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The Life-Changing Magic of Zeroing Non-Writing Commitments

At Chez O’Hara, we’re about to enter a new phase of life. My husband is retiring, leaving his workplace of thirty-five years. Our youngest is about to graduate and will probably receive a job offer in another town, making us empty-nesters. Even if we weren’t halfway through 2019, it would be a natural time to take stock of the year’s goals and rejig them, ensuring room for new adventures.

Perhaps you’d like to join me.

In the past, goal-setting has mostly consisted of me getting excited about all the things I would add to my life in a never-ending quest to do more things with greater efficiency. There’s still part of me that wants to think this way, but both personal experience and science say those are delusional expectations.

The new game in town is what can be banished without sacrifice in order to clear space for true priorities. In other words, mindful curation.

What Must Be Kept

Because of the enormous time and energy that deep goals take and the effort required to “channel switch,” the evidence suggests humans do best when they focus on no more than 2-3 outcome goals at a time. (An outcome goal being the endgame you desire, like completing a novel or running a marathon or having a close, loving relationship with your immediate family.)

Once clear on those, it’s suggested that we set no more than 1-3 daily process goals within each outcome goal. These are tasks that, if routinely accomplished, will get you to the outcome you desire.

For example, let’s say your desired outcome goal is to achieve a normal BMI via healthy means by year’s end. (Given where you are at present, if that isn’t a realistic objective, set an intermediate one. It’s crucial to articulate an exciting outcome that is also achievable!) Your daily process goals might be something like: eat a salad; get in 6,000-10,000 steps; prepare your meals at home; drink a glass of water in the morning, etc.

Or, since this is a website devoted to the craft and business of fiction, let’s say your desired outcome goal is to write a novel this year and have it reach an intended audience, whether that consists of agents, editors, or actual readers. Your daily process goals might include the plan to: write one page, spend 15 minutes building your platform, query 1 agent, or spend 15 minutes in professional development.

Do you have your outcome and process goals in place?

Time to Mindfully Prune Everything Else

This step is particularly important if, like me, you tend to be on the open end of the personality spectrum. i.e. You love to learn and frequently come across information that will help in your writing career. Before you know it, you’ve signed up for X newsletter, joined Y Facebook group, or purchased the Z course.

If you’re truly like me, you’ve done all three. This week. *sad trombone*

It’s also crazily important if you’re on the conscientious end of the personality spectrum, meaning that once a commitment is in your life, you have a hard time skimping on it or letting it go altogether. (For this reason, hyperconscientious people are wise to build in a cooling-off period before taking on new commitments.)

While pruning, one crucial thing I’m doing differently?

Instead of asking what must go, ask what must stay.

Decision fatigue is real. The modern world creates innumerable distractions. When you write, the need to protect your intellectual capital—a clear, creative mind—is a genuine struggle.

For these reasons, Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer scientist with an interest in effective work habits, has a process for rebooting your commitment to social media. It’s worthwhile to read about, if only to see how you can apply the model to everything else in your life.  (I’d also recommend this specific podcast with Cal Newport and Rich Roll, which you can listen to while getting in your daily step count.)

Essentially, the idea is to zero out your optional commitments for a significant period, like 30 days. Give yourself a taste of freedom. Then add back in only what is necessary or, to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, what “sparks joy.”

Imagine a world where you apply this process to your:

  • Inbox, full of newsletter subscriptions you resent or delete unread
  • Physical TBR pile, which looks at you reproachfully
  • E-reader, full of free or deeply discounted books you’ll never read
  • Social media accounts, some of which consume far too much energy and time for the benefits provided
  • Podcast subscriptions
  • YouTube channels
  • Online forums or groups

You get the idea.

In the past few months, starting at zero and building up has been an eye-opener for me. It’s amazing how much mental clutter I’ve accumulated by default, good intentions, and experimentation. I’m amazed at how much better I feel with a few, consistent changes.

Specifically, I began by setting aside time on the weekend to look at the subscriptions that enter my inbox. Remember, despite me having volunteered to receive them, my assumption was that I would cancel them unless I could make a convincing case for retention.

Some were easy to discard the first time around, and I felt the benefits immediately. There was less of an ugh! feeling each time I checked my dwindling inbox and I could see the potential to gain tranquility.

Others had to stay. They were simply too fun or useful.

The final category brought more ambiguity. They were rather like a nice acquaintance who took our friendship more seriously than I did, and who had taken to dropping in uninvited. Initially, I coped by sticking them in my Feedly subscription, which is silly honestly, since I haven’t opened it in over a year. But it felt like an intermediate step borne of caution. Now I just unsubscribe, promising myself I can always reverse course. Thus far, though, that  has yet to happen.

Nowadays, each time I open my inbox, I get a jolt of appreciation for its increasing manageability. I feel freshly inspired as I set my sights on curating other items on the list above.

And I’m hopeful that with my life partner at home, I’ll have made space for the important things in this upcoming new stage of life.

If not, I know the process. Back to the pruning stage I will go.

What about you, Unboxeders? Does this approach hold appeal? If there was one commitment you could let go of right now that would bring you more time to focus on your writing goals, what would that be? What’s stopping you from stopping?



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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.