Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Put Your Dreams on Your To-Do List

A couple months ago, I was searching for guest-blogging opportunities on Twitter and found Blog Secret Santa.  I decided to sign up for a challenge and an opportunity to network.  My anonymous gift was delivered today, and here it is:

image via santabot.com
Put Your Dreams on Your To-Do List

There's a lesson we all have to learn as we dig deep into what adulthood means to us: it's easy to lose sight of your dreams when you're focusing on the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Maybe you've chosen to have kids-- or not. Perhaps you have to tend a lush garden… or maybe it's a single neglected houseplant. You could spend your day in an office or consumed with the business of running your home. Whatever your workload looks like, it's surprisingly easy to forget your dreams while coping with reality. We're survival-focused creatures. Without realizing it, you can bury yourself up to your neck in the little details of everyday life--and only realize what happened when it feels too late to fix it.

Maybe you want to write a novel--or a symphony. Or knit a blanket, draw a comic, paint landscapes… the options are endless, and so too are the ways we can ignore them without consciously choosing to.
Fortunately, there are ways around this, and they use the same bit-by-bit accumulation of effort that can be used to omit your creative goals from your everyday life. When you remember that lots of small pushes add up to one big effort--and you learn to make your giant, daunting goals into a mountain made of manageable little pebbles of work--you can learn to balance your long-term goals with your short-term needs. I promise.
We set our own themes with what we weave into our regular existence. When you think about all the sandwiches you've made, laundry you've done, and Excel spreadsheets you've filled out, this can be a scary idea. But it's true: we define what we are with what we do, and routines make up the biggest part of it. After all, asGretchen Rubin said in her clever, practical book The Happiness Project, "What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while."
The key to working with this is to ensure that your chosen stripe of creativity fits neatly and regularly into your daily life.
Set a Time
Start with a set time. Whether it's 5 am, lunchtime, or after everyone's gone to bed, you need to have a set time to do your life's work. And once you pick the time and begin using it every day, you need to defend it. Keep this time separate and sacrosanct.
And tell other people what you're doing--making your plans public makes it more likely that you'll do what you say. Usually, it's harmful to push ourselves with guilt and punish ourselves with how other people think we should be. But sometimes, it's a handy shortcut to make ourselves follow through with what we believe we want to do.
Claim and Defend Your Space
Once you have your time set, claim a physical space for your practice. If at all possible, this space should be used for nothing else. We respond well to ritual and dedicated spaces--just ask a church.
"Space" can be your laptop and a coffee shop, a shack in your backyard, a corner of your garage, or a dedicated office. As long as it's yours and dedicated, it's a set space. Beyond that, the act of defending your space is great rehearsal for defending your creative practice. When others respect your space and time, you're more likely to too.
Start Small--and Stay There
"Write a seven-book fantasy epic" is too huge for anyone to reasonably put on their to-do list. However, this is less daunting:
  • Open, name, and save a Word file.
  • Keep important files visible on your computer's desktop as a constant reminder.
  • Keep a small notebook in your pocket for ideas.
  • Write scenes you already know.
  • Start an outline to collect your ideas.
  • Write 15 minutes/300 words a day.
Small and manageable are key--and the excitement that comes with completing concrete steps will help you keep going. Make them small enough (especially at first) to fit between paying bills, going to work, and chasing the little ones. In time, your small steps will accumulate, and you'll be able to see real, constant progress on your dream.
Once you have the day-to-day maintenance of your habit down, aim higher. If you're a writer, try NaNoWriMo or another online productivity challenge. Or consider a knitalong, or active participation in other goal-setting sites and apps. Learning to code? Pledge to post something on GitHub.
This works as a larger version of declaring your intentions to friends. Humans seek community for lots of reasons--shelter from the dark, perhaps, or company. But we're also built to reach higher together. Let existing communities help you dream bigger--or start your own, if you want a local group. There's a reason knitting circles still flourish.
Maintain What You've Built
For some of us, this is the toughest part. You need to determinedly protect your intentions and your habit, as surely as you'd protect anything else precious.
This can mean demanding help from your family so that you have the time and ability to do what you want. It can mean not budging when someone suggests you change your plans to accommodate them in a non-emergency situation. It can mean turning down things you'd really like to do because it crowds out your time to create.
It also means defending your dreams from yourself. You need to forgive yourself when you flub--because you will flub. We all do. Maybe you haven't picked up your work in a week or a month or longer. It's easy to build a sizzling wall of anxiety and guilt that can keep you from the work you love. It's harder, but necessary and SO rewarding, to break it down or walk around it and get back to the thing you need most of all.
I'll finish by saying that you can do this. YOU CAN DO THIS. This thing, the work that haunts your heart when you don't do it and adds glittery effervescence to every moment when you do, you can do it. You can doggedly pursue it and be the person you know you are. It just takes a steel spine, a determined heart, and the regular maintenance of a daily routine. Do it. Do it today!

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