January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

write start badgeI started yesterday’s January Challenge (read overview here) by saying I’d found 2 great online challenges — the only problem being that the first month of 2013 required me to focus not just on one thing, but many.

So the January Write Start Challenge was born:

  • Week 1 (that’s now), I’ll finish one thing
  • Week 2, I’ll start one thing
  • Week 3, I’ll focus on improving one thing
  • Week 4 will be the wrap up to evaluate how things are progressing and plan what comes next.

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First, for housekeeping’s sake — if you want to participate at any point in the month: say hello in the comments here, then post your goals on your site. Be sure to share link to this post in your article (you can include the badge above, if you want to be festive), and then come back here and share link to your article in the comments so readers can follow your success.

Most of my readers are writers, but you’re welcome to share any goals you are working on!

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Week 1: Finish One Thing

Inspiration for the Week 1 Challenge:

Christa Desir was the source for this week’s challenge.  Christa is a writer (repped by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown) whose debut young adult novel, Faultline, comes out in November. So, first off, kudos to her — I look forward to seeing her book in the fall.

Picture 6Earlier this week she shared her 2013 Jan Plan: an unstructured challenge to simply complete one thing in January.

She said, “This is the month for all of us to take a project and finish it. It can be anything…book, cleaning out the garage, knitting a sweater…it doesn’t matter. Just whatever you have been putting off, it is time to finish.”

Be sure to visit her blog and let her know, if you take on this challenge.

Choosing The One Thing to Finish:

Originally, I intended to take on only Christa’s challenge for January (and you are welcome to do that, rather than a different challenge each week).

It was the perfect excuse for me to take on one of my nearly-finished short stories, complete revisions, and get one submitted to a literary magazine. I have unfinished grad school applications.  I have a half-painted living room. I’m sure everyone has some project like these on their to-do list — and there’s something reassuring, even fun, in tackling them together.

But the truth is that I have a deadline to complete all paperwork for fall semester by this Monday, which includes grading all the essays turned in just before the holidays.  So — while I may use Christa’s challenge to tackle one of those other projects later in the month — my goal for the first week of the challenge is to complete grading for last semester.

Some Thoughts on Tackling Unfinished Work:

It’s possible you are just taking up the next thing on your list. Maybe you just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Maybe it was already the thing you planned to do this week — like my grading or taking down holiday decorations or writing holiday thank-you’s (shoot, I need to do that). If that’s the case, your path forward may be simple. Get to it.

But often, when we face an unfinished project like the unrevised short stories, or the grad school application or even things like unfinished painting or a half-knit sweater, we are facing a project that has lingered, getting stale and unlikable, on our to-do list for months or even years.

Strategy for Tackling Stale Projects:

Awhile back, I faced a to-do list like that. A couple items rotated from one to-do list to the next, but never got smaller.

Mystified, I applied a new trick —  I wrote my To Do list in 3 columns:

  1. The first column named the project that needed to be done.
  2. But, in the second column, I answered the question, “Why have you not done it yet?” Almost always, the answer was that it took materials, money or time I didn’t have, or… eek… I was afraid of failing or lost interest.
  3. So, in that third column, which became my actual to-do list, I wrote what I needed to overcome that resistance. Instead of “paint the living room,” my to-do item started with, “match paint sample, buy paint and roller.” Instead of “revise Hotsy Totsy,” my to-do item became “send HT to a beta reader for feedback; then, revise with feedback.”

Why is it so important to ask why you didn’t get it done before?

  • To address any resistance. We couldn’t finish painting the living room because the paint had been discontinued, so it helped to add “get new sample” to the action list. Addressing the resistance honors that you weren’t being lazy or unproductive; there is an actual obstacle to fix. Action steps always feel more constructive.
  • (Restated as a specific for writers:) Avoid telling yourself to “revise that story”or “finish that book” — it helps to break writing projects into action steps. Where vague orders like “revise” or “finish” beat you down with over-repetition, being clear gives you direction and the chance of actually completing the step.  Try “write the ending,” or “submit a proposal to (target publications),” or “address rambling in middle chapters,” or “research names of participants in the Easter Rising.” I gave the example of my short story Hotsy Totsy because we sometimes bang ourselves (and our stories) over the head with the same approach to revision, over and over. I knew that story didn’t need my revision again, but feedback from another reader, and solutions came much more quickly when I wrote “find beta reader” on my to-do list. (Kudos to Gerry Wilson for that!)
  • To identify overlooked steps. “Submit grad school applications” sounds like I need to fill out a form. But no, I did that already. What I’d need to write on my action list is: “email (specific names) for recommendation letters” and “write personal statement.” I might have forgotten, also, to budget for the application fees.
  • To plan better. As a mom, often I’m short on time. If that was the case, I answered the question, “What did I do instead of this thing?” I used my answer to that question to plan better times to work on the project — say, when I had time off from work or when my boys were at school.
  • To shift priorities.  Sometimes you need to honor that there is a roadblock that won’t move any time soon. When almost all of my hold-ups on one list were the cost, I realized the some of the unfinished projects were low priority compared to other expenses — and literally moved them off my list. In fact, I switched them for tasks that increased whatever was in short supply (“send out resumes” or “submit expense report”).

In some cases, projects are unfinished because we lost interest.  Maybe sharing this challenge will help you regain that excitement. Post a picture showing progress of that baby blanket getting crocheted. Post the garden you hope to plant, come summer.  Share your fears or frustrations, and the small steps as you move forward.

Here’s mine:

I have stacks of essays to grade, which is daunting. I need to chug my way into them.  I will find inspiration to move forward as I hit some great work.  Some of them I will flag for inclusion in the literary magazine I’ll be working on next week.  But I’ll use other milestones to keep me going: the satisfaction of watching grade columns fill in our grading software. Or I might use a timing clock, setting an estimated time-per-paper to help me read more efficiently. Maybe I’ll put some easy ones first to make quick progress, then save a few easy ones to reward myself with as I near the end.  And I’ll schedule a break, here and there.  Thirty minutes of TV with my boys, or a walk, or a snack, or 30 minutes to work on the novel… If I’m not back by Sunday, send a rescue crew. (Kidding.)

For more strategies for finishing a goal, read Sunday’s motivational post:  January Challenge: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work

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Your Turn!

In the comments below, on another post this month or on Christa’s blog, be sure to share with us the unfinished project you will be tackling whether this week or any time in January. 

What obstacles hold you back? Did you do the 3-column to-do list, and what did you learn from it?  Whatever your challenge, know you have a cheering squad here and be sure to check back in for the rest of the challenge, throughout the month!

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

More on the January Challenge:

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Teaching Writing, Writing Life

10 responses to “January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

  1. Hi, Elissa!

    I love your three column to-do list! I just keep putting projects off because they seem SO daunting. But having that extra column to break it up into baby steps is a brilliant idea. I will definitely try that and maybe I’ll even get a few things done.

    Becca ;)


    • elissa field

      Great, Becca. I’m so surprised, any time I write my list this way, to find the obstacles that are really keeping me from moving forward. Small steps help! It’s great to see you here. Let us know if you pick a project to tackle or find successes this week.


  2. That three-column to-do list? It’s so stolen! That’s a BRILLIANT idea, for so many reasons … For me, I’ve started leaving “nagging notes” around my apartment that basically yell at me for not doing tasks (i.e., “That pile of laundry by your closet should be IN your closet” or “When you get home the FIRST THING YOU WILL DO is update your grade book!!!”); I like this idea better. :)


    • elissa field

      Khara, I need your nagging notes right now. I am, um, not doing much grading. Too many other things are fun. :) Which I guess means the action item I need in my 3rd column would be “grow up and stop having fun.”

      This also had me remembering another prioritizing trick for to do lists. Maybe I’ll blog about it next week, but it boils down to doing the thing that will make life better tomorrow, first. So… getting grading done makes life better tomorrow. Watching Project Runway right now… Well, that’s just procrastination! Thanks for posting!


  3. elissa field

    After confessing how distracted I was getting started, I should post the link to the updated on how my “finish something” is going — including feedback I’ve received from others, and 14 strategies for getting this done. Today’s post is here: https://elissafield.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/january-challenge-14-strategies-for-finishing-work/


  4. I have been sitting around thinking about all the things that I should do, want to do, and am not doing. I will use you as inspiration! I will try your three column idea but I am afraid that the one column would just sound like horrible whining… Cuz , there it too much, cuz, I am tired, Cuz I just am freezing and can’t think…..


    • elissa field

      :D Whining is ok! (I was being such a brat about getting anything done this weekend – whining happens.) I like doing the 3-column list because it honors the obstacles, even if they are just being tired or not feeling like it. We’re human, not machines, and it seems fair to take a second and say, “Self, I’m sorry you’re tired. Let’s take a break first…” right? :) Thanks for commenting here and on Week 2. As I said there, take on any part of the challeng that works for you — it doesn’t have to be done in order.


  5. Pingback: Write Start | Carol Early Cooney

  6. Amy

    It’s Jan. 22 and I’m just getting to your challenge. Procrastinators unite — tomorrow! LOL!
    My “Finish Something” project? Clean my office. This is no easy task, mind you. I would post a “Before” picture, but I don’t want anyone to call the authorities on me.
    Thanks for doing this, Elissa. It’s the kick in the butt I need.


  7. elissa field

    Amy, that’s a great project to schedule for “finishing.” I type that from… a very… very…. chaotic desk. Picture: two jack-lantern sculptures eyeing each other over my stapler and hole punch, a little uneven from the mix of sons’ graded school work and (??) a bikini (apparently someone suggested I should go to the pool instead of working) and notes for novel revisions in various states of being typed in. You’re setting a good example because too often we think “I shouldn’t stop to clean it up, I have too much to do.” It’s almost a luxury to work from a cleaned office — but what a great standard, as it’s so much easier to get things done without a mess. Great plan!!

    By the way, I’ll have to throw together a post to say NO APOLOGIES for starting a challenge late. Challenges are meaningful if they work for you, and that has nothing to do with the date I posted the challenge. It’s great to hear what works for you — no matter when that happens! Thanks for sharing!


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