Category Archives: January Challenge

January Challenge: 15 Strategies for Finishing Work

write start badgeOn Thursday, I posted the kick-off for the January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something.

If you’ve missed prior posts: the January Challenge: Finish, Start, Improve, Plan attacks our 2013 goals and resolutions by focusing one week at a time.  Week 1 (that’s now) finish one thingWeek 2 start something, Week 3 improve something and Week 4 evaluate and plan where to go next.  Participate at any time — see the end of this post on how to get started.

*     *     *      *     *

The goal this week is to finish one thing.  Today’s post trades notes on the successes and challenges we are encountering, as well as 14 key strategies for getting this goal done. (Thursday’s post gave strategies for breaking the project into manageable steps, getting ahold of any missing materials and otherwise addressing obstacles that keep you from getting started — head there if you need help with those first.)

*     *     *      *     *

Week 1: How Are We Doing?

I shared that my “finish one thing” goal for the week is to complete grading from fall semester.  So far, I’m succeeding: I’ve completed one class, jotted notes for Monday meetings for classes that are starting, and organized the papers I’ll finish grading for the other two classes. Not docile, but tamed.

Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum — chances are we are all trying to finish this one thing while other projects compete for attention.  My challenge this week may be grading, but I still have a novel that is my priority and two little boys who’d prefer I not forget about them (“There’s your food, right next to the dog’s kibble…”), and of course all those post-holiday distractions.

In sharing your goals for the week (or the month or, in some cases, for throughout the spring — use this challenge as it works best for you, and do jump in at any time even once the week is done!), many of you have acknowledged being short on time or distracted by other priorities.  I’ve been fighting a cold and struggling with a bratty urge to enjoy my last days of vacation with my kids before classes start again. Every time I sit down to finish grading, it’s not student essays but my current novel draft that fill my thinking. (Sing it folks: should I not be thrilled to be on fire about novel writing in a days I have off from teaching? It’s hard to compete with that.)

Week 1 tackles “unfinished” projects, and so often these old to-do items have a hard time claiming attention against more fun, more glamorous, more interesting, more entrenched or more profitable siblings on the to-do list.

*     *     *      *     *

15 Strategies for Taming Unfinished Projects:

The point of sharing a challenge is to trade the strategies that help us get through the rough spots.  Here are 14 tricks that work to overcome resistance, find discipline and claim time for your project — balancing to finish this one thing while moving on with other priorities in your life.

  1. Get Started. It sounds obvious, but the biggest hurdle is taking the first step. Do it, now.
  2. Draw yourself in with an easy first step. Say, “Write for 15 minutes,” or “Just sort the papers,” or “Type the handwritten scene you wrote last month.” Kick off a day of novel revisions by just running a spell-check, or printing a draft for reading. Get past blank-page reluctance by baiting yourself with something easy — often, that’s enough to get you hooked.
  3. Find something to get out of the way. Scan to see if a “big” project has something simple you can knock off right away. With my grading, half of one stack was already graded– I only had to record the grades and file the papers. Shorter stack already. With my novel draft, I could type some handwritten edits before diving into major shuffling in Scrivener. If you’re tackling a cleaning project like the garage or the playroom, find things to throw away. If it’s cleaning up after the holidays, get that tree to the curb.
  4. Use the rule of 30. Get through large projects by asking yourself to work only 30 (or 20 or 45) minutes at a time. I have 8-12 hours of grading, but asked myself to work on it in 30 minute segments, several times throughout the day.
  5. Map your project in manageable steps. For grading, I divided the papers by assignment, then took them one chunk at a time, with a pad beside me to make notes for semester-start meetings or planning. For unwieldy writing projects, create a to-do list: write a “shopping list” of details that need research or interviewing, list scenes that need to be written or revisions planned. For short story submissions, make a list of 20 magazines to submit to, write a brief cover letter, proofread your story and format it for submitting. For revising a novel draft (say, one written in NaNoWriMo), your list might be: read draft, delete bad material, highlight best text, map plot points, assess word count goals, list missing elements. Then take on one at a time.
  6. Find measurable milestones. Each step should be a mini-success. Check-marks on a list of steps can be affirming.  Take pictures of each step of laying out that garden. Or set arbitrary motivators. In grading, watching columns in the gradebook software fill with grades (and stacks move off my dining table) is visual incentive.
  7. Set daily or weekly writing goals.  All industries set quotas to know, measurably, if a goal will be reached and adjust work when it’s falling behind.  In Friday Links, I shared writer Laura Maylene Walter’s post, which celebrated the milestone of 60,009 words by December, having set herself daily word count goals which she kept as a growing motivational tally.  Writing friends have shared daily goals of 500 or 1,000 words for regular progress, or goals of 2,000 when pushing toward a deadline. Other writers use hourly goals. Writer Ann Hood sets a goal to write 2 hours per day, and starts by revising the prior day’s work. Another option is to set page or chapter goals. Software (Excel, Outlook, or Scrivener) can track your milestones and keep you motivated.
  8. Avoid “wheel-spinning.” When you are starting a project, that’s the time for spit-balling, brainstorming lots of ideas, throwing lots of them at the wall to see what sticks. But when you shift to the goal of finishing, you need to be wary of spending your daily goals (word counts or time for working) on anything that doesn’t take you closer to “done.” Build an internal radar to detect when you are working but it’s wheel-spinning — lots of energy, but not taking you closer to your goal. Respect the energy of those new ideas (jot them down for later), but redirect your work back toward steps that take you directly to your goal.
  9. Balance this project with other priorities using the rule of 30 or the rule of 5’s. The rule of 30 (above) is great for alternating between key projects. Saturday, I wrote for 30 minutes, then sorted papers for 30, then wrote/researched for 30, then graded for 30, then a break and chores, then…   A variation of this is the rule of 5’s: alternate between projects, doing 5 things at each. I got myself started this morning saying, “Just do 5 papers,” then got over a mess my sons made by saying, “Just put away 5 things…” Especially in a week when we’re combatting post-holiday distractions, this counting approach can help you stay productive in competing tasks, like writing thank-you notes or putting away decorations or facing an overflowing email box at work. (I use “do 5” to get started or during breaks, and “work for 30” to make real progress.)
  10. Work to a deadline. New writers hate deadlines; seasoned writers love them. They declare a day when the work must be done. I will finish grading, because the deadline is tomorrow. There is no more tinkering with it after that. (Bonus: clears the decks for the next priority.) In creating measurable steps, start at your deadline. Write your list backwards, assigning daily or weekly steps to get there. Divide the work by the number of days to set your daily goals. Adjust daily quotas when these goals aren’t being met.
  11. Block out time-wastes. Especially if you are trying to finish a piece of writing, distraction-free time is a gift you give yourself. Stop in and say hi to us here(!), but otherwise avoid being sucked into email, social media or the latest marathon repeat of Top Chef.
  12. Do this goal first. Borrowed from my daily writing strategy: I drop everything and write before other things take over. Combined with other timing strategies, it’s easy to claim 30 minutes (or do 5 things) toward this goal, before anything else. A variation: work on it while the coffee is brewing.
  13. But build in healthy breaks. Minds go numb without food, and many writers swear by the value of a walk or run to release creative energy. Similarly, connection with family, friends and the outside world keep you inspired — so don’t feel guilty taking time out for these.
  14. Read, or seek experts. Reading triggers inspiration. More focused than that: if you are planning a class or conducting research or rethinking your marketing plan, look for advice that can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Taking time for a twitter search or “shout out” to friends might score time-saving advice.
  15. Talk about it. Especially for a stale project, renew your interest by telling someone you want to finish it this month. Tell us here in the comments, or blog about it, post pictures of your progress, or tell a friend or your family. Get someone else on board.

*     *     *     *     *

What’s Your Challenge — or Favorite Strategy?

Whether applying the January Challenge this week or not… What kinds of projects do you fight to get finished? Is it a struggle to get a novel draft to submission-ready? Are you not sure what to do next, in building your platform or writing your blog?

What unfinished projects make your yearly goals for 2013?

And what strategies have you found for getting things done? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  If you blog about your challenge, please share a link to this post and share link to your article so we can visit your site as well!  You can use the January Challenge badge, if you want to be festive.  (I’m sure many will stumble on this post long past this week in January, but all participation is welcome, even once the month is done.)

*     *     *     *     *

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!

Recent Posts:

8 Comments

Filed under January Challenge, Novel Writing, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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!

*     *     *     *     *

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

*    *    *    *    *

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!

*     *     *     *     *

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:

Other Recent Posts:

10 Comments

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

January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow — I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

*     *     *     *     *

Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

*     *     *     *     *

How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome — whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

*     *     *     *     *

Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

*     *     *     *     *

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!

Recent Posts:

Coming Next:

6 Comments

Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt