Archive | February, 2010

Your Annual Goals List

Last time I blogged about your “Hopes and Dreams” file. Hopes and dreams are great things. But they aren’t enough. None of them will ever happen unless you translate them into something a bit more tangible.

That thing is a project. A project is one of your hopes and dreams that you’ve taken two further steps on:
1) You’ve defined what it looks like, in tangible terms.
2) You’ve made a definite commitment to achieve it.

As an example, one of your hopes and dreams might be to be a published novelist someday. If you’re reading this blog, that’s either something you’re hoping for, or it’s something you’ve already achieved. How do you translate that into a project?

First, you define what it looks like in concrete terms. You can’t be a published novelist unless you actually write a book, sell it, and see it through the fiery process of editing and all the way through to publication. That means that you need to choose your category, pick a title, and choose characters and a storyline and a storyworld.

Second, you commit to writing that particular book. Commitment means that you won’t quit when things get hard (they will). You won’t quit when your critique buddies find flaws (they will). You won’t quit when the agents say they’re not interested in that particular book (they will). You won’t quit when the editors say no (they will). You won’t quit when the substantive editorial letter comes back with 20 pages of requested revisions (it will). Commitment means that you’re in all the way. Commitment means that you work on the book until one of two things happen — either you realize that the book is fatally flawed, or you finish the book.

I think it’s a powerful thing to make a list of annual goals, listing all the projects you’ve committed to (or the ones you might commit to) during the year. So every year, I make a list of annual goals. I run a small corporation, and I’m required by law to have a Board of Directors meeting and a Shareholders meeting at least once a year. Never mind that the Board of Directors is just me and my wife. Never mind that the Shareholders is also just us two. I write up a formal President’s Report for the previous year, and I present my Annual Goals for the coming year. We vote on it. (It always passes unanimously.) Then I show it to my accountant, who likes to make sure that I’m being legal with my corporate responsibilities.

Right now, I’ve got my Annual Goals for 2010 stuck to the filing cabinet beside my desk. I look at it every morning, first thing, to remind myself of all the cool things I want to get done this year.

Understand that we all suffer from the tendency to bite off more than we can chew. So I don’t really expect to achieve everything on my Annual Goals list. Last year I had ten items on my list and I only got two of them done. But they were the two most important ones, and it was an outstanding year. This year, I have nineteen items on the list, but there are three that are really important. I’ve got them highlighted in yellow. If I get only those three done, it’ll be an outstanding year.

Do you have an Annual Goals list? If not, it’s not too late. And if you have one, do you know which items are the absolute Must Do items, and which aren’t? Make an Annual Goals list. Highlight the ones that will give you the biggest bang for the buck. Commit to those few. Then look at your list every day.

Ten months from now, I’m betting you’ll have those done — or you’ll have busted a lung trying.

Your Hopes-and-Dreams File

Awhile back I was at a writing conference hanging out with a group of friends. I happened to catch a fragment of a sentence one my friends asked another: “What are your hopes and dreams?”

That caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

First, hopes and dreams are the things that keep you going. They’re the fuel that powers your jet engine (or your go-cart, if you’re not a high-flier).

Second, the writer who asked the question IS a high-flier. He’s won some major awards and has been on the New York Times bestseller list a few times.

If you’re a beginning writer, one of your hopes and dreams is probably to get published someday. Once you get published, one of your hopes and dreams is probably to hit a bestseller list somewhere or to win an award. (Generally, the folks on the bestseller lists are dreaming about winning an award, whereas the award-winners are all longing desperately for bestseller status. Everybody wants whatever they don’t have.)

Hopes and dreams come in all flavors and sizes. Maybe you’d love to shave off a few pounds (or add them in strategic locations). Maybe the thing you long for is a fatter bank account. Maybe you just wanna be a rock star. Whatever. Your hopes and dreams are yours, and you don’t have to explain them to anybody or justify them.

The one thing you should try to do with your hopes and dreams is to achieve them. And that is most likely to happen when you know what they are and when you regularly remind yourself about them.

Typically, those pesky hopes and dreams are of three main types:
* Something you want to HAVE
* Something you want to DO
* Something you want to BE

I find it useful to keep a “Hopes and Dreams” file. (Actually, it’s about a dozen different files, covering all areas of my life.) When I think of another thing that I want to have or do or be, I write it on a sheet of paper and stick it in the appropriate file.

Of course, files are useless by themselves. The point is that when you’ve got it written down, it becomes a little more real. If you review your Hopes and Dreams files regularly (say once every week or once every month), at some point, you’re going to commit to one of them.

Understand that many of your Hopes and Dreams are going to lie fallow for years, maybe decades. Many of them will NEVER happen. You can’t do everything, be everything, or have everything that you want. There just isn’t time, energy, or money enough for them all. But when you want something bad enough, eventually you commit to it.

At that point, it becomes a project that you can move to its own project file and start working on. This is actually not very hard. Just ask yourself: “What’s the next action I should take to get this or have this or be this?” If you don’t know the answer to that question, look it up or ask somebody.

Then go do it.

Hopes and dreams never materialize unless you take action. You can’t achieve all of your hopes and dreams in this life, but . . . there’s a good chance that you can achieve some of them — those that are most important to you.

That’s what the Hopes and Dreams file is for — to remind you of what you want, to help you decide what you want most, and to motivate you to take action to achieve it.

Thoughts on Singletasking

On Wednesday, I talked about the hazards of multitasking. But what’s a busy writer to do? We can’t very well shut out the world, can we?

No, but yes.

No, we can’t shut it out forever. Yes, we can shut it out for periods of time.

Some people do this naturally. If I have one talent in life, it’s the ability to focus on things. Sometimes I am embarrassingly good at this, such as when my wife is talking to me and I literally can’t hear her. Sometimes I am conveniently good at this, such as when my wife is asking me to change the kitty litter. (“Dang! Didn’t hear ya! What’s that horrible smell?”)

But even if you’re not good at shutting things out naturally, you can simulate it by being intentional. I learned this trick from a guy named Eben Pagan, an internet entrepreneur who teaches people how to be more productive. Eben says to buy a kitchen timer and set it for a certain length of time. Then give yourself permission to ignore everything until that timer goes off.

Everything. Phone ringing? Ignore it. Email chiming? Worry about it later. Cat meowing? Shove outside into blizzard. Kid bleeding? Yes it’s OK to deal with a bleeding kid. Anything else? Save for later.

You really can do this and it works if you’re weak on focus. The reason is that you’re playing a psychological trick on yourself. You know the timer is going to go off soon. That timer sets the boundaries on your focus time. It’ll make sure you come back to the real world. But until it does, the time you’ve set aside is yours, all yours, for whatever task you’re doing.

A timer gives you boundaries that protect your time. Try it and see. Eben Pagan recommends that you set the timer for 50 minutes and then when it’s done, set it again for a 10-minute break in which you detach completely from whatever you were doing. Then if you still have work to do, set the timer for another 50-minute work jag. You can get an awful lot done in life in 50-minute chunks.

You don’t even have to spend the ten bucks on a kitchen timer. I went to VersionTracker.com and did a quick search and found a Mac program with the sexy name “Timer Utility”. It’s free and it lets you set up an alarm clock, a stopwatch, or a countdown timer. I have one running on each of my computers.

You may be wondering why I use a countdown timer if I have such excellent powers of concentration.

The answer: Because I have excellent powers of concentration. I can easily get lost for three hours straight on a task. That’s not good when I have other duties. A timer helps ensure that I don’t get lost in la-la land for too long.

Furthermore, I can use a timer to set myself a challenge: “I bet I can get this blog post written in 15 minutes.” That ensures that I don’t lollygag in la-la land.

Or if I set the timer before a phone call, then I put limits on how long I’ll be gabbing to Weird Aunt Muriel. (“Sorry, Auntie! The doorbell just rang. Gotta go!”)

As I noted in my e-zine this past week, many people say that “multitasking makes you stupid.”

The converse of that is also true: Singletasking makes you smart.

What do my loyal blog readers think? Do you have tricks to get out of multitasking mode and into singletasking mode? Go ahead and leave a comment to brag about how clever you are.

Thoughts on Multitasking

I hear occasionally writers saying that they get a lot of writing done because they’re good at multitasking. And I have to say I doubt it.

Of course we may be talking about different things, but the way I define multitasking, it’s a great way to NOT get much writing done.

Let’s remember where the term comes from. It’s a technical term from the world of computers. In the bad old days, computers had one CPU — the central processing unit that does things. If you wanted it to do several things at once, you couldn’t do that, but you could fake it as follows:

Each program that’s running was only allowed to work on a task for a short time — say 20 milliseconds. Then it would give up control of the CPU and another program would take control. That one would run for a short time, and then it would give up control.

That works fairly well with computers, so long as all the programs play well together. If any of them decides to hog the whole system, then all the other programs are out of luck.

It didn’t take long for computer manufacturers to realize that if multitasking was going to work well, it had to be brainlessly easy to program. The operating system (Mac OS or Windows or Linux) had to enforce the rules and break in on each program and keep it from hogging.

That works pretty well for computers. But what about for our brains?

Our brains have a bit of an advantage over computers. The simplest computers only have one CPU. We humans have multiple brains that handle low-level bodily functions like breathing (you don’t have to think about this) and higher-level physical actions like walking and chewing gum and high-level conscious activities like doing our taxes and writing fiction (which are considered by some people to be the same thing).

So we’re naturally designed to multitask at a bunch of things, within limits. You really can do a bunch of things simultaneously, so long as they don’t take conscious thought.

When you start trying to do things consciously, though, you run into problems. Go ahead and try to write two emails at exactly the same time. Can you do it?

Yes, you can. You can open two email windows at the same time on your screen. Then you can type one character in the first window, grab the mouse, move it to the other window, type one character, grab the mouse, move it to the other window, type one character, and so on.

That’s multitasking on conscious tasks, and it’s horrendously inefficient. Most of your time is wasted in switching from one context to another. Context switches kill you.

Even if you’re trying to do something a lot more normal, such as watch TV and do your calculus homework at the same time, the context switches kill you. Both tasks suffer, even if you think you’re doing great at both of them. If you think that, you’re fooling yourself.

Now look at what most people mean when they say, “I’m a great multitasker. I can watch the kids and talk on the phone and cook supper and keep an ear on the washing machine all at the same time.”

Yes, of course, most people can do all those things at the same time, but that isn’t multitasking because only the talking on the phone really requires conscious thought.

I sometimes hear people say, “I’m good at multitasking. I can do email and handle the phone and work on a spreadsheet and have an instant messaging session going and be texting my friend, all at once.”

With all respect, the only reason anyone can do all those things at the same time is because most of them allow for short context switches of a few seconds. You can do a line of an instant message or a text in a few seconds. You can work on an email for a minute or two, then interrupt it and come back twenty minutes later. If you’re on the phone, you CAN in principle zone out and resort to saying “Uh-huh” repeatedly while you do something else, but that’s beginning to cheat. If you’re trying to do two phone conversations at once, you’ll see this right away, and so will the people you’re talking to. And if you’re working on a spreadsheet, you can in principle keep cutting away to do other things, but it’s going to take time to get back into the swing of things every time you return.

Things like doing a spreadsheet or writing a novel take periods of concentrated thought. After each interruption, when you can resume work on them right away, but it typically takes up to 20 minutes to really get into the flow and work at your highest productivity level. If you keep cutting away every five minutes to attend to something else, you CAN get some work done on that pesky spreadsheet or novel, but you won’t be working at nearly the level you could be working if that was the only thing you were doing. And if you try to be like a computer and work on it in 20 millisecond snatches, then you are completely and hopelessly dog meat.

There’s a big difference between what you CAN do and what you can do WELL. And tragically, we humans can only work well on one task requiring focused concentration at a time.

All of which reminds me that my latest humor column has been out for about a week now. The title of it is “Multitaxing” and in it, my plumber Sam and I argue the merits of multitasking. Want to guess who wins the battle of multitasking. You can read it all here.