Archive for the ‘Organization’ Category

This is a another guest post from Quinn Maclaren. Quinn is a freelance writer, was published in The Oasis Journal, and is currently building content for a site of her own (Ed – Coup De Quill is live). (By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post and would like the exposure, please contact me, I would love to hear from you.)

A few days ago, Step Lightly featured a post on starting. Starting anything can be difficult, but starting a new creative endeavor can be agonizing. Any writer who has faced a blank page, or any painter with a blank canvas, can tell you stories. We are led to believe that if we wait, inspiration will come. So we wait, and the longer we wait, the larger the fear of that blank page or blank canvas becomes.

But we all know people, or have read of famous creators, who have no problem starting. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific authors publishing today, talks in her journals, “The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 – 1982,” of her writing practice. She always has multiple projects on the burner. If the book of fiction isn’t coming together too well one day, she might instead complete a book review, or polish some poems for publication. When one book goes off to the publisher, she has often already started taking notes on another one.

As Oates writes the end of a book, she also rewrites the beginning. She says that by the end of the book she knows the characters better, so she puts that knowledge to work polishing what she wrote when she was just getting to know them. I suspect that it also helps her to begin with the knowledge that she will be going back over the beginning chapters later. It is mesmerizing to read her journals and see how a master keeps creativity flowing.

Now Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest and well-known choreographers, has published “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” Tharp’s blank canvas is an empty white dance studio, and since beginning her career in 1965, she has created more than 130 dances for her company, has choreographed ballet, has collaborated with film directors, and has worked with every kind of music from classical composers to Billy Joel. Her book boils down all of that experience, and offers it to anyone from composers to writers to a businessman working on a deal to a chef developing a new recipe. Tharp doesn’t see creativity as a gift from the gods. No more waiting for divine inspiration. You can make it happen anytime, and every time.

Over the course of her career, Tharp has developed ways of moving from one project to another without missing a beat. She offers rituals to prepare for new projects, offers exercises to teach us to ‘scratch’ for new ideas, and shows us the difference between being in a rut and being in the groove. Each chapter of her book is followed by exercises (over thirty in all) to help a struggling creator put Tharp’s years of experience and insight to work, not someday, but today. Everything she offers is practical and accessible for beginners and experts alike. There’s nothing fancy here: you might need a pencil and a piece of paper, or a few coins. But there is power in her simplicity.

For example, Tharp begins every creative project with a box. She writes the project name on the box, and as she progresses, she fills it up with everything that went into making the dance. “This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.” Her Billy Joel project eventually filled twelve boxes! The beauty of the system is that nothing is ever lost.

And yes, even Tharp has known failure. She says “…there is a therapeutic power to failure. It cleanses. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are.” As creators, we all fail. We must try to put failure to work for us, and find positive growth in it. Never let it stop you.

So, what are you waiting for? Begin here.


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Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of getting started when you want change. However, another common problem is establishing new habits. I’ve always been told it takes three weeks to transition from an old habit to a new one. Once established, it’s easy to keep going, but first you have to make it through three weeks, during which your natural behaviors will still be wrong. If you’re going to succeed, odds are you need something to keep you in line.

Of course, there is positive reinforcement. It’s probably worth it’s own post eventually. I’m suspicious of it, though. Too often, I’ve tried to use positive reinforcement and ended up failing at my goal, but still finding an excuse to reward myself. No, for stubborn people me, it has to be negative reinforcement.

There are a few things to keep in mind about negative reinforcement for it to be effective.

  • Immediacy. If you’ve ever tried to train an animal (and behavior modification of yourself is no different) you know that delivering a punishment late is worse then not doing it at all. You need a way to punish yourself (a metaphorical rolled up news paper) that is quick and easy.
  • Pain. No two ways about this, it needs to hurt. The entire point of negative reinforcement is to alter your life’s reward system; continue your bad behavior (which probably feels good) and get a dose of pain, or make change (which also probably feels good) and avoid the punishment. I prefer actual physical pain (a rubber band snap to the wrist, in fact, which hurts a lot after a while), but it could be psychological pain as well. Think curse jar (bad language).
  • Novelty. If you have plans to change a behavior, then you probably already feel bad about it. Maybe you already punish yourself in little ways. Whatever method of negative reinforcement you choose though, it needs to be new and unusual, or else it will just blend in. If you want yourself to behave differently, you need to drastically alter the rules you play by. Your punishment should be something new, and should be used only for this behavior.
  • Consistency. A system like this doesn’t work if it isn’t applied all the time. Shock a rat if he touches a wall, and he will learn to not touch the wall. Shock him only occasionally, or with a different wall each time, and he will go insane. You probably wont go insane, but you certainly wont make much progress either.
  • Exposure. This is largely optional, but I think it can help if your method for punishing yourself is a little public. Not only will a desire not to explain (why you’re thwacking yourself with a rubber band) make you more diligent, but it’s likely to get people asking about (and then helping police you on) your goal.
  • Goal. The most important thing is not to lose sight of your goal. While you are punishing yourself for backsliding, your reward is progress. Don’t let yourself get accustomed to the punishment. Not only should you use the pain of punishment as a deterrent, but use it as a way to track your progress.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to create a system that will help you learn your new habit. Whether it’s a curse jar, a rubber band around the wrist, or some other way to punish yourself, negative reinforcement can be a valuable tool for creating real change in your life.

(As an aside, psychologists make a distinction between “negative reinforcement” and “punishment”. The latter is administered in response to a bad behavior to cause discomfort; the former is a negative condition created before a behavior occurs to encourage avoiding that behavior. Technically, the methods I mentioned are punishments. The rat’s electrocuted wall, however, is negative reinforcement [it’s a continuing condition which encourages the rat to learn a new behavior, ie. not touching the wall]. Consider true negative reinforcement an option as well. Want to make yourself watch less TV? Odds are you can’t electrify your couch, but you could force yourself to ride an exercise bike while you watch TV. That way, you win either way.)

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Making lists is an easy, effective way to get organized, and one of the oldest is the simple to-do list. Here are a few things you can do to really get the most out of them.

Subdivide into Smaller Lists
Splitting your list into smaller lists can help you prioritize work. Date is a good way to approach it, but breaking into sections like Home, Work, Pleasure, etc. can be helpful too. A to-do list stops being helpful if it is too long or confusing to effectively remind you of your responsibilities.

Keep it Short
Maybe you need two lists; one can cover the most important things that must be done today, and other can cover the less important stuff. Maybe you can just be critical of what goes on the list. The important thing is not to let “pay electricity bill” get buried beneath “rent the first season of CSI.”

Use Check Boxes
This is one of my favorite and 95% psychological. True, check boxes are useful for quickly recognizing what’s done and what’s undone, but the emotional boost you get from checking off each thing is much more important. It’s a great feeling that will keep you working.

Account for Other People
Most likely, something on your to-do list involves someone else’s participation. If so, it’s important to remember that other people aren’t always reliable. Attack these early, and if that contact in LA takes four hours (or four days) to respond to you, you wont be sunk.

Go Digital
I am still fond of my paper to-do list, but there is a lot to be said for digital versions. They’re often easier to restructure (so that you can move that new assignment to the top priority), but the real gem is that many digital lists can be active about reminding you. Whether on your phone or your computer, a digital alarm tied to a to-do list can be a life saver when it comes to time or date sensitive tasks.

Keep it With You
A to-do list is no good if you can’t see it. If it’s only for work, maybe you can get away with keeping it on that dry-erase board over your desk. However, for most uses, a to-do list will only be helpful if you can carry it with you easily. Mine stays in a little Moleskine notebook that fits neatly in a pocket or book bag, so that it’s never far away when I get my next appointment or assignment.

Check it Often (But not too often)
A list is only as helpful as the number of times you check it. If you never see your list, it can’t help you. However, checking it too often can keep you distracted. If you’re really trying to get things done, the best way to go is to sit down with your list, pick the most important task to work on next, and then go back to your list only when you’re ready to check off the first task and see what’s coming next.

Schedule for Fun
We’re all really busy, but it’s important to kick back occasionally. So while you shouldn’t flood your to-do list with recreation, including a few things can help. Again, this is partly psychological. Every time you look at that long to-do list and groan, you’ll remember that at least some of what’s coming up is fun. Avoiding feeling discouraged is important to staying productive.

This is just a small sampling of ways you can improve your productivity with the simple to-do list. What other ways do you make them more useful?

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The Debt Snowball

Debt, I think we can universally agree, is bad for you. Not only is it a constant drain on your financial resources, but it’s also a source of stress. For many people, though, it’s difficult to imagine getting out of debt. It can seem insurmountable.

If you are ready to start going after your debt, though, there are a few ways to go about it. The first is to simply up your payments on all you debts by whatever you can. This is going to be a slow and arduous process, and wont save you much money.

The most logical is to sit down with your statements and brush the dust off your high school math; figure out which debt is going to cost you the most in interest in the long run. It will probably be a high-interest credit card. Once you find the debt that will cost you the most, start paying extra over the minimum payments on that. When you have eliminated it, take the extra you were paying and the monthly payment on that debt and put it towards the next debt. This is called a debt snowball; each debt you pay off makes the next debt easier to pay off. Eventually, you are paying far above the minimum monthly payments on your last debts, and the process picks up speed until you are debt free (and in the habit of making a large monthly payment to put towards savings every month).

However, the most expensive debt is often typically the hardest to pay off. It’s easy to lose the will to fight the debt while your balance oh-so-slowly creeps downwards. It’s not your fault – it’s human nature to be deterred when progress is that slow. Which is why many personal finance advisers recommend a second kind of debt snowball. Instead of attacking the most expensive debt – the most logical goal – go after the debts with the smallest (and there-by easiest to pay off) balances. Otherwise, the system works the same: pay extra towards the loan, then use the extra and that monthly payment towards you next loan, etc. True, in the long run it will cost you a little more, but the psychological rewards come more quickly, and if it lets you win the psychological battle, then it’s worth it. I’m sure using all your monthly payments to pound on those high interest, high balance loans at the end is fun too.

You can use one method or some mixture of the both to rank your loans; the important thing to note is that it’s an easy system to organize your attack on debt. Defeating your debt can be difficult, but it is by no means impossible, and well worth the effort.

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Everyone has some goals. Most people, at some point, have voiced specific goals, tried to work towards their goals, and come up short. Why?

The problem is, most people don’t set good goals. Bad goals are hard to follow and hard to succeed with. But what makes for a good goal?

A site called Top Achievement suggests you make SMART goals:

Specific – Answers six W questions: who, what, when, where, which, and why.
Measurable – You need a concrete test by which to determine success.
Attainable – You can do almost anything, but give yourself the time and resources to do it.
Realistic – Make sure the goal is something you are willing and able to complete.
Timely – Grounded in a specific time frame (and tangible: able to be physically experienced)

I made an effort to set goals last year instead of making resolutions, and I accomplished a lot. It’s important, though, to limit yourself; too many goals can dilute your focus. Also, limiting yourself to a few will insure that your focus is on what is most important to you, and passion can be a significant part of getting where you want to be.

This year, I’m setting goals for my next birthday (Jan. 15th). I’ve mentioned previously my aborted attempt at the 101 Things in 1001 Days project, but I’ve been working on narrowing down my list to the most important (S.M.A.R.T.est?) goals for the year, which are as follows:

  • Double my 20th birthday savings (=$4000)
  • Lose 20 pounds (=155lbs.)
  • Learn the basic guitar chords and a few songs
  • Publish a story or article in print
  • Sell a t-shirt design
  • Bike 20 miles in one day
  • Jog daily for a week
  • Participate in Lent

I’m pretty happy with the list. I think it’s a little on the long side, but many of the tasks are fairly straightforward, one time goals, and some goals (like biking/jogging) support others (losing weight).

Take a few minutes to think about what you’d like to accomplish this year and set those goals down in a concise, measurable way. I think you’ll find that when your goal is specific, the path to completing it becomes much more clear.

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This idea comes to us via Get Rich Slowly, a really incredible blog all around for anyone who wants to get their finances under control.

The idea is pretty straightforward, and yet profoundly difficult. Write a list of 101 goals – concrete, simple, well defined and achievable goals – and then give yourself 1001 days (about 2.75 years) to complete them. It’s a bit like New Years Resolutions, only bigger.

Why so long? The idea is that a single year is not long enough to complete some projects. Maybe they’re seasonal, or maybe they’re just really complicated. If you want to finally go on that month-long tour of Europe you’ve always dreamed about, odds are you can’t save, plan for, and take the trip in one year.

Why so many? Presumable because there is so much to do! In the lists I’ve seen, the goals cover everything from the life altering (that Europe trip, publishing a book, etc.) to the mundane (clean the gutters every fall, paint the kid’s room, switch banks, etc.).

It still is a very long list, and part of it’s charm will be that it forces you to think almost three years down the line. Unlike the usual “Where do you want to be in five years?” question, though, this one forces you to put down in writing the steps you must take to get there. Maybe it’s more accurate to say this is a way to answer the question “What do I want to have done in three years?”

I tried to start this, and was able to stretch myself to come up with around 80, many of them things I had only a questionable desire to do. I’m not sure where to put the blame for that, but another friend of mine (I’m sure she’ll be around in the comments, going by the name Moi) couldn’t find 101 things either. To be fair, I think this is a project which is most effective at a certain time in your life. We’re both in our sophomore year at college, so there is a lot of uncertainty ahead. I’m not sure where I’m going to live next year, let alone what I may be studying or doing, so its difficult to plan that far ahead.

JD of Get Rich Slowly has a pretty good list on his personal blog, though. He’s well accustomed to thinking about what he wants to change in his life and has a good notion of where he’s going. You can read about the origin of the idea here, or see a bunch of people’s lists here. Most likely, my list will be the basis for a (pretty ambitious, hopefully) list of resolutions for this year. I’m sure I’ll share that list with you in the coming weeks, and I encourage anyone who takes up this project to share their list as well. Even if you come up short of the 101 goals target, it’s a great way to itemize the things you want to accomplish. Good luck!

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