As the Nike ad says: Just do it.

    Here’s the thing…if we’re doing what we love, someone will notice. Unless we live in a cave without human contact, or hoard what we do so it never comes to light, someone will notice. Our joy will touch another’s soul, and that person will share it with another and so on.

    We never know what ripple may be caused by what we do. But one thing’s for certain: if we don’t do it, that ripple will never be felt. If we don’t do it, we’re cheating ourselves, our fellow humans, and our maker.

    Join me this week in doing what makes your heart sing. Then share it. Don’t check any stats, don’t see if it attracts any followers. Just do your thing and release it to the world, then do your next thing. And tell me what you’ll do, in the comments.


  3. Compassion: Lighting up the Shadows

    April 7, 2019 by Diane

    Over the past couple of weeks, I finished a short story and entered it in a contest.

    The beginnings of this story came to me one morning as I warmed up on the keyboard. It was worth exploring, so I tucked it away in a file I call Write Aheads.

    When I read the announcement for the short story contest in a local paper, I scrolled through my Write Aheads, came across this beginning, and thought it had potential.

    Hmm. Wonder where this might lead.

    It was the kind of story that revealed itself word by word. As E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    It was pure blind trust on my part, following that feeble light.

    Enter Detective Bloch

    The protagonist, I discovered, was a detective with multiple personality disorder. In the third paragraph, he contaminated the evidence at a crime scene. He wasn’t likable. His energy was dark. In short, he was an anti-hero. He even told the reader straight up, “Don’t make me into a hero.”

    The fact that this character sprang forth from my subconscious gave me pause. Was I mentally unhinged? Steven King wrote dark characters. As did Michael Connelly. And Robert Crais. Were those writers unhinged?

    When this detective first appeared on the page, he caught my interest. The actions he took surprised me. Not to mix metaphors, but as I continued to write the story, the way he played cat and mouse—only showing his cards when he was good and ready—made me want to follow, and by the end of the first scene, the curve ball he threw rocked me back on my heels.

    I was all in. I had to know what happened next.

    Playing God

    As writers, we play God with our characters. We give them form, imbue them with habits and thoughts and emotions, bring them to life in the fictional world we’ve created. No matter how flawed they may be, how despicable, they’re our creations.

    This detective, this anti-hero, wasn’t the sort of character I’d want to know in real life. But in my fictional world, he interested me. I was curious to know more. And when he revealed why he did what he did, I felt compassion.

    Which brings me to…the assignment

    I’m sharing this, because the assignment for week 6 of the LIFE XT program was:

    Add Compassion. Use leaving the house as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Compassion.

    As I left my house, I immediately forgot to notice, shift, or rewire. But by the end of the week, driving home from the grocery store, listening to politics on the radio, I had the opportunity to practice compassion. Nothing hardens my jaw as much as political news. It’s all fake. Except, of course, the news I tune into. And while I’m being honest, I may as well admit: the only side that’s right is mine.

    Did I remind myself, while grinding my teeth into a fine powder, that there are people on the opposite side of the aisle, listening to a different version of the news, who are having those very same thoughts about me? Did I use this moment to practice compassion?

    No.

    But I did practice Presence. I turned the radio off.

    My “ah-ha!” moment

    Circling back to Detective Bloch, I reflected upon how, in spite of his dark nature, I could feel compassion for the character.

    That must be what the Big Kahuna feels for the evil among us.

    Writers and the Creator of the universe are similar in that we form something from nothing, and sometimes that something goes rogue (Don’t eat the apple, Adam!). Yet in spite of how wrong, how vehemently opposed we might be to someone’s actions, we can still be curious about what brought them to that place, intrigued about where they’ll end up, and interested in learning their story.

    Being curious, intrigued, and interested are pathways to understanding.

    And understanding is the bridge to compassion.

    Well.

    I could always be curious about someone who angered me.

    Intrigued? Hell, ya!

    Interested? Why not?

    But could I remember to take that long view, that God-like perspective, when someone was in my face shouting their opinions?

    Maybe.

    At the very least, I could take a giant step back. Make room for something more divine to light up the shadows between us.