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Finding Maximum Capacity

“I now have more time to write.”

This is feedback I kept receiving from authors I have worked recently. For someone who crafting new stories, “time to write” is a somewhat sacred thing. And yet, this often feels just out of reach for many writers.

Why did this happen – where did this time come from? Lots of small reasons, but mostly because we had worked out a process whereby they would be PROACTIVE in making choices, not REACTIVE. For instance: knowing how to focus their efforts on social media (and why they are doing so), instead of trying to be everywhere, in the vague hope of “going viral.” Or in setting specific expectations around goals and milestones that allowed us to craft a realistic strategy for achieving both.

This is why I am slow to jump on a bandwagon, and am a late adopter to new social media trends. Because I know how easy it is to have our days filled with a thousand little reactionary actions, all at the expense of what matters most: the body of work we hope to craft in our writing and other creative endeavors, and how that work connects to, and affects the lives of other people.

By reactionary, for instance, I mean devoting the first two hours of a day to writing, instead of checking email and social media. Of ACTING on achieving your goals before REACTING to distractions.

In some ways, it feels odd that software exists to shut us out of our own email, social media, and internet connection, as a way to FORCE us to focus on writing, or any single-focus task. It seems to imply that we can no longer rely on discipline and self-control, because the temptation to check email or check Facebook is just too great.

Opportunity and Discipline
I have a friend who is a parent, works a job as a creative professional, and does her own writing and art on the side, including having published a book not too long ago. And yes, she blogs and is very active on social media, often sharing her process for all of this.

One time, we were chatting about sacrifices that a creative professional makes to choose art over mowing the lawn. She told me that it’s not too uncommon to receive an email from a blog reader with a question such as:

“How do you do it all?”

… and she can tell that the real question is: WHAT IS THE SECRET TIP for how to make family/career/art happen successfully all at once? That somehow, my friend would give them a magic button for finding a sense of balance.

Now, my friend always sends a thoughtful response indicating the realities of what it looks like to try to “balance” family, career, and art, filled with empathy and the messy details. But in her head, this is what she told me her real reaction to that question is:

“Because I’m fucking disciplined!”

She clearly does not mean this to be reductive or to indicate the question is a bad one. There is an exclamation her voice here, because inherent in this discipline is hard choices, sacrifice, of FORCING habits to form even when you have every excuse to put them off. Even a hint that there may be some kind of easy trick to do it all somehow belittles the depth of sustained effort involved.

That having a vision for creating a meaningful body of work, and for living a meaningful life comes with responsibility, not a magic insight into shortcuts that elude others.

Likewise, I had recently overheard this conversation at Starbucks: a woman asked a friend who ran their own business this question: “So tell me, how do you get your clients?” Like the example above, you could hear it in her voice that she was hoping to find a secret shortcut. For her friend to answer “Via LinkedIn Groups” or “Via Rotary Club meetings.” But instead, he flatly said this:

“Through a lot of hard work.”

He wasn’t being funny or ironic, and wasn’t just trying to obscure his real secret. The tone of his voice indicated that while he wished he had found shortcuts, there aren’t any.

What I think is inherent in many of the hard working creative professionals that I know is that: discipline breeds opportunity.

The 5:15am Crowd
Last Fall, I joined the local YMCA, which is really the first time I have ever been a member of a gym. While I am a lifelong runner, the gym-crowd always seemed “other” to me, like something I could never be a part of – a separate culture whose handshakes I wouldn’t quite get right.

But I’ve made a nice little habit of showing up there five days a week to jog for a few miles on the treadmill and slowly try out their other scary contraptions.

I’m an early riser in general, so I’ve tended to wake up and head right to the gym. Our local YMCA opens at 5:15am, and I will typically get there sometime around 5:30 or 6am. What is always amazing to me is that when I wake up, and get in my running clothes, and go outside and ice scrape the car, and drive the half mile, it feels silly. It’s pitch black outside, there isn’t another car on the road, and nearly every house is dark. You think to youself: “Um, why aren’t you sleeping!?”

And then I arrive at the YMCA, and it is bright, crowded, and a hotbed of activity. I showed up at 5:17 last week, minutes after they opened, and most of the treadmills were already taken, with folks all over the gym well into their workout routine.

Who are all these people?! When you look at them, they are incredibly normal looking folks. The youngest is in their mid-20s, but for the most part, at that hour of the day, people are in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.

The 5:15am crowd is fitting in their workout before their kids wake up, before they shower, before they have to catch the 7:28am train to work.

Their is no glory in showing up to a suburban YMCA at 5:15am. No one is here to show off, and to be honest, most of these folks aren’t “built” with loads of muscles. They are ordinary folks who value what working out means to them personally, and perhaps what lifelong health means to their family and loved ones.

So they make that drive at 5:15am through dark streets everyday, to zero applause.

My own gym habit is still only forming, but surrounding myself with these people does give me a deeper sense of focus to help that habit become permanent.

Finding Maximum Capacity
What I have found is that “managing time” is not the answer to doing more. Everyone is given the same 24 hours in a day – the person who achieves more has not created a 25th hour, or eliminated their human need for sleep.

Managing your energy is more important than managing your time in terms of creating more capacity in your life.

I work closely with writers everyday. This month alone, I am working with dozens of writers via private consulting and courses I am teaching. And we talk realistically about the constraints in their everyday lives – so I don’t pretend that each of you reading this has the energy of a 20 year old, or isn’t trying to manage a family of 5, or isn’t just trying to pay the bills after recently getting laid off. These are the realities that most writers are trying to “balance.”

What I find again and again – why a writer will walk away from working with me saying they now have “more time to write,” is because finding greater capacity is NOT about doing more. Instead, it is about better leveraging the resources we each have, and on taking focused actions, not by being driven (and buried by) a thousand reactionary tasks each day.

That each of these choices makes an investment in our own potential.

Thank you.

  • Michael Kelberer

    Nice post, Dan. Reminds me of what Stephen Covey talked about in the 7 Habits – we need to grow capacity through “Sharpening the Saw” activities: rest, exercise, non-work reading etc.

    • Thank you Michael! Great example w/ 7 Habits.

  • Love the clarity, honesty, and practicality of this post, Dan.
    Everyone is looking for that magic button, but the truth is that it’s just about what your friend said – being fucking disciplined. It’s about being able to see the bigger picture and then making the small, daily decisions that will help you fulfill that vision. As they say – simple, not easy.

    • Thank you so much Jamie! It’s funny how hard that is to say out loud. Too often, we gravitate towards the promise of an easy solution. The message of “it’s hard” is something no one wants to hear!

  • Paul Burt

    I’d like to order a discipline button with a side of balance.

    “Many insights…fail to get put into practice because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models” “…that influence how we take action.” (“The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Singe) So much ingrained influence to overcome! Damn, here I am again reading and replying instead of…where’s that list?

  • Lois J. de Vries

    This is the second time in a week that the concept, “What we really mean when we say that we don’t have enough time is that we don’t have enough energy,” has surfaced in my life. It certainly brought me up short the first time I read it. Now here it is again. Whenever this happens, I KNOW I need to pay more attention.

    • Funny how that works! Thanks Lois.

  • MaryAnn McKibben Dana

    Really resonated with this–I get the “how do you do it” question a lot and I think what you’ve written is right on.

    That said, I am a frequent user of blocking software and other tools that keep me from getting distracted while I’m writing. Yes, part of me feels silly doing so, like if I were a “real” writer I wouldn’t need such things. Then again–and this is where I ultimately fall on this–there’s nothing wrong with using tools to help rewire some of the bad habits we pick up from time to time. In my case, I’d been between writing projects and was doing more social media/promoting of my work. Now that I am on a deadline, I am re-learning how to dig in without distraction for many hours at a time.

    If someone’s trying to eat healthier, I would encourage them to remove certain problem foods from their house, rather than say “keep whatever you want in your fridge, because if you’re really disciplined you can just say no.”

    I know you weren’t doing that… but I do hear that view expressed sometimes. I’m a very disciplined person, but we all need a helping hand sometimes šŸ˜‰

    • MaryAnn,
      Thanks so much for sharing this, your point is VERY well taken. Agreed – tools help us build habits and ensure momentum can build – thanks for explaining this so well.
      Have a great day!

  • I love to exercise and used to be a personal trainer. I truly believe this has helped me with discipline in writing, blogging and marketing. Great article Dan. Yes, I get up early to workout, just like you.

    • Thanks Sonia! Ah, personal training – another big thing I have resisted, but will be trying out later in the year.