This quote is on the cover of a journal I just bought. It sounds great and super motivating in theory, but in my experience beginning is not as easy as it sounds.
Because how do you begin? What exactly is the first step?
Right now I’m doing a few hard things that force me to begin when I don’t want to begin. I’m training for my first 50k ultra marathon. Come January 20th I’ll need to be able to run 50 kilometers (that’s about 31 miles) in the hilly desert of Big Bend State Park in west Texas. I’ve run three marathons, but this distance and type of race are new to me. I’m a tiny bit scared, but mostly really excited to push myself and run in some beautiful scenery.
I wanted to try an ultra because I love long distance running, and I love having a new challenge. Without a race scaring me a little, I am terribly undisciplined and will gladly sit on the couch eating chips and watching Food Network shows. That is my natural state of being. Races force me to run, and running always makes me very happy. But I forget this every single time I am faced with the choice of sitting on the couch vs. going for a run. The truth is I dread doing my runs and put them off as much as possible. And then I do them, and I feel amazing. So races are good for me because they are the catalyst for getting off the couch and feeling good.
This month I’m also participating in NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month. The traditional challenge during NaNo is to write 50,000 words (the length of a short novel) in 30 days. I’m adapting this challenge to suit my personal goal of finishing my already-in-progress novel. I’m trying to get in 50,000 words, but I may fall a little short. My main goal is to write everyday and finish my novel. If that adds up to less than 50k words, I’m okay with that. Writing, like running, makes me feel so good, but it also holds about as much appeal to me as flossing my teeth. I tend to avoid writing even though it makes me feel happy and centered and whole, so I have to trick myself into doing it, just like running.
So back to my original question, how do you begin to do a big, hard project like writing a novel or training for a long race? It’s easy to keep putting off beginning because big goals like these aren’t accomplished quickly; they take many days of consistently doing little things that eventually add up to achieving something big.
This one day isn’t going to make or break my success, I often say to myself—so I’ll wait to get started until I get the perfect not hot, not cold, not rainy, not tired, not busy day. That’s when I’ll get my work done.
But life doesn’t give us many of those perfect days. So you have to start with the conditions that you’re given. You have to make them work somehow. And then you have to start all over again every day until you have met your goal.
So here’s how to make yourself do the thing you need to do even when you don’t feel like doing it:
- Stick to a ritual.
Do the same thing at the same time in the same place each time. Take as many decisions and choices out of the process as possible. Here’s what this looks like for me with writing: I go to the same coffee shop, order the same drink, sit in the same spot (or as close to it as possible), open my novel on my computer, close my eyes and try to see one thing from my story. I really try to see it as clearly as though I’m watching a movie. Yesterday, my one thing was a character using a pick ax to dig up a garden.
I write my one thing just as I see it. I don’t question it. I am just reporting what I see. There is no choice about where to begin, which character to focus on. When I close my eyes, whatever part of the story pops into the viewfinder in my brain is what I write. And that’s what gets me started. Once I’m started, I can often sit and write for a good hour or two. I just need that little push over the speed bump.
Even when I can’t get to the coffee shop, closing my eyes and seeing my one thing still helps me get a little work done wherever I may be.
But the coffee shop is like my office. It’s where I go when I’m serious about getting some real work done. When I don’t want to start, I tell myself, all you have to do is drive to the coffee shop. That’s easy. You can do that. Then all you have to do is park. Done! Then order your coffee, sit down, open Word…now close your eyes. These are all very easy tasks that I know I can do no matter how tired I am or how uninspired I feel. Ordering coffee does not require inspiration. Neither does closing your eyes.
Once my eyes are closed, all I have to do is report what I see. What does the ground look like? What is the weather like? How does the pick ax feel in the character’s hands? What is he thinking about as he swings the tool over his head and plunges the blade into the earth? Before I know it, I am immersed in the world of my story and I’m doing the work that will get me to my goal.
2. Make it fun.
I go to the coffee shop to write because it’s fun. I like the music they play. I like that other people are there typing on their computers too. It makes me feel not so much like Cinderella, toiling away on my work at home while everyone else is at the ball. I also really love coffee and love when other people make it for me. So going to the coffee shop is not a hard sell for me. This sounds super obvious, but when you pick your ritual, make it something you ENJOY. Life is short. If you are going to be doing something over and over again, you should like it!
The way I make running more fun is by listening to podcasts and books on Audible. Or I schedule a running date with a friend, and the miles melt away as we talk to each other. I love connecting with friends or going deep into a subject or story by listening to it while I run. It feeds my body and soul in a way that chips and Food Network do not!
3. Log your progress.
I don’t know about you but I love a bullet journal. And I find a deep sense of fulfillment from coloring in the little boxes next to “write” and “run” in my “habit tracker” in my journal. It is profoundly nerdy that I do this, but I see it as giving myself a report card. I can look back at the end of the week and see how much I actually did the things I said wanted to do that week. And drawing the chart and coloring it in is a little bit crafty, which is probably what will be written on my tombstone.
Even if you aren’t a little bit crafty, I would like to suggest you try some sort of system for tracking your progress towards your goal. It is positively motivating. I mean that both as “quite motivating” and that it motivates you in a positive way. #wordsaremylife
If you don’t want to break out a ruler and colored pencils (I have a hard time understanding why you would feel this way, but to each her own), you could try Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method. Seinfeld marks an X on the calendar for each day that he writes. His goal is just not to break his streak. He loves seeing a calendar full of X’s. I mean, who doesn’t?
Similarly, Jessica Lahey and KJ Dell’Antonia of the #amwriting podcast are always talking about how they give themselves a sticker when they get their writing work done. They simply text each other the word “sticker” and that is code for I did it, I sat my butt down and wrote today.
Whether you use X’s or stickers, do something to acknowledge the fact that you did something hard and good that day. You could have watched another rerun of Pioneer Woman, but instead you chose to move the needle a little closer to your goal.
Getting things done begins with you choosing to begin. Don’t wait for the perfect day, or permission or to feel like doing it. Just take the first step. And then the next one, and the next one. Each step isn’t much on its own, but when you put them all together, they add up to something you can be really proud of.
Okay, time for me to go running!
I’d love to hear how you get your stuff done. And if there are any fellow nano friends out there, please let me know how it’s going!
I’ll leave you with a running mantra that I love: “relentless forward motion.” That’s all it takes! Just one step after another. Keep going until you get to the finish line!