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Focus is something we do on a number of levels. From the overall picture to the daily minutiae of life and our writing journeys, we are constantly deciding what to focus on. How do you know what is most important in your writing career and what is just a distraction or poor use of your time? We’ll help you figure that out!
But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
In the first episode of this series, we talked about how to achieve focus at the highest level—a lifestyle level. That was all about making values-based decisions about what activities and commitments you do and don’t want to have as part of your life. Check it out if you haven’t heard it yet. It’s a good backdrop for everything we’ll cover in the rest of this series.
Today, we’ll be talking about developing focus at the career level.
For those of you who are just getting started in your pursuit of writing a career, or some form of ongoing publishing, you’re probably hearing advice like: Improve your craft, settle on a genre, create a website, build a newsletter list, get on social media, find more followers, get a marketing plan, study the publishing industry, find an agent, find a publisher, figure out how to indie publish…
It’s overwhelming. Trying to do too many things at once divides your attention, creates stress, and makes it hard to do any one thing with excellence.
Those of you in the midst of a writing career face a multitude of competing possibilities as well. How do you sort through it all? How do you know what area to “focus” on first, or what to focus on each day?
Not surprisingly, the same type of answer we gave in our first podcast about focus on the largest scale also applies to this “career-level” scale of focus. You have to make decisions.
The 2 List Strategy for Creating Focus
In an article about focus by James Clear, he talks about using the “2 List Strategy” to create focus. Some people call it the “25/5 Strategy.” Several sources on the internet attribute this strategy to Warren Buffett, but there seems to be some controversy as to whether that’s really true. In any case, the strategy is worth considering.
In the 2 List Strategy, you start by writing a list of your top 25 career goals. This strategy is easiest to employ by those of you already in the midst of a writing career. If you’re in the beginning stages of writing, we’ll talk about a modified version of this for you in a bit.
If you’re in the midst of a career right now, then make your list. Your top 25 career goals. You’re going to need to devote some time to this. Pray about it. Ponder it. Brainstorm.
1. Create Specific Goals
You want to be as specific as possible with the goals you list. For example, rather than listing, “Increase my newsletter list,” choose something like, “Add 100 names to my newsletter list every month.” Rather than saying, “Create a backlist of books so I can more effectively advertise,” say, “Create a backlist of twenty books so I can advertise rotating discounts.” Or whatever.
2. Create Goals You Have Reasonable Control Over
It’s also important to pick goals you can reasonably control. So rather than listing, “Get on the bestsellers’ list,” instead list, “Execute an advertising campaign that would help me make a run for the bestsellers’ list.” Obviously your intention is to get on the bestsellers list, but you can’t control what other books come out the same week your book does, and you can’t control what others spend on their marketing campaigns.
Rather than saying, “Win a Christy Award,” which you can’t control, opt for something you can do to improve your craft, such as, “Read a book on dialogue and incorporate those new techniques in my next novel.”
3. Choose the 5 Most Important Goals
Once you’ve made your list of 25, go back and circle the 5 most important. Again, take your time with this. Pray about it. Seek counsel from wise people. Then choose 5 by circling them.
4. Focus on Your 5 Most Important Goals Until They’re Done
Now you have two lists. One list has the most important 5, and the other list has the remaining 20, which admittedly are also important otherwise you wouldn’t have listed them, right? But the key is that you’re only going to focus on those top 5. The top 5 are on your to-do list until they’re done.
Guess what you should do with your remaining 20 items? Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. In fact, rename the list to: The Avoid At All Costs List.
It’s easy to get tripped up on this step. We’re tempted to think that we’ll work on those other 20 intermittently or in our spare time, because they’re not as urgent but they’re still important. Therefore, we still want to try to put some effort into them.
That’s an understandable temptation, but that is exactly the wrong idea. Remember, if you want focus—and this is true on any level of focus—you have to make choices. You must decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. To focus on those top 5, you need to say no to those 20 other things.
Remember, saying no is not the same thing as saying never. No means “not right now.” Not until you finish those top 5. After that, you get to create a new list of 5. Or, as you complete one thing on your top 5, you could move one of those other 20 things up to the top five, so you would have an evolving list.
Also, you should be reevaluating your list regularly because things in our lives—and in the marketplace—constantly change.
The benefit of all this list-making is that it helps you make a commitment. In another article by James Clear, he writes, “Basically, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.”
Another benefit of this list-making is that it helps you avoid overwhelm. It gives you permission to NOT focus on those other 20 things, and that gives you peace of mind. Those things aren’t forgotten, they’re just safely tucked away for now.
Focus for Newer Writers
If you’re a newer writer, you still need peace of mind. You still need 2 lists. But, thinking in terms of career goals can be a minefield at this stage because many of those goals will require lots of smaller goals to be completed first. You can’t sell any books until you write them, and you can’t write them well until you’ve honed your craft, and so on.
Instead of making a list of career goals, brainstorm your top 25 goals using a shorter timeline. For example, what do you want to accomplish by this time next year? Or in two years?
Some ideas to list might be:
- Go to a writing conference
- Write a short story
- Find a critique partner
- Finish the first draft of my novel
- Read a book on self-editing
Once you’ve made your list of 25, you’ll follow the same process we talked about for the more established writers: You’ll pray about your list, seek counsel from others, and then circle your top 5 goals. And you know what to do with those remaining 20 items: Say NO to them for now.
Remember that we’re following God in this endeavor, and he rarely gives the whole picture at once. That’s why prayer is such a crucial part in this. If he’s leading you to prioritize something—meaning to put it in your top 5—and it’s something that doesn’t exactly make sense to you, that’s okay. He has his reasons. Be obedient.
The 80/20 Strategy for Creating Focus
The 2 List Strategy is just one method of finding focus. It’s one method for picking what to say no to and what to say yes to. There are certainly other methods. For example, Gary Keller wrote a book called The One Thing which has another great perspective on how to focus.
One of the things he says in his book is how many of us fall into believing myths about productivity. One important myth he refutes is the myth that “Everything is equally important.” Everything is NOT equally important. To back up that statement, Keller points to the “80/20” rule, also called the Pareto principle, that says 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. If everything were equally important, we’d get the same results from everything. But we don’t.
How can we apply this information? We find the things in that 20% category of effort and keep saying yes to them, because that produces the greatest results. The things in the unhelpful 80% category of effort are the things we want to say no to.
How will you know which 20% is creating those terrific results? Measure as best you can.
Some things are objective and easily measured—marketing results for example. If you find that the majority of your sales come from your newsletter list and very few sales come from, say, posting regularly on Facebook or Twitter, then you’d want to focus on your newsletter and free yourself from the burden of social media. Focus on doing the things that give you high impact results. If you enjoy social media, considerate to be just a fun thing you do, and keep it in the time you set aside in your life for fun or socializing.
Some of the measuring we have to do is more subjective. For example, do you find that when you write cozy mysteries the words flow easily and your critique partners say they enjoy your stories, and sometimes they even forget to critique? Yet when you work on the epic fantasy you feel committed to, it’s a slow grind that produces less exciting results? Is this subjective or objective? A little of both perhaps. But it may well be a sign that writing cozies is in your 20% of effort “wheelhouse,” and writing the epic fantasy is a less effective use of your time.
A POWERFUL QUESTION FOR DEVELOPING FOCUS
Gary Keller also talks about asking yourself a key question: “What is the one thing I can do that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
This is a powerful question that deserves time and thought. It can help you narrow your focus on a large scale as well as a very small scale. We’ll talk about this question more in the next episode of this series when we cover focus on a daily, and even a moment-by-moment level. But for now, you can use it to help guide you in what to say no to on a career level.
For example, maybe you have a lot of email to wade through, and a lot of advertising campaigns you’re overseeing, and you’re putting together information for newsletter swaps, and doing other administrative tasks. If you asked yourself, “What is the one thing I can do that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” the answer might be: hire a virtual assistant. That would make it unnecessary for you to do all those other email tasks because you’ve delegated it to someone else.
That decision helps you concentrate your work efforts on the things that only you can do, which means you’re more focused.
The question “What is the one thing I can do that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” also implies a sense of sequential order. Some things need to be done, or in place, before other things can happen. So you might think in terms of asking, “What must be in place before this goal I’m thinking of can happen?”
For example, you probably ought to settle into a genre before you pay to have a website designed. Or, you may decide to hold up on Amazon ads until after the fifth book of your series is complete so you have more opportunity for return on your investment of advertising dollars.
You might wait to read that book on how to revise a novel until after you’ve finished your first draft. That way you let your creativity run its course as you write. Then you can set your draft aside, read the book on revising, and come back to your manuscript with fresh eyes and new information.
We’ve talked about some ways to help you find focus in your writing journey. But what about ways to maintain your focus? Aside from saying no to other options, what else can help you maintain focus?
1. Know Your Why and Keep it in Sight
Why did you put this goal on your list of career goals? Why is it important? It’s also good to ask: Is it still important or does it need to be changed?
Why you do what you do should be a consistent topic of prayer. And keep in mind that God has his own agenda with each season, day, and moment in our lives. Be sensitive to his leading each day, even when it seems at odds with the goal you planned on for that day.
2. Measure Your Progress
Another way to help you maintain focus is to measure your progress. Not for judgment but for feedback on where you are right now. Tracking your journey helps give you a sense of forward momentum, even though some phases will take a while. Some phases might even feel like you’re spinning your wheels going nowhere, but those times still give way eventually—like a traffic jam that finally clears. In the overall scheme of things, you are moving, even if it’s slow sometimes. Measuring your progress helps you see that.
3. Celebrate Milestones
Celebrating milestones another way to measure your progress, and it’s fun! Celebrations give you encouragement and give you positive reinforcement for the hard work that focusing is.
4. Keep a Record
To help you eliminate distractions—and thus maintain focus—keep a record of why you chose to say yes to what you said yes to, and no to other things. Write in your journal: “I eliminated that because…” While it’s good to reevaluate sometimes, and to ask if the “because” is still true, it’s also good to not constantly rehash or second guess your decisions. Keeping a record helps you avoid unnecessary rehashing.
5. Have an Accountability Group
Consider forming a mastermind group, critique group, writers group, accountability group, or whatever kind of group, to help you stay accountable, to celebrate with, and so on. This group can be a great sounding board to help you process your decisions about what you’re saying yes and no to. They can also be a great source of encouragement. God has wired us for relationship. Don’t try to walk the writing journey alone.
6. Love the Process
While we’ve talked a lot about using goals to help you achieve focus, remember that it’s still the process that matters, not the end results. Writing is a journey, and you want to love the journey, love writing. We’re sometimes tempted to say, “I’ll love it when I arrive at this goal, or that goal…” Arriving at a goal is short-lived. It’s a specific point in time. And it’s transient because there’s always another goal to get to.
When we don’t love the journey, we’re in danger of becoming like a person on a road trip constantly asking, “Are we there yet…?” But when we love the journey, we become partners with God on an amazing adventure that continually has new delights and joys, even amidst the difficulties.
Moving Forward with God’s Guidance and direction
As we ponder, pray, and submit our thoughts, our lists, and ourselves to God, keep in mind Hebrews 12:1.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
Move forward with God’s guidance and his direction in what you need to focus on so you can walk in peace and confidence, and with a sense of great reward in our Lord and Savior, wherever the writing journey takes you!What’s important NOW in your writing career, and what’s just a distraction? Find focus in your writing career! #amwriting #christianwriter Click To Tweet
Books mentioned in the podcast
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What helps you decide what to focus on first in your writing career?
Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
A big thank you to our November sponsor of the month, Tammy Partlow! She’s a speaker at women’s retreats, and her debut novel Blood Beneath the Pines, a suspense set in the deep South, is now available. She’s hard at work on the second book of the series!
Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!
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