This week I am taking my own advice and taking a pause on my usual Wednesday feature. I have writing assignment due Thursday, and I just completed two projects with Monday deadlines. So because my blog is not “required” for any reason other than my compulsivity (yup, I know), today it shall rest.
Enjoy reading the abundance of other amazing things to read out on the internets! I shall be back soon. Hasta luego!
On Thursday I finished up a short contract for a writing client that had found me through Upwork. The topic had challenged me. I had needed to do a quick turnaround literature search, read and understand concepts in a field that was unfamiliar, and produce some writing that made sense of a general audience without a medical background.
About half way into the project, I had some doubts. The material was dense and technical, a reminder of my biochemistry days in college. I remembered that brain-twisting experience of reading through research papers that were way over my head, trying to interpret them. It felt like a foreign language in a way, trying to understand complex mechanisms or experimental methodology that was unfamiliar.
But I remembered that there comes a time when focusing deeply on a topic and taking time to break it down pays off. It can take some time, depending on the topic of course. But after some time, getting to know the lingo, looking up things I do not understand, and making my way through some research review articles, the major themes started to click into place.
My brain, which had felt like mush a couple days before, trying to grasp a field which was new to me, finally began to grasp what was most important. I began to think through how to write the review document in a way that someone outside the field might grasp.
I have to tell you though, getting it done was a relief. Focusing for this short project was a bit of a test to myself. Can I do this work? Will the client like it? Can I really make money as a freelancer? It appears the client is happy, and I expect she will leave a good review.
Getting it done can be the best feeling. What are you most satisfied with getting done? Can you make time to celebrate it this weekend?
I mean it, schedule fun into each week, each day, maybe even in every hour if that is possible.
It is not optional. Fun feeds your creativity.
I used to take breaks to play and rest only when I had “earned” them through doing enough work. Probably that daughter-of-an-immigrant work ethic that many of us inherited. Work all day and then you can earn your fun.
But what it we turned that on its head?
Play at intervals, rest at intervals. Work deeply, but do so in a focused and paced way.
Those of us with focus issues might prefer the “sprint/break” approach: work in 45 minute blocks with no interruptions (including email, social media or other distractions) and then get up and move, dance or walk for 15 minutes.
Others who like to work for longer stretches might work for 90 minutes take a 30 minute break. Most research says that the maximum focus for most humans sitting at one time without moving is about 70-80 minutes. Honor that. In the era of social media, it is likely substantially less, according to Cal Newport.
Knowledge work often requires sitting at a desk for long stretches, or enduring endless teleconferences that sometimes make you want to stab your eye out with a pencil (not speaking personally, of course).
What if you took a playful attitude toward work? You can inject a little creativity and some cartoons or funny videos into your (dreadful) required Powerpoint presentations. (I feel your pain. I have been there.)
One of my favorite wise teachers, Brene Brown says that “Creativity not expressed is not benign. It metastasizes.” Heed that wisdom. Plan some fun and some whimsy into your day. Your work will be re-energized and you will deliver at a higher level.
How often do you ask yourself the question in your life: What is essential? Or a variation: what is essential for me right now?
I just listened to the audio book (and am re-listening, because it resonated so much) that many of you minimalists out there probably already know, called “Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. It is resonating with me on so many levels.
We can find a life of greater meaning, purpose and satisfaction with the mantra “less but better.” McKeown echoes many of the concepts of mindfulness as well as other wisdom I have discovered in other books like Deep Work by Cal Newport and The One Thing by Gary Keller. I find many applications here in how I am thinking about designing my new life and work for the future. The principle of essentialism is deeply connected to our personal wellness so I will focus on that aspect.
We face a plethora of choices every day about what to do and how to spend our time. There are many more options for what we can do in any given day and so many more decisions we are thus privileged (some would say forced) to make. Each hour, each minute, even in one breath, we choose. Do I meditate? Do I listen to a favorite podcast? Read a book? Finish that article I’m working on? Join that online webinar? Attend a yoga class?
And yet choose we must. Decisions are a part of life. We want to “have it all” and indeed many advertisers try to convince us that we can. But this is folly, because by attempting to do everything, we focus on nothing. It all becomes noise, and it is insignificant. It produces no real results, and we become frustrated at a lack of progress.
When we think we *have* to do it all, we are lying to ourselves. When we choose only what is essential to us, and pare down what is extraneous, we are rapidly able to better discern what is important. There are applications in terms of possessions, commitments, activities, memberships, or even new habits we are trying to implement. When we are spread too thin, we devote less attention to what is important. The problem is that many of us believe the illusion that everything is important. It is simply not true.
So to answer the question of what is essential for me, I would boil it down this way: sleep, play/creativity, rest, relationships and work. I was going to put work before play. But I realized I am not technically working (for money) now, and I am doing just fine. Sleep, play and rest have been essential to my sabbatical. Since I worked and saved, I am able to rest and play now for a period. I know that reflects some privilege. But it also reflects choices I have made in my life about what is essential.
What is essential to you? How can you focus more deeply on that today?
This morning I was contemplating joyfully and with some curiosity the blank canvas that is the next chapter of my work life. It feels like a fresh start, that opportunity to re-invent my daily rituals, hone my purpose, and choose the colors for the palette.
Though I am not a visual artist, and only dabble with colors and fun materials now and then, I can appreciate that excitement of a blank canvas. As a writer, it is a little like the blank page, that space of infinite possibility before the words start spilling out. I face it with excitement, and a little unknowing. Where will this go? What am I trying to say?
Since I generally write to understand any new concept, or even myself, there is always an air of mystery about it. As a blogger, I have learned to embrace the empty page as a sacred space where I am invited to create. It is our greatest privilege as humans, our creative energy, and I think it is where we meet our divinity.
I find that I want to experiment a bit, not to rush into splashing color onto the page, but to spend some time preparing the colors, feeling what wants to emerge. I greatly appreciated my solitude yesterday and the ability to respect the rhythm of my body, working and resting in a ratio that felt right. My coach and I decided on some “homework” for the next week, and I was able to accomplish the items on my list.
If I were an artist, I would run my hands along the blank canvas, noting its texture and honoring this gift. I shall have to resist a trip to the art store to do this, but maybe it is time to get out my colors and sketch pad.
Do you have a ritual for honoring the “blank canvas” times in your life?
This week’s edited piece is from a post I did back in December 2017. As I get ready to meet some deadlines for writing projects, it is a great reminder to just get the work drafted.
To those of you who are waiting for your blogs to be perfect to publish them, here is some advice I got originally from Brooke Castillo of the Life Coach School podcast.Do B minus work, but get it started ahead of time. It echoes advice I have received from other authors like Anne Lamott and Brene Brown: settle for shitty first drafts the first time out (SFD’s – aka stormy first drafts).
This is great advice for those of us who suffer from perfectionism. Often we procrastinate because we worry about our idea not being good enough or our final product not being polished enough. This is especially true for women, it seems, so we delay holding up our hand when we already know the answer.
We may need to practice greater confidence when it comes to starting things. Just getting started, and getting it out, we overcome the “activation energy” it takes to get the momentum moving. For me as a writer, I seldom struggle for a topic. Give me a topic and I can rattle on all day about it if you want.
But when it comes to telling a story or constructing an argument effectively, I know it takes me more time to get it right. Even if the words flow out, and they typically do when I give myself uninterrupted time to write, the final product is not complete.
It is best when I allow the words to flow and not worry too much about structure or ultimate form of a piece. When it comes to blogging, it is inherently a shorter form. I struggle with not going on for TOO long, so I often write a first version during half an hour in the afternoon and then return to edit in the morning when I am fresh.
At that point, I typically add graphics, correct grammar, perhaps cut out sections or paragraphs or sentences that wander and make sure the idea makes sense.
Not worrying too much about the reception of an idea is another way to get the work out there quickly. We can only know what is in our own minds, not what will resonate with others. So it is best not to worry and obsess about what they want, and focus instead of what we want to say (despite my recent worry about this).
What I realize now is that my blog has become a place where I can try out ideas, play around with stories I find interesting, or concepts I am trying out in my life. I have nothing specific to “sell” out here, and sometimes I have gotten useful feedback on my ideas.
The practice of sitting down once or twice a day and getting those ideas onto the screen has helped me clarify some of the questions I ask myself. Over time, the answers get refined, and the focus gets clarified.
If I do not start with B minus work, there is no opportunity to shape and polish it to become “A” work. But one of the great secrets to adulthood is that there are no grades anymore. We do not have to rely on others’ evaluations of us to be successful.
Every day we can decide how we want to assess our own success, and the quality of our days. That is probably the best news ever. If we can be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that we did the best we could for that day, it is always enough.