Writing Through the Chaos: A Four-Step Guide to When Everything Is out of Control
No one prepared us for a global pandemic. It’s thrown our entire world into chaos. Normally, that last sentence would be hyperbole. But no. This time it’s utterly true.
And it’s not like life doesn’t already have it’s smaller chaos. From irritating inconveniences like your car breaks down to big life events like when a parent gets sick. The pandemic makes everything harder and less focused.
Over the last decade, I’ve researched and read books on how we form habits, and I incorporate these methods into the work I do with writers in The Workshop, my online mentoring group for writers. These strategies chisel through the resistance that too often keeps you from doing your work and from taking proper care of yourself.
I get it, though. You’re distracted. You’re upset. You’d rather zone out on Netflix (or whatever your poison) and not think about the chaos, but avoiding the reality of what you have to do in life doesn’t make it disappear. It leaves you feeling guilty instead.
Here are four strategies you can use to shift the way you see yourself and your work. They’re designed to help you focus less on the chaos of the world and feel more comfortable with the choices you make day-to-day.
Don't worry. There'll be none of that “Shakespeare wrote his plays and Darwin discovered gravity” business.
Instead, I’ll share my philosophy around getting shit done without having to wear yourself out in order to get there.
Step One: Take Care of Yourself First
If you don’t feel well, mentally, emotionally, or physically, you can’t do your best work. Instead, figure out what you need in order to feel as balanced as possible.
This is a lesson I learned in the hardest way possible.
Sleep is the front line of defense for me. If I’m not sleeping, I’m not functioning. My stress doubles. And when I’m stressed, I can’t sleep. It’s a terrible cycle.
After my daughter was born, I didn’t sleep for obvious reasons, but instead of napping with her, mellowing out, and getting used to motherhood, I decided if I wasn’t writing with a newborn, I wasn’t a writer anymore. So instead of napping when she napped, I worked on my book.
After a year of this, I was so sleep-deprived, I was getting such bad migraines that I couldn’t write or take care of my newly walking child. The only way out of this chaotic mess was to sleep. My migraines made it impossible to do anything else. I had no choice.
It took a year, but I finally learned that the best way to avoid getting to such a point, is to take care of myself first.
I’m not talking about self-care as an indulgence. I’m talking about the fundamental things you need in order to feel good in your life. Sleep. Food that nourishes you. Spending time with your community.
Often, self-care means addressing difficult things. Did you have a fight with a good friend? Reaching out to mend the tear is a form of self-care. Did you stay up too late worrying about a family member in the hospital? Take a nap even if you never nap. Are you worried about money? Go through your credit card bills and cancel any recurring payments that you don’t want anymore and make sure you’re not being charged things you didn’t buy.
You get the idea.
Action Item: What is one thing you really need right now that you’re not getting? Find a way to incorporate it into your life in some small way.
Step Two: Stop Worrying About Productivity During Chaos
Productivity has become a buzz word. It’s become the bullhorn of the work world, telling you you can do more more more. Productivity gurus tell you all you can do in order to get more done in order to produce and do more.
Productivity, as it currently stands, lauds you for how much you get done and how much you make. It rarely addresses our emotional life.
Can you be productive in times of crisis, chaos, and trauma? Absolutely. But, only if you change that definition of productive.
It’s not about how many words you wrote or how many connections you made or who signed up for your website newsletter. Instead, productivity is about setting boundaries around what you do in order to save your time and energy. It has nothing to do with how much you do and everything to do with creating a system that works for you.
What does this mean in practical terms?
It means to take an honest look at the reasons why you’re doing a thing. Is it something you want? Look forward to it? Does it benefit you? Pay your bills?
If not, move on.
I’ll give an example. I live in Argentina but I’m from the US. My son has English language classes at school even though he’s fluent in English. I currently have seven English assignments sitting in my inbox that he’s supposed to complete.
He already knows all the words, and doing these activities are a waste of time. So you know what, I’m not doing them.
Will it potentially impact his schooling later? Possibly, but probably not. The only reason I’d do the work is that he might be downgraded if I don’t. But if I continue doing them? I have an additional seven assignments a week. They wouldn’t take too much time, but they do take up a lot of my energy because my kid doesn’t want to do them.
How many “small things” are filling your days, weighing you down and making it harder to do what’s most important?
Action item: Write a list of everything you do over the course of a few days. Work, homework, kids, cleaning, cooking, writing. Everything.
When you’re done, go through your list and circle only the items that truly serve you and your life. Remember. Is it making you happy? Does it support you in some other way? Does it pay your bills?
Then stop doing everything else on your list.
I know. Easier said than done. So maybe just start by cutting one of the items on your list. See how it feels.
THRU MAY 15
Enter this massive Rafflecopter giveaway!
Step Three: Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
A woman in The Workshop told me recently she doesn’t understand how everyone in her writing group is finishing all these stories every week. “I can’t work for more than half an hour at a time.” That’s if she’s lucky.
She didn’t understand how everyone else was so productive.
But we don’t actually know what’s going on with other people. They may be sharing only good bits of their lives. They may be focusing on one thing but everything else in their lives is falling apart. They may even be lying.
Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter.
Those boundaries I mentioned above? Draw a thick line between what you do and accomplish and what you see others doing. Nothing anyone else accomplishes has any bearing on how much you do.
It doesn’t matter if they’ve finished writing a book and you are still floundering on your first draft. It doesn’t matter if someone else launches a promotion for their book while you aren’t getting the sales you want.
What the amorphous “they” does won’t help you. It only leaves you comparing the ugly underbelly of your life to someone else’s shiny exterior.
Keep your eyes on your own paper. If you’re doing the things that support you and keep you happy and healthy, that’s more than enough.
Step Four: Make A Plan
The first three steps in this list are to help shift the way you see your work. In each one, I talk about knowing what you want. Because when you know what you want, it’s easier to set boundaries and ignore what other people are doing.
The woman I mentioned above who felt as if she wasn’t doing enough because others were finishing stories and sending them to literary magazines but she isn’t? She’s working on a book right now. She doesn’t actually have any stories to send out. She wasn’t falling short of her goals, she was doing exactly what she needed to be doing.
Action Item: Make a simple plan to guide your writing. First, think about what you want your life to look like. What’s important to you? What are your core values? What kind of work do you want to do? Then sum it up in one sentence.
Here’s my one-sentence writing plan.
I want to relax and have fun with my family while I write and teach others how to live their ideal writing lives.
Notice, I’ve addressed my personal life, my overall life philosophy, and the kind of work I do.
I don’t do anything outside of this box. (Okay, this isn’t a never. But I don’t unless I really want to.)
If someone asks me to write an article for their website but it means I’ll have to work over a weekend instead of spending time with my family, I say no.
If someone asks me to chat with them about the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing, I won’t set up a separate meeting for us to talk. Instead, I invite them to my weekly Q&A call in the Workshop.
If you’d like to take your one sentence to the next level, take my free four-part e-mail course. I’ll walk you through creating your one-sentence vision for your ideal writing life. Then we’ll break it down into parts so you can prioritize and put yourself first.
It takes practice and patience to shift the way you see the world. We’ve lived in productivity mode for far too long. Now it’s time to slow down. Focus on less. Remember we’re living beings with bodies and sensitive brains. We will survive the chaos.
But, if we are to survive, it will be because we slowed down long enough to know what we want and remember who we are, and then live accordingly.
A free Writer’s Roadmap e-mail course
One copy of The Writer’s Roadmap by Leigh Shulman
One membership to Leigh Shulman’s The Workshop writing group($240 value)
Want to win this giveaway? Simply leave a comment WHY below!
All comments must be left prior to midnight on Thursday, May 7th, 2020 in order to be eligible to win. Winners for the week announced on Friday, May 8th.
Leigh Shulman lives with her family in Argentina where she writes, mentors other writers and leads international book writing retreats. You can read her work in The Washington Post, New York Times, Vox, The Establishment and elsewhere. Her book The Writer’s Roadmap: Paving the Way To Your Ideal Writing Life is available now. You can read more about her and her work on her website.
Have you signed up for my newsletter yet?