Do You Spend Your Time Mindfully?

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Writing 0 Comments

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So…. how did a Week Without Technology go? For me, not surprisingly, it was a lot harder when I couldn’t get away from it. In previous situations where I’ve gone without tech, it’s been because I didn’t have internet access. It was wonderfully liberating, but I also didn’t have the itch to scratch, because it just wasn’t available. This week, I’ve had to use the computer for work quite a lot, and being on it makes it tempting to “just check” email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or some other site. Need more organic seaweed-based body wash from Ireland? Let me see if Amazon has it… No! Must wait! Aargh. I did find it interesting to track where, when, and how I usually use tech.

Normally the first thing I grab in the morning is my phone, because it has my alarm clock. Then, I use my meditation app on the phone to listen to and time my meditation. Some days this week, I used the GPS on my phone to get from here to there. This week coincided with a webinar I had already signed up for - 1.5 hours per day. I also had a conference proposal to submit, also online. Was I perfect outside of that? Nope. I managed to stay away from social media, but couldn’t resist email. I found that checking email (non-work related) can eat up an hour of my day, and combine that with “just one round” of a game and it could go longer. So, I started to set a timer. I think I’ll do that every time I hop on the internet from now on - preferably one that ticks, so I can hear my life ticking away, and decide if that’s how I want to spend it. Technology isn’t bad. It’s just that it can be addictive, and like any addict, it’s easy to tell ourselves “Just one more…” Just one more game. Just one more email. Just let me check this site. As any addict in recovery knows, the first step is to admit you have a problem. The difficulty with tech addiction is that it’s almost impossible to stay away from it since it’s so entwined in our daily lives. So, mindful usage is the key.

What was I able to do with time I had when I tore myself away from tech? Well, mostly graded papers (ahem). But I also:

  • Baked apple-cinnamon muffins
  • Baked brownies
  • Read books
  • Took a long walk in a new area I hadn’t explored
  • Sorted through papers, clothes, books, from my mom’s move
  • Decorated my house for Halloween/fall
  • Writing!

Maybe I would have done this stuff (or some of it) anyway. But I was consciously staying away from the usual tech temptations, and I found that I had more time than I’d been aware of. I could think about what I wanted to do, rather than feeling hounded by what I needed to do. I felt happier, more productive, and more engaged with the world around me. What this showed me is that I have more control over my time than I think do. We all face busyness, overwhelm, and distraction.

Here are some tips that will help you keep more focused and mindful, especially when writing:

Use site blockers diligently when you know you have creative work to do. Set them so they’re still going first thing in the morning, or whenever you normally schedule your writing time. That way, you won’t have the option of going off on fruitless surfing expeditions. If you need to do research, mark it on the page and keep going. Plan a specific time to do research later on.

Resist the urge to check your phone every time you have a “down minute.” Look around you. Engage with someone. Notice the sensory details of what’s going on. Daydream. If you’re a writer, these are all essential actions that feed your writing. Free your mind from the constant distraction game. Put your phone in another room while you are working. Lock it in your car and park it several blocks away if that’s what it takes. Exercise is good for you.

Also, recognize that we enjoy a lot of what we do online - so don’t deprive yourself, or scold yourself for doing it. Just plan a time to do it mindfully. Decide when and for how much time you’ll be online, checking email, social media, etc. Set a timer, and adhere to that time. The Pomodoro Technique (which I’ve written about here before) helps with setting boundaries for play as well as work. It’s your life - how will you spend it?

Try This: A Week Without Technology

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Try This, Writing 0 Comments

In Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, she asks people to refrain from reading for one week. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, and I find most people who come to that task of that chapter don’t try very hard, or at all, to do it.

However, reading this article in The Guardian: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” made me think again about the power of technology and social media in our lives, and how ubiquitous – and addictive – it is.

When Julia Cameron originally wrote The Artist’s Way, the internet as we know it didn’t exist. Social media didn’t exist. Smartphones (cell phones) didn’t exist. Sure, there were computer and video games, but they didn’t exist in the amount or quality they do now. In other words, we operated in a world of fewer distractions based on instant gratification and ultra-connectivity. Plenty of people have written about the Age of Distraction and what it might be doing to our brains, our intelligence, and our creativity (I wrote about it back in July) but I imagine most of us nod, sigh, and click to the next thing. What are you gonna do?

Well, in the spirit of Julia, I’m going to propose A Week Without Technology. Well, within some guidelines: you can use a computer if you need it to work a paid job, and you only use it for the designated tasks of that job. You can use a cell phone if you don’t have a landline, or if you only use it for a specific call/text connection (i.e. to set up a time to meet someone). That’s it. If you’re a writer, write longhand, using pen and paper. (Yep, even if you’re editing. Just try it.) No social media, no email not directly related to your paid employment, no web surfing or blog-checking, no video games (not even computer solitaire). If you read, try making it an actual printed book. Do whatever you have to do to make it happen, using whatever blocking apps you need to. If you can shut your home computer down and put it out of sight, do so. Same with your cell phone, your IPad, or other devices that lure you into the endless time-wasting, addictive labyrinth.

Journal about how you feel. Is it difficult? In what ways, specifically? What are you doing instead? Do you suddenly have more time on your hands? Do you have more energy? More anxiety, or less? How do you feel, physically and mentally? Most importantly, did you spend more time on your writing, or other creative pursuits?

Remember this isn’t a punishment, it’s an experiment: how addicted are you? How many hours do you typically spend on devices? It’s only a week: can you get through it? What changes might you decide to make in your life? Join me, Monday Oct. 9 through Sunday Oct. 15. I’ll write my notes in my journal, and post them here when we’re done. I’ve done this before, but only in places where I didn’t have internet access or cell service. When I got back home, I always jumped right back into my old habits. This time I want to be more mindful of technology’s impact on my everyday life – especially my creative life. If you want to join me, let me know in the comments or at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com!

Writing From the Heart

janav Creativity, Writing 0 Comments

First of all, apologies for the long hiatus – I was moving my mother, and that meant also having to clean out all of her stuff and sort it into donations, storage, sell, or move. I’m pretty ruthless and unsentimental about “stuff,” my own or anyone else’s, which is a good thing since it all had to be cleared within the month. Add this to the start of the semester with classes, events, etc. and September was a very full month indeed. There is still a lot to be done – it looks like a moving truck exploded in my house right now – but mom is settled in her new place and we’re slowly taking care of all the other hundred details.

To be honest, writing hasn’t been on my top list of priorities this month either. I’ve managed to do a little by spending 15-30 minutes per day on it, just to keep my head in the story. It’s yet another rewrite of a book I thought was done. I like the new angle, but we’ll see if it is really better than the old one.

As I’m engaged in this rewrite, I found this article by my friend and mentor, David Elliott*. He is definitely a writer who writes from the heart (as well as the funny bone) and I love and admire his work. He is a children’s book writer who thinks of the children first, not the adults who give awards or review books, and yet his books have won awards and garnered much critical praise. I wanted to link it here since what he says is so important. Especially when we’re just starting out, we can be tempted to write “to the market.” What’s hot? What’s trending? What do agents and editors want, anyway? On the one hand, marketplace considerations are real. On the other hand, we have to write the stories we feel passionately about telling. We have to find the story that doesn’t let us go, that speaks to us (and hopefully our readers) in an irresistible siren’s voice. I love that kid in the article who knows to ask the important question, who isn’t afraid to ask, even when he doesn’t get a satisfactory response. Like David, I hope that kid grows up and never loses that curiosity or sense of what’s really important. And we should all ask ourselves, when we’re working on a project, Am I writing from the heart? And be open to hear the answer, and to letting those stories that come from the heart flow through us onto the page.

*For more about David and his books, check out: https://www.davidelliottbooks.com/

You’ve Got to Move It, Move It

janav Creativity, Writing 0 Comments

I spent last weekend at the Barrowman Writing workshop, which was a ton of fun and different from other workshops I’ve attended. I wanted to do something fun, to step away from post-MFA seriousness and agent/editor pitch workshops where I get ten conflicting opinions on my work and a lot of “I really like it, but…” (I’m not going to take it). That is a part of being a writer, but this weekend reminded me that taking writing seriously doesn’t have to be a slog of: draft, edit, submission, rejection, repeat.

About all I did know of it was that it probably would be fun, with John and Carole Barrowman involved. The workshop was small – only 16 of us – so I felt very fortunate to end up with a group of people who were both fun to hang out with, and good writers (and yes, I realize I’m using the word fun a lot here – where’s my thesaurus? – but hey, sometimes the description fits, so let’s wear it).

As hard as we worked on our writing (and Carole had a ton of energy, and many challenging and yes, fun exercises for us), the intensive workshop sessions were interspersed with John doing more theater-game exercises (and if anyone has seen John on a panel or in an interview, yes, they were as silly and crazy as you’d expect). They enabled us to rev up our energy before and between sessions, and just take ourselves a little less seriously.*

They also reminded me how necessary it is to integrate intense mental activity with movement. When we’re writing, it’s easy to get caught up in our heads. At some conferences I’ve been to, where craft sessions and panels and keynotes follow each other bam bam bam with hardly a break in between, I’ve ended up exhausted at the end of the day, brain overflowing, and hardly able to integrate all I’ve learned (or even remember what sessions I attended).

Making time to be silly and move around allowed me to refocus. Just when I was feeling tired and tapped out, we’d do something completely different. Most writers I know are serious about their writing. The mantra is: Butt in chair. Write every day. Do the work. And yes, if you’re going to improve as a writer, if you’re going to have a body of work, you need to sit down and write on a regular basis. But we also need to remember to have fun, and that simply moving the body can work miracles on inspiration and motivation.

While I’m not likely run run around shouting “3 knees!” (You need at least two people) or “4 Shoulders!” (ditto), or my favorite from John – no, probably a little too naughty for a blog… I will remember that creativity is a whole-body concept, and that it’s healthier for mind and body to work in some movement and play between writing sessions.

Take a walk, dance around the living room, take a bike ride or shoot some hoops – or do the hokey pokey, if that’s what you’re all about. It clears the cobwebs, gives you energy, and when you come back to your desk, that scene or line that seemed to be so hopelessly stuck might just wiggle loose. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to write for the fame and wealth. We don’t have to wait for an Artist Date to let our inner creative child play. We might as well have fun, or why do it at all?

*We also spent time drinking, and swimming, and dancing, and eating. So yes, fun, in between panicked bouts of omg what am I going to read aloud in front of people on Sunday?

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’ve Lost Motivation

janav Productivity, Resources, Try This, Writing 0 Comments

When you feel unmotivated to work on a project, are procrastinating endlessly, and just can’t seem to get unstuck, it may be time to pause and reflect on what’s really blocking you, and to reconnect with feelings of possibility and accomplishment.

Try this: Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Allow your mind to slow down, and your body to relax.

Bring to mind a current project where you are feeling unmotivated or stuck. Keep breathing. Without judging, note how you’re feeling, emotionally and physically in your body. Then ask yourself the following questions, allowing yourself space to breathe and really feel the answers as they arise, in your mind and body:

What is my greatest hope or aspiration for this project?
Why is this project important to me?
How do I want to show up in relationship to this project?
What emotions or situations might be getting in the way of me fully engaging with this project?
If I were working on this project regularly, what would that feel like?
If this project was completed, what would that feel like?
How can I use these feelings as a source of motivation for me to engage with this project?
What is my intention toward this project going forward?

And, if it feels comfortable for you:

What can I commit to doing toward my project? (Can I commit 15 minutes to working on it today?)

Breathe in deeply. Set your intention in your mind. Allow yourself to experience whatever emotions or physical sensations that come up for you.

Open your eyes. How do you feel toward your project now? If you’d like to journal about anything that came up for you in this exercise, to explore it further, go ahead and do so.

If you feel motivated to get to work, feel free to do that too! You may choose to do this as a meditation daily, before sitting down to write. It can calm your mind and focus your intention, reconnecting your with your current project and why it is important to you.

Friday Favorites: Hitting the Third Rail

janav Friday Favorites, Resources, Writing 0 Comments

I haven’t done a Friday Favorites post in a while, because I haven’t been reading that many books on craft. My view is that craft books are useful, in small doses. Sometimes they are good for inspiration, and sometimes they are good to help with a specific issue you are having in your work. It’s important not to get so heavily invested in reading about writing that you fail to actually do the writing.

I’ve had a couple of books kicking around for a while, and at the urging of some friends who have read them I decided to pull them off the “to be read” shelf and read them.

One is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. The other is Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

Story Genius is a method book: in other words, it asks you to follow a specific set of guidelines, based on principles developed by the author, that promises to help you crack the nut of writing a great book that people will want to read. The premise is that we are all “wired for story” (the title of another book on writing, by the way) and that we can tap into certain techniques that will get a reader’s brain to experience what the protagonist experiences – to not only care about the protagonist, but to go on their own journey through the protagonist’s story. The Emotional Craft of Fiction also focuses on this idea of creating emotions in a reader’s mind that keep them engaged in the story.

I believe these books are a response to the popularity in recent years of books and courses on “structure,” which can be valuable as a way to make sense of the messiness of the novel writing process, but didn’t focus much on character development. And of course, any story that truly engages us as readers does so because of the characters, not the plot. We remember what we felt, and what we learned, not the specifics of what happened when.

Lisa Cron writes often of the protagonist’s emotional arc being the “third rail” that every aspect of the story must touch in order to resonate with readers. Her method calls for a lot of delving into the protagonist’s past, creating backstory and excavating what the source of the protagonist’s misbelief is that fuels the current story. The goal is to arrive at the beginning of your story with a fully fleshed-out protagonist, and have that background inform every decision and reaction the protagonist has during the course of the story. Her method is to write Scene Cards for every scene, making sure you not only know what happens but why it happens, and how it affects the protagonist going forward. This might seem like anathema to so-called “pantsers” – those who prefer to write their way through a story and let the characters find themselves – but it is really a middle ground between that and attempting to outline every detail of what happens in the book, which can wind up with a disconnected protagonist, and other characters, who act only as puppets in service of the plot. She takes us through the development of a story by one of her clients, Jennie, and so we are able to see how one author used the tools to develop her story.

I’m currently working my way through her method, and I have to say, I am finding it a useful tool for deepening my characters, and making sure the emotional arc of the story isn’t overwhelmed by the external, plot-driven arc. I’m taking my time, excavating who my people are, and who they were before the story started, and finding the story much richer and more interesting as a result.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is a different type of book. It doesn’t present one particular method, but instead introduces a number of ways in which emotion can be present on the page – how it affects character development, the emotional plot, the reader’s experience, and even how the writer’s experience affects the writing itself. Each section gives examples from published novels of all kinds, to see how each principle can be effective in practice. He also gives numerous exercises to use with your own work in progress, to deepen the emotional impact. And this is what makes this book better for more advanced writers: it assumes that you are of intermediate or advanced level, that you have mastered plot and structure, point of view, and all the other basics. It also assumes that you have a work in progress so you can explore these ideas on the page. His aim is make good writers great, rather than tell beginners how to create a character.

That’s why I put these books together in a Friday Favorites post. One helps you get your story started, by focusing on the background of your protagonist and how it informs how the character views and reacts to the events of the story; the other helps you deepen the emotions on the page, to create the most compelling scenes and experience for the reader. Depending where you are in your work, you may want to read Cron’s book first, and then read Maass’ to see where you can dig deeper. Maass’ book can also be good for character-building exercises, if you are interested in trying out new techniques without being tied to a specific story.

Have any of you read these books? Utilized them in your own writing? If so, what has been your experience with them? Let us know in the comments!

Plan Your Summer Writing Retreat

janav Creativity, Try This, Writing 0 Comments

Summer can be an ideal time to plan a writing retreat. For many of us, it’s a slower time, and a time when we can make a little space to focus on our writing or other creative projects. You can plan a half day, full day, weekend, or longer if possible. You can do it solo, or with a friend (or several). You can even do it virtually, with regular email or Skype check-ins. Last summer I wrote a post on this that I will re-post here since I think it’s still a good reminder, and since we’re on the cusp of August, there is still plenty of time to plan a retreat for this summer. It doesn’t matter whether you are freewriting, exploring craft issues through exercises, or completing a project. Take this time for yourself, and your creative soul, and plan a retreat today!

(And if anyone would like to know more about an actual writing retreat in Vermont, email me at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com for details).

(from 8/24/16) I just returned from a fabulous weekend in Vermont, where I actually managed to get some writing done, despite the lure of friends, gorgeous hikes, great food, and lots of shopping (for birthdays and Christmas – and some goodies for myself, of course!).

The weekend was partially intended as a writing retreat, but it was somewhat ad hoc except for Saturday morning, where we had a more formal writing session using prompts, and gathered to read our work aloud or just talk about the process afterward.

I love doing mini writing retreats. If you don’t have the time or money to take yourself off to someplace more formal, designing your own retreat can be a great way to immerse yourself in your work, and can be tremendously productive.

You can do it on your own, or you can get together with friends. The advantages of a solo retreat are uninterrupted time and the ability to set your own schedule. The downside, of course, is that no one is there to stop you from turning on the tv, say, or jumping on Facebook. With friends, you have feedback and camaraderie, but if you have different ideas about what constitutes a good retreat, it can be more stressful than helpful. One way to combine both is to get a friend to decide to retreat with you, but in her separate space (if you don’t live close enough to meet up). Then, check in at the beginning, perhaps in the middle, definitely at the end.

You can do a retreat for as little as half a day, or a weekend, or a week (or longer). What makes it a retreat as opposed to just a regular writing session?

1. It’s pre-arranged, sacred time, with a beginning and an end.
2. It’s great if you can get away from your usual writing space, so you’re not sucked into the everyday “stuff” at home.
3. It’s best if you don’t have access to the internet.
4. You go in with an idea of a specific project to work on (but are open to serendipity if you’re inspired by your surroundings).

You can arrange it however you like, but there are some practices I’ve found especially useful. Starting and ending with a ritual is a good idea, to formally commence and close your retreat experience. For me, this often involves candles, meditation, and bringing focused attention to my intention to make the most of this writing time.

I also do timed writing periods, with rest breaks in between. A simplified version of the Pomodoro Technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/ ) is a good way to start. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Write. Take a 5 minute break. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (10 or 20 minutes). If I’m dithering about what, exactly, I want to accomplish, just setting the timer and starting to write – anything at all – helps break through any resistance. Sometimes just getting started is key.

It’s also important to have lots of water, and good, healthy food on hand, ready to go. Other retreat activities might be taking a long walk, or doing some visual art (coloring, collage, abstract painting) to stimulate your creativity but get away from words for a while.

It goes without saying (I hope) that checking your phone is forbidden, unless you absolutely must check in case a family emergency has come up. Just remember that once the phone is in your hand, it’s easy to check email, Twitter, etc. etc. and soon get out of retreat mode.

That’s it, in its simplified version. Depending on how long you have, and what your goals are, you can make it more complex, or less. You can even give yourself a treat at the end, whether it’s an ice cream, a massage, or a trip to a bookstore or library to get a good book.

I can already hear some of you saying, “That sounds nice, but I could never take that much time for myself.” Really? Or is it that you have to claim that time for yourself, as an artist? No one will give it to you. No one will give you permission. You have to give it to yourself. You have to believe that you deserve it. Whether you’re single or not, have a family or not, there will always be people who pull at your attention, and other things that seem crucial to do before you can sit down to write. It’s up to you to claim your writing time, and to take yourself seriously as a writer. Retreats are special occasions, to go deep and savor the time to focus on your project. Start with a short one – a half day, perhaps – and see how it feels.

Have you done a writing retreat? Do you do them regularly? Let us know about any tips or ideas you have!

Life Happens: Keeping Your Creative Spark in a World of Distraction

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Writing 0 Comments

Last time, I talked about the dangers of distraction, and how being constantly busy and distracted can actually alter our brain function. It is good to be aware of the distractions in our lives, and the ways we can unintentionally sabotage our ability to work deeply.

But what can we do about inevitable distractions that life hands us? Like it or not, most of us can’t opt out of our families, jobs, and other commitments (although we can think about limiting those other commitments, learning to say No in order to protect our time to create). Retreats and residencies are an option for a few, but they are temporary time-outs. Unless, like May Sarton, we embrace a life of solitude, and have the wherewithal to make it so, we live in the messy reality of the present, where our schedules are often dictated by external necessity, and plans can be upset in an instant.

Often this is one of the biggest challenges to our plans: life happens. We set a schedule, decide what we want to do – and something comes up. Illness in the family, a child’s emergency, unexpected visits from out-of-town friends, a last-minute work project…. This topic is on my mind a lot since my schedule is often unpredictable due to caretaking my elderly mother: How to keep moving forward when my mind, and my attention, are often pulled in a very different direction from my creativity? When I’m at her place, my schedule is based on hers, and my attention is frequently diverted by the tv, which is quite loud owing to her hearing loss. So, I have to modify my schedule, and be flexible. My 15 minute rule comes in handy here – if you have 15 minutes, you can do something. It’s not ideal, but life rarely hands us the ideal conditions to create. If we tell ourselves, “I can only write with my lucky pen/ if I have at least an hour/am listening to this particular piece of music (or whatever),” you will miss many opportunities to do the work.

There are times, of course, when we need to go deep, and we need time and space and attention to do that. But in those moments in between, we have opportunity. There are times when we have to “experience the distraction and do it anyway.” We have to create, not just in spite of distraction, but to find a way to use it. Some people like listening to music while working because they feel that the sound takes over the top layer of their attention, letting them go deeper. Other people feel they must have absolute silence or they can’t focus.

I’m not here to tell you which is better – we’re all different – but learning to write despite the inevitable distractions (or around them) is a necessary skill if you’re going to get the work done. We can’t be too precious about it, if it becomes just another excuse not to do the work. If it becomes about making excuses, avoiding the work because of resistance, that doesn’t serve us. It can be tough, but keeping the writing going, even in the margins, keeps us engaged in the work, and in our creative lives. Keeping that connection alive, in any way you can, is crucial. If not, it’s easy to spiral into doubt and negativity (Will I ever write again? Maybe I should just give up. It’s not that good anyway…). Living a creative life is not easy, but it’s up to us to persevere, to keep going in whatever way we can. It’s a practice of self-care: we’re better, happier people for indulging in our creative pursuits. So make a commitment to yourself: what is the minimum you can do no matter what?

Are You Damaging Your Ability to Be Creative?

janav Creativity, Writing 0 Comments

The fact that many people in this culture are insanely busy and distracted is not news to anyone. According to this article I recently read, the constant attachment to smartphones and our need to feel productive by doing something at all times leads to a lowered ability for focused, deep-thinking work. It also means less time simply spent daydreaming and ruminating, activities which are central to our ability to be creative in all aspects of our lives.

Think about it: how comfortable are you these days with just sitting there, letting thoughts flow? How likely are you to check your phone at any moment you aren’t occupied with something else? How often do you do a routine activity such as the dishes, or walking, without also listening to music, a podcast, or the tv? Even when you sit down to write, or do other creative work, do you get antsy if you don’t immediately plunge in? If you run out of ideas and have to sit for a few minutes, do you allow yourself that time, or do you jump up and do something (go get a snack, check Facebook, decide the rug is filthy and needs vacuuming NOW)?

I know this happens because I do all these things myself (well, not the vacuuming… although when I hit a blank space on the page or in my mind, even that can seem more appealing). We’ve become wired to think multi-tasking is the best way to spend our time and assure our productivity. We’re addicted to smartphones and social media. If you’re like me, you use SelfControl or another app to block sites you normally turn to every time the muse lags for more than three seconds.

The problem is, our distracted minds are becoming so commonplace that it’s actually rewiring our brains. That’s scary. So if we want to do our best creative work, what can we do?

Meditate – this one makes the top of the list because, duh. The best way to train your monkey mind to be still is to sit and breathe, focusing on the breath, for a specific length of time. Or chant, if that’s your thing. You can start small – try 5 minutes – and build up from there. Just be aware of the experience, without judgment. Your mind wandered? Oh well, just bring it back to the breath. Off it goes again, like a toddler that’s just learned to walk – bring it back again, gently. There are many traditions and teachings to choose from. I use the Insight Meditation Timer, which not only has a general timer so you can choose exactly how long you want to meditate, but has thousands of guided meditations, from teachers across the spectrum of practices.

Yoga – sometimes called “meditation in motion,” this is a practice of becoming full aware of your body and mind while moving into different poses. Tai Chi has a similar meditative, slowing-down quality that helps reconnect your mind, body and spirit to each other.

Walk – a simple walk, without headphones (or your phone) can allow your mind to wander. Running or swimming laps can also do this for some people. There’s no agenda except for the number of laps (or the time/distance you’ve set for yourself) so you can just be in the moment.

Use the Pomodoro Method – In the Pomodoro Method, you set a timer for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, then repeat, as long as it takes to do whatever task you’ve set for yourself. If you think of something else to do while the timer is running, you make a note of it to do later (on your break or during another “pomodoro”) and keep doing the task at hand.

Use website blockers – SelfControl is my favorite because you plug in the sites you want to block, and the amount of time you want to block them for, and once it’s set you can’t stop it until the time you’ve set is up, even if you reboot your computer. There are other options for PCs and Macs, so you may need to experiment with the one that is right for you.

Practice doing one thing at a time – when doing dishes, just do dishes. When driving, just drive. And so on. This is very simple but can be really hard. Once our brains are used to constant input, the lack can be disorienting. If you’re not used to being alone with your thoughts, boredom and restlessness can set in quickly. Resist!

Play – Do something that allows you to get into a flow state, like coloring, painting, shooting baskets, or some other absorbing activity. There doesn’t have to be a point to it – that is the point. Journaling can fall into this category if you’re just freewriting, not taking your hand from the page.

Do nothing – That’s right. Nothing. Sit in a chair on the porch and stare at your yard. Take a bath. Sit on a park bench and watch the world go by. Sit in a cafe with a cup of tea. Sitting by a body of water – ocean, lake, stream – can be a powerful way of reconnecting with yourself through doing nothing. As with meditation, you may have to work your way up to allowing yourself this “nothing” time. If you have a houseful of people, you may need to get out of the house to allow this to happen. Do what you have to do.

But, you say, I already can barely squeeze my creative time in as it is! How do I have time for one more thing, even nothing? Take 10 minutes, when you can. Get into the habit of these practices, and watch your time, energy, and creativity open up.

Your Summer Plan

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Writing 0 Comments

Many people count Memorial Day the official start of summer; others follow the meteorological calendar (or Summer Solstice) or start of the school summer vacation. It depends on your lifestyle. For me it never really feels like summer until after the MFA residency ends, which this year is July 1.

However you count it, this time of year signals a change of routine for many people. For some, it means more free time, for vacation or flex schedules. For others, it’s busier because kids are around more, or other things take precedence. At any change of season, it can be helpful to be proactive in figuring out what your creative schedule will be. It’s fine to have a change of routine (in fact, it can help us get out of a rut). However, if we don’t have a plan to manage the transition, it can also be easy to let creative work slide.

If you take a vacation from writing, or whatever creative pursuit, that doesn’t have to mean disaster. It can be good to take a break, explore new places or new pursuits, get new perspective on our life and art. On the other hand, if we let it go completely, it may be difficult to get back into it later (inertia is always a challenge to overcome, and like any muscle that gets flabby with underuse, our creative muscles can also turn to mush if left unworked too long).

The key is to make a conscious choice, and stick with it. Take a look at your life right now, and take stock. Do you have more time to write, or less? Has your schedule changed in some way? For me, it’s easier to get up early since the sun rises so much earlier. Getting up to write and work out early is not the chore it is during the darker months. I’m not teaching as much, so I have more time for coaching and writing. The weather is (usually) nice so I can spend more time outside (although that takes me away from my desk, I often get ideas from taking long walks).

In addition to an ever-growing pile of fiction, I’m reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Donald Maas’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. With their techniques in mind, I’m reworking a story that has been languishing for a while. I don’t think I’ll get through a complete rewrite by Labor Day, but the idea is to build momentum that will take me through the next seasonal change.

What are your summer goals? Between, say, now and Labor Day? Are there specific books you want to read? A project you’d like to plan? A rough draft, or final draft to complete? A class you’d like to take? A conference or retreat to attend (or a self-designed retreat you’d like to plan and execute)? Do you need to take a look at your current schedule and see when you will do your creative work?