Dec 312012
 

I’m amazed folks still brag about their multitasking skills, and even more amazed that I take pride in a good multitask. Without realizing it just doesn’t work.

New research suggests the brain isn’t built for multitasking. The thinking process merely flashes from one activity into the other, basically doing a core dump every fre seconds. Tell me, how does a person get anything done that way?

Tempting though it is to multitask, the brain works better when concentrating on one thing at a time. Just write. Just paint. Just text. Just answer your email. Just chew gum. Just …

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With the new year coming up, I’m giving away my ebook “Finding your passion: Where creativity meets danger” today and tomorrow through Amazon. Give your new year a kick in the right place — on the house.)

Dec 282012
 

No animals were harmed in the making of my 2013 plan. Just don’t ask how many trees were massacred. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

Well, kids, it’s that time when you nuts-and-bolts the entire year, note what went right and determine when the wheels came off.

Or something.

It’s revisitation time, and perhaps some goal setting to boot. Great time to do this. There’s something about ripping that old calendar off your wall and nailing a new one up that just creates hope. Say hey, it’s a whole new year. Fresh start, clean slate, all that good stuff, even if it’s the same old life.

Please tell me you don’t do resolutions any more. Please. That’s so phony. Everyone promises to be a better person, lose weight, quit a habit. You know most of those resolutions are written after a night of too many tequila skullsplitters and way too much time spent dangling headfirst over the toilet bowl. (Resolution #1: I’ll never drink again …) Please tell me you’re past that.

Making a plan is a different animal entirely. But even the best-laid plans are carved in baloney instead of in granite. Such plans/goals are equal parts clear-eyed projection, wishful thinking, and pure fantasy. But still, setting goals is still a good cut above the usual resolutions garbage.

Hanging a new calendar brings a sense of hope and renewal. Well, in most cases it does.

I’m gonna get personal here. For my own plans I’ve concentrated on my (fledgling) freelance writing business and on the (fledgling) creative & dangerous brand. In a sense, a business plan. Now, to me, the best business plans are the ones you can write on a cocktail napkin, but I’m not quite there yet.

I’ve also built a list of books to read for the year, and that one is short enough to write on an index card. Keying on no more than six books (starting early with Michael Hyatt’s Platform), and will spend significant time studying and applying them. Reading to learn instead of reading for its own sake.

Also listed my personal/professional priorities, a step that can’t be sloughed off. Priorities are everything; all the plans and reading lists and all the junk revolve around the priorities. Those need to be established or reinforced first. Priorities are the thing that make your plans personal instead of something you just cribbed from the Internet somewhere.

To do all this, I sat down with my legal pad and did some serious brainstorming. Touched on everything. Daily scheduling. Business and personal budget (with scenarios ranging from Yugo to Cadillac). Social media efforts. Ebooks to write. Stories to pitch. Potential clients to bug. An IRA to load up. Big-ticket things to buy.

Ran through a whole lot of paper while doing this. While I can honestly claim no animals were hurt in the making of my plans, a whole lot of trees were massacred for the cause.

Started this process a week before Christmas, so I had time to think about stuff. And closer to New Year’s Eve I’ll make my traditional year-end journal entry that recaps 2012 and gives a sneak preview of 2013. Well, almost traditional. Some years I missed doing that, and it seems those are the years when everything seemed to go south on me. I could say that’s pure coincidence, but there’s no such animal.

(Talk to me … what’s your year-end planning process? Does it help? How many trees do you normally kill in the process?)

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A quick change you’ll probably see right away if you’re an email subscriber: I’ll have a newsletter coming out starting over the next week or so, and it’ll be a weekly one. That’s ’cause email subscribers now get my posts as they show up here, and I’ve noticed a couple of problems with that.

While I’ve slowed it down over the holidays, I usually have something coming on this blog every weekday. For the subscriber, that’s an awful lot of email coming in. Shoot, I’m slap overwhelmed by the volume of email I get from my own self, and I subscribe to several other blogs that way too.

Instead, subscribers will get some options. Either the weekly newsletter with all-new material and links to the posts, or the really hardcore types that still want to get everything. Any freebies attached to subscriptions will continue to be offered regardless of the option you choose.

So what’ll be in the newsletter? Several things. Maybe a little bit on what I’ve posted for the week. Maybe some applications for what I’ve been writing. Maybe some rough drafts of ebook chapters I’m working on. Always, links to posts. But a whole lot less in-box clutter.

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Dec 212012
 

It was one of the great movie scenes of the 1990s. Wannabe cowboy Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, spends a bit of time with trail boss Jack Palance in City Slickers and learns a little something about himself.

Palance, if you recall, was that leathery old Curly, the guy with the big hat and big knife. He looked like the type who drank champagne only to eat the glass. the man was beyond tough (legend said Palance won the role after showing he could still do one-handed push-ups), and he scared Mitch half to death. Until he shared his wisdom, that is.

Y’all remember what Curly said about life:

“Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean (!).”

Mitch is real interested, intrigued. What’s that one thing?

“That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

Well, there ya go. Maybe it’s overly simplistic, but isn’t it strange that so often the more complex the problem, the simpler the answer?

That. One. Thing.

Curly nailed it.

That’s why businesses spend so much time putting together a mission statement. They’ll lock their key people in a room until they thrash it out, then pay some guy big bucks to put it into words. At the most the mission statement is still one paragraph, lending a sense of focus to the whole shebang.

That’s why I’m so big on finding my purpose as a creative person. There are so many niches I could fill, so many things I could do, so many rabbit holes to go down. Finding That One Thing helps put some order in what I can only describe as my chaotic life.

Years ago, I was a City Hall reporter in Fontana, CA. A rather strange town, coming off a bad decade that included its lone industry (Kaiser Steel) shutting down, a finance director that ended up spending time in the hoosegow for embezzlement, a pantload of debt when the city got snookered on a planned community, a key public works official who also ended up serving time for various things on company time, and a vast old-boy network on the City Council. Every day was a potential front-page story; a dream assignment for a hotshot reporter like me. But they got a new city manager during my time there, and a new culture was starting to kick in.

After a council meeting one evening, I made my way back behind the dais to ask one of the council members some questions. But as we were talking I saw this admonition, on the ledge of the dais where only the council members could see it, printed out with one of those old-school label makers:

“IS IT GOOD FOR THE CITY OF FONTANA?”

I filed this away in my memory and didn’t tell anyone about this. But I wondered, is this what the new city manager has been trying to impress on the Council? Some simple homily?

Whoever put up those embossed labels was thinking like Curly, long before the movie even came out. As far as that Just One Thing, they were paying the city manager a bit over six figures a year to help them find out what it was.

(To this day I’m indebted to the city manager, John O’Sullivan, for piquing my interest in management topics and in all that forward-thinking stuff. He is one of the godfathers of Creative & Dangerous. But that’s another story.)

That One Thing. Hard stuff to chew on, especially if you’re one of those people like me who wants to do everything but has an attention span of perhaps 20 seconds. How does a fella like me actually concentrate? How do I narrow my myriad of interests down to One Thing?

‘Taint easy. Most of the time I have that down to two or three things, but that’s inadequate. I’m allowed just one, though I can cheat and find a unifying thread for those two or three things. What do they have in common? Where do they overlap? Chances are that common denominator is that Just One Thing.

Cool.

Now, when I’m focused enough to do so, I look to that Just One Thing as my guidance system. Like Curly says, nothing else means squat. Lately this meant jettisoning some activities that didn’t play in with that One Thing. My plate only has so much room, on it, and I can’t stack it with all kinds of goodies the way I once thought I could. Taking on a new project means a) deciding whether it fits with that Just One Thing, and b) deciding what to offload from my plate — unless I can cheat some more by eating the evidence.

My One Thing? I’m not going to tell you. Go find your own.

I will tell you this, though. That One Thing has got to be big. We’re talking a few years down the road, a lot further than I’m accustomed to looking. Small things like “just survive” or “make it through the day” are not gonna cut it. Even a one-year plan isn’t it; that Just One Thing gives birth to all plans.

Ol’ Curly knew what he was talking about.

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If you’re not sure what that “just one thing” is, you might want to grab my ebook on Amazon. Titled “Finding Your Passion: Where Creativity Meets Danger,” it might give you enough clues to work with.

 

Dec 142012
 

I keep missing the stupid thing.

Back in the 1970s, Steve Blass pitched the Pittsburgh Pirates into some World Series action, won a couple of Series games in front of an unforgiving national TV audience, and was one of the best pitchers in the league. But in his recent autobiography he said one of his biggest achievements was having a disease named after him.

It was one of the great mysteries of sport, and of real life. All of a sudden the frosty-under-pressure Blass couldn’t throw the ball over the plate any more. He’d pitch and the ball could go anywhere. In the dirt. Over the batter’s head. Into the dugout. Over there by the Section 27 sign. He’d totally lost his stuff.

There was no physiological explanation. His arm was fine. His head … well, not so much. He tried hypnosis. He tried meditation. Helpful fans sent suggestions (maybe even that his underdrawers were on too tight) and he probably tried everything. He was walking upwards of 10 batters a game and no one could figure out why. He was soon out of baseball.

This sudden inexplicable inability to perform a simple task that he’d done thousands of times — throwing the ball over the plate — soon had a name. Steve Blass Disease. Other players discovered the horror of mysteriously losing their stuff. Pitchers Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel couldn’t find home plate any more, and Ankiel later switched to the outfield. Infielders Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblaugh lost all control on throws to first base.

Catcher Mackey Sasser got to where he couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher without cocking his arm a bunch of times. Strangely enough, in high-leverage situations, Sasser had no problem chucking the ball to second base to nail a runner trying to steal, but he sure took a bunch of static from New York fansw for his double-clutch throws back to the pitcher. It destroyed a promising career.

Although some folks named the disorder Steve Sax Syndrome, Blass discovered the disorder and earned the naming rights. As if he wanted it.

Stick around in the creative world long enough and I guarantee you’ll channel your own inner Steve Blass.

Maybe you’re not able to start. Or finish. Or type. Or finger your saxophone. Or every E comes out E flat. It’s some component of the creative process that hangs things up.

I’m dealing with that now.

I’m good at developing ideas. I’m excellent at starting. I can even finish. I’m getting better at tuning out distractions. I can sometimes even tune out those thoughts of other projects that I can’t do right now, or those that if I did them they’d take me off the project I’m trying to finish. My squirrel-chasing ADHD brain is getting a bit more under control there, and I’m getting much better at jotting those random brain squawkings down on an index card and getting back to work. Sometimes, anyway.

My finger keeps circling over the mouse button and … and … and …

But I still get hung up on that PUBLISH button. You know, the one that sends my work out to be read. My trigger finger will circle over the mouse several times. It’s as agonizing as watching Sasser try to thr-thr-thr-throw.

Right now I have a few stories completed, ready to go out. They’re good to go. I’ve read through them and they’re … well, not Pulitzer stuff but OK. They’re shippable.

But every time I get ready to mash that PUBLISH button, I miss. Hit something else instead. Or my button-mashing finger locks up; is it my carpal tunnel kicking in or some disorder above the neck causing it?

Howdy, Mr. Blass. Surprised to see you here. Mackey, when’d you pull in? Mr. Ankiel, what’s up? And Brother Wohlers. Mr. Sax, who invited your Dodger hiney?

Now here’s the thing. I kinda sorta have an idea my inability to find the SUBMIT button with a bomb sight is just part of my perfectionist streak. I won’t let something go until I think it meets my standards.

Admittedly, this goes back a long way with me. My first real newsroom mentor Charlie Hand brought it to my attention 25 years ago. He said I had real talent, but I had to learn to pull the trigger. My work is not going to be perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. And while I wait for it to be perfect, the deadline’s done passed and the story is a dead issue. Writing for newspapers, you learn to let it go when it’s Good Enough.

Good Enough.

The reader won’t know if the story is Pulitzer material, but he’ll know if it’s Good Enough or not.

Hate to say it, but my clients are not paying for elite. They’re paying for Good Enough.

They don’t want it great, they want it now. As long as it’s Good Enough.

The only one who stands to benefit from me sitting on copy is my loudmouthed inner editor, and what does he know anyway?

But here’s the thing. As long as it sits on my terminal, I have full control over the outcome. Once I hit that PUBLISH button, I relinquish all control. It’s out of my hands.

Steve, go away. Please. And take your buddies with you.

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(Footnote: From what I read, all these years later Steve Blass is able to laugh at his issues. He’s enjoyed a nice career in the broadcast booth and recently wrote a book, A Pirate For Life, where he gets down and dirty with his story. It’s one I really want to read. By all accounts he’s a happy man, and hasn’t had to worry about throwing a strike in years.)

 

Dec 132012
 

Manana: Over-identifying with the work

OK. I write, and it’s a living. It’s what I do. I can even look in the mirror and say I am a writer without falling out laughing. But that’s not all of me.

I’m also a pretty good ex-husband, a thinker, a humorist, a decent musician, a hard worker at whatever I do, a good guy to have around on the hiking trail, and a willing ear when my friends have problems.

It’s so easy to over-identify with creative work and treat it as a life-or-death thing, and sometimes that gets overwhelming enough to make my head blow up. Consequently, this puts my productivity into reverse and procrastination seems a good option. But there’s so much life going on in too short a time frame to allow for such foolishness.

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Dec 122012
 

Whatever your art is, it’s probably solitary. It’s just you and the canvas, you and the typewriter, and the rest of the world is an afterthought. Creative work is a lonely pursuit.

I’m not a big fan of writer’s groups — in my experience many are still in the “aspiring” stage — but I certainly recommend building a network of pros to bump you along.

One may encourage me. One may crack the whip over my back. One may email me just to remind me not to waste time reading my email. One may swap stories with me over coffee. All of these people keep me on task and away from the rabbit holes.

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Dec 102012
 

I tend to procrastinate. A lot. Whatever I’m doing can be done just as easily tomorrow as today, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Much of today’s to-do list is just carried over from yesterday.

When I look at why I put things off, I can usually find fear at the root of it. I’ll hold off on submitting something because I’m scared it’s not going to be good enough. I’ll defer on that phone call because I just don’t want to face the guy.

Not sure what there is to be afraid of; I mean none of this is exactly life and death. But once I understand the role of fear I can face it, hold on to my butt, and do what I need to do.

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Dec 082012
 

I don’t how that happened. Somebody must have really lowered their standards or something.

I’m semi-active on Google+ (which means I log on monthly) and that service started doing “communities.” I got invited to a community called “The Art Of Writing” (never join any organization that would have you as a member) and next I saw, I’m a moderator.

Me, a moderator? How’s that work?

I need adult supervision most of the time, and in that community I’m actually the adult. Does that scare you as much as it scares me?

I’m honored. I’ll take it. I’ll log in more regularly. I’ll have fun with it.

If you’re one of those Google+ geeks, check out the community.

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(Also started my freelance Facebook page just now. About like a regular Facebook page except less incriminating photos. And check out the ebook, “Finding your passion: Where creativity meets danger” during your next Amazon visit.) 

 

Dec 072012
 

In 1997 I lost my heart.

Still don’t know where it went. Might have misplaced it in my other pants pocket. Maybe I left it in San Francisco, or maybe in Abilene with some other lady. But I found I could no longer write.

Didn’t have the heart for it.

For me, this was a particularly rough time. I wrote for a living, and when I felt I couldn’t do it any more, that left me with three courses of action:

a) Go through the motions, and maybe fake it until I find my heart again.

b) Tequila myself into a stand-up fossil.

c) Do something else.

Hey, I didn’t say these courses of action were necessarily good ones, now did I?

Anyway, I chose Option C. The way I’m wired, that was the only real option. I’m not a good enough BS artist to get away with Option A for very long, and I’m too cantankerous for B. So I did something else for a while, and more than a decade later I rediscovered my heart for writing.

That heart thing is important. More important than knowledge or skills. It’s that place where my dreams and passions hang out, as well as all the dragons and other beasties that wish to take me out of action. It’s an amazing place, and so crucial for the creative and the leader.

Like the physical ticker that’s in my chest, the heart has so much to do with my health. And like the physical heart, I need to guard it. I must be mindful of what goes in, because that’ll have a direct bearing on what comes out. If it gets gunked up, the results will show directly.

With a bad heart I get distant and aloof. Maybe demanding. Definitely whiny. Always critical. It’s one of those things that affects my mental health. With a good heart I’m more fully engaged in what I’m doing, connecting more with people, feeling more in my zone. Good things happen. The condition of my heart definitely affects my mental health.

This heart thing isn’t just a factor with individuals, but organizations as well. Which makes sense; organizations are made up of people. But the last full-time job I had working for someone else had a really strange culture. Everyone was afraid of making mistakes. When a problem developed, the emphasis was on which idiot screwed up this time, not what can be done about it.

See? Bad heart. Everyone clocked in, did the absolute minimum required to stay employed, clocked out, cashed the paycheck, went home to do it again. Everyone there worked without any heart in it. Since that’s not in my nature, I felt enormous pressure to get with the program. For me, this was a really toxic place to work.

You’ve gotta have heart

I’ve always liked athletes who played with heart. I’m thinking of David Eckstein, the runty little shortstop who played with the Angels and later the Cardinals a few years ago. He wasn’t big enough to fight or run a foot race. He had no talent to speak of. But he played with heart. Left something of himself on the field every game.

For a no-talent kid who looked about 12 years old, he had himself a great career. Ignited the 2002 Angels on their way to a World Series title. Did the same thing for the Cardinals a few years later, and got named the most valuable player of that series. Even if he went 0-for-4, he still helped his team win.

Eckstein was the epitome of heart. He was all in, every game, even if he looked like he doesn’t shave yet.

Have a heart, buddy!

It’s so easy to lose heart in this squirrel-cage world, which is why I have to watch mine. Partly because I’m so all-in all the time, burnout is always a threat with me. That’s why rest is so important.

But that’s a juggling act. Being self-employed and working at home — plus having a mind that’s going all the time — I need to be more careful of my on-times and my off-times. Ideally, when I work I work, and when I knock off I knock off, but that’s not always possible. But I do make sure I get a good seven hours of sleep every night, and stick with the same schedule every day. I try to do regular brain dumps and get all the stray thoughts down on paper, preferably written down with the first step to get things started.

I try to shut down one day a week, but I’m not there yet. The best thing is to have all electronics shut off, give my online connection a rest, and just chill. But too often I’m using that day off to scratch out a rough draft. But I’ll start my alleged day off by going over the week I just had, reflecting on what I got done, planning out the next week, and writing in my journal.

For the record I did take off with a few friends for a camping trip last weekend. My phone was shut off almost the whole time (did have some email to take care of although that really could have waited), I sketched out  a few story ideas in pencil by the campfire, but mostly relaxed.

Separating my work time from the rest of my life is one of those things I must do to guard my heart.

Getting to the heart of the matter

But probably the biggest thing for me, and the best way to keep my heart in things, is to revisit the “why.”

I try to remind myself why I’m doing what I do, and why it matters anyway.

Yeah, there’s a paycheck involved there somewhere, but that’s not the whole of it. I do it because … well, because this is what I do.

Because I like sharing my thoughts.

Because I like to encourage people.

Because I like to tell a good story.

That’s what keeps me going. The other things I mentioned keep my physically and mentally healthy, but the “why” is the thing that gets me standing and locked at my computer at 9 a.m. That’s the thing that drives me to getting my words out every day, with or without help from The Muse. It’s what makes the difference between wishing I was a writer and being a writer.

In 1997, I lost track of the “why.”

The heart went soon after that.

Connection? I think so.

Things like getting proper rest and recreation, reflection time, and building relationships are good ways to monitor my heart. But probably the best one is for me to keep the “why” in mind.  

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