Small Habits

As I’ve discovered through my series of writing challenges, I have a better chance of success in starting a new habit if I keep my expectations low and concentrate on making the action a regular part of my life rather than getting a lot of that thing done at any one time. So I’m extending this strategy to a few other areas of my life.

Exercise

For the next 30 days I’m going to be doing pushups 3 times a week and using my step machine for at least 20 minutes every day. 30 days is not that long a time to do anything and finding 30 minutes to exercise is possible no matter what my days are like.

Reading

If you have been following this site for the past year you’ll see that I read quite a bit, averaging about 4 books per month. What you will also notice is that nearly all those books are fiction. For a while now I’ve been meaning to start reading more non-fiction for a variety of reasons. For the next 30 days all I need to do is read 10 pages of non-fiction each day.

Writing

Even though I’m still not quite done with my applications and have an essay that I need to do some edits to for book publication, I’ve started another 300 words for 30 days challenge.

With all of these, I am always able to go past the minimums I’ve set for myself. The challenge lies in reaching the minimum goal for each and every day. Another interesting thing to note is that when I was doing my writing challenges I was also doing pushups on a more regular basis than since I stopped writing daily. I think that maybe having multiple daily tasks can reinforce each other and help build a routine that helps give some kind of shape and pattern to the days. Also, keeping a visual record that shows each task being marked off as complete is a huge help to me and one that I definitely will continue to use as a psychological trick to keep me on track.

If you find any of these ideas helpful, please let me know. I’d love to hear how they work or don’t work or how you might adapt them for different kinds of activities.

Writing Update for October 18

InkQuill

Today marks 21 days into my current writing challenge of 400 words for 40 days. I haven’t been as focused on my novel (yes, I’ve given up pretending and have accepted the fact that The Devious Astrolabe is going to be my first novel), as I might like, however, I have been writing quite a bit. Without going into details that I don’t want to share here, I seem to have found myself a muse of sorts for a kind of storytelling that I’ve never explored before and found myself writing quite a bit last week, finishing the first draft of one new short story, completing 3/4 of the first draft of another, and starting a new story that will probably run 10,000 – 12,000 words.

Now, I just need to get to editing some of this output!

Stats so far:

Week 1: 3950 words / average of 564 per day
Week 2: 5910 words / average of 844 per day
Week 3: 3776 words / average of 539 per day

I have several stories out to magazines, but still no publication luck. After this challenge, I plan on taking 2 weeks to really focus on editing some of these stories and finding markets for them.

In other news, I’m assisting a friend who has started a new website called The Dueling Quill, which offers writers a chance to get into the habit of writing. The site will suggest a title, a maximum word count, and a genre and writers will have a week to write something that then gets posted. Readers will vote on their favorite stories and the winner of the duel will get . . . lots of praise and the knowledge of a job well done. Ok, so not much of a prize, but if you are struggling to make writing a regular habit, you might want to check it out.

How’s your writing going?

Entropy is Easy

I waste time. Lots of it. I waste time by surfing the web, making sure I am caught up on the latest status updates on Facebook, reading blogs, watching shows on Hulu, tinkering with my computer’s desktop and settings. If there’s a television around, I am good at wasting time by channel surfing and watching nothing in particular. All in all, given that I’m not working right now and have my days free, I should be making better use of my time than I have been. Significantly better use of my time, damn it!

I have always had a great deal of trouble focusing as a writer when I don’t have my very own space to hole up inside. Even as a child, I used to love taking a large cardboard box and moving all my toys and books inside of it. My mom tells me that when I made a “den” like that I didn’t want to leave it, and that, if left to my own, I probably would have slept inside the box rather than my bed. So yeah, doing the basement living thing and not having my own space doesn’t help.

As much as that might be a valid reason for my lack of focus and productivity, it doesn’t even come close to being a good excuse. Additionally, my proclivity toward procrastination doesn’t disappear when I have my own place, my own “room with a view,” so to speak. I am trying to be more mindful of the ways in which I waste time and attempting to change my habits, especially while sitting at my computer, in order to make better use of my time. The following are a few ideas that I’m trying out or planning on implementing in the near future.

Offloading content to my iPhone

Because I want my computer to become more of a tool rather than a time-waste, I am shifting some of my daily digital consumption to my phone. To start, I’m changing my rss feed reader. While I’ve been using Newsfire (and quite liked it), there is no way to sync it with the iPhone. So last night I switched to NetNewsWire and signed up for the free account on Newsgator. This way, all my rss feeds are synced to my phone. What if I see something in my news feeds while on my phone that I want to blog about or send to someone? The app allows you to “clip” a post or email a post. If you clip it, the next time you open NetNewsReader on your phone, that post will show up in a folder called, oddly enough, “clippings.” Too often I find myself using the mental excuse that reading my news feeds is important and so I should do it whenever I have the slightest mental pause or block regarding what I’m currently working on. I hope that by shifting my news to my iPhone, I won’t give in to the digression of constantly updating news feeds.

Related to this strategy is to make sure that I have subscribed to all of my friend’s rss feeds and then deleting the bookmarks to their blogs on my Safari bookmark bar.

I just opened up Safari and deleted my Facebook bookmark. Sure, accessing it is as simple as typing “facebook” in the address bar, but I also logged out and the next time I log in will not check off the “keep me logged in box.” While I will still have to log in to create notes or post links, I can simply use my phone to keep up on my friends status and postings. The iPhone app is quite good and allows me to perform most of the functions I use on Facebook (status updates, posting photos, sending messages, chatting, reading posts) on a regular basis. Of course it remains relatively easy for me to pull up Facebook and log in and waste time, but I think that by adding some steps into the process I will become more mindful of when and why I’m going to the site. Mindful is good. the iPhone app is quite good and allows me to perform most of the functions I use on Facebook (status updates, posting photos, sending messages, chatting, reading posts) on a regular basis

Desktop Strategies

Really, if you are a Mac user and want to increase your productivity or streamline your workflow, you should take a close look at Quicksilver. I have just set up QS to act as my portal into web searches. So now, instead of opening up Safari and entering search terms, I simply invoke QS, type “goog” hit the tab key twice and enter my search terms. This isn’t about saving massive amounts of time (although it probably shaves a second or two off searching the web), but keeping my focus on task so that when the internet appears before me, it does so for a specific reason. For info on how to set this up, go here.

For several months now, I have been cultivating the habit of closing Mail and iChat in order to mitigate against random distractions. Overall, it has been helpful, but I’ve just decided—literally as I write this sentence—to move Mail off my dock. Seeing as I have Quicksilver, I can open the program just as quickly (if not more so) than using the dock icon, but I find that if I have a momentary pause in my work flow and the Mail icon is right there, staring at me as if to say “open me, open me now to see if you have new mail so you can be reassured that people like you, they really really like you.” Out of sight doesn’t really equal out of mind when it comes to checking email, but maybe it will help me check my mail less obsessively often.

The introduction of “stacks” to OS X Leopard, was a mixed bag for many people. In one of the recent updates however, Apple returned an important function that they left out originally: allowing you to “drill down” through folders to find a file. For example, here is my “In Progress” folder using the grid function: Picture 2.png The problem with this is that if I click on one of my folders, it opens in Finder and I still have to continue searching in order to find the file I want. In list view, however, Picture 1.pngI can navigate easily and directly to the file I want to open. The point here is to get to your task directly.

Of course, Spotlight can also be used to open documents directly,1 and there is no longer the need to keep myself locked to the file folder metaphor. In fact, using Spotlight, you don’t even have to remove your fingers from the keyboard to open up the proper file. I should be using it more often than I do and, starting now, will make a concerted effort to do so.

Using and learning keyboard shortcuts can be a big help. They aren’t just about accomplishing tasks faster than using the mouse or trackpad. As a writer, the less I have to take my fingers off the keys, the less distraction I have from accomplishing my immediate goal. I use keyboard shortcuts more than a lot of other people I know, but not nearly as much I as want. To use them effectively, you have practice and actually take the time to lose focus in order to learn the shortcut. In the short term, trying to learn keyboard shortcuts can be frustrating, but once you know them they can really help keep your focus on the task at hand. Focus is good. There’s a cool widget available for Macs called “xCuts” that provides a comprehensive list of shortcuts that you might find helpful.

Other Ideas

Sit up straight. Really, sit up straight. As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been sitting at a desk, my feet on the ground and my back straight. My focus has been exponentially greater than the past few weeks when using my laptop on a futon, or reclining in a chair with my feet up.

If you find yourself losing focus, take a few deep breaths. Oxygen is good for the brain.

If you are working at a computer and need a break from the task at hand, take a break from the computer itself. Walk, stretch, read an actual book or magazine, write using a pen and paper, do something to clear your mind and refocus your energies. I don’t think reading your email or checking your blogs will be as effective for refocusing your energies as doing something that doesn’t involve a screen.

Don’t give in to distraction when you have a mental pause or block. Close your eyes, or look out the window or walk around for a moment and then work through the block. Basically, don’t let your mind trick you into relaxing instead of focusing. Otherwise you will find yourself distracted on a regular basis when your mind figures out that it can unilaterally call off your concentration with the proverbial “hey look at that shiny, shiny object/weblink/YouTube video/blogpost/LOL Cat.”

Find ways to separate your computer-as-tool from computer-as-entertainment. One idea that I just had is to set up a profile that I switch into when I know that I will be using my computer strictly for entertainment. This profile would highlight the web as well as games and media on my computer. If I could get into the habit of turning to this profile whenever I wanted to watch a movie or surf the web or basically waste time, then I might be able to be more mindful of the tool/entertainment distinction.

There are as many remedies and strategies for addressing distractions and procrastination as there are distractions and ways to procrastinate. As Merlin Mann points out in his post “Time, Attention, and Creative Work:”

Except inasmuch as it can help move aside barriers to finishing the projects that you claim matter to you, “productivity” is often a sprawling ghetto of well-marketed nonsense for people who really just need a ritalin and a hug. So, for myself, random tips and lists that aren’t anchored to solving a real-world problem for a smart but flawed adult with a mind are dead to me.

The ideas and strategies I have proposed here are definitely geared to my productivity, my creative processes. I hope, however, that some of them might be useful in your own battle against the dissipation of your time and energies. Entropy is easy. Making things is hard. I know that I need every advantage I can get in my struggle for the focus and discipline that I need as an artist and so I will try to follow the ideas I have proposed here, but I would also love to hear some of your own ideas about how to avoid wasting your time.

  1. for documents that you know the name of it is, I think, even better than Quicksilver []

500 Words for 50 Days

When I was in MD a couple of weeks ago, I spent some time with Jo Cose and at one point I was urging him to just sit down and write the book he’s been wanting to write for a number of years. I said, “500 words, just make time for 500 words a day. It’s not much, it might still be hard some days to get 500 words, at most it’s about an hour of time. If you want to do more, do more, but 500 words is very, very doable.”

I don’t know if he took my advice, but I decided to take it myself. So I’ve made a pledge to write at least 500 words a day, every day for the next 50 days. No breaks, no days off. If I want to write more, I do. But I have a minimum goal to reach. And writing for the blog doesn’t count. I’ve chosen to only count creative writing. I started on August 18 and am doing pretty well for three days. To help me keep on track, I’m using the “Seinfeld” calender technique–which was not invented by Seinfeld, but as a meme, it’s been mostly attributed to him:

One night I was in the club where Seinfeld was working, and before he went on stage, I saw my chance. I had to ask Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic. What he told me was something that would benefit me a lifetime…

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

[From Motivation: Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret]

I have had some good success with using this technique in the past and need to use it more often for certain things (like, ahem, working out) because it definitely seems to work on my psychology. Instead of printing out a calender, however, I decided to make my own using Numbers and filling in the sections instead of using and “X:”

Picture 1.png

I’m also keeping track of how much I do actually write each day, but with the clear understanding that anything over 500 words is great but not necessary.

This ties in with another friend’s recent blog post:

“Fake it till you make it”
“Become the change you want to be”
“Just do it”
Dopamine production is kicked off by sex and drugs and rock & roll. Or any other exciting activity.
I am sure there are dozens of similar cliches, but what clicked in my head after reading that article is your lifestyle becomes reinforcing on a neurological, chemical level.
So, if you want to get in shape, force yourself to do it for a while. Your brain will become addicted to running/swimming/biking.
If you want to be a painter, keep painting, etc.

[From Pensives & Ruminations]

So yeah, if I want to be a writer, I write. Daily, habitually.

Although I’m not sure if I get the same kind of dopamine rush from writing 500 words that I might from sex, drugs, or rock & roll, I do think it has already begun to make me feel a bit better. More . . . well, more myself. Rewiring your brain isn’t easy, but it’s also not complex: you simply have to cut some new grooves by leading with your body and actions. The brain will, rather quickly, catch up and settle into new habits and new patterns. It’s getting the needle out of the first deep groove that’s the hardest part of the process.

Change


me 1971_2.jpgme in pal joey.jpgmeprop.jpg01010004.jpg

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations. – Anais Nin

Some of you may already know that I’m preparing for a pretty major life change in the coming weeks. Namely, leaving New York City and moving to the Las Cruces/Truth or Consequences area of New Mexico.

Alone.

And no, I don’t know anyone out there. This is going to be a free-fall time, a solo adventure with a few specific personal development goals. But let me back up a moment and begin, as they say, at the beginning (which, of course, is never really the beginning, just a middle you happen to call a beginning because that’s the scene you come in on):

As I mentioned previously, I have been longing to get out of cities for a while now and at this point in my life. Living in NYC has only exacerbated that feeling. The concrete and steel and the screams of the bus-brakes and the subways, the smells of the garbage and the press of people the constant press of people have only further instilled a desire to find a place, a quiet place, a place where I can relax my defenses and have space to breath and sit still and listen to silence and tune in to the rhythms of nature. To find my center, to breathe clean air, to open myself up to my surroundings with a sense of peace and safety and joy.

At the same time that this desire has been growing, I made a huge decision a couple of years ago when I left CUNY’s The Graduate Center, forgoing the academic and career path I had set myself on in 2001 when I began my Masters degree at the University of Maryland. Namely, becoming a full-time, tenured college professor. The ramifications of the decision are still being felt, the meanings still being teased out by my mind as I grapple with the awareness that I have chosen to leave behind (for the foreseeable future) a life that holds a tremendous amount of appeal and a career that I’m very good at doing. For years, even when I was mentally (and sometimes vocally) railing against graduate school and feeling ill at ease with the whole notion of academia, I was being told, on a near daily basis, that I was very good at thinking, at research, at writing and at teaching. That approbation felt damn good, regardless of what I was feeling about the system. I was also surrounded by friends and colleagues who were damned smart and curious and excited by ideas and theories and theatre and thinking. Actually, I think I miss that community more than anything else that I experienced as a grad student. In many ways, those colleagues provided more of an impetus for me to think harder than many of my professors and I adore thinking and trying to wrap my brain around concepts that are hard and not necessarily intuitive.

(Well, I do when I am grappling with notions, ideas, and subjects that come naturally to me. Subjects like critical theory, dramaturgy, directing, even teaching others. If I’m honest there are all sorts of things that are hard for me that I avoid – like math and foreign languages. And actually, that’s one of the things I’d like to change about myself.)

What do I really want to be when I grow up? I am tempted to say the same thing that I said when I was seven: “a writer,” but that’s not completely true. What I most want to be is a storyteller. One who can work in various mediums to affect peoples minds, heard and souls. I want to make other people feel what Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, Joanna Russ, John Crowley, Samuel Delany, Sherri S. Tepper, Stephen Moffat, and Ron Moore have made me feel. I love directing theatre, and plan on continue to tell stories through that specific art, but directing is easy for me (the challenges of each moment may be difficult, but the process is one that feel entirely comfortable and confident in). Making music is something that I want to become better at, both as a composer and as a songwriter and I will be making a more concerted effort in that arena. I also plan on furthering my experiments in sound design as an expressive and storytelling art

But the most challenging medium for me is writing. And, if I’m honest with myself, writing is also what I most want to leave behind as my legacy. Through plays, short stories, novels, comics and screenplays, I want to tell stories that will astonish and delight, that will make people think and cry and see themselves and see something so alien as to see the world anew. I want to invent worlds where other people want to come and live. I want to create realities that have never been seen and re-write those that have become so trite as to be invisible. I have never stopped writing completely, and have almost always carried a story or two in my head that needs telling, but because writing is hard, it’s very very easy for me to find ways to not do it. School provided me with a convenient excuse because I was writing, just not stories (to be honest though, I do see my academic work as stories, just in a very different sense of the word – but that’s another discussion for another time), and I was expected to focus all my energies on my studies.

Now I no longer have that excuse. Neither will I have a myriad of other excuses for not writing . . . actually, to be more specific, I will not have any excuse not to make writing the primary focus of my life. It won’t be the only thing in my life with any meaning, but the other parts of my life need to be arranged in support of my life as a storyteller and as a writer. Trust me, I know that simply moving yourself from one place to another does not ensure personal change and a sudden ability for self-discipline. So I do not see this move as a solution, or as the answer to my struggles to become the writer I want to become, the writer I’ve always envisioned myself but never actually made happen. However, I do believe that for me to get my shit together as an artist, I need to find an environment that can allow me to feel more open to the world, less defensive, less cut-off from my own needs and desires; a place of silence and stillness that will allow the stories (and myself) a freedom of being that I just don’t seem to find in an urban setting, or, to be completely honest, while living–and by living I mean “significant other” kind of living–with someone.

Scared? Hell yeah. I will have no obligation to anyone but myself and I’ve not been terribly good on that front as it is far easier for me to get work accomplished when it is for someone else. That situation could be directing, where if I don’t come through I let down my cast and crew, or it could be school, where teachers demanded both content and excellence to be delivered to them on deadline. The last time I was not in school, the last time I went west, I fucked around and did very little of worth because I was lazy and undisciplined and unfocused. Graduate school has definitely given me some good habits and abilities that I didn’t have back then, but the fact is I don’t know if I can do this. I have spent a great deal of my life doing things that I know I can do, often times with great success. So, do I have the life skills, the self-discipline, the fortitude, the courage, the skills, or the focus to be who I want to become?

I don’t know.

But I guess I will find out. One way or another.

Distraction is the Enemy of Thought

Lately I’ve been reflecting on my computer habits and the ways in which I waste time. For quite a while now my home page on my browser has been Netvibes and I have had five pages of various RSS feeds. Recently I even put together a page of 10 feeds that were all Apple news sites.

Now, really, do they ever report vastly different stories? Certainly not when it comes to the big stories. But I would pour over all my various feeds, looking for the newest bit of information, the latest nugget of news. Currently I also listen to a number of tech podcasts at work so why this need to constant information? Why indeed. So today I decided to step back from the whole RSS thing and set up a homepage that is, basically, just an old fashioned links page containing some of the links to my favorite or most useful websites that I turn to for news or information:

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It’s basic and plain and exceedingly simple, but I’m hoping that it will force me to be more mindful of my internet habits and provide significantly less distraction.