productivity

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Measuring Progress: Thoughts on Effective Goal-Setting

'Type A' is a little bit of an understatement for me.

My Passion Planner—a gift from my intuitive, thoughtful friend Rachel—is a goal-tracker’s playground. There is enough structure to get you focused and to encourage reflection, but there’s also enough blank space to make it your own and have some room to play. It's one of my go-to tools for goal-setting and progress-tracking, another being the Gleeo Time Tracker app. 

At the beginning of every month, I dedicate some time to reflect and project; I review my progress on goals from the previous month, and then set my goals for the next month, breaking the larger goals into weekly segments. I feel like I’m constantly re-evaluating these goals; at first, an approach seems like it will work, but in practice something about the goal is off, and I end up tweaking something for the following month. 

Honestly, it’s a little annoying. But I also believe this is a process worth digging into. 

Here’s why:

When setting and tracking goals, we get the most accurate picture of our progress when we’re measuring the correct goals with the appropriate units.

Let’s use my previous goals as an example. For July, I set the following targets:

  • Read 3 books
  • Write 20,000 words for my work-in-progress first draft
  • Write and share 1 blog post per week

At first glance, this is a perfectly reasonable list of goals. As a writer, I should definitely be reading and writing; these tasks are my bread and butter. Blog posts are also a logical step for developing my business while simultaneously getting some additional writing practice.

It all sounds good, right? But in practice, these goals were not working at all. Why? What got in the way? 

As I took a closer look, the major issues related to my goal-setting fell into the following categories: the motivation behind each goal, distinguishing action items from goals, and measuring success appropriately and accurately. Let’s break these down individually.

Goal Motivation

Why? Why is the tool with which we determine goal motivation. 

Reading is important to me; I want to be consistently absorbing the work of other writers, learning from their techniques and developing my vocabulary and writing toolbox. I chose the goal of at least 3 books per month because that would allow me to more-or-less reach my reading goal for the year: 40 books. 

Here’s the rub: establishing a reading goal measured by the number of books completely fails to support my motivation for reading! The goal that I set encourages me to read for speed over depth, to select shorter books, and to read without really dedicating much time to unearthing the nuggets of wisdom in the text. 

So how can I repair the issue? I go back to my original motivation for wanting to read regularly: to develop my own writing abilities, and improve my vocabulary.

When examined in this light, my truest, most motivation-aligned writing goals would be to 1) read the right books and 2) read them slowly, with space to take notes and absorb the information.

KABOOM. All of a sudden, my title-hungry reading goal has no business sticking around. With a clear purpose at the forefront of my planning, the goal becomes reading the right books, and reading them well. Is this goal still measurable? Sure! All I need is a list of books worth reading, and consistent time spent reading them with intention. 

One might even go so far as to argue in favor of the following effort: Spend as many hours reading a good book as possible. 

Goals vs. Action Items

Oh, reading...you sneaky little fiend.

Guess what? Reading isn't one of my goals at all -- it is an action item. By incorrectly viewing it as a goal, I lost on two fronts: 1) reading received more priority and weight than it deserved, and 2) the actual goal that reading is related to was distorted and did not receive an appropriate amount of attention and effort. 

Try this exercise that helped me get my goals and tasks in order. 

Make a chart with three columns, or whatever organization works for you. In one space, list all of the professional goals you want to achieve. Don't worry about being specific or giving a timeline for the goal just yet -- really dig deep and lean into the heart of what you want to do. 

To make sure that you're really listing goals, ask yourself WHY you want to do each item on your list. If there is an answer to that question, the answer is probably your goal. If your response is "Because that's what I want to do," you've probably arrived at an actual goal.

Here is my version:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Practice and become a better writer.
  • Serve more people via career communication services.
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

Now, in the next space, translate these general goals into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound versions of what you've listed on the left.

This is where things get interesting.

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.



 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.


     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Effectively prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network conversations, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

It was SUPER tempting to put action/task items into the SMART Goal column. For example: blog weekly. I had to add and delete "blog weekly" from the SMART Goal column next to "Serve new people" more than once during this exercise. Why? Because blogging weekly isn't my goal. Finding new people to serve via communication services is the goal--my goal is to identify new clients or referrals. People I can serve is the unit I'm measuring...not blog posts. Blog posts are just a task that I will schedule that will actually support 2 of my SMART Goals: becoming a better writer, and identifying new people to serve. 

Closely examine your lists, verifying the connection between Core Goals and SMART Goals, and ensure that no action items have snuck their way in.

Got it? Okay--now you actually get to translate goals into action items. Time for Column 3:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.






 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.






     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Daily prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 



     
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

Action Items

  • Block client-specific time into the first two hours of my schedule, daily. Create daily to-do lists and ensure client priority.
  • Schedule 3 daily hours of writing time each afternoon. Identify writing prompts or "play" topics. Log writing time in Gleeo.


     
  • Make a list of people to speak to and get in touch. Blog weekly, cycling in career communications content. Plan, promote, and execute free webinars. Offer free workshop for job seekers.
  • Add to the draft daily, resisting the temptation to edit yesterday's work -- use comments in Scrivener instead to make notes for future edits. 

Neat, huh? Suddenly, we are left with a thorough breakdown of SMART goals with corresponding, ready-to-go action items. It's super tempting to drop this blog post right here and get all of this incorporated into my Google calendar and planner; in the name of productivity and follow-through, I will resist!

Measuring Success

The last hiccup that I identified in my goal-setting was that I wrote my goals in such a way that I was measuring the wrong thing, or at least measuring inaccurately. Let's look at writing as an example.

My July writing goal was 20,000 words for my work-in-progress draft. As I began writing and editing, I realized that I was being cheated in my progress tracking--often, I came in and started working from a mid-way point in the text I wrote the previous day. Because I'm human, I found sections or words that I didn't care for at all, deleted them, and re-wrote them. But because I was measuring the amount of words added to my draft that day, I didn't get any "credit" for the work that I did on top of existing text. 

Writing isn't easy, folks. Don't make it worse by minimizing what you've managed to achieve.

There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. One option would be to completely refuse to edit any of yesterday's work, and only move forward in the draft. For me, that just isn't feasible. For the sake of continuity and sanity, I have to be allowed to back up and overlap my efforts each day.

So in my case, the answer is to stop measuring words and start measuring time. After all, writing is not all about typing out words -- thinking, staring into space, visualizing a scene, having out-loud imaginary conversations with your characters, Googling facial expressions as visual aids, and various other insane strategies that we utilize as writers do not get included in your progress when you only measure word count. What is the one thing that all of these tasks have in common that is measurable?

The time that I spend working. Voila. If I measure time, I measure success.

Friends, I hope that this reflection is helpful for you today. If we know what our target is, we can identify what actions we need to take to aim appropriately; ready, aim, fire.

Now all that's left is to get moving!