Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles

Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m an organized person. I set big-picture goals and break the big plan down into small achievable pieces. I’ve always made a daily to-do list and I get great satisfaction from ticking them off – done!

But I also put my obligations to others waaaay ahead of my own wants and needs, especially creatively. Even when I “schedule” creative time, or add “finish chapter 5” to my to-do list, you can be sure that it’s the one item on that list that doesn’t get done.

Sound familiar?

New strategy needed

The pandemic gave me a gift this year. Unused commuting time. So, I gave myself another gift: I cleared the deck of a number of outside obligations, told people “no” for a change and decided to make my own health and creativity more important in my life.

At first, predictably, my creativity intentions became the same undone items on the daily to-do list. I needed a new approach, a whole new rethink. It took time, some trial and error, but I found a new strategy for giving creativity a more meaningful—and attainable—place in my life. I developed what I call my “Butterflies, frogs and tadpoles” approach.

Ditch the daily to-do list

I’ve stopped making a daily to-do list!

Yes, that’s right. No more daily chances to feel like I’ve failed. No more only crossing off the obligations and neglecting the things I want to do. No more setting myself up for guilt, and disappointment at myself and the world. No more dwelling on the negative.

My new approach involves a master list each for butterflies, frogs and tadpoles – in that order!

Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles?              

BUTTERFLIES are the things I WANT to do: creative things, personal things, social things, family things, hobbies, relationships and anything else that will feed my soul, make my life pleasant or feed into the achieving of my chosen personal goals. And while it may not be intuitive to goal setting in any way, I include things that are not necessarily “good for me” like eating a chocolate bar, or a third cup of coffee or a Netflix binge.

Okay okay! I hear you. That’s all very well, but what about all the stuff that HAS to get done. Be patient Young Grasshopper. I’m coming to that.

A FROG is something that MUST be done because it has a time restraint on it. The term comes from the “eat that frog” concept originated by Mark Twain who once said that if you start the day by eating a frog (your biggest and most important task) you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day.

But for me, there is a difference. My frogs are not necessarily my biggest or most important tasks. They are not necessarily things I don’t want to do. They are simply tasks governed by time deadlines. A frog can be as simple as reordering my prescription or calling Aunt Mable about the food for next weekend or as big and complicated as filing my taxes or meeting a client deadline.

I also often take big frogs and break them into smaller frogs. For instance, “filing my taxes” could be broken down into finding my paperwork, sorting receipts, compiling my mileage log; printing off my online charitable receipts etc etc. I prefer this approach, because it makes the frogs less intimidating, and I get to “complete” more things along the way. I can see and feel the progress.

A TADPOLE is an item that SHOULD be tackled soon because it will become a frog in the near future. Like frogs, tadpoles can be obligations or not, big or small. Tadpoles might be things like cleaning out my clothes closet, buying new boots or Christmas shopping, updating my website, getting the propane tanks refilled, filling out that grant application, finishing chapter 5, or submitting to a contest.

Some tadpoles can remain tadpoles for a very long time, but I know in my heart of hearts that if I don’t turn them into frogs at some point, I will regret it. So, yes, I may miss moving the writing contest entry to the frog list, but I know that if I don’t do it and the deadline passes, I will be upset with myself. And that if I continue to let those tadpoles die, my chosen goals will not be realized. I also recognize that many psychological reasons probably exist for my resistance, and so I cut myself some slack on tadpoles.

The process

As I said earlier, I run a master list each for butterflies, frogs (with deadlines) and tadpoles – in that order!

I add to those lists whenever I think of something I want, must or should do. Remember these are master lists, not “to-do” lists, so I no longer get overwhelmed by how long they are.

When I started this, my Frogs list ran to several pages, my tadpoles were plentiful, but I could only come up with a scant list of butterflies.

I realized that I was so used to gearing my actions to what I “should” do that I was out of touch with what I really wanted to do. Over time, I’ve asked myself questions like: What makes me happy? What would a perfect day look like? If I died tomorrow, what would I regret not having done?

Monthly

Each month, I pick from the master lists for my monthly tasks and activities. Note, I work by month, not by day. I have 3 sections in my day book for each of the categories: Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles.

I begin with a Butterfly choice. That’s right, put what’s important to you first! That goes on my monthly list of Butterflies. Then I pick a Frog or Tadpole and put them on my monthly Frog and Tadpole lists. I repeat the process until I have three lists that will fill my month with time left over for unexpected happenings that always arise.

Admittedly, the number of Frogs on the Frog list is often governed by deadlines. If it is a formidable list, I consider the old Ditch, Delegate or Defer approach to make it more manageable. But whatever I do, I make sure to have as many butterflies on my list as I have frogs and tadpoles combined.

Weekly

Once a week I grab a highlighter and decide which Frogs need to be done by the end of the week.  With the same colour highlighter, I highlight an equal number of Butterflies. Those are the ones I concentrate on that week. I forget about the others on the list. The next week I use a different colour highlighter and do the same thing.  Spreading my expectations of myself over a week instead of a day means six less opportunities to feel like I failed, time to make up for a slow day and a better sense of achievement over time.

Daily

I always start my day with a Butterfly. This sounds counter-productive if there are Frog deadlines looming, but it isn’t. I’ve found that I procrastinate far less and I don’t fill my time with pointless activity because I’m getting my wants up front and not feeling overwhelmed by musts. Today for example, I had this blog to write, a report to finish and email around to colleagues and an editing assignment due tomorrow. Those three things I knew would eat up a big piece of my day, so I chose butterflies that would not take a big time grab but would leave me feeling fulfilled: A 20 minute yoga session at the lake; a video call to my brother overseas and time to read a poetry collection I have just bought. Tomorrow I have only one Frog deadline, so I will choose a large butterfly, like working for a full morning on my poetry, before I tackle that one frog.

Successes

While this may not work for everyone, it’s working for me. Slowly my mind is learning to put what’s important to me at the forefront of what I do. I feel less frustrated with tasks I have to do because I’m balancing them with things I want to do rather than trying to fit my wants in or neglecting them altogether.

Dream Your Writing Life

Dream Your Writing Life

Gwynn Scheltema

A new year and new dreams. It can be stifling sometimes to set goals— analyzing what coulda, shoulda, woulda. Instead…

Let’s dream a little…

What do you want your writing life to look like?

The operative word here is “you.” Never mind what others think you should be or do. Never mind about modelling someone else’s writing life. Pay no attention to any nay-sayers out there.

If you could write what you want, when you want, how you want or even not write at all, what would that writing path look like?

Go on… grab a piece of paper and just fantasize. Be bold. Be free. Don’t be hampered by skills, resources, obligations you may or may not have. This is an exercise in digging into your subconscious for what you really want. Write it; draw it; collage it. Doesn’t matter what medium you choose.

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What would you like to write?
  • Where would you like to write?
  • How often?  

So now what?

Phew! I bet that was quite the mental workout. Did you surprise yourself? Did you uncover new aspects to your possible writing journey? Did you leave out any writing you currently do? The chances are, if you were honest with yourself, you did all those things. So now what?

Once you dream it, the next step is to believe it.

Believe it

Stop! I can already hear the reasons for not achieving your dreams bubbling up….not enough time, got to pay the mortgage, I should be… It’s okay. We all know that reality has a habit of stomping on dreams, but I’ve also found in my life that defining what I want is the first step to believing it.

It is like telling my whole being to be on alert. If my conscious mind and subconscious mind are on the same page, (pardon the pun), I notice opportunities more, I take more risks, I’m stronger at dealing with blockers. And the more often I reaffirm to myself what I want, the more I believe it and the more able I am to make it happen.

Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” For me that is also a way of thinking of serendipity.

My dream

And I’ve seen it played out many times in my life. In the late 1990s, I was single, divorced, living pay cheque to pay cheque in a tiny townhouse and renting out my spare bedroom to make ends meet. I made a collage vision board of “My life in 10 years’ time”:  A large country home; forest; drifting in a canoe; me in a gardening hat with time to garden; piles of books; a figure seated at a computer typing away; a cat; an easel, grandchildren playing on a swing; words and phrases like “content”; “be a little selfish”; “watching clouds.”

Well, guess what? That is my life now. Knowing what I wanted helped me to seize the opportunity to buy the house I was renting, to have the courage to look for a better paying job, and to find a way to renovate the basement to rent out—all of which eventually allowed me to buy my present country property on the lake.

Knowing where I wanted to go helped me say yes to Ruth when we discussed pooling our writing workshops under a new umbrella, Writescape. And that opened up all sorts of writing path opportunities.

They say that you can’t run a race if you don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t like to think of it as a finish line, because my dreams change. I like to think of it as the next corner or the next bend in the path. I only need to see that far. I’ll dream again when I get there.

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

This week we welcome Writescape alumnus, Donna Judy Curtin as she shares her writing dreams and 5 ways to actualize them. You can find other writing-related blogs by Donna at Ascribe Writers blog.

Guest blogger: Donna Judy Curtin

In Grade Two, I declared I was going to become a veterinarian and even though my personality quizzes in high school suggested I would make a better florist, my heart was set on becoming an animal doctor.

I’m nothing if not determined.

And I’m great at dreaming.

Throughout my gruelling university undergraduate courses, I kept visualizing the moment I would receive my acceptance letter to the Ontario Veterinary College. I could hear the envelope ripping, smell the glue, feel the rasp of the paper between my fingers, see the welcoming words on the page and when I was exhausted and frustrated and about ready to give it all up… I imagined a victorious jump into the air with a viscous fist pump.

This wasn’t actually how this moment occurred. I called the College to check on something and a very kind receptionist informed me, when I wasn’t expecting it, that I was listed as a member of the OVC class of 2002. I think I fell off the phone (if that’s even possible). After picking up the receiver, I remember stuttering out, “What did you say?” as the tears rolled down my cheeks.

These precious moments never happen exactly how we imagine them, but regardless, we need to keep envisioning them.

Visioning

Since I started writing seriously, I’ve been picturing small successes. At first I dreamed of completing my first novel, then it was editing that novel. When I needed a break from my first story, I started writing the sequel, which led me back to edit the first novel again and again and again. Then I began to dream of completing a trilogy and started to imagine getting all three books published as a series.

Now, my new adventure is QUERYING.

This is by far the scariest thing I have ever done. It is bold, fearless and requires stripping down to bear my heart for all to see… but I know it’s time to get out there and I’ve given myself a very specific goal for this year – to find an agent who loves my story as much as I do.

In order to stay motivated, I’m going to embrace the actualization that helped me to get into Veterinary School, because there is no better time than now to have something to motivate me through the hard work.

Getting Your Kids to Reach for the Stars

I’m going to reach for the moon and grasp onto the stars.

  • What are your writing goals?
  • Can you imagine how it will look and feel when you get there?
  • Have you shared these goals?
  • Here’s how to get started…. 5 Ways to Actualize Your Writing Dreams

ONE – WRITE IT DOWN

Even if it’s only in your private computer, write your dreams down. Make them real. Live them.

TWO – START SMALL

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Pick a fun goal. Something you can completely achieve.

One of my goals is to make the front cover of the Cargill Area News. It started out as a joke about ten years ago, but now, I want this in earnest. The Cargill Area News, locally and lovingly called the CAN, is our village newspaper. The heart and soul of the paper is the editor, Brian, this imaginative and friendly man who still publishes poetry to his now deceased love and wife. Someday, I will make the cover of the CAN as a published novelist. I can see my smiling face in black and white, holding up my book.

THREE – UPDATE YOUR DREAMS

You need to revisit your dreams often – in order to be sure they are still relevant. It won’t do to still dream about sitting on Opera’s couch for a book discussion. She’s moved on and so must you.

My other goal was to see my book on display at our local bookstore. My veterinary practice is located in a pretty small town. We don’t have an Indigo or Chapters, but we have a quality local bookseller. I had this vision of popping into the store to pick up the latest edition of The Selection Series for my daughter or the next Maze Runner for my son, and stumbling upon a desk-top display of my book with a printed sign declaring ‘OUR VERY OWN LOCAL VETERINARIAN and AUTHOR, DR. CURTIN!’

The fact is though, we all need to update our dreams occasionally and create new ones. Sadly, my local bookstore is going out of business. The owner is retiring and our town is losing this quality business.

My new dream is to someday bump into a reader purchasing my book, and then to offer to sign it.

FOUR – SHOOT FOR THE STARS

You need to dream big. Think of the best possible outcome and have some fun.

My current big dream is make a surprise visit to a book club discussing my book. It would be so much fun to be invited as an unknown guest and then part way through the night to reveal my identity by contributing to the discussion, “So, when I wrote that chapter, I actually thought it would end up going like…” and then see what happens.

FIVE – DEVISE YOUR OWN PERSONAL REWARD

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Maybe it’s something you want to do with a signing bonus. Perhaps you have a nay-sayer who teased you and you can’t wait to show off your success. Regardless, set a reward and imagine the moment when you will get it.

I’ve had this special evening planned from the moment my first beta reader completed reading my first novel, first draft. How do you reward the time and effort it takes for someone to read your work when it isn’t good? I’m planning a fabulous dinner party. Starting with my high school teacher who read through my very first draft, to the writing partner who read aloud chapters with me for over a year, and many more. When I finally get a signed contract with a publisher, I’m going to pick up everyone in a big-ass limo and we’re going to go for a fancy dinner. It will be an amazing evening of laughter and shared dreams. I better get there soon, because the longer this takes and the more people that help me, the bigger the limo gets… and soon I will need a bus!

When you complete these five steps, hold them dear to your heart and then… get back to writing. I wish you every success and hope all your dreams come true.

Donna Judy Curtin

Donna Curtin practices veterinary medicine in Bruce County, Ontario, close to her poultry and cash crop farm where she lives with her husband and two children. As a complement to her veterinary career, she aspires to become a published novelist. In Dr. Curtin’s writing, animals play important characters just as often as people.

Getting into Writing Balance

Getting into Writing Balance

Gwynn Scheltema

Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop with Caroline Pignat, (a wonderful author and twice a Governor General Literary Award winner!) and she began the session with this simple exercise:

  • On a piece of paper draw a circle that represents the creative talent you think you have.
  • In relationship to that, draw an overlapping circle that represents the writing craft skill level you think you have.
  • And now add another overlapping circle that represents your commitment to actual writing.
 What did it mean?

The middle area where the three circles intersect represents the success you can expect with your writing goals.

My talent and craft circles were about the same size, but my commitment circle was woefully small in comparison. The resulting central shape for success was tellingly small too. According to this diagram, if I upped my level of commitment, my success area should increase. I kind of knew this in my heart of hearts. I can write, but I don’t. I should submit, but I don’t. It was common sense really. And it compelled me to change some things in my life to remedy it.

Your circles may be different: perhaps you write every day and have a natural talent for telling stories, but your level of craft is low — passive writing, bad grammar or a lack of understanding of structure. Or you’ve taken a boatload of workshops and read widely on the craft, and you have a high level of commitment, but your storytelling skills need help and it means you don’t turn out compelling fiction.

Whatever the imbalance, paying attention to it will help you succeed.

Getting back in balance

So as part of your resolution making /goal setting this January, work on getting your circles in balance. There are many ways to do it, but here are a few tips:

Commitment:

  • Schedule writing time like any other appointment and stick to it
  • Find a writing buddy, and support and motivate each other
  • Fight feeling overwhelmed by making small, specific and achievable goals
  • Find a place to write where you feel creative and are not disturbed
  • Tell your family about your goal and ask for their support

 

Talent:

  • Believe in yourself; confidence is the best boost for talent
  • Face fears – submit even though you fear rejection; try a new form or genre – you won’t know what you’re good at until you try
  • Remind yourself why you like to write and rekindle your passion
  • Read, read, and read – your ability will improve by osmosis. Really!
  • Fill your creative well often – try other art forms; visit museums, galleries, parks and natural spaces. Remember observation, mindfulness and curiosity.

Craft:

  • Join a critique group – the critiques you receive are just part of the learning process. Giving critique and listening to critique of others’ work helps you understand all aspects of craft and different genre expectations. You’ll also learn to read critically.
  • Read as a writer – when you are impressed by the way an author handles a scene, analyze what they did to achieve it.
  • Take workshops or attend conferences – choose them wisely depending on what you need to know to improve right now. Random courses are more likely to boost procrastination than skill.
  • Allow yourself to write a “shitty first draft” by knocking the inner critic off your shoulder. Like all skills, writing takes practice.
  • Network with other writers at breakfasts, workshops and writing events. I often learn as much from attendees as I do from facilitators.

I’m happy to say that when I check in with myself this New Year, I know my circles are more in balance – still not equal – but improving. And I’m happy with that.

A few more tips

Some previous Top Drawer posts you might like to revisit that speak to aspects of this post: