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.