I confess, I love the beginning of the year. (And that's not just because New Year's Day is my birthday and I get cake and presents!) I like beginnings. I like the feeling that I have an opportunity to "start fresh." To me, the New Year seems like a great, blank book. Nothing, as yet, marks its pages. They are mine to write upon. And as the bells of the New Year ring, I can imagine writing anything, everything, upon that open and inviting expanse.
But as those bells ring, I'm also reminded that they are also meant to be "ringing out the old." As I "close the book" on the old year, I realize that before I tackle those fresh new pages, I need to take a look back. After all, I started the previous year with the same high hopes, the same sense of expectation and "all things new." So before I start asking myself what I want to do in the year to come, I need to ask one small, possibly uncomfortable question:
What do I wish I had done in the year that has just ended?
What plans did I make, one year ago, that I didn't fulfill? What dreams did I have that never became reality? What goals did I hope to achieve, but missed? In short, what is about to get penciled onto my coming year's "to-do" list, because it didn't get done the year before?
By the time you read this, the New Year will be here. So here's a proposal for these first days of the new year. It's not a resolution. Rather, it's a suggestion. As you plan ahead for the year to come, take a look at the plans you made for previous year. What remains undone? What is on your "I wish I'd done this" list? What remains unfinished? What, for that matter, remains unstarted? What did you want to do, but didn't?
The next question to ask, of course, is why. If we go forward as before, declaring once again that "this is the year I will finally (fill in the blank)," without asking why it didn't get done last year, or the year before, then we risk going on adding it to our New Year's list over and over and over again... without ever getting any closer to actually accomplishing it. There are reasons why things don't get done -- and they'll continue to not get done until we identify those reasons.
Now, at this point, it's easy to fall into a hog-wallow of self-condemnation. It's easy to start blaming yourself, berating yourself, or assuming that you're just not capable of turning your dreams into reality, so why bother? So before you start telling yourself that you're a failure, let's remember something else about the New Year. Yes, it's like a blank book that we have a chance to write upon. But we're a bit like blank books ourselves. We don't just do the writing; we also get written upon. Life writes its own story on our pages, and all too often, it's not the story we plotted. Unforeseen events intrude. The needs and problems of people in our lives take priority over our own carefully laid plans. Little nuisances like government shutdowns wreak havoc with our schedules and our finances. A bout of flu can cost weeks of time, and still more time lost in recovery and catch-up.
As you look at the things left undone by the end of last year, start by identifying all the unforeseen events that upset your plans. Instead of saying, "I guess I'm no good at this," or "Maybe I just wasn't cut out to be a writer," identify what really happened. It's considerably more useful to realize that the reason your novel didn't get finished is because you vastly underestimated how much work would be involved in researching the culture and customs of 13th-century Norway -- or because you didn't realize that homeschooling your 8-year-old was not just a full-time job, but more like two!
You can't solve the problem of why something didn't get done (e.g., "why my novel didn't get written") without identifying the actual causes of that problem. Self-blame isn't identifying a cause; it's just an emotional reaction to the outcome. Recognizing, however, that research is taking longer than you expected gives you an opportunity to re-evaluate the time-frame you've set for your project, or perhaps the depth of the research you wish to undertake. If your time is being consumed by another task, that also helps you to re-evaluate your goals and develop a more realistic time-frame for their completion.
As I look back on the past year, I see a host of accomplishments that I'm proud of. (If you're not tracking your accomplishments, this is a good time to start!) But I also see a pattern of unfinished projects. There are many possible reasons why things don't get done; here are just a few of mine:
1) A project is too big, too important, too "scary." It's often easier to focus on projects that can be completed relatively quickly and provide an immediate payoff, or at least feedback. Bigger projects keep getting moved onto the "tomorrow" list. Solution: Break big projects into smaller stages, and focus your to-do list on a step or stage, rather than on finishing the entire project.
2) Too many projects. One reason a lot of my projects don't get finished is because I simply have too many. I try to do too many things at once, and the end result is not that a lot of things get done, but rather, that a lot of things don't! Solution: Prioritize! My one-year plan tends to look more like a five-year plan, so figure out what will just have to wait until, say, 2017!
3) Boring projects. Let's face it, some things we take on just aren't that exciting. And there's only so much tedium one can take, so it's easy to get tempted by something more interesting. The problem is dragging oneself back to the boring stuff. Solution: Reward yourself! Bribe yourself with a treat for spending a specific amount of time on the boring job -- even if the treat is just the chance to work on a more interesting project afterwards.
4) The next project. I'm a sucker for every new project or idea that comes along, and I have a tendency to drop everything and jump on it. The trouble is, just as I'm halfway through that project, another new project comes up, and I've almost finished that one when yet another one comes along, and... Before I know it, I have a trail of unfinished projects in my wake. Solution: If you like to project-hop, do so in a circular route. Go from A to B to C to A, instead of trying to backtrack. You'll have a better chance of catching up.
5) Underestimating how long projects will take. These days, things seem to take longer than they used to. Sometimes it's an external problem (like a web program that didn't work "as advertised" and cost hours of wasted effort). Sometimes it's distractions. And sometimes it's just thinking something will take ten minutes when it really takes an hour. Added to that is my tendency to be reluctant to give up on a project once I've invested a lot of time into it. Solution: Arbitrarily double or triple your time projections. There's no downside cost to finding out that something takes less time than you expected!
6) Tackling the small stuff first. One of the first things I do each day is e-mail, which can mean a host of small projects. Each may take only a minute or three -- loading a new ad, answering a question, preparing a contract. But ten 3-minute mini-tasks adds up to half an hour on "administrivium" -- and it's easy to squander one's creative energy on such tasks before ever getting to the day's "main event." Worse, you'll never, ever run out of "small stuff." Solution: Put off the small tasks until after your main task, rather than saying, "I'll get to my story just as soon as I polish off these few little things."
These are some of the reasons I haven't been able to write "The End" to so many of my plans for the past year; you'll probably identify a host of your own. My hope is that, by identifying some of the habits and distractions that consistently interfere with my projects, I'll be able to prevent some of those projects from turning up yet again on my to-do list for the year after this!
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