Let's Raise Our Glasses: Here's to All the Goals We're NOT Pursuing This Year!

This year's batch of resolution-making is as much about the goals we AREN'T pursuing as it is about the ones we are. Choice is where the magic happens for 2017. | lucyflint.com

It's impossible for me not to think about goals during the first month of the year. It's as fun as jumping on the whole back-to-school train in September!

And I'm not the only one who geeks out over these festivals of productivity, right? ;)

Only trouble is, it's incredibly easy for me to go overboard when it comes to New Year's Resolutions. As in: waaaaaaaay overboard.

Y'all know this about me already: Plans and goals go right to my head.

So when January 1 rolls around, I itch to get my hands on some graph paper and just plan the snot out of the next twelve months. I mean... come on. That's what graph paper was invented for!

And this is why I'm so proud of myself right now.

Because I spent some serious time sifting through my priorities and I narrowed my list of would-be goals to three.

JUST THREE. That's like superhuman restraint for me! 

Because usually I'll decide that there are, oh, about eight sections of my life that need overhauling, like yesterday, and then I'll brainstorm a dozen goals for each section (just to be safe!). And I'll narrow them down to maybe three or five or eight per section.

And then I'll come up with targets I need to hit to make those goals work, so now I have an army of sub-goals, and before long, they'll have multiplied into more fierce little ambitions than I can count, let alone track, let alone work toward. 

But I'll make a massive tracking chart thing anyway, and right at that point all my giddiness will burn out and I'll just sit there choking on overwhelm, staring at my perfect chart.

At which point I'll decide to go binge-watch moody British mysteries until springtime.

Yeah. A hundred percent. That's the usual goal-making process for me, if I'm not very, very careful.

And that's why choosing only three (amazing, exciting, challenging) goals for this year is practically an act of heroism.

I didn't do it alone, though. I had high-quality help in the form of two books: Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, and The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry (which I fell in love with this fall).

Two super-excellent books for defining what matters in your life as a creative, and then doing it. 

The practice of Essentialism is all about focusing on doing less but better. Stripping things down to their essentials and then putting all your energy behind them. (Guess where the name comes from!) After falling head-over-heels for Deep Work and the power of mega-focus, I was ready to dive into Essentialist thinking.

Confession: Left to my own devices, I'm a die-hard Non-essentialist. In McKeown's terms, this means that I'm focusing on "the undisciplined pursuit of more."

In practice, this is a lifestyle of piling on commitments, scattering focus and energy everywhere, and saying yes to everything. And, oh yeah, feeling overwhelmed and like I can't make any progress.

It looks like sitting in front of a big chart of 73 goals with zero energy left to pursue them.

A lifestyle of Essentialism, on the other hand, relies on powerful decisions.

I love how McKeown takes his time with definitions in the book: He points out that the word decision comes out of the Latin for "to cut," or "to kill."

Meaning? When we decide on something, when we choose it, we're killing a different decision. We're cutting ourselves off from a different route. We are actively choosing to NOT do something else.

It's not a "pick both!" situation, even if that's how I try to make it play out. I want to ask, How can I do everything? How can I pick all the things I like? Everything I want, and right now?

But the real, amazing power of a decision comes from the fact that, when you pick one thing, and also pick to NOT do the other thing, you've freed up the resources and time and energy and attention and creativity that would have gone to that second thing.

Which means that your chosen path has gotten a lot stronger. You can do it far better than if you insisted on trying to do more things.

See where we're going with this? 

It's worth really wrapping your mind around this. Because if you're like me, it's so easy to believe that we have endless energy, plenty of time, no worries, we don't have to rule anything out! 

No matter how many times we prove that that's simply not true.

Anyone with me on this? 

It is so much better, more truthful, and less stressful, to take a deep breath and gather the focus to make an actual decision. The kind of decision that cuts something off, that kills the other option.

THIS thing. NOT that thing.

McKeown makes a compelling case, and he totally sold me on Essentialism. And I'm working to mend my scattershot ways!

(There's a lot more to his work than just that, and it's really good! But that's the section I used as I planned my goals. Definitely check out the book for yourself!

The idea of focusing on only three goals came to me while I was reviewing the notes I took from The Accidental Creative, which is a book about developing a sustainable rhythm to support your creativity. (SO. GOOD.)

One of Todd Henry's concepts is The Big 3, which is just "the three things I need to gain creative traction on right now. They aren't necessarily my biggest projects, though they often are. ... The Big 3 is a constant reminder of where I need to dedicate my creative bandwidth."

For Henry's purposes, the Big 3 can be updated whenever necessary. They can shift from week to week, depending on the progress you make. They're always what you're mulling over, and working to move forward on.

For me, three felt like a magic number. Just enough breadth to dodge boredom, but not so much variety that I lose my grip on what's essential.

I figured: why not have a Big 3 for the year? Aka, my Resolutions?? 

So I did it. I made a master list of projects and ideas and things that I care about, and then I weeded them out, one by one, until I focused in on my Big Three. 

Three super powerful goals. Two are work-related, and the third one is personal. Each of them is a game changer, no wait, a life changer for me.  

I made sure they were each fairly clear: measurable, and not just subjective. And then I did all my happy-nerd planning: I looked at where I'd need to be by the end of each month, in order to check off all three by the end of the year.

Each one is a VERY big stretch for me, but at the same time, each one is also truly doable. ... So long as I don't listen to fear, focus on my faults, and spend the year curled up in a corner!

Three mega-exciting goals.

And by not choosing those other seventy ideas, I'm aware of just how huge my attention span is, and how much energy I have, since I'm not spreading it around as much. 

What's also surprising is how respected I feel.

These are challenging things that I'm aiming for, but by not adding a dozen more goals on top of them, I feel like Boss-Me is being pretty reasonable toward Working-Me. I'm not thwarting myself from the outset, burying the important goals in a landslide of other attempts and commitments and initiatives.

So: they're actually possible. They will truly happen.

Which is why I seriously can't stop grinning. My heart's beating faster. But I'm not overwhelmed either. Challenged, yes. Overwhelmed? Well, no.

Because I can wrap my mind around each of these three things—there's only three, after all! And I have enough space and resources to seriously make them happen.

One, like I said, is personal. But what are my other two? Well, I definitely and absolutely and no-matter-what-ably am publishing my first book this year.

For SURE.

The date might change, but it is happening, and my current best estimate for publication is July 1. That is what I'm committing my schedule and my focus to. 

The other work-related goal is just as big and exciting: I'm committing to sell 1000 copies of that first book in the first six months of publication. WHOA. That's a big, exciting, time-to-put-my-big-girl-pants-on kind of goal! 

No chance that I'm going to be bored this year, haha! 

... So. Where are you at, my lionhearted friend, with the January goal-making and resolution seeking? 

Let me encourage you to pick very few. Just a few goals that are exciting for you, that are extra-important, that are worthy of the bulk of your time and focus and heart.

That would change your world a little—or, oh, even a lot.

(And no, sorry, a dozen goals isn't a few. I get it, and I feel you, but no.)

Challenge yourself to try for just a few big things. Try three. Three is such a great number.

And then feel the rush of empowerment as you line up what you would need to meet that goal.

What kinds of things you would do, in order to make it inescapable that you will hit your goals. Like, no question. Of course they are going to happen. They are definitely going to work out.

And, scary empowering question, what kinds of things will you not do, in order to make each of your goals a reality? 

Because it isn't just about setting up a killer action plan. It's about making sure that the time, energy, resources, excitement, and courage are all lined up and available for you from the start.

And then: make the daring, brave commitment to yourself that these things are your Most Important. They are your Essentials, your Big 3.

And if something else comes up, if there are obstacles, if you wake up and stop feeling like it: These goals still win

That's the power: You're deciding in advance they will happen.

You're calculating the trade-offs in advance. You're invested. You're not chasing after all the other pretty ideas on purpose, so that you have the resources and energy you need.

Focusing on these things is worth it.

So what are your Big 3? What's on your plate this year?

What is going to consistently win your focus and excitement, week after week this year, until it's done?

Ooooh. That's the kind of amazing attitude and bold commitment that's gonna get things done.


Want more resources? If you eat this kind of stuff up, definitely check out the book The One Thing, because it's also really helpful with questions of focus and purpose and what's essential. 

Also, there's my new favorite podcast (!!!!!), which is The Life Coach School Podcast, by Brooke Castillo. Seriously, y'all, the more I listen to it, the more I am CONVINCED that it is essential listening for every writer who is trying to publish and sell her work. For everyone who has to manage their own thoughts and goals and emotions and attitude: it is a MUST LISTEN. It just gives you such incredible tools for motivating yourself!

Definitely check out her episode on goal making, her episode on self doubt, and her episode on what you want to create in your life. They will rock your world, and get you thinking of how to tackle huge wonderful things in your life!!

Buckle up, 2017!

Don't Skip This Essential Step Before Finding A Swoon-Worthy Idea

Next time you need an idea to sweep in and save you, start with this vital (and incredibly helpful!) process. | lucyflint.com

So we're about midway through Idea Camp. Can you believe it?!

(Hey, June! Slow down!! Haha! ... Okay, but I'm serious. Slow down.)

We've covered a lot of awesome idea-generating tools so far: three topic lists that work incredibly well together (one and two and three), as well as a few idea scouting techniques (this one and this other one) that will absolutely get you some good results.

Whew!

Are your imaginations fizzing yet? 

Today we're going to take a look at idea-finding from the opposite end.

This is one of the most important things you can do when you're in desperate need of the right idea, the perfect solution.

Define the problem.

Does it sound mundane? Boring? Obvious?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Don't underestimate this incredibly important step—like I used to.

Because sometimes, just doing this process of analyzing the problem will give you the exact perfect idea to solve it.

Whoa, right? 

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a snag in my story, and then beat my brains up trying to figure out what to do next.

Maybe I've run into a problem with a character, a setting, or the conflict. I'll have backed my protagonist into a corner—and have zero ideas about what to do next.

It's great for story suspense, but pretty bad for my writing day.

So I used to make a lot of noise, growl at my computer screen, and rack my brains trying to come up with the idea I needed.

I spent a lot of time mentally spinning my tires, until I figured this out: That I needed a crystal clear definition of what problem I was trying to solve. 

Sometimes we can come up with a good idea on impulse. But for the more complex, more elusive solutions, it pays to back off and take the time to study the problem itself.

It's tough to remember to do! Usually I just want to plug away until I have the solution I need.

But in order to design the right fix, you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

And you need to diligently uncover all the hidden requirements of the particular idea that you're after.

We can't solve anything until we're clear on exactly what we're solving!

My favorite way to "define the problem" is with a lot of informal freewriting.

Basically, I interview myself about exactly what's gone wrong. I'm looking for the most precise description of my problem, of the story snag, or the hole I'm trying to fill.

And then I take plenty of notes on my answers.

Writing it all down is key, because all your discussion with yourself about the problem is full of good clues: pointers to your needed idea!

Just remember: You're getting the exact dimensions of your missing puzzle piece. That's the only way to recognize the best solution.

Obviously, the questions that you ask yourself will look different depending on the idea that you're after. But the first place to start is by asking: 

What exactly isn't working here? What is the problem really

And then, go into detail.

Like, a lot of detail.

You really can't have too much detail! If you're an overthinker like me, just do your thing. Let it all out.

So, for me, I need to define the problem most often because I've hit a major snarl in my plot.

Like recently: I needed to figure out what my protagonist was going to do during a critical part of the climactic sequence. I knew what happened just before this moment, and I knew what happened just after. 

But there was a big gap between the two, and I had nothing.

And after being frustrated for a while (stomping, staring, roaring), I remembered to start asking these questions. 

I opened a new document on my computer, and I wrote it down: "I don't know how to get my protagonist into this important building at the end of the story."

And then I imagined my computer saying (in a calm, thoughtful voice): "Tell me more about that."

This is when you start discussing every single component of the problem. 

So, for my problem, I wrote about who my protagonist was at this exact moment in the story.

What she had been learning, and what she was up against. How tired she was, and all the conflicts between herself and her allies. And also how she felt about the villains at the moment.

I also wrote down anything pertinent about her skills, her strengths, her flaws. What was her biggest fear? What was her chief objective, and what was the motive behind it? 

I reviewed all of this good stuff. (Brilliant ideas are lurking in these kinds of questions!)

Then I thought through my other characters, and what they were doing during this exact moment in the plot.

And then, too, the antagonist and all his friends: What were they up to? What were they worried about? How were they gathering for the climactic scenes? What did they still have up their sleeves?

I took a zillion notes, and then sat back and kept thinking.

What else was part of the problem?

Well, the building she needed to get into: it was extremely important to the story, and it had some special plot-related requirements of its own. 

So I wrote down everything that I could think of about that

And then I thought through everything else going on in the story's setting: the surrounding area, and the weather, and anything else that could be a part of it.

Another great question if you're looking at a plot problem: What story resources are still untapped?

What about these characters have I not used in a while? What haven't I exploited about the setting?

See how it goes?

The main thing is to drill wide, and drill deep. 

And don't stop until you feel like you have the most accurate representation of the hole you need to fill. 

Also, you can take some time to explain why other solutions don't work. 

This can be really clarifying. It's also a little cathartic, since you've probably had to abandon a handful of ideas for certain reasons. Get all that down, so that you know where you are:

I can't do this, because of that and that and that. I can't do this other thing, because of x and y and z.

Then ask:

What else will the solution have to take into consideration?

What other constraints are you operating with?

And (since sometimes you're filling a gap, and you know what's on the other side of it) what will this solution have to lead into?

Whew! 

After I've written everything down—and then some!—I'll usually take a break from this "Defining the Problem Q&A." 

I'll come back a few hours later, or the next day, and reread all the scribbling I've done and see if I've left anything out.

Once you've gotten every single possible element of your problem onto paper, you're set. Good job!

You have just become the expert on the idea that you're looking for. 

So where does that leave you? 

Actually in a really good place. 

When I did this process for that climactic story snag I had? The exact perfect solution dropped into my head, while I was writing down all the things that wouldn't work.

It feels like magic when that happens! Like "Congrats, you're a genius!!"

The right solution fell into place, and I love it. It feels unexpected in the story (I think!), and it ties up all the concerns I had about the moment itself.

But there's no way I would have been clear on that, if I hadn't gone through this process.

If the perfect idea doesn't show up, at least you know exactly what you are looking for. And that's a powerful place to be, when you need the perfect idea!

So how do you go about finding it?

That's what we'll talk about in the next post.

Ooooh. Story problems: brace yourselves!!

Enhancing the Amazing Ability to Take Notice

How are your observation skills doing? Because mine TOTALLY need brushing off. | lucyflint.com

Can I tell you something? Sometimes when I sit down to write a descriptive passage, I feel like I'm going through my days blind and deaf. 

How else to explain the total blankness I feel, when I need to sketch out the elementary parts of a setting?

I start to worry about myself. About my vision. About my sense of hearing. Because all my descriptions come up flat.

Does this happen to you? 

Writing shows me, over and over again, how dull I get to the real world. How little I've actually paid attention to what's going on around me. How unspectacular my observations are.

This isn't a good state for a writer to be in. 

At least half of our job description must be: Pay attention. 

Right? 

I want to get better at this, friends. For the sake of my writing (who needs another lame description?), but also for the sake of my living: I don't want to be in a fog all the time. 

I'm pretty sure that paying attention is one of those "Use it or lose it" skills. My writing is begging me to get better at this!

So here's how I want to change, how I want to grow my ability to observe:

- No distractions. We all know that we're living distracted most of the time, yes?

While I technically understand that, I can too easily forget how much it's costing me, as a writer and an observer.

Writing flat descriptions? Having zero material to draw from when it comes to setting scenes? Not okay! 

So here's to putting down the iPhone and unplugging the headphones. Here's to actually looking hard at what is going on around me.

- Go slow. Racing around is basically the antithesis of noticing.

When I move quickly, when I operate on glances and quick snatches, I only catch the most surface details (if I catch anything at all).

If I wait out my first observations, if I settle in a bit, then I can catch the second wave of details, and then maybe the third. I notice the deeper things, the interesting things.

- Fight the blur effect. It's too easy for my brain to laze on autopilot and to report back: tree, tree, tree, (yawn) tree.

But if I ask myself to see specifically, to pull meaning out of the blur, I can do it. I can finally see: maple, pine, pear, oak

And since each word has its own personality, each detail its own connotation, those specifics matter.

- Wait for the telling detail. Observing gets so much more interesting--for me at least--when I come across something unusual.

The little detail that juxtaposes the rest of the picture. The one thing out of place. The note that jars, that stands out, that goes a different direction, that puts a new spin on the rest of the picture.

That contrast always draws me in: it gives my imagination something to wrestle with, intriguing blanks to fill.

And that's where observation fuels storytelling.

 

So that's how I'll be reframing my downtime in waiting rooms, in grocery store checkout lines, in my kitchen as I'm watching dishes.

I'm going to turn it into storytelling gold, honing my skills as an observer of the world.

How about you?