New Class! How to Write a Lot (Online)

I hope everyone is doing okay during this difficult season. I'm doing well, and so are most of my loved ones. Like everyone else, here in the US, we're all under a lot of stress, both due to the pandemic and also our political situation. The next few months are guaranteed to be difficult, so I hope everyone is doing tons of self-care, and also socially distancing and masking. Anyhow some news: I'M TEACHING AGAIN!  I took a hiatus for several years while writing my new book (soon to be announced), but my teaching resumes on Saturday, August 29, with a brand-new, full-day (10 am - 5 pm) ONLINE version of my popular Grub Street Writers workshop, How to Write a Lot.           I will be sharing many new techniques from my forthcoming book, Productivity is Power. Whether you write creatively, for work, or for school, they will work for you! Course summary: 10 am     The Truth About Procrastination 11 am     Breaking Free of Perfectionism 12 pm     The … [Read more...]

We’re All Done With Pandemic Shaming!

Happy to report that there's been a swift and strong pushback on the whole "use your pandemic time productively" push. From the meme world...                 From the New York Times...   ...and from J.K. Rowling herself! No quote tweeting, but if you're a 'life coach' who's on here implying people are losers if they aren't learning a new skill/building a brand while on lockdown, maybe stop. People have challenges you know nothing about. Sometimes getting through something is more than enough. — J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) April 3, 2020 Love to see the culture getting smarter and more compassionate! Stay well, and stay nonperfectionist! … [Read more...]

Focusmate: a Productivity App That Really Works!

So I don't recommend products or apps very often, and when I have, the results have been mixed. (Libro.fm IS a good indie-bookstore-supporting substitute for Audible, but CBD oil as a sleep aid is probably an expensive placebo at best.) But I have NO hesitation in recommending Focusmate, an inexpensive app that gives you a work or study "buddy" on demand. One of the core problems and paradoxes of productivity work is that many kinds of work demand solitude (for thinking and concentrating), and yet few of us seem to tolerate it well. (We get lonely and restless and distracted.) The most effective solution for many is to work quietly alongside a buddy who is doing the same. A good buddy can be hard to find, however; and even if you're lucky enough to find one, it can still be hard to schedule a time together, and to not chat when you should be working. Focusmate is really as close to a perfect solution as you can get. It's basically a calendaring program combined with videoconferencing. Use the calendar … [Read more...]

How About We Not Be Perfectionist During a Pandemic?

Sorry I've been quiet: I've been finishing my latest book, Productivity is Power: 5 Liberating Practices for College Students. I'll have more to share on that shortly. I'm compelled to write now, however, because there's been a spate of posts by people who seem to think that shaming others for their supposed underproductivity during a pandemic is useful. It's not! To be clear, memes like this AREN'T HELPFUL:                 And tweets like this AREN'T HELPFUL: Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear. — rosanne cash (@rosannecash) March 14, 2020 Implicit in the above, as in most perfectionist statements, is a comparison. Perfectionists will compare themselves to anyone—famous, obscure, living, dead—and on any criterion (looks, wealth, popularity, productivity, etc.). They'll even compare themselves to themselves at a higher level of performance (e.g., their … [Read more...]

How to Cope With Clueless Questions, Crass Comments, and Crazy Conjectures

Note: I'm re-upping this one from 2013, as it seems a useful follow-up to the Robert Caro post. Also see this piece on Advice for Academic Couples (excerpted from my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.) - Best, Hillary Oh, the things people say to writers! “What do you do?” “What do you write?” “Is there any money in that?” “Where have you been published?” “How’s the book coming along?” (Alt: “When will you be done with that thing?”) “Why don’t you just sit down over a weekend and just finish it?” “You should write like Stephen King!” “You should put a vampire in it!” “Why don’t you just go on [popular TV show]?” And, the ever popular, “When are you going to get a real job?” These are the kinds of (often, but not always) well-meaning questions, comments, and conjectures that bedevil writers. A little planning can help a lot in terms of coping, however. Below are strategies for: (a) increasing your tolerance for difficult questions; (b) maintaining conversational … [Read more...]

Biographer Robert Caro on How It’s All About Perspective

Most books (and many theses and other projects) take years to produce, and that's a simple fact. And yet, the "When will you be done?" question can bedevil new writers in particular. (Even worse when it's phrased disrespectfully, as in: "What? Are you still working on that thing?") That's why this anecdote from Caro's autobiography Working is so satisfying: "I was bothered, too, by the length not only of the manuscript [The Power Broker, about New York City "master builder" Robert Moses], but also of the time I had been working on it."That was the thing that made me doubt the most. When I had started, I had firmly believed that I would be done in a year, a naive but perhaps not unnatural belief for someone whose longest previous deadline had been measured in weeks. As year followed year, and I was still not nearly done, I became convinced that I had gone terribly astray."This feeling was fed by the people Ina and I did know. I was still in the first year of research when friends and acquaintances … [Read more...]

A Big Part of Time Management is Learning How to Decline Unwanted Invitations…

...which writer Harold Pinter knew how to do LIKE A BOSS. … [Read more...]

RIP Billy Dawg 2003? – 2019

We lost our cherished Billy Dawg last week. He died at home, surrounded by love. Here is a picture his dogsitter sent us. She captioned it: "Here he is motivating me to complete my senior project!" (Like mom, like pup!) Billy was (we think) at least sixteen years old with some of the usual senior dog issues, but when the end came, it was pretty sudden and unexpected. He deteriorated *very* rapidly over his last three days, and the whole experience was, as you can imagine, intense and mostly awful. But there was one incredible moment: Contrary to the above image of Billy adoring his dogsitter, he generally didn't shower you with affection. He kept a bit of distance, played it a bit cool. But on Saturday night, in the midst of a terrible weekend during which he was mostly "out of it," he suddenly pulled himself together, got very focused, and gave my partner (the true center of his universe) a look of the purest, most intense, and most melting love. It was as if Billy knew his time were … [Read more...]

The “Tiger Mom” Revisited

I've written before about Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua and her odious 2011 book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the thesis of which is that you should punish, humiliate, and otherwise coerce your kids into being high achievers. As I wrote at the time it was published: A few weeks ago [Chua] had a firestorm of publicity around her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she boasts of her authoritarian and coercive parenting methods, which include not only insisting that her daughters follow a narrow course of “success-oriented” classes and activities, but punishing them harshly – via withholding, threats and insults – when they don’t toe the line or achieve top-level success. (For instance, she deprives them of bathroom breaks, threatens to burn their toys, and calls them “garbage.”) She got a major boost when The Wall Street Journal featured her in an admiring article. What Chua considered her branded form of tough-love parenting, however, many considered nothing more than child abuse. There … [Read more...]

Slow Down to Speed Up! Also, Bonus Moving Story.

Sorry for the hiatus - we wound up moving on somewhat short notice. Now we're (mostly) settled in a bee-you-ti-ful new apartment (still in Kalamazoo), so it's time for another newsletter. After the move, I was surrounded by mountains of boxes, mountain ranges of boxes. It would have been easy to get overwhelmed, but I made a deliberate decision to stay calm because panic never helps. (As the late, great problem solving guru Jerry Weinberg said, "The problem isn't the problem. The problem is your reaction to the problem.") Our reflex, when faced with an overwhelming and/or unpleasant task, is often to speed up, with the goal of getting it done as fast as possible. But that's actually the opposite of what you should do. When we rush, the task not only gets more unpleasant, we're also more likely to make mistakes. Instead, you want to slow way down and savor the details. Treat every box (or paragraph, or piece of paperwork, or other work unit) as if it's the only one, and really take your time. When you … [Read more...]

Perfectionism is All Lies and Oversimplifications, Part One Million

This tweet has it all, from a perfectionist standpoint: It: Sets an impossibly high standard for success. (You should be as successful as Apple's Steve Jobs, etc.) Is shaming. ("What's your excuse?") Makes specious comparisons. (Between you and these ultra-successful outliers, most of whom also achieved their success decades ago, in a very different society and economy.) Offers zero guidance on how to actually achieve the level of super success it's promoting. AND IT'S WRONG. Perfectionist narratives, including the "rags to riches" and "bootstrap" ones so beloved by the business press and conservatives in general, are inevitably oversimplified and dramatic. As you can read in Historic.ly's brilliant takedown of the tweet, the founders of the companies mentioned were overwhelmingly rich and well-connected. And, with one exception, Mattel's Ruth Handler, they were/are all white men, so the tweet's implied claim that, "anyone can do this" is, on its face, bogus. The perfectionist tweet … [Read more...]

Roll Over Beethoven!

At a recent performance of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, the conductor told how, when Brahms was just starting out, the elder composer Robert Schumann praised him to the high heavens. Here’s the story: Brahms was only twenty years old and as yet little known….Robert expressed his admiration first in a letter to Joachim, and then in an article for the Neue Zeitschrift, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”). He praised Brahms in extravagant language, proclaiming the arrival of a young musician “called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…” Partly as a result of Schumann’s extravagant praise, many considered Brahms the natural successor to Beethoven, and predicted that his first symphony would be “Beethoven’s Tenth.” It took Brahms 21 years to finish that … [Read more...]

Nope, “Perfectionism in Moderation” Isn’t a Good Thing

Writer Lindsay Ellis recently tweeted about imposter syndrome (where you think you aren't up to the task, have everyone fooled, and are destined to be revealed as a horrible fraud). Unfortunately, she gets it wrong. She writes: "Because the thought patterns that lead to imposter syndrome need not always be a net negative - on some level, it is a form of perfectionism, but perfectionism can be harnessed as energy to create better, more thoughtful work. Perfectionism in moderation need not be destructive." You won't be surprised to hear that I emphatically disagree with that last sentence. My responses below. As someone who specializes in helping writers and others overcome #perfectionism and procrastination, I have to respectfully disagree. I believe perfectionism is always harmful because it disempowers you.... https://t.co/I4mzUPwx4t — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) March 1, 2019 Perfectionism's main tools are harshness and coercion - including imposter syndrome. They are inhumane and thus immoral … [Read more...]

Nonperfectionism in a Single Sentence

Nothing is as humbling, to a writer, anyway, as when you've used a lot of words to say something, and then someone comes along and nails it in a single sentence. But also nothing is more of a gift, so I guess it evens out. :-) It happened to me with my book The Lifelong Activist. Somewhere in the midst of writing a 400+ page tome on how to live a sustainable, balanced life that includes a serious political mission, I found this quote by the French writer Gustave Flaubert that pretty much summed everything up: "Live your life regular and orderly like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." (Of course, Flaubert doesn't tell you *how* to do that great thing, so I guess my book is still useful!) These days I spend a lot of time helping people overcome perfectionism. And for my work-in-progress, Joyful Productivity for Undergraduates (due out this year!), I'm happy to say I've come up with no fewer than nine great solutions, which I'll share in a future newsletter. But … [Read more...]

The Difference Between High Standards and Perfectionism

Where does "high standards" end and perfectionism begin? When it starts to cost you. A recent New York Times piece by Karen Crouse recounts the trials of figure skater Gracie Gold, an Olympic contender who suffered mental illness, including eating disorders, in large part from the pressures of competing.  Gold's perfectionism, according to the article, started early. "Throughout [her] childhood, she was fixated on being first, and flawless. In the classroom, she would furiously, and tearfully, erase an entire sentence if she misspelled a single word. By second grade, she had found an outlet for her compulsiveness, taking formal skating lessons at a rink near the family home in Springfield, MO." The absolute hardest thing I have to teach people is that perfectionism never helps and always hurts. The lesson can be hard to take in because: Perfectionism--whether in the form of harshness, punishments, and/or deprivation--has a superficial logic. "Just work harder, Sally!" Or, "No breaks till you're … [Read more...]