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Managing Distractions to Your Progress

In the last post, I sang the praises of building creative and entrepreneurial momentum by taking little steps to overcome the inertia of standing still and propel you down the path toward your bigger goal. “Do something!” I said, encouraging both you, and me. “Stop waiting for the project to start (or finish!) itself!”

I would venture a guess: Someone will stumble across this blog and say, “Ah, Eric, you sweet rube. I have the best intentions. Every day, I tell myself I’ll do something to work toward my Big Thing, but then, I don’t do it. The rock stays unmoved. The object at rest remains at rest.”

The "to do list" can be a solid productivity tool, when used properly. But when we find ourselves unable to make any progress in our creative or business lives, our "to-dos" have to be broken down into smaller (and smaller) steps.

It’s not uncommon to find ourselves at the end of week, looking back at the stellar intentions we carried into last Monday, and wonder just what happened to screw everything up.


Micro-goals and Baby Steps

The key to building momentum is to get started, but sometimes we find we can’t even do a minimum. We feel “blocked” or depressed or otherwise unable to achieve even something simple. It’s frustrating to get to the end of yet another day and not have accomplished even the smallest token of progress.

Breaking up larger goals into more manageable pieces is an obvious strategy. If I want to write a novel, I can’t just “write a novel.” There are hundreds of little steps along the way. I can break down “write a novel” into many different goals: Write a chapter, write a page of the chapter, write a sentence on the page.

If things are flowing and I have creative momentum, I don’t have to think too hard about reducing my goals to smaller and smaller steps. But, if I find myself slogging along and unable to find the energy I need for the project, I may, in fact, reduce my definition of “making progress” to the smallest of goals. Micro-goals, if you will.

Your list of partial goals may look different than mine, or anyone else’s. You’ll have to take a look at your big-picture goals, and then break down the process you’ll use to get there into small steps. Break those steps down to concrete actions that you can take that will take you less than twenty minutes to accomplish. Make a list of micro-goals—something you can accomplish in five to fifteen minutes, if you’re just starting out—and then utilize one of the methods below to help you get it done.


Reward

What little treat or special “extra” can you give yourself as a reward? Identify something fun and frivolous. A coffee shop treat or something from the decadent bakery, if you’re food-driven. Maybe you’ve had your eye on some Etsy product. Maybe there’s a book you’ve been thinking about buying. Decide on the value-to-effort ratio of your micro-goals list, and set a threshold where you will reward yourself with something that makes your face, and your heart, smile.

When you are just starting, you might go small. “If I do fifteen minutes of reviewing my photos from my last trip, I’ll have an extra cappuccino.” Or, maybe you have a bigger reward in mind: “If I do ten minutes of sketching everyday this week, I’ll open that bottle of wine I’ve been saving.”I’ve often purchased a bag of chocolate treats at Trader Joe’s, with the express purpose of giving myself a little reward several times throughout the week.

Try to make the reward reflective of the accomplishment. Maybe you can reward yourself with a vacation trip, once you finish a big project. Don’t try to convince yourself that five minutes of exercise should be rewarded with a luxury spa day.

Rewards are very individualistic. Just make sure it is something that you will actually look forward to, and is above and beyond your regular routine. (In other words, don’t say, “I will reward myself with breakfast if I do my Morning Pages today!” That sort of strategy is discussed next.)


Abstinence/Self-Denial

When I was deepest in my creative and professional malaise, rewards weren’t enough. The bag of chocolate sea salt treats sat unopened because I hadn’t found the motivation to do even the smallest task.

I resorted to self-denial. For a couple weeks, this was the rule: “Wake up, have a glass of water. No coffee, no internet, no phone, nothing else until you’ve done your morning pages. Then you can have coffee. Nothing else until you’ve read for thirty minutes.” It’s amazing what will happen if we starve ourselves of the distractions and refuse to move until we’ve made some progress.

Don’t go overboard with this strategy. If you make the self-denial too drastic, you’ll just rebel against it. However, don’t underestimate the power of telling yourself, “I won’t do X until I’ve done Y.” (I even do this with my “top three” things I need to accomplish in a given day. If one of those three is “more fun” or easier for whatever reason, I will bargain with myself to do the least-fun thing first.) What do you do instead of the thing you claim you most want to do? Make a list (or, do a time-tracking exercise if you’re unsure) and consider how you can leverage the distractions via self-denial.


Accountability

The first two strategies are actually “accountability strategies” in many ways—you’re being accountable to yourself, aligning your actions to your stated goals and values.

Sometimes, we aren’t good accountability partners to ourselves. We let ourselves off the hook. We give ourselves permission to slack. We pamper ourselves into inactivity. (Of course, the guilt and disappointment and self-flagellation that inevitably comes with that inaction doesn’t go away just because we’ve talked ourselves out of doing that thing we claim is so important to us.)

Having a friend, mentor, counselor, group, or partner to check in with is another momentum-inducing strategy. When I lived in Florida, I had a great writing group. We got together twice a month, and it was rare that I didn’t have twelve or fifteen new pages to share.

There are other ways to submit to some level of accountability. When I have creativity coaching clients, a big part of the program is just having a weekly check in. Sure, we can talk about strategies and find ways to address specific roadblocks, but just having it on the calendar to “tell Eric what progress I have (or haven’t) made on Monday” is a motivator. Accountability allows you some outside perspective about your goals (“Making lists of topics is good, but how about you pick one to write about this week?”), enhances the first two strategies (“So, how did you do with rewarding yourself last week?”), and helps you decide if your strategies are working (“You bought a new car because you finished your book outline? Does that seem a little over-generous?”).


Change of Routine or Location

In a previous post, I argued against the “geographical cure” that many of us attempt to solve life’s disappointments and our personal failures. I stand by that assessment, with one minor caveat: Sometimes, it’s good to change things up in your life. Like shaking a snow globe, mix things up if you’re in a rut, and see how things settle. Get out of the house. Leave your writing desk. Find a different spot to sketch. Take your laptop to the library or cafe or park and edit your photographs.

When I was writing my novel, In Loco Parentis, I would often draft at my writing desk, and revise and edit at a cafe. However, there were times when I switched the order, just to see what would happen. If the daily routine was a little stale, I would change things up.

This does two things for you. First, if you are stuck, a change might help nudge you forward. Second, even if you’re not stuck, the experiment of changing things up can help you identify habits and repetitive actions that aren’t beneficial, or help you find new strategies and routines that aid your creative or business endeavors.


Build on Your Success

As you begin to check micro-goals off your list, you will start to gain momentum. Even a five-minute task has gotten you closer to your goal, and that will add up, over time. I tell my writing students, “If you write one page a day, you will have a novel’s worth of material after one year.” The same could be said of any creative endeavor. One poem a day. One photograph a day. One sketch a day. One potential client contact a day.

Sure, there is nothing about this “gradual accumulation” method that guarantees artistic or commercial success. My 365 pages written one day at a time may not be good. But at least I will have something to work with. It is possible to revise and edit a crappy 365-page manuscript. It is impossible to revise and edit a zero-page, “I’ll write it someday” idea without any words on the page.

But the best thing about accomplishing the micro-goals is that, more often than not, these small victories will help you gain the momentum of true creative flow. You’ll suddenly find yourself in a creative rhythm that feels like running downhill with wings on your back, rather than pushing a wiggly-wheeled shopping cart full of bowling balls up a rocky, uphill path.

You’ll go from one page a day to two. Or five minutes of journaling to ten. Or two painting sessions a week to three. One blog post a month to two, then three. Slowly, incrementally, you’ll establish a forward momentum that will enliven your days and bring you ever closer to seeing that project you care so deeply about come to fruition.

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