No. 126 | By Christine Carron
I think a lot about how to make progress. Arguably that focus started when I was ten when, to defray the costs of my dance lessons, I started serving as an assistant to my local dance teacher, helping instruct the “little kids.” In high school, college, and graduate school, I was a tutor. In the corporate world, a process improvement consultant, project manager, and productivity coach. Goodjelly was my way of taking all that productivity knowledge and making it available to writers.
So, yes, pretty much always, a core focus of my life has been, and remains, helping folks move confidently toward their goals and dreams, be it a dance recital, a good grade, a launch of a software application, or making one’s writing dreams come true.
Thanks to all that experience, for a very long while I’ve had a working theory around making progress that has to do with the interplay between reality and possibility. A recent situation from my own life further clarified that theory into a newly minted model of productivity that I have officially dubbed (for now) "The 3 Points of Smart Progress."
They are also the three points you have to get clear on to get yourself out of a writing block or stall. But before I get to the new model, let’s start with the story of that recent situation that clarified the model, because, yes, even with all my productivity know-how, my progress, too, can get stalled, blocked, or otherwise thwarted.
I’ve wanted to do a real push up for nearly thirty years. While my legs are strong due to decades of dancing as well as daily jaunts with the Wonder Dog, my arms had been lifelong residents of Puny Town.
Every few years, I would think, “THIS will be the year I’ll get strong enough to do a push up.” I would map out a plan, get started, and then . . . give up.
Push ups are hard in general and near impossible when one has hardly any arm strength. And the issue was complicated even further because my inner dancer insisted I maintain good form. So it wasn’t even like my dream could be satisfied by slopping through the motions. It had to be a real push up done with all the right form and body mechanics.
Bottom line: I had a very clear dream but was unable to make progress.
Most writers I work with have a clear dream. That is the first point of smart progress: Knowing where you want to be headed. A distant possibility that you are working toward. Let’s make that point official and uppercase it: your Distant Possibility.
Depending on where you are on the adventure, your Distant Possibility might be to get your first first draft done; or to land an agent; or to get a publishing deal/self-publish; or to get on the New York Times bestseller list; or to make enough money from your writing to quit your day job, etc.
Writers, of course, often have multiple Distant Possibilities that extend out over their desired writing adventure timeline/trajectory, but there is usually one that each writer will refer to as the next “big” Distant Possibility they are working toward.
As I am sure you know, just knowing your dream—your Distant Possibility—is not always enough to keep you consistently chugging toward said dream.
For that we need the two other points of Smart Progress: your Current Reality and your Near Possibility. Your Current Reality is a clear picture of—and an enthusiastic, nonjudgmental alignment with—where you are in relation to your Distant Possibility. Your Near Possibility is the set of next actions (i.e., a plan) that you believe will move you toward your Distant Possibility.
Let’s apply this framework to my push up situation over the years. My Distant Possibility: Do a push up. My Current Reality: Can’t do a push up. My Near Possibilities over the years: Multiple “land a push up” plans.
Seems to cover all the points, right? So why did I never make solid progress toward my push up dream? Part of the reason, of course, was that this push up dream of mine was certainly a lower priority dream compared to other dreams I have, but if we remove dream priority, then we get to the point of this model . . .
All action is not equal. And activity does not guarantee productivity. Not that you would know that from a lot of productivity coaches. “Action!” they admonish, “You must take action!” Get your butt in the chair. Generate words. Write every day. Do it. Do it. Do it!
If you keep telling yourself to do things—i.e., a set of actions that make up your Near Possibility plan—and you continue to NOT do those things, then arguably something is off with your Near Possibility plan. But what?
Here is where many productivity coaches will double down on the “take action” directive. “Just do it!”
I don’t find doubling down on a process or plan that is NOT working useful or helpful—for me or for anyone I've coached. It’s demoralizing, and often leads to giving up, at least temporarily, i.e., a block.
That is exactly where I was year after year with my push up dream. Blocked.
To show you where the process glitch was (and to get you the secret to jump starting your writing progress), I have to tell you the most recent chapter of my push up adventure.
A few months ago I decided this year really WAS going to be the year that I landed a push up. I joined a fitness program and am happy to report that . . . I injured myself on the very first day.
Snapped a tendon in my chest. It was excruciatingly painful.
Ironically, I wasn’t even doing a push up when I was injured, but push ups were absolutely out of the equation for the foreseeable future. It would have been the best excuse I’d ever had to let my push up dream go for another year, but luckily I am in a group of lovely, supportive co-participants and have a set of fabulous coaches cheering me on, so I didn’t give up.
I rested. I did research. And I got gentle with myself. (Anything other than being gentle with myself resulted in pain.)
That combination of support, rest, research, and gentleness finally allowed me to really get real with where I was in relation to pushups: far, far away from being able to do one, even before my injury.
I had known my upper body was weak, but I had not truly acknowledged how weak. As a result, all my past plans had started at a place that was actually way too advanced for me. And that made them terribly bad plans. It was like they were maps to get me to Chicago from Pittsburgh, when in reality I was all the way back in Boston. Totally wrong starting location!
The moment I wholeheartedly embraced that reality, everything became easier. I was finally able to start where I really needed to start. First with resting for four weeks, then attempting a single push up against a wall. So really I was doing a push-away more than a push up, because I was pretty much upright—an eighty-eight degree angle if I’m being generous.
I admit I felt a bit ridiculous as I did that first wall push up. My inner critic was scoffing. My inner perfectionist was like, “Come on, seriously?”
I let them have their say, but I absolutely could do no more, and even that single wall push up I had to do very gingerly. But what was exciting was that I was able to easily focus on proper placement of my hands and arms. Easily focus on engaging my core. Easily focus on engaging my lats and ensuring my shoulders were rolled back and down.
So it was the best push up form-wise that I had ever done.
And I was able to do some more of them the next day. And the next. And now, with five weeks of consistency, I have worked up to fifty reps (all super solid form!) and down to about a sixty degree angle. (My wall push ups have officially progressed to frame-of-bed pushups.)
That all means my Distant Possibility is getting closer and closer, and for the first time ever, I am confident that I actually will get there.
In short, I’ve finally reached the progress land!
Remember that I said that this model came from a working theory I had about making progress that had to do with the interplay of reality and possibility.
A lot of productivity approaches ignore reality and just insist on taking action—any action—toward your Distant Possibility.
But in my experience, to make smart progress toward any dream (your Distant Possibility), you have to (again and again) make a Near Possibility plan that springs from an accurate assessment of your ever-evolving Current Reality.
That’s the secret: To jump-start your writing progress, you have to have a Near Possibility plan that takes into account an accurate assessment of your Current Reality.
(Note: Though in this push up example, my earlier plans assumed I was further ahead than I was, we can also absolutely come up with Near Possibility plans that assume we aren't as far a long as we actually are. Either way, the problem is the same: we our out of alignment with our Current Reality, and that messes with the effectiveness of our Near Possibility plan, and that impacts our progress toward our Distant Possibility, i.e., our dream.)
When I coach writers on how to get through blocks, I’m often—in one way or the other—helping them align with, even enthusiastically embrace, their Current Reality. That “enthusiastically embrace” part can be a hard sell at first, especially in the case where you'd hoped you were further along than you actually are. Such a realization often requires one to draw upon inner reserves of grace and patience.
I certainly had to do that after my injury. The injury itself was a shock. On a certain level, however, it was a bigger shock when it finally hit me where I really needed to begin (injury or not) if I ever wanted to have a chance of doing a push up at my desired standard. Oof! Humbling, for sure.
Yet that was when everything started to flow. I finally landed a Near Possibility plan that sprang from embracing my true Current Reality. Then, sure, there was that little moment of, “I look like an idiot doing this standing push up.” But that feeling was shortly flooded out by the thrill of my body getting it. And that thrill has been followed by the most progress I’ve ever made in the entire thirty years I’ve desired to do a push up. Yes!
When you take charge of the 3 Points of Smart Progress, you will end up, again and again, with a Near Possibility plan that moves you closer and closer to the Distant Possibility of your writing dream. Until one day, you wake up and realize your Current Reality and Distant Possibility are now one and the same. You've successfully made your dream come true.
Such is the magic of reaching the progress land.
You’ve got this!