The Right Attitude for Getting Things Done

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I’ve had this topic on my mind for some time now. Ever since February I’ve been thinking about writing this post but then something else has come up and I’ve concluded that I don’t have enough time or energy to put down the thoughts on how to get things done.

(Loving the irony here.)

This week, however, I find the timing to be right for this post. After all, I’ve just managed to write the remaining 37 pages to my thesis in just four days and finished the whole thing (at least when it comes to content), reaching a deadline I was almost certain I would miss.

Therefore, I thought I could share with you today how I manage to do things that even I have trouble believing to be able to manage.

The Great Final

Of course, I did not write all those 37 pages just for fun or because I thought I had the time to do it. I put down all that effort because the great final is finally approaching: the deadline of my Thesis.

In March, I was still doing pretty well with my academic work. I managed to do the interviews and transcribe them, just in time before I went on a trip to Tallinn which was followed by two weeks of election work squeezed into one. However, as a result of those two events, I was lagging behind in my thesis work. Seriously.

In order to make the deadline accessible again, i.e. to be able to write those pages and all those words, I decided to cancel Easter. Instead of relaxing at my parents’ summer cottage I stayed home the whole long weekend writing, eating and then writing some more. And finally, in the evening of Easter Monday I was ready to declare that I had written my thesis.

Don’t Go Easy On Yourself

The thing that made the progress possible was the fact that I decided I could do it. Getting things done and reaching those seemingly impossible goals is about finding the right attitude for it, the right kind of grit. But you certainly benefit from having some time management and organizational skills as well.

So, here are the four lessons I’ve learned while aiming to become an efficient person:

1. To-do lists

This one I’ve talked about before – but I will talk about it again because it is so important to know what you need to get done during that week of yours in order to be efficient.

The to-do list that I create every Monday morning enables me to see the program for the whole week: how much I’m planning on reading and writing; what social events I need to take into consideration and what time some certain yoga classes are being held. I can also put down the details on the specific project I want to get done: how much I need to do at certain days to reach a certain goal.

By creating a day-by-day plan for your goal of the week, you are able to prepare yourself for the amount of work that you need to do because you can already see it in front of you. The to-do list makes your work and the energy it requires more predictable – and that is exactly what you need.

For me, an activity called ’thesis work’ has been on my to-do list every day for the past few weeks. To accompany the regular to-do list, I have another to-do list dedicated for thesis work alone. That’s the list where I keep a log on how many words I’ve written and what I plan to do the next day.  For a project like this, I really need a second to-do list. And you might need one too, if your project’s big enough.

2. Prioritizing

When you’ve done the to-do list for the week, you need to decide upon what activities are the most important. Can the laundry wait for a few days in order to get your project done? Can you postpone the coffee meeting with your friend to the following week? Do you have to update Instagram three times a week this particular week or could you put those minutes into planning your project?

I, for instance, decided to prioritize writing my thesis over Easter and some family time.

If you find prioritizing challenging, you can try the Eisenhower Matrix that helps to realize what tasks are truly urgent and truly important, and what tasks are important but can be done at a later time.

By prioritizing your activities you are able to maximize your efficiency because you are giving the most urgent and important tasks the time and energy they require while letting the other things wait for another day or a whole other week.

3. Just get it done

After watching this short video by Art of Improvement about simply getting things done, I’ve really been able to become even more efficient.

One especially bad habit I used to have was to read the e-mails I got immediately but respond to them always a bit later than I should have – or could have. The same thing happened with phone calls. I always drew out the time and called people back hours later – although I was there, next to my phone, when they called.

I postponed simple activities for no proper reason, and at the same time I was wasting a lot of energy on thinking about them without doing anything to them. But then I decided on something: I decided to change my behavior and actually forced myself to answer or call back as soon as possible. Today, after months of practice, I’m pretty good at answering the phone immediately and returning e-mails as soon as possible.

And the best part of it is that I’ve become energized by my own efficiency (of doing very simple things) which has helped me get even more things done.

4. Don’t Go Easy On Yourself

This is perhaps the most important thing: if you have a project that you want to get done, keep your expectations on your performance high. Don’t put the bar low – instead, put it as high as you can.

You think you could write 20 pages this weekend? Aim for 25! Or maybe you think you have the energy to clean only half of your apartment on Friday? Decide to try to clean up the whole place and see what happens!

(Of course, this principle doesn’t work for every project but the wise man knows the exception to every rule.)

Put the bar a bit higher than the point you think you can reach, because the probability of you actually reaching that higher bar is very high. As Seth Godin says, by raising your expectations you raise your performance. And that, my friend, is how you get things done and surprise everyone around you (and yourself). That is how you write 37 pages of academic text and manage to meet your own deadline.

That is how you succeed.

 

Working With Flow

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A few days ago, me and my partner got into a conversation about flow. You know flow, right? That highly enjoyable feeling of being completely absorbed and focused on one activity and everything else disappears around you?

What triggered the conversation about flow was something as simple as meal times in our household. Both me and my partner prefer routines because they make life easier and simpler as doing the same things every day in the same way requires less energy and thought compared with irregular sleeping rhythm and unplanned meals. But when flow comes into the picture and starts bossing around, me and my partner are somewhat different.

We both experience flow more or less regularly, and for me, interrupting my flow state when lunch hour is coming closer is no problem. I can stop writing then and there, maybe finish off the sentence but then save the thing and put my laptop to sleep. For my partner, however, nothing else seems to matter when he deep-dives into his thought processes and writing.

From time to time, this leads to conflicts. Most often, it’s me asking him to interrupt his flow for the sake of lunch, dinner, bedtime or any other routine we have – and it isn’t always with a happy agreement he stops writing.

But how to deal with this kind of issue? Is it completely wrong of me to ask someone to interrupt his or her flow in order to do something quite mundane? Isn’t flow like something sacred, something to value and appreciate and, most of all, not interrupt when it decides to pay a visit?

Or how are we supposed to work with the flow?

Many Can’t Afford It

Many dream of it, many seek for it – the mysterious feeling where time disappears and magic is created. But there aren’t too many who can afford to wait around for flow or for the inspiration to strike in order to work on their craft. There are of course some, but may it be painting, writing, composing or crafting, most creatives rely on every-day routines to get their work done. They learn to work with flow or without it.

For instance, in The War of Art Pressfield writes about Somerset Maugham who told a curious someone, that ”I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” And Daily Rituals by Mason Currey showed that most creatives in this world have relied on routines to get their work done.

But all who have experienced flow know that it is so much more wonderful to produce words, music or works of art when one is completely absorbed by the moment rather than relying on the everyday habit of working. Creating that comes as a result of a habit can be extremely painful at times, even forced and awful – wouldn’t one opt for creating in the state of flow rather than according the constructed routine?

And therefore, when the flow embraces us, should we for once forget about everything else and let it take over completely? For once, create in the happy, magical state of concentration where the words flow like a river and every brush of paint is perfect?

Or should we treat flow with a cold hand and say, ”Hey, you’re not here most of the time. Just because you decided to visit me today doesn’t mean I’m throwing all my routines away to adjust to your wishes”? Because what if we don’t embrace it and, instead, let it go – will it come back?

Can we afford not to take advantage of flow?

The Cutest Puppy

As I wrote in the beginning of the post, most of the time I have no trouble interrupting my flow to follow my regular routine. When I become fully focused on creating worlds and stories, I can enjoy it while it lasts and then break free from it when needed.

What I’ve noticed is that although I break free from it, the flow state comes back when the circumstances are right. For me, that is usually the moment when I have a few hours of unplanned time in front of me, there’s nothing on my to-do list and I get to return writing an enjoyable story.

So, for me flow is like a muscle, something one can train and work on in order to become better at reaching that state. Therefore, I don’t see flow as anything sacred, anything too special that one needs to discard everything when it appears.

I’d even like to think of flow as a cute little puppy you take home with you. It’s adorable, you love it and embrace it and its funny ways – but if you don’t stay in control and teach the puppy to behave from day one, it will chew your cables and furniture when you aren’t paying attention.

The flow is something greater than good, something to strive towards and embrace when it comes to you, but at the same time it shouldn’t be greeted with overly open arms. For me, it feels important to stay in control of the flow, to be able to embrace it but also to push it away when needed, in order to not feel empty when it leaves you again. Because flow is fickle and you can never really be sure when it decides to pay you a visit. Therefore, maybe one should live as if there was no flow and be pleasantly surprised when it does visit one’s creative mind?

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What are your thoughts on flow and how to deal with it?

 

14 Hours Of More Clarity

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Thirty days ago, I decided to delete the app for Instagram from my phone and to log out from my Facebook account. For a month now, I haven’t really been up to date with my friends and family or with the newest writing updates or recipe revolutions posted on social media.

And you know what? I’ve been just fine.

The first few days were the oddest. My fingers automatically found their way to the place where the app for Instagram on my phone was. It was also extremely easy to start writing facebook.com on the address bar while surfing the Internet.

But as I was determined about creating a successful change and didn’t experience any abstinence from staying away from the platforms, in a few days, I was completely okay with dedicating my time for something else.

How I Spent My Hours

So, where did my time go? How did I spend those 14–28 hours I counted I would save by quitting scrolling on Instagram and Facebook?

I might have to disappoint you here because I can’t tell you what I did. I honestly don’t know, at least not hour-by-hour. But I can tell you what I think I spent it on:

  • Watching videos on Youtube. And I don’t mean funny animals or home videos –  I’m not an active cat-video person so I didn’t spend hours on watching cute animals fall off shelves or getting their faces caught in Kleenex-boxes. Instead, I spent time watching some interesting, though-provoking videos on self-development and when I was feeling a bit down because of the weather or life in general, I watched videos about van life and sailing (because those videos are most often very sunny and positive).
  • Reading books. I had more brain energy to focus on the content of several different works of fact and fiction. For instance, I finished What I Talk About When I Talk About Running which I reflected on in a blog post. I continued listening to Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and read the first 600 pages (and continuing) of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I also read and summarized a book about writing called Paper Hearts by Beth Ravis.
  • Thinking. It might sound odd but I actually found more time and especially energy for deeper thinking. As I wasn’t constantly getting distracted by some food photo or book recommendation I had seen or read about on social media, my thoughts were more focused on me and what I am surrounded with. Things I’ve been thinking about have been, for instance, what I want in life, what I think has meaning in my life and how I am as a person.
  • Getting things done. I hope to be able to talk about this more in another post, but as I didn’t have Instagram or Facebook to direct my procrastination needs to, I actually got many such things done that usually would have waited completing for hours: everything from cleaning the coffee maker (and I mean properly) to responding to e-mails directly as they drop into my inbox. Finishing these small things that I tend to leave hanging gave me a sense of achievement (just like making one’s bed in the morning can give).

Doing More By Doing Less

The thing with Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter among many other platforms is that they take your time in small, unnoticeable amounts: a few minutes here, ten minutes there. But put together, they result in a specific amount minutes and hours every day. Therefore, I can’t show you exactly how I spent those minutes I’d otherwise have spent on my phone because there wasn’t really anything I did that took only a few minutes from one moment and a few minutes from the other.

In a way, maybe one of the absolute benefits of staying away from active scrolling is this: I was able to put those small snippets of time together and instead, spend an hour or so doing some deeper work. Instead of spending a few minutes of time here and there on some random chores or a few book pages, I put all those snippets together and did something more efficient with those minutes that were turned into a whole hour.

For instance, I spent an hour reading about writing or listening to a book, or took twenty minutes to watch a lengthy video about how to keep an eye on your expenses and create a budget, and so on.

I was able to do more by doing less – if it makes sense?

What About Staying Updated?

But hey – if I’m not that much on the Internet, how do I keep up with the world when I’m not connected to it? How do I know what my friends and family are up to if I can’t check their updates on Facebook or Instagram? And what if I miss out on something important, like an interesting event or a revolutionary food recipe because I’m not on those platforms they are announced or published in?

After being AWOL for a month now, I have to say that I have been completely okay with not being connected or updated. I’ve felt peaceful despite the risk that I might have missed out on something. In a sense, I haven’t experienced any feelings of fear of missing out.

One of the drawbacks of social media is that it creates this need of constantly being present – we need to be there where everyone else is to not miss out on anything. But I have a question: did this same fear exist before we started hanging out on social media? If it did exist, how strong was that fear?

What makes me question this is that although I haven’t watched my sister’s Instagram Stories for a month now or I’m unaware of what my friends have been up to, I haven’t experienced that fear. And why I haven’t is because I know the fear is not real. I know for a fact I’m not worse off because I haven’t been following the news or my friends’ latest adventures. My life hasn’t become worse because of me being offline.

The fear many people experience from not being connected is almost completely made up from thin air. We create that fear ourselves by thinking that we miss out on something if we’re not actively online – although we aren’t.

Or, well, it depends, of course, what you define as something. If you want to be a part of different social media phenomena or want to know what videos have gone viral, then yes, you are missing out if you’re not active on social media. However, if you are afraid of missing out on friends and family updates or the daily news – your fear is probably artificially constructed.

You don’t need social media to know what your friends are doing because you can ask them. And it’s so much more fun to hear from themselves what they’ve been up to instead of not asking because you already know because you saw a short video or a photo of it.

What It Gives and Takes

The decision to ignore the fear of missing out on things and make that fear entirely non-existent comes from finding balance and peace within yourself. You need to be okay with not following the 24/7 news posted on Facebook or find peace with letting those Instagram Stories vanish into thin air without watching them. And the way to find the balance is to ask yourself:

1) What does knowing these things give you? And

2) What does knowing all that information take away from you?

For some people, being on social media actually gives them more than it takes. But for many, constantly updating and being updated is actually taking more time, energy and memory space compared with how much high-quality information one gains in return. If you are able to see the off-balance and acknowledge it, you won’t have a problem finding peace with yourself with not being active on social media.

This is, at least, how I’ve experienced the whole thing.

Final Thoughts

Keeping my mind free from all the information on social media has helped me focus on things. I’ve been putting my concentration to work: my projects are progressing, I’m thinking about more complex issues and have been generating new ideas and thoughts. It’s been relaxing to not stress about Instagram content or being updated with book recommendations, food recipes and writing advice.

Instead, I’ve been able to figure out what I want to know, what I want to read or see and when I want to do it. I’m more in control over my own resources (time, energy, brain power and memory space) when I’m not accidentally giving them to the social media platforms. The hours I have when I’m not scrolling are being invested into my hobbies,  into writing, self-development and spending more time with loved ones.

But what happens after a 30-day detox? What I can tell you is that I’ve made two decisions: 1) I’m not calling it a detox anymore, because 2) I’ll continue being absent from social media for an undetermined period of time.

Maybe there will be a time when I wish to get back in but for now – I’m staying offline.

The Benefits of Writing a Journal

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I’ve adopted a new habit: writing an almost daily journal. Almost, because I try to write it every day but Sundays tend to become the exception to the rule. However, I still call it a habit because it’s ingrained in my system: from Monday to Friday I wake up at 6 AM and after showering but before breakfast, I write my journal.

I keep my thoughts to two pages per day – I’m afraid that in the modern world the hand muscles aren’t what they used to be. But it’s a 30-minute exercise in concentration and a great way to start one’s day. Let me tell you why.

(But first, I’ll shed some light on my history as a journal writer)

An On/Off Habit

Ever since I was little, writing a journal has been some kind of on/off habit for me. I can’t remember why I began writing in the first place – I was probably inspired by some character in a book that kept a diary and I wanted to be like him/her. The first journals I’ve kept are from elementary school when I was in second grade. The cute, pastel yellow Winnie the Pooh notebook has lost many of its pages and is barely holding together. But the important things, the diary entries about my dance practices and who of my class mates I liked the most, are still there.

After that, I’ve written a journal of some sort through the years up until this day. I’d like to declare I have something from every year from my life written down, with a date and a few thoughts about life, but I’m not quite sure. Some years might be missing. But in that case, it’ll only be a few.

For this post, I perused my old journals. There are three different time periods when I’ve written actively, i.e. on a daily basis:

  • In 2010: I wrote three pages every day for six months or so. I have no idea where the idea came from – maybe I wanted to prove something to myself or be able to tell everyone I wrote every day. But I did, and held on to the habit for an impressive amount of time, considering I was a teenager filled with angst and confusion.
  • In the Fall of 2016: one to eight pages daily. This was the time I spent in Ireland. Writing about my exchange period kept me sane and also had the function of making the time there more memorable.
  • Now, in Fall 2018 (which I guess we can start calling Winter as we just got our first snow in Southern Finland and it’s less than four weeks until Christmas): two pages on a daily basis. It is an effort to try to document my thoughts and feelings, trying to dig deeper into what I know and feel, what I want and how I want it.

Analyzing my more sporadic journal entries from previous years, I seem to have picked up my pen and put black on white when I’ve been 1) overwhelmed by feelings, may that be love, hate, sadness or confusion; 2) feeling guilty about not exercising enough and only eating candy and chocolate, or 3) when I felt like I needed to get out all those thoughts about people, school work and life in general, and didn’t feel like telling about them to anyone else (or writing about them on my LiveJournal blog that has been gone for a long time).

Focus on Depth

Today, however, I have a different approach on writing a journal. Actually, I only recently realized that I haven’t actually been writing a journal all these years. I’ve been writing a diary – a book where I’ve recorded events as they happen and that have included feelings and moods. That I have done, for sure – all that foul language, teenage hate towards others and myself, crushes on cute guys… And a play-by-play descriptions about my plans and what I intend to do later that day or the next.

But now it feels like I have become a grown up – I’m writing a journal. A book where I record, not events or what other people say and do, but ideas and thoughts. I try to focus on depth instead of just telling what I did that day or how I felt. I’m actually digging deeper into those emotions, trying to concentrate on what’s on my mind and find out why it’s on my mind.

Writing for me has always been something I’ve had to force myself to do. It’s not a natural daily yearning for me to write down my thoughts and pick on them with a stick to find out what these thoughts really are about. Sometimes, I also find the process somewhat frustrating: it takes time to write by hand compared with writing on a computer which means the process is slow, while at the same time my thoughts are running around like the crazy dodos in Ice Age. It feels like I lose the track of thought before I’ve managed to write everything down.

(And let’s not forget about the hand – it does get tired which means the writing won’t be as pretty. A thing that tends to matter to me.)

But never have I regretted sitting down to write my daily two pages. Some days, I know exactly what I want to write about. Last week such clear thoughts were about self-care, thoughts on why I’m writing my thesis, and how I deal with anxiety that comes from school work. And on those days when I have no clue what I’m thinking about – I write about that and try to figure out why I don’t have anything to say.

During this new in-depth writing habit of mine, I’ve experienced some of the benefits of daily journal writing:

  • I realize new things about myself and my though processes that I might not have realized if I hadn’t written them down.
  • I take a moment to focus on what feels important in my mind at the moment: what thoughts are constantly there?
  • I listen to myself: how do I feel today? Am I anxious, motivated, tired, stressed or energized?
  • I improve my concentration by focusing on a single, manual task for thirty minutes or so. It helps me focus on projects at hand during the rest on the day.

Retrospective Reading

And one of the huge benefits of writing a diary or a journal, when regarded in the long run, is the retrospect one gets when reading old diaries and journals. As I’ve been reading those old entries, especially from 2009 onward, I’ve understood myself in a different way than I did before.

Of course, I remember many of the big things I wrote about (and forgotten many of those that felt so big at the time but that lost their meaning in a few weeks or months). But the events and the people aren’t that important – it’s more about how I wrote about them. I’ve realized how much built-in anger I had when I was a teenager, and how I had no way of letting it out. So I wrote these awful things in my diary, and yelled at everything and everyone on paper – instead of confronting them in person.

Reading old entries gave me a refreshed view of my younger self – what was I insecure about, what events and happenings did I consider being important enough to write about, and what did that mean, on a deeper level? My findings have been thought-provoking.

What I’ve thought about is this: what if I had never written a diary? What would I know about myself today, what kind of image would I have about my childhood and being a teenager? In his book Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari speaks about the experiencing self and the narrating self.

The experiencing self is the person experiencing the emotions, thoughts and feelings in the moment. The experiencing self is able to tell exactly how one feels, giving a realistic, although subjective, description of the current state of life.

The narrating self takes over when the experiencing self is taking a break – and builds up a narrative, a story, that tells how the situation was. The narrative self tends to bend the curves, put a filter on what the experiencing self just told and transform the memories into something else, something nice and less complex.

In one way or the other, the narrative self distorts the real experience and creates, in the long run, a not-so-truthful perception of oneself and the happenings that occurred.

This doesn’t help us understand why we have become the people we are today. What events formed us, who had a great effect on our thoughts and opinions? Here, the diaries and journals come to our help. They are the reality check we need every once in a while – how was the experience really, was it as good or as bad as I remembered? What did I think of this thing previously, has my thinking shifted?

Writing a daily journal helps to understand our own progress and who we are. This, however, requires patience and self-discipline: in order to have something to analyze, you need to take the time to write down those entries. But it pays off in the end, I’d say. What do you think? Is it worth your time?

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Why do you write a journal, if you do? Or what is keeping you from it? Can you relate to any of the benefits I mentioned in this blog post?

Using Shortcuts to Succeed

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Do you remember a game called Space Impact? It was an old-school spaceship war game one could play at least on Nokia 3310 if not on other cell phones as well. Another game I remember from Nokia phones, now the ones with a color screen, was Bounce where a red ball tries to get through a set of levels. Both games were highly addictive and I remember playing them over and over again, getting through the many levels and finally, finishing the last, most difficult level.

But what do these two games have in common except that they were both created by Nokia and could be played on Nokia phones?

They both had a magical four digit code that made you invincible.

The thing is, both games (but especially Bounce) required a good deal of practice from the player to get to the end of the game. Sometimes when I was feeling optimistic and motivated to complete the game with pure skill – but at other times I just wanted to play and focus on tactics instead of avoiding getting killed. When that feeling came over me, I decided to use the code that my friend had told me about.

(Fun fact: my grandmother still has a well-working Nokia 3310 with Space Impact on it so I can do a throwback to my childhood any time I want. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the code anymore so I’ll just have to get through the game with skill)

It was a great feeling – being invincible and able to complete the game without having to focus on not getting hurt or killed. That magical four-digit code was a shortcut to success, both in Space Impact and Bounce. But I also remember feeling that the winning at the end of the last level didn’t really feel like an honest, one-hundred percent win because I knew I had cheated. It wasn’t pure skill that got me through the game – the code did a good deal of the job.

Useful Shortcuts

There are many shortcuts in life that can be considered being extremely useful. For instance, finding the quickest route from home to the bus stop will help you save time in the mornings – give you a few minutes more to read the paper, drink your coffee, fix your hair and so on.

Another great shortcut is finding a lunch cafeteria with the best ratio between friendliness of the staff, quality of the food and length of the queue. This shortcut will save you time, energy and hopefully make your day better when you get to enjoy good food and nice service.

These shortcuts are pretty practical and make the daily life a bit easier. Even habits can be considered as shortcuts and they, if any, make the daily life more simple to digest. Shortcuts help us save time and energy on some things, and let us use that energy and saved minutes on the projects that require our time at the moment.

This kind of shortcuts are widely accepted, even recommended. Life is too short to walk the longer routes to the bus stop or deal with angry customer service. Instead, life is about doing what you enjoy, and if you can enjoy life a little bit more by choosing the shortest route to the gym or the restaurant with the best food – go for it.

But what about other shortcuts?

Creative Shortcuts

As I’ve become more and more interested in writing, photography and filmography, I’ve learned many rules or tips on how to create enchanting, well-functioning products.

For instance, in photography the two rules for composition are the golden spiral and the rule of third. They are widely used in photography and photos that use one of these rules tend to be perceived as good photos.

In filmography, one can find many rules that help to create visually pleasing content. Switching between three different frames (full shot, detail shot and something in-between), using the 180′ rule, the Hitchcock rule… All these things help the film become more interesting, pleasing to look at and enhance the storytelling.

And in the world of novels there’s the classic storyline, the hero’s journey. A simple storyline many films and novels follow that creates a familiar adventure, sweeping the viewer or reader into the story. Reading stories that follow the hero’s journey is almost always nice because it’s something we are used to – we know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know how and what all the consequences will be.

These creative shortcuts are effective and help create pleasing, easy-to-take-in kind of content. The way the products are formed feels familiar to us consumers and therefore we enjoy them. Similar shortcuts can be seen everywhere. For instance, in journalism and the newspaper world there are several rules/guidelines for creating headlines that trigger curiosity in the reader, or what are the best ways to structure the article so that the reader will read the whole news story instead of just the headline.

One might not think of them as shortcuts – they can be described as well-functioning patterns or as recipes with certain ingredients that guarantee your cake will rise in the oven. And getting to know these rules, these shortcuts, the recipes, help anyone to become a better creator.

But are this kind of shortcuts as accepted as the practical, life-simplifying shortcuts?

A Creator Using Shortcuts

Somehow it seems that almost everything today has some sort of hack, a magical four digit code that will function as a shortcut to success. Using the rule of third or golden spiral you can create intriguing photos; switching between three different frame sizes in a film keeps the tempo up and the viewer interested. A novel with a structure like hero’s journey will help one create a good structure and tempo that will make the book more pleasing to read.

To me it feels like everything is possible and you can create your own success – if you know the code. I realized this on a whole other level when I read an interview with the author Ottessa Moshfegh. Her successful novel Eileen was ”a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher.” She hacked the system, found out about the four digit code, and made her writer dreams come true.

The interview made me realize that anyone can write a novel. Anyone can write a best-selling novel, as long as they know the recipe. And as a writer hoping to become a published author…

I feel confused. I feel a little bit disappointed as well. Aren’t published authors supposed to be true fighters, true talents? Aren’t you supposed to feel lucky if a big publisher wants to take your book under their wing?

Apparently not – because here’s someone claiming that anyone can write a best-selling novel and has actually proof of it, her own work.

Honestly, after learning this I’ve had some trouble feeling encouraged. It feels like I’m out there, on the battlefield with all these other writers, hoping to get published. But suddenly there isn’t only 200 of us – there are 2,000 writers, all trying to claim that same space as I am. And the one with the best ingredients, the best ability to take in that recipe and follow it, will win.

It’s like authorship isn’t anything as glorious as it used to be. Like children who learn that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real – it feels like my belief in the glorious authorship has been broken.

Finding that Optimism

But the tone of this blog post is getting somewhat cheerless and depressing – so let’s get back to the intro of this blog post.

I wrote that winning Bounce or Space Impact with the help of the four-digit magical code didn’t make the victory feel like a real, honest win. It was more like thirty percent skill, seventy percent cheating. And I would like to think that the same sort of ratio goes for the creative content we produce. At least if we do it according to a certain type of shortcut/pattern/recipe.

The storyline in my first draft of Yellow Tails doesn’t consciously follow any tips, structures or recommended beats. I’m a pantser, planning as I go (although I’ve had the ending clear in my mind from the very beginning). I’ve felt the temptation to order books that give tips on good writing or help one structure the story in the best possible way, but for me it feels like I would be cheating. If I would start writing my book according to certain rules and guidelines, it wouldn’t be my story. Not entirely.

I might miss out on something for not taking in all the tips and guidelines. I might make it harder for myself to get my book published and actually making it. But for me, this feels like a road I’m supposed to take. The road where I do it the hard way and where I learn from my mistakes and, eventually, become the master of my own work.

Although, after saying all of this, I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with reading these guide books. I believe there’s a good deal of practical shortcuts that help one focus on the things that matter the most. But I don’t want to read them – not yet. Maybe I’ll pick one of the books up after reading the first draft for the first time after finishing it, if it feels like it. However, at the moment, I’m happy where I am. I’m satisfied with my own thoughts on how Yellow Tails should look like, at what pace it should go forward, how my hero’s journey will turn out and what the cover should look like.

What are your thoughts on (writing) guides and other helpful rules/shortcuts? What tips have you found useful or do you experience that the information makes you to create differently than you’d like to?

Still Life Sunday: An Optimized Route

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14 An Optimized Route

I stand on a crowded street, letting people, bikes and cars pass me by without really seeing them.

I am here to test something. A route. A passage that I have planned for days.

For days, even weeks, I’ve taken notice of how other people walk from one place to another. On which side of the road they opt to stay on, in what traffic lights to cross the street to the other side. Who of them step over to the lane meant for cyclists in order to walk faster and who stay on the pedestrian side.

All these things I’ve observed.

And what I’ve concluded from my many observations is that hundreds of people opt for a route that isn’t the fastest, most efficient one. No. Instead, they waste seconds that turn into minutes by choosing streets that are crowded and traffic lights that do not change color in the favor of pedestrians.

What a waste of time, I think. What a waste of energy! I would like to tell this to these wasteful people walking the streets.

I’ve spent most of my life optimizing my time. I am an optimizer (I ask you kindly not to confuse it with optimist, because that I am not). Therefore, I have planned and altered and optimized this route I’m about to take. I’ve put down so many thoughts, so many hours to be able to save as much time and energy as possible.

It is important, I tell people. I am optimizing my well-being.

Some think it’s unnecessary, pointless to put this much energy to plan something so little. It’s only a few minutes from your day, they say. Why make such a big deal out of it? Why not enjoy the fresh air, the commotion, the moment?

I tell them that instead of enjoying the moment on a crowded street with honking cars and sometimes angry but mostly passive-aggressive cyclists (you might notice the sarcasm here), I want to enhance my route, develop it into the best possible route from place A to place B. I want to be in control of my own time and resources, I say to them.

So here I am, in the beginning of the route I’ve thought out in advance. I am about to test the passage for the first time today.

It is Monday, the most stressed out day of the week. As I stand on the street, I can feel the stress in the air. The impatience, the sweat. I can almost smell it. So unnecessary, I think to myself, such a waste of resources.

But after taking only a few steps along my pre-planned route, I halt to remind myself of two things.

Reminder number one: My route may not be any better than the energy-draining route other people walk every single day. I might be just as wasteful of my resources as they are.

But my case is different: I am in control of my route.

Therefore, reminder number two: As long as I’m consciously thinking about my route and critically evaluating it, I will be taking many more steps forward compared to all these people who walk their routes in an auto pilot mode. I am developing while the others waste their time walking these streets.

I start taking steps again on my pre-planned route and I think: I’m already ahead of them.

 

Investing To Know Yourself

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It was Friday, the sun was setting and we had just finished the typical Ikea-meal: meatballs and mashed potatoes with brown sauce and lingonberry jam. We decided to check the outlet-corner (or the Corner of Findings as it’s called) before hitting the rest of the store, curious to see what they had there.

We have never actually found anything we wanted in the outlet, the furniture being either too expensive or unnecessary for us, but this time my partner spotted a grey armchair on the staff-side of the outlet, kept behind a red-white line that separated the customers from the staff space. We walked to the red-white line to take a closer look at the chair (both curious because we planned on getting armchairs for the new apartment instead of a sofa) when a staff member asked if we wanted to step over the line and try sitting in the chair. Yes, please!

We stepped over the line to the staff-only-space, and I got to test-sit the chair first.

Let me tell you – it was  the  p e r f e c t  chair.

It wasn’t too soft, it wasn’t too hard, it was just perfect (and yes, it was a total Goldilocks moment). And apparently I looked so comfortable sitting in that chair that the staff member reminded me friendly not to fall asleep there. He had a point – the chair felt so comfortable I could have taken a nap in it right then and there.

However, we left Ikea without the perfect armchair. Why? Because 1) the price was not exactly student-friendly, and 2) we aren’t staying in the next apartment too long which made me think it was unnecessary to invest in that kind of armchair for such a short amount of time. It wasn’t an easy decision because I really wanted the chair, but the facts spoke against buying it so we left the grey armchair to the outlet.

Yet, in the evening (after we had returned from the 2,5 hour-long trip to Ikea) my partner asked me this: although the chair was expensive and even though I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it for a very long time – wasn’t I worth that perfect chair? Why wouldn’t I enjoy the perfect chair as long as I could, and invest not in the chair but in myself?

And that was an excellent question. What was I actually doing when I decided not to buy that chair that was so comfortable, so perfect? What kind of logic is it, and is it a sensible logic in the long run?

Cheap Living

I’ve been a student now for five years. I’ve lived on my own, handled my own money and been responsible for many adult-life-things, including my finances. Being a student with a very limited monthly income means that I’ve also lived as cheaply as possible for the past years. It has become a routine of some sort: comparing prices at the food store, making detailed grocery lists, avoiding spontaneous shopping and so on.

Especially after I returned from Ireland in the Fall of 2016, having studied there for one semester as an exchange student, I started paying more attention to my finances. That had most probably to do with the fact that when I came back I had less than 20 euros on my bank accounts (not my most glorious days, to be honest). Before Ireland I hadn’t really considered how I consumed my money – but now I decided to take action, never wanting to be in a similar economic situation again.

Today and two years later, after returning from The Green Island, the situation is quite different. I’ve become more conscious about my incomes and expenses. Together with my partner, we’ve managed to minimize our expenses, and I’m doing my best to update an Excel-file every week to keep an eye on our money.

During these last couple of years, I’ve managed to build an economic buffer for myself for emergency cases, for a rainy day or simply to be able to invest that money someday in something. But as I’ve reached this state of economic ”welfare”, it has made me think: I’ve been saving and saving and saving, 10–15 percent of every payment I’ve received on my bank account from subsidies to study loans to salary. That has been a plan that has worked better than I expected. But when have I saved enough? Or, rather: when can I put my savings into good use? I mean, the money isn’t just supposed to sit there on that bank account until the day I leave this world, right?

Right?

Because, as I wondered about the armchair I had left in Ikea, I asked myself this: how do I know when to skimp and save the money, and when to invest in myself and in my own life? After living the life of a student for so long, do I even know what investing in myself is anymore?

Rerouting the Thinking

As I’ve been living cheaply/economic-consciously for the past couple of years it has become almost like a lifestyle. The economical thinking is rooted into my thought-system and turns on automatically when I’m making choices. In one way, this is extremely helpful, giving me the continuity in cheap living – but when seen from another perspective, it gets a bit tricky.

I feel that this kind of autonomous cheap thinking twists the way I see myself and what I’m worthy of. Often I find myself thinking ”I cannot afford this” and opting for the cheaper alternative instead. Or I leave the object in the store, thinking that ”maybe I don’t need it anyway”. And in one way, again, this is helpful – but then again, I wonder this: do I hinder myself from buying something that could give me great joy simply because I think I can’t afford it?

As the amount of money on my savings account has been increasing slowly but surely, I’ve become more aware of the fact that there are actually quite a lot I could afford. But it’s amazingly difficult to try to switch from that cheap thinking to investment thinking – mostly because when I find something that feels worthy to invest in, those items tend to be the more expensive ones. But if I really want those things and think they will help me do the things I love to do – aren’t they worth the investment?

(By the way – although I’m talking about having money on my savings account and being able to afford things, it doesn’t mean I’m in any way wealthy. I do okay, mostly thanks to government subsidies and a study loan, but I rarely eat out or buy new clothes.)

Investing In Yourself

There is a thing I’ve thought about a good deal after that Friday night in Ikea:

I need to invest in myself to know who I am and what I enjoy.

If that money stays on that savings account from here to eternity, simply growing in amount, why have I been saving it in the first place? Isn’t saving money supposed to be about saving for things you enjoy or want to try out?

If you never invest that money you’ve so patiently been saving, how will you ever learn to know yourself and what kind of things you enjoy? If you only leave cheap, always skimping and thinking ”I can’t afford this” although you do, have you actually lived life to the fullest at all?

During this move we’ve made oh-so-many choices from carpets to chairs to lamps, and it’s been a constant balancing between what to invest in and where to save the money. And the conclusion we have come to in this decision-making process is that if the item you are thinking about helps you get closer to where you want to be or helps you to do what you enjoy, then it’s worth the more expensive one (that also tends to be better quality).

(For instance, the carpet we picked for our livingroom is an investment in our creativity. We call it the jungle mat as it’s a crazy jungle-themed dark-colored carpet with birds and other jungle-like things, and it’s thought-provoking to look at.)

So, after this lengthy thought process on Friday night, we woke up a bit earlier the next morning, drove the car to Ikea five minutes before they opened the doors, raced to the Outlet of Findings, and I bought the chair.

I bought the chair for myself.

I bought the chair because 1) it is comfortable, 2) it doesn’t make my butt hurt, 3) I can see myself drinking my morning coffee in it, reading books and sometimes even writing while sitting in it. In a way, investing in this chair is also an investment in my creative process and my well-being.

And that’s something, isn’t it?

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How much effort do you put into your choice-making when you’re buying something new? What do you think about when making that choice?