blog, productivity, self improvement

10 Ways You’re Sabotaging Yourself

recognise and remove internal and external roadblocks to success

selective focus photo of yellow sunflower
Photo by Zszen John on Pexels.com

You can’t always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.
Wayne Dyer

We all want to succeed. When success doesn’t come, we tell ourselves stories about why that might be.

  • I’m unlucky.
  • The timing isn’t right.
  • Other people have better connections.
  • People like me who are ______ just don’t win.
  • The market is overcrowded.

Most of these excuses are false. And you know it. Humans are really good at rationalising their failures and placing the blame elsewhere.

Be honest.

Whether you bottle it up or act it out, are you keeping yourself from the things you say you want?

Doubt Is The Only Certainty

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
Dale Carnegie

There’s something you want, but you doubt your ability to get it. Deep down, you don’t think you deserve it. Seeing someone else with what you want makes you envious, so you become hypercritical of yourself or that person, which both lead to bitterness and anger.

Criticism and envy are signposts to what you really want. Figure out precisely what that is, and you’re well on the way to getting it.

Success looks very different to each of us. If you envy the writer with a number one bestseller, what element of their success annoys you most? It could be critical acclaim, financial security, freedom to write all day rather than be employed, or even the fact that they look so damn happy in their photos. Why can’t you have that?

Use that feeling. You can have what they have if you master your self-doubt.

A certain amount of doubt is healthy but too much is paralysing. Start with your definition of success and make a plan to get there. Don’t let doubt stop you. It’s time to act.

Risky Business

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
Shannon L. Alder

Do you order the same food from the same restaurant every time?

Do you try that new restaurant you drove past yesterday, or do you only visit places that others have given at least a 4.8 review rating?

Risk aversion keeps you locked in place ruminating over all the ways things can go wrong if you change. You follow the herd, even if the herd isn’t going your way.

Moving towards your dreams always entails risk. It might be more difficult than you thought. You might not make it. It might not look as good from the inside.

But what’s the alternative?

The only way you’ll know where your limits are is to push yourself further. You can’t reach a new level without taking a chance that you might fail. Don’t discount the possibility that you might succeed.

Focus on the chance of success and accept that you’ll probably have to try more than once. Failing forward is tough, but taking each failure as a lesson helps you build the resilience and feedback you need.

As Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Adjust your aim and keep swinging.

Stuck In A Rut

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Joseph Campbell

It’s often said that change is the only constant in life. We can only navigate a hugely complex world by filtering, simplifying and making mental models.Even though we’re hard-wired to prefer novelty, we also resist change because of the strain it puts on our mental bandwidth. Add to that fear of the unknown, and we retreat into the familiar safety of the comfort zone.

Resisting change eats away at you because repressing emotion consumes more energy than expressing it. Imagine you’re punching something. Now imagine you pull that punch at the last minute. You use energy for forward motion and more energy for an equal reverse motion. Not only that, but denying the punch leads to anger and resentment because you don’t get the release you need.

All that energy expended, yet you’re stuck in the same rut, settling for less. It’s exhausting.

You know you need a change when you’re bored repeating the same routine, when you’ve stopped learning, when there’s less and less reward in your activities.

You also know when a situation is bad for you and you need to change it or leave.

When you’ve poured a great deal of time and energy into a job or relationship, change can feel like a waste of your investment. This sunk cost fallacy stops you from cutting your losses and leads to inertia, staying with something that has no hope of improvement. What is right for one time and place may not be right forever.

Face that growing feeling of discontent head on. Use your journal to uncover its source or talk it out with someone. Identifying the source is the first step to deciding what changes you need to make, and they may not be as extensive as you fear.

Unresolved conflict between what you have and what you want often transforms into anger that is directed towards the self in anxiety and low mood, or outwards into hostility and envy.

Find the courage to confront the possibility of change so that you control the process.

Busy Doing Nothing

We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.
Jim Rohn

I expect you’re a busy person, like everyone these days. But are you doing the things that matter even if they’re difficult, or giving in to distraction?

If you find yourself down a rabbit hole of Youtube videos after looking up a simple fact online, you’re not alone. But the resulting guilt and shame can be enough to derail you from your actual work. Procrastination can wear many faces, including filling your time with “worthy” activities like reading or research or reorganising the kitchen cupboards.

It’s not enough to be busy. You need to be productive, not merely occupied. Getting clear on the day’s priorities is the first step, and an ordered schedule will help you achieve that. Each Sunday, spend thirty minutes with your planner and set aside time in the coming week for must-do and want-to-do tasks.

Knowing what to do and when gets around having fifty things you could be doing bouncing around your head, but being unable to pick one and therefore doing none of them.

Like eating your broccoli before dessert, must-do items come first. If you’re a rewards person, finish the task before you have your cookie, ten minutes of social media or whatever.

If you’re prone to distraction, minimise it. Use one of many stripped down desktop apps so you focus. Leave your phone in another room. Research has shown that even if it is silenced, your smartphone still pulls your attention.

Can’t bear to get started? Does the task feel overwhelming? Use the Pomodoro technique to break it into ten or fifteen-minute chunks. If a task fills you with dread, get it out of the way and eat the frog first. Everything else will be easier by comparison.

Get on task, stay on task, and accomplish more with your time.

The Truth Is Out There

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
Abraham Maslow

You probably know someone who likes to consider their options carefully. They gather information, take opinions, and always think twice. They feel safer when they have more evidence.

Then there are people who make choices based on their feelings about them, good or bad. Often they are highly intuitive. Journaling becomes a sacred rite as they dig deeper and deeper into emotions.

Too much analysis leads to paralysis. Too much thinking about feelings is another route to procrastination. Faced with an overload of emotion, you might manage it by repression, distraction, or numbing. In any case, you get nothing done.

Deep thinking is a good thing — as long as it leads to action. At some point, you have to declare the thinking phase complete, draw up a shortlist of options, and then choose one.

A list of pros and cons is the simplest tool, and the act of writing them down clarifies your thoughts.

A simple scoring system can help you prioritise different options. For example, when buying a house, I had a list of essentials like location, number of bedrooms, and living space. The second list was for desirables like south facing and size of the garden. By allocating one to three points for each essential and one point for each desirable, I was able to compare houses with different features more easily.

If a house missed any essentials it was out of the running, no matter how lovely. Scoring helps to take some of the emotion from the equation, especially for big decisions. Making your lists forces you to be more objective, but there’s nothing to stop you allocating your points in any way that feels right.

If you’re considering a major decision like a job change or relocation, try visualisation. Imagine yourself in a future where you’ve stayed unchanged and not followed through. Do you feel regret or disappointment? That’s a clue that this change could be right for you.

Of course, you can’t see the future, but you can use a combination of techniques to make the best decision you can. Emotion allied to objectivity gives you the best of both worlds.

Get Out Of Your Own Way

Self-sabotage is when we say we want something and then go about making sure it doesn’t happen.
Alyce Cornyn-Selby

Your inner roadblocks are expressed in different behaviours.

  1. self-doubt — envy
  2. risk aversion — following the herd
  3. resisting change — settling for less
  4. lack of discipline — procrastination
  5. overthinking — distraction/numbing

You might recognise yourself in any or all of the scenarios above. We’re only human and none of us is perfect, but naming the obstacle is the first step to overcoming it. Outer behaviours always reflect inner thinking, so mastering your internal dialogue will improve your chances of success.

Make better decisions, accept the risk of failure and do it anyway, and follow through with action.


(first published by Publishous on 17.7.19)

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blog, creativity, productivity, writing, writing process

Why Writers Should Embrace Imperfection To Get More Done

because done is always better than perfect

green and black android smartphone on table near notebook
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.
Margaret Atwood

Do you have a zombie work?

It’s the one piece you can’t get right, a short story or blog post or novel that haunts your hard drive.

You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.

You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet, so the world never sees it.

What Are You Afraid Of?

We’re scared to death to try new things because we think we have to get it right the first time.
Joel Salatin

Perfectionists often procrastinate. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.

You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.

At the heart of perfectionism is fear.

Fear of failure.

Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.

To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. 

Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.

If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking.

Start With The Bad Stuff

Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.
Salvador Dali

Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.

There are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.

  1. Everybody sucks at the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
  2. People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
 

Act Like A Baby

Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.

They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.

They don’t beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.

You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you wouldn’t have uttered a word for years.

Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.

You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.

Less Isn’t More

That which we persist in doing becomes easier — not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.

In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.

The results were surprising.

The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were liberated from the pursuit of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.

Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.

The more you make, the better you get. Quantity leads to quality.

paclomartinezclavel via pixabay

Let It Go

Art is never finished, only abandoned.
Leonardo da Vinci

How much poorer we would be if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.

Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.

At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and stop editing. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve.

Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing.

That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the whole collection is what matters.

Confidence comes from improvement. You know you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.

That is true creative freedom.

blog, creativity, productivity, self improvement

How To Persevere When You Feel Like You’re Failing Creatively

Simple tips for maximising success as a creative

astronomy dark dawn dusk
Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

I want to be a cat in my next life. Cats are great role models. A well-loved pet would be ideal, but since I’m a cat that’s not essential.

I can rely on sharp claws and keen senses to feed and defend myself. I carry myself with supple grace, accept affection on my own terms, and find the warmest spot in the house to sleep. Sounds pretty good.

But in this life I set goals and strive to exceed them. Sometimes that works. Today I’m tired and a little disheartened, because the reward for my efforts is unpredictable and I can’t figure out what’s worth repeating.

You’ve probably had days like that too. Days when endless hustle and failing forward feel like hitting your head against a brick wall, over and over. Days when it’s hard to believe in yourself and stay motivated.

Can you rediscover your appetite for the hunt? Can you be more like a cat?

A Numbers Game

Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts. — William Bruce Cameron

Comparison might be the thief of joy, but we still have to track our stats. How else will we know where we stand?

Looking at numbers drives you to a kind of madness. Whether you count views, followers, pounds lost or lifted, or revenue, numbers draw you in. The world shrinks to a set of digits that you then equate to your own value.

If they’re going the wrong way, heaven help you and the people around you.

Peak madness is achieved by then comparing those numbers to other people’s numbers. You inevitably come up short because you only look at the most successful — those who you hope to emulate someday.

But you want someday to be today. You want the bragging rights, the book deal, and the interview on a popular TV show — now. Hasn’t it been long enough? Probably not. It takes much longer than you think or want to build success.

Remember when you longed for just one fan or even ten reads? Other writers are still there, hardly out of the starting gate. You’ve moved past that, and as long as you keep creating you’ll move past your next milestone too. Perhaps there are other measures of your impact.

Views and reads matter to writers, but they don’t map exactly to engagement. Look at comments, however brief. Out of your whole audience, those who comment are the most engaged fans. They take time to read, vote, and then reach out to you.

Treasure your commenters. Reply and thank them for their time and interest. Make a connection. I won’t pretend claps don’t matter, especially if money is involved. But when you’re still some way from your next milestone, the smallest dopamine hit of approval is welcome.

Like No-one Is Watching

A flower blossoms for its own joy. — Oscar Wilde

There’s deep satisfaction in doing something well. Craftsmen of old spent time making sure the back of an object, though not usually seen, was still beautiful. You can turn a finely tailored jacket inside out and find no loose stitches or raw seams. Every part of a created object reflects the skill and attention of its creator.

Writing can be art, but it must always be craft. Your writing should be the best you can produce. Live by the Beyoncé principle: over-promise, over-deliver, and keep on growing. Standards vary from day to day, but should never be less than good. Make it good, then make it better.

How do you know it’s better? On your down days, take your latest finished piece and compare it to your work of six or twelve months ago. Look at those older pieces and see how they could be tightened and polished further.

The same applies to losing weight, getting fitter, or learning a skill. Look back at where you started, review your SMART goals, and progress becomes clearer.

There’s a long way to go yet, but you’re on your way so give yourself credit for the journey so far. Take a reward for effort, and keep going.

You want to be known for consistent high quality. Henry Ford said quality means doing it right when no-one is watching. One day, those eyes will be turned on you. Be ready.

No Shortcut to Greatness

A few years ago I bought a car from a doctor at the start of his career. He was selling the car to help fund his planned attempt on Everest.

Wait a minute. Mount Everest? He wanted to be an Army surgeon. He also wanted to climb Everest before he was thirty. Both goals required a ton of hard work, so he made a plan that matched his impressive ambitions.

Now imagine someone builds an elevator that goes to Everest’s peak. Almost anyone can book a ride and stand at the top. How impressive is that? Not very.

The fact is, we value what we pay for. And the reverse is also true; we don’t value what we get for free.

How does that connect with writing or whatever business you’re in? It means the hard work you do is integral to the payoff you get. The harder you work, the sweeter the reward.

Now you can reframe the work as building a bigger payoff. Giving your work both intrinsic and future worth carries you through the inevitable gloomy days when the wind dies in your sails.

Don’t drift in the doldrums when that happens. What you do when you’re losing is the measure of your character. Get out the oars and start rowing.

Riding Out The Storm

But this time you can’t row. You’re caught in a perfect storm; work, health, relationship or financial issues make it impossible to do more. You’re barely surviving as it is. What to do now?

Maybe you can’t lean in, but you can limit backsliding. Three things will help you.

  1. Harness the power of a tiny goal. Write for five minutes, exercise for ten minutes, meditate for three minutes every day. Set the bar so low you’re bound to win. The little wins accumulate to stop your sense of mastery from fading completely. Choose your goal. Mark a cross on your calendar each day you achieve it. Winning streaks have power.
  2. Work on strategic aims. Get into the not urgent but important box of tasks you mean to do sometime but haven’t yet. Watch a tutorial on that software you bought but can’t use. Do some digital admin; clear out old files that clutter your desktop, file your receipts, check your antivirus is up to date. Use the Pomodoro technique and work in fifteen-minute bursts. Finish one job before starting another.
  3. Focus on the goal. Picture yourself at the finish line. What will you need to get there? Do you need extra training or equipment? A goal is a dream with a deadline, so don’t spend too much time thinking. Planning is a prelude to action and not a substitute for it.

Dreaming With Eyes Open

Sometimes you can fake it till you make it; other times you can’t. When the fears of not good enough and you’re going to fail take hold, you’ll struggle. Struggle is an inescapable part of life, of daring to hope for better. Hold fast to dreams, but know that they aren’t enough to get you where you want to be.

‘The principle of moving forward, as though you have the confidence to move forward, eventually gives you confidence when you look back and see what you’ve done.’ — Robert Downey Jr

A cat doesn’t make a jump by staring at its feet all day. It focuses on the landing. If it falls short, it digs in its claws and scrambles up. Then it sits and licks a paw as if it exerted no effort at all to reach the target.

Keep moving, whatever you have to do, however tiny the progress. Look back only to remind yourself how far you’ve come already, then turn your eyes forward to the peak. It’s always uphill to the top.


(first published 30.7.19 in Mind Café on Medium )

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blog, creativity, productivity

6 Signs Your Creative Project Is On Track – Even Though You Doubt Yourself

You’re doing better than you think

Graffiti of "trust your struggle" in green paint on grey brick
Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

How are your creative projects going right now?

When you start your book or your business, it’s both scary and exciting. Your motivation is high and you can see your progress.

Then you hit a wall, where you discover how hard it’s really going to be. But you pushed on, and now you’re in the middle somewhere. Maybe you’re questioning yourself, or maybe other people are feeding your uncertainty by pointing out problems or deficiencies – or by getting much better results than yours.

Whether it’s a day job or your side hustle, you’re working and planning and getting stuff done. But are you doing enough, are you seeing results, are you getting there – in short, are you winning? 

More to the point, do you feel like you’re winning?

It can be difficult to know where you are when there are no maps and few signposts along the way. Some behaviours are markers of future success, as long as you keep going. You can use them to gauge your progress.

You look forward to doing your work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
Aristotle

As a newly qualified doctor, I regularly worked 70-100 hours a week, with very little sleep when on-call. The long hours were difficult at times, but I loved my work. Learning new skills and doing something I believed in outweighed the fatigue – at least in the early years.

When you love what you do and can’t imagine not doing it, you know you’re on the right track. Stress and resentment come from slogging away at something you hate. 

When the game’s worth it, you’ll put in whatever it takes.

You do the grunt work without complaint

Perhaps this is how you know you’re doing the thing you’re intended to: No matter how slow or how slight your progress, you never feel that it’s a waste of time.
Curtis Sittenfeld, The Man of My Dreams

Every job and activity has boring grunt work. Singers practise scales, gardeners pull weeds, artists clean brushes, and everyone does paperwork. Grunt work is repetitive and unglamorous. It also makes better skills and tools so that you can get on with the beautiful act of creation.

When you perform the menial tasks of your work mindfully, you elevate them. You see that there is really no difference between pouring concrete in a foundation that’s never visible, and carving a fine oak fireplace that will be admired. Both are integral to the finished house. Both deserve your care and attention.

How you do the small things is how you do the big things.

You’re focused on process rather than results

If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

Making stuff happen is hard work. You’re on the right track when you focus on what is within your control. You can produce, but you can’t directly influence how your product is received or how well it performs. 

Steve Jobs said that real artists ship; and he implied that they make another and continue to ship. Nobody remembers Apple’s Newton PDA now. It failed, but looking back we see it clearly as the ancestor of tablets, touch screens, and more. Jobs stayed focused on realising ideas that were ahead of their time; eventually, the world caught up.

You have one job – execute your ideas using functional processes. Pay attention to your results and use them to guide the next iteration, but don’t get hung up on apparent failure. You might simply need to refine, repackage, and repeat – until you create an iPad.

Your win is out there.

person holding red strawberry
Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

You grow your skills

Anything is better than stagnation.
Arthur Conan Doyle

You know that experience isn’t measured in years but in growth. It’s not enough to write a thousand words every day. Those words must be better and more effective over time. To do that, you seek out feedback and opportunities to learn. 

Successful people are not threatened by the skill of others, they’re inspired by it. You’re humble enough to realise that mastery is always out of reach, but striving for it gives your creative life meaning. And since teaching something is the proof of learning, you’re comfortable sharing your knowledge with others. 

You are only in competition with yourself.

You reach flow states often

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Mary Oliver

Remember the last time you got so caught up in your stuff that suddenly it was dark outside, you’d missed dinner and three hours had vanished? That magical state of flow happens when you’re fully absorbed in something that is challenging and enjoyable.

While it can be hard to summon a flow state at will, take notice of how you get there. Then aim to replicate it as often as you can because 

Flow proves you’re definitely doing the thing you were made for.

You own your identity

Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.
Seth Godin

Yes, impostor syndrome is real and you’re as prone to it as anyone. But at some point on your journey, you’ve become comfortable with your title and status.  

You stop qualifying it or hiding behind your day job, and one day you describe yourself as a writer, or entrepreneur, or artist first and wage slave second. Or if your paid job is your passion, you express that without shame.

Feeling secure in your own skin is a sure sign that you’re further on in your growth than you think. Don’t allow others to project their own fear of failure onto you. 

It’s not arrogant or boastful to own and celebrate your successes, large or small. 

On Your Way

Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.
Leonardo da Vinci

Six behaviours show that you’re doing the right thing in the right way.

  • You look forward to your work
  • You do the grunt work without complaint
  • You focus on process, not results
  • You grow your skills
  • You reach flow state often
  • You own your identity

Success is never guaranteed; all you can do is shift the odds in your favour. Fortunately, that is within your power.

When you find the right path, keep going.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, productivity

The World’s On Fire And The Sky Is Falling – Create Anyway

colourful photo of graffiti artist by Maxime Bhm via Unsplash
graffiti artist using spray paints by Maxime Bhm via Unsplash

In a time of destruction, create something.
Maxine Hong Kingston

The world is on f*cking fire — Bill Nye said it so it must be true.

When your house is on fire you grab your prized possessions and run. But when the world is on fire, there’s nowhere to run. Faced with the constant stream of bad news, you could be forgiven for simply giving up.

What’s the point of your life’s mission when everything’s going to hell? Your tiny contribution can’t hold back an endless ocean of misery.

It’s so hard to keep going when you’re not succeeding like you hoped, so you might as well binge on ice cream or gin or Netflix.

What’s the point of creating?

A Day In A Life

We’re given only a limited time to make a life. Life has the meaning you give it, no more or less. Meaning comes from finding and using them to do your thing despite all the negativity.

There’s someone out there who needs your thing, right now. That could be entertainment, the tools to do a job, or a map to navigate heartbreak. They see themselves in your thing and it gives them hope.

I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a long comment saying she wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life. She felt it was her story, and for a moment she was less alone.

Emotional connection transcends time, gender, or place. Without connection and authentic feeling we wither and die. That might sound a bit dramatic when you look at a blog post or poem you just wrote, but you can’t know the state of the person who receives your message.

Who knows what your creation could achieve?

The Small Stuff Is The Big Stuff

Think back to a time when you read something that spoke to you. There was probably nothing Pulitzer-worthy about the content in itself. Yet on that day and for you particularly, those words sparked a feeling or a memory. You felt as though someone reached into your chest and peeled away the layers protecting a soft spot.

You felt seen and heard.

Those words were written for you, even though the writer didn’t know that. Like a singer who shatters a glass with a high note, words resonate with a frequency that the heart answers.

Now consider all the myriad ways we struggle each day. We carry our pain and that of others. We try to live a good life. We try to be happy. But often we fail. That’s when we need help.

Create something that can help, even if you don’t see how. Offer perspective, advice, or encouragement. Share your tools, your story and your gifts.

Remind people that there’s always beauty and hope to be found, even if you have to dig through dirt to find it. Remind people that the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, not gone completely.

Once you put your creation out there it no longer belongs to you. It’s a child of your imagination, and it will make its own way in the world. Your job is to make it strong, and let it go.

Lives can be saved and hearts repaired by the smallest of acts. You might never know who you reach, but they’re waiting right now. Defy the darkness.

Go create.

(first published 26 June 2019 by Publishous on Medium)


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blog, creativity, productivity

Why You Shouldn’t Show Your Work – Yet

red flower
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.
George Carlin

Art is ugly.

Recently I watched the TV series Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. Each week, artists are challenged to make a portrait of a live sitter, in public, in four hours.

The most surprising lesson is how often the interim stage looks like a failure. There’s nowhere to hide for the artists, who are interviewed as they work. Not infrequently they despair of pulling it together in time.

Viewers see the awkward proportions and clashing colours, and agree. It doesn’t look good.

And yet, in the end, beauty emerges. Sometimes it seems that the painting only comes to life with the final few brush strokes.

You might be agonising over the scattered, ragged appearance of your current project. You study the polished, glossy work of those you look up to, and despair.

But you’re missing a vital truth.

Not Great Yet

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
R Buckminster Fuller

A few years ago I took up watercolour painting as a complete novice. I love watercolour, but I had a lot to learn about the process of producing something pleasing to the eye.

The interim stages of a watercolour are often confusing and unattractive. The colours are wrong, things are missing, it looks flat. For a long time, it seems to be all wrong.

But as long as the drawing is right and you keep going, it will turn out okay. If you work on it more, it might even turn out great. The essence of watercolour is layers. You have to be patient, letting each one dry before adding the next.

Each layer reveals a little more of the picture you’re aiming for. Each stage hints at the finished article, but is only a step in the right direction.

To make a finished article you need two things: a map and a defined endpoint.

Look at this example.

image from Huffington Post

JK Rowling plotted one of the longest books in her Harry Potter series by hand, on paper torn from a notepad. No Scrivener, no Evernote, nothing fancy. She saved fancy for the ideas that powered her words.

Rowling had the end in mind, so she was able to endure the development phase where things didn’t look so pretty. Don’t be seduced and discouraged by picture-perfect workspaces and elegant bullet journals. Real work often involves getting messy.

A story, a painting, a child, or a life all have their ugly duckling stage. Have the end in mind. You need to keep faith with your project and keep moving forward.

Above all, do the work — but don’t show it until you’re ready.

It will be beautiful, but you’ll only see it when you get to the end.

(first published by Publishous on 12 June 2019)


Comment or suggestion? Drop it below.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, productivity, self improvement

The Best Time To Start Anything Is Right Now

Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

Have you given up on a dream?

You tell yourself that you’ll get back to it later. When the kids are grown, when you retire, when you have more money…then you’ll learn the guitar, get back to painting, write your novel.

Or you tell yourself it’s too late. Too much time has gone by and you can’t change your body, your relationship, your job. So you settle for the inevitability of further decline.

There’s no escaping the march of time. But it holds opportunity too.

An Acorn Is Not A Tree — Yet

Somebody is sitting in the shade today because somebody planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

The idea that we overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be achieved in the long term has been attributed to Bill Gates, among others.

It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.

Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.

But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?

Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.

 

Small Numbers Still Count

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
Lao Tzu

Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.

Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.

Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.

So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.

If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.

When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.

Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.

It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.

One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Confucius

Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.

Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.

(first published In Publishous on Medium 5 June 19)

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blog, creative writing, creativity, productivity

How To Be More Creative By Thinking INSIDE The Box

how limits can liberate

crayons in a cup by Arya Meher
Arya Meher via Unsplash

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
attributed to Orson Welles

Want to strike fear into a writer’s heart?

Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!

There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.

That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?

The Tyranny of Choice

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Igor Stravinsky

Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.

But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.

Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.

Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.

Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.

Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.

My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.

Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?

No Problem

Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
Martin Villeneuve

Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.

  1. Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
  2. Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
  3. Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count

Try these practical ways to get started.

  • Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
  • Using prompts as a starting point – try this random prompt generator.
  • Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.

Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.

These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.  

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
Albert Einstein

(first published by Publishous on Medium 5 June 2019)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing, writing process

How To Make Your Writing Shine

person-731148_1280
Free Photos via pixabay

You did the thing and now you have a completed first draft. You’re a writer. You have written. Congratulations are in order.

Now the hard work really begins, because you have to edit and polish your story. Getting a story out is like mining gemstones— difficult, dirty work. And what you bring to the surface is probably not a thing of beauty, yet.

But it has potential. If you can strip away the dull bits and hone the good bits, you might just have something brilliant. Here are ten ways to make your work shine.

1. Strengthen Your Storyline

What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.

Maybe she finds out her husband is a spy. Maybe they’re both secret assassins but he’s her latest target. Give the story a twist, otherwise there’s nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

Sometimes what you’re writing is an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t always enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves.The characters are changed in some way by the events.

Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.

2. Fix Your Pacing

Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.

  • Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the trip to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
  • Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
  • Too much action without an actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.

To correct these try the following.

  • Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
  • Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
  • Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.

3. Make Words Count

Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.

Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.

Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.

This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.

4. Let The Reader Do Some Work

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Telling robs significant moments of their power.

When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.

Describe his actions so readers can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky while ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.

Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, skip to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.

Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.

5. Make Dialogue Tags Pull A Double Shift

Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.

There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.

You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags. They combine what was done with what was said, and by whom.

“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”

The tag belongs on the same line as the dialogue. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.

If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow who’s talking, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
 

6. Fix Your Point of View

Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third-person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first-person typical of modern YA novels. For example:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.

My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.

Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.

Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.

This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So in his POV you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which is his companion’s observation.

It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing.

As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing. Unanswered questions make people turn the page.

7. Know The Time

Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.

Past tense remains the most familiar choice. We’re used to hearing about events that have already taken place.

Tense is not the same as POV.
You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.

Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately. However most writers prefer a consistent tense throughout. It’s easy to slip between present and past tenses, so careful editing is essential.

Find advice on managing tenses here.

8. Nurture Their Disbelief

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.

You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.

Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the story and their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.

This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events.

Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.

Giving the protagonist exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.

Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.

9. Go Easy On Themes

Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.

It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.

Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.

Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.

Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.

10. Looks Do Matter

Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.

Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors. It gives the impression that the author doesn’t care.

You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.

Finally, Get to The End

The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Toni Sorenson

Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.

Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.

Work on the issues above, or trash the piece and start fresh.

Let go of perfectionism because done is better than perfect. And once it’s done, it can be edited until it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

Go to it. Your readers are waiting.

blog, creativity, productivity

There Are Two Ways To Find Creative Inspiration – Only One is Right

the moment of ignition as a match is lit
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London

Can you create your best work without inspiration?

Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.

Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.

Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?

Stealing Fire

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Pablo Picasso

Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.

Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.

Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.

It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.

The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.

Neuroscience has shown that the creative act involves higher level brain activity. Ordinary pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.

You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.

Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.

Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill

Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill

Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.

The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration

Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.
Twyla Tharp

Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.

In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.

The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.

Breathing Space

Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.
Agnes Martin

Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.

Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.

Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.

Everything Is Material

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.

Henry David Thoreau

If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.

Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.

Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.

Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.

Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.

A Marriage of Opposites

It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.

When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.

Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.

Go to it.