“You can’t get clean by continuing to wallow in the mud.”
I may have coined this phrase…or I may have purloined it from another writer – potentially Orwell or E.B. White. I’m not certain. A quick Google search didn’t result in any clear signs of theft, so perhaps only porcine associations I have with each writer makes me think I stole it.
At any rate, I repeat this saying to myself frequently. Too often I forget the necessity of removing myself from a situation in order to see it clearly. It’s vital to admit to and examine a problem before I can ever be equipped to solve it.
This February I flew to the other side of the world with one of my best friends. We spent a week in Vietnam, a week in Myanmar, and a couple days in Bangkok, Thailand, before returning to New York. It was a great adventure, my first visit to Asia, and a chance to get away from the routine of my everyday life. Being thousands of miles away from home, I had time away to step out of the mud and see where I needed to get clean.
How happy was I with my life? In which areas was I doing well? Which areas did I want to improve? Like the many Buddha statues we saw in Bagan, I reflected. I sought enlightenment.
And what “enlightenment” did I come away with? The overarching takeaway was that I wanted to take control of my emotions through action, thereby improving the quality of my life. I felt too often preoccupied with things outside my control, which caused unnecessary distress. I wanted instead to do things that made me happy and helped me focus on what I could control. Doing so would free my mind of worry and anxiety and empower me to be more creative, more focused, more present.
Which actions did I decide to focus on? For one, also much like the Buddha, I wanted to start meditating. Seems like I see dozens of tweets and articles about its benefits every single day. And I wanted to get back into shape. Following a shoulder dislocation in July 2015, I was finally recovered enough to hit the weights again. And I wanted to practice daily gratitude, something I flirted with late in 2015. And most importantly, I wanted to write a page of fiction everyday.
The writing was priority. I’ve always had talent. What I’ve never had, however, was discipline. Writing papers in high school about Shakespeare and the Renaissance didn’t require much discipline. I knocked them out with only a few minor revisions. My talent carried me. However, I had no stamina. How could I ever realize my dream of writing books without the discipline to work on a story from page one to page n? Wasn’t going to happen.
Discipline is key. I need to write every single day, no matter what. It doesn’t matter whether what I write is good, whether I feel like it, whether it’s sunny or raining outside. All that matters is that I get the page done. The page can be, and probably will be, absolutely terrible, but I can fix it later.
(I attempted to learn discipline specific to fiction in 2014, when I wrote a novel draft in a calendar year. [A draft, by the way, which shall never see the light of day.] This time, though, I needed a system to ensure I wrote that daily page. Given the other things I wanted to implement and track, a spreadsheet would do the trick. After all, “what gets measured, gets managed.”)
I started my spreadsheet after returning from Asia, logging these items on a daily basis:
- Gratitude board
- Daily fiction
- Nightly journal
This is what it looked like:
I started with these seven things and over the course of this year added a few more activities. Additions included:
- Bike rides
- Daily blogging for 15 minutes
- What I eat for each meal
- Taking my lunch to work
Why focus on these activities as opposed to the multitude of others?
I’m a writer. It’s integral to my identity. I’ve written my whole life, and it’s key to how I understand the world. Only in the past year or two, however, have I started earnestly pursuing fiction writing. It’s my dream to write and publish books, specifically novels.
The only way to get better at writing is to do it daily. Tracking my fiction writing in my sheet helped me link pleasure to the getting-done of the daily fiction. When I miss a day and have to mark the cell red, I feel bad. I feel like I let myself down. I feel as though I have to make up for it the next day, and indeed I do. By end of year, I will have approximately 270 pages of a novel draft complete. It may not be good, but it’s done. 2017 will be for making it better.
I started my Gratitude Trello Board in December 2015 and continued it this year. Here’s a template that you can copy and use. At the start of each month, I have three lists for that month. The main month list has a card for each day of the month. Here’s what it looks like:
Each day, I write three things I am grateful for, then move the card to the “Done” list, after which I mark my spreadsheet with an “X.” If I miss a day, I move the card to “Missed” and mark that day’s cell on my sheet red. (Again, red = no fun.)
I linked to the Trello board from my sheet, so I could more easily remember and navigate to that day’s card. At first I missed a lot of days (as you can see above, I only hit 61% in January, whereas I completed 83% in November), but now this is an ingrained part of my morning routine. By focusing on what I had instead of what I didn’t have, I learned to be more cognizant of just how many great people are in my life and how many wonderful experiences I’ve had. I live a privileged life, and practicing gratitude reminded me of that and helped me be less of a miserable son-of-a-bitch.
After dislocating my shoulder in the Catskills in what I like to call the Great River Tubing Debacle of 2016 (the aftermath of which is at left), I couldn’t lift weights. My left shoulder and chest muscles atrophied. My belly ballooned. I couldn’t run, either, so I felt both lethargic and anxious to get outside and do something. During this time I realized that exercise is a keystone habit for me. I have to exercise in order to be happy with other parts of my life. For me, it’s non-negotiable. Going to the gym twice a week (early Tuesday and Friday mornings) was an achievable schedule, and paired with running 1-2 days per week, I got back into presentable shape. Bike rides were and are mostly for fun and not tracked too seriously. I log them whenever I get out and cruise around Brooklyn with friends.
Similar to my gratitude board and times of large self-reflection, I wanted to institute nightly journaling to reflect at the end of each day. Each night I write three things that were positive about the day, three things that could have been better, and three things I need to do or am looking forward to the next day. The three positives help me focus on what I have and what I am grateful for. The three negatives force me to think about why they happened and to focus on what is within my control and my response to things outside of my control. The three next-day things help me focus on the “to-accomplish” list for the next day, giving me something to work towards as a means of progressing towards larger, long-term goals.
I track each as it makes sense. For example, shooting for one page of fiction a day, I use a percentage of pages completed against number of days in the month. But for bike rides I am only going to get a few in each month, so a raw total is sufficient.
At the end of each month, I calculate how many times I did each activity, providing a snapshot of what’s working and what’s not. Adding new activities is often painful, but I have found that after tracking the activity for a month or two results in high percentage-complete stats and a successfully adopted new habit. There are only so many days I can mark cells red in my spreadsheet without feeling so badly about it that I re-double my efforts to implement the activity in my daily life – or else cut it out altogether.
This is a glimpse into why I started tracking my life in a spreadsheet (a practice that at least one friend and one former lover characterized as “pretty OCD”) and what I decided to track and why. In part two, I’ll dig into what worked – and what didn’t – over the course of 2016, as well as what I’ll keep doing in 2017 and how I’ll tweak my tracking, schedule, and activities to improve the quality of my life.