Daily Archives: January 9, 2013

January Challenge Week 1: Did I Succeed at Finishing?

grasp c Elissa Field*

Ahhhh…..

Three o’clock came on Monday, deadline for entering grades. Project finished. I met my goal for Week 1 of the January Challenge — I finished this one thing.

I’ve heard from two others who also finished their challenge for the week, and I’ve heard from many who are using this week’s challenge to prioritize how they will get projects finished later in the month, or at other times throughout the year.

What all of the posts and emails have acknowledged — and what I observed, working toward my deadline — are the hurdles and resistance that are particular to finishing a project.

  • In the week’s kickoff post (Week 1: Finish Something), we thought about resistance or obstacles that keep us from completing projects and used strategies to identify the real obstacle, to break the resistance down in manageable steps.
  • Then, Sunday’s post (Week 1: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work) shared several concrete strategies for keeping the work moving toward “done.”

Advice is great. I really do use all those tactics, and heard from so many of you how these kinds of strategies are useful.  But you just know I didn’t glide toward perfect completion of my project following all that advice to a T, without a hitch.

Today’s post shares the insights that came to mind as I applied the advice of those earlier posts (successfully and with rough spots) toward finishing my goal. As always, do share your own experiences in the comments, whether you are actively participating in the challenge or if you stumble upon it even months down the road.

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Avoid Wheel-Spinning

Any of my regular readers might notice that Sunday’s post of “14” strategies was updated to “15” as I realized I left off one that is key (now #8 on the list): avoid wheel-spinning.

One thing that is hard for writers is that finishing work requires shifting gears from the energy of generating lots of new ideas to limiting efforts to the tasks that get the darn thing done.

“Avoid wheel-spinning” recognizes that in those goals for working hours or word counts it is easy to be busy working, yet not focused on steps that will get the job done. My goal last weekend was just to get any remaining grades entered to close out last semester. Sure, that includes tasks like filing paperwork and reflecting on how the semester went. But it was wheel-spinning for me to spend half an hour making notes to a student on a paper that won’t be revised again.

Going back to the endzone metaphor I used in Running on the Grass: imagine you are the running back, carrying a football (your project) toward the endzone. Discipline yourself to avoid running sideways or backwards, or wondering what’s happening over on the baseball fields or suddenly stopping everything to jump rope. Finishing a project means only strides that take you closer to that endzone.

What’s Worth Finishing – and What to Drop

In a few responses from readers, I heard a continued hesitation to even take a project on. They liked the idea of finishing something for this week’s challenge but… you could just hear it in their voice: they weren’t sure they even cared about their project any more. I’m thinking that is worth its own post.  Don’t you hear a list forming in your head, of good reasons for finishing something vs. when to just drop it off the list?

For today’s sake, let’s just say: sometimes you have to amputate certain parts of a goal in order to get it done. In grading, I had one class that was hard to get finished. We made it through our main units, but there was one other assignment I always have students write.  We ran short on time because of classes cancelled during hurricanes, but I was going to be stubborn and force it in — one more paper to write, one more paper to comment on and grade (when already slowed down with the holidays and a cold).  A more seasoned friend shrugged.  There were plenty of grades to accurately reflect the students’ learning; nothing was going to be done with that “one more paper.”  There was no reason not to drop it.

Throughout the weekend, making my deadline involved knowing when to edit out steps. File student papers later, get them graded now. Trade information with a peer by email, rather than a lengthy meeting (when our friendship gets us chatting).  We all know this strategy from our daily lives: make sure the kids learn important values, but don’t worry if you mastered scrapbooking.

Pick your battles. Know what matters and what to drop.

Declaring it Done

Hand-in-hand with that, finishing a project requires knowing when to declare it done.

Please people. Last summer my goal was to polish the third revision of a novel whose characters and storyline were thoroughly written in order to query agents by September 1. What did I do to myself instead? Discovered a whole new thread for a main character’s motivation. Augh.  I mean, yes, okay, it might be a better book for it.  But do I not realize that this second-guessing kind of revision (requiring a thorough rewrite) is what kept me from ever querying the last one? Every time it was just about to finish its writing-marathon, my little novel would say, “You know, I think I’d like to go back and re-run mile 15 differently.”

In perfect irony, that novel draft I never queried has a scene where the main character is an artist, working on finishing a painting in her studio. Watching her, the artist’s daughter asks, How do you know when a painting is done? Roughly quoted, the mother answers, You never really do — just, at a certain point, it starts to stand on its own. At a certain point, you have to take your hands out of it.  If not, it would be sold, framed and on the wall in a collector’s house, and I’d still be taking it down to make one more change. 

For both of the first two points above, as I was grading I had to limit the tasks I took on. It was being a perfectionist that didn’t let me read a student paper without adding one more comment, even knowing the paper and the semester were done. And the definition of finished (grades entered in the software by the deadline) did not need that one last assignment crammed in.

It seems the key is to clearly define “done” for your project, early on in planning.  When discipline is needed, you can then edit out unnecessary tasks and distractions by evaluating whether or not they are needed to reach that definition of done, and hold yourself to declaring a finish line crossed when you reach it.

Build a 20% Cushion on Your Deadline

Deadlines help, as they draw the line in the sand after which there is no more tinkering to be done — but deadlines need a cushion, as problems always come up.

Later this week I’ll introduce my Begin Something challenge: I have a literary magazine that has to be printed and in student’s hands by the last day of school. Which means the printer has to have it no later than May 10th. Which means he really needs it by May 1st. Which means I need to tell myself I have to deliver it to him by a week before that, or even by April 15th. There are holidays and conflicts with other spring projects that month, which means my deadline for having it finished is really April 1st. (Heh. Did you hear my shriek at the thought of how soon that is?)

Something always comes up. A glitch. Weather. Someone you are waiting on who delivers something late. Someone goes on vacation or is out for surgery. A brilliant idea for a last minute change. Run out of paper or ink or…  And we, ourselves, are imperfect. Procrastinate. Lose confidence. Have a glitch in our software or lose a key piece or catch a cold.

My grades weren’t due to be posted until 3pm Monday. Monday was a teacher workday for entering the grades. Awesome: that gave me 5 hours to grade, right? Who could have expected that a tragedy at a school in Connecticut would spur a Monday morning safety review meeting? Still, 2 hour meeting leaves me 3 hours, right? Except the training meeting evolved into the local SWAT team (you planned for this, right? we all plan for sudden SWAT developments?) performing evacuation training on-site until past lunch. Then a follow up meeting. Then a friend with a question. Arrival and assembly of new desks, redesigning my class layout.  Planning for new classes.

I learned after my first year teaching: never expect to grade on a planning day. Have it done the night before. In a perfect world, if I were as smart as posting-advice-lists would imply, I would have set my deadline 2 weeks back, at the end of the semester– anticipating that a Christmas cold would leave me worthless for grading during my weeks off. We are imperfect — subject to colds and procrastination and wanting to run see a movie with a friend and maybe struggling through finishing certain steps of a project.

We have to build a cushion to accommodate that imperfection and expecting — it never fails — something will always come up.

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That Said, I Met My Goal — How Are You Doing?

write start badgeI have some stray housekeeping (returning papers, filing, etc.) that keeps my finish something goal from being completely cleared off my desk but, overall, I met my goal.

How are you doing with yours?

Most readers and friends I have talked to are working on their Week 1 project throughout the month (or even the year) — and really, none of us want to finish just one thing. As soon as I have time, I’ll work in finishing my grad school apps and getting stories out, not to mention those novel revisions. So we’ll continue to trade insight on what works.

Do share your thoughts in the comments.  What are you working on finishing?  Do any of these strategies ring true for you?  Or are there others that help you finish your projects?

Have any of you decided to completely drop a project from your to-do list?

If you have blogged about this challenge, please share a link to my original post (so people can read the challenge) and post a link to your blog here in the comments so we can read what you are up to!

Next up will be kick-off of Week 2: Start Something. Think about a project you need to get started — mine will be the lit mag.

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