Keeping Motivated By Focusing on Today

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile000387773255

By now in North Carolina, we usually have average daily temperatures in the lower 70s and sunshine more often than not.

It’s been a very strange winter and spring in the US.

We did have a spate of spring-like weather last week for a short time.  Since I’ve been feeling a little daylight deprived, I decided to go outside and do some gardening.  Actually, it was more like “yard work” since “gardening” to me denotes doing something light and airy with flowers.  This was work where I somehow ended up getting filthy and had to mop and vacuum my floor later because I’d tracked in. 

It was wonderful to be outside, though.  I pulled weeds in two large beds, laid newspaper down in the beds for a weed barrier, then put some pine needles on top.  Filled my birdfeeders, then used my shovel on some spots where weeds were trying to invade the bushes.

I looked back on what I’d done and thought: “This looks amazing.  So much better than it did before I started working.”

Then I made the tremendous mistake of plopping down in a chair on my patio and studying the bushes on the far side of the yard.  There was some sort of mysterious vine that seemed intent on taking over the bushes—and the vine stretched from one end of the fence to the other.  Where on earth had it come from? Did it have something to do with the odd weather we’d been having?  It wasn’t honeysuckle, it wasn’t poison ivy (the two leafy offenders I usually see in my yard)—it was some sort of alien vine form.

Suddenly, the hour or so of work that I’d done in the yard was completely forgotten.  The success and accomplishment I’d felt in the yard was gone.  I  decided I’d just been kidding myself—there was so much more work to do. That I’d never be done.

And it occurred to me that I’d felt this way before.  Many times, actually.  It’s the way I feel when I allow myself to think too much beyond each day’s writing session.

I’ve  blogged on the danger of getting ahead of ourselves (hubris) when our writing is going really well.  But this is really a more pervasive problem for writers, I think—the danger of not resting on our laurels for just one day without worrying about all the pages and all the revisions to come.  That sense of total overwhelm that we get if we do think about it.

I’ve found, with my writing, that things go so much better for me and I stay much more motivated if I take my goals one day at a time.   It’s been a busy week here—my kids have been off for spring break (back at school today).  It’s been Easter and we’ve spent time with family and I cooked an Easter dinner.  I took my son over break to visit more colleges.  And I’ve met my goals…but I haven’t exceeded them as I’d liked to have done.

Every day, though, I start fresh.  I’m not trying to catch up…just like I don’t need to think I wipe out all the weeds in one fell swoop in my yard.  I just focus on that day’s goals.

And, when I’m done, I try hard not to think ahead to all the future days’ goals stretching ahead of me…all the planting and weeding still to be done.  I allow myself to feel as if I’ve done a good job for that day.  Who cares if I end up having to edit out that day’s work, later?  I’ve done the same for my garden when plants haven’t worked out the way I hoped.  My yard was the better for it, too.  No, for that day, all writing is good because I’ve done it—I’ve filled up my pages and set aside time for it.  I’ll worry about the revising later.

How do you stay focused on your writing task at hand and not get overwhelmed by the work to come?

Image: MorgueFile: Gracey

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46 thoughts on “Keeping Motivated By Focusing on Today

  1. I did some yard work this weekend. I have the aches and pains to prove it. SO true that anything we do (writing included) we need to stay steady in our work to weed out what isn’t working and adding what needs to be there.

    1. Teresa–I’ve always loved that hackneyed saying, ‘slow and steady’ wins the race. So much better to conquer projects a bit at a time instead of burning ourselves out or getting overwhelmed with the big picture!

      1. Hey Elizabeth, gardening eh? There are still drifts over five feet here! Temperature at -8Celsius. No gardening! I have had a hard time coming back to my writing after my trip to be with my newest grandbaby. I’m working on a poem for a contest but ignoring my novel which is close to being revised for the last time. Fear I think! Tomorrow for certain. Once I get back in l know I’ll love it.

  2. It’s a great reminder. I am trying to finish this serial and have gotten a little behind–I definitely need to keep focused… if I can do 1000 words a day, it WILL get done, and in not THAT long. Much better to focus that way. My yard, however. ACK! It really needs help!

    1. Hart–I thought of you the other day about this serial. I’ve got an idea for a serial that I want to do for a different genre. But then I remember you said it’s important to have *written* it first and *then* release it as a serial, to stay on track. I’m going to take your advice on that one and write this other project when I have time to complete it, first.

  3. Elizabeth – I think it really is easy to fall into that trap of feeling weighed down by all of the work. No matter where one is in the writing process, it can be overwhelming. For what it’s worth, what I do is break down the task into daily goals. When I accomplish each daily goal I bask in that (for a short time anyway) and move on to other things in my life. Then the next day I tackle the next goal, etc.. That way the task doesn’t seem as daunting.

    1. Margot–You’ve got the best approach, for sure. I love breaking stuff down into small tasks. With lists! I keep my lists for several days, too, because I like seeing the items on there ticked off. :) It’s remarkably easy for me to manipulate myself.

  4. Want to come pull weeds in my yard?
    I was offline a bit this weekend and I’m not going to even try to catch up. Like with writing, there’s only so many hours in the day, and I can’t worry about what I didn’t get done, only what I can do each day.

    1. Alex–Have you got them, too? I think it’s that wet winter we had. I’m seeing stuff growing in the yard that I’ve never seen before….

      That’s right–only so many hours in the day. Good for you for taking some time to go offline and not worry about it!

  5. Like the gardening comparison – even if gardening from a wheelchair is more about giving orders and opinions. Keep having moments when I feel overwhelmed when I look at all the revision cluttering up my desk. Have to focus on the moment to get anywhere. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Roland–I think that’s when I feel most overwhelmed–in that revision process. I’ve found that, when I realize there *is* a problem with the story, if I just note it on a document or a notepad then I free myself to not worry about it now. Good luck with yours!

  6. I don’t do gardening or yard work, but I work on large, complicated jigsaw puzzles and if I look at the whole picture and how it will come together, I get overwhelmed. Same with my revisions. I am taking one sentence, one paragraph at a time and not thinking ahead to the part that I know will be difficult. This is such wise advice, to focus on this one moment, one day at a time. It keeps me so much calmer and saner.

    1. Karen–I marvel over your ability to do puzzles! I think I need to try puzzles again just as a lesson in patience. And thanks for your words of advice on your blog–they do help keep me centered.

  7. One project at a time. One scene at a time. One page at a time. One sentence at a time.

    Composing is an easy battle to win with motivation. Now, re-writes, edits, subsequent polishing drafts … these are the arduous days for me.

    Toggl as a time tracking app that measures time-in-chair does provide some measure of “effort” based accomplishment through the long nights. It helps.

    1. Jack–That’s some of the worst, for sure. I do try to make lists as I revise of all the problems I see…that way they’re duly noted, but I absolve myself of the need to work on them until the assigned day. :)

      Oh, that sounds like a cool app. I will be checking it out!

  8. I needed this post today. I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed I couldn’t face even my daily goals. Thank you!

  9. Elizabeth, this is exactly the way I’m feeling right now. I have a lot of work to do to get the ms ready for the editor, but this week is spring break for my kids. My focus will be on them. We’re also doing a campus visit this week, and I’m setting my obsessive writer tendencies aside to spend time with family. Although, a few setting detail notes may be in order :)

    1. Julie–Spring break is just really, really tough to get stuff done. Summer is easier because we develop a pattern. But spring break/Christmas break…those always seem to be harder for me.

      Good luck with the college search! Hope your son isn’t as picky as mine. :) Our search is becoming a saga…

  10. We can see most of our yard. Hardly any snow at all. Lake is still frozen over except the edges.

    My version of “yard work” is going to be to have a buddy who’s a tree trimmer come over with a chainsaw and we’ll burn the branches as he nips ’em off so we can see the lake better. There may be beverages involved. After the chainsawing, of course.

    My wife is the High Empress of “I haven’t done anything all day” despite the fact that she does more on any one day than I do most weeks. So I ask her to write down what she did each day. It’s usually longer than my entire “honey-do” list, and she thinks I’m being productive.

    Write it down. Journal throughout your day. Make a chart, if you like visuals: chart what you planned and what you accomplished. Maybe you do need to step up your effort. More likely you’ll see yourself crushing those goals and considering raising the bar.

    1. Joel–Snow! That has become a four-letter word for me, for sure. But I’d sign on for a lake view….so relaxing.

      Beverages and yard work go hand in hand. :) In fact, that may have been a large part of my motivation for doing the yard work in the first place.

      I like your idea of writing down all the stuff that I’ve done. And I like tracking what I’m doing and where I’m goofing off during my day. Because goofing off *is* happening.

      1. I track the goofing off. I’ve even built it into my writing routine. Part of the ritual of getting started is the 20 minutes I schedule for noodling on Facebook and staring out the window. I know I’m going to do it, but this way, instead of feeling badly about it, I’m right on top of things.

  11. Hi Elizabeth – I need to find a garden sometime .. it’s on the list. However – yes I used to get stuck in and not let up – til the evening then collops (literally!) .. now there are jobs I need to get done and I’m slowly ticking them off and one of those is get through the A-Z and do a fair job with it … and not think forward for now! Do some things that need doing in preparation for next week ..

    Cheers – but you’re right … keeping at it slowly but surely .. good luck with that vine-weed .. Hilary

  12. I work off lists. As long as I can complete one thing a day, then by year end, taking Sunday off, I’ll have completed over 300 tasks.

  13. This is one of the reasons I started just blogging my daily progress. I hate to even call it “progress” since I’m not even really working toward a concrete goal. (Other than “work down this pile of unfinished manuscripts and ideas.”)

    Being focused on “here and now” really does make a difference in everything.

  14. Elizabeth–
    I am always late to the party, sorry. But I do see the connection you’ve made between gardening-yard work and writing. As for the gardening part, I solve that problem by serving as my wife’s flunky. Pointing: “Please dig that up, dig and hole right here, and put it in.” Pointing: “See all this ground cover? It’s got to go.” I get to it. Make no mistake, though. Barbara is the gardener and does most of the work. I’m just the muscle for grunt jobs.

    1. Barry–That’s what my husband says…ha! He’s the muscle. The sad thing is that I barely know what I’m doing, myself. And now we have a 17 year old boy with a strong back, so my husband is off the hook until my son goes off to college. :)

  15. Excellent advice. Years ago, Dale Carnegie advised working in “day-tight” compartments as a way to finish overwhelming tasks, beat depression and enjoy life. Day goals completed and rewarded DAILY add up as do pages in our books if we just focus on today and do the best we can.

    1. That point, in “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” played a role in saving my life. I was spinning out of control emotionally, and reading the ‘day-tight’ concept helped me put things in perspective.

      It has also contributed to my productivity and happiness as a writer. Thanks for the reminder, Mahrie.

        1. His “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is, despite the dated title, still relevant after 70 years. Anyone who does marketing should read this and “How to Stop Worrying” both once a year.

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