28 Days of Writing

Many of my friends (who are gluttons for punishment) participated in NaNoWriMo back in November (that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you who are smart enough not to be writers). I, as smart a person as I am (and not smart enough to not be a writer), chose not to participate. November has to be the absolute worst month of the year (right after December) for me to write anything. So, I watched from the sidelines as all of those crazy writers pounded out 50,000+ words in the course of a single month. This number is another reason I chose to sit on the sidelines. To achieve the unachievable mark of 50,000+ words I would have had to have written at least one thousand six hundred and sixty six words per day from the first day of the month to the last. I’m lucky to get one thousand one hundred and two words whipped out on a frenzied day of writing. Therefore, I watched everyone else write.

I did feel a little left out of the whole madness like when Alice fell down the rabbit hole and everyone else was left behind. She had all the fun of shrinking and growing going to tea and keeping company with smiling cats while everyone else sat by and watched. What’s the fun in that? Recently I got a email from someone inviting me to a 28 day writing spree where participants sign up to win amazing prizes ranging from a huge “Atta boy!” to priceless webpage badges that can be proudly displayed with all of the other amazing writing awards. This I might be able to do, I thought to myself, until I opened the page and read the fine print. I would have to write a blog post everyday so that by the end of the month I would have 28 blog posts (29 if it were a Leap Year, but alas it is not so we are stuck with a mere 28). Folks, I’m a realist and I know my limitations, and there is no way under the sun, clouds, moon, or forecasted snow that I will get a blog post done 28 days in a row.

With my head hanging low I left that website and promptly forgot about it until yesterday, and when I thought about that webpage again I realized that it was the first day of the shortest month of the year that only lasts 28 days. In my usual state of elderly forgetfulness I couldn’t locate the email, the website, nor remember what the 28 Days of Writing was really called so in a rush to make myself feel just a tiny bit better I made one up. It is called (can you guess?) 28 Days of Writing and it is filled with only one requirement and one reward.

First, and most important, I must write each and every day of the month. It doesn’t matter if 5 words are written on Facebook or 20,000 in any one of the novels or short stories that I have in the pipeline. I just have to write every single day during the month of February. The reward? Well, this is the best part and, of course, my favorite. After all why do all of this work over the course of 28 days (remember 29 in a Leap Year) without some kind of reward? So, after much thought, pondering, and pacing around in a quick circle I decided not to decide what the reward will be other than it will be something fabulously custom designed.

“What?” you say, “What if I want to play your game too? If I can’t have a reward why should I play?”

My dear reader, I can only say in reply, “I hope you do play my little game. You will have a reward and it will be like nothing you have ever experienced in any contest you have ever entered.”

Your reward is whatever you want it to be. Give yourself a massage, a cup of hot chocolate, a steak dinner, or even a million dollars. Just spend 28 days writing and dreaming about what it is you are going to give yourself at the end. Will it be a new car, a new snow shovel, or a new pair of gloves? Consider a cigar, a top hat, or new shoes. Anything you want is the reward to you. No cheating on the fun. At the end of each day ask yourself, “Have I written today?” and if the answer is a “Yes!” then give yourself a gold star for the day.  When February 28th comes to an end take a look at your calendar and when you see each and every day shining with a golden star you will know that you have accomplished something that few can say they have, “I have written for 28 straight days, and I deserve something for that.” Then, on the very first day of March be sure to give yourself that “pat on your back” and place a golden star on your own shining reward. WELL DONE!

The Great Balancing Act

You have a blog, you’re writing a book, you own your own business, you have kids, you have a home, you have a life, and they all seem to run like a well rusted machine.  How do you do it? What is the secret to keeping a balance between all of life’s obligations?  The crank shaft in life is seizing up and you don’t know how to get the oil between the gears.  I have asked many professionals throughout my career, “How do I find a balance that keeps everyone happy?”  The answer is simple: set your priorities, make a schedule, and learn to say “no”.

Yeah, right.  It might be so simple for all of “them” but for me?  My life changes hour to hour moment to moment.  How the heck am I going to do a schedule of any kind when I can’t even get a shower every morning?  My three year old went dancing through the house one day singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiitttt!” to music she composed in her head on her way through the room, and you think I’m going to put any priority higher than my daughter?  HA!  You were crazier than I thought.

This is how I went through business and family life for more than twenty years.  Bouncing from one fire to the next and never really getting anything done.  The gears just got rustier.  Over and over I asked the same question, “How do I balance everything and still keep my sanity?”  Over and over I heard that same answer, “Set priorities, make a calendar, and learn to say no.”  Then one day I actually did it.

I had to take a look at balancing my children, my business, my social life, and my creative self (which is writing).  I found a simple grid to be the key for success, and it takes the lowest amount of brain power to produce.  You can even do it as you read along.  First get a sheet of blank printer paper and a pencil (no pens for this exercise).  Draw three or four columns and head each column with the things you are trying to balance.  Some of you may only be balancing three aspects of life and some four, and there are even those balancing eight or ten.  For the sake of simplicity, keep it at four for now. Examples of the types of headings could be: Writing, Family, Business, Social.   Be sure one of those headings is: ME.  You (that’s who the “me” heading is for) need to take care of yourself as much as you need to take care of the rest of your life’s obligations.

The next step requires you to have part of your brain turned off.  As they say in the writing business, “Just puke this part out.” Don’t pass judgement on anything you write, and don’t quantify anything at this point either.  Under each heading list every aspect that is important to that part of your life.  Let’s say you want to write everyday, call on customers for your glow in the dark paper clip business, play bingo with your buddies, and go ice skating with your kids.  List each of these under their appropriate heading.  Keep listing everything until you can’t think of any more.  Remember, no judgements no quantifying. Now, for each of the items listed under each heading, decide what is the number one most important aspect of that area, the second, and the third, until all of the items are numbered.  Take the first five items under each category and consider these the top priorities in your life at the moment.  Of course these priorities change second to second, but these are at the top of the list right now.  Cross everything else off your list until next week.

You are allowed pass judgement and quantify each of these items now. As you do, be honest with yourself as to how much time you really need to spend on each activity.  If you think you need to spend ten hours a day on building a better paperclip then you better expect only fourteen left to sleep, ice skate, and play bingo.  Be realistic with your time.  You need to sleep at least 8 hours which leaves only 16 hours to divide up between everything that is left on your list. There are, obviously, only 7 days in a week so, again, be realistic with your time.  If your top five priorities need to be done this week then choose a day and put it on your calendar doing the number one most important thing first.  If that number one thing needs two days to complete then be sure to allow enough days for the rest.  Continue this process until you either run out of time, or you run out of tasks.  If you have spare time then pull in something you left on the list that fell lower on the priorities.  If you get everything done early then reward yourself with a day of ice skating.

So, what kind of calendar?  I experimented with every type of calendar under the sun from the most complex, (complete with a rainbow of highlighters) to the most basic, (sticky notes were all over my desk).  After this not so scientific experiment, I found that my my favorite calendar wasn’t very complex (I hate to think too hard on this stuff), and each day did need enough room for notes and alternative plans.  I am also proud to say that I have graduated from sticky notes into the computer age, my Smartphone is attached to my Gmail that has my main calendar.  This is the heart of everything in my life. It makes sure that I’m not meeting with my publisher at the same time that my son has a guitar performance.  It also makes sure that I am spending the time I need (and want) for myself and my Bingo parties.

When setting time limits for each task you may want to question whether the time you have allotted is on the best day and time.  Do you really need to spend ten hours a day developing a clip color, or is it more that you think you should be doing this because you are trying to develope the best red clip before the other clip builders out there?  Yes or No?  There are only two answers and the easiest choice is yes, but the right one might be no.

“No? Really? Are you crazy? They really want an awesome red clip and I have to get it done now. I can’t say NO to my number one paperclip customer!” Oh, yes you can!    If you are serious about making a calendar and setting priorities, and getting your life under control, then you better be serious about saying “No” right to the bitter/sweet end.  “No” is a very difficult word to cultivate into our business life.  Many of us were raised to believe the customer is always right and whatever they need we try to make happen whether it interferes with our private life or not.  “No” is also the first, and most hated word we learn as a child.  “No” is the term that denies us of something we want and as adults we don’t want to deny a want to others so we just say yes.  It’s easier.

Let’s say your best paperclip customer calls you and asks to meet at the last minute.  Your knee jerk reaction might be to say, “YES, I’d love to meet you for a drink tonight to go over the launch of the red mini clip line.”  Yet, on your calendar you scheduled writing. By accepting this last minute invitation for drinks, you are actually saying to yourself, “YES, I can put off my writing time so I can have drinks with him even though I have 20,000 words to finish in two days.”  Stay in control of your time and your calendar.  Keep your priorities set so that you are doing the things you need to do, when you need to do them.  Consider saying, “I’m sorry I can’t make drinks tonight, but I have time on Tuesday at 3 pm to meet with you for about an hour.  Does that work for you?”  Re-read that.  Even though you have said “no” to your customer, you have also given them (and you) a solution by giving an alternative plan.

I have spewed over fifteen hundred words at you about balancing your life and your writing profession, and you might be feeling overwhelmed.  RELAX.  It takes time to get into the swing of setting priorities, keeping a calendar, and getting comfortable with saying “no”.  When I first started I kept track of every minute just so I could figure out where my time was going.  Funny, I found I spent more time on Facebook then I imagined.  No wonder I had no time for Bingo!  After months of practice and honing in on what my calendar and my priorities, I found my life running more like a well oiled machine. I chipped away at the rusty spots on a regular basis and, as a result, my writing machine started humming along without the loss of my sanity.  I’m happier, my family is happier, my business gets the attention it needs and I now write everyday.  Without fail.