Focus Stars: motivation without guilt

For a month now I’ve been doing a very successful experiment in orienting my time to what matters to me most, without beating myself up with incomplete to-do lists. I track my successful focusing by coloring in part of a simple drawing I made. I use a color that makes me very happy.

A printout of a picture of a seven-pointed star made of ribbons, with some of the points and ribbon sections filled in with green felt tip pen. The points of the star are labeled Creative, Resourceful, Calm, Secure in Self, Strong, Kind, and Connected.
a focus star from a day where I didn’t do any housecleaning, but I did spend lots of time on creative work

I have seven areas I am choosing to focus on. For each of those areas, there’s a daily habit I want to do. When I do it, I fill in that point on the star.

Each of those seven areas also has other related activities or habits. When I do a chunk in that area I fill in one of the pieces of “ribbon” that form the star.

My areas are:

  • Secure in Self
    Habit: holding boundaries and not ruminating.
    Related: maintaining differentiation of self*, autonomy (avoiding leaning into the people-pleaser trap), emotional maturity, knowing myself, personal identity, honoring my true self, ability to have distance from volunteer work.
  • Strong
    Habit: working out for 30 minutes three times a week (strength, stretch, aerobic) and get otherwise getting active on the other days.
    Related: good sleep, movement, stretching, walking, sexiness, dancing, healthy eating, managing my health care.
  • Calm
    Habit: 10-15 minute meditating.
    Related: time alone, nature, journaling, hobbies, stability, gratitude including with me as the object of gratitude.
  • Kind
    Habit: love and listening.
    Related: compassion, forgiveness, stress management, giving help.
  • Resourceful
    Habit: keeping food and finances on track, and doing a housework task.**
    Related: maintaining a pleasant home, dishes, tidying, laundry, saving, budgeting, ability to splurge sometimes, clothes that please me, calendar and time management, readiness and safety information.
  • Connected
    Habit: social time and planning for future social time.
    Related: mutually supportive relationships, communication, asking for help, community, volunteering.
  • Creative
    Habit: 30 minutes working on my main creative project
    Related: learning, sharing, making, showing up for my creative self.

Secure in Self and Strong really are the legs that hold up the rest and Creative keeps me excited, though everything contributes to my sense of well-being and the energy I have to do anything.

This gentler way of reminding myself to give myself what I want and need is working incredibly well for me. You can give it a try using these images:

Focus Star with no writing, two to a page for printing
Focus Star with Dinah’s categories, two to a page for printing

I’m not a visual artist, so I’d love to see them if others create their own Focus Star templates! Please share them in a reply to this post. 🙂

*This is a good three part overview of differentiation of self (1, 2, 3) by therapist Martha Kauppi.
** Grocery shopping, cooking, paying bills, handling finance/bureaucracy mail, all are part of that “on track”. I broke my maintenance housework down into chunks that take about half an hour or less. My goal is to do each chunk every eight weeks.

How’s that habit coming along?

Remember 30 days ago when I suggested we each work on one new habit?

What did you pick?
I chose a really tough one: changing my sleep routine. I decided I want to go to bed earlier (between 10-11pm) and get up earlier (between 7-8am or a little later if my other half sleeps in).

How did it go?

Not as well as it would have if I hadn't spent two full weeks fighting a dreadful cold. License to sleep all I needed to get well wreaked havoc with the plan, so I've doubled down on this one for another 30 days.

I'm excited about the habit I'm currently thinking will be my focus after this one—writing 1000 words a day. 🙂

Building or shifting a habit

For a habit to become automatic—truly habitual—you need to keep at it for a while. 30 days is the number I've heard from many sources and that fits with my experience. Personally, I find the 1st and 15th of the month often line up with too many other things going on in life, so let's try starting those 30 days on the 23rd (or 24th if it's too late to start this habit today).

As I discuss in Chapter Four of the book, building a habit is a gradual process to which you commit effort and measure progress. It does not have a deadline or an end point. Making that effort and improving over time defines success.

The effort you're about to make is to try to have your new habit every day for the next 30 days. If you don't succeed one day, oh well; do better tomorrow. As we know, really changing our behavior takes time. Keep making this week more like how you want it to be than last week.

Don't try to establish more than one habit at a time; this is definitely an area where focus helps you succeed—and success will create confidence for the next habit you'll work on after this.

What would you like to do or do differently? Start now.

Keeping roles, goals, and projects aligned for success

Ideally, our hour-to-hour decisions should serve our highest values. But how can we encourage this simultaneously strategic and tactical behavior in ourselves? My solution is to organize the way we think about projects and tasks to be in alignment with the way we prioritize our goals and the values they represent.

Take some big-picture contemplative time away from distractions to think about who you are and want to be. What fundamental beliefs drive how you relate to the world? What roles do you play?

You can start by identifying the big areas in your life (e.g., family or other relationships, work, creative expression, social responsibility), but push down to greater detail and articulate to yourself the roles in which you manifest these. In the book, I refer to these roles as "shiny buckets" and I believe you really can't be effective over time if you're trying to carry more than five or six of them at once. Its fine to periodically swap out those buckets and emphasize different roles (with their different goals and projects), but focusing on a few at a time is what creates success and avoids overload.

Within those buckets are your goals, and the projects that you use to achieve them. Again, you can only handle so many at once and focusing on fewer makes for faster and less painful accomplishment. If one of your buckets is very full (many simultaneous goals and projects) or very heavy (involving tasks that require exceptionally high amounts of time or emotional energy), you should lighten your load of other buckets to compensate.

Identify your buckets.

Now imagine yourself faced with a personal or family crisis. What's the first bucket you'd set down? What next? What could wait when a real emergency came up? This exercise serves two purposes: 1) To remind yourself that you are allowed to set a bucket down when you need to and pick it up again when you're ready; 2) To reveal to yourself the priority order of your roles and therefore of the goals and projects they contain.

Reflect that priority order in whatever system you use to track your goals, projects, and tasks. Review it regularly—quarterly is good, I find—to confirm that these are still your current buckets and that they are still in the right priority order.

By reflecting your buckets as the core organizing principle in whatever system you use to track your tasks (e.g., as folders in OmniFocus or as flagged sections in a paper notebook), they are automatically prioritized. When you review your projects on a weekly basis, you will be approaching them in the order that echoes your higher vision for yourself.

Executive Christie Hefner said, "Be sure you’re true to what you believe… I would argue that the way to do that is to spend less time thinking about what you’re doing and more time thinking about what you represent."*

Writer and Kirtsy founder Laura Mayes, in her session "Be Your Own Boss: Create a Life You Love" with Maggie Mason at SXSW Interactive conference in 2010, put it even more succinctly, "Be really solid on what your intention is."

By making time for the big picture thinking that enables structuring your to-do system around your fundamental priorities, you give yourself the daily freedom to spend more time doing and less time figuring out what you should do next.

Productive Sunday

Decide on 5 things you want to accomplish today. Be realistic, based on time & energy available, but do make progress on things that have been waiting a while. If you can do something that makes the week ahead much easier, definitely get that in there too.

Mine are:

1. Finish adding categories to all Discardian posts.

2. Finish presentation for tomorrow.

3. Do laundry.

4. Write at least the next few Discardian posts.

5. Dust and sweep apartment.

Set boundaries for the fun, but demanding things

I strongly encourage you to try bold new adventures and push yourself in creative ways.

Participate in National Novel Writing Months or the like. Take classes in some new art form or music. Try out new crafts. Make improvements on your home. Start up a topical blog. 😉

Whatever you decide to do, it can really help you keep it fun if you place some limits on your expectations for it: "Just 30 days". "One semester and I'll drop the class if I'm not liking it for the third session in a row". "I'll see if I can make this one beginner project that is supposed to take about 4 hours". "First I'll just take on replacing curtains and then think about the rest of the remodeling after I see how that goes".

And, of course, the obvious one: "I'll write a post a day about Discardia for one year".

Which brings us to a little reminder about the next Discardia holiday, the 21st of December, 2006, to the 18th of January, 2007. It's a nice long one and a great finale to a wonderful year of thinking about this whole topic in depth.

Over the next couple weeks leading up to this delightfully long Discardian celebration, think about what you'd like to accomplish this time. I'd suggest picking one big goal and then a couple small goals in other areas.

Remember the more challenging areas as you mull this over. When you're going to work on something that's tougher for you, it helps to know you're only trying to make some progress within a finite area for now. Suggestions to consider for your big goals:
– personal relationships that are not going well
– feelings that your creative life is stagnant
– financial bad habits
– eating and/or exercise routines
– overall life goals

The secondary goals should help keep you motivated on the big one by being easier to succeed at them. Pick very finite projects or changes such as home improvements, getting a new haircut, finally setting up a backup routine for your computer, etc. Because you probably won't completely change that big situation, it can help you feel good to have checked a couple things off your list along with making a bit of progress on the harder goal.

Do it for the right reason: college

A college degree that is just about training for a particular career
in a particular field is a gigantic gamble. It leaves you vulnerable to
changes large and small.

I want a college education to give you something better.

What is valuable about a college education is not something a lousy economic cycle can take away.

Janet D. Stemwedel's thoughts on why to go to college
. Like travel the big benefit is what it does to the way you think.

Saturday Status?

How was your Friday flake out? Did you do fun things and sleep in today and generally enter the weekend very relaxed? Hope so.

Today is a bit of an assessment day. How are things going with you now as compared to, say, this time last year? What's changed and what hasn't? What do you still want to change?

Do a little soul searching.

Take a little stroll around your house.

Balance your checkbook and get a picture of your overall financial situation.

Note your progress, your problem areas, and your next steps.

Keep a calm spirit and a clear eye to see things as they really are and you'll be most effective in changing things for the better.