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I don’t have time for that
It’s such a convenient excuse, isn’t it?
The waitress had just delivered our meals when my friend asked the question I wasn’t ready to answer.
“So,” Sarah said, as she dipped a fry into her ketchup, “have you given any more thought to writing a book?”
“Yes! Uh, I mean, no. Well ... I don’t know,” I stammered, more and more uncertain with each word.
The accurate answer is, yes, I think about the book I’d like to write fairly often, and also, no, I haven’t actually done anything with those thoughts.
Sarah and I first met over a shared love of writing; I have a passion for first-person writing, and she adores fiction. We have mutual friends, and last year, she reached out to me about meeting up and getting to know each other. Since then, I’ve watched in awe as she’s reached many significant writing milestones. In October, over drinks, she told me about finding an agent to represent her first novel. In December, her book sold to a publisher—in an exciting six-figure deal.
Sarah isn’t the only person I know who’s writing a book. Masuma has reported, written, and edited her first book, Girlhood: Teenage Voices from Around the World, which will debut in February 2021. Stephanie is currently writing a memoir about Complex PTSD, slated to be released in 2022. And then there’s Roy, who recently published his sixth book with Little, Brown and Company.
I admire these authors, and am grateful to know them. I’m inspired by their vision and drive, and want to soak up all of their secrets to success. At our dinner last week, I listened with interest as Sarah explained that she was deep into revisions, another big step towards her book’s 2021 release. While I’m thrilled for my friends and their writing wins, I can’t help but wonder: How are they achieving something that I’ve been unable to do?
Deep down, I know the answer.
There are two slides of a presentation I’ve given a few times that I think about often. The first slide reads, “I don’t have time for that.” On the following slide, that sentence is crossed out. Below is a new line: “I’m not prioritizing that.”
The talk, which I’ve delivered as part of my work as a journalism consultant, is about how to make time for strategic thinking—the kind of important, big-picture task that often gets pushed aside in a hectic workday. My target audience is people who work in offices, juggling a variety of responsibilities and facing a multitude of demands from colleagues. But it can also apply to people like me: freelancers, who do most of their work solo.
I know it’s a helpful presentation; I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback from people who have seen it. What I haven’t told those people, because it's something I’m ashamed to admit, is that I haven’t been taking my own advice—at least when it comes to prioritizing a book.
Lately, I’ve had a number of conversations with folks who are intrigued by the fact that I consistently walk 10,000 steps a day. They remind me of what I must be like when I’m grilling my writer friends. But how do you do it? they ask.
I’ve been quizzed about the specific amount of steps I get each morning; whether I change up my walking routes or take the same path each day; and if I get bored during long walks. I explain my process as best I can and, more often than not, am met with dismay. I just don’t have time, they’ll say.
For me, 10,000 steps equals around two hours of walking a day. I rarely walk for two hours straight, though the days I do get to do that are a special treat. More often, I’ll go for a 20-minute walk in the morning, an hour-long walk in the afternoon, and another 20-minute walk in the evening. I get the rest of my steps without much planning—by moving around the house, or running errands. Sometimes I’ll end the day with a few hundred steps remaining, which I’ll knock out by walking in place or pacing circles around the house. No matter what, I always get my 10,000 steps. It’s just something that I do.
I imagine this is true for the writers I know. No matter what, they work on their books every day. It’s just something that they do.
In other words, writing is a practice they’ve prioritized.
Many of my writer friends have full-time jobs that have nothing to do with writing. They are driven by their dreams of publishing books and putting their words out into the world; and they’ve found the routines and discipline to make those dreams happen. Sarah wakes up at 5:00 every morning in order to work on her book before heading into the office. Masuma knows that she works best when she’s busiest, and that if “I don't write the words, they won't get written.” Roy follows the rule that a written page a day equals a book a year.
I know my failure to work on a book isn’t due to a lack of discipline. If I can manage 10,000 daily steps, shouldn’t I be able to write 1,000 daily words? The problem is that I’m not prioritizing writing—at least not the long-term, less immediately gratifying, potentially higher-stakes writing that comes with working on a book.
There’s something deeper lurking, too. I’m not prioritizing a book because I’m scared. No one is judging the way I walk each day (at least I hope not; that would be weird!), but there’s a lot more that’s publicly on the line when it comes to working on a book. What if I write a book and it’s not good? What if I write a book and no one reads it? What if I write a book and don’t know what to aim for next? What if I write a book and it’s a wild success? Each of these scenarios are terrifying to me, in their own frustrating way. Ultimately, my fear is rooted in perfectionism: What if I do this thing that I’ve always wanted and it’s not perfect?
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it's just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, 'I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
When we fear something, our sweet dumb brains are exceptionally good at coming up with excuses and reasons why we shouldn’t do that thing. This would make sense if the fears were rational. But when it comes to chasing goals like writing a book, joining a fitness class, or reaching out to a friend, our fearful brains regularly sabotage us from doing good things.
I’m tired of the excuses, of being scared of doing something that I’ve long wanted to do. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King observes, “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” (King, by the way, writes at least 2,000 words a day. It’s just something that he does.)
So, what will it take for me to write a book? First, I need to make up my mind that it’s a thing I’m definitely going to do—despite my fears and perfectionist tendencies. Next, I have to set up a system to work towards that goal—identifying how many words I’ll write each day, when I will write them, and what I will shift in order to write. And finally, I must make it a priority—accepting that other things in life may take lesser importance. There’s a chance that, for me, writing 1,000 words a day might mean getting fewer steps in. That’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.
Ultimately, I could write a book that never gets published. I could write a book that isn’t very good. I could write a book that sells an embarrassing amount of copies. Still, I would have written a book. Most importantly, I would have stopped making excuses out of fear.
Here’s hoping that the next time Sarah asks that question, I’ll have a better answer for her.
p.s. What’s something that you would like to do, but haven’t yet prioritized in your life? I’d love to hear about your dreams, and what’s gotten in the way of making them a reality. And if you have a success story to share, I’d love to hear those, too! I’ll include some of the best responses in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
Let’s learn from each other
I am so grateful for everyone who’s taken the time to respond to the prompts that I include at the bottom of each essay. Your insights have been incredibly wonderful, thoughtful, and validating—and are so well written!
Last week, you all shared your less-than-tidy love stories, including Kim, who wrote, “Less-than-tidy love is complex, sure, but it is often the deepest, where two people have not only their love to connect them, but something else.”
The week before, you offered your thoughts on the fragility of life. Barbara shared, “I think about the forces that have conspired to bring me into existence and brought me together with the people I know, and then I remember that all we have is RIGHT NOW. It's a miracle that any of us are even here. That gives me a jolt of purpose.”
And Sarah, whom I wrote about this issue, chimed in during the previous week. She said, “Remember, life is all about seasons. Spring cannot last forever; we, too, must have periods of dormancy to rest and regenerate energy for the next burst of good things.”
If you’d like to receive Thursday’s issue and enjoy more wisdom of the crowd (including Roy’s full list of writing tips!), all you have to do is become a paying subscriber.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who’s also guilty of making excuses not to chase her goals. Fear of failure is real, folks.