Essentialism and real life

How I am working on my novel the Essentialism way

A few weeks ago I took Greg McKeown’s course on Simple Productivity: How to accomplish more with less on Skillshare all about Essentialism and Productivity. I was already aware of the book from the excellent and always funny “Go Help Yourself” podcast which I would really recommend if you can’t always be bothered to read the book but want the ideas! Your main goal of the course is to identify the thing in your life are you not making an “essential” For me that is working on my novel. Once you have identified this, then you will need to think what makes it so essential for you. I took time to review the book I have written and – though it’s a right mess – I still believe in the story I am trying to tell.

Greg McKeown Essentialism:The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

After this philosphising about your purpose, you have to get down to practicalities. As you know I am always looking for ways to be more productive as I recently shared my reading list. Then you have to create strong boundaries around this essential thing. And finally you have to “routinize” the work so it actually happens. All of this is easier said than done!

I chose writing as my thing I don’t do enough of, you may have guessed that aside from faithfully writing morning pages, there are days the pen doesn’t hit the page. That has to change but in addition to McKeown’s advice I needed to consider my pacing approach. I am lucky enough to have help from a Fatigue Coach, Pamela Rose and she very wisely suggests you build up slowly within your tolerance and live carefully once you have established a baseline of energy. Her approach actually makes sense for lots of us, not just people with a fatigue condition. What I am suggesting is you shouldn’t rush straight into saying I’ll write an hour a day or a 1500 words a day or whatever other rule you have read somewhere. You can build up to this if that works for your life.

Looking at my current capability I have made a plan to build up over the next few months. I am still struggling with screens as they are more tiring for me with my foggy brain so instead I have been writing by hand. For the last few weeks I have been attempting to write two days a week for thirty minutes then having a type up day each Sunday. This practical focus has been achievable and the idea is to keep building on the momentum of the regular writing. I am going to attempt to lengthen one session this week before I add another day in. This way I have stayed building on my progress but not gone too far.

I think with all good self-help books we have to take the best parts. The advice can start to diffuse into our lives so that we establish any changes within our own capabilities. I think it is important to make our creativity an essential, to recognise artistic expression is more than just a hobby. But also to make realistic demands on our self. As ever real life can get in the way.

Productivity Hacks and Where to Find Them

The search continues for productivity hacks for busy-brained people who have too much to do…

If you have always had a busy brain like me, distractable and often day-dreamy, you will probably have spent years looking for systems that help you “get things done” or “be more productive”. You probably have to work twice as hard to put the any suggestions in place – I can tell you with the added bonus of brain fog for the last 18 months, I have hard-won experience about just how tough this can be. Over the years, I have developed an insatiable appetite for the self-help books that help and here are the productivity hacks that have actually helped:

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

This book is such a a classic though I haven’t read it since I was an impressionable teenager some of the habits have stuck. It’s definitely quite a dense management-speak book that couldn’t solve all my problems but there is one hack that has stuck – the importance matrix. You probably know to always write a to do list: mine has too many things on it and some on there that “should have dones” that haunt me every time I look at this.

But I am having a tough time, I sit and make a matrix. In essence what Covey teaches you to do is to rank the most important and time-consuming tasks so that you get your priorities done first. When my brain is fuzzed with too many tasks to do, I still use this method after all these years to focus in on what’s got to get done first.

Graham Allcott: How to Be a Productivity Ninja

One book I think that runs alongside Covey’s book which helps you prioritise tasks is The Productivity Ninja. The section that stayed with me was both about knowing your best times of day but most importantly protect your attention. This means working in focus mode on my phone or putting a timer on to work solidly for that time. Now as you will know getting precious time alone with enough energy is my constant battle, but knowing that mornings are the times I can concentrate best and that I work well with instrumental music on helps me keep on task.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism was a book I have found quite recently. It actually seems more of a philosophy – a minimalism for your inner life and I enjoyed this introductory course on Skillshare (link not affiliated). Having thought through a lot of advice, it seems like he is asking you to design your life and I will share more on the project I am working on as part of the course in a future post. The general idea is to really identify not just your priorities but areas of your lives where you can improve so you are always moving in the direction. As part of this work, you really have to identify your boundaries and so that you really are focusing on what is essential.

Manoush Zomodori: Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything

I have written my account of trying a bored and brilliant project before. The ideas that have really stuck is taking breaks from our phone. She forces you to go on your commute without your phone or go for a quiet walk. What a revelation that we can cope without the modern crutch. The most difficult part is you might feel weird being the only one looking around, not down at your phone. As well as giving you a break, it allows your restless brain to work and often ideas will form. It may seem the opposite of being productive to let your mind wander, but our problem solving mechanism works hard for us and although I do still often have the crutch of my phone, I am much more aware of taking time without it.

Nir Eyal, Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life

The final book I have found helpful has some startling evidence to share about the impact of social media and the instant access of information on our attention. The message I take from this book, apart from making me horrified about my screen time, is that we need to be aware when we are trying to escape.

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality

Nir Eyal, Indistractable

For me I acknowledge I need these breaks, often into fiction or even writing itself. The hard disciplined work of being indistractable is not easy but will undoubtedly improve your productivity.

The fatigue recovery that I have had to undertake has taught me a lot about just how much energy focusing and using our brain takes. I am not yet at my full capacity but so much improved now I can see how important it is to be aware of how we spend our attention. As well as using these hacks, I would say we also need to balance. We need these hard and focused moments to work effectively in the time we have but also those things that give us a break.

Have you read any productivity books you think will help?

Take back a little control

When life gets in the way, what steps can you take to have some control?

I recently embarked on a project to complete 50 days of healthy habits, run by Smilin Aislinn. I managed 50 days of consistent meditation, reading as well as eating and exercising the best that I can. I didn’t manage 100% of all my tasks each day, but I hit 75% of the tasks every day and embedded some useful habits into my life. Her method worked really well for me and I would definitely recommend it to others.

In a bid to take this level of discipline forward for another 50 days, I have set myself some new tasks which includes writing 3 times a week. The tasks I set in the first 50 days were achievable because I had already started to try and put them in my life. What I did by taking on the challenge was stay consistent to support my health (hello daily green smoothies) and making sure I did morning pages (hello waking up to write.) The reason it worked so well was I was not strict or judgmental with myself. I enjoyed ticking off the tasks each day in my journal and getting that little hit of achievement. It also gave me a little bit of control over things I can do to help myself.

In the background of these next 50 days we have started another battle (always a battle) to get the right support for my Special Needs son. So, as we prepare documents and attend meetings and generally try not to worry about the future, it’s even more important to feel in control.

For me there are three things that help me manage my life: timers, lists and focusing.

Short bursts of time writing is one way to get work done.

These ideas are not revolutionary but if you knew how hard it was for my busy brain to knuckle down to tasks in this way, you would understand why I have to rely on them to function well. In reality this means I set a timer to write or read – essential tasks which take a lot of energy. I need a list of what I am working on next. And, and this is the hard one, I need time without interruption. Often I use the Binaural playlists in my ear buds but I also turn on “focus mode” on my phone.

Taking back control over our focus is a real skill in the distracted world. I previously took the “Bored but Brilliant” challenge to help me get into a more creative space. I have been reading a number of productivity books and will publish my essential list soon but for now I will say that being less attached to a device and more in control of my time is currently one of my main goals for part two of this challenge.

What are your essential tools to get your work done?

Coping with Creative Blocks

Life can be full of difficulties that block creativity but we have to keep going forwards.

Today we are saying goodbye to a friend who lost her life too young. Like most people nearing forty a number of friends have been lost along the way, and some dear relatives. It always take you by surprise.

Sadly, so many people have lost their lives with the pandemic too and we are all more vulnerable than we like to think. I am grateful today we can say a proper goodbye, many were not able to with the restrictions and lockdowns that made it more difficult to honour those passed over the last few years.

When death hits closer to home, it turns us inwards and outwards at the same time. We say I’m going to do the things they could not do. This vivacious woman could not go everywhere so let me go there. It also helps us reflect on where we are stuck.

I do feel stuck in my art and in trying to do so much for my family. I feel stuck inside my house because I am not well (though thankfully much better than I was). And this inward reflection shows up in frustration and criticism of any work I have done. It shows up in how I wrangle through the bureaucracy of school, how everything feels like a fight.

My morning journalling practice has been so valuable, despite writing only a few scenes in my novel, I have filled a large notebook with all my thoughts and feelings in the last few months. So perhaps, a bit like this rambling post, my mind can only cope with the fragmented thoughts and processing my feelings.

I think when you are stuck, blocked by life, there are some amazing tools out there, like The Artist’s Way but there is also something that you have to use too: faith that it will come again. If life is too big for the creative work you have to trust that the way you are living your life will help you show up soon to your art.

In the meantime, I have been taking my Artist’s Dates in exploring nearby, as well as using my flowerpress I have been elderflower picking and made tea and cordial for the first time. I am being creative in the kitchen – partly to help make the food stretch further as prices rise. And I am gradually finding ways through to my son to help him in this tricky time. I have to believe that treating life with this curiosity will gradually let my creativity unfurl.

The last of the elderflower harvest

So, as I prepare myself to go to the service for my friend, I think about what I can promise her. In the future, if not now, I will try to live my life to the full. I will do what I can each day to step towards my dreams of writing for a living. I will do everything I can to cherish the bright spirit she was.

Difficult times are not easy but death so young makes us reflect sharply – if not now, then when?

Learning New Things

To truly value the hard times, we have to approach life as if there are lessons to learn

In a recent group post my fatigue coach, Pamela Rose asked us to take the Tony Robbins quiz on our “driving force” – linked here if you are interested. I am a little sceptical of Robbins style and some of his philosophies around health. But I will say at surface value he got me right. My drive is for growth, always learning and looking to grow and get better. The idea of considering is these driving forces is to ensure that we are approaching our lives with them still in mind, even if fatigue is putting up barriers.

I think that there is often barriers in my life. As I recently wrote there are ways to overcome these: no more tears and of course I do apply all of these methods to try and live creatively. But I also think the situations themselves can teach us things in life.

Time for some quiet rest

Right now life is telling me I have to concentrate on my family. My son’s not coping at school so his needs are much higher. It is also reminding me that life has easier and harder times. Sometimes the hard seems to drag on. However just as to live with a chronic health condition you have to come to a place of acceptance, in these tougher times you need to accept they are just that.

I may be around less or doing less creative work for a while as I get through this difficult time. But I am committing to my 50 day challenge so I take the best care of myself. I am committing to creative moments and artist dates still to feed thia need. I am still committing to trying to read as a good book is a happy place even in dark times.

I will update the blog next month with how it is all going with hopes that soon I will be able to write again. In the meantime, write right now if you can.