A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.
I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.
I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.
The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?
During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.
But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.
And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.
To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.
Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.
Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.
During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.
“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.
Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.