Managing Seasons

First up: SITREP

The most obvious if you’ve been to my site before is the change in theme – been contemplating a change for a while and then accidentally hit Apply while testing. So we’re going with it.

Next, this previous week has seen me returning to a good groove with regards to my writing, which had been very sporadic over the last few months. However, I’ve completed most of the planning work on my latest novel and am starting back into actual prose drafting tonight. I also sent some more query letters to agents. Daily writing is back to being the norm. /SITREP

All that leads to my thoughts for the rest of the post today.

I’ve noticed that my personal productivity, regardless of the area of my life, waxes and wanes. During some weeks and months I’m focused, committed, and driven – even if the nature of the projects themselves are slow, my dedication to working them doesn’t waver. Other times, my productivity seems tied to the accomplishment of tasks – if I can tick things off a list, see progress being made, or ship something off I have energy to keep working; but the desire to grind something out just for the sake of grinding depletes my energy = I don’t want to do it, and often won’t. And then last, I have those times where it is a struggle to get anything accomplished – distractions reign supreme, frustration and tiredness sap my will power, and a desire to do nothing permeates my thinking.

For a long time, I’ve tried to fight against that wax and wane, the push and pull. But in the last year, I have worked on learning to better embrace that aspect of my persona. I am not a Type A personality – I am not the extreme go-getter. In fact, like many aspects of my personality, I find myself of two minds with regards to work: sprinter and marathoner. I am both the tortoise and the hare.

By that I mean there are times when I spring ahead fast and furious towards a future goal, working hard until…something pops up. While at the same time, long term, I keep trudging away towards that goal, making small, meaningful progress over months and years. Writing is very much this way – I will hit a project hard and work myself to a standstill on it, then that project might sit for months during one of those wane periods. But during that same standstill period, I’ll be re-configuring my blog, seeking out agents, feeding my creative centers with story, recharging – always knowing that I’m coming back to the project that is waiting for me.

I find that more and more, I am embracing the truth espoused in Ecclesiastes 3:1, and popularized by Pete Seeger and then The Byrds in the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and learning to accept that seasons change.

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Seasons are cyclic. They come and go. And while each time we hit spring, we recognize it as spring, no spring is exactly like any other. Weather changes day to day. Climate shifts or butterfly effects cause each one to be unique. So while this time around I’m feeling productive, compared with the last time my productivity waxed I feel more secure in letting it be what it needs to be right now.

When I need to wane, I have started to lean very heavily into the idea of relaxation and rejuvenation, taking it as a sign that my mind, body, and soul have given all for right now, instead of fretting and trying to push myself to keep working on thing and mentally flogging my exhausted horse called “will power”. Really accepting that idea of “Now I’m going to rest,” and being truly intentional about it has started to pay very real and very precious dividends. Anxiety melts away faster, sleep comes more readily, play becomes more free. I don’t recover any faster it seems – those wane periods still last a few weeks. But I get more out of them in the moment.

Managing those seasons, learning to embrace the moments as they come and making the most of them when they do seems like a good focus and goal for me right now.

Making Time vs. Making

An aspect I struggle with in nearly every facet of life revolves around setting aside time to do something – time to exercise, finishing projects at my day job, volunteering in the community, fixing the plumbing, visiting friends for a game night, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And that has been how I addressed creating – making time to make. Waiting until my kids go to bed, then using that time to draft and edit, because I didn’t want to take from family time. Even my interests around personal productivity have this pernicious undercurrent of trying to fit more into less time.

But what if when I sit down to write, I use that as a time to engage my children in the process of creation. Let them see me work, struggle, fail, push through. Ask their thoughts about word choice, plot points, character motivation? What if making became part of my family time, a part of play, or a part of learning? Would that change how I create or impact my motivations? I think it would.

What might you decide to do if you could just make instead of having of make time? And what if you didn’t have to change anything except your own paradigm?

woman pouring down a brown paint
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Notes with Checkboxes – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Ah, the humble checkbox. How ticking you fills me with joy, a sense of completion, a small bit of the chaos locked away.

Or at least, that’s how I’ve heard some people describe them.

No, I’m not really going to wax poetic on the nature of notetaking apps, but I am going to talk about one of the easiest tools to use to get started on improving personal productivity if you’ve never used anything in the past: the checkbox or list.

How to Use

To me, list making seems a nearly universal approach to remembering to do something, a way to have a plan (albiet a very simple one) to deal with something we must do. We use lists for grocery trips, chores, errannds, packing, and just about anything we want to quickly jot down to do later. But lists on paper and checkboxes within digital notetaking apps (like Evernot, Google Keep, and OneNote) can be extremely powerful. I find I use them all the time, even within other productivity systems because of how useful they can be. 

At the simplest, grab a sheet of paper and list out all the things you want to do. You don’t even have to separate them into categories. Put your oil change right after your character motivation you just realized you needed to add to your current scene. 

Using them within a dedicated environment can be even more powereful. Some entire systems are built around them – Bullet Journals,  HipsterPDA, Todoist, TickTick, Wunderlist, AnyDo. Even the prioritized daily task list that was part of the Franklin Day Planner system I mentioned in the first article of this series is just a list of things to be checked off during the day.

Of course, things might start to get a little jumbled after a while so a strategy is useful in applying this to your fiction writing. And that’s the big problem with them – lists can spiral out of control. Often, when you start listing out everything you need to do, you get overwhelmed by actually seeing HOW MUCH you have to do. And then you can’t find the item you need or it doesn’t remind you to do it at the appropriate time.

So, how do I use them?

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Lists and checkboxes are a tool within the much larger system I have developed for myself (and that is the topic I’ll be talking through next time). I use them sparingly.

Inside my project management system, I will create lists of thing associated with that project and only that project. And I try to limit that to only specific tasks.

“Revise draft” is not an appropriate checklist item – too broad and too encompassing. “Revise scene for redundant emotional beats as part of 10% cut” is a lot more useful. It reminds me what specific task I should be doing in enough detail and focus to make sure I get that ONE thing done.

I use them for research to create a list of exact sources I want to review. My next book about rogue AIs and teenage girls getting caught up in a crime syndicate’s plans has a lot to do with pets, so I have a list of movies and books that feature the important relationship between owner and pet, alongside requirements to research neural networks and machine learning.

I have a list of exact topics for this blog post series. 

I have a list of buisness and personal branding changes I need to make with my website. 

For me, the biggest asset in list making is knowing the context of where that list would be useful and making sure that the list surfaces when I need to work on that topic. I make sure I am checking my system for these things on a weekly basis to ensure I’m getting things back into my head that need my focus now.

Applications and Apps

I already listed out several applications and apps above, but without giving any opinion on them. Mostly that’s because each of the apps has a devout following and I have found they all have things that make them good fits and bad fits for me. Most of them become their own systems if you use them long enough. Also, fair warning, I don’t use a MacOS or iOS device, so there’s likely a whole bunch of appse out there that I’m not aware of, so take the below with that in mind.

If you prefer living in a paper and pen world, give Bullet Journaling a look. It doesn’t work for me, but the flexibility is very good. 

Digitally, I think Evernote is the most useful notetaking tool and it has some decent list making and reminder resources, though it can be overkill. 

For a simpler digital note system, Google Keep is very clean and ties in nicely with the Google environment if you are already a Gmail lover. 

And if you just want a digital checklist, I recommend TickTick as a starting point as it has all the features that you’d likely want in the free version.


How do you use lists in your current work? Do they help you or do you find them superfluous? 

Comment and engage below.

Don’t Break the Chain – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

I did say that I got a lot of my productivity tips while reading Lifehacker, right?

This technique goes back to 2007 I read the article there writing by developer Brad Isaac, where he related some some productivity advice he received from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a good read, and  I recommend it if you want to see another application of this technique.

But I’m going to talk about it a little differently. It’s called Don’t Break the Chain and I’ve seen it make several reappearances as people re-popularize it.

How to Use

Don’t Break the Chain is about setting up a routine that you repeat everyday, and the focus really is on EVERY DAY.

Here’s how it works. You take a year calendar, one with a whole year on a single page, and place it on the wall with a big red marker next to it. For each day that you complete your task (whatever that might be, though for Jerry, Brad, and myself, that’s writing), you put a big red X through that day. And once you’ve done this for a few days, you have a chain of day. And the goal is don’t break the chain. Don’t miss.

That’s it. The idea is that as the chain grows, the pressure of having all those days chained together pushes you through the days when you don’t want to do the task, even if the only reason for that day is just to prevent yourself from breaking the chain.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Here’s where I get to reveal my deep, dark secret. I HATE this technique. I’ve tried several times to implement it over the 10 years since I first read about it and each time it was an abject, miserable failure that left me feeling worthless and useless with each attempt. So why share it with you?

Because it maybe the technique that works best for you.

The thing that I have loved most about learning about personal productivity is that it is, indeed, personal. Something that doesn’t work for me may be the best thing ever for you. And with time management, the changing times might make a once-failed technique into you most prized bit of knowledge.

Even though I don’t like this approach, I think you should know about it and try it for yourself.

So, I don’t use this technique at all in writing fiction. Or in any other facet of life.

Why Didn’t I Like It

For me, it became a metaphorical chain weighing me down – the constant nagging feeling that I was eventually going to screw up and break it became self-fulfilling prophecy. Children would get sick, work would go long, church obligations would rear up, friends would need help – inevitably something more important than my writing that one day would come up and I would end up breaking the chain.

I played with all sorts of “rules” that would still allow me to meet my goal while not actually getting anything done and that was where it really got to me.

If the chain became more important than the actual content of what I was producing, what good was the chain? Why bother keeping up a fake goal if I wasn’t actually making any progress on what I had set out to do.

In the time since trying it, I’ve learned that my particular style of work doesn’t benefit from having an outward scoring system. There are lots of new tools and apps out there which “gamify” life – giving points for making habits, dropping “life” if you screw up, leveling up with awards, etc. Turns out, those don’t make me want to do better in my actual daily life because they become too much to keep up with.

But maybe your life might benefit.

Applications and Apps

Because I haven’t been actively using it, I can’t say what phone or computer apps a would be useful for tracking a “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar if you wanted digital over paper. I know there is a website of that name that appears to let you track things over time, but I haven’t used it.

As for applications, I can think of tons. NaNoWriMo is a similar implementation of the same idea – though only over the course of 30 days. Write every day. That’s the basic idea.

Most habits are formed the same way – work on the item in question 30-60 days and eventually, a new habit will start to be formed.

Drafting, revision, character sketches, sending queries, pitching, personal branding and marketing, blogging – any of these could benefit from Don’t Break the Chain as a tool for encouraging work, to keep going through moments of lower motivation.

The other big way that something like Don’t Break the Chain can help is that by forcing yourself to work on something everyday, you clear away the low hanging fruit fast. It’s easy to keep reworking the same scene over and over if you only touch it once every two weeks because you’ve had all that time to think it over. But when you have to draft a new scene each day? You have to work smarter and develop better focus during the rest of the day so that your well is full when you sit down to create. That intentional focus, day after day, can be even more useful than the resultant product that you make.


So, am I wrong to hate Don’t Break the Chain? Have you used it or something similar? Do I need to take another look?

Also, I moving up my posting day for this series from Friday to Thursday. Let me know if you like the change.

I’d love to hear your comments.

Just Open the File – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

To start off this series about personal productivity and time management for writers, I thought I would offer up a tip – or at least a phrase – of my own devising.

I call it Just Open the File (JOTF) and it’s such an absurdly simple idea that I hesitate even calling it a tip. But it has worked for me. And it might work for you.

How to Use

Just Open the File is exactly that – a personal mantra to remind yourself to open whatever it is you are working on – outline, revision, draft, character sketch, blog post, or whatever. Push past the feeling of boredom with your current opus, ignore the siren call of one more round of Splatoon 2, and leave aside the micro slam poetry battle on Twitter.

You open the file. It’s the smallest step you can take while making forward progress. Feel conflicted about where your story is going? JOTF. Got writer’s block and can’t decide what to write? JOTF. Hate everything and want to start over? Just open the file.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I use this to trick my brain into using my existing habit of “working on what’s in front of me.” When I started learning about habits and habit forming (a whole ‘nother series) I kept hearing about “lowering the threshold” to the thing you wanted to do.

An example of lowering the threshold for a new habit: Want to work out more? Leave your workout clothes out and visible so you see them more frequently, so they’re right there waiting for you to put on as soon as you get home from work.

For me Just Open the File is an attempt to hack the routines and habits I already have. I’m the type of person that works on what I have open. If I see something sitting open in front of me, I start to “ideate” on it – little blips of thought of how or what comes next.  So, opening the file of my current project lowers threshold to actually working on it because, well, there it is, right there, in front of me.

When I am feeling decidedly bad and don’t want to work, I make a promise with myself that the only thing I’ll really push myself to do is to open the file. That’s all the will power I have to have. If I do open the file and I still don’t want to work, that’s fine. Good, even. I celebrate it. Look at me! I opened that file. Let’s send out a dance gif.

And then, almost invariably, I get this feeling that I could do just a bit more. Not much. Maybe a sentence or re-read a paragraph.  Even then, it might not be much. But it’s forward progress. It’s better or more complete than what I had.

And I do this over, and over, and over, until eventually, I don’t have to think about opening the file, I just do. I start.

Applications and Apps

I use this everywhere – personal and professional. Every time I feel myself resisting doing work I know I should be doing, I just re-state my little contract and open the file.

There aren’t really any apps per se – it could be opening an email draft or re-reading a text from somebody about something I don’t want to do. Anything where that sense of “Ugh, do I have to?” pops up. Use JOTF as a commitment to make forward progress.

Who It Might Not Work For

Type A, super-go-getters, major productive heroes. You lot already have this problem nipped.

Less tongue in cheek, I think this is something that could useful everywhere. Finances? JOTF. School homework? JOTF.

It’s all about making the first step so small it doesn’t actually feel like a step.


What other simple hacks or tricks do you use to get motivated to work on what you don’t want to do?

Leave comments below. I look forward to stealing seeing them.

Personal Productivity and Time Management for Writers – Series Introduction

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I attended a evening seminar with my dad presented by Franklin Day Planners (now Franklin-Covey). In it, the speaker, Hyrum W. Smith, gave a lecture about time management concepts and demonstrated the use of the Franklin Day Planner system.

It was engaging and intriguing and I immediately turned to my dad after it was over and we decided to invest in a day planner system for me to use my senior year of high school in prep for college.

Since that time, I have gravitated towards lifehacks, techniques, tricks, and systems all with the goal of improving my work and my life and reducing the amount of stress that those inevitably cause. I’m not passionate about it or only live thinking about how I can squeeze one second more out of my day, but I do find the idea and application useful for reducing stress and improving balance between all the various things that pull at my time. So, I’ve done a lot of reading, experimenting, and research into the various time management and project management choices that are out there.

I’m no expert, but I have used and do use many of these in my daily routine.

In this series, I want to discuss these several options in relation to being an author and novelist. I won’t make a ton of recommendations because personal productivity and time management can be very individualized. But I can at talk about how they might be incorporated and where they might be useful for a writer.

Quick Disclaimer: None of the items in this series are endorsements for any product, software, or system. I’m not getting paid to promote or write about any of them. These are just reflections on my own personal use and suggestions for how others might be able to use them.

Subscribe, follow along, engage in the comments, and share your thoughts and experiences. I’m always on the lookout for new things to try.