Are You Stretching or Pushing Yourself? How to Tell the Difference.

I wrote recently about how perfectionism can be such a creativity killer. It may seem like perfectionistic striving helps us get things done, but its constricting energy actually puts a stranglehold on the flow of our creativity. Still, most of us learn from an early age that there’s value in pushing ourselves, in being hard on ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone who’s feeling scared and stuck, and at some point in the conversation they say, “I just really need you to give me a kick in the butt so I can get going.”

Sorry, but I’m never going to do that.

What I will do is suggest that you look at how it feels when you have the thought, “I really need a kick in the butt to get going.” How do you proceed from there? Does it feel enlivening? Does it instill confidence in yourself? And, even more importantly, does it create a feeling of trust in yourself?

When I attempt to proceed from that thought, I feel angry. My stomach tightens. My jaw clenches. I also feel some sadness, because I am attempting to motivate myself through force and fear. And I decided a long time ago that that’s not the way I want to live.

The “kick in the butt” method is an example of motivating ourselves by pushing ourselves. If someone pushes me in line at the grocery, I will probably refrain from pushing them back (or maybe I won’t!), but I really want to push back. And similarly, when I push myself, something in me pushes back. I may be feeling resistant to whatever it is I want to do, but pushing myself only creates more resistance. When I proceed from a mentality of pushing myself, I create an inner struggle.

So what’s the solution? For me, it’s changing my mentality from the concept of pushing to the concept of stretching. I’ve always loved the feeling of stretching myself — whether it was stretching my arms and legs in a ballet class as a child, or stretching myself to write that one more page in my journal last night that was just dying to come out, even though I was getting tired.

For me, stretching feels good. It may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar — as when we are beginning to use muscles we don’t usually use, whether we’re in ballet class or starting our first novel — but it’s a challenging sort of uncomfortable. It feels juicy, a bit scary, maybe more than a bit sometimes, but what stretching says is: I trust you to grow toward what is life-enhancing for you. I trust you to more fully become yourself.

What pushing says is: If I don’t push you, you’ll never do it.

I much prefer the message of stretching.

Also, stretching is a good antidote for resistance. If I focus on the feeling of excitement and challenge and discovery that comes with stretching myself, I feel less resistant to doing whatever it is I want (but am scared) to do.

I’d love to hear your experiences with stretching vs. pushing yourself. What have you discovered?

And don’t forget, I offer free Creativity Consultations. Check them out here!

Join Me for Muse Office Hours, tomorrow!

Feeling stuck, scared to begin, or flat-out immobilized around something you’re creating? Does it feel like you just can’t stop procrastinating? Do you need some support to get going again? I really know how you feel, and I want to help you get started. To that end, I am offering Muse Office Hours, tomorrow, Feb. 24, from noon to 2 p.m. Central Standard Time. (If you need help figuring out the time zone difference, click here).

What are Muse Office Hours? They’re a two-hour window of time in which you can call in and get fifteen minutes of free, focused coaching from me on any creative issue you’re experiencing. If you’re feeling stuck, scared, so excited you’re freaking out, or anything at all around something you’re creating, and you need some feedback or support, this is totally for you. And the “something” you’re creating can be anything from a novel to a business to a new way of life.

The “muse” in Muse Office Hours does not mean that I, Jill, am your muse — no way! You carry within yourself your own very specific muse, precious and utterly unique, and my purpose with Muse Office Hours is to help you awaken it. Or maybe you just need to get back in touch with it, cheer it up, or knit it a fancy scarf so it will feel warmer and more connected to you. I can help with all that, too.

I love talking to creators about their fears around creativity — and by the way, if you’re having these fears, you’re totally normal. We’ve all got ’em. It’s talking about them and getting support that allows us to get unstuck.

To take advantage of Muse Office Hours, call in to +1 708 689 9480 at any time during the two-hour window, up to fifteen minutes before the window ends — if you get my voice mail, it means I’m coaching someone else; leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I’m able! Muse Office Hours are first-come, first-served.

Thanks to my friend and fellow coach Melissa Wirt for dreaming up Muse Office Hours. 🙂

And stay tuned for my article on the difference between stretching and pushing ourselves, coming soon!

Image is FAIRY © Darrenw |

Perfectionism vs. Creativity: The Gloves are Off!

Note: Scroll down to the bottom of the article for a free opportunity for coaching with me!

Last week, the topic of perfectionism arose in several conversations. Each time, we reached a consensus that perfectionism contributes heavily to burnout, which is a huge creativity killer.

Perfectionism tells us we need to drive ourselves. And it’s a pretty tricky little devil. It can wrap its tentacles around an innocent thought like, “I want to create more.” Sounds like a good thought, right? So let’s say your form of creating is writing your novel, and you work on your novel for thirty minutes one day. You feel good, satisfied. But a shrill little voice pipes up and says, “Only thirty minutes? Surely you can do more than that tomorrow!”

So the next day you sit down and you find it’s a little harder to write for thirty minutes than it was yesterday. And on top of it, now you feel like you have to write for more than thirty minutes, because you have to make sure you’re besting what you did yesterday. So you manage to write for sixty. It’s not much fun. You feel like you’re grinding it out, because you’re so focused on how much you do (making sure it’s “more”) that you’ve lost sight of the fact that you wanted to create in the first place because it enlivens you, because it’s a way of using your gifts, of exercising your creative muscles.

The next day, not only do you feel like you’d better write more than you wrote yesterday, but you talk to Jane and she says she writes for three hours every day, getting up at 5 a.m. to do so. The shrill little voice pipes up again and says, “Look how much Jane is doing! Surely you can do that much!”

The following day you get up at 5 a.m., determined to write as much as Jane writes so you can “be a real writer”. Then you read an interview where someone mentions that Philip Roth writes 365 days a year. So now, not only do you need to get up at 5 a.m. and write for three hours a day like Jane, but you need to write every single day of the year. Naturally, it’s already way too late for you to be Philip Roth, but maybe you can still salvage some semblance of being a “real writer” if you write every single day of the year.

You manage to keep this up for about two weeks. By the fourteenth day, you’re so frazzled from keeping up this frantic pace and sleep-deprived from getting up at 5 a.m. — and by now Jane is telling you she’s writing four hours a day, not a wimpy three! — that you never want to write another word, ever, ever again. You get irritated when you hear people talking about how great it is to “create.” Who wants to create? you think. It’s exhausting and it makes you feel bad about yourself. Screw creating!

You don’t do any writing, or any other form of creating, for months (though occasionally you catch yourself doodling in the pages of your journal, in which you scribble illegible fragments that describe how uncreative you feel … hmm). Now you are so not Jane. (Darn that Jane!) You are so far away from Philip Roth, it’s not even funny. You had such good intentions. What happened to how fun, how joyful, it felt to write, way back when? You just wanted to recapture that. What went wrong?

Perfectionism is the behavior created by black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. If you’re not writing four hours a day, 365 days a year, you might as well not write at all. If the short story you submitted to the literary journal was rejected, it’s because it was sucky and you just don’t know how to write. If the writing isn’t flowing today, you might as well quit, the well has run dry. Perfectionist behavior looks like this: Drive yourself, push yourself, force yourself. And when this doesn’t produce the results you want, quit. For months. For years. Forever.

Cynthia Curnan, in her terrific book “The Care and Feeding of Perfectionists” (which appears to be out of print, but is well worth finding if you can), writes that when we drive ourselves relentlessly with perfectionism, we create burnout, and burnout creates what she calls the “backlash.” The backlash is a long period of “underachieving” to balance out our “overachieving”.

Here’s the solution: Notice. Awareness is so, so powerful. I’ll get more into the topic of awareness and how to manage your perfectionism in my next article, where we’ll talk about the difference between pushing ourselves and stretching ourselves.

By the way, despite the title of this blog post, I encourage you not to duke it out with perfectionism. The more you fight perfectionism, the more formidable it becomes, because it engages with that defensive, fearful aspect of you that’s afraid you’ll never have enough, never be enough. It’s better to deftly swim out of perfectionism’s way, and let it go to battle with itself, like the shark in Jaws thrashing the empty underwater cage. (Sometimes I just have to get in a Jaws reference, because Jaws is awesome.)

And finally, here’s the freebie I’ve been talking about in my last couple of posts: Friday, Feb. 24, from noon to 2 p.m. CST, I’ll be hosting Muse Office Hours. This is a two-hour window in which you can call in and get up to fifteen minutes of free, focused coaching from me on any creative issue you’re having. My purpose here is to reconnect you with your muse! It’s a great opportunity to talk about why perfectionism is getting in your way, why you just can’t seem to get started, or how to continue if you’ve gotten stuck or stalled. Call (708) 689-9480 at any time during the two-hour window; if you get my voice mail, leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you in the order the calls were received. I’ll be posting updates about Muse Office Hours in the coming days.

Image is GIRL AND LAPTOP © Geraktv |

What Makes You Want to Create?, a.k.a. Monkey Energy!

During my “dark night of the soul” period several years ago when I felt profoundly uncreative, I started thinking about what it really is that causes me to want to create. I noticed that certain things — watching a sparrow splash around in a puddle while I took my morning walk — truly lit me up, while other things — believing my novel needed to be “serious literature” — felt dull as a dishrag.

I realized that “Art with a capital A”, as Julia Cameron puts it in “The Artist’s Way,” felt like a big drag to me. I’m interested in the ordinary. I’m fascinated by the ordinary. Or maybe a better way to put it is, one of my gifts is seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I love to write, but I get turned off by “literary discussions.” I am interested in the craft of writing — what makes a piece of writing strong, what makes it sing off the page — and I am very interested in writers, their thoughts, joys, and struggles — but I’m not interested in keeping up with what’s going on in the “literary world.” I don’t consider myself an “Artist with a capital A.” I don’t think artists are “special.” Artists are human beings, reflecting the human experience.

Maybe that’s why during the past year I’ve developed such a fascination with monkeys, which I wrote about previously. Monkeys are very human-like, but, well, they’re not human. And because they’re not human, they don’t take themselves that seriously. And, as Havi Brooks pointed out so eloquently here, they don’t care if anyone else takes them seriously.

What lights me up these days? If you’ve talked to me at any length lately, you probably already know: Crystal the Monkey. I feel nothing short of giddy when I think about Crystal. Why? Because she is who she is. Monkeys can’t help but be exactly who they are. And that’s what gets my creative juices flowing: being exactly who I am, and reveling in the joy of others being exactly who they are.

My friend and fellow coach Melissa Wirt said to me a while ago, “How can you approach your business with monkey energy?” I couldn’t stop laughing, because she so hit the nail on the head — it was exactly the question I needed to hear. (And that’s what a good coach does, asks you that “just-right” question. Often, you can tell it’s the just-right question because it gives you a massive case of the giggles).

What makes me feel creative? Embracing my own “monkey energy.” In fact, I would venture to say that when we are exactly who we are, we can’t help but create. Creativity comes to us as naturally as breathing when we are true to our very own natures, whether we are monkeys or just lowly humans.

I hear a lot of creators saying, “I should be creating more.” I’m going to suggest we take the “should” out of the equation. What makes you want to create? What makes your heart sing, what makes you giddy, what can’t you stop talking about even when you wonder if people are rolling their eyes at you? Can you get really specific about it? Start from there.

By the way: I do have a special — free! — offering coming up, as promised in my last post. If you’re feeling “creatively stuck,” this is for you. Stay tuned for more info!

And: I offer ongoing free Creativity Consultations. You can read about them here.

I think this macaque is wondering what he'll get into next. It's a great thing to wonder about.


Image is MONKEY © Alexey Arkhipov |

Think Small!

I continue to notice how doing just a little each day can make such a difference. This is true for my writing, it’s true for my coaching business, it’s true for the decluttering process I’ve got underway in my house. I wrote last week about how doing just ten minutes of writing one night made the difference I needed that day.

You might think that doing just a little isn’t enough. But what I’ve learned is that, when we think we need huge blocks of time to get something done, or when we see our project as so big we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to never begin. And then we feel frustrated and defeated.

Start small. Chip away. Make a dent in whatever it is you want to do. You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish by doing a little each day, over time.

On that note, TODAY, Jan. 19, is the last day to sign up for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’ve written here and here about what a wonderful experience I’ve had as a participant in this Circle. (I finished a draft of my novel in the Circle by writing approximately thirty minutes a day, five days a week.) I’m also one of the coaches, and we’d love to have you join us this session, which starts Jan. 23. You can sign up for the Circle here.

Also: Be watching for an announcement from me early next week. I have something fun coming up — and it’s FREE!

To Create or Not to Create? Assessing Your Energy Levels

I’m totally committed to working on my novel five days a week. But today, it got a little challenging. We got a decent amount of snow here in Chicagoland, and in the time between two coaching calls — time I’d scheduled as my writing time for today — I realized I was going to need to go out and shovel. It was just one of those practical, mother-nature-induced, daily-life annoyances that I was going to have to deal with.

It ended up taking longer than I’d imagined it would. The car windows were wrapped in ice. The recycling bin fell over as I tried to pull it over a bank of snow. And so on.

“Screw it,” I thought as I trudged back up the steps to the house, my cheeks pink and my forehead clammy with sweat. “No writing today. I’ll just have to chalk it up to a snow day.”

Around 8:30, I wrapped up my last coaching call. I was hungry. I ate some leftover mostaccioli and opened my iPad and started playing the Fluff Pets Rescue game I’ve become addicted to over the past week, my “reward” for doing all the stuff I had on my to-do list. I took it as a given that I was too tired to write. But I felt a little bit hollow; the “to-do” list for the day wasn’t truly complete.

And then I felt a little pull in my stomach: a tingle of excitement. I noticed something: really, I wasn’t too tired to write. I wanted to write. So what if it was almost 9 p.m.? I could sit there rescuing fluffy pets (and who doesn’t want to sit around doing that?) or I could get up, go to the computer, and do a little writing.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t do much — just ten minutes of new writing. That was it. But, tonight, that was what it took to give me that feeling that I’d done enough. I moved the writing to the place where I’d done what I wanted to do with the story, with the language, for today. It felt good. I felt satisfied. I’d kept my commitment to myself, even if it wasn’t as much as I’d planned to write. It was enough.

Now: had I gotten off my last call at 8:30 and realized I was physically depleted, my eyes were starting to close and I truly needed to wind down for the night — had it felt like forcing and pushing and having to literally drag myself to the computer to make myself write — that would have been a different story. Had that been the case, I would have called it a day for today — no writing. I would have chalked it up to a snow day and left it at that. And it would have been good.

Geneen Roth once wrote, “Sometimes doing it looks like not doing it.” Sometimes, when we need to rest, that is exactly what we should be doing. This doesn’t mean that at those times we are not creating. Something in us, I believe, is still at work; our unconscious may be knitting together that impossible story problem while we dream.

And sometimes, like tonight for me, doing it looks just like that: going to the desk, sitting in the chair, typing the words into the computer, or scribbling away in your notebook (I still often love to write the old-fashioned way, in a hard-backed Cambridge notebook).

You can always listen to your body for information as to what you need most in this day, this moment. When you think about creating, do you get a little flicker of “yes!” in your chest, even if you’re tired, even if you’ve had a headache since noon? Then by all means, go for it, even so! If, when you think about creating today, your stomach plummets to your feet, your tired bones feel like they want to be in bed and maybe you’ve tried dragging yourself to the computer and sat there for a while and nothing’s really coming out, then, by all means, call it a day for today. You can, and will, start again tomorrow. Trust that implicitly.

By the way: Watch for a special announcement from me in the coming days — I have a cool gift for my readers that I’ll be writing about very soon!

One free session up for grabs!

Last week, I offered four free thirty-minute coaching sessions in celebration of my certification as a Martha Beck Life Coach. One free session remains! You can bring any issue to the session (it can be related to creativity, or not) and we’ll do some exploring together and see if we can get you a little less stuck. You’d be amazed at the shifts that can occur in a short period of time. It’s all about asking ourselves the right questions.

To claim your free session, email me at and put “free session” in the subject line.

Image is SUNFLOWER ON SKY © Marzanna Syncerz |


The Gift of Finishing

This weekend I finished a first draft of my novel about a forty-year-old unemployed woman obsessed with the musical Cats who leaves her seemingly pretty awesome husband and rekindles a relationship with the crazy artist who made her life hell in her twenties. Whewwww. That was a mouthful.

Finishing the draft was a big deal. I wanted to pour champagne for my fellow participants in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle, who encouraged me through the last ninety pages of this draft. I glowed to my boyfriend. I’m still trying to figure out how to reward myself (can Crystal the Monkey come over and play Galaga with me?).

I started writing this draft in October of 2009, exactly two years ago. I worked on it pretty regularly — okay, more off and on — for a few months. And then I started losing faith in it. I wasn’t sure what the story was about. This is really bad, I thought. And so it sat. And then I went back to it. And then it sat again. And so on. Until I started to worry it was “on the pile” — the pile of my unfinished novels. (This would have been the third.)

I don’t believe we need to finish everything we start. That’s a thought that can definitely be questioned. We can’t imagine every twist and turn our lives will take, how our experiences will shape us internally so that we may not want or need what seemed so vital five years ago. It’s okay to let go.

But I wasn’t happy that these last two novels had been abandoned about two-thirds of the way through. I was starting to think it was a pattern that didn’t feel good: When I feel stuck, I stop. I talked to Jenna in a coaching session and it came out that this last novel, I was kinda bored with. The voice didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t think I cared about the subject matter. The earlier novel, the second to last one, well, as I told Jenna, it scares me. It’s been sitting so long. I don’t even want to look at it. “That’s the one you need to finish!” Jenna said. And I suspect she is dead right.

So I resolved to let this last novel go and get back to work on the scary one, the earlier one. Only, the thing was, this last novel didn’t want to be let go. Hey you, it whispered to me while I was trying to fall asleep one night. I’m not letting you off so easy!

So when the opportunity to join Jenna’s Writer’s Circle arose, I decided I would use it to finish this not-quite-right, kinda boring book. I embraced Anne Lamott’s terminology, “shitty first drafts,” wholeheartedly.

And I learned something: This novel was also the scary one. My boredom with the book, my seeming apathy toward it, was a cover-up for fear. I didn’t want to go where the story wanted to go. I didn’t want bad things to happen to my characters. I wasn’t sure my writing muscles were in very good shape. And I wanted it to be good, dammit.

It was overwhelming.

So, with the daily structure put into place by Jenna’s group, I made my goals feel eminently doable: I’d write at least fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. Often, when I filled out my daily comments for the group, my negative thoughts were something like: I don’t know where to go next. It isn’t very good. And the killer: It’s not dynamic enough. I replaced them with: I just need to write the next sentence. It isn’t bad. And: Who am I to say what’s dynamic? I’ll figure that out in the next draft.

In noticing the thoughts that keep me from moving forward, I take the charge out of them. They are just thoughts. In doing this with a group, I saw that we ALL have roughly the same negative thoughts about our writing. The same fears. That took the charge out of it all a little more.

In forty-five days, I wrote ninety pages. I still have no idea if the draft is good. But by writing, by moving forward step by tiny step, I learned what the story was about. I got a clearer idea of what my characters wanted. And it wasn’t overwhelming because I didn’t have to do it all at once.

Most importantly (and this part makes me plain old tear up), I remembered the joy of disappearing into my story because I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

We can put so much pressure on ourselves when we create. As if, through our creating, we make the world turn. We can be easier on ourselves. We can show up, write for a while — take it sentence by sentence if we need to — and let the writing come through us. It knows what it wants to be. (“Listen to your broccoli,” says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, referencing Mel Brooks’ line, “Your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”)

But we can also be gently firm with ourselves: by committing to a regular habit of creating. And we can get the support we need to keep that commitment.

If you are feeling massively stuck on a creative project — if you’re terrified to go near the thing or even to speak of it — you are exactly the kind of person I looooove working with. Check out my Free Creativity Consultations — I have some openings coming up.


Image is CONTROLLING THE WORLD… © Radu Razvan Gheorghe |

A Short Post about Overwhelm

Today’s blog article is short, because it needs to be in order for me to do it.

I’m overwhelmed. Well, I was overwhelmed earlier today. I’ve had family visiting from out of town for the past ten days, and yesterday, they left. Today, have-to’s and should’s about neglected work stampeded through my brain, and the more I added to the to-do list, the less I actually felt capable of getting any of it done.

And in the midst of all that, I had a very unhelpful thought, something in the realm of “What will so-and-so think if I don’t get this done?”

So, today, here’s how I dealt with my overwhelm (it might be different on another day):

1) I asked myself, what are the musts? What really feels vital and important for me to take on today? (The answer was: working on my novel; laundry; doing the dishes — the housework wouldn’t usually feel as vital, but it’s really piled up).

2) What part of the musts must I do? In other words, what chunk of each must would feel like enough for today? (The answer: thirty minutes of writing; two loads of laundry; half of the dishes).

3) Where am I getting into somebody else’s business? Byron Katie tells us there are three kinds of business: my business, your business, and God’s business. When I’m wondering what my mother will think if I don’t get my dishes done (even though she lives hundreds of miles away), I’m in my mother’s business, and nobody’s taking care of mine. And I’m adding to my overwhelm by neglecting my own business and trying to control what I can’t possibly control.

So that’s it for today. The writing’s done, half the dishes are done, and that second load of laundry is in the dryer. Tomorrow, if overwhelm creeps in, I will look at tomorrow’s musts. But that’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, my friend, is another day.

Let Your Wisdom Come Through

I’ve noticed that when I’m getting close to some kind of major insight — some piece of wisdom about myself or my life that I very much need in order to move forward — I usually become resistant to receiving it. That is, I have a hard time allowing myself to be in “receptive” mode, where I can access the insight, and I crank up my activities.

My latest way of distracting myself is by playing Galaga. If you were also a kid in the ’80s, you might remember this was an Atari arcade game that came out around 1981. I’ve been playing it on my TV, for old timesake, remembering how much fun it was to shoot rows of insect-like creatures who rain fire on me.

It’s fine, and joyful, to play Galaga when I’m not using it to distract myself from something else. But lately I’ve noticed I’ve been intending to write in my journal around 9 p.m. or so, when I suddenly think to myself, I’ll just play Galaga for a few minutes and then I’ll write.

Only I end up playing Galaga for two hours, and then I’m very sleepy and the journaling doesn’t get done.

And the reason my journal has been calling to me — in that subtle, quiet voice it has — is because it’s time for some wisdom to come through. And the way that often happens for me is through journaling.

But I’m not letting it come through. I’m distracting myself, and not just with Galaga. And I’ve been feeling distanced from myself, agitated, even kinda hostile and angry with myself.

If history is any indicator, there’s a very good chance that when I actually sit down with my journal for a good amount of time and let whatever wants to come up come up, come out, move through me, I will feel a hell of a lot better. What I’ve learned is that the bigger the insight that’s ready to come up, the more I avoid being open to receiving it.

Why? Because it isn’t necessarily easy to sit still, to write, to be, and get in touch with whatever it is. There’s usually some scary stuff hanging around the insight, protecting it, and I need to chip away at that — or, even better, be very gentle with the scary stuff and let it know it’s okay to unclench itself from my newborn insight and deliver the insight into my arms.

Eventually, I know I will step away from the Galaga game and be with whatever it is that wants me to know it. And I also know, if history is any indicator, that it is better if I can do this sooner rather than later. Though I am aware, too, with deep certainty, that the wisdom that wants to come through always arrives at the perfect moment: when I am ready for it.

Do you find yourself avoiding opening up to your insights, getting quiet enough to hear them? What allows you to listen? I’d love to hear how this process works for you.