Writing a first draft in 3 weeks

Eagle-eyed readers of this site might have noticed I went quiet (more so than usual) over the summer. There was a combination of factors going on – not least trying to put together a pilot project for my doctorate – but another one was the one cited above.

I was writing.

A new book.

And I completed the first draft in 3 weeks’ time.

And no, I can’t believe it either. I’m kind of afraid to look at the printed copy and finding out a bunch of blank pages.

If you are as well-versed as I am in the field of writerly productivity tips, you will know that this isn’t really that much of a feat. Quite a lot of people complete their NaNoWriMo in half the time offered them, and there is even an article on how to write a novel over a long weekend which I had bookmarked on my phone from the day I got it (the phone, I mean) to the day the battery died completely. It’s a very attractive dream – not least because the feeling of “flow” is fantastic.

Some might even call it addictive. I certainly do.

Flow is amazing because flow is when stuff gets done. Finally, the words and images that have been plaguing you for months are out of your head and into the page; finally, you can tweet your wordcount and bask in people’s baffled adoration; finally, you feel like you are productive. But flow has another great benefit – it allows you to leave the self-consciousness at the door and write with abandon. It’s basically what any writing instructor – Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldman, Anne Lamott – will encourage their students to do. “I’m going to write a short, bad book,” is what Dani Shapiro’s friend reportedly says before she starts on a new project, and my God, this mantra was what I had in mind when I was trying to lay down the draft.

I could bring us all down to the group by pointing out that, once the short, bad book got written, I am faced with the task of deciding whether it’s viable. I could point out that those 3 weeks and 75K words might be worth nothing other than the enjoyment they brought me. I could say that I have set myself up for failure because no writing project after this could possibly go as good.

But if you’re like me, you clicked on this post to find out How I Did It. So, for what it’s worth, this is How I Did It.

I actually started this book one year ago. I had doodled the concept on a train journey and then ended up chatting about it with my then-supervisor who expressed very enthusiastic interest. Then I wrote snippets while on holiday – not actual structure or story, but random scenes that popped into my head as I went about my business. It was promising.

Then I got back from holiday and forgot the project even existed. It happens. Work piles up and life isn’t very far behind and I actually had another book I set my hopes on and worked hard on making as good as it could be. Naturally, when that proved to be Not Good Enough, I had to do something to take my mind off going into Waste Spirals*.

Oh, lookie, I had just the thing. Years of being unable to write made me approach the project warily. I expected nothing to happen, for words to just freeze up. But I was feeling restless and unhappy, so I set my old notebook out one night, then when I woke up, I got my laptop and told myself that I’ll be writing a short, bad book. I set myself a target, and, because my friend had tagged me to do the #22Kill challenge, I used that as an incentive for me to write 2200 words each day.

At first I flew by the seat of my pants. I had a bunch of ideas and backstory to lay down, plus I had a bunch of pre-written scenes that helped jog my memory, even if they themselves didn’t end up in the actual document. I was still pretty sure it would not go anywhere, and waited for the day when I would just dry up.

After I passed 10K words, though, I had to admit that I was stuck in this thing, so I might as well go all out. And I used the Snowflake Method to outline the rest of the novel. It took me a lot less time than it said it would – one evening – but that’s because I skipped on a bunch of steps and also, the idea had been in my head for a while, so I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch.  Once I had a scene list and a better understading of the character, stuff just kicked into high gear.

I’m sorry if this is vague, but the way I see it, writing is like trying to lay down a puzzle with only a partial idea of what the final picture looks like. You know the dimensions, you know the colour scheme, but you also find a lot of fine detail along the way. You need to find patterns and make leaps to connect plots and characters. The Snowflake Method really helps with that, but you also have to be ready to look for the things too.

It helped that I had a lot of time on my hands. I will never say that I am not privileged that my work schedule allows me a lot of free time on the summer to write. It also allowed me to exceed my word limit.

And, of course, having the ending in mind was really useful. I think with this one, I had the ending in my head almost as early as the beginning, which is great. Not every project is the same, though. And there’s no guarantee that it won’t change in subsequent drafts.

In fact, my job now is to figure out what it is that I wrote. What it’s all about, and whether it’s worth pursuing further. 

I will keep you updated.

 

*Waste Spiral: the constant reminiscing of the time, effort and resources spent on trying to make a thing work, and it did not pay off. Often found in creative people, as well as anybody why spent money on a gadget that did not perform to task. Could end causing excessive amounts of stress and rage.

Ringing Ears

 

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Source: Death to the Stock Photo (because, duh!)

Headphones: what do these mean for you?

Travel. Escape. Safe haven. Nuisance. Gym. Excitement. Relaxation. Music. Podcasts. Movies. Happy place.

How about pain? Or fear?

My last two writing projects have been about people who cannot use one of their senses. One is mute-by-choice. The other is partially deaf. I’ve had people signing and writing and reading lips, body language has taken centre stage during dialogue, and the irony meter is hitting astronomical levels because my ears have been ringing for a while now.

*

To be clear, my ears ring a few times a year, and then it lets out. I try not to freak. The doctors make soothing noises. (They always make soothing noises.)

*

I’ve only been using headphones extensively since I went to uni. It is a considerate roommate thing to do, in shared halls and thin walls. There was a learning curve, to be sure, but by the end of the year, I had a habit set.

I also use my headphones extensively when I’m walking out and about. Street harassment does that to you – once or twice is all it takes. You want to make yourself small. You want to close your senses. Even if it hurts you.

And now I am to break that habit? How?

*

Working from home helps.

Even if the silence presses down on me all the time, even if it’s difficult to just put on the music like regular people do, being alone helps because I’m less self-conscious.

Then there is all the driving I’ve been doing lately, and though that comes with stressors of its own (why is it that people turn into massive dicks when they see a woman driving? why?) I’m finding it really helpful for my music habit.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to just walk out without headphones in my ears. How long until I have the confidence to just take up space in the world.

How to write a book (an ongoing project)

Please note that the following is written and intended as a comedic piece and should not under any circumstances be taken as a definitive guide to writing a book.

Also, please note that this is the comedic guide to writing A book. For the guide on writing bestsellers, please refer to the literary magazine that you consider your personal bible and/or the diety of your choice.

 

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Right, the first thing you need is an IDEA.

You can get those by drinking unicorn tears by the full moon. Alternatively, read as many books as you can and then write as many practice stories as you can by copying the plot and changing the names of the characters, while also writing tons and  tons of fanfiction.

Bonus points if you play with genders of characters in fanfiction.

Extra bonus points if you write crack pairings.

Once you have developed your idea muscle by rote-learning ALL OF THE PLOTS (or you drank your magical unicorn tears, which by the way taste like boiled broccoli) it’s time to diversify. Read ALL of the books you can get your hands on in your chosen genre (what, you thought you were done reading? Dream on, sucker!) and then find out what is missing from it.

Bonus points if you write snarky reviews for these books online. Points deducted if you send the author a link to the negative reviews because really? Not cool.

Having identified what is missing from the genre of your choice, you have the building blocks to write your book. For the actual writing, there are several schools of thought that fall into the broad categories of plotter or pantser. In Internet update terms, the plotters are the ones who always have a new chapter of their fanfic up on Tuesday. Pantsers are those who give you radio silence for a month and then come back with ten million chapters, thus clogging up your inbox with automatic notifications. Don’t sweat too much about which camp you fall into though. Everyone deals with huge amounts of guilt and unreasonable expectations of their writing.

If someone tells you they don’t use coffee to get through the day, they’re either lying or they are a zen master and it is your duty to learn their ways because caffeine shakes and long periods of writing do not mix.

Sufficient experience in writing fanfiction might have preppe d you to write your book, but you will quickly discover that it’s quite different to go through a plot without the sweet, sweet carrot that are chapterly reviews. You might find it helpful to sign up for NaNoWriMo, if only to meet other hopeful novelists who will be your betas. (You will find that good beta reading is a lot more different from leaving a comment to someone’s lemony slashfic, but the principle of giving what you hope of receiving holds.)

The process of your first draft has been detailed by the good people of the Office of Letters and Light (aka the NaNoWriMo team) so I won’t get into it here. You may find it worthwhile to come back for a repeat experience. Just bear in mind that if your NaNo project gets published, everyone will want to be your friend.

Editing also falls into a number of camps, although the differences in that case boil down to how much time will you leave between drafts, and what colour pen you will use to make edits. The answer to both questions is generally found through trial and error and reading a lot of published people’s blogs. (It’s not procrastination. It’s apprenticeship.

The point between your first and second draft is usually spent in daydreaming about literary fame, fortune, and researching agents. Such planning is expected and encouraged, but it is adviseable that you put off actually contacting agents and editors until you have at least read through your book. December is a particularly undesirable time to submit, since this is when NaNo usually finishes.

As you edit your book (and editing really is about reading and thinking critically about what you’ve done) you might experience a condition referred to as are-we-there-yet syndrome. Commonly found in toddlers and authors at various stages of a new project, this is a condition symptomised by:

  • teeth grinding
  • obsessive reading of authors’ blogs (this really is procrastination)
  • reading mean online reviews
  • practicing your Carnegie Medal acceptance speech
  • counting down the days until you’re done
  • depressive episodes when you fall short of schedule
  • binge-watching your boxset of choice and then working in a reference to the show within the manuscript

To calculate your actual finishing time, you will need to take however long it took you to write the first draft, multiply by 2 to take into account the possible redrafts that you will make unprompted, multiply that by the number of beta readers you have, add six-months when you query every agent under the sun, another six months where you make another vital edit, and then apply a Lying Weasel Factor of 2 which will account for depressive episodes, having to take time off writing because you have to work or study, and waiting for the cast to come off your hand because you gave yourself Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Then query again.

If you think about what an imposter you are… well, you might be getting there.

 

 

Suspended

 

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Source: Death to the Stock Photo

There’s a stretch of road in every half-marathon I’ve ran, as well as a stretch in the writing of a new draft, that feels particularly difficult.

Dani Shapiro writes that when you near the end of a project, it starts to suddenly cooperate, but to me, this is one of the hardest parts of it all. Yes, middles are a slog, and sometimes just getting started is a battle in itself, but when I know the end is nearing, I feel both stuck and both full of nervous, random energy.

Jeez, privileged much? Is there any part of this process that you do like?

There is – many, in fact, and often the same ones that I profess hating. But it’s a true mindfuck (pardon my French) when I hit this space of happening and non-happening. Time stretches. I am exhausted. I am filled with manic energy. I might crash and burn at any moment. I don’t believe I’ll cross the finish line.

So far, touch wood, I’ve managed to do it. But this kind of experience is the closest I get to being suspended in time. (Until we develop space travel, I guess, in which case we all will be hopping in a sleeping pod to await arrival at new colonies. Thank you, sci-fi channel.)

This is also the part where the usual fears seem the most real. What if I never finish? What if I am never ready? I might be less than half a mile from a finish line, but I’ll have forgotten about the 12.5 that I’ve already put behind me, and convince myself that a terrible mistake has happened.

It can’t possibly be ending.

I’ve just started to have fun.

I’ve not nearly suffered enough.

I wonder if this is how other people can tell they are at the right job?

 

Inspiration

 

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They say not to wait for it.

It’s a more fickle mistress than fame.

Fool’s gold.

Inspiration. 

*

If you have any desire to do art of any kind, you learn pretty quickly that you should not count on inspiration to strike before you start to work. Even though the same thing applies to all professions – you don’t see doctors waiting for the mood to strike before they see patients, or do you? – it’s the artists that are being told, over and over, not to rely on their inspiration.

Artists are also those constantly being asked where they get their ideas from, too. They are, after all, the professional dreamers.

So what happens when inspiration is literally gone?

I’m not talking about that general blank feeling you get as you sit down at your desk in the morning (or your park bench, stencil, computer, favourite seat on the train to work, magical zazen cushion, whatever). I’m talking about when the last thing you want to do is create, when your very soul seems to have been poisoned.

Every time I see the news, the sickness seems to grow worse. No matter how much time I spend around good people, doing good work, all I have to do is look around and I will find another horrible tragedy lurking at the corner. What’s the point, I ask. Why bother making art?

It just seems so self-indulgent.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a skill that would make me otherwise useful in such times. If I were a medic, or a soldier, or a diplomat, I’d probably be too busy to sit around and wonder about my purpose in the world. As is, I have to make a decision: will I be burying my head in the sand further?

I don’t think I can.

However much it hurts to look, it hurts more to pretend everything is okay.

So while it’s true that inspiration doesn’t strike down from heaven, I will also not find it by navel-gazing and playing the staring game with my laptop. I’ll have to dig it out – kicking and screaming – out of the debris of life.

 

Halfway through 2016

 

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Photo credit: Me

When you struggle with perfectionism and self-doubt, it can sometimes seem like your life is grinding to a halt and you are spending your days doing nothing. So, in an attempt to not beat myself up, here is a laundry list of what I’ve been up to in the past 6 months.

 

Work:

I had a successful annual review of my Ph.D. and I’m progressing with the writing.

I presented at 2 student-led conferences.

I submitted a distributed paper for a third.

I submitted an article to 2 different journals (it needs work.)

Volunteered for Childline.

Raised £200 for the NSPCC/Childline by running two half marathons

Travel:

I travelled to Florence.

And Sussex.

And Edinburgh.

Reading (non-academic, because if I include that my head will explode):

  1. The Gastronimical Me, M.F.K. Fisher
  2. Leg to stand on, Oliver Sacks
  3. Bound Feet and Western Fress, Natasha Pang-Mei Chang
  4. On the Move, Oliver Sacks
  5. Rising Strong, Brene Brown
  6. M Train, Patti Smith
  7. Regarding the pain of others, Susan Sontag
  8. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
  9. The Dandelion Years, Erica James
  10. Some personal opinions, Margaret Mead
  11. Slow Motion, Dani Shapiro
  12. Love, Undetectable, Andrew Sullivan
  13. New Suicide Squad, vol 1
  14. Why we write about ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran
  15. Art and Lies, Jeanette Winterson
  16. Why we write, edited by Meredith Maran
  17. The Complete Butcher’s Tales, Rikki Ducornet
  18. The Girl on the train, Paula Hawkins
  19. Polar Bears, Mark Haddon
  20. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  21. Deafness, an autobiography, David Whyte
  22. A little life, Hanya Yanagihara (reviewed for Bibliodaze, here)
  23. The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter
  24. A Year of Marvellous Ways, Sarah Winman
  25. The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge
  26. Far From You, Tess Sharpe

Not nearly as exciting as my peak years on Goodreads, but not too bad either.

Writing:

Ah, the big one. See, in terms of writing, I can’t say I can complain, even if my progress with the novel has reached glacial pace levels. Because after I read this article on why we ought to collect rejections, I went back and looked at how many I’ve amassed in the 8 months of queries I’ve done (plus all the contest entries and short story and article submissions.) The result was… unexpected:

Total submissions: 78

Rejections: 37

Non-response (silent rejections): 38

Acceptances: 3 (more on those soon-ish)

+ One very strong encouragement following a writer’s retreat with SCBWI

Add to that my newfound push for blogging, including the Lenten Stories, and a few pretty long fanfics, and I’m surprised my fingers haven’t fallen off from typing.

Add to that the fact that I’m about 2/3rds through version 3 (and rewrite number 8) and all the Lenten stories I’ve written, I’ve got to say, it’s been a good 8 months.

 

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Photo credit: Me

 

Misc life stuff:

I resumed driving lessons.

I got a car (AND PAID MOST OF THE DEPOSIT AND ALL OF THE INSURANCE AND ALL OF THE ROAD TAX MYSELF!)

I got my purple belt.

I ran the aforementioned half-marathons.

I finally furnished my room.

I resumed learning Italian.

I also resumed my drawing/painting.

I finally bit the bullet and made a plan with my doctor to help myself.

As we say in my support group, that’s a lot of NSVs all around. 

How’s 2016 been treating you?

A sad few days

I’m staring at a screen, wondering if there’s a point in even writing this post. Which is fitting, considering how apathy and general mistrust of politics is why we are in this position in the first place.

Let me reiterate, in case you are not up to speed with recent developments: on the 23rd June, the UK held a referendum to determine whether to leave the European Union or not. The Leave camp won with 52% over 48% Stay. The Parliament now has to vote as to whether they will follow through on the people’s decision. David Cameron, the country’s PM, resigned on the morning of the 24th, and stated that it would be up to his successor to implement Article 50 of the European Treaty, thus starting the formal process of the UK leaving the EU.

At the time of this writing, there is still a lot of uncertainty on whether or not the UK would actually leave the EU. There is a petition to launch a second referendum, as less than 75% of the population voted and the margin of winning was so slim. Political analysts describe how an actual leaving of the EU would be a disasterous political move. Reports of “buyer’s remorse” from Leave voters flood my Facebook timeline. A lot of people are calling for “keep calm and carry on” attitudes, cooperation and tolerance…

But at the same time, racist and xenophobic attacks are on the rise. People may have voted to leave the EU because they genuinely want the best for their country, but they have also legitimized the attitudes of a scary faction – one that doesn’t shy away from hurting others.

As an EU citizen in the UK, I have a lot of feelings about this. Right now, it’s near impossible to write objectively about the situation, because all of it – the campaigns, the vote, the follow-up – it feels like a giant kick in the teeth.

“It’s not personal,” said the Leave voters who presumably weren’t racists and xenophobes. “Besides, it’s just a vote, it doesn’t mean anything.”

You’re wrong. It is personal, and it does mean something. It means something to the Polish families who received threats in their mail. It means something to the EU citizens getting harassed on buses and trains. It means something to the British citizens of color who are being stopped on the streets and told to “go home.”

It means something to me, to know that 52% of this country would sit back and let me be harassed, bullied, threatened, assaulted. “Treated as collateral” as Jennie Stevenson put it on Facebook. 52% of this country thinks it’s okay to legitimize the views of racists and xenophobes. 52% of this country rejected me and everyone who is like me. If they saw me being attacked on the street, they walk on and let me fend for myself. How am I supposed to not feel frightened and rejected? How do I not take this personally?

The real icing on the cake is that I, and every other EU citizen that I know living in the UK is here, contributing to the economy in some way or another. My parents paid for me to go to a UK university. I worked for UK firms and organizations, paid taxes, and now I do research that contributes to the wellbeing of UK citizen and makes my UK institution more competitive on its respective market. I don’t claim benefits. I volunteer and fundraise for the NSPCC, and give money to Cancer Research and Unicef every month. To my knowledge, there has never been a time where a British citizen had been passed on for a job in order for me to be hired. The same is true for everyone I’ve ever met – we are not a burden to the system, we just want to exercise our human right to work and live good lives.

And we had no say in the referendum.

We did not get a vote. Our voices were drowned out by racist rhethoric. The leaders of the main political parties never stood up for us – instead, they kept saying how we needed to talk about immigration, discuss immigration, reconsider immigration. Nobody tried to humanize us or dispel the fearmongering myths about us. Nobody addressed the issue head on, even when it was at the heart of the referendum debate.

We cannot say anything now to defend ourselves. We know that 1 in 2 people at least in this country would sit back and let us be abused, or worse, attack us, if we dared complain that we are being treated unjustly.

And yes – I get it why some people voted Leave. We live in scary times and we are all scared. We don’t like the EU and how it’s being run. We have barely crawled out of the recession and now it seems like we’re ready to plunge right back in.

But before you tell me how we all need to “work together” and “stop being negative” and “think about the future”, check your damn privilege for a second. You’re not the ones getting hate mail and being harassed on the street. You’re not the ones who have to reassure your children that you’re not getting deported. You’re not the ones wondering what’s going to happen to your family if the borders close up. You’re not the ones living in fear of what the next day will bring.

It’s been a sad weekend. I cannot yet see the light at the horizon, and I’m tired from navigating my boat in the dark. Don’t deny me the right to pull up my oars and rest. From what I can tell, I’ll be rowing against the tide a lot.

Mourning the day

 

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Proto credit: me

It seems like the older we get, the more normal it becomes for us to express surprise at the passage of time. From the most private of journals to the most viral of Youtube videos, we are all exclaiming:

Where has the time gone?

And so here is my voice, joining the chorus. At least being a cliche is fairly easy to live with.

Where has the time gone?

It feels like I only woke up an hour ago, with greasy hair and hungry. How did I manage to eat, shower, and put my make-up on seems unfathomable enough. That it’s past 5 PM already is mind-bending. Yet so it is. I seem to have gone through an entire day, where the most useful thing I did was going to get my windshield wipers fixed. (Because the shop didn’t change them before handover of the vehicle.)

Where has the time gone?

Of course, there were other things. I signed up for another half-marathon (I know, I know, I’ve got a problem), submitted some art for consideration, practiced my driving (badly, I’m sure.) I thought about my upcoming birthday and how I need to appreciate all the accomplishments that I have made. I thought about celebrating myself as I am, even if my writing probably makes me sound like a teenager instead of someone in her mid-20s. I thought about all the ways we devalue ourselves, big and small, day in and day out. And I still feel like crap.

Where has the time gone?

Does time go faster when you’re feeling sorry for yourself, or just when you’re struggling with a task?

Or is it the other way around? Does struggling with a task make time go slower and make you feel sorry for yourself?

The latter does seem to make more sense.

 

Writing through burnout

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Source: Death to the Stock Photo

Sometimes I like to dress up, put on the music, pile on the make-up, and tell myself that it’s okay, that I’ll get through the day and it’ll be awesome.

Other times I change from one set of pajamas to the next and spend my morning staring at the screen, while bemoaning the state of my hair.

And then there are the times when I just stare out the window, wondering what the fuck am I doing with my life.

Sometimes, I rotate between those three states multiple times during the course of a single morning. On the whole, I find that I feel better if I can get out of the house and take my work to another place, although not always. And I definitely cannot say that writing always helps me through it.

As a person who experiences episodes of low mood and depression, I’m aware of the tropes surrounding artistic talent and mental illness. Artists are crazy. Are manias drive our genius. Our art saves us and it dooms us. We’re either blessed and cursed, never in between.

Yeah, no.

There are times when writing was helpful to me, although for some people,  it would not be for the “right” reasons. Growing  up, as a child and teenager, I wasn’t very much loved at school, my social life felt precarious, and while I got good grades, they were a source of stress rather than validation. Art, and writing in particular, were things I did for their own sake, and they rarely caused me trouble; but they were also a source of validation and comfort. Adults praised me for what I did. They encouraged my efforts. If all else failed, I could count on my stories and drawings to provide identification for me.

It wasn’t until later in life, when I started putting my back into it, that I realized art, too, could also be a source of considerable stress for me. (As privileged children sometimes discover when they reach adulthood.) Sure, when it’s going well, it’s well, fantastic even. But I don’t know what makes it go well. As far as I can tell, it has something to do with how the planets are aligned and if the sertraline is messing with my taste buds on a particular day, and also if I’ve been exercising and haven’t crushed any of my fingers with car doors.

As far as I can tell, burnout, anxiety, depression, they affect you the same way whether you’re an artist or not. You feel tired. You feel hopeless. You doubt yourself and anybody who has ever praised you in your lifetime. You wonder what you’re doing with your life. You try to push yourself to work just to prove that you’re not a failure. If it happens to be a productive workday, you may succeed, but there’s no guarantee of that. And if it isn’t a productive workday, God help you, you’re going to end up feeling like crap.

So here’s my advice on writing through burnout:

Don’t tell yourself that you will feel better once you sit down and start putting words and sentences out. You don’t know that. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But try checking your expectations for a second. Make a list if you want.

What are you hoping to achieve today?

Is it a realistic workload, or are you overdoing it?

Are all of these urgent, important things that you need to finish today? (If it’s a big list, you might want to take a moment considering how that list came to be – it may be that you said ‘yes’ to too many things.)

If you only achieved 50% of the tasks on it, would you still feel successful?

Is it possible to cut today’s to-do list by 50%?

This isn’t all compulsory – if  you have a system that works better, go for it, that’s awesome, and you rock for finding what works for you. If  you’re looking for ideas, it might be worth asking yourself some of those questions, though.

Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, they warp our perceptions of ourselves. They blow our faults out of proportion, diminish our successes, and make us feel like we’re supposed to “earn” our existence in this world by doing more and more and more, achieving extravagant tasks and finishing huge to-do lists every day. They don’t care for variation or nuance, even when those things are a vital part of life.

They make us feel worthless, when we’re actually not doing too bad. They will never be satisfied, even when we stop.

Maybe it’s time to call them out on that.