The day I realized I had a serious problem, I had an uninterrupted expanse of time stretching in front of me, no meetings, no deadlines and yet at dawn my heart was already galloping out of control with the panicked feeling that I’d never get everything done. I took out my journal, spilling panic and chaos onto the page, and realized that it was time for an intervention.
You may know that I used to run my own business, Society of Young Inklings–now I’m Executive Director as we’ve become a nonprofit, but the role is similar. I also write books, create curriculum, consult with young writers and adult writers, and am now Regional Advisor for my chapter of Society of Children’s Writers and Book Illustrators. The point is, though I do have to pay attention to responsibilities such as paying my mortgage, I don’t work for anyone else. I determine my own pace in nearly all of my roles. Thus, when I woke up, completely losing it, I had no one to blame but myself. No boss with unrealistic deadlines, no pressing publishing deadline. I realized: If I don’t do something, the rest of my life will be just like this.
The trouble is, when you talk to friends, they suggest wisely, “Maybe you ought to slow down,” or “Just quit something.”
If you’re anything like me, sitting down and prioritizing only makes everything worse. To me, if I’ve dreamed it up, it’s a priority. I end up with a list of three hundred flagged items with no more focus or calm and all I’ve done is wasted an hour looking at my list.
On the other extreme end, if I use my inbox as my work-flow manager, I’m hopping to everyone else’s list of needs and to-do’s and what I really need is lost in the minute interruptions. Big projects, deep thinking? Forget it.
On this panicked day, I had a new idea. Instead of prioritizing, instead of looking at my to-do list, I was going to sit on the floor, take out my pens, and playfully list all the projects and ideas that were currently important to me. I tried to think about all parts of my life. Business, responsibilities to family, fun, creativity, health, chores, every single thing buzzing around in my brain. I ended up with a crazy list, with tasks such as “choose a new cable company” alongside “write a new novel.” While I wrote, I did a little color coding, whatever came easily, such as everything that had to do with health in one color, creativity in another. But I didn’t worry too much about what color something should be if it didn’t fit anywhere, really. Once I had the giant list, I looked at my list and tried to build a “dream life.” If my goal was to have strong abs, I’d need 10 minutes a day for sit-ups. I’d need some time each day for a workout, for writing, for emailing and doing day to day business, etc, etc, etc. I discovered that I needed about three days per 24 hours in order to do all that I expected from myself.
This is the point after which I usually put my color-coded papers into a folder and avoid looking at them, as they are a dream I cannot achieve. But this day I did not. I refused to wake up the next day with that same horrible feeling, not when the only person causing it was ME.
So, I read over my list. And read it again. And again.
And I took out a new paper. In my dream life, I’d clearly be creative. Maybe I’d be working on that novel, or drawing, or dancing, or going to an art museum. But not all in the same moment. In my dream life, I’d also be healthy. I’d run, drink water, learn to cook healthy meals, maybe grow veggies in my own garden. Again, not all at once. In my dream life, I’d be responsible. I’d handle the busy tasks of life and get them done, out of my space and move on to what I cared most about. People would know they could count on me when I committed to get things done for them. I kept going, and my list ended up with the following six categories:
2. Health: Body, Mind, Spirit
3. Responsibility/Earning a Living Wage
4. Spreading the Word about What I’m Doing
5. Visioning and Big New Projects
6. Spending Time with Friends and Family, Having Fun
As I looked over the tasks on my to-do list, I realized that without any of these parts to my life, I’d be unhappy. Writing a novel only, with no time with friends, no time spent working out or being healthy, no dreaming about what was next, no money coming in, and no one knowing about the books I’d already written, would feel empty. It didn’t matter how much I loved writing. I couldn’t just write all the time. In fact, with any of these six elements missing, I’d realized I’d definitely feel out of sorts. And over time, neglecting any of these areas would cause me to lose energy, momentum, and ultimately become blocked.
So, I decided to try an experiment. Instead of evaluating my day on the QUANTITY of what I did, I’d evaluate my week on the balance of these areas. If a certain day was 80% creativity, then the next might be 80% responsibility. The only goal was having some kind of balance between the six areas over the week. Since I wanted to make my check-ins easy and appealing, I decided my list needed better names for the categories. Here’s what I came up with:
5. Casting Dreams
At week’s end, I used a page with these categories labeled to evaluate how I was doing in these areas and if anything important was being left behind. My measure of success slowly started to shift. Sometimes, I’d have to take an unexpected trip to an art museum to make sure that I was addressing my creativity. One day, I sent an out of the blue email to someone I admired to take a first step toward my dream of helping the Inklings grow. My task list and getting things done felt more like a scavenger hunt for pieces that fit rather than an overwhelming pile that I wanted to hide behind the closet door.
Okay, this has been a long post, so I want to bring it back to you. I don’t think you should take my categories and try to run with them. I’m a visionary personality, so “casting dreams” has to be on my list. It may not be on yours. Your priorities and how you think about them (and label them) should be part of the game. I’d suggest you start from the beginning and let your list emerge from your life. I think it would be okay to have only four categories, or maybe seven, but I think seven is the very maximum. And three is probably too few.
Here’s the steps I’d suggest (ACTIVITY):
1. Gather materials that feel playful–paper, crayons, colored pencils, colored pens, stickers, whatever appeals to you. Sit on the floor or somewhere other than where you work and make sure you can be entirely alone for at least a half hour.
2. List everything you can think of that’s important in your life. Responsibilities, dreams, projects, people: they’re all important. You can color code or be very helter-skelter. If it will help you to set a boundary, time yourself for twenty minutes.
3. Read your list. Read it again, thinking: what’s REALLY important to me here? Now, read it again, thinking about categories. What big areas do you see?
4. If you only have a half hour, now’s the time to take a break and let your thoughts germinate.
5. When you’re ready, write down your categories. Don’t try to be clever with names to start. Once you have your list, then you can start into labeling creatively.
6. Make a playful page that you can use for a review at the end of your week with your new categories. Keep in mind that things might change as you launch into this process. Maybe you’ll combine two categories. Or add a new one. Stay open, and explore. Make copies of your page, though, so it’s easy to review for a few weeks in a row.
And that’s it! This part is just the start, though, so come back soon for more on how to trouble-shoot when difficulty arises, and for how to take this process further.