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Wait, You’re Not a Real Writer at All!

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

Writing professionally, or even just aspiring to write professionally, requires a weird combination of hubris and humility. You have to be willing to believe, at least for the 15 minutes it takes to put together and send out your submission, that the stuff you make up and write down is so fascinating that thousands or tens of thousands of people would pay good money to read it. The Hollywood Bowl has a seating capacity of about 18,000, but even a modestly successful midlist novelist or someone who sells a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reaches more people than that. Who the hell do we think we are?

At the same time, we have to embrace humility if we’re not going to drive ourselves nuts. Actors and salespeople are among the few who compete with writers in the “getting rejected” department–and even those professions don’t spend two years on a project, send it out, wait eighteen months, and receive in return a form letter saying “No thank you; good luck elsewhere.”

Impostor syndrome
So is it any wonder that writers are often susceptible to Impostor Syndrome? If you’re not familiar with Impostor Syndrome, you might be interested in the article “Impostor Syndrome” on this site, but short version is that it’s when you see your successes and you think they must be due to someone making a mistake. Any time you sell a story, get a bite from an agent, or receive a positive review, it seems like a fluke. Obviously these people don’t understand that I’m really a big faker, you might think, or if I wrote something good, it was just blind luck and will never happen again.

Many many writers I know struggle with impostor syndrome. From a certain perspective, it makes sense: if you spend years and years looking up to people who are getting regularly published in certain magazines or whose novels are making it into the hands of thousands of satisfied readers, and if during this time you get a constant barrage of polite but generally impersonal messages that say “No, this thing that you poured your heart and every ounce of skill you have into really isn’t any good,” then you’d have a pretty inflated view of yourself to not ask yourself if the sale you finally get isn’t some kind of anomaly. (No disrespect intended to those who, like me, lean more to the hubris side than the humility one.) Maybe the editor who bought your story was drunk when she read it. Maybe your new agent is confusing you with another writer who’s actually good.

Misdirected expectations
It can get even worse when you have a little success: maybe you sell a story or get an honorable mention in a major contest. What happens if the next story you send out fails miserably? It just reinforces the idea that the first success was a fluke–even though any decent statistician with access to writers’ track records would predict a few failures with a high degree of confidence, even for writers who overall became very successful.

It doesn’t help that we writers are not particularly good judges of our own work. (See “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing”). We may think a particular piece we’ve done is the best thing ever written, or may think it’s utter trash, and in either case we can be right on the nose, tragically wrong, or even both.

Thinking your way out
So how do you stop feeling like a faker? Well, there’s thought and there’s action.

In the thought department, we’re better off when we avoid telling ourselves things that are either false or questionable and instead stick to things we know are true. For instance, instead of thinking “I know this story is going to be rejected,” we can substitute the thought “This story might sell or it might not. If it doesn’t, I’ll send it somewhere else.” That process, called “cognitive restructuring” (or my preferred term, “idea repair”), may seem elementary, but it’s surprisingly effective, as research and clinical results have shown. If you’re interested in idea repair, which is useful for far more than just addressing Impostor Syndrome, you can find articles, books, and other resources on the topic here.

Where does confidence come from?
On the action side of things, one of the most productive things to do is more. Write more, send more out, and get more used to the rejections–and the acceptances. I was at my son’s high school yesterday for a parent presentation, and I was powerfully impressed to see what complete confidence and self-possession every one of his teachers showed when presenting to groups of parents. How can they be so confident? I asked myself.

The answer to where the confidence came from was quickly obvious to me: these are teachers who enjoy their jobs, and they stand up and talk like this for most of every workday. They have get in more public speaking in the typical week than many people will do in their lifetimes. Effective practice makes you better and better at what you’re doing, and it also quells concerns about whether you have any right to do it. I’ve written about 15,000 words of fiction in the past week. I know from critique responses (we sometimes get very rapid turnaround on critique in my writer’s group) that at least some of those words worked well for a good sampling of readers, but I have no way of knowing if the stories I’ve put together will sell or just become more rejection magnets. However, having written all that, and especially doing that and then sending the work out, I know that I’m a writer. Whether or not editors buy what I write is up to them and out of my direct control. All I can do is keep plugging away, always working on something new, concerning myself not with whether people accept what I’ve written but with how well I’m doing the job of churning out words worth reading.

The thing is, regardless of how successful your writing is now or ever, if you bust your hump putting out new works, and if you push the envelope to try to make yourself better at what you do, then you’re a writer–and you might as well be proud of it.

Photo by V’ron

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A Simple Way to Start Dealing With Worries

Handling negative emotions

I don’t know about you, sometimes I find myself in a mood where I feel out of sorts but can’t point to any one thing as being the cause. That kind of state rarely does me any good: usually it means I won’t get a lot done, won’t enjoy the day as much, and am no help to the moods of people around me–unless I get out of it. To accomplish that, I have a very simple process I use, which is to list out worries in writing.

The idea here is just emptying my head. It’s related to David Allen‘s recommended practice of getting all of your thoughts and concerns on paper so that you can organize them, although in this case organization isn’t the point. It’s also related to decision logging, the practice of writing down notes about your own situation and choices as things happen in order to increase mindfulness, but it isn’t about mindfulness per se. In fact, the thing it’s most like that I’ve mentioned is swatting deer flies by letting them settle on you before you hit them (although I promise it’s much less nerve-wracking): that is, it’s about paying simple, direct attention to worries individually, one after the other.

This tactic doesn’t take any preparation: just grab paper and pen or fire up a computer, then start writing a list of whatever comes to mind that’s bugging you. It might look something like this:

– I’m still annoyed about that guy at the store who wouldn’t stop talking to me
– I can’t believe I forgot to pay my cell phone bill on time
– How in the world am I going to find time to take that refresher course?
– Do I need to go shopping? I don’t think there’s anything for dinner
– My car’s making that noise again

It’s not necessary to do anything about these issues as they come up, but when you’re done listing, you might want to start writing out your thoughts about each one, and to look for broken ideas. Sometimes all that’s needed to completely solve an issue is to reframe it in a healthy and accurate way.

You might think that writing these things down would cause more anxiety instead of less, but it really tends to produce relief. Instead of being plagued with multiple, unnamed anxieties, instead we’ve now got a list of clear, specific issues–issues we might even be able to do something about, although just getting them down in writing itself makes a real difference. My favorite moment in this process is when I ask myself “OK, what else?” and I just can’t think of anything. In that moment I’m reminded that the things I worry about have a limit, and that I might be able to make some progress in fixing them them … or even, until I can do something about them, just accept them … just for now.

Photo by Phoney Nickle

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The 5 Stages of Grief for a Parent

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


When you’re pregnant (or your significant other is), you spend a lot of your time thinking about the baby. You think about what he/she is going to look like. Will he/she look more like her father or her mother?

You think about what he/she will be like as a baby, how you will treat him/her. Are you going to co-sleep or have a bassinet and/or a crib? Are you going to nurse or use formula? What kind of diapers are you going to use?

I dreamt of giving my baby the type of education I wished I had. The best day cares, the best schools, the best teachers. The best programs. I wanted to give my daughter every opportunity in the world.

When you’re a mother, you can’t help but have these dreams and aspirations for your child. It’s part of your nature.

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When Natasha was 18 months old, her father, Tom, and I started to worry. She hadn’t said her first word. When she played, she played in “her own little world,” paying no attention to the kids or adults around her. She batted and flapped her hands at toys she liked. She didn’t pay any attention to us–we could call her name, but she wouldn’t usually react.

Her doctor said for us to sit back, not to worry–this could be just a normal delay in her development. Not a big deal at this age.

He had her tested for autism at 2. We patiently waited a year, going to every therapy we could think of, hoping and praying maybe she was simply developmentally delayed.

She was diagnosed as having autism at 3.

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In Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, the original first stage is denial. In the expanded stages, the first effect is shock.

In my case, my husband and I suspected there was something different about Natasha. We had seen it when we went to the playground or visited neighbors–there was a difference in the children.

I was at Starbucks, having a cup of coffee with a behavioral therapist, when she told me that Natasha might be autistic. Here was someone else, outside of the family, who noticed something wasn’t quite right. She didn’t have the education to diagnose; what we wanted was an educated opinion.

I was calm; after all, I knew what she was going to say. Mentally, I had prepared myself; however, my heart broke into pieces.

Watching as she went over the therapies Natasha should receive to help her with her social and communication skills, I froze, a black pit in my stomach growing with every thought and every dollar amount she mentioned.

I saw my dreams for my daughter, my hopes and wishes and desires, vanish into thin air.

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When Natasha was evaluated at two-years old, the behavioral pediatrician spoke candidly about the likelihood of Natasha being autistic and the possibility of her symptoms being only a developmental delay. She gave us the option to have Natasha diagnosed as having a global developmental delay rather than autism then having her evaluated again in a year, and we took it.

I made appointments for Natasha’s occupational therapy and arranged evaluations for her to be seen by the early intervention people to be evaluated for state and federal programs for developmentally delayed and autistic children from birth to three-years of age.

She stopped going to day care because I realized the teacher-student ratio may have been great for typically developing children, but Natasha needed someone to guide her activities rather than to let her wander for herself. Not long afterward, I left school so I could focus on her.

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The second stage of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief is anger.

It’s not fair. Why did this happen to us? Why did God allow this to happen?

I was angry at life. When I was alone, I screamed my anger out in the car with extremely loud guitars and a fast beat coming out of the speakers.  Sometimes I would rant and rave in the shower.

I was angry at myself because it was always possible that I could have done something wrong. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals–what if this was all my fault for not doing something I should have done? What if I didn’t spend enough time with her?

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Bargaining is the third stage.

While Dr. Kubler-Ross lists anger and bargaining (“I’ll do anything if ___ wasn’t so.”) as different sections, it’s very difficult in my mind to separate the two. Mentally, I bargained with everyone. I would have made a deal with the devil, had I thought it might have worked.

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The fourth stage is depression.

After I gave birth to Natasha, I suffered from post-partum depression. My OB/GYN prescribed an anti-depressant and told me to consult with my family doctor.

Due to Natasha’s developmental delay and subsequent diagnosis, my family doctor would increase that dosage twice in three years.

For me, this was a much-needed part of the solution.

Throughout my entire life, I have had problems with depression. The anti-depressant helped me have the willpower to overcome the despair and the apathy I felt when in a stage of deep depression. Six months ago, my doctor lowered the dose after I felt that I didn’t need quite as much anymore.

Of the stages of grief, I believe this is the one that can be the most harmful. You can stagnate. Depression can lead to inaction–in my case, that was the last thing I could do.

** NOTE: Please don’t think I’m advocating a particular method of dealing with or working through depression. This is what worked for me. The best way to determine what is right for you is to discuss your options with a therapist or your doctor.

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The first year of Natasha’s occupational therapy was my redemption.

Weekly, Natasha and I would go to the clinic where our therapist, L., would take us to the sensory gym. She would show Natasha how to take her shoes and socks off and we would go play on the trampoline, in the ball pit, or on the swings.

My mother tells me that teachers would talk to her during parent-teacher meetings and tell her she needed to get me to play. I didn’t play–from the time I could read, I’ve had my nose in a book.

L. taught me to play while teaching me how to help Natasha get the sensory information she craves. Not only was L. Natasha’s therapist, but she counseled me when I came to the appointments heart-broken and lost.

During this time, we saw all sorts of kids, some with autism, some with other problems, of varying ages and abilities. I watched the kids as they played and the therapists as they interacted with the kids and the other therapists. Some of the kids had problems that seemed to me much worse than Natasha’s–kids with feeding issues, sensory avoidance, physical disabilities. Watching them gave me hope.

Sometimes I talked with the parents of these kids. We would share stories and progress reports. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Through this year, we played games, bounced on the trampoline, jumped or swung into the foam pit, and surfed in the ball pit.  Slowly but surely, Natasha began to progress.  She started to sign “more,” “open” and “all done.” After a year of what felt like no progress whatsoever, she started to communicate with us.

My heart began to mend.

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The final stage of grief is acceptance.

It’s been a very long, rough road, but I’m mostly there. Sure, I have my moments of sadness that Natasha is autistic–but I’m realizing more and more that being autistic isn’t the end of the world.  It felt like it in the beginning but, through listening to Natasha’s therapists and seeing Natasha making progress in things Tom and I questioned whether she would ever do, I’m learning that it’s not.

It’s still hard.  I still have problems when I talk to mothers of children who are around the same age and they tell me their child never stops talking.  They inevitably always ask if Natasha does the same thing. Part of me knows it’s just making conversation, small talk–but it doesn’t stop a little pain going through my heart.

Natasha is in hippotherapy (therapy performed while on horseback) for occupational therapy, soon to be for speech therapy, and the stimulation she receives from riding a horse has been extremely beneficial to her. In the past few months, we have seen her go from not really wanting to pay attention to saying her alphabet and drawing smiley faces to actually beginning to mimic the words her father and I are saying. She’s beginning to understand we want to communicate with her and she’s beginning to want to communicate with us as well.

And acceptance seems a perfectly natural thing after all. This is who Natasha is and neither her father nor I want her to change into something she’s not.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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Mental Schemas #7: Vulnerability to Harm

Handling negative emotions

This is the seventh in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

How vulnerability schemas work
A person with the vulnerability schema has thoughts like these:

  • What if something happens to the plane while we’re in flight?
  • He’s late. Maybe he got in an accident.
  • Business hasn’t been good lately. What if I get fired and can’t get another job?
  • I can’t sleep when it rains because I keep worrying about flooding

Being vulnerable is part of being alive. No one is completely immune to natural catastrophes, disease, accidents, war, financial setbacks, crime, and all of the other kinds of trouble that can arise even when things are going well. Most of us either ignore this (“I’ll deal with it if it ever comes up”) or accept it on some level (“Sometimes bad things happen; I’ll just try to be prepared and not worry too much about it”), but people with the vulnerability schema have a lot of trouble letting go of these worries. Fear of something bad happening causes them to be overprotective, hyperanxious, or too timid to take chances.

People with the vulnerability schema generally get it from a parent who worried too much about things that might happen and passed the idea along to their children, insisting that the world is a dangerous place. Some children don’t acquire these ideas from the parents, learning from others or from experience that harm doesn’t lurk around every corner. Others, however, follow the model their parents (or other significant people in their lives) set.

Getting past a vulnerability schema
As with any schema, the vulnerability schema tends to come out in part as a series of broken ideas, like fortune telling (“I’m going to get swine flu from a sick kid at school!”) and emotional reasoning (“I’m so worried about earthquakes that I know one will happen before long.”) The day to day healthy habit of repairing these kinds of ideas helps weaken the vulnerability schema.

Also as with any schema, getting past a vulnerability schema means both accepting the idea of harm (“Sometimes bad things happen, and I’ll just do the best I can to get through them when they come up.”) and rejecting an obsession with harm (“Just because I’ve been worried about all of these things in the past doesn’t mean that I have to continue to be worried about them, or that I’m justified in my worry.”)

Photo by tj.blackwell

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Mental Secret Weapons versus a Cinnamon Bun

Self-motivation examples

There are cinnamon buns on the counter in my kitchen, which I bought for my son. There is nothing preventing me from having a cinnamon bun, since it wouldn’t be grossly unhealthy to eat one, and my son isn’t necessarily entitled to every single bun. But I definitely have no nutritional need for a cinnamon bun and in fact am still working hard to lose weight, so while I’d certainly get a little pleasure during the few minutes it would take to eat one, in the long run I’m likely to get more happiness by not eating one. As low-key as the satisfaction of having made a smart choice is, together with freedom from a mild sugar crash and greater ease in getting more fit it has more enjoyment to offer me in the long term than the cinnamon bun.

But, of course, I wanted a cinnamon bun. I went over to the counter and looked at them, thinking something like “These aren’t really good choices for me to eat, but I can’t resist.”

Stop! Halt! Broken idea detected!  “I can’t resist” is making the cinnamon bun issue into an absolute, as though it were an irresistable force like gravity instead of 1) mild hunger plus 2) most of a lifetime of bad snacking habits plus 3) a vague leftover sense of mild deprivation from childhood. Theoretically, staring at those cinnamon buns, I should still have a way out, even though I was strongly inclined to eat one.

Lately I’ve been trying to make a habit of pulling out whatever willpower tricks I have whenever I’m in a situation where I could make a bad choice, even if it’s a very minor bad choice. So I tried a few of the 24 anti-hunger techniques I could think of off the top of my head: “Have some tea (anti-hunger idea #11), or a piece of gum (#10),” I told myself. I don’t want tea or gum, I answered myself. I want a cinnamon bun. I actually reached for the container then.

“You’ll be happier if you don’t eat that!” I told myself in desparation (#2).

You promise? I answered. (I’m not making this up. I actually thought the words “You promise?” to myself. It was a little weird.)

“Yes, I promise,” I said. “So are we good?”

We were good. I stepped away from the cinnamon bun and drank some water (#12). It wasn’t even difficult to step away then. The effort had only had to go into coming up with a tactic that changed my thinking for that particular situation.

Changing my thinking worked because I like happiness, which was what I was able to offer myself. Happiness is good, and within pretty generous limits, more happiness is better. Apparently whatever part of me wanted the cinnamon bun was satisfied if it could trade it in for happiness. While I was surprised that this little mental conversation was sufficient to resolve the cinnamon bun problem for me, in general it makes sense. We always have a variety of dimly-seen forces prodding us to do things that ultimately we won’t be thrilled we did, but we also have available to us a wealth of secret mental weapons we can use to align ourselves with our own best intentions, including visualization, reframing, distraction, support, and others. If we get in the habit of trying a few of them whenever we’re faced with a difficult choice, sometimes we’ll surprise ourselves.

Photo by TowerGirl

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How To Do Something You Don’t Know How To Do

Strategies and goals

garage_sale

You would think a garage sale wouldn’t be difficult to figure out. You prepare a little, you advertise, you put things on card tables, you wait. I’ve been wanting to help my son set up a garage sale of a lot of things he’s outgrown, where he could be in charge and receive the profits, but I’ve been stopped by the idea that I can’t. I live in a fairly rural area, on a dirt road that doesn’t get any traffic. I’ve been held up by this idea that we should have a garage sale, but I don’t know how to set it up so that people will actually come.

I was thinking about the garage sale this morning and once I really turned my attention to it, I realized the idea that I didn’t know how to make it work was ridiculous. We will either have a garage sale or we won’t. If we do, we’ll either have it here or have it somewhere else. If we have it somewhere else, we just have to figure what lucky friend is going to get us taking over their porch or garage soon, and ask permission. The only reason I’ve been thinking “I don’t know how” is because I haven’t been wanting to face it. Garage sales take preparation, which I don’t feel like I have time for, and they last a whole day, which I definitely don’t have time for, and what if no one shows up and all of the effort is wasted and we still have the things left over? It’s not that I don’t know how to do it, it’s that the idea has been making me anxious. Dealing with anxiety has a lot to do with facing things and answering questions. A few simple answers sorted my situation out. We should have the sale, because my son will enjoy earning the money and will learn about money from it, and because we need the room the old things are taking up, and because it’s a waste to have them here if we can get them to someone who will actually use them. We should have it here so that he can mind the sale and I can do the other things I need to do, checking in with him regularly. And we’ll attract traffic as well as we can by putting signs out on the main road right near us, which will probably give us more custom than we would get in a suburban neighborhood.

Your something may not be as easy to figure out, but there are several useful ways to do something you don’t know how to do. So, what are they?

1. If you really can’t do it, move on
If you really have no way of accomplishing the task in front of you, even after reading the rest of this article,  then the problem isn’t doing the task: if you honestly can’t do it, then it’s not your responsibility. Instead, the problem is facing the inevitable consequences of not doing it. This requires a difficult but powerful tool: surrendering to reality.

The same situation applies if the only way you can do the thing in question is to not do something more important. For example, if the only weekend we could do the garage sale was the only opportunity we’d get for some time to see family members visiting the area, then we’d need to give up on the garage sale. Fortunately, there are often more options than there seem to be at first, which is what the rest of the article is about.

2. You don’t have to do it if it doesn’t need to be done
Sometimes we resist doing things because they really don’t make sense for us to do. If it were for me instead of my son, I probably wouldn’t have the garage sale at all, because the amount of money it brought in wouldn’t justify the time. Instead I’d donate everything to a local recycle shop, which would sell the items to lower-income people for very affordable prices. If you feel concerned about how you’re going to tackle a problem, make sure first that it makes sense for you to do it at all before you start worrying about how.

3. Do it differently if there’s a better way
Sometimes difficult problems become much easier if they’re approached in an unexpected way. If you have something you’re worried about doing, consider whether there are other approaches you could take that would simplify things. If my son had a few major items and otherwise mostly things that would sell for next to nothing, he could sell the major items on eBay or Craigslist, still learning about money and reaping the rewards, and we could give the rest away to the recycle shop.

4. If it can wait, improve your position and then do it
Some tasks need improved skills before they can be done well, in which case a combination of practice and patience will put you in a much better position to get the thing done, provided it can wait. Keep in mind that research overwhelmingly supports the idea that practically anyone of at least average intelligence can excel at almost anything if they get in enough deliberate practice. If I were worried my son wouldn’t do a good job of running the sale, we could spend some time doing pretend sales and finding educational computer games about buying and selling to help him learn. We’d have to decide whether the sale was worth the effort and whether we could wait that long to get the unneeded things out of the house, but it’s possible the effort spent learning about money would be more than worthwhile.

Other tasks benefit from a change in situation. If I were going to move in the near future to a location that’s better for a garage sale, I might store the sale items away and have the sale there once we’d moved.

5. If it would work better with help, get help
Sometimes a little advice or active assistance from a friend, family member, mentor, or even a hired professional can go a long way. This might be as simple as getting a better idea of the task from someone who’s done it already, or as involved as finding and hiring a business manager for your new venture if you’re great at the core activity of the business but not so great at marketing, accounting, and the other general business tasks. For example, I probably have friends who have things they’d want to sell too, and a two- or three-family garage sale might attract more people.

6. If it works best to do it now, just do it the best you can
If it needs to be done, if there aren’t good alternatives, if others can’t really help, and if it’s best to do it now (due to ongoing problems, limited opportunity, a deadline, etc.), then you’re in the same place I was: face things and provide answers. If you don’t know the answers to the questions, get the best information you can and answer them as well as you can. If you’re having trouble facing things, it’s probably due to broken ideas, which means it’s fixable.

7. If you know what to do but don’t feel motivated, get in touch with your reasons
Of course, it might be that when you think about it, you realize you really do know how to tackle this goal, and it really is an important one, but you don’t feel inspired to get in motion. If that’s the case, it can help a lot to get in touch with your real reasons for accomplishing the goal. If they’re someone else’s reasons, or if you’re just trying to fulfill expectations or fit some role, then it may be that it’s not such a good goal for you after all. But if the reasons are your own, get in touch with them: write down what made you decide to do the thing in the first place, or visualize what it will be like to do it–or to have gotten it done.

Regardless of what approach you take, remember that “I have to but I can’t” is a logical impossibility. If there’s really no way to do it, you’re off the hook: no one can make you do something you truly can’t do. If there is a way to do it, all you have to do is figure out whether you’re going to decide to, and if so what the best way is. There’s not always a good way, but there is always at least one best way. I hope you find yours. As for me, I have to help my son go sort through some old toys.

Photo by m.gifford

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