When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

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Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting in where your energy takes you

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One day last week I sat down to write and felt distracted. This is not uncommon. I often experience resistance, confusion, tedium, and occasionally even dread, when it comes to working on my novel.

In fact, I don’t usually call it (in my own head at least) “working on my novel” anymore. I call it “playing with my novel.” This feels much lighter and opens up possibility, curiosity, excitement. When I make it less grave and serious, I’m more in touch with why I actually want to do it in the first place.

That said, sometimes I feel stuck and it feels hard. And I hang in there with it anyway, because it is a commitment. And because sometimes I reach that lovely place of getting lost in my story. And the more I practice hanging in there with it, the more I reach that place.

But on that day last week, something else was going on. I sat and I sat and I sat, and I wrote and revised and tinkered. But my energy was not with the writing. I had the odd sense of pushing something away.

I glanced over at my open notebook, to some morning pages I’d done the day before. Jotted in the margin at the top of the page was a reminder to call a friend of mine, a dear friend whom I’d been meaning to call for a while. But I’d been putting it off because, although I knew that talking to my friend would be nourishing and fun, I’d told myself that she was probably busy and wouldn’t have much time to talk, anyway. I kept telling myself I’d wait and call “when we were both less busy.”

Now, the reminder note jumped off the page at me. And I realized that there was a ton of energy in calling my friend right then, right in that moment.

So, I stepped away from my computer and dialed my friend’s number. She was home and said she’d been thinking about calling me, too — that very morning. But she figured I was probably busy with coaching or writing and she’d wait to call me until the weekend.

We talked for an hour and it felt soooo good. It filled my creative well to — at least — a 10 (read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to find out more about the creative well). You know those friends who accept and love you so deeply that it doesn’t matter what’s happening for you, or not happening for you, because the connection is about your very essence? That is this friend, for me.

And something important came out of this call. I realized that I often make an assumption that the people I care about are busy and they need to “fit me in.” And this assumption is not reality. In fact, my friend was making the same assumption about me, but in truth I would have welcomed a call from her.

After we talked,  I returned to my novel with a sense of lightness and new possibility, and I no longer had that nagging sensation that there was something important I wasn’t attending to. I could give the writing my full attention.

If I hadn’t followed my energetic pull toward calling my friend, I would have missed out on that connection and that insight.

And yet, my rational mind wondered if I wanted to step away from the novel simply because it was hard and it was my way of “procrastinating.” It can be tempting to “power through” at these times, no matter what. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do when we’re developing a habit, whether it’s writing or something else.

But we get to the good stuff in life by acting on what feels juiciest for us in the moment. I don’t mean by acting on our every impulse, but by following our intuitive urges. Often, it’s as simple as asking, “What would light me up right now?”  On that day last week, contacting my friend was that thing. It was “up” for me, calling out for attention. And I needed to listen.

Sometimes, our “creative work” can serve as a means of avoiding doing our inner work. Just as we can avoid our creative work, we can also use our creative work to avoid — or push down the list — other things that are vital to our well-being. Like our relationships. Most particularly, our relationship to ourselves.

So notice the quality of your energy as you create. Is the creating connecting you with yourself, with the world, with that beautiful mysterious space we go to when we create — even if it’s a huge challenge at the moment?

Or, do you have the sense that you are using your writing, artwork, business brainstorming, or whatever it may be, to push something else away, as I did last week? Just notice. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. Just tell yourself the truth, whatever it is for you.

Because, ultimately, creativity is being connected to what’s true for you in the moment. Because that is when you are most you. And that is what I wish for you — that you be most you as often as possible. That, more than anything else, is your gift to the world.

Image is “Leaf on Steel” © Chris Mccooey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Can you wrap a system around that?

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I used to think that I didn’t like systems. Every time I found myself dealing with any kind of system — which implies structureI would rebel.

Part of this probably stems from having a childhood that felt way, way overstructured to me. My heart wanted to lounge in open fields with cows, sheep, books, and my journal (not that I lived near any fields), but my days always felt completely scheduled with activities from morning to night — not just riding the bus (an ordeal in and of itself) to school and back, but with afterschool activities, and then homework.

This seems so nuts to me now, but it was considered normal, and, thirty years later, though I don’t have kids myself, my sense is that many kids are even more overscheduled than I was (plus today’s kids have so much more technology to manage).

I think another reason I’ve tended to rebel against systems and structure is that I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP, and we “P” types like to keep things open-ended. Too much structure can feel overly planned and rigid for a “P” and trigger our rebelliousness.

At the same time, I’ve had to admit over the past several years, especially since becoming a coach and attracting clients who also tend to rebel against structure, that the right amount of structure can be a true godsend for those of us who cling to open-endedness (which can sometimes result in saying things like “I’ll write when I’m feeling inspired” or leaving ourselves one hour to complete something that actually takes four — woops!).

Systems and structure do not have to be elaborate or complicated. There just needs to be enough of a system to get it done — whatever “it” is.

Here’s my (very simple) example:

I was having a huge issue with mowing the lawn. It only takes me about 30 minutes, but it was becoming this thing that I so didn’t want to do and eventually I’d have to force myself to do it, angrily, usually swearing. Even though, once I’m doing it, I don’t hate it (except for that one time I mowed over some dog poop). It actually feels kinda good, moving my body, the smell of grass and dirt around me, the heft of the mower.

About a month ago, I figured out the issue. My brother, who used to live here and used to mow the lawn, had told me I should do it “about every ten days.” And I tried this. But it felt increasingly stressful to me. Because “every ten days” could fall on any day of the week. It might be a Wednesday, and then next time a Saturday, and then next time a Tuesday.

It occurred to me that if I mow the lawn every two weeks, it really doesn’t look all that much worse than if I do it every ten days. So I’ve made every other Sunday afternoon my mowing-the-lawn-time. And I think about it so, so much less. On Saturday, or Wednesday, I’m not thinking, “should I do it today?” because I know Sunday is lawn day. Every other Sunday, “mow lawn” is on my to-do list, and I know I’ll do it, and that’s that.

That was all the system that was required. It was actually way more stressful to keep the “when” I’d mow the lawn up in the air than it was to assign a day to do it.

This applies to anything I want to do on a regular basis, whether that’s writing or yoga or doing the dishes: Keeping the “when” up in the air creates stress and vagueness, and vagueness does not produce specific results.

And I think that’s worth consideration for us “open-ended” types. Is keeping something unstructured and open-ended giving us a feeling of peace and freedom, or stress and confusion?

The way to know you’ve hit on the right amount of “system” for you is that you use the system without a huge desire to rebel. (If you have a very strong inner rebel, as I do, you may be a little bit edgy around any amount of system, but when it’s the right amount, you’ll find yourself using it anyway.)

Your body is an excellent guide for whether or not a certain amount of structure is too much or too little. When I am overstructured, I feel frazzled, frenetic, like I’m on a treadmill. There’s a need to catch my breath (literally). When I have too little structure, I can feel sluggish, unfocused and fatigued.

There’s no right or wrong here; each of us has a “sweet spot” where we have enough structure, but not too much. So when I’m struggling with something that just won’t seem to get done, I’ve started to ask myself, “Can I wrap a system around this?” And then I brainstorm a little about what might feel like enough.

How do you feel about systems and structure? Do you tend to rebel against them, or do you find them helpful, or both? I’d love to know, in the comments.

Image is “Poppy Field with Powerlines” © Peter Gustafson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Two ways to deal with “idea paralysis”

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A while ago, I had a session with someone who had so many ideas, she felt paralyzed as to which to choose and where to begin. Every time she took a little action on an idea, another one of her ideas started to haunt her and she was sure that one was better. So she’d stop working on the current thing and start this other thing. And then the other thing wouldn’t feel quite right, and some shiny new idea would start hovering and she’d drop the current thing and start in on the shiny new thing. And so on.

I so relate to this. It doesn’t happen to me that frequently, but when it does, it is crazymaking. What’s going on when we’re knee-deep in a sea of ideas and we just can’t choose, or stick with one long enough to bring it to completion?

For me, there are one of a couple of things happening:

1) Perfectionism has reared its oh-so-troublesome head.

We’re wanting the idea to be the be-all and end-all of ideas, rather than a stepping stone to what the idea can become. There’s no way an idea won’t transform as we work on it, so most of the time, it’s not going to stay the same as the seedling in our heads. But if we have perfectionistic tendencies, we want to know it’s going to be great, it’s going to knock everybody’s socks off. We can’t know that at the beginning of the process. We can’t know that at the end of the process.

Our own interest in the idea has to be enough. The only thing we have an absolute guarantee of is that we will check in with ourselves about how we are responding to our idea, from day to day. And I can guarantee you that our relationship to it will change from day to day, week to week.

Perfectionists often feel “it’s not quite right, so I’m not ready to begin.” My question to perfectionists (and that includes myself!) is: Is there enough here for me to work with? Is there enough here to sustain my interest, for now?

When I was in college, I had a screenwriting teacher I remember really well because he talked a lot about things that I sensed were true, but didn’t yet have the life experience to know were true. He looked at twenty or so pages of the screenplay I was writing and said, “You don’t have to telegraph your themes to the audience. The themes that are important to you as a writer are going to be there because they’re important to you. They can’t not be there. So stop telegraphing your themes and just tell the story.”

This felt like a huge relief. And I think this applies to those of us who struggle over choosing the “perfect” idea. No matter which idea we pick, the common theme behind it is going to be US. Just because you decide to tell the story about the guy who goes fishing with his estranged father instead of the story about the woman who learns her teenage son is in trouble with the law doesn’t mean your usual themes of loss, loneliness, heartache and redemption are not going to be there. They’ll be there because you will be there.

So relax. You, and the things that are important to you, will be there, in spades, no matter what path you choose.

And, on the flipside:

2) You may be knee-deep in ideas because you are only knee-deep. And what you really need is to be completely submerged in one idea, so your heart is engaged. In other words, there may be a bunch of ideas swirling around your ankles but they’re not really involving the whole of you, so it’s easy to jump off of one and onto another.

I’m reminded of someone I know who, many years ago, was caught up in romantic involvements with two different guys. Time went on and on, and she just couldn’t decide between the two. Finally, she ended both relationships, realizing that neither of these guys was a “hell, yes!” for her and that was why she couldn’t decide. The question wasn’t actually “which of these men is the better choice?” but “who am I and what do I really care about?”

If you’re flitting from one idea to the next, stop. Take some time out and ask yourself, what do I really want? Why am I doing this (writing, artwork, coaching, whatever it may be)? How can you engage the whole of you — starting with your heart, which tells you what you care about the most — in your creative process? And go from there.

Looking at it this way, you’re not choosing the idea so much as letting it choose you. And when something chooses us, there’s no contest.

(On this topic, I highly recommend Miranda July’s wonderful memoir, “It Chooses You.”)

Do you struggle with “idea paralysis”? How do you decide which idea to choose? Or do you let it choose you? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Work With Me: I have a couple of openings for new coaching clients, starting in July. Interested? See if we might be a good fit, here.

Image is “Sepia Bulb” © Graham Stewart | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Making it ridiculously easy

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When I went through life coach training with the wonderful Martha Beck, I learned about what Martha calls “turtle steps.” Turtle steps are teeny-tiny increments that help us reach a goal. The main thing about a turtle step is it has to feel do-able. It has to feel, as Martha puts it, ridiculously easy.

When I coached my very first client, I suggested she break that overwhelming goal down into turtle steps, and she said, “Turtle steps sound great, but I’m forty-five years old. I don’t have time to move that slowly.”

The coaching session came — for a moment — to a screeching halt. She’d triggered one of my own big fears. She’s right! I thought. At the time, I had two unfinished novel drafts and an image of them sitting in the corner of my office flanked by dust bunnies and cat hair popped into my mind. If I use turtle steps with my novels, I’ll be ninety before I finish them!

Luckily, by then I had enough evidence from the experiences of Martha and my fellow coaches to know that turtle steps worked. In fact, the more ridiculously easy they felt, the better they worked.

My client wasn’t ready to try turtle steps — yet. A month later, when she’d done nothing to move her goal forward because she kept approaching it with her familiar “bite off more than I can chew” method, she showed up for a session and said, “I think I’m ready to try out turtle steps.”

That’s the funny thing about the way our minds tend to work: We’d rather hold on to the idea of taking giant leaps forward that only exist in our fantasies than take smaller, less glamorous steps that we actually do complete.

If you have a tenacious inner perfectionist (as I do), know that you are probably going to have a tough time accepting the idea of turtle steps.

When I was an undergraduate in college, literally every semester I signed up for five or six classes, even though by my third semester it became blatantly obvious that I could not take on more than four classes without feeling overwhelmed and scattered. My inner perfectionist (who is best friends with my “social self”) loved the idea that I was tackling a huge course load — and besides, other people took six classes and aced them all, so why couldn’t I?

Almost every semester I ended up withdrawing from a class or two at the last minute because I felt completely overwhelmed. Twice, I withdrew past the deadline and therefore received a grade of a big fat F. Twice. The person who couldn’t stand the thought of getting less than an A+ actually ended up with F’s on her transcripts simply because she voluntarily took on too much.

The idea that we can take small, easy steps is anathema to the perfectionist, whose identity is formed out of the belief that if she can take on more than is necessary and excel at it, she will finally be worthy, and therefore, loved.

But it doesn’t work this way, my sweet little inner perfectionist is slowly discovering. She is loved, deeply, simply for existing and for being who she is. And she does not get more accomplished when she takes on more — she actually accomplishes less that way.

Back to my two unfinished novels: they have long since stopped communing with the dust bunnies in the corner of my office. They’re up and dancing around now, dust-free and shiny. How did this miracle happen? Since September of 2011, I’ve been taking ridiculously easy steps, on a regular basis, to finish my novels. (Read more about how I’ve done that at the end of this post.)

Yes, sometimes that means I write for fifteen minutes a day. Yes, sometimes that means I write one sentence. And no, I do not write every single day. But I’ve completed two novel drafts and I’m 240 pages into a third.

The key is making it ridiculously easy, step by teeny-tiny step. Any step can feel ridiculously easy if it is small enough.

Ridiculously easy isn’t as easy as it could be, though, because we live in a culture that tells us that for something to have value, it has to feel impossibly hard. And so we take on enormous “to-do” steps like “write novel” or “get new job” or “lose twenty pounds.” Seriously! These are actual items I’ve seen on clients’ to-do lists. But they’re not action steps, they’re long-term goals. In fact, I’m loath to call them goals — they’re actually processes, ways of life, daily habits we develop.

So a huge part of all this is allowing ourselves to do what feels ridiculously easy. That might mean a daily goal of “write one paragraph” rather than “write ten pages.” But it’s one paragraph that gets written, rather then ten pages that don’t.

Often our minds won’t allow us to embrace ridiculously easy. It’s a total shift for most of us, right? If it feels easy — or, at the very least, not hard, we don’t trust it. “But life isn’t easy!” we think. And that is certainly true. But we don’t need to add hard to the hard.

This is one of my favorite beliefs to challenge with my clients. When we make the shift from “It has to be hard” to “I can allow it to be easier,” amazing things happen. Believe me. I’ve seen it.

If you need support in allowing your process to feel easier, I’d love to help. See if we might be a good fit, here.

And: One of the biggest reasons I’ve moved forward with my novels is due to my participation in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle. This is where I’ve put my writing turtle steps into action. This group offers me daily support, accountability and community around my writing. The last day to register for the next session of the Writer’s Circle is tomorrow, May 16. Check it out, here!

Image is Sharpened Pencil © Uschi Hering | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The shark is working well enough … really.

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Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that I am obsessed with the movie Jaws. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but … just … don’t get me started. (Writers, study Jaws if you want to see a movie where every single scene moves the story forward. Nothing is wasted.)

If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you know that the mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce”, didn’t work very well. In fact, there were so many problems with the shark that it wasn’t seen on screen nearly as much as director Steven Spielberg had originally intended. During production on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, the frequent refrain from the loudspeakers was “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.”

Welp. As we all know, the shark worked well enough. In fact, the semi-working shark worked so well that Jaws was the movie for which the term “summer blockbuster” was coined, back in 1975 when it first appeared in theaters.

One of the main things I do as a coach, when I have a session with a client, is listen for stressful thoughts. Thoughts are stressful when they are not deeply true for us, but we believe them anyway. So when I hear something that strikes me as painful or stressful for a client, I scribble it down in my notebook. If it seems important, I’ll point this thought out to the client and we’ll work with it.

I was going back over some notes before a session recently, and it really hit me just how often our thoughts are perfectionistic. They have to do with how we’re not doing enough, not doing it well enough (whatever it is), and how our reality is not matching the vision inside our heads. (I say “our” because, like my clients, I have a strong penchant for perfectionism. I’m always teaching what I most need to learn.)

I’ve written a lot here about perfectionism in the past (you can click on the categories link titled Perfectionism to the right to check out more). But I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how important it is for perfectionists to make a point of noticing what is working — and what is working well enough.

Because one of the biggest issues I see perfectionists struggling with is decision paralysis. We’re so terrified of making an imperfect decision and the havoc it will surely wreak that we hang out in indecision until it hurts. And then, then, we beat ourselves up for not making decisions quickly enough! It’s a totally lose-lose scenario.

And here’s the thing: We don’t struggle with decision paralysis as much when we give ourselves credit for having made good decisions in the past. Most perfectionists have a pretty big story about being poor decision-makers (it’s in keeping with the idea that we never quite measure up). We are also control freaks, so we tend to think we have much more control over our futures than we actually do.

Therefore, we think, we have to weigh each present or future decision very, very carefully, so we don’t repeat our past mistakes and don’t screw up our futures.

Why do we have this story? Probably because when life happens, as it will, it feels more familiar for us to blame ourselves than to admit the truth: Life is messy, and life is not fair. No matter how “good” we are, we can’t escape this reality.

So what if we were to flip this story on its head? What if we were to look back and notice how we made good enough decisions, and how some of them were even really good? How would we proceed if we basically believed that our lives worked well enough?

I think we’d go on making our movies, doing our writing, living our lives. We’d trust ourselves to create something good. What if Spielberg had decided to resign in the middle of production on Jaws because the shark wasn’t good enough? (Well, probably Universal would have replaced him with a different director. And we’d have had a very different Jaws. Which would have been a damn shame.)

At the bottom of it all, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our lives, are either helpful or not helpful.

I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves things we don’t truly believe. I’m not talking about piling positive affirmations on top of our fear like white-washing a rotted fence. I’m saying we need to really give ourselves some credit. I’m saying we need to lower our standards enough that we can show up in our lives and in our creative work (or creative play, as I prefer to call it).

Perfectionists, aim for the B rather than creating A+ work that exists only in your head. Make the decision that feels best to you and call it a day, knowing you can course-correct tomorrow. Admit that the shark at the core of your movie is working well enough to continue the filming. Create your flawed-but-amazing works of art and live your flawed-but-amazing lives.

Work With Me: I work with writers, artists, artisans and coaches who are feeling vulnerable and stuck. Learn more about how we might work together, here.

Image is Shark Kite by Ryan Somma at flickr; some rights reserved

Why creating consistently is so important

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I’ve been thinking back over the past year and remembering the awesome clients I’ve worked with.

If there’s anything that’s repeatedly reared its head this year for my clients, it’s been the issue of making creativity so BIG that it feels scary, 0verwhelming, and like there just isn’t enough time to take it on. Almost everyone I worked with had a belief that went something like this: “I can’t [write, paint, dance, draw -- fill in the blank] unless I have more time available to me. So I need to completely overhaul my life in order to focus on my creativity. But completely overhauling my life isn’t possible right now. So I’m hoping that by next year I’ll be able to let go of something so I can focus on my creativity.”

What I’ve found so interesting — because these beliefs can certainly come up for me as well – is that it’s the beliefs themselves that make the idea of creating feel so hard, not creating itself.

When we make it so big we feel like we need a ton of time in which to do it, we ensure that it will never be done, because we know on some level it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever have huge blocks of empty time available to us on a regular basis. And when we tell ourselves we need more time in which to do it, and we don’t make that time or don’t see that we can have it, we put off our creative work (I prefer to call it creative play). And when we put something off, we create resistance.

The very act of putting it off (when something deep inside us knows it’s vital that we do it) creates stress around the idea of doing it — our minds spin out stories like, “Well, if I’m putting it off, it must be because it’s terribly hard and scary and BIG, and wow, that feels really frightening, which makes me just want to put it off more.”

We don’t often question thoughts like these. But they start to wield a huge amount of power over us, because these thoughts create feelings, and our feelings create our actions (or lack of actions) in the world. Often, our most powerful thought around our creativity is “I’ll do it when I don’t feel so overwhelmed and uncomfortable around it.”

But the reason we are overwhelmed and uncomfortable around it is because we make it so BIG.

Since September of 2011, I’ve been a participant in Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. (We like to call it simply The Writer’s Circle). I’ve also been co-coaching the Circle with Jenna for about a year now. In the Circle, we focus on writing a little each day, building our writing habit over time, with group support.

What I’ve learned over my time in this group is that:

1) Writing consistently (even if I’m not always crazy about what I’m writing — and believe me, I’m often not) feels a lot better than writing once every couple of months. When I create regularly, I remind myself of what matters to me, of what makes me me. When I put off creating, I can lose sight of why I create. I create because I have an instinctive drive to make meaning, to understand myself, to understand the world. I create because it’s fun (which isn’t to say it’s not challenging! But I love a good challenge.).

When I put it off until I have “more time,” I get confused about why I do it in the first place. I start to think it has something to do with money, with success, with notoriety. When I actually do it, I’m reminded that it has little to do with this things. It’s an act of adventure, a quest for discovery.

2) When we make our creativity really BIG — as opposed to integrating it into our daily lives in small, sustainable ways — it becomes something outside of ourselves, something to grasp for, something we believe will make us complete if we can only get to it. (Julia Cameron calls this turning our creativity into “Art with a capital A.”)

The truth is, creativity is always inside of us. It’s part of us. The “me” that lives my daily life and does mundane things like doing the dishes is not a completely separate entity from the part of me that sits down and writes. In fact, sitting down and writing is, in some ways, not that much different from doing the dishes. The hardest part is starting. Once I begin, I proceed one sentence — one dish — at a time.

When the parts of us that create and the parts of us that do the dishes are friendly with each other, and not strangers, they work together oh so much better, and we show up in the world as more integrated beings.

3) We all — whether we are seasoned writers, or writing our very first poem, whether we are published writers or not, whether we make our living from our writing, or not — struggle with clusters of the same (or similar) issues. It’s incredibly heartening to realize that that issue you’ve struggled with in isolation, sometimes for years, is not just shared by others, but is deeply understood.

If you’d like support in creating a more regular writing habit — whether you’ve been away from writing for years, or you’re just starting out — check out The Writer’s Circle. Our next session begins December 31, and tomorrow, Dec. 28, is the last day to register. New members can save $30 on their first session with the coupon code NEWYEARWRITE. We’d love to have you there!

Image is “Artist Box 2″ © Andreea Stefan | Dreamstime.com

Creativity and the selves within us

Lately with the wonderful creators I’m coaching, I’m noticing a theme of “shoulds.”

“I should be taking more risks with my writing.”

“I shouldn’t be spending so much time lolling around on the beach.”

“I shouldn’t be taking on so many creative projects” or, the flipside, “I should be trying harder to get out there and be more creative.”

First of all, creativity isn’t something you do. It’s something you are.

Our projects are simply a way of tapping the creativity that is always within us, giving it a form. It’s important to remember this, because our minds tend to work in a black-and-white way: “I’m creative when I’m sitting at the computer typing the words of my novel, but I’m not creative when I’m doing the dishes.” (Check out my previous post on defining creativity.)

Actually, you are creative when you are doing both. Creativity is simply the energy of life moving through us, and our particular perspective on that energy at that particular moment. It is always available. 

And, we all have different selves within us. I know I have an adventurous self who loves the idea of living on the edge, taking creative risks, going all out in search of a particular truth (I saw the awesome “Prometheus” last night, and I came out of the theater totally in touch with the adventurous risk-taker part of me).

But I also have many other selves within me. One of my core selves is about twelve years old, vulnerable, self-conscious, unsure of her place in the world and wanting very much to feel safe and cherished. This self is often completely at odds with the risk-taker part of me. And she needs a very particular kind of care.

A quick way for me to get into “shoulds” and create big-time resistance is to ignore the needs of one self or another.

If I ignore the needs of the risk-taker, I find I’m playing it safe (this particularly shows in my writing, when I read what I wrote the day before and realize I’m bored; I just don’t care about what I’m writing because the stakes aren’t high enough).

If I ignore the needs of the vulnerable twelve-year-old who craves safety and boundaries, I wear myself out, I throw myself into situations and relationships without questioning whether or not they are good for this part of me. I find I’m pushing and forcing myself a lot. I can also feel angry, teary, and like I am betraying myself. I may attempt to do something (write about a topic that is tough for me, for example) before I have built the inner resources to go there.

But it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Believe it or not, I can meet the needs of both of these aspects of myself (and the many others as well — though I won’t necessarily be able to meet the needs of all of them at the same time). I can fuel the risk-taking needs of my inner adventurer and also reassure my inner twelve-year-old that I won’t drag her along on these risk-taking expeditions unless she is ready and willing.

This might look like, for example, taking on writing material that feels challenging and scary and risky, but promising myself that I will stop for the day if it starts to feel overwhelming and I’m physically tired or emotionally upset. I can continue the next day, if it continues to feel right for all of me.

And listening to as many aspects of ourselves as we can is beautiful for whatever we’re creating. The more we honor our complexity, the more complex and wondrous our creations will be.

How do you meet the needs of the different selves within you, and what impact does this have on your creativity? I’d love to hear your story.

Image is FREE TIME, ENJOYING THE SUN © Svetlana Komolova | Dreamstime.com

Don’t let perfectionism keep you from getting started (or from finishing)

This is the first in a series of several articles I’ll be publishing on perfectionism and how it keeps us from doing what we most want to do, or from enjoying it when we do accomplish it!

I finished a first draft of my novel yesterday. I had to declare myself finished. This draft had been sitting for more than three years when I returned to it early this year.

I had a hard time starting the novel way back when because I wasn’t sure I had the “just right” story, and I wasn’t sure I had the “just right” point of view (I even wrote 200 pages of it in third person and then rewrote it all in first, which, if you write fiction, you know is a lot harder than just changing “she” to “I”). I kept rehashing and rewriting these 200 pages, polishing scenes, cutting scenes and creating new ones, changing the order. At one point I went back to third person and wrote from multiple points of view. Then I went back to first.

At some point, I realized I needed to make some choices, stick with them, and continue — even if the draft wasn’t exactly the way I envisioned it.

So I did. And as I finally neared the end of my draft this week, everything felt bittersweet. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the writing of it (generating the writing is my favorite part; I like editing and rewriting much less). But mostly, I wanted to feel I had the best possible ending. I wanted to feel like, wow! This ending rocks. (That was how I felt when I finished the first draft of my other novel, a few months ago, which you can read about here.) I’d venture to say we all want that from our endings, and our readers, of course, want that too.

But this was a first draft, and at some point, I realized I needed to call it enough. As Anne Lamott tells us, it’s totally okay for first drafts to be shitty. My friend and mentor Jenna Avery said, “How about calling it enough for now?”

Yep. “Enough for now” felt exactly right.

Those of us who tend to be perfectionists can forget the concepts of “enough” and “for now.” We want it to be right, we want it to be brilliant, we want it to be perfect. Only the thing is, in wanting that so badly, we often don’t actually do our work, don’t get it to those who can benefit from it and appreciate it, because we don’t get started, or we don’t ever allow ourselves to finish.

A first draft is just that. It’s something rough, something messy, something that takes chances and probably contains lots of mistakes.

That is good. What if we could apply a “first draft” mentality not only to our first drafts of our writing, but to our lives? I know I love the things I love in part because they are messy, and rough around the edges, and imperfect. Not because they’re polished to a high shine, but because they move me, in all their imperfection.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with starting and finishing. What helps you begin something you’re afraid of, and what helps you say I’m done, for now?

Also: Today, May 10, is the last day to register for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. It’s through my participation in this group that I’ve now completed drafts of two novels. (I’m also one of the coaches.) If you can’t seem to get started on something you’d love to create, or you’ve gotten stuck, check it out here!

And: I have a couple of spots open for new one-on-one coaching clients. Find out more here.

Making Friends with Discomfort (even when you don’t want to)

My mother once told me that she sometimes skips to the ends of the books she reads because she can’t stand waiting to know what happens.

“Mom!” I said. “That ruins the whole experience of reading it!”

“No it doesn’t,” she said. “It allows me to calm down enough to really enjoy the book. I don’t have to be anxious. I know what’s going to happen.”

Although I don’t share my mom’s inclination to skip to the ending of the book I’m reading (in fact, if it’s really good, I don’t even want to skip to the next paragraph, because I know it’s going to be delicious), I get where my mom is coming from. Probably too well. I’m the girl who’s always wanted to skip to the end of her own life so I can know what happens. So I don’t have to make any choices (because what if I make the wrong one, and that creates another wrong one, and so on, and pretty soon my entire life is derailed?). So I don’t have to be in process.

But let’s face it: When are we not in process? Our lives are one giant process, and each day of our lives is made up of tiny processes. And the thing about process is, it’s a big question mark. We talk a lot about results and outcomes, but as soon as we reach one, it’s already in the process of changing. Our lives simply don’t stay the same for very long, because, if we are committed to our own growth, we don’t stay the same. And even if avoid change like the plague (and some of us do!), somehow it happens to us anyway.

But this process stuff can be really, really uncomfortable. And because it’s uncomfortable, and we read discomfort as pain, we try to do anything to get out of the discomfort.

For me, that has sometimes looked like:

* leaving a relationship before I really understood what was going on because I felt so uncomfortable, and then recreating the same relationship elsewhere;

* leaving a job before I really understood why I didn’t like it and then recreating that same job situation elsewhere;

* impulsively getting into a relationship or taking a job I didn’t even want in an attempt to outrun my discomfort;

* eating when I wasn’t hungry;

* buying things I didn’t truly want or need.

You get the idea. Here’s the thing: We can’t outrun our discomfort. In fact, if we’re in a big hurry to do something, or to get away from something, it’s a pretty sure sign that we are attempting to outrun some kind of negative emotion.

Changing the situation is not going to get rid of our discomfort. We can’t outrun ourselves. I can move to Australia or outer space to try to get away from my discomfort, and once the dust has settled, I’ll still be me.

So what’s the answer? Acknowledge that if we are going to live fully, connected to our emotions and committed to creating the lives we want, we are going to be in discomfort regularly.

Being in discomfort does not mean something is wrong.

If we’re in discomfort, we can:

* Stop (for the moment). Feel the discomfort in our bodies. It’s nothing more than a sensation. What does it feel like?

* Notice whatever emotion is coming up, and, if we are in a safe place, let it come up. Let it come up and out.

* Notice the thoughts we’re having. Our thoughts create our emotions. Our thoughts create our discomfort. Notice your stressful thoughts and work with them. Do The Work of Byron Katie, or talk to a friend or a coach or a therapist you trust who can point out to you what you may not be able to see yourself.

Being in discomfort does not mean we need to flee, look for jobs, relationships, or projects that don’t trigger discomfort (there won’t be any), or resort to the go-to belief that there must be something wrong with us. It just means we need to find a way of creating a relationship with our discomfort. Because it’s not optional – discomfort is going to be there from time to time, whether we like it or not, and especially if we choose to do things that challenge us.

Note: I’m reinventing my free Creativity Consultations, and I will not be offering them in this format again beyond the first week of May! So, if you’re struggling with a creative project or feeling stuck (or really, really uncomfortable!) now’s the time to grab one.

And: Stay tuned for my article series on Letting Go of Perfectionism — for People Who Really, Really Hate to Let Go.

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© 2011-2014 Jill Winski
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