December in January: Using constraints to free yourself

houdini graphic stenciled on public structure

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.

I realize that logically, there must be as many people who excel at true blue-sky thinking as there are people who can only function within very narrow constraints, although I imagine it’s terrifying to run across either.*

Like most people who enjoy thinking of themselves as Very Special Snowflakes, I really fall in the vast, lumpen middle: yes, I’m creative (so are you, whether you like it or not) and no, I don’t do too well when that creativity is not applied to certain tasks.

On the other hand, I flourish within constraints! There are few things I enjoy more than figuring out how to maximize in a box**, whether it’s moving furniture and doodads around a living space to get my feng shui’d (thank you, Karen Rauch Carter) or bending Robert’s Rules of Order right up to the breaking point (a.k.a., how a nutjob-wacko-freak learned to love Toastmasters.) Rules and processes can be very soothing to the scrambled, easily stimulated brain; for the afflicted, the quickest route to making one’s world a little bigger is often to make it a little smaller.

The catch, of course, is getting the mix of free-swim to drills just right, or in the ballpark. I tend towards all or nothing thinking, which is most likely rooted in some early training (and which doubtless saved my ass on more than one occasion), but which, as an adult with true autonomy, is now more of an artifact than a useful modus operandi. To paraphrase a former acting teacher , if the choices are “all” and “nothing,” the answer will most often be “nothing.”***

I’ve written a lot about the structures I’ve adopted to wrangle my chaos into some kind of order so I won’t go over them again here, other than to say they range from simple things like calendaring writing time to multiple sources of accountability (because I yam a slippery devil!) to simply throwing out tons of crap. As I move forward, I’m looking to employ more strategies like these to free up mental and physical energy for what’s feeling more and more like an intense period of creative work around the corner. Here’s what I’m looking at doing:

1. Creating more structure for the blog.

When I first started blogging, I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, and mimicked whomever I was enamored of. Go back and enjoy the schizo qualities of communicatrix, circa late 2004: it will make you feel oh-so-much better about your own chances for success! I can’t tell you the relief I feel these days knowing that Poetry Thursday is right around the corner, or that I have a Referral Friday feature to fall back on. I may never lock myself into a rigid floorplan, but like Gretchen, Havi, Chris and any number of friends who do this regularly, I finally see the value in some kind of publishing “schedule.” They’re just smarter, since they saw it way before I did (even though they all started blogging after I did, which doesn’t make me feel any better about my stubborn face, but there it is.)

2. Pirahnimals.

This is the term Dave Seah, my partner in the Google Wave with Dave™ project, came up with when I said I was considering an adult version of Garanimals to help streamline my wardrobe. For years, I’ve resisted uniforms of any kind, probably because of the eight years (1967 – 1975!) that I chafed in one. My favorite dressing style has been “costumes,” by which I mean dressing for the day’s physical and/or emotional needs, not “gardener” or “slutty nurse.” It was fun for a long, long time because it fed my needs for change and expression, and also my love of rag-picking (i.e., thrift/sale shopping). These days I have plenty of room to express myself via writing and speaking and performing and no end of material, I want to allocate more resources toward the creation of art than the fabrication of frame. Frames are important, L.A. Eyeworks built an iconic ad campaign around this simple, brilliant idea a couple of decades ago, and I’m expending a goodly portion of thought about suitable ones for my needs. More on that as I have it.

3. Streamlining “external” communication.

There are only so many hours in a day, and I’m finally accepting that I need to spend a certain number of them on stuff like eating, sleeping and relaxing if I want to have the life I say I want to have. I’ve already dramatically pulled back on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, I rarely talk on the phone and I try to restrict commenting on other blogs to conversations where I can really add value or situations where it’s appropriate to show appreciation. (There should always be time to be nice, but I’m going to have to learn to be pithier about it.) I’m hoping that creating some structure around the types of things I write about here on the blog will allow me to continue writing here as often as I do (and maintain the newsletter and actors’ column), but I’m (reluctantly) open to the idea that I may need to cut back if I want to write books, too. And yes, I want to write books, and yes, one of them is a collection of poetry. God help us all.

Other things I’m thinking about are:

  • Creating a budget (something I’ve never done in my lifetime!). This is about dragging monsters into the light, to get a good look at them. Hard to start, usually not as awful as I think it’s going to be once I see it.
  • Moving to an even smaller/cheaper place to conserve money (and energy, it takes a long time to clean a 1BR apartment in a filthy town like L.A.).
  • Taking a “real” job. This is the weirdest of all: I haven’t had a job-job since I quit my Stupid Day Job (which was really a great job, and thank you, Uncle Dennis!) back in 1999. I have a lot of pride mixed up in this decision, so it’s hard to see it clearly right now. The more time I spend away from consulting, the happier I am: it’s exhausting work, as I performed it, and not sustainable, and definitely not compatible with my desire to write even more (writing is exhausting, too, but in a very different way). I have no idea if I’m even employable any more, or what for; I’m in the musing stages about this right now.

I’m still in a very open place about all of these things right now, weighing ideas, possibilities and (nice, informed, positively-phrased) suggestions. My multiple nodes of collaboration have also shown me how much stuff there is to me that I can’t see: you are in a position to hold a (kind, helpful, positively-angled) mirror up to me, or pluck a stray hair from my jacket, that I cannot.

I’m specifically curious (yes, again) as to why you read the blog, assuming you read it with any regularity. I threw this question out a couple of years ago and received so many generous, helpful answers it was deeply moving. In the interest of giving something back as I did then, I’ll donate a dollar to the relief efforts going on in Haiti for each reply (up to $500.), via comments or email, that offers some thought, feedback, illumination or idea to move me forward on any of the six areas above.

These could be anything from exercises for “writing shorter” (without adding more work) to great hacks for streamlining process to the best post you read in 2009 about x. It might be better if you shared stuff that’s really helped you rather than guessing at what might help me; experiences related honestly and kindly (and with humor, if one can muster it) are my preferred method of learning. I love biography; I consider “self-help” a necessary evil when there’s not a readily available biography illuminating the topic. But hey, as long as you comment with good intentions, I say “yay!” and Haiti gets another of my rapidly dwindling pool of dollars.

Thank you for providing this tremendous outlet for growth and change, for helping me feel less greedy about it by allowing me to kick in some (more) dough for a worthy cause, and for helping me take it to the next level.

Whatever the hell that is…


*For me, spending time with fully unbridled creative thinkers is exhilarating and exhausting; doing the same with people who have nothing but rules is, well, okay, usually just exhausting, but kind of fascinating, too, like observing an alien species.

**The Chief Atheist has a great phrase for this exercise as applied to excursions which he calls “going to the Museum”: anytime you have to go somewhere you might otherwise find tedious, off-putting or overwhelming, go as an anthropologist collecting data. Guaranteed to turn even the most moribund gathering into a series of excellent adventures, and helps keep you from jumping out of your skin during the occasional stumble down rabbit holes into alien worlds.

***Eight years later, I note there’s no small irony in my having left his tutelage after being presented with exactly those two choices.

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


  1. I JUST found your blog (like, last week) after reading your interview on “The Happiness Project”. I read all of your 21-day salutes last week and will be working my way through the archives. I love your writing style and your honesty, and have already culled some material for my thought file. My favorite thing that you said: “It’s not magic; it’s one stupid goddamned motherfucking foot in front of the other. Period.” That gives me so much hope.

  2. Hi Colleen,

    I’m responding to your request for comments about why people read your blog — and your offer of donating to the Haitian relief campaign. (GREAT idea!)

    I LOVE your blog for a number of reasons. I heard about you via Gretchen Rubin and used to read you occasionally until I discovered that brilliant video you made about Google Reader. That video was amazing because (a) it helped me truly understood RSS, a subject I’d always avoided before and (b) your “how to” explanation was so breathtakingly clear I got it up and running on my machine right away. As a result you are now the first entry in my “Daily” folder. I’ve recommended this video to many people including all those who subscribe to my own weekly newsletter about writing.

    I also like your sense of humour and your chatty, easy to read writing style. I’m a writing coach and I don’t hand out praise easily! Or at least not for free :-)

    Anyway, I also view your blog as thoughtful and honest — and I appreciate those qualities and enjoy seeing them daily.

    By the way, I can’t see you going into a “real” job. (You know those suck out your soul, right?) The only exception might be teaching. I think you’d be a great teacher. You’d be the kind of teacher all the students thought was super cool!

  3. Hi Colleen,

    I enjoy your blog because you write really well, but I keep reading it because I know that deep down you are in touch with the real truth of things (your hospital bed epiphany). You will be just fine if you remember it every day and hold to your mission. Keep finding your own unique ways to be a conduit of love, beauty and truth. I have faith in you!

  4. Hi Colleen

    I love reading your blog because you are painfully honest and down-to-earth about personal development, without being either cynical or self-righteous. You had a line a few posts back about your motherfucking boulder to push up your motherfucking hill (or thereabouts) which I keep reminding myself of when I need to take more responsibility. You’re also good at doing that by the way – taking responsibility. You give me hope and you are an extremely funny and original writer – long may you prevail.

  5. What I love about your blog is that you go straight for the core issues underlying whatever you’re looking at. You have a Ramit-Sethi level of no-bullshit with a Havi-Brooks level of nice.

    An idea about budgets: for me, tracking every penny I spend is like tracking every calorie I eat. The process itself sucks so hard that I don’t ever want to do it. Therefore, I am kind of in love with the balanced money formula from Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi: 50% needs, 30% wants, 20% savings. It keeps me roughly in line, but doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with sporks. Which I love.

    Cannot wait to see your blog structure plan; I am thinking about this myself!

  6. Hey there Colleen

    I am a recent reader to your blog, but have enjoyed it all so far (especially loved the end of year wrap ups – comedy gold and oh so true).

    I keep coming back here because of your humour and your genuine honesty. You lay it all out on the table and make connections that sometimes have me mentally shouting a “hell yeah!”

    Reading various blogs, including yours, is giving me the first the idea and then the courage to change my life in a meaningful way, and for that I’m grateful.

    So, I suppose my “helpful” suggestion is to keep up the good work and keep on making those connections. They’re changing people – or at least this person.


  7. 6,000 subscribers: 6 comments. Welcome to The Conversation.

    I’ll offer one general rule I made for myself, then a few specific things that have been meaningful for me.

    The general rule: if I find myself resisting a change, or rationalizing not changing something, then I do it as quick as I can. (My old yoga teacher used to say, the pose you hate the most is the one you need most to do.) The more uncomfortable I feel about the possibility, the more right it is to change. I tried doing only what felt comfortable for forty years: it was a mistake. My “instinct,” my “felt sense,” “my inner voice:” they have not served me well, and increasingly I ignore them.

    Specifics: making a budget was the smartest thing I ever did (after a forty year delay). Actually, I frequently made budgets in the past, but what I consistently never did was to actually track what I was spending, by which I mean writing it down and looking at it monthly. This forced me to think about why I was spending money the way I was, and that conversation with myself blew the lid off most of the decisions in my life. It overturned friendships, living situations, work decisions, and family relationships. These components of my life bear no resemblance whatsoever to how they looked two years ago, when I started living on a budget.

    Moving: second smartest thing I ever did. I moved my primary residence from a nice old place to a rented room, kicking and screaming every step of the way. I’ve never been happier (in fact, just this afternoon I was surveying my domain and reflecting on how much I love where I’m living, despite my every expectation to the contrary). A big component of this was to put virtually everything I owned into storage, and actually pay $200 a month to store it. As soon as I wrote that first check I realized that none of it — not a single book, not one carved Balinese mirror frame, not a piece of formal wear except for those I wear when out dancing — was worth $200 a month. It all got thrown out. I now store my book collection at the public library. My prize possession turned out to be a 13″ All-Clad skillet. I was completely wrong about what I actually valued among my possessions, not even close.

    Up next: I need to bring my career of 20 years to a close. I’m fighting this as hard as I can, which is why I know it’s the right thing to do. I need to start blogging, something else I’m also fighting with everything I’ve got. I need to start training dogs, something I don’t believe I’m qualified to do. I need to move full time to the city where I now live half time. Scared to death about this, but I’ve had one toe in the water for three years now, and enough is enough.

    I like your blog for a lot of reasons, but one is that you’re not afraid to say that the time you spend on Twitter and Facebook may be doing damage to your ability to create the life you want for yourself. Much on my mind these days is a quote from the problematic blogger Ryan Holiday: “I made myself busy so that I couldn’t feel better.” You’re many steps ahead of me on this path, and I don’t know of anyone else with your quality of insight and all-around fearlessness.

    I hope you’ll post about your experience with consulting. I’m always pay close attention when people talk about how the thing they thought would make them happy turned out to not make them happy. That’s my country of origin, and you’re therefore my people.

  8. Thanks, all for your patience with the outages today. Dan may be right: maybe I will only get six comments here (I have nowhere near 6K subscribers), but as long as they’re thoughtful, I don’t care. I’ll kick in extra for Haiti.

    Meredith – Glad you find it helpful. It really is (almost) that simple. Of course, there’s serious work around finding the CORRECT, cocksucking boulder and the RIGHT motherfucking hill. Still, it’s lots less about systems and a lot more about being systematic.

    Daphne – Thanks for the insight, esp. around the screencasts. I’m making a list of ones I think might be useful; I welcome any ideas anyone has for others.

    Sherralee – I’m not 100% there with the truth 100% of the time, but I aim for it each time and am getting better about calling myself on my shit. Going public helps, so thanks for providing that.

    Catherine – Bless you for calling me responsible! My vision is only 20/20 around the stuff I fall short on, so it’s good to hear that I may be doing better than my flawed vision would have me believe. #$% compass!!

    Sarah – I love Ramit and Havi, so it’s great to be in the middle of such strong company. I thank you for the kind words and the thought about a looser type of budgeting. I think that first, I may need to track meticulously, but then who knows? Maybe I can go a little easy on myself.

    Tracy – I’ll keep changing if you will, okay? I’m glad you enjoyed the end-of-year lists. They’re deceptively time-consuming to write, which is one reason I like to try making them funny. At the very least one should get a laugh from things, no?

    Dan – Dan, Dan, Dan. So good to have you back!

    Yes, Twitter/Facebook/god-knows-what-all have siphoned off some of the attention. Only so many hours in a day, right? But as I said before, I’m happy with 6 (or 7) comments, as long as they’re of such fine quality.

    I have a slightly different experience with my voice. It is absolutely right; I had just become really adept at ignoring it.

    Your own story is fascinating. I think that’s why many of us resist change: we suspect it may lead to such radical shifts. I’m dealing with a pile of unforeseen changes that came out of some “innocent” ones. Ah, well.

    Honestly, if you’re happy in a room with a pan, that’s all that matters. At some point, you may want some Balinese art again, or maybe you’ll just want to run wild with them doggies. I get the all-Clad thing; I have a thing for pans, comfortable bedding and art.

    I will absolutely dig into the consulting work once I have some more distance. For reasons everyone will see soon enough, January turned out to be much, much more draining than I was planning on, so I haven’t even begun to think about consulting. As in, it won’t be on the Groundhog Day list.

    Not to say I’ll never do it again; it’s just impossible at that price point given what else I’m trying to do.

    As always, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I’d agree with you about needing your own blog, but I’ll be sorry to lose your lengthy input here.

  9. I subscribe to your blog because it is one of the best sources of wisdom and clear thinking (sometimes on the subject of not thinking clearly, which tickles me greatly) on the entire web. Yours is also one of the few blogs I can read without having my Internal Editor/English Teacher nudge me and say, “Shoulda used another word! Shoulda phrased it better!” – it’s probably the best-written blog on the Web.

    In terms of managing my subscriptions, I’m fickle. Very, very fickle. I throw blogs out of my in-box after just a few samples all the time. Can’t imagine a time when I would do that with “Communicatrix.”

  10. Here is my advice for Pirahnimals: no patterns. Just solids. But here’s the kicker: only solid colors you loooooooooooove. I love jewel tones, so I tossed every damn pastel. I love black, so I ditched every brown, every navy. Black, white, and brights make me happy.

    I really have no need for a uniform except that dressing always seemed a bit fraught. “Is it interesting enough? Is it chic enough? What does this SAY about me?” Bleh. I don’t care anymore. I want my drawers to delight me when I open them, I want whichever shirt is on top of the pile to be my favorite hue. Oooo, look! Today’s shirt is royal blue! Tomorrow’s is emerald green! I am so lucky!

    The hell with the other stuff, and how much you paid for it/invested in it/chose accessories to match it. It’s hard to admit that I paid for 5 brown skirts and 3 camel blazers just to have something to wear with one pair of cute oxblood boots. But as Brooks will tell you, that clutter will wear you out.

    It all matches now, because I love every piece.

    After 5 years, now I allow myself patterned scarves. And guess which ones call my name? Black, white and brights. Amazingly, they ALL go with ALL my clothes.


  11. Colleen, I’m blessed that I met you at the Creative Conference in San Diego. This is the only blog I read and I savor your fearless probings and exposings. I also love your poetic and smart voice.

    I read you because you write about what matters. You are a Digg for me, an aggregator, like a best bud who’s a conduit to this whole new world of thought leaders and hip marketers gone genuine. I didn’t even know who Seth Godin was before you. Seems like you’ve had a huge influence on people’s lives (whether 6 or 6000) and to paraphrase the Talmud, “if you save one life, you save the world.” Let’s just say change one life, inspire one life, nudge one life. That’s what you do.

    Pulling back on Facebook & Twitter might be great. Write your poetry, but please don’t rely on that to bring in the granola. Having a full-time gig or getting a regular client or part-time reliable thing might be freeing. As a single mother, it was for me. The key is finding the boss who motivates or leaves you alone, but genuinely cares.
    With all good wishes, the New York girl in San Diego

  12. Why I read Communicatrix: A rambley little essay.

    I love the way you write about working on your stuff – it always gives me ideas and inspiration for working on my own stuff. But you’re not teacher-y or expert-y about it, you’re just genuinely sharing your process. It’s *almost* like you’re just writing for you and happen to be incredibly thoughtful and wise and insightful. But everything you say is so intelligent and relatable that I know you must be writing for us, too. Just not in a ‘here’s how you should do it’ kind of way. You aren’t giving reality theories or shoulds… just your honest experience along with some humor and warmth.

    I think it’s kind of rare – not many people are saying “Hey, I’m in this process of trying to engage more deeply with myself and my life and here’s what’s happening and here’s what I’m discovering. And maybe some of it might apply to your life, too.” And maybe that’s totally not what you’re trying to say, but that’s how it feels to me.

    Plus, your writing is smooth, funny, and real. You give the good and the bad, not just one edge or the other. So when you share a shining flash of insight, it’s that much more piercing because you never, ever smear frosting over a pile of crap.

    And…I believe everything you say.

  13. I read your blog because your big truths kick me right in the stomach, and not just “wow…that’s right,” more like “Holy shit!! That’s ME!”

    I relate to this blog more than any other that I read, but when I start to think of why that would be, I struggle to find an answer. Our lives are not similar, but somehow, I feel like we’re on the same path.

    I wonder if that’s a universal feeling for your readers, that realness and connection. If it is a universal feeling, I want to figure out how you do it. ;) (my guess is writing, writing and more writing)

    As far as ideas, I think pulling back from facebook and twitter are good ideas if you’re feeling spread to thin or that the overall message you’re putting out is not as strong.

    Wardrobe-wise I have the same problem (ugh!), but my first steps have been making sure I have the basics covered, starting with having enough underwear and socks (that match and that I like). Next up for me, basic v-neck shirts and good shoes in black and brown.

    Thanks for the blog (and I’d love to see a book or books!)

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