December in January: Backwards to go forwards

retro sign reading "stressed is desserts spelled backwards"

Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, December in January, where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

Of all the things I’ve learned about creating meaningful goals, ones that I’m passionate about and that will prove the most useful to me in achieving life goals, by far the most important has been the year-in-review exercise.

Reading Jinny Ditzler’s excellent book on values-centered goal planning, Your Best Year Yet, finally turned me around on the benefits of looking backwards to go forward. It seems so obvious in hindsight (ha!) that to plan for the future without surveying the past is at best wasteful and at worst, downright foolhardy: how can I know where I’m going if I don’t know where I am, and why would I give up any intelligence that helped get me here?

I’ll tell you why, it hurts like crazy. Or does for me, anyway. I’m sure there are reasonable and balanced souls out there who could look objectively and even kindly on their successes and failures of the past 12 months, but for a competitive, perfectionist workaholic, it’s a day-long (minimum) exercise in high-level masochism. All the inevitable broken promises, brought on by overambition, hubris and a plain, old faulty lens. Autistic people can’t parse social situations properly; I can’t see time. Cannot cannot cannot, no matter how hard I try. And remember, I’m a perfectionist Virgo, so not only is there trying, there is assisted trying, paid and free, as well as all kinds of experiments in different ways of trying. Oh, the trying! It’s a trial, I tell you.

The trying, the effortful, effortful trying, was a huge factor in my settling on EASE as a watchword or modus operandi. Or rather, the realization that I work my ass off for and at pretty much everything made it an obvious choice to say “yes” to once it bubbled up to the surface.

But whence the bubbling, right? Because that’s what you’re here for and really, as Dan put it in his scarily incisive comment of last week, this is what I’ve chosen to do here for the past few years, sort of unofficially, as well as what I did with intention from the outset with the Great Year-Long Experiment in Marketing, a.k.a. The Virgo Guide: to carefully and honestly look at the process, and as best I can, to set up metrics so I can see how well things work and where I’m really spending my time.

As best as I can tell, these are the activities that laid the groundwork for making the radical (for me) shift of “December in January” (i.e., choosing to delay my 12-month planning by one month), and the three-month sabbatical from for-hire work in the new year (to be reviewed and renegotiated at the end of March):

  1. Decluttering. I’ve been on this path for a while now, but my big Clearing my (psychic) clutter push in the fall of 2009 really shifted things, with a huge leap when I encountered the work of Brooks Palmer. His book and workshop were a huge influence on me, and our ongoing calls have been a great assist, too. (More on that in a moment.)
  2. Nei Kung. I’d stumbled on James Borrelli’s site a long time ago, and was intrigued by the idea of a practice even more internal than t’ai chi or qigong (which my old acupuncturist, to her credit, kept gently pushing me towards). I’ve been doing Nei Kung practice daily for the past five weeks and the shifts, while not always happy, have already been surprisingly significant. Whether it’s the Nei Kung, all the emotional groundwork done before, committing to a daily physical practice or some combination (most likely, I’m guessing), it’s a definite keeper. Big major shoutout to fellow blogger and Nei Kung enthusiast Alan Furth, who gave me the final nudge to try it. Because it ain’t cheap and I usually am.
  3. Daily walks. I’ve been doing these since The BF first adopted Arnie, roughly two years ago. I can now recognize the sluggishness I get when I miss a day or two. I remember a similar thing happening when I first started walking during my convalescence from the Crohn’s onset in 2002. Again, part of it is the physical, part is probably just the regularity of it.
  4. Monthly shrinkage. Ongoing since 2001. I went weekly for a few years (oh, the good insurance days!), took a break for a bit, and came back for monthly tuneup/checkins. Again, not cheap, but the value of having a sane person to check in with when the compass you shipped with is a wonky one can’t be calculated.
  5. Success Team, EstroFest, Google Wave with Dave and assorted other collaborative ventures. If you don’t have ongoing accountability and support, get it. No one does this alone, no one. It’s good to have friends, too, with their kind, Kleenex-upholstered shoulders (and even as touchstones), but committed, ongoing peer support makes it happen.
  6. Money. I’ve made less and less money each year since I quit acting. (I know, hilarious, right?) Which makes me even happier that I had a fat nest egg to start with. I had a goodly windfall of the bittersweet kind (father dying), but I also had a considerable amount put aside of my own. I have been a squirreler-of-funds since I had nickel #2 to rub together with nickel #1, and have invested in all kinds of crazy people-fueled ventures as well as an IRA and stocks just so I know there’s always something growing, somewhere. (I’m not in a position to invest now, obviously, so don’t bother asking.) Having this cushion gives me the freedom to follow my path. I cannot emphasize that enough!

The above are what I’d characterize as the “positives” that fueled this decision. There were also some negatives, and they’re important, too:

  1. Overcommitting in 2009. My default solution to any problem is to throw more me at it. Unfortunately, there’s less me to go around as I get older (even as there’s more me in certain places), so I’m having to reexamine my methodology. I was extremely burned out by the beginning of December; I could not get enough rest, it felt like. Plus I had such a crowded schedule from a combination of saying “yes” to things, wanting to try things and my natural tendency towards workaholism that there was never any time to step back and reflect. Nothing like being on a hamster wheel of your own creation. I know, I know, they’re ALL of our own creation. Still. Not like I had two kids and a spouse and a boss and a mortgage. A self-employed single person in a rent-controlled apartment? Please.
  2. Dissatisfaction with consulting business model. I love aspects of consulting, but the wear and tear on me is phenomenal. In addition, I know I did a bad job both of managing expectations and establishing boundaries. I had no way of knowing how much I’d suck at certain aspects of this until I tried it (nor of how much I’d enjoy others), so I’m glad I did. If/when I pick it up again, my way of doing it will be very, very different: more clearly defined, better managed and most likely, more expensive. (I’m open to any interesting ideas about this, by the way.)
  3. Unsatisfied yearnings. While I did enjoy running the Biznik meetups, doing the consulting work, co-hosting Presentation Camp, etc., I found the greatest satisfaction in writing, meeting people I really clicked with and spending time with them (most of whom I found via writing and reading) and the little bit of reading I did. I also loved doing so much speaking, but the exhilaration I felt doing the Ignite presentation vs. the business-related presentations. I’m not sure what that means yet in terms of what to do moving forward, but it bears further examination.
  4. Ill health. Fortunately, I had only one major health issue this year, back in the spring, when I pushed myself too hard and strayed too far off my diet. And even more fortunately, I was able to pull myself back without resorting to steroids, as I’ve usually done. Still, this scared the crap out of me, both literally and figuratively. (Ah, Crohn’s! What a delight you are, my little barometer!) I really want to get off of the meds I’m on, and that can’t happen until I’ve implemented much better self-care habits.

There were other indicators that I was drifting into the red zone: alcohol usage creep; laziness/anxiety-fueled poor eating habits; increased nail and cuticle biting; poor sleep; off-the-charts web surfing and viewing of comfort films. I know way too much about the habits of a certain fameball and the people who watch her, and if my copy of Play Misty for Me was an LP, it would be worn smooth. Thank whomever I gave up cable, at least.

Modesty prohibits me making an exhaustive list of what I’d consider to be my successes of the past year, but I did list them, and if I may be immodest for just the one minute, I produced a crapload of work last year, and made many, many breakthroughs. I’m most pleased with the quantity, and quality, of the writing I committed to; that it was the one goal I actually followed through on is rather telling. I fell one post short of my goal of 260, and did not miss a month of my acting column or newsletter, nor a week of posting at the Virgo Guide.

You’d think I’d look at all this and come up with the simple answer to just write my ass off, and to hell with the rest. Alas, the sum total of money I made from writing last year wouldn’t keep me in expenses for more than a month. My savings, while ample enough for now, can’t fund this experiment indefinitely, so I’ll have to figure out how to make money writing, or to make money doing something else with a low mental load so I can reserve strength for writing. The ideal scenario workwise seems to be Gladwellian: a 90/10 or 95/5 ratio of writing to speaking, and always on what interests me. I don’t need nearly the cash our boy Malcolm makes, but I need that ratio.

Is it realistic? Not in year one, and maybe never. At least I have a picture in my head of what the best future looks like, and a start with some role models…


Image by rick via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I see what you are doing as going sideways to go forward–forks are seductive and often useful–if only for their unexpected scenery/perspective and horizon broadening. On consulting model: I see you as a LIVE experience. Dream on ways you could put it out there that having you THERE (video, interactive innovation w/o you having to traipse and get tired) at a premium–find interesting ways to show up and give your opinion (and offer your firesparkydelightful brain). It’ll be GOLD, I tell ya, content and profit-wise. Something like: $5K per appearance, television commentary, guest-cameo-advice/and/entertainment.

  2. thanks for this post. i needed to read this on my murky-muddy-mundane-desperately-in-need-of-motivation monday.

    and number 3:shrinkage. i could definitely use a lot of that right now lol

  3. a book! a book! a book! a book!

    or maybe…an ebook that works the essence of Dyana’s suggestion in a way, by including video at different points between the reading of the text of the book.

    you can just write, write, write, then cut away at any time and (insert different type of media to keep telling the story here).

    it might be a good way to play with the essence of what draws people to you when they see you, mixed with what seems to be your true passion: writing. (plus, with your acting background and ever-growing technology…)

    you can Gladwell-it-up by using a 90/10 or 95/5 ratio…text/video. and, launch it all at once or work your way through…either way, we’ll eat it up.

    has anyone done that format as a book? I don’t know. and if so, done it well?

    whatever you come up with…Go C Go!!! (after January, of course :)

  4. Good luck coming up with something that works for you! I think Dyana’s idea is a good one, and I’m sure you’ve probably thought of this so I almost hesitate to say it, but coming up with some sort of info product or several? That seems like it would play to your strengths, and if you had 1-3 products that were consistent sellers, it might be able to provide a decent chunk of income – which would allow you to dedicate a lot of time to writing, whether it made a lot of money or not. Throw in your little bit of speaking and I would think it would be a fairly sustainable business model.

    Either way, I hope you get things worked out to your satisfaction! & thank you for the blog comment, it made me smile! :)

    (I’ve been trying to post this comment all day, if for some reason you open your dashboard to see 35469856 comments from me, I apologize!)

  5. I can’t tell you how much I admire you for writing this post. By now you must take for granted that this is just what you do, but other than Penelope Trunk, I don’t think there’s anyone out there writing so fearlessly about their journey — which is to say, sharing their stumblings as forthrightly as their successes. This is of real value, because the rest of us live daily with the evidence of our own failure, and ensconce ourselves in the comfortable, unchanging routine of our own compromises. You really are an inspiration.

    Since, I could comment on almost every line you’ve written here, I’m going to put this aside and make some writing assignments around it to e-mail you, but there’s one theme here that I’d like to comment about now.

    There’s an unwritten code in the blogosphere, which is to ignore failure. New Year’s Resolution posts are forward-looking. I like that you’ve started by looking backward, and I especially like the list of “negatives.” But what really caught my eye is how unexpected and problematic some of the outcomes of previous goals were. Overall, your blogging and marketing project — is it 5 years old now? — has resulted in your making less money each year. You set out to build a consulting business, but have found it to be less satisfying than you would like, and that the challenges — setting expectations, setting boundaries, and so forth — were different from what you expected. You’ve found that self-care requires constant vigilance, and that Crohne’s is perhaps the best and most honest of all your accountability partners. You found that the harder you worked at one component of this — writing — the more you loved it, even as it failed to pay you. You found that creating a shitload of work had as many negative consequences as positive one. And you discovered that your ability to throw yourself into your endeavors re-paid you with exhaustion.

    There’s a story I like to tell about my mother: in the eighth year of her happy marriage, she set out to quit smoking. A year later, she was a divorced, single mother of three. Smoking three packs a day revealed itself to be the canary in the mineshaft of her marriage. This was a goal that carried with it an enormous price, almost unimaginably high. Of course, it was the first step on her path to a self-actualized life, but that didn’t make it any less painful. (It also led her to make a lot of money — far more than she ever would have made if she’d stayed married to my father — but only after living in abject poverty after her divorce.) Whenever I meet a woman who expresses a certain kind of bitter hatred for Elizabeth Gilbert, I always think of my mother’s experience with divorcing from a comfortable marriage. My mother’s memoir wouldn’t have been called Eat, Pray, Love — more like, Kick, Scream, Writhe.

    You’re close, aren’t you? Close to getting at what you want. It feels that way to me, in part because of how clearly you’ve articulated what worked and what didn’t in 2009. Not just any kind of public speaking, not just any kind of consulting, not just any kind of writing, and there’s no virtue in overwork. Money may actually be an important goal. The nexus of your anxiety and the food you put in your mouth may be something to pay more attention to than you have. I like the snowballing specificity of your thinking.

    Where do you think you’re headed here? A life earning $100,000 as a writer and motivational speaker? $35,000 a year but with a presentation like the one you did at Ignite every three months? A four-day work week split between blog writing, consulting, and public speaking?

    Outstanding work.

  6. Thank you, all, for the love and support!

    Dyana – I hear you on your “sideways” thought. I don’t exactly feel like I’m going backwards, but that I’m finally truthfully stopping to look backwards, the better to assess what needs to change moving forward. Something I’ve done before, but not this thoroughly.

    Karen – We spoke of this offline, but yeah, it’s time for the boundaries of books to start getting pushed. Maybe I’m supposed to be a pusher!

    Michelle – Another good idea. I go back and forth on the info product thing. There’s so much cheese out there. And I see the work that goes into what isn’t (e.g. Chris Guillebeau’s stuff, which I 100% endorse sight unseen at this point.) Perhaps it’s a matter of the right idea bubbling up—if something needs to get out there as an ebook, it will tell me?

    Or maybe I should throw it out to the class: what info would you like that you don’t have?

    Needs oven-baking.

    Dan – Once again, I’m rendered speechless. This is getting to be a habit (and one I like, believe it or don’t).

    Thanks for so much fodder and light. I feel remarkably better about what I’ve done (as opposed to what I have yet to do, and I’m sorry to say I really don’t feel close, even though everyone else swears they can feel it for me).

    Time and distance and careful attention will reveal it. Of that, I have no doubt.

  7. What do you imagine “getting close” might feel like? If you were to arrive there, what would it look like?

  8. So I e-mail Colleen to find out who the hell Dan Owen is because he is leaving interesting comments here that seems he actually does think and is able to synthesize information in a succinct and revealing fashion and I wondered (I’m the curious type) whether he was a forensic pathologist adept at providing autopsies of the living dead–but unfortunately Colleen was unable to satisfy my puerile query and merely gushed on and on about what a darling commenter he was.
    I’m curious Dan. Who the hell are you? And how did you learn to think? And since thinking is essential to beautiful writing—I assume this ability to think informs your writing which (unlike Colleen) I’m not going to gush over–is wise.
    So–give. Who are you?
    Might be a good blog post for Colleen (hint, hint). The thinking that is–not the gush.

  9. Truly glad you’re enjoying Nei Kung!

    I have a feeling Nei Kung will fit nicely in your plans, providing a good basis for your quest towards doing less but more meaningful stuff, and for getting a bit closer to that state of “effortless action” that the great Chinese sages dedicated their lives to…

    I’d suggest you plan a trip to New York sometime this year to take a couple of lessons with Master Chu himself…

    Hapy new year Colleen, and thank you for a 2009 chuck-full of your inspiring, energizing, awesome and beautiful words.

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