If you’re like me, you have more than one priority.
Now, I’ve read Essentialism and The One Thing, and heard many experts discuss why focusing matters. I don’t disagree, but I’m also a creative thinker. When I tell myself to stop exploring options, to stick to what truly matters, my world closes in around me. I wonder: do you feel this way, too? Do you hear people talking about focus, and wonder what’s wrong with you? Have you labeled yourself as undisciplined or unfocused after failing to stick to a short list of priorities?
Let’s take a look at an example.
Which is more important to you: a healthy body or your relationship with your best friend?
There are a lot of books out there that urge you to prioritize your own physical health over your relationship with your best friend. Logically, they’d claim that if you’re not healthy, you can’t be a good friend anyway. However, in a real-world scenario, most of us would choose our best friend over our health. Say our best friend calls us in crisis at the exact moment when we’ve suited up to go for a run. It’s not just any run. We’ve been putting off our exercise for weeks, and we know we need to get ourselves back in motion to get back on track. We’ve finally motivated ourselves to do it … and now our friend is hurting. Even though exercise is important, most likely we’ll delay our run and spend time talking with our friend.
Or consider the end of our lives. When our health is no longer in our control, which will matter to us more: our health or our best friend?
My point is this: your health and your relationship with your best friend are likely both important to you. Forcing yourself to put them in an ordered list creates a false choice. You likely have goals for both of these important areas of life … and those simultaneous goals don’t cancel each other out.
A priority is singular.
The reason people have begun talk about priorities, plural, is because life is complex. We need a word to describe the categories in our lives that don’t get checked off a list by a certain completion date, the way goals do. I’d like to propose a writerly word to fill this gap: theme. A story generally has an overall theme, with related motifs woven into it. I think our lives have a similar structure. Let’s explore a practical application. The overall theme in a life might be connectedness. If so, what actions must I take personally and with others to live into this theme? By considering theme, I avoid forcing myself to make a false choice between my friends and my health.
As we’ve been discussing recently on the Writerly Play blog, the questions that we ask inform the answers we discover. By asking a more expansive question, we avoid losing our way in a question that may be splitting hairs rather than helping us live our most fulfilled lives.
Why does all of this matter?
If you struggle to create an ordered list of priorities, perhaps it might help you to think about your life’s theme. What motifs weave into that theme? Which ones fit now, in this season, and which might fit later? Which are lifelong habits that deserve ongoing attention?
Pursuing your life’s theme is a marathon, but the most effective way to meet goals along the way is to think of them as sprints.
We will never check off a box and no longer need to brush and floss our teeth, to eat healthy food, or spend time with loved ones. Similarly, if we want to play an instrument, participate in a sport, or maintain a creative skill such as drawing, creative writing or improvisation, we need to carve out a certain amount of regular time to practice.
Here’s where the idea of a sprint becomes so useful. Most of these practices can be done in a few minutes a day. However, developing the foundational skills can take many hours. If you set out to learn to draw and do it in five minutes a week, you’re not going to have much fun with your drawing for quite some time. You’re likely to get frustrated and give up, honestly, because your progress will be so slow.
The best way to make true progress on one of these kinds of projects is to set a goal, focus tightly on that goal in a “sprint,” and then once you’ve achieved a certain level of skill, maintain the practice at a more steady pace. It may be that for a week, you set aside all of your practices so you can develop a new skill. But after that week, you can pick them all back up, adding the new one.
You don’t have to give up everything you love in order to try something new.
If you need a kickstart for a project that’s been calling to you, try a sprint. Give yourself room to experiment and find the ways of working, creating and living that work best for you. Your life’s theme is expansive, and will continue to play out in surprising ways. Allow yourself room to grow.
My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.
Object: Having the right tools at hand for the project at hand.
What Didn’t Work: Trying to remember the tools I had for various tasks, scrolling through iPhone screens filled with apps and getting frustrated or distracted, spending more time finding apps than using them.
My Aha! Moment: One day, I took out my bead kit, opened it up, and started working on a bracelet. There’s something so satisfying about a kit with compartments to hold each type of bead and each type of tool. Rather than spending time running around the house looking for scissors, thread, or the findings, I could clear the table, relax, and create.
As I worked, I began thinking about work projects, such as making the social media rounds. If I could have a kit for those tasks, how much more effective might I be? I imagined putting various apps in a basket, laughing a little at the absurdity of the idea. But as I kept thinking, I realized the idea wasn’t out of the question. I finished my bracelet and started researching. Finding the iPhone app, Launcher was a delight. This app allows you to create customized widgets that you can access from your notification screen. Abra-cadabra … little baskets for my apps!
How I Play:
- I started by thinking of activities that require a number of apps as well as focused attention.
- I created a widget for each of these activities and added the apps so they quick-launch when I tap their logos.
- I played with the custom timing so that when I go to the notification screen, I see the most relevant widgets based on the day of the week and the time of day.
- There are many options with the Launcher app. Some apps have supported actions. In this way, you can shortcut key actions. Explore options, but don’t be overwhelmed by them. Don’t feel the need to be a power user … use what helps you most.
- If you’re not an iPhone user, there are likely similar apps for other smart phones. Explore and share if you have great options!
Take it to the Next Level:
- Consider how this concept might relate to other parts of your digital world. I’m exploring ways to use my Macbook dashboard in a similar way. My goal is to be able to open a screen and see all the tools needed, but none of the ones that might distract me.
- Consider how this concept might relate to other parts of your non-digital world. What kinds of “kits” might you make yourself?
Creativity often shows up at the intersection of various thoughts. Here are three to ponder … what do they spark for you?
“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
― Henry Green
“In each of us lie good and bad, light and dark, art and pain, choice and regret, cruelty and sacrifice. We’re each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion fighting to emerge into something solid, something real. We’ve got to forgive ourselves that. I must remember to forgive myself. Because there is a lot of grey to work with. No one can live in the light all the time.”
― Libba Bray
“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi
They say courage is feeling afraid and acting anyway.
The trouble is, when we feel afraid, our hearts race, our adrenaline spikes and our prefrontal cortices give way to our amygdalae. Depending on the intensity of our fear, we may completely lose access to our logic and reasoning. And while some situations call for a “get out of here now!” type of response, many do not––particularly those situations that call for courage.
How can we fight back when fear threatens to swallow our courage?
We can name the people, the situations, the moments and the beauty for which we give thanks. Giving thanks is even more powerful when it is made tangible … in spoken or written word. In image. In musical notes or in movement.
While today is a day on which we collectively give thanks, I’m pausing to remind myself that thanksgiving is not a box to check off once a year. Thanksgiving is a daily practice.
Today, I’m thankful for
The Society of Young Inklings
And the passion of young writers
The powerful way they express their vision of the world around them
The questions youth ask
Which challenge and stretch me
How they turn ideas on their heads and teach me something new every day
The dedication of SYI’s staff and instructors
Who endlessly seek ways to give, inspire and empower
The commitment of our Youth Advisory Board
Giving back to the writers coming up after them
The expertise of our Board of Directors
Who are willing to ask tough questions and dream big
The generosity of our donors and patrons
Who give of their time and resources
All in service of a vision
A world in which stories are shaped and told
In which stories are heard and valued
In which stories help build connection and understanding
Solutions where before there were only obstacles
Solutions where they are desperately needed
I’m thankful for the way that the SYI community
Encourages me to wake up every day
Filled with hope
There aren’t many things in your life that you only do once. However, most of us don’t take the time to consider how we might streamline routine activities. For instance, how often do you:
- Sort the mail
- Do the laundry
- Go grocery shopping
- Pay bills
- Pack your bag for the next day’s activities
These activities are only the tip of the iceberg. Research shows that on average people spend one hour a day looking for stuff. Those little frustrations add up, and make the difference between a settled or scattered day.
We know there’s a better way, but we feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the little issues to solve, that we decide to ignore them. Or, we shrug our shoulders and figure this is just the way things are. We have no vision for how our days might go differently.
Now, imagine that you worked for Disneyland, and you were assigned to do a routine activity, such as help people board a ride, serve people lunch, or remove litter from the sidewalk. Would you do your job differently each time? Absolutely not. Not only would you have a system, you and your supervisor would have given thought to how you could not only make the task efficient and manageable, but you’d consider how you could add a little “magic.”
What if you used this approach in your daily life? What if you asked yourself: “How could I not only sort the mail more efficiently, but with a little magic?”
- Choose one routine task you’d like to revise. Give yourself permission to choose one, even though you’re sure to have a number of options. Start with one, and use your success to move on to the next.
- Seek out an inspiring process to study. Many times, unusual connections can yield helpful results here. Rather than trying to find someone else who has the perfect mail-sorting routine, you might find inspiration in the way a Kindergarten teacher helps students organize take-home papers, or in the way a librarian sorts returned books.
- Identify the key steps of the process. If you’re a visual thinker, consider drawing a diagram.
- Consider why the process works. How might you apply the success of the process to your own task?
- Sketch or write up a template for your new process. Experiment and stay open to revision as you try out the new approach. Aim high. Don’t stop until you achieve inspiring results.
- Build on your success by working on a new task.
Writerly Play offers a framework for creative thinking. In each mental room, we tackle different thinking tasks. This activity is a tool for your Library, where we analyze resources, identify strategies for specific solutions and play with them until we make them our own.
When you need to move a heavy piece of furniture, you examine it from multiple angles to figure out the best strategy. In problem-solving, we’re more likely to identify helpful strategies when we explore multiple vantage points as well.
- Identify the problem. If you need help clarifying what the problem is, exactly, try running your vague issue through this helpful clarification exercise.
- Start with a clean piece of paper, and list twenty questions that relate to the problem. If you come up with more than 20, excellent! Do push yourself to come up with at least 20, even if you stall out around 12. The questions that aren’t first to mind often end up being the most compelling or innovative.
- If you’re struggling for questions, spur yourself on with question starters such as “What if…” or “Why does…” or “How can…” or “Where can…” or “When might…”
- Once you have a list, go back and decide which you’d like to explore. You may feel the whole list is helpful, or it may be that one or two stand out.
- Make a plan for how you’ll address your list. Some next steps might be:
- brainstorm in mind-map form
- create a collage
- research via google
- research via the library
- research via an expert (friend, colleague, blogger, podcaster)
Sometimes the most important step in problem solving is simply starting. Once you’re in motion, it’s much easier to ask, “What’s the next step?”
Writerly Play offers a framework for creative thinking. In each mental room, we tackle different thinking tasks. This activity is a tool for your Attic, where we collect life experiences, sort them and crystallize them into a question or set of questions to guide our creative exploration.
In order to make the most of feedback, you must be a strong translator.
Feedback doesn’t come gift-wrapped with a solution.
In fact, feedback generally points out holes, problems or weaknesses. As the creator, your job is to not panic, to hear past the comments, and to identify the true problem that’s being raised.
Take this scenario, for instance:
Meg signs up for a critique with an editor for the first ten pages of her manuscript. The editor has read the pages and sits down with Meg to discuss them.
Editor: I love the premise in this story, and in particular, am drawn to your main character, Frankie.
Meg: Thank you!
Editor: I don’t think the dog works, though. He’s sweet, but I don’t know. I think I’d rather focus on Frankie.
Meg: Ummm… (she’s completely baffled, because the dog is essential to the entire plot)
Editor: (nodding, warming up to her idea) Yep. I think if you took the dog out, we’d connect with Frankie more quickly.
As the conversation wraps up, Meg tries to hear the rest of what the editor says, but she’s stumped. All she can think is that her story doesn’t work. If she takes out the dog, the story doesn’t have a plot. So, maybe she should just start over with a new idea. This kind of scenario happens far too often.
As creators, we can be too literal about the feedback we receive.
We take a comment such as “I don’t think the dog works,” to mean that we need to remove the dog. If we take a look at the conversation though, looking at it as a translator might, we can see that something deeper is happening. The editor has pointed out that she likes Frankie, and that the dog is a distraction. She has said, “I’d rather focus on Frankie” and “If you took the dog out, we’d connect with Frankie more quickly.” Maybe the problem isn’t the dog, exactly, but the way the dog is pulling the reader’s focus in the first ten pages. Maybe the dog needs to be a little less compelling. Maybe we need some time to get to know Frankie before we meet this super-star dog.
When we receive feedback, we must identify the underlying question.
In this case, the question “how can I remove the dog” leads to a complete unraveling of the plot. But the question, “how can I tone down the dog in the first few pages so the reader can focus on Frankie,” is productive and absolutely solvable.
When your ego is on the line, it’s easy to spiral into a tailspin. We freak out, and jump to worst-case scenarios. Our work has a flaw, and we have no idea how to solve it. We should toss it out and start over. Or, worse, we should stop believing we can create at all. Who are we to think we’re a (fill in the blank).
Becoming a translator takes practice. The same is true for learning how to translate feedback. The good news is that there are simple steps to the process. We can practice these steps ahead of time when our egos are not on the line. That way, when we are ready to seek out feedback, we can make the most of it.
Here are five steps for making the most of feedback.
- Write down what the person says. Write down the good, the bad, and the in-between. Try to capture as many words as you can.
- Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand something that was said, but avoid defending your work. You need time to process what has been said, and the person offering feedback doesn’t expect an answer on the spot. Thank the person for his or her time and insight.
- Find a quiet space and read over your notes. Don’t trust your memory. You’ll over-emphasize the drama. The key to translation is reviewing everything that was said.
- Look for clues as to the reason why certain advice was given. You were told to “get rid of the dog,” but what were the supporting reasons? What issue do those reasons point out?
- Frame a question that highlights the issue to solve, and then brainstorm workable solutions that deal with the heart of the problem.
What kinds of projects are you working on? How might feedback help you? What thinking challenges can you give yourself to practice these five steps? Build up your translation skills through a few low-risk practice sessions, and then try asking for real feedback to see how you do.
Remember, learning to be a translator is a skill. Expect a learning curve. Motivate yourself to push through the tough parts by focusing the benefits. If you can alchemize feedback into useful revision, you can take your work to the next level. Challenge yourself. The results are worth the effort.
Creativity often shows up at the intersection of various thoughts. Here are three to ponder … what do they spark for you?
“It’s not a silly question if you can’t answer it.”
― Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
“Which would you rather be if you had the choice–divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
How often do you look up from the various fires you’re fighting and wonder: am I doing life right?
With life moving at a million miles an hour, it’s not surprising that we yearn for a different approach. In his book, Procrastinate on Purpose, Rory Vader describes our plight this way: We’re “juggling hamsters, running as fast as we can on our wheels.” We’re moving faster, juggling our priorities faster, but the only way forward is faster, faster, faster … until we crash.
Even though we say we can’t have it all, most of us secretly hope the rules are different for us.
We’re going to find the secret recipe. Eventually, we’ll stumble across the magic wand. This deeply held belief (which we often don’t admit to ourselves) causes us to act in irrational ways. We seek out the stories of others who “made it.” We ask for advice, read self-help books, are addicted to the blog posts that promise Three Simple Steps for … or How You Can “x” in Half the Time.
We spend so much time doubling back, looking for a shortcut, that we never make progress toward our goals. We keep trying new paths rather than moving forward on the path we’re on. Why?
We think someone else has the answer.
Is it possible for someone else to know how to be YOU better than you do? Sure, coaches and mentors are essential to our growth. Exploring opportunities, investing in development and being teachable are all important. However, in the end, the person who knows the right next step for you to take is … you’ve got it. You.
You are the singular mix of your innate gifts, your developed skills and your life experience. There is literally no one else like you. So, why do we try to force our lives into a pattern that is uniquely suited to someone else? Because … we think someone else has the answer.
If YOU have the answers, and yet you’re still confused, what should you do? Let’s say you are someone’s mentor. Your mentee sits down across from you to explain their current situation and their goals. What would you do?
Probably you would:
- Listen carefully.
- Reflect what they’ve said back to them, clarifying until you’re both sure that you’ve boiled the situation and goal down into a clear statement.
- Ask questions about what’s working now and what’s not.
- Consider your own life experience and share perspective that might shed light.
- Provide resources if you have them, or research new resources if you don’t.
- With clarity, perspective, and new information, you and your mentee would create an action plan.
When you move into the action plan part of the process, it is the mentor’s job to listen, to provide feedback, and ultimately, to leave the decision making in the hands of the mentee. If you have a mentor who takes the opposite stance, shoving their plan onto you, I’d highly recommend that you fire that mentor.
If you don’t have a mentor right now, though, take a look at those six steps again.
What if you gave yourself permission to be your own mentor?
What if you:
- Journaled or talked the problem out into an audio file, and then re-read or listened.
- Pulled out the key points and clarified the situation and goal into a clear statement.
- Brainstormed what’s working now and what’s not.
- Considered your life experience with YOU. When have you had success? What might you do that’s similar in this situation?
- Sought resources to fill your knowledge gaps.
- With clarity, perspective, and new information, created an action plan.
Even if you do have a mentor, (and I strongly believe everyone should have at least one mentor) the key here is understanding where responsibility lies. Your mentor is there to advise you. You are the one who is responsible for the choices. That’s important, so it bears repeating.
You are responsible for your choices.
When you are ready to start making true progress, you must make this small but essential mental shift. You’re seeking out guidance not because of your weakness, but because of your strength. You are not the intern in your life. You are the CEO. Both the CEO and the intern have advisors, but interns and CEO’s relate and react to their advisors in significantly different ways.
Give yourself permission to be the leader in your own life. Be a strong leader, the kind of leader who listens to guidance, considers the options, confidently makes the best decision she can, and then takes responsibility for the results. Be the kind of leader who learns from the outcome, be it joyful or disappointing, and who adds that life experience to her expertise.
In what areas of your life have you accepted your CEO role? Where are you stubbornly clinging to your intern status? This mindset shift is simply a decision. You don’t need three steps to make it. You can make it, actually, before you close this window and move on with your day. In fact, this mindset shift might actually be that magic wand you’ve been looking for all along.
Choose boldly. I’ll be here, cheering you on.