#70 — Balancing Chaos vs. Structure, Planning an Annual Review
Today’s newsletter marks the 2 year anniversary of Quick Brown Fox! I published the first edition back on Dec 9th, 2019, shortly after returning from a trip to Japan. It was my first time visiting the country. I fell in love with Tokyo immediately, and wrote a blog post about my favorite things about Tokyo on the plane ride home. Publishing that post sparked a return to blogging after a long while. It reminded me how much I loved (and missed) writing. That realization is what motivated me to later sign up for Write of Passage, an online writing course. It’s wild to look back on how far I’ve come since then!
I started with a newsletter and blog—those were the core of my writing. In addition to those, I’m now writing a book, working on flash fiction stories, and also spending some of my time mentoring and teaching other writers. I’m having a ton of fun with it all! The thing I’m most proud of is the fact that I’m still publishing these newsletters. Too many creative endeavors end in abandon—half the battle is to just keep showing up. So, here I am once again in your inbox, thankful that you continue to read my work and show up for me in return. I’m excited to see where my writing takes me in 2022.
The other fun news is that I just typed the last words in the ending of my book of fables! I had written an overarching story that connected the fables a few months back, but I didn’t love it. So, for the past couple of months, I’ve been dabbling with other ideas—writing outlines, discarding them, trying new directions. There were definitely some moments of anxiety, wondering if I’d ever find something that worked. Finally, an idea struck me that I was pretty keen on, and I started drafting it. It took a few weeks of obsessive focus to get there, and I’m delighted with how it turned out. I can’t wait for you to read it!
I’ll be sharing more on the journey / lessons learned from writing the book soon, along with explorations of getting the book published vs self-publishing. In the meantime, if you have specific questions on that, shoot them my way! I’ve spending a lot of time on the craft of these stories—working with an editor, reading books on writing, attending workshops—but I’ve always felt that the most important measure of my writing is that it makes me smile. Still more editing and illustrating to do, but I’m getting to the beginning of the end of writing this book!
Rewards of Routine
It’s interesting to look back upon when I started my independent creative journey. One of the most counter-intuitive learnings I’ve had in my creative career is this:
Chaos is alluring, but routine is rewarding.
As much as I like the idea of being totally free, random, and chaotic with my schedule, too much of it makes me feel overwhelmed and uninspired. It turns out that having some kind of routine (importantly: the schedule is dictated by me) allows me to channel my urge for chaos into creativity. I ran into a quote that expresses the idea perfectly:
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” —Gustave Flaubert
Shoutout to Jimmy Nyakora, who shared this quote in a thread on QBF 67 (Slow Down to Speed Up), where we discussed the tradeoffs of creative independence.
The quote inspired me so much I decided to turn it into a comic:
How much routine do you need in order to reap its rewards?
A little goes a long way. For me, my creative routine doesn’t enforce that every day is the same, with every single hour scheduled. Instead, it means that I try to put some level of predictability into my life, which helps me make the most of each day. It’s like making a little sandbox for yourself, so you can jump in and play around with complete freedom without worry of getting lost.
Here are a few aspects of my creative routine:
Themes for each day in the week:
Dedicated writing day — No meetings allowed on these days. (I don’t spend the entire day writing. If I do a solid 3-4 hours of focused writing, that’s a lot, and enough for me.)
Social day — I try to schedule all my calls on this day. At first, these days would get packed and overwhelm me. Now I try to schedule calls further out to keep these days reasonable in terms of the number of calls in a single day. I also use this day for catching up on emails.
Part-time startup gig day — I only work on the startup on these days, and don’t log on to it at all the rest of the week. It took some discipline to make this work, but it has worked great for almost two years now.
Mornings: When I wake up, I make some coffee and read a book that will make me think. This gives me a solid 30 minutes of relaxing-but-inspiring activity before I jump into the work I want to get done that day.
Evenings: I always try read a book before bed (Kindle only, and I keep my phone out of bedroom).
None of these are rigid — they’re like templates that help me avoid making a decision every single day. I go out of my way to leave as much empty space as possible within each day, so I can embrace serendipity and explore things on a whim. Balancing that openness with my own schedule is key — I try to think of it as a little game I’m playing with myself, rather than a battle I’m fighting.
When Danielle Binks shared her story of launching a book in lockdown, she talked about how important it was to have a simple daily tasks she could orient her day around. For every person, the little rituals that serve them most will vary. It’s worth taking some time to experiment and find your own.
A little structure goes a long way.
I’m putting together a little plan for a personal Annual Review exercise (1-2 days). Here’s my rough-and-loose plan for my review:
Step Zero: Keep it Simple
There are a ton of great resources on annual reviews out there. It can easily get overwhelming when you explore all the ideas, workshops, templates and PDFs. I always have to remind myself not to get too caught up in it. It’s better to finish a short exercise than to get overwhelmed and give up on a big one.
If you want to do your own annual review, but feel intimidated by the ones you see (including mine), feel free to ignore them! Do your own thing, even if it means spending 15 minutes reflecting on a few things about the past year.
Part of the reason I’m doing my own thing is to give myself the flexibility to do as little or as much of it as I want. I don’t expect to do all of the the things I’m noting below, which is perfectly fine. I think of this list as a menu, not a schedule. It gives me options for how I can spend the time I allocated to this practice. The key is for me to do some kind of reflection, not necessarily to do it in a specific way, or to accomplish specific tasks.
Step One: Review
Journals — I’ll skim through my journals from this year to see patterns of stuff I notice about myself, the major things that happened, and things I kept thinking about for future. (Some day, I’d love to combine all of my journals—currently scattered across old physical notebooks and multiple apps—into a single place. Don’t think I’ll have the time to do it this year… but then again, I say that every year 😅)
Friends — I talk about a lot about how I want to optimize for friends over followers. This means looking at friends & connections as a key output of my online presence, rather than specific metrics. I think it would be super valuable for me to spend dedicated time appreciating all the new friends, new conversations, new opportunities that have come through my energy spent writing online. Excited about this one!
Published Writing — Review my blog essays, newsletters, and digital garden notes. I don’t think I spend nearly enough time reflecting on my published work. I think there’s a lot I could learn from them—particularly to inform potential eBooks I could write based on them, and/or optimize SEO in a more focused way for my website. It won’t be possible to review them in detail — instead I think I’ll just try to extract key themes and patterns across them. Or, make a sheet so I can start doing this progressively over the next little while.
Photos — I’ll look over photos from 2021, pick out favorites, put into an album. I’ve done this in a few diff workshops, and really liked it. Somehow, I think this year’s albums will be kinda… dull? A lockdown’s worth of photos do not promise much. I expect 90% of it to be photos my cats though, so in the worst case I get to stare at my cats for a while.
Step Two: Reflect
Prompts — To get some simple prompts for reflection questions, last year I used YearCompass. It’s a little booklet you can print out, or fill digitally. No muss, no fuss. I also might pull some questions from Chris Murchison’s Mirror of Questions (shoutout to Cassie for sharing it with me!)
Letter to Self — One of my favorite exercises that I’ve been doing for several years is writing a letter to myself. The first time I did it was at a meditation retreat. I wish I could do something like that again — the energy of remoteness is so powerful. I write it by hand and put it in a little envelope, and put it away. I then read them the next year as I’m doing my annual review. So, this year, I’ll be reading the one I wrote a year ago. (Fun fact: one of the questions asked me to describe the next year in one word. I chose ‘fable’ — turned out to be pretty accurate!)
I love closing out my review with the exercise of writing to my future self: giving kudos, gratitude, sharing my hopes and dreams, and wishing him well. (BTW: If you prefer writing it digitally, you might enjoy FutureMe, a tool to send a letter to yourself in the future. Thanks to Danielle for sharing it with me!)
I hope you’re able to get some time to reflect as we inch closer to the holidays.
See you in the new year, friends!