Your Emergency Minimums

Photo credit: tsaiproject on Flickr.

I have a close friend who’s been going through a very tough time. The kind of tough time that would reduce most other people to a quivering pulp. He’s under pressures I can barely imagine, and is still such a fantastic guy that he takes the time to sit down and listen to my problems.

So when I told him that I’d been having a hard time getting any writing done, he asked me: “what are your emergency minimums?”

He went on to explain that long ago, when his free time suddenly diminished dramatically, he decided on a few “emergency minimums” for his daily routine ā€” things that were important to him that he would do every day / week / month, no matter what. It might be something as simple as a daily meditation, or a bit of reading, or an exercise routine.

He wouldn’t make excuses for himself, or put these things off indefinitely and then feel bad about putting them off. He wouldn’t mourn that he wasn’t able to put as much time as he wanted into his projects. He didn’t concoct elaborate schemes with catchy code names. He’d plan, and then put a little time in, wherever he could, without fail.

And at that point, I had to confess — I didn’t have any emergency minimums. I didn’t have any minimums at all. I had planned to fail by failing to plan, as the platitude goes.

I have clinical depression. I’m on medication for it. My therapist once classified me as “high-functioning” and in general, that’s true ā€” I have it a lot better than a lot of people who struggle with depression on a daily basis. Thanks to medication and therapy, I get through most days just fine.

But there are bleak days when I don’t feel “high-functioning” at all. I’m not talking about feeling a little grouchy, or in need of coffee. That’s a daily occurrence I’m well-equipped to handle (hint: the solution is coffee.) I’m talking about a gray fog being drawn across all of reality, where your own psyche becomes a schoolyard bully who has singled you out for an extended ass-kicking.

I’m not mentioning this to throw a miniature pity-party, complete with kazoos of despair, but rather to give some context. I’m just saying, there are days when even writing the crappiest blog post imaginable might as well be the twelve labors of Hercules. My fiction all starts looking like the worst dross a rabid chimp ever typed by accident. In short, the thought of neglecting one’s work, of just letting it go until things brighten up, becomes downright seductive.

This is not uncommon among writers. Ours is not a special snowflake of pain. Sometimes it’s life, or depression, or fear, or good old-fashioned laziness.

Any writer will tell you that writing daily is essential. Hell, I’ve said it, probably with a lot of pomposity and finger-wagging, too. I talk a big game (like many a blogger), but my money and my mouth often occupy different space-time continua. Balancing writing with our daily lives is something we all contend with, to some degree or another. We all have our excuses, legitimate or not.

This is where emergency minimums come in.

So I’m going to start setting some modest goals. Not sweeping, punch-out-the-universe goals, but manageable tasks that I can reliably complete. I may not be able to spare four hours a day for writing, but I sure as hell can spare thirty to sixty minutes.

A person can get a lot of work done in that time. Or not. But the point is to do the work.

So what are your emergency minimums?

  • Joni

    I run three times per week. I don’t need to do it every day, but I need to do it more than twice. Every once in a while, due to pain or poor planning I’ll miss a run and I always regret it. So I run, three times a week.

    I should probably build in a few more minimums now that this is a good solid pattern, eh? šŸ™‚

    • I think that;’s how it works, yeah. šŸ™‚ I used to have good writing habits. I just let ’em slip.

  • I really do like this concept of ’emergency minimums’. There is something to it and provides a basic expectation of ourselves without being lofty.

    • Me too. I think it’s very common to sabotage ourselves with lofty expectations. Start small, build big.

  • This is such an awesome post Dan, I really appreciate you sharing this. I too struggle with depression though I’ve been labelled moderate which feels a lot worse than it sounds. Right now I’m really struggling. I find that I push myself too hard and have ridiculously high standards that no one could reach. Ergo I burn out a lot.

    My emergency minimum is to set less goals and focus on fewer things. I say this as though I’m actually going to follow through…which knowing me I won’t šŸ™‚

    • Thank you, Angie. I understand the high standards / burnout cycle all too well. It happens to me a lot. This process is an attempt at mitigating that. From where I’m sitting, it looks like you’re doing awesome.

  • Angela

    Hi Daniel, really enjoyed this post and it was just what was needed today. Thank you.

  • random9q

    Excellent. Wish I’d hadbit framed like this years ago. I had some nebulously similar idea, but in a more wishy-washy “if you want to really do something you really ought to make time for it every day” and would of course overschedule volumes of that and be inconsistent. This is a better frame. This suggests what I’ve guessed at: I don’t really feel like I’m actually functioning unless a certain minimum commitment has been honored, and if I break that I’m actively grinding down my reserves. Not just for myself but every one around me notices, too, and I’m less available for other things.

    Many thanks, and well spoken…

    • YOU wish you’d had it framed like this years ago? šŸ˜€ Yeah… me too. Thanks for the comment.

  • I really relate with Angie’s comment, I can usually deal with the depression, but that gray fog…could do without that! I know I need to set some minimums, emergency or otherwise. My only minimum right now is to put something in writing every day, and while I should structure it better, I need to stop sabotaging myself and get on with it!

    • Thank you, Lisa. Writing every day is a great start… structure can come later.

  • Absolutely brilliant post, Daniel. First let me say, everyone should have such a good friend (life would be a lot better if we all did) and second, I plan to plan as soon as I get home from work. Great way of looking at things.

    Also, very strong of you to mention your depression. I’m glad you knew that you could be honest and I bet in saying it in your post, you’ve helped more than several people be honest about it themselves.

    Big hugs all around!

    • Thank you, Jo-Anne. I’ve come to realize that depression isn’t weakness or lack of character — it’s just a disease, like any other. That can be treated and managed. Seeing it for what it is had made it far more manageable, and I don’t feel it’s anything anyone need be ashamed of.

  • Emmie Mears

    “Kazoos of despair”….PAHAHA!

    But seriously, I understand that feeling. My mother is clinically and chronically depressed, and I’ve had bouts with it myself. It’s what made me quit teaching, because I spent the entire year inside a cloud that coloured every other aspect of my life grey.

    I love the idea of “Emergency Minimums.” Bloody brilliant.

    • Emmie Mears

      Oh, and my emergency minimums are:

      For exercise: at least 30 minutes of cardio (when I work, that takes care of itself). I like to get in weights if I can.

      Writing: at least 500 words per day, whether it’s my blog or another project.

      Relax: I try to spend at least 30 minutes a day just chilling with my kitten or puppy or reading. Doing something that recharges me.

      • Great list. That last one, “relax,” is particularly important, and one I think people often forget to include. We get so caught up in being ZOMG PRODUCTIVE that we forget to enjoy ourselves. So I started putting “pet my cats” on my to-do list. The cats like it, I like it, it benefits everybody, why not get that little rush of “completion” from doing it?

    • Thank you, Emmie.

  • The nail is screaming right now.

    I especially loved this beautiful prose: ” Iā€™m talking about a gray fog being drawn across all of reality, where your own psyche becomes a schoolyard bully who has singled you out for an extended ass-kicking.”

    And, of course, so many of us can relate. (Myself, for example.) I have long thought that the creative genius of writing often has to be birthed from a place of brokenness and despair. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I am trudging through a dark night of the soul. Thanks for being willing to be honest. You are a great inspiration on many a day.

    • I could (and should) probably do an entire post on the myth of the miserable, alcoholic writer and how poisonous I think it is to genuine creativity. Yes, some brilliant artists were tortured souls. That doesn’t make torture a prerequisite for brilliance. I do think a lot of smart, creative people frequently suffer from depression, either chemical or emotional, and I think it CAN be inspirational, but front-loading misery in order to fulfill some sort of perceived obligation to be tormented… well, I think that’s just perverse.

      Thank you, Angel, for the comment and the insight.

      • That *would* be perverse! I only meant that when I am tormented, I try to see it as the inevitable downside of the highs I so frequently have as a creative soul. I would love to see that post though! You should definitely do it.

  • AngelaGoff

    My writer’s group decided a couple years ago that 500 words a day was a great goal for a writing minimum — as though such a simple formula could overcome the writing funk we all slip into from time to time. I found that having a minimum number is no real writing goal — not for the long term. Sure, it works during super-coffee-fueled episodes like NaNoWriMo, but it never lasts all year. At least, not for me.

    What I’ve found works better (for me) is if I keep a calendar where I write down what I DO write each day, whether it is in my WIP, or a blog post, or a flash fiction or – to give last weekend’s project as an example – to write my grandmother’s obituary. What happens is that at the end of the week, I may look at the numbers on my WIP and cringe because Castle 8 isn’t moving forward as quickly as planned; BUT I can see at a glance that I’ve done a TON of writing, and on equally worthwhile endeavors. (Right now, commemorating grandma far outweighs my C8 characters. I’m sure they understand.)

    So that’s my emergency minimum – to keep track of what I DO write every day. Because I always end up writing something, even if it doesn’t go to the “writing bucket” that I’d like.

    Sorry for the overlong post….

    • Not at all, Angela. We all have to figure out what tools work for us, and then use them. Whether it be a word count, an increment of time, or whatever measure we come up with — it has to be consistent, and it has to work for us. Nothing else matters. Except deadlines.

  • James Johnson

    Thirty minutes is a really achievable goal. Thanks for framing it that way.

  • Eva Rieder

    Great post, Daniel, and so true. I’m totally guilty of setting unreasonably high expectations on myself and then having a meltdown when I don’t finish. I’m working on lowering my expectations and setting more realistic minimums. So far, so good. Best of luck to you on your goals!

  • Mike Manz

    Thank you. If for no other reason than that the phrase “kazoos of despair” has now entered my braincase, thank you.