Tag Archives: focus

My #1 Tool for Productive Writers, Part 1

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.”

– Walter Wellesley Smith

For a long time, I believed the hype about being a more productive writer. I thought the usual advice about setting goals, getting on a schedule and visualizing was right on. But I think for some of us it’s not enough. There are deeper issues that keep us from achieving our high-minded goals.

It may only seem worth the effort if you’ve tried many of the tools and tips and been unable to keep it up. Initially I found those tools and tips helpful but because they couldn’t deal with the root of my problem, I felt inadequate, embarrassed. Maybe I was just lazy. I wanted to write. So why didn’t I do it?

Turns out my struggles were soul deep, and no matter how simple the steps appeared, nothing else worked for me before this.

The tools and tips about apps or methods can become useful after you sort out the deeper challenges. But for me, there was a psychological tool I needed that freed me to pursue the practical advice about how to be productive.

It was permission.

walk

Basically, I needed permission to stop focusing on productivity. If you want to be productive, often you have to stop focusing on it, and start seeing where you’re sabotaging yourself.

Despite my best efforts to write, I’d always end up rebelling. I’d eventually resent the work and go on a word-spending spree, numbing out on surrogate thrills in all kinds of ways.

And here’s where a different writing coach might recommend getting a separate computer for writing or using Pomodoros or setting goals and rewards. They just never worked for me. I’d try and fail, then, wracked with guilt, lament my hopeless situation yet again and wish by Thor’s hammer there was some lasting method for finding infinite flow and recapturing optimum productivity in life.

Whatever.

But now, after well over 10 years of on-and-off-again writing this novel, I may finally have my answer. It’s a deceptively simple method that effectively removes what I produce as the end goal of the work.

And that’s it. If you’re a strong-willed over-achiever like me, it may solve your problem of low productivity forever and remove the guilt to stop focusing on productivity.

deer

That’s right. Instead, focus on the process, i.e. just getting the cup of whatever, sitting down, opening the document and reading some of it. 

If this isn’t you, I know this might sound crazy, but the only way to get a stubborn donkey to move is to stop pushing it. Showing up and opening the document and staring at it for a while, sure it takes some effort, but it doesn’t require trying a bunch of things that only complicate your process.

And, best of all, you have complete permission not to write a word.

If you struggle with productivity, make it your new intention to shift your thinking to not writing new words but simply reading the old ones. It’s nothing fancy; it’s just reassigning your effort to restrict what you’re paying attention to.

Outsmart your inner rebel.

lightBelieve me, before I did this, I’d always find a way to get out of writing. And what changed for me was that I realized I was continually hampered in my writing because I was my own worst enemy. While I wanted to produce good work and be diligent, something else inside, something deeper, wanted easy comfort and relief from long-held pain. And I knew I could find it (at least quick fixes) in myriad other places.

And until I stopped and realized that pain was legitimate and deserved to be heard and comforted, I only kept trying to muscle my way to a specific word count, using will-power to try and stay “on task” even as I knew it would be short-lived and probably not produce any meaningful writing. And becoming distracted all the time.

Next time I want to talk about a practical trick I’ve used to reward myself for sitting down to read (not to write) every day. Because it’s been quite a rewarding journey these past few weeks already…

I’m not completely out of the woods yet—I could still stumble and fall down. But I’m confident that my focus on this simple process frees me to face ever more dragons guarding my cave, whether or not I eventually win out over all of them. Just showing up, I have less chance of forgetting that this is how writing life-changing books is done, whatever it may look like to anyone else, day in, day out.

One healed piece at a time.

“I have experienced healing through other writers’ poetry, but there’s no way I can sit down to write in the hope a poem will have healing potential. If I do, I’ll write a bad poem.”

– Marilyn Hacker

Mick

Why We’ve Got to Learn to Say No

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Below, The Living Novel: A Symposium, 1957

I think no matter who you are, no matter how you grew up, every Christian writer struggles to say no to others.

bug

Some may learn to say “no” readily. But many writers start out avoiding saying no to people at any cost. We’re avoiders and pleasers. We may say “yes” initially only to avoid the inevitable confrontation, then say “no” later by avoiding the situation.

I’ve done it regularly. Habitually. And I’ve seen it done for years.

But everyone who writes has a unique call and so must rise above this.

And in my experience with Christians, we rarely, if ever, acknowledge the essential importance of saying no.

Oh, we say no to sin. And to anything deemed “questionable” or unsafe. But to other Christians? To the church or (God forbid) the leadership? That might not reflect well on our presumed holiness.

Churches don’t give out gold stars for saying no.

flower

People who don’t go to church can get away with it. Some may have first found permission by leaving. Yet how many are saying no to the wrong things or in unloving ways?

The point is, we need to learn how to say “no” well, and our model human opposed both the typical Christian and the disengaged and hardened folks alike.

He said a lot of loving no’s to people. And often.

He said no—in love—to strangers, friends, crowds, the disciples and Pharisees—in other words, to everyone.

Why is this so important? Because unless you can say no in love, even well-meaning Christians can create barriers between you and God’s will.

Saying yes means nothing unless you can also say no. Only “no” can correct and refocus people when they’ve gotten off track. Only “no” can move the attention away from its wrong focus. And only a loving heart can use no to affirm the goodness and love inside the opposition.

bird

Unfortunately, “no” seems so ignored among Christians today that most can’t handle the slightest hint or whisper of it. Now we have to treat adults as children and instead of “no,” offer a firm “thank you for understanding why I can’t serve at that event,” or “God bless your commitment. I’m already giving elsewhere. I appreciate your graciousness.”

If only that was acceptable.

Years ago, I set out to help Christian writers say “no” to the forces that opposed their higher purpose. I thought I’d be fighting the godless consumer culture. Instead, I’ve found the greatest opposition can come not from culture but from the church.

If you’ve had trouble saying no, you’re not alone. And you need to get alone to yourself for at least 30 minutes. Take a notebook and pen and go imagine your future 10 years from now if you can commit to the vision God put in your heart for you to write. Write down what you see.

Imagine it and then believe that one day soon, that will be you, successful.

That is who you are going to be.

Circumstances do not dictate this. People do not dictate you.

God is vision-caster, the Great Imaginer, and when He gives his called artists a vision, He’s saying that one day, it will be your day. But if you never commit to it, and especially to saying “no” to the ungodly demands, expectations, unspoken rules and implicit requirements placed on you by a restrictive church or family or culture, it will never be your day.

sleeper

We can’t sacrifice our God-given vision for a person or an image or a church. We must use our gifts for the Person and His image and the Church at large.

If you’ve failed to say no in the past, repent and move forward. Claim your gifted strength and know that every failure along the way is one less you have to make now.

Mistakes are necessary; they’re how we learn to value what we eventually gain.

But we’ll never get to where He’s called us to go without imagination and belief.

If you will go and write the vision, you will see where you will be. And you will know you can not quit.

You have to go get it.

So decide to believe. And He goes with you. And there is no fear because fear is not real. Fear is choosing to respect doubts as greater than the future reality. It’s believing things that are not or may never be true are true. That’s insanity. Fear is a choice; we can chose not to fear.

You can simply choose instead to believe the real vision. Choose it and own it.

As Tozer said, there is blessedness in possessing nothing. Yet a vision is a pure gift, and possibly for artists, our primary possession. You can have this vision if you have focus. And you will have it if you don’t quit.

But the first step before anyone else will believe this vision is you believing it.

So all that matters is, can you say “no” to say “yes” to your vision?

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If you’re ready to jump, the 30-Day Story Course starts Friday. Four lessons, four evaluations by me. $500 $99

Distraction

Distraction –

The day has just started and I haave 24 new emails.

I don’t have time to fix that typo…

The Wikipedia entry for distraction is here.  It's basically "divided attention."

File:Veddah_girl"

Here are 2 pics from that page. 

I fought to read today’s entry in Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. (I at least know this much, that if I don’t establish the “rule” of connecting with God first thing, my freedom from anxiety in this fight will be forfeit all day.)

I do have to engage the battle. But I don’t have to do it alone.

In Quiet, Susan Cain uses the example of Seth Klarman, one of the great investors of our time, who said he’s "a big fan of fear and, in investing, it’s clearly better to be scared than sorry." Klarman is a world-class worrier, according to the NYT, and he owns a racehorse called “Read the Footnotes.” During the stock market crash, he stuck to his guns and bought when everyone else was panicking. His style is an example of the value of waiting quietly when the world seems to be telling you to rush ahead.

There's another great book called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp about learning to stop and write the simple gifts right in front of you. This little book has been my antidote to distraction for 4 years now, like C.S. Lewis, convincing me to slow down and go deeper, but also showing me how to take tangible, practical, daily steps toward the better stuff of life, in the midst of anxiety and chaos.  

Fear and anxiety can make us feel ill-equipped by nature, by God. But according to Cain in Quiet, not rushing ahead in the face of strong potential rewards, i.e. maintaining a strong respect for risk and uncertainty, is a powerful, maybe the most powerful predictor of success.

I should check those emails…oh, 2 text messages now…

We need not see distractions as all bad. In fact, in our morning pages today, Sheri and I decided to try an experiment to hold one thing we wanted insight on today. Mine was "distraction."

My hunch is this experiment might help me avoid getting bent out of shape by life’s (and wife’s) interruptions. 

File:Office_Worker_with_Two_Monitors

Some folks do so many things at once that they have to use two screens.

I don't know when it started or why I forget this so often, but I frequently try to hold too much.

Is it any wonder I get frustrated when a practical matter like kids' violin practice or dinner is more pressing?

And though I’m deeply in love with my wife, when I’m hot on the trail of some flash of lacking insight I think God's offering me, I could even turn down a kiss from the love of my life.

I’m happily married, thank God. But yes, this has actually happened.

Obviously not a happy marriage thanks to me.

It’s only with help from some much more level heads–my wife's, parents', friends', even kids'–that I’ve managed to organize my manic mind into some still-very-loose structure (I'd bust out of anything more restrictive).

Work is calling…people waiting…I really should go do something…

Shhh…it's okay. Even so, it isn’t as though my “Noodlings” file isn’t full to overflowing with the brain batter that flings every which way when I’m hot on the trail of a flash of lacking insight (let’s just go ahead and shorten this cumbersome phrase to “HotToFoLI” to save time–which also conjures “hot to trot,” “hot to fly,” as in, my desire to escape this mortal coil and join the spirit in the sky, and “hot to follow” white rabbits of curiosity…also it rhymes with Hot Tamales which are the bomb even if they're no match for Atomic Fireballs. And yes, all of this is applicable.)

But most of all, HotToFoLI is folly. Of the highest order.

It will ruin me. In fact, it has threatened to many times.

There’s nothing wrong with excitement and passion. But when it isn’t kept in check, it can do unspeakable damage. If this needles you in any way, you probably have some apologies to make like I do (and don’t get distracted from the point, but remember to actually follow through with that conviction when we’re done here–it could be very rewarding).

Not only can our excitement overwhelm some of the great wonders of the universe—people we love, and especially sensitive people we’re probably married to, parent, and call friends—we can so dominate them that we drive them away. You know of what I speak.

Trust me, you don’t want distraction to ruin your life. Learn my lesson and learn to submit. As Chambers says, “Obedience is the natural life of a child.” Stop trying to be an "adult." Accept your limitations.

You are not a superhero and you can't catch all the opportunities raining from the sky.

Listen: you don't have to catch it all. You can not catch them all.

So calm down, Junior Executive. Calm down, Missionary Jane. Relax, Hot-to-Trot Author.

Don’t let the endless shadow missions distract you from your true work—this primary job you were given to be right where you are today, swaddled by your Dad…your flailing appendages tight in his straightjacket of love…

m