#Writing Advice: #Motivation and #Empowerment

In the course of my writing life, people have asked me over and over about motivation.  “How do I get motivated?” or “Can you motivate me?” Few things strike as much fear into my heart.  It’s not that I don’t have any concern for people.  I genuinely want to nurture other writers.  But I hate “motivating” people.

Does this make me a horrible person?

When someone asks me how to “get” motivated, I immediately pull back.  To me, this sounds like an invitation to play a guessing game with their psychology, to start pulling wires in their heads until I make them do the thing they want to do.  This takes an unimaginable amount of energy and patience on my part.  Some days I just don’t have it.

When I hear this from a growing writer, I worry about two things.  First, I don’t want to give the appearance of hoarding the Special Magical Mystical Writing Knowledge That I Surely Possess ™.  Second, I don’t want to give the appearance I don’t care about other writers.  But at the end of the day, I believe in tough love.  To write, you have to write.  It’s as simple and impossible as that.

The necessity of pulling back

When you overwater a plant, it becomes wilted and soft.  The stem grows mold and the plant can die if the gardener doesn’t hold back a little.  Sometimes I think one has to hold back to the sake of the writer.  I don’t want them to wilt.  I want to see people confident and self-actualized just as much as I want to preserve my own energies.

So how do I help people get off their metaphorical couches?  How do I help them to overcome their training that “writing is impossible” and you have to “write it right the first time”?

RX for writing motivation

Motivation is not something you can find, and it is certainly not something someone gives you.  There is no magic button or pill.  Motivation is a series of choices we must all make.  As writers, we are not automatically afforded the respect and dignity given to more popular professions.  We must nurture ourselves, empower ourselves, and claim our own work as work.  We must learn to motivate ourselves.

Give yourself the gift of the draft – such a good idea I had to repeat it!

Produce.  Produce.  Produce.  You are not a writer until you are writing.  There is no pizzazz in this, there is no glamour.  You are translating thought and impression into the code of language, and making that code understandable to others.  This is work.  This is labor.  Own it.

When you actually work on something , you become intimately familiar with the process.  You learn the needs of the format or genre you’re working with, and you learn your own habits and foibles.  The experience of working draft by draft is more valuable than a hundred writing books.  There is no substitute for drafting.

“You can’t spit out the Mona Lisa” – my favorite old saw

Distance yourself emotionally from your draft and learn to edit.  Your first draft will always be flawed.  Your second, third, and even fourth will have issues.  Sometimes projects have fatal flaws, and sometimes they need heavy-duty restructuring.  This is not an indictment on your as a writer.

You are under no obligation to write a perfect poem, essay, or paper the first time.  Waiting until you deem something “perfect” to move on is going to prevent you from writing anything.  Excellence is a good goal, but perfectionism is a very bad habit.

Identify your  High Order Concerns

Take this session by session, and have definable goals for each one.  In tutoring, we have to prioritize on the fly, and we usually only have 30 minutes with a student.   A successful tutoring session triages a paper: both individuals ascertain what the biggest flaw in the work is and address that first.  If there’s time left in the session, they work on small fry. This empowers the student to work on their own errors, not just accept criticism, however well deserved – it puts them in the drivers’ seat.

Do the same for yourself.  What do you want to accomplish this afternoon?  Today?  This week?  Limit these goals severely.  If you can’t place it in the top three slots of your to-do list, it’s not a High Order Concern.  Not every part of the writing process is priority one at every single step.

Parting Thoughts

There will be days, even weeks, where you can’t get “anything done”.  That is ok.  You are allowed to have a life outside of writing.  But you must develop the reflex to return over and over to your worktable.  Over time, the choices you make become habit.

If you choose to put off a project until you find the perfect word, detail, mood, whatever – you are ultimately choosing to not bring this project to completion.  You will develop and reinforce fear, anxiety, and perfectionism.  You have developed the habit of de-motivating yourself.  Can you live with the outcome of these choices?

However, if you develop the habits of production, editing, and prioritizing – you have chosen to motivate yourself.  On a day to day basis, you will have your hands dirty with the work of writing.  You may feel temporary disappointments and setbacks, but overall you will remain motivated to continue.


Change of seasons, change of heart: Taking stock with the new semester

When the season starts changing, it’s a good idea to take a little time and reflect on how things are going, especially before the rush of “The Holidays”

So it’s fall, and that means only one thing to me: Cleanup!  As summer fades away and the fall semester begins, it’s time to take stock of stuff, tie up loose ends, and get ready for winter.

This cleanup encompasses a number of different dimensions:

  • Physical: which means I literally clean house
  • Mental: which means I take a look at my schedule, budget, and commitments
  • Emotional: which means I start thinking about what has happened in the past year; what I can change and what I must accept

The reason I mention all of this, besides trying to cough up content, is to share with you some things I do that helped me as I acclimated to college and beyond.

It’s been a while, but I have been pretty much where you are now, so I know something of what your experiences may be.  What works for me may not work for you and that’s perfectly ok, but hear me out and you may learn something that does you good!

Physical cleanup

These are some actual techniques I’ve used to help manage physical clutter in my life:

  • Trash blitz – Set that kitchen timer or the great E.gg Timer site for a small chunk of time, say 15-20 minutes, and let yourself tackle one problem at a time like that messy desk top, or that out of control pantry. And when you’re done, you are done – small, attainable goals, people!
  • New space, new ideas – I have trouble sorting and evaluating drawers, folders, and so on in their places.  One trick I’ve learned is to take the take the container, if it’s portable, and settle into another room. If you’re going to do this, you have to remember to put the drawer (or whatever) back, though!
  • Freecycle –  Your mileage may vary, but I found freecycling to be a liberating experience. Various charities often need clothes, shoes, and toiletries, so if you have a bunch of stuff to let go of, check around with local community centers and churches.
  • Launch pad – sometimes I’m really stumped as to whether I need something or not.  I keep a small area by my front door for things I’m deciding on and it has to be cleared out in a week.  No exceptions. Objects in that area must either find an actual use Right Then and There, or they have to leave the house immediately via trash, recycling, or donation.
  •  What’s on it is what’s in it – labeling conventions are your friend.  This works for folders of school work to files on your computer.  With folders or files, especially in undergrad, I liked to do it like this:

Class Number Semester Project

ENG 258 Fall 2010 Shakespeare Paper

In the case of computer files, I’d add what stage I was at right in the filename, then hit save as and rename when I was ready for a new draft:

Eng 258 FA 2010 Shakespeare draft 2.doc


Mental cleanup

As you clean up excess and reimagine your personal spaces, it’s a good idea to evaluate how you spend your time and money as well.

  • Schedule:  I find it helpful to use Google calendars to track my schedule, and note when I have work and family commitments coming up.

Apps like Asana are really helpful in breaking down large projects into manageable chunks.  If you want something low-tech, there’s nothing like good old fashioned pen and paper.

Sometimes I make to-do lists on large sketch pads so I can tack up a page and visualize every project I have going on.  With all the blogging I do, it helps to keep topics and research straight!

  • Budget: As for money, I keep track of not only how much I make in a month, I keep a running tab of bills. I’ve put the due dates for those bills on my calendar.

This is especially helpful for large bills like student loan or car payments – I know that on week X I have a significant chunk of change coming out of my balance, so I know to take it easy until the next check.

  • Commitments: Family – either family of birth or family of choice – means commitments.   Invitations can start piling up this time of year, as well as the expectations that you will attend All The Things.

Using a calendar routinely can help you not just keep track of when you have plans, but also to budget your time.  Commitments are not just things other people expect you to do – it’s what you promise yourself.

Gym time, study time, prayer or meditation if that’s how you roll – commit early on to keep some time to yourself.  It makes life so much easier to build this into your schedule.


Emotional cleanup

I’m not a counselor, or any sort of professional, and I barely hold myself together most days.  But I’ve been through a lot early on, so I know what it’s like to deal with emotional issues.  It’s not easy, and there will be good days and bad days – and that’s ok.  You’re allowed to have bad days.  But taking stock of your feelings every so often, and considering if there’s better ways to react to what life is throwing at you – that can be very, very helpful.

  • Accepting change: The cliche says that change is the only thing that stays the same.  And that’s very true.  Nothing will ever stay just the way it is.  Developing ways to deal with constant change and thrive despite it will help you go far in life.

 College is a great place to practice your coping skills, because there is still change, but the rhythms of class, research, and homework provide you a good core.

  • Moving step by step: Noone can shit out the Mona Lisa.  Noone is perfect, and noone ever knows completely, 100% what they are doing at any given time.  Give yourself a break – you are learning, and you always will be learning.

While you should strive to improve, learn to make small attainable goals for yourself so you get used to knocking them out of the park (eg improving study habits to pass a test).  Then when it’s time for the big stuff (scholarship app, degree, or transferring to a larger school) you are able to run that marathon rather than try to sprint and get burnt out.

  • Learning new responses: I had a lot of trouble with this myself, due to my upbringing.  We were on assistance, and my mother was very ill for much of my teen years.  Things were hard, but this changed.

When I had my own household, I still felt like that little kid in the ER or on the line at the local welfare office.  With time, I learned that I was still making choices and responding to life as if I was that kid, even though I am now older with a different set of circumstances.  to remind myself to act differently, I regularly take stock of where I actually am (socially, financially, etc)  and emotionally “clean house” on a regular basis.

  • Continually redefining success: Speaking of taking stock of reality, this is another thing that helped me, having a different idea of success.  While I don’t advocate settling, I think we do ourselves a disservice to talk about one way of life being the image of success: house, mortgage, car 1, car 2, constant buying.

My definition of success right now is: Are the bills paid?  Are the lights on?  Do I have a little savings? Am I and my loved ones happy and healthy?  Do I have time to enjoy simple pleasures?  OK, good, achievement unlocked!

 So, we’re at the end, then…

This is something I started doing when I first had my own household, and now that I’m (allegedly) grown-up, it takes on more importance. It’s a series of things I’ve picked up after years of trial and error, so I thought I’d pass it along to anyone who wants to riff on it.  Some things may work for you, and some may not – that’s quite alright!  Take all of this as a jumping off point and find what works for you yourself!

Science Fiction Double Feature: Blogging Guilt + Clutter and Personal boundaries

Hi everyone,

You know that unfortunate “sorry I haven’t been posting” post?  Yeah, this is mine.  The rhythms of my day job get more and more complicated this time of year, so blogging simply had to take a back seat.  But I will not let that get me down!

This will be a two part post.  The first, I feel compelled to add.  It’s about time and blogging:

I.  TCB: Taking care of business

This is one for the bloggers out there.  If you are dealing with something very complicated in your offline life, and you are quite literally taking care of business, don’t feel guilty if you missed your post.  I know that’s a tall order, given the prevalence of guilt and also the fact that for many people regular posting is money or at least professional reputation.

The Thinking 30something is nowhere near that level of renown, but I do get concerned when I can’t stick to my posting schedule.  I worry I will look flaky, lazy, unprofessional, and unambitious.  All of that is false, but it’s something I struggle with.

What I do when I know I’ll be unable to blog is to literally “warn” readers in a post.  If it’s one of those things that slides off the plate, well that’s a little tougher.  I acknowledge that slack and try to avoid it in the future.  And I try not to make a big deal of it.  We’ve all got lives, and sometimes those lives need tending.

Ok, onto the next section!

2.  Clutter and personal boundaries

A really good way to learn, define, and assert your personal boundaries all over the place is to get your home in order. Look to your domestic sphere.  Taking on more than you can manage isn’t just tasks at work or social events.  Sometimes too much *stuff* undermines you ability to do what you need and want to do.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about clutter of all sorts, especially how to get rid of it, making a damn party of getting rid of it, and how good that can feel.  It’s kind of a pet issue for me.  And I think any conversation about professional development or time management needs to include that personal dimension.   Life at work influences life and home and vice versa.  There is a therapeutic value to keeping your personal space organized and manageable.

Order and peace in one space in your life automatically influences others.  I know what this can do to a person, and I’ve had to help out many times with life-change or end of life cleanups.  So I’m personally invested in learning more about managing and disposing of the material excess we all seem to accumulate.  Clutter takes over, it ignores your time, your space, and your needs and desires.  Learning to manage clutter can directly improve your ability to say “enough is enough!” with other boundaries, and learn to draw your lines.

Clutter is:

  • Common: we all have to deal with this in one form or another, from actual physical clutter to “virtual” clutter (when was the last time you organized your Documents folder?  what’s on that flash drive – who knows!)
  • Rational: It makes perfect sense to neglect housework if, say, you’re ill, or caregiving, or working 12+ hour days.
  • Irrational: Clutter is irrational too, in the sense that you know when you have too much stuff laying around, but you can’t bring yourself to do anything because it causes powerful negative feelings – you may literally not be rational, or reasoning fully, when dealing with your clutter.  It is very powerful emotionally, and if you’re cluttering due to an emotional issue, it takes a lot of work to examine and unlearn those mental responses that lead to clutter.
  • Possible to manage: Above all, I want to stress that it’s not only normal to struggle with clutter, but that it’s completely possible to manage it.  There are many fine resources out there that you can learn from.

Clutter takes a lot out of you.  It may seem like “just” inanimate objects, but after a point, it takes over.  Clutter prevents:

  • Clear thinking: I know how this feels…you come home from “one of those days” at work and you need to pay the bills and tend to your neglected personal projects and you can’t focus because your space is chaotic!  You think, “maybe I’m lazy or not motivated” – you’re not – you just can’t concentrate because all the objects are “screaming” at you.  How can anyone hear their own thoughts in a messy room?  Each pile represents a task you must undertake, but all together it’s quite overwhelming.
  • Healthy living: Ever try to dust a cluttered space?  Doesn’t happen.  Ever spill something in a cluttered space, and think you have it all cleaned up?  Probably not – there will be mystery stains.  Clutter prevents actual cleaning from taking place.  If you can’t wipe down surfaces, mop floors, or attend to spills with a minimum of preamble (move pile A here, move pile B because pile A needs a spot so you can mop that spilled milkshake….)  then you’re not going to be able to clean effectively and that will impact your health.  I’m talking allergens, mold, insects, mice, and so on.  Also, if you cannot move around in your space, you may bump into things, trip over them, or simply not be able to travel around your own dwelling (or have emergency personnel get in).  A small path is not enough.
  • Social interaction: If you can’t exist comfortably in your own space, how are you going to have anyone over?  Clutter and the shame it produces can be very possessive, claiming all your space and even time you can be spending with friends and loved ones.

So there’s some food for thought.  Next time, I want to revisit this topic, and talk about specific techniques to manage clutter, and how those can help you continually learn to set your boundaries.


See you later!



Breaking the Hourglass: Thoughts on Time Management

I’ve been really curious about time management lately, since I keep hearing it everywhere.  Curiosity led to googling, which led to a lot of reading, and eventually this blog post.

This phrase seems like a buzzword at first, like those old chestnuts “synergize”and “leverage”.   But this is more than words-that-say-nothing.  What does this mean?

“Time management is the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on            specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness,efficiency or productivity It is a meta-activity with the goal to     maximize the overall benefit of a set of other activities within the boundary  condition of a limited amount of time”. (visit the wiki)

Googling this term will get you endless lists of suggestions and activities to help you make the most of your time. Everyone seems to have the magic answer, the right combination of scheduling, personal planners, and prioritizing. You will be counseled to schedule conversations, or delegate parts of your work to others, or even use a kitchen timer to make chunks of time.  There’s a lot of advice out there about re-imagining and manipulating time.

To summarize the many, many sites out there, time management is about setting boundaries.  You have to own your time, decide for yourself what you need do do in a given chunk of time, and decide what steps you can take within that time to achieve or get closer to that goal.

This is a tall order, especially for the younger folks in this crowd.  When you’re in your twenties (and let’s be honest, your thirties) you are expected to do more, more, and more.  And precisely in that order.  This is the “paying your dues” time of life.  And in some ways, yes, you will have to pay your dues.  You will have to be green and naive and then you’ll have to learn.  To a point that’s ok.  You have to know some stress in order to appreciate the good things in life.

But there is definitely a point where working or living on a crisis-by-crisis basis will get old.  Also, if you’re not empowered in your life or at your job, if your  priorities and activities are set *for* you routinely,  you will be unable to effectively carry out your day, or your larger projects with any level of effectiveness.

To be “empowered” (watch those buzzwords, Liz!)  you have to make some decisions, and own them.  Start with the small ones and work your way up to build your confidence.  I’m kind of surprised that time management advice doesn’t talk openly about developing self-confidence.  That is the only way to effectively manage your hours, days, weeks, and so on.  Setting boundaries is something that gets easier with maturity, so perhaps they coaches and mentors out there are really suggesting baby-steps to confidence, and time management.

After reading a while on this subject, you will notice that another common thread in time management is learning to prioritize.  What is really important in the next 5 minutes, the next 30, the next 60?    And this carries into larger chunks of time: what do you need to get done today, tomorrow, this week?  Especially if you have multiple projects going on, learning how far to push each one every day is crucial.

Part of prioritizing is also learning what you can let go: if you have XYZ going on, can you put off ABC for another day?  Prioritizing is not so much about controlling everything than it is about being realistic.  I used to feel guilty if I didn’t finish my entire to-do list in a single work day – and I mean the entire one, with minor tasks and all.  This led to a wild imbalance between my work day and my personal time, and my happiness – and my productivity – suffered for it.  Now I check in with my list 2-3 times a day and ask myself What needs to happen?  What can wait?  What are the consequences and can I handle them?

All this comes easier with practice.  And it will never be perfect, but those reflexes will kick in eventually.  But the more you practice owning your time, and thinking of it as there to help you, the faster you will develop the abilities you need to get closer to your goals.