No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide. – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996
A few days ago I went to pick up my nine-year-old son from soccer practice.
As we walked back to the car, he suddenly broke down crying.
He’s nine. He’s a pretty stoic kid. This isn’t normal for him.
You see, we just moved from Virginia to Tennessee, and the weather is brutally hot.
The heat index — what it felt like outside — was at 111° F a few days ago.
That’s crazy heat. And far hotter than what my son is used to.
So when I picked him up from soccer, he was overwhelmed by the heat and exhausted and just broke down crying as we walked back to the car.
Telling Ourselves Stories
My wife and I had heard about the intense heat of Tennessee summers. And we’ve told ourselves things to deal with it… “When it’s so hot outside, we’ll spend more time inside. It will give us more time together. And we’ll go to the pool more often.”
We created these stories so we could deal with the heat—to make it normal and OK, instead of stressful.
We told ourselves the stories we needed to tell, in order to change something impossible into something doable.
My son had done the same thing, but in reverse.
Once he realized how hot it was, and saw how much he was sweating, he understandably started telling himself, “It’s too hot to play!”
But the next day, everything changed.
Even though practice had been over for a few minutes, he was still running around and kicking the soccer ball around with a new friend of his.
Same two hours of practice, same soccer practice and the same heat as the day before.
But everything was different.
We’d done a few practical things like making sure he had enough water with him, but we’d also done that the day before.
The difference was that he had created a new story about the heat.
After that first practice, I helped him see the heat differently—that he can deal with it if he continues to play through it, and that if he just pushes through the heat, he’ll get used to it.
I encouraged him to focus on having a good time, and to slow down when he feels he’s getting too hot.
By the second day, he was telling himself a different story about the heat. He saw that the other kids were doing it, and told himself that he would be able to get used to the heat too.
Of course, it takes more than a day to acclimate to higher temperatures. But with that new idea — the new story he told himself — the process had begun.
By the second day, he was fine. He was dealing with the heat in a completely different way, because he was telling himself a different story.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: What Stories are You Telling Yourself?
Writers write to tell people stories, whether fiction or real-life.
But we also tell ourselves stories—about how and when we’ll get our writing done, and especially, how much time we have to get our writing done.
Let’s name one of the most common negative stories writers tell themselves.
Let’s bust that myth that says, “I don’t have enough time to get my writing done.”
First, make a list of your entire schedule for a week, Sunday through Saturday.
Write down and account for every hour of the day—the hours you sleep, the hours you commute to work, the hours you’re at work, at lunch, at home. Meals, TV, exercise, reading, socializing, Facebook—all of it.
Write it all down. Account for every hour of every day.
Just take a typical week, logging every hour of every day.
Gun to Your Head: What Did You Want to Be?
Now we’re going to experiment a bit.
I want you to imagine that somebody has just walked into your house, and put you in front of that schedule you just created.
They want you start to changing or deleting things from that schedule, so you can get more writing done. And they mean business.
Think of that scene in the movie Fight Club, where Brad Pitt’s character Tyler grabs a convenience store worker called Raymond, and pushes him out the back door into an alley.
Tyler puts a gun to Raymond’s head, and goes through his wallet. He sees an expired community college ID, and asks Raymond, “What did you want to be?”
Raymond admits, through his terror, that he had wanted to be a veterinarian, but it would have meant more time in college.
Tyler says he’s going to keep Raymond’s driver’s license, with his home address on it. He tells Raymond he’s going to be checking in on him—and if he’s not on his way to becoming a veterinarian within the next six weeks, he’s going to kill him.
He lets poor Raymond run off into the night. Then Tyler tells us, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life.”
And not just because he got out of that terrible situation alive.
But because he is now being forced to follow the dream he had let slide into Someday, or Never.
I certainly don’t want anything like that to happen to you. But put yourself through that thought experiment for a moment.
If you really want to be a writer, and your schedule isn’t “writing-centric” enough for you to reach your goals, then let’s put that metaphorical gun to your head.
Let’s decide right now what can get changed or cut out of your schedule, so you can actually live that dream, not just dream about it.
I decided to experiment, I tried a few different things to change my schedule to make more time to write. Then I started looking at my sleep schedule.
I started thinking, What if I started going to bed earlier and getting up earlier?
What if, instead of getting to bed at 11:00 pm and getting up at 7:00 am, I went to bed at 9:30 pm and got up at 4:30 am?
I’d lose one hour of sleep on those nights, but plenty of studies show that seven hours of sleep a night is enough.
So I decided to try it. And now when I tell people about my schedule, they often assume I’m a morning person.
That is not the case!
Every single morning, I hate getting out of bed at 4:30.
But when I get up that early, I get a lot of creative work done before anybody else is awake—without the distractions of phone calls, emails, or talking to people.
But before I could make that change, I had to change the story I was telling myself about getting up early in the morning.
Because for the longest time, I was telling myself, “I’m not a morning person. I hate getting up early! Everything I’ve tried before, to get myself up earlier, has failed.”
Then I started changing the story I told myself about that early morning wake-up.
I started telling myself, “That’s time I could use to write! I can achieve my writing goals, and I can use that time to build my business. At that hour, there will be no one calling me on the phone, no kids asking me to make them breakfast. I can get a lot done.”
Once I changed that story, it was much easier to get out of bed in the morning.
I’m not saying you need to get up at 4:30 am. The change you make is entirely up to you.
What I am asking, is What parts of your day are you telling yourself can’t change, that actually could change?
Let’s say you spend an hour every workday going out to lunch with your friends. Could you take your laptop to a coffee shop instead, and get a good 45 minutes of writing done?
You might be telling yourself, “But I’d rather have that time to relax,” or “I’d rather spend that time with my friends.”
But is that really true?
Is having an hour off for relaxation or socializing more important to you than being a writer who actually reaches their writing goals?
If you had to—if I put that gun to your head—could you give that time up?
Here’s another idea: Instead of going to bed at 11:00 pm, go to bed at 10:00 with your laptop and write for an hour, until you fall asleep.
Sure, you can tell yourself all kinds of stories about what that hour means to you and what you’d rather do during with that time.
But is the story you’re telling yourself absolutely true? Is it a hard and fast rule that you can’t make that change?
Have a look at that schedule you just drew up.
If I put that gun to your head, what could you give up, and what could you change?
Make a list of everything in your schedule you could possibly move or give up.
Be flexible, because you could give up eating dinner with your family every night at the same time, but that’s too important to give up.
So put items like family time, meals, exercise, etc. at the bottom of the list of things you can give up, and less important things like watching television, reading social media posts, and socializing at the top of the list.
You’re probably waiting for me to say, “OK, now go make that change!”
But I won’t say that. This is your decision.
I will suggest though, that you pick one of those items and make that change for just one week. That’s all.
For example, instead of going out to lunch with your friends this week, Monday through Friday, take your laptop with you to a library or a coffee shop, and get some writing done.
Then at the end of the week, on Saturday, weigh what’s more important to you.
Do you really miss that time with your friends at lunch? And is that more important than getting your writing done?
If it is, that’s absolutely fine. You would then move on to the next thing on your list, and give that up for a week, while you write during that time.
Because if writing is truly important to you—if getting your book or another project written is a real goal for you, then there are things you can move or cut out of your schedule in order to make that a reality.
Experiment until You Find What Works
For the writer, experimentation is key.
In terms of your schedule, I suggest that you experiment to find out which items are the right ones to change or delete.
I wrote a blog a few months ago on writer productivity, in which I encourage you to look at your life as a lab where you run experiments.
There’s no emotional component here. Everything is up for trial and error.
Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t work. This isn’t about “willpower,” or me putting a guilt trip on you.
It’s about experimenting with your schedule to see where you can fit more writing in, and trying something new for a week to see how it works.
If it works, keep doing it. If you want to try something else, try that and see how that works.
Simply going through the process of looking at your schedule and trying something new for a week, writing every day for five days straight, is going to change a lot.
It’s going to forever change how you view your schedule.
It’s going to change how much writing you get done. And it’s going to change (increase) how motivated you are.
That’s why this idea is so effective. I’m not asking you to change something forever, or to get your book done in the next three weeks.
I’m asking that you look at your schedule, find one or two little changes you can make, and then change those things enough to get a little bit closer to your goal.
Once you do this, you’ll find that your effort snowballs, so that if you follow this plan, you won’t have to worry about what happens in the long run.
Just focus on fulfilling the next writing slot in your schedule. Before you know it, you’ll have a first or second draft staring you in the face, where that imaginary gun barrel used to be.
Telling a New Story
Just as you would have to do if you were dealing with the crazy heat of a Tennessee summer, you have the power to change negative situations into good ones, by the stories you tell yourself.
Every day you’re telling yourself a schedule about your schedule. And it might be time to tell a new story.
Find those negotiables in your schedule, and give them back to your writing. Those moments can bring you closer to finishing your bigger goals, one day at a time.
Here’s what I’d like you to do next: Try the above exercise for one week.
Then email me, and let me know how it went.
Did it work for you? Did it not work for you? What did you try? What did or didn’t work?
I want to make sure this content I’m giving you actually gets you closer to achieving your writing productivity goals.
Give it a try. I look forward to hearing how it went for you!
July 23, 2015