Book Review: The Courage to Be Happy by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Nicole Dieker reviewed The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga in 2019. It remains the most popular book review she’s ever written.

There’s one chapter in The Courage to Be Happy that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it — and although I know I shouldn’t spoil my favorite part of the book for you, I’m going to do it anyway:

The philosopher had brought out a piece of paper folded into a triangular column. From where the youth sat, only two of its three faces could be seen. On one face were the words “That bad person,” and on the other, “Poor me.” According to the philosopher, the complaints of anxious people always ended up being one or the other. And then the philosopher slowly rotated the triangular column with his thin fingers, and revealed the words written on the remaining face — words that shook the youth’s heart.

These words — the ones that literally change everything — are “What should I do from now on?”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought about that little triangle, and the way it asks all of us to make a choice. Make a change. Make magic.

The rest of the book, unfortunately, is slightly less memorable.

If you had to choose only one of the two books — that is, The Courage to Be Disliked or The Courage to Be Happy — the original remains the better read, both in its explication of Adlerian philosophy and in its life-changing insights (separation of tasks, living without the desire for recognition, vertical vs. horizontal relationships, and so on).

The Courage to Be Happy focuses primarily on how a person can apply Adlerian philosophy in the classroom — that is, how one can teach without rebuking or praising (because both rebuke and praise create a vertical relationship in which the student is not encouraged to complete their own tasks).

Except even this is explained better, and more succinctly, in the first volume:

Philosopher: Having understood that studying is the child’s task, one considers what one can do for him. Concretely speaking, instead of commanding from above that the child must study, one acts on him in such a way that he can gain the confidence to take care of his own studies and face his tasks on his own.

Youth: And that action isn’t forced?

Philosopher: No, it’s not. Without forcing, and with the tasks always kept separate, one assists the child to resolve them by his own efforts. It’s the approach of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” He is the one who has to face his tasks, and he is the one who makes the resolution.

Youth: So you neither praise nor rebuke?

Philosopher: That’s right, one neither praises nor rebukes. This kind of assistance, which is based on horizontal relationships, is referred to in Adlerian psychology as “encouragement.”

I’ll give you an example of what this looks like, from my actual life: Yesterday, I played the first and second movements of Mozart K332 for L — and when I was done, instead of telling me what he thought of my performance (creating a vertical relationship in which he had the power to decide what was good/bad about me) he sat very quietly and looked at me and then I told him what I thought of the work I had just done.

And then I told him what work needed to be done before I played for him again.

At that point, L (who teaches piano, when we aren’t enjoying the rest of our lives together) could provide assistance; tips, technical exercises, and so on.

That’s the difference between encouraging and rebuking/praising.

The trouble is — and this is what much of The Courage to Be Happy is about — that many young people haven’t yet developed the presence of mind to think clearly about the work they’ve done or what work needs to be done next.

The youth argues that children need to be told what is good and bad, by someone who knows, before they can develop this skill on their own.

The philosopher argues that all you have to do is encourage, and through this process the child will become motivated to evaluate and improve their own efforts.

Is that true? It would be wonderful if encouragement always led to motivation — if encouragement led to courage, as the youth finally figures out — but I know from my own teaching work that some students leave my classes eager to put their new techniques into practice and others just leave.

Which could mean that I am not as encouraging of a teacher as I could be.

It might also mean that encouragement-based education doesn’t scale; that any time a teacher is working with multiple students at once, it becomes difficult to encourage each one individually (and very, very easy for students to notice who is being encouraged and who isn’t, creating a classroom hierarchy that causes some students to feel discouraged instead).

The book also argues that if certain students are not fully committed to your classroom, it may be because their primary motivations lie elsewhere; they might not want to become a pianist or a writer, for example, and might have their own projects and interests that they are courageously pursuing in their limited free time — to which the youth responds “that’s great for piano or whatever, but everyone ought to learn basic literacy and numeracy and history and so on, how do you teach that without rebuking or praising?”

Encourage them to take up the task of learning, the philosopher says again.

And then the youth essentially says “My students are not the little self-motivated Adlerian models that you describe! Teaching is a lot harder when you have bad students instead of perfect ones! Poor me!”

And then — well, you know what question the philosopher asks next. ❤️

Thoughts From My Office

Just a few short thoughts for you today, since the Where I Got Published list is very, very long…

In 2019, I reviewed The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga — and two years later people are still discovering and reading my review (it remains the most popular book review I’ve ever done).

On Monday, I’m going to review the sequel, The Courage to Be Happy (very excited about this, I have a lot to say). I re-read The Courage to Be Disliked as prep, and re-discovered a lot of insights that seem very applicable to our current political-social situation (go read the sections on “feelings of inferiority,” go go go) as well as one insight that seemed particularly directed towards me:

I withdrew from places that are preoccupied with winning and losing. When one is trying to be oneself, competition will inevitably get in the way.

I had already figured out, by the time I read that, that I didn’t need to preoccupy myself with either fantasies or strategies related to winning international piano competitions two years from now. I may still enter something like that in the future, just to see what it’s like and meet other amateur pianists, but I’m not thinking about winning and fame and public recognition.

Because — and I shouldn’t have to tell you that somebody else said this for it to be true, but still — I played for Marian Call last night (over Zoom) and she said “Wow. You’ve gotten to an entirely different level since the last time I heard you.”

And I said, just like I did last Friday when I played for L, “I know. I know. I know.”

And my knowing that, without needing anyone else to tell me I’m doing well because I already know, the only thing that matters is sharing what I’m learning with other people, is what’s really important.

More on Monday. ❤️

Where did I get published this week?


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Let Your Creative Practice Be Your Anchor

Nicole Dieker hopes she’ll get to teach another HappyWriter course soon, and she promises she’ll tell you as soon as the next one is set up.

Yesterday, I had my second session with a group of HappyWriter students, discussing how to build a creative practice and what to do when life gets in the way.

One of my students asked a very interesting question about — well, I won’t tell you what the question was, because that feels like it violates teacher/student confidentiality, but I will tell you how I answered:

“There are going to be times, for all of us, when life becomes unstable. You’re going to be tempted to let your writing practice go during those times — and that is always an option. My personal creative practice kind of disappeared at the beginning of the pandemic, and it disappeared again when I bought and moved into my first house this summer. I know what it’s like to have a concern that’s so pressing that it dominates your thoughts and makes it very difficult to think of, much less create, anything new.”

“But,” I continued, “if you find yourself in a situation where the instability or flux or stuckness is somewhat open-ended, if the issue is less that you’re spending six weeks moving into a house and more that you don’t know what your life is going to look like in six months, let your creative practice be your anchor. Make the time, keep the time, do the work. Your anchor can keep you in place, even if you’re in the middle of some very rough water.”

“And then,” I said, “when the water is calm again and you can start moving, your anchor comes with you. Because that’s how boats work.”

I mean, I only know a very little about how boats work, but L confirmed that both my physics and my metaphor were in the right place.

He also asked me, mostly as a joke, if I told the class that the only reason I could make a boat metaphor at all was because he and I spent so much time on his pontoon boat last summer.

I hadn’t mentioned it, nor did I even hint that L was the person who taught me to love boats and lakes and coves and kayaks — which is why I’m telling you now. ❤️

The Singing

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

Such silence. I step out onto the covered back porch and listen while my eyes adjust to the moonless dark. Nothing. Then: a car on the highway, half a mile away. A light wind, jostling the arborvitae. At last, so low and deep I have to think it first: the winter sea, resonant in the middle distance. 

It is the week between Christmas and the New Calendar Year, and I have come with my housemate-family to a little-sung slice of Oregon’s edge. We’ll spend six days reading, cooking, hiking, and playing board games, without the clock to rule us. It is the end of 2020, and Covid-19 has made the usual holiday travel ill-advised. We like each other enough to vacation together, so we have made yet another virtue of quarantine.

I am intending, this week, to write poetry. Among things I love, writing poetry ranks consistently high. Not poetry itself — though I do like that, very much — but the composing of it, the work of it. Poetry is a vocation primarily because it will not leave me alone. And fortunately I don’t want it to. We’re suited. 

Fast forward five days. I have sat down each morning to write, and I have written. It’s all bad. Beautiful words, that wander with me down lonely beaches and secret, sand-floored halls of pine, in written form decline to become other than blowsy prose. 

I don’t despair. Writing crap is an important part of eventually writing well. But I am disappointed. Such silence, such a lack of responsibility, such an enviable spaciousness of time — and I haven’t written a single other-than-ordinary sentence, even in my oldest and best companion, my journal. 

Is this writer’s block? The conflicting advice on this phenomenon (or figment, depending on who you ask) makes my head ache. My strategy has been to ignore the idea unless it becomes immediately relevant. I’m pondering it this afternoon, and deciding it’s still not applicable. I’m writing; I’m just not writing anything worth working on. I close the keyboard, button my jacket, pull on my boots. The beach will sort me out, one way or another. 

The sharpening southwest wind drives rain into my eyes, rolls cylinders of seafoam up the winter-steep sand. I’m grounded for balance among dull-gold sedges, in the space between three big dunes. I am speaking poems. I realize I have been doing this — in my mind, under my breath, quite loudly in places devoid of other humans — all week. 

This is the same beach, in the same season, where I composed two poems from my recently finished, forthcoming book, Tell the Turning. It’s these two I’m speaking now. One’s a memorized whole; the other’s a jumble of fragments, puzzle pieces spilling from my tongue to scatter sandward. 

I have stopped trying to compose. A fierceness has welled up in me, a need to speak these poems already shaped. To whom, and to what purpose, am I telling them? Sky and sea accept them without comment. 

I have written before that the process of writing a long work has two distinct phases. The Gathering is a gentle, curious, wandery state. The Shaping that follows it is more like falling in love: focused, exhilarating, intense. Until now, these are as far as my experience went. 

Tell the Turning has been Gathered and Shaped (and Re-Shaped.) It has found a publisher (and — unexpectedly, wonderfully — an illustrator.) All of its momentum now belongs to them: typesetting, pen and ink, an ISBN. My work would seem to be finished. Today I am learning that this is not the case. There’s a third phase.

Back from the beach, this afternoon I have been in the hot tub again. (It’s a principal attraction of the house we rented.) This too summons a poem — nothing to do with a hot tub, but with a feeling I have this week, of immediate enclosing warmth surrounded by elemental chill, of surfacing to a space of quiet after a time of turmoil. 

This moment, I am bundled in blankets on the porch. I can hear the distant surf just over the pastures, feel the cold fastening down as the sky solidifies, and listen to the wind in the douglas-firs, and a gutterspout dripping with melted frost. Poems come like memories: sharp or gentle; insistent. Now that I’m paying attention to their need for it, I’m letting each one borrow my voice, and take its time to take form and flight. 

I am, as near as I can tell, incanting Tell the Turning — helping in some speak-aloud way to encourage its physical form. I did not begin on purpose, but I am speaking now with serious intention. I love these poems, these lines and lilts and rhythms already born of me. I am no longer in charge of the logistics of their physical manifestation. Instead, I am chanting them into being. 

Because poems are more than sounds, because they require also rhythm, and often feel as though they are halfway set to music — the name of this phase (it’s so obvious now) is The Singing. 

I sometimes don’t realize I’m conceiving a new project. Especially if it’s a big one, like a book — something that will begin in the amorphous Gathering stage and gestate there for awhile. I have a lot of ideas, and a need to be always creating. Sometimes it takes being blocked — as I have been these past five days — to show me that I’m trying to create something I am not yet ready to create. Intuition is telling me: this is not a project, yet. It’s telling me also: Sing the project that’s still inside your heart. 

The Singing seems to be about launching a finished work into the world, but there’s a shadowy complement to that much-admired forward movement. The Singing contains a sadness too, a letting go. It has come to help prepare me — to live in the world without having this work to do. 

There will be other work. I’ve been trying this week to get to some of it, but it’s the unfocused, Gathering sort, and it’s not yet satisfying. The concentrated work of The Shaping is a long way off again, and I miss it. I’m tripping over my longings because I still need to acknowledge and let them be. 

Wendell Berry wrote a line that comes to me often: Again I resume the long lesson. This understanding that I cannot do two, three, ten things at once without consequence is a long lesson I am learning over and over. I am done writing Tell the Turning, but it is not done with me. Before I can move on to give full attention to another project of this scale, I need to shape this one some wings and let it go. I need to shape myself some wings, too: for floating, dreaming, back toward a Gathering space. 

It seems my way of doing this is to Sing. 

I’ve brought them home from the coast, and will be incanting some of these poems publicly as well. Typically, I publish one original poem a month, with audio, at In the months leading up to Tell the Turning’s release (so, starting now), I’m turning that practice into an extension of The Singing. You are cordially invited. 

It’s Hard to Focus on Process if You’re Daydreaming About Results

Nicole Dieker almost called this post “the distraction of fame.” But this isn’t really about fame. It’s about something even more important.

Ever since I played for L on Friday — no, ever since I started thinking about what it would take to become a magician-musician — I’ve become kinda mildly-moderately obsessed with the idea of entering the Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.

This is a huge problem, and not just because there isn’t likely to be an opportunity for me to enter until at least 2023 — not that I would be ready to enter now, but the idea that I could enter at some point in the future, and the subsequent ideas regarding what I might play and what I might wear and what it might feel like to win have all become huge huge huge distractions.

It’s hard to focus on process if you’re daydreaming about results.

Or — which is often what we are really daydreaming about — the things that are associated with the results. The new dress, the giant bouquet waiting in the green room, and so on.

You might remember, if you are a long-term reader of this blog, that I once wrote a post about the idea of giving yourself the stuff associated with the results as quickly as possible, so you can get back to the process.

This was because I had started thinking to myself “when I am a famous writer, I’ll be able to work in an beautiful home office filled with plants,” and then I realized that I didn’t have to wait to buy plants.

I could have that part of the dream now, which would help me stop fantasizing about having it and get back to work.

This sounds like I am advocating the opposite of delayed gratification. Not precisely. What I’m saying is that if you are sitting at the piano, thinking “and on that day in 2023 or whenever it is, there will be an absolutely enormous bouquet of flowers waiting for me,” you should go to your local grocery store and drop $10 on the biggest bunch of flowers you can find.

Or the fancy (but still affordable) bottle of champagne, or the new (but still within your budget) dress, or whatever it is that you’re fixating on instead of the work in front of you.

Because when you actually get the results associated with the work you’re doing — not the consumer products, but the actual results — it won’t matter what you’re wearing.

It won’t matter if there are (or aren’t) a dozen roses.

The results are, and have always been, their own reward.

And I know this from experience, which means that as soon as I started thinking about things like “there will be flowers and I’ll get to dress up and talk to interesting people,” I had to stop and say to myself “Nicole, you need to buy yourself some flowers and then you need to put on an outfit you really like and invite some friends over to socially-distance around the fire pit.”

And then I got back to work.

There is another problem, and it’s that as soon as I decided I wanted to enter not only the Van Cliburn but all of the international amateur piano competitions, it would be an excellent way for L and I to tour the world — and notice how I am already focused on the stuff associated with the results, it’s obvious that part of what I want here is to go on vacation with L, and I’ve already done the work to put the most accessible, affordable version of that desire into reality (we explored a very small, very rural state park last Sunday).

But anyway.

As soon as I decided that it was within the realm of possibility to become the kind of pianist who won international amateur competitions, I realized that I needed to first become the kind of pianist who played local recitals.

Which means that part of my attention is now diverted towards the question “what work do I need to do this month to be ready to play a recital this fall?”

And this is related to, but slightly adjacent from, the two questions that were previously dominating my piano study:

  1. How do I become more efficient at solving problems?
  2. How do I increase the length of time during which I can focus on a problem without becoming distracted?

Adding a results-based question to these two process-based questions has already changed the way I practice, and I’m not sure it’s for the best.

But if I really do want to enter international piano competitions — which may still be adjacent from what I really want, which is to be recognized as a magician-musician-thinker-writer-teacher-polymath, even though I already wrote that “once you have attained that level of mastery in your own life, you won’t need outside recognition because you already know what you already have and I still stand by that statement — anyway, if I want to enter the Van Cliburn Amateur someday, I probably need to play a tri-state-area recital this fall.

Or, more specifically, L and I need to play a recital together. (BTW, L is ineligible for the Van Cliburn Amateur because he makes the majority of his income as a piano teacher — which doesn’t seem like a good reason for disqualification, but we don’t make the rules.)

And focusing on the kind of results-based work required to put on a recital might make it harder to focus on the process of becoming a better pianist.

I suppose it’s all about balance — or, at least, I hope it is.

I guess we’ll find out. ❤️

You Have to Practice Playing

Nicole Dieker knows that she is using the word “play” in the way that other people might use the word “flow.” She has read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow all the way through, twice, and thinks she might be referring to something slightly different. Let’s discuss in the comments.

On Friday, I played the first, second, and much of the third movement of the Mozart for L.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen you do,” he said (and he’s seen me do a lot of incredible things, in case you’re curious). “You were absolutely captivating.”

“I was playing,” I said. “I was keeping my focus on the music and the moment and what I wanted to do with each moment.”

And then I said “It’s so incredibly hard.”

You would not think that you might have to practice playing.

Playing is supposed to come naturally, right? Something about spontaneity and freedom and not having to think about anything else but what you’re doing in the moment?

Well — you can already see what the problem is.

I don’t know at what age “not being able to stay in the moment” becomes a problem. I suspect it’s different for everybody, and it may have something to do with various intersections of nature/nurture, security/insecurity, household stability, maybe even birth order (I remember when I realized that part of playing with my younger sister meant monitoring the situation to make sure she was enjoying it too, for example).

It could also be that children don’t stay in the moment any more than adults do. We only think they do, because it seems like a pleasant thing to think.

But the idea that children know how to play and adults forget how is not a complete untruth. I remember playing the kinds of imaginative games, with my sister and my best friend, where it felt like the rest of the world fell away — you might remember me writing about it in The Biographies of Ordinary People, the idea that the bed was actually a boat and our dress-up clothes were actually princess garb and so on.

I also remember having that feeling when I played certain types of video games, mentally translating the 8 and 16-bit graphics into fully realized visions of Toroia and Narshe and Hyrule.

And, of course, reading. The easiest way to make the rest of the world fall away, as every bookish child knows, is by reading.

And then, at some point, the rest of the world gets complicated enough that it no longer falls away on its own.

But it can be pushed away — just out of focus, if you’ll forgive the pun — if you know how.

I still can’t always play — really and truly play — for the length of an entire piece. Either the mental load creeps back in (remember you need to take the salmon out before 4, remember you need to go down into the basement and see if you can find your frog box, remember you need to make copies of all of your tax documents) or I start evaluating my own performance, which is just as bad.

Which means that, in addition to practicing notes and articulations and fingerings, I am also practicing the very act of playing itself.

Building my focus, and training myself to quickly regain focus if it starts to drift. (You can daydream for a good 30 seconds without realizing you’ve started doing it — and I’d like to get that down to one second.)

Right now, the best way I know to maintain focus throughout an entire piece is by literally thinking about each note in turn. How do I want to make this sound? How does it need to connect to what’s come before it and what’s coming next? How can I make sure my audience hears every note in this trill as a distinct event, and not a blur?

It feels a half-step shy of playing (when you’re for-real playing, everything else falls away, including your active internal monologue) but it’s getting me closer.

And when I do manage to play a piece, in the way that I played for L last Friday, it is in fact incredible.

For both of us. ❤️

Thoughts From My Office

When I reviewed Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner yesterday, I hinted that I would spend part of today’s post expanding on Newport’s idea that “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”

Newport, in this case, is specifically writing about dividing your work periods into “focused bursts” — and while I am all about batch scheduling, I’m more interested in applying the equation to what I’m currently doing at the piano.

Specifically: how long can I maintain direct focus on what I’m actually playing?

This is harder than it sounds. It is so, so easy to start daydreaming, especially when you’re playing something you know fairly well — and especially-especially when you’re playing something you don’t know all that well.

Earlier this week, I tweeted “Daydreaming is your brain resisting uncertainty,” and although I know there are other reasons why we daydream (boredom, for example, though it could be argued that boredom in and of itself is an uncertain state), I have noticed that my brain is much more likely to seek out distractions if I’m about to tackle something I’m not quite sure about.

I want to share two videos with you, and then we’ll move on to Where I Got Published:

That’s me playing the first movement of Mozart K332, which I don’t believe you’ve ever heard me play before (I write “I don’t believe” like I don’t know full well I hadn’t shared it with you before this).

I wanted to test how long I could focus just on the piece without thinking about anything else — like what I was going to eat for lunch, or what work I had to do that afternoon, or even whether I thought I was playing the piece particularly well. (Evaluating what you’re doing while you’re doing it is also a distraction. Takes you out of the moment.)

I lasted for 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Which means I’ve spent the entire week working on building my focus muscle. (Progressive overload, but for the brain.)

What I found out was the more I focused on what I was playing, the more it felt like play.

This also increases the speed at which you can learn a piece and/or fix errors, but that’s almost a side benefit.

Anyway. I want to share one more video with you, and this is the good-ol’ second movement again, only this time I’m actually playing.

It’s so beautiful. I am so focused. I’m experiencing the piece as an experience.

And then.

See, about a week ago L and I were playing the piano for each other, and we discovered that I had misread or mislearned one of the notes. (The D four measures from the end — basically I had been playing it as a C for months.)

I relearned it, or thought I had, and then when I get to the very end of the piece, after over four minutes of literally being in the moment, my brain said “hey, wait, I’m pulling up two different options for what comes next and I don’t know which one is right.”

And then the whole thing falls apart.

(And then you can see me try to play the ending through a few more times, and then you can see me decide to stop working.)

(I did start working again, as soon as I turned the video off.)

Anyway, here is the video of what I just narrated in case you’d like to see it for yourself — and if you’d rather keep scrolling, next up is Where I Got Published This Week. ❤️


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Book Review: The Time-Block Planner by Cal Newport

Nicole Dieker has written many book reviews, including posts on Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (“a must-read guide to building a creative career”) and Deep Work (“which makes me wonder if people can only tackle a large creative project if they don’t have any more-important problems for their brains to solve”).

I’m never going to use Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner.

But that’s only because I’ve been time-blocking, on my own, for years.

I can’t remember when I first wrote about time-blocking — I know I wrote about my personal time-block strategy for The Write Life in 2017, and YES I CITED CAL NEWPORT AS ONE OF THE ORIGINATORS OF THE TIME-BLOCK PRODUCTIVITY METHOD, always cite your sources, but the point is that I have all of this stuff already laid out on a spreadsheet.

What I’d like to do with every part of the day, from the moment I wake up to the moment I start winding down.

Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner — aka The Time-Block Planner: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World — asks you to do much the same thing. To plan out your day in advance, blocking off dedicated chunks of time for your most important work. To stick to the plan as closely as possible, whenever possible. To make a plan that works for you, including overflow time (because something always overflows) and enough space in your day to care for both yourself and your loved ones.

Plus, of course, the all-important rest and recovery that you’ll for-sure need if you want enough energy to spend dedicated chunks of time on your most important work tomorrow.

There’s a reason Newport wants you to do this on paper, and it has something to do with paper not having Twitter attached to it, but at this point I am so in touch with my personal time-block spreadsheet that I’m not interested in making the effort to switch.

Plus, the Time-Block Planner only includes thirteen weeks’ worth of time blocks. You’d need to buy four planners to get you through the year, and you probably already have a spreadsheet program on whatever device you’re currently using to read this book review.

Of course, that device also comes with Twitter attached. And email. And whatever might distract you from doing the work of planning when you are going to do your work.

Which is why, if you are interested in an absolutely analog method of time-blocking, a paper planner could be an effective tool.

(Please note that analog /= distraction-free. Your device could still beep at you while you’re writing something in your paper planner. The doorbell could ring. You could accidentally bump your coffee mug with your elbow and have to stop everything to clean up your mess.)

How does time-blocking work? I covered the jist of it at the beginning of the book review (plan your day, hour by hour), but effective time-blocking essentially centers on two series of decisions:

  1. Decide how you want to prioritize your time
  2. Decide how you want to prioritize changes

A paper Time-Block Planner asks you to cross out the sections of your time-block plan that no longer work (because you spilled coffee all over everything and cleaning it up took the 10-minute slot you were going to give to email) and draw a new time-block plan immediately to the right, with a newly-prioritized schedule.

A spreadsheet lets you shuffle cells around, although Newport argues that the paper method is superior because you can see how you planned your day vs. how you actually used your day, and that information can help you create better plans in the future.

Also, you’re supposed to actually use your day the way you plan it. That’s the biggest part of this whole deal, and the part that no paper or electronic sheet can make you do unless you come into this process already wanting to do it.

If you don’t stick to your plan, whether due to external or internal circumstance, you’re supposed to open your Time-Block Planner, cross out your beautifully-drawn plan, and draw up what you hope might happen next.

Or, to quote the Time-Block Planner (and Cal Newport) directly:

Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs: it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward — even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

Does time-blocking work? YES.

Does time-blocking work if you have the kind of job where your day isn’t solely yours to plan? YES. (Having done both, I’ll admit that time-blocking is easier when you are 100% in charge of your workday — but if you have a job that gives you at least some discretion in how you spend your time, time-blocking can help you use that time effectively.)

Does time-blocking work if you have a partner who also has ideas about what the two of you should do with your time? YES. Especially when you use the time-blocking system to block off time for the two of you to spend together.

Does time-blocking work if you have kids? I DON’T KNOW. Cal Newport has kids, so I’d wager a yes on that one… but you’d have to ask him yourself.

Does time-blocking allow for unscheduled time, spontaneity, wandering conversations, actual wandering, etc. etc. etc.? YES. You can put as much “whim time” in your Time-Block Planner as you want (I have literally written about the importance of scheduling unscheduled time, go read it).

What if I don’t want to do the thing I blocked into my Time-Block Planner? Change your plan. (If you never want to do the things you block into your Time-Block Planner, you may need to change a few other aspects of your life as well.)

What is your favorite part of Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner? The page on which he writes “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”

I’ll write more on that particular equation tomorrow. ❤️

When Maintaining a Regular Writing Schedule Goes Out the Window

Stephanie Harper is the author of Wesley Yorstead Goes Outside (Propertius Press, 2020), as well as the poetry collection Sermon Series (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her narrative nonfiction work can be found in a number of publications, including HelloGiggles, HuffPost, Living Lutheran, Grok Nation, Aleteia, Healthline, The Daily Dot, Folks Magazine and more. She often writes about chronic illness and spirituality.

If you’ve spent any time in writing circles, you’ve probably heard some version of the “write every day” adage. The intent of this advice is sensible. After all, the only way to really hone your craft as a writer (or in any creative pursuit) is to continue doing it. To quote another popular cliché: practice makes perfect. 

In a perfect world, I would practice my writing all day, every day, churning out work at a rate of prolificacy that would make the Stephen Kings or Joyce Carol Oates of the world blush. But this is not a perfect world and I am far from a perfect writer. This is real life. 

Let me give you a snapshot of my real life. I have been plagued with increasingly complex chronic illness for close to a decade. For the last seven years, that has included a constant, unremitting headache I woke up with one morning and haven’t been without for a single second since. I spend a lot of time resting, because any physical or mental exertion wears me out. I nap daily. If I don’t take these breaks, if I don’t get the rest I need, if I overdo it too often, I can be down and out for a week or longer. 

All of this is to say that my writing life has suffered. Where I used to write in floods, churning out pages and pages each day, now I write in trickles. I also maintain a part-time job (all I can manage with my increasingly severe symptoms) that requires creative work, and this work often takes precedence. Finding time — and perhaps more importantly, energy — to write for me, to work on my stuff, isn’t always easy. 

More than anything, this makes me feel like an imposter. When I go days at a time without working on my next book, without writing a single thing, how can I call myself a writer? Add in all the feelings of being in a pandemic, and I know I’m not writing anywhere near as often or as successfully as I would like to be. It’s easy to feel disappointed in myself, my situation, all of it. It’s easy to get into cycles of frustration which only increases my lack of motivation.  

And yet, the writing still comes. I publish articles and essays, often about my health — which has been it’s own sort of catharsis. I published my debut fiction novel in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and threw myself into launching and marketing the book. I have worked a great deal on my current project, a sort of health memoir in essays, and it isn’t out of the question that I could have a final draft by the end of 2021. I have found what works for me — and while it might not be conventional, it is working.

For all of us who just can’t make a commitment to a daily writing habit, here are a few alternatives that I have found helpful at various times in my writing life:

  • Set a weekly word count or page goal. This is especially helpful for writers who are working on a novel, memoir, or some other long-term project. What’s nice about a weekly word goal is that you can still feel that sense of accomplishment, but you can fit the writing of those words into whatever pockets of time work for you. 
  • Speaking of pockets of time, be intentional about scheduling time to write. It doesn’t have to be every day, of course, but look at your calendar for the week and block out specific chunks for writing. Use those chunks as your allotted time for the week. Then, any additional time is an added bonus. And, if something comes up that prevents you from using that scheduled time, as something often does, just reschedule it. Don’t be hard on yourself. But know that there is always a time in your calendar to look forward to writing. 
  • Produce one great piece of writing a week. This could be one article or essay or short story. This could be 500 or 1,000 words of a manuscript that you’re just really proud of. You get to decide what constitutes a great piece of writing for the week, which also means you have to be intentional about considering your own work and finding something to love about it. 
  • Don’t discount the importance of thinking about writing. Even if you can’t sit down and put pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys) on the daily, you are probably thinking about what you are working on, planning, plotting, or revising in your mind. This is all a really important part of the writing process. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of this. Buy a fancy notebook where you jot down all your best ideas. Keep a running bullet list on individual projects on your phone or in an email thread so it’s easy to update whenever inspiration strikes. If you are the type whose best ideas come when you can’t sleep, keep a notepad by your bed. However you do it, making a routine of writing out your thoughts will make you feel productive, even on those days when the writing just doesn’t happen. 
  • Celebrate your successes. Whether it’s once a week, a month, or an annual retrospective, make sure you look at all the work you’ve done. List out everything you’ve published, keep track of your total word count, number of drafts, whatever you can look out and see just how much you actually accomplished. It’s always more than you think it is.