Lately, I’ve lost a little sight of what’s important. Not important as in priorities – my family, my relationships, my obligations. Not that kind of important. I’ve lost sight of the important steps I need to make and have found myself too focused on outcomes. I’ve found my mind wandering toward completed writing projects, instead of the writing itself. I’ve been focused on achieved goals instead of the incremental steps I need to take to realize that.

I’ve gotten too comfortable admiring the long-view instead of being hyper-focused on the needs in front of me.

We all have dreams. We all have things we’d like to see, do, achieve. And it’s easy to get lost in the daydream. It’s easy to get so lost in imagining yourself fitter, healthier, more productive (thanks Radiohead) and forget that fitter, healthier and more productive are all results of the things you do every day to get you there.

So, today, I’m challenging myself – and you too- to shift your focus, to change lenses and, instead, set a timer and get to work. Focus on making progress toward what you’d like to achieve instead of the achievement itself.

It’s the only way we can get where we want to be.

Make a list. Break things down. Tackle them one at a time. Go to bed tonight having accomplished five progressive steps. Wake up tomorrow and do the same thing.

Today I will set a timer four times – to write this blog, to work on a book project, to get my schedule in order and to finish a work project. I won’t set a timer, but as soon as I’m done here, I’m going to work for 10 minutes on Spanish. I’ll still make all my meetings. I’ll still get to all my commitments. And when I go home tonight, I’ll have already made today a success.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Let’s get to work making progress and let our dreams be what they may.

There, done. With seven minutes to spare.

We’ve got this.

Eighty-four days. Fifteen times a day. In total, I have written the phrase: “I, Craig Heimbuch, will iterate success” in my morning journal more than twelve hundred times. Every day this year, except the last two. Yesterday and today, I’ve written something else. A new mantra. A new combination of words to hypnotize myself in the morning and get me focused for the day.

I, Craig Heimbuch, will be a best-seller.

What was the impetus for the change? Well, I started the year wanting 2016 to be a more successful year than any of the others I’ve spent schlepping this big blue pebble. I wanted to manage success through small, iterative decisions taken every day. No big sweeping efforts, just a bit of work every day with the cumulative effect of achieving some goals and becoming more successful.

I suppose I started off intentionally vague. I told myself I would iterate success, but I didn’t really define what success would look like. And it seem strange that it would take me over a thousand repetitions to realize how indefinite ‘success’ is, but it did. So I began asking myself what it was, how I would define a successful change in behavior. I started thinking about the things I want – more financial stability, a better car, a shelf full of books with m name on the spine, a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of mastery, even more agency as it relates to time. I considered all the outcomes and looked for that moment of inertia, that achievement that might enable those kinds of results and, after a lot of thinking (and, yes, praying) I came up with being a best-selling author.

I know, big stretch, right? The author wants to be a best-seller. But it wasn’t always that obvious to me. In fact, I used to reject the idea as not being worth aspiration. But I’ve changed my tune. I have the right to do that right?

I’ve been taking a Masterclass with James Patterson. It’s an online course that leads you through 16 lectures and a workbook featuring Patterson and I’m kind of surprised I signed up for it, to be honest. I was never really a fan of his work. I didn’t hate it per se, but I was just enough of a snob to think it was beneath me. It’s only been by learning about his process, understanding his motivation and then researching the results that I’ve come to really admire him. Seventy-six best-sellers and living the dual-pane life of work and freedom that I, selfishly, aspire to. What’s not to admire about the guy?

But it wasn’t just Patterson. It was also a change in how I wanted to think of myself. I’m a decent writer. Not great. Not bad. I do okay work. But I’ve never had a lot of confidence in myself, even though writing is a large part of how I’ve supported my adulthood and family. Even with great successes- and I’ve been pleased to have had some memorable moments as a writer – there has always been an undercurrent of low-grade deprecation that’s gone along for the ride. I’ve always sort of put myself down, even when there are things worth celebrating. I’ve never given myself the permission to be excited to be a writer, even though it is my most favorite thing.

So that’s why I changed the definition of success. Not a bunch of results, but one scary, ambitious goal that will force me to find confidence, force me to sit down every day and punch the keys, force me to push for better.

Yesterday, I bid farewell to ambiguous definitions of success and began to focus my intention on a single outcome – being a best-seller. Will it work? I don’t know. What’s it going to take to get there? I have a rough idea, but no real clear plan. The thing I do know is that I’m holding myself accountable to something nearly impossible.

And that’s worth writing fifteen times every morning.

Last week, I wrote about Moments of Confluence. I wrote about owning your Echo. I wrote about embracing opportunities when they come, even when they are challenges, about taking responsibility for your responses. Today, I’m thinking about the work.

It had been nearly two weeks since I had gotten up for a pre-dawn run. My back and shoulder have been making it hard to sit in my chair at work, let alone chase Penny through the morning streets. And, I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that in that two weeks, everything started to lag. The focus I’d had for more than two months had become a mish-mash brain bash as my attention shifted like sand in a hurricane from one project to another, from one need to another, from one set of aspirations to another. I was feeling it mentally, emotionally, physically and, no matter how many promises I made in my morning journal, I knew I needed to get back on track.

I needed to own my echo. I needed that moment of response to take an active role in the day ahead.

It came, oddly enough, while I was watching a talk by James Patterson. Think what you will of his books, but 76 best-sellers means the guy has something figured out. He was talking about outlining and how it shapes his writing. The outline is the plan, it’s the to-do list, it’s the map. Do it right and the writing is easy, you just have to sit down and push the keys. “Don’t worry about the sentences,” he said. “Concentrate on the story.”

I realized he was right and not just about writing. I had gotten caught up in not being able to run my best, to write my best, to do my best, when the thing I need to do was the work and allow my best to come out. Strange how something out of context can make such a larger point.

So, last night, I took my muscle relaxer for my shoulder and climbed into bed at 9:30. My alarm was set for 6:30. A good night’s sleep and then back on track, I thought. The alarm went off. I crawled to the floor and stretched. Penny licked my face as the aches kicked in. I thought about leaving it alone. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. I fed her breakfast and curled up on the couch, still groggy from the meds and sore from everything else. Maybe I would just take her for a walk.

I let her outside to go to the bathroom. I let her back in. More licks to the face. More excitement to be alive. Okay, then, a walk.

I put her leash on, pulled on my sweats and a pair of gloves. I sat down in the garage to put on my shoes. She sat in front of me. Just looked at me, her tail swishing back and forth on the concrete floor.

“You’re right,” I said out loud. “Running it is.”

The first couple minutes were fine. The next ten were rough, but she looked so happy, so I pushed on. By the time I was 20 minutes in, I knew I was slower than I had been a few weeks ago, but the endorphins, the sunrise, the way her head bobbed back and forth – something changed. I remembered that I had come to like running earlier this year. I remembered that I liked the work.

I had already written my outline, but I had gotten too worried about the sentences. I needed to focus on the story – the running, the time with my dog, the feeling of doing something when I first woke up. I had forgotten how much I loved that. Taking time off was the right thing to do for my health, but now it was time to run again, to write again, to push myself ahead because someone – even if it was only a Golden Retriever – was counting on me.

James Patterson, Penny, the man I see in the mirror and the one I hear in my head – they convinced me to get back out there and I’m glad they did. It might not seem like much and, on even a medium scale, it’s not. But I felt something I hadn’t felt in the last couple of weeks and it makes me want more – pride.

You don’t have to write perfect sentences. You don’t have to have a way with words. You just need to focus on the story – your story, whatever it entails. And realize, just because you pause doesn’t mean you’re done. You’re not over. You just have to remember how to love the work.

What if I told you there was a pill you could take that would make you skinny? What if I told you there was a dance you could do that would pay off all your debts and fill your savings account? What if I told you you could blink three times and spin around and all of your problems would disappear?What if I told you there was a magic genie in a bottle of Pepsi that could change your life in an instant and give you everything you ever wanted?

Would you take it?

It seems like a no brainer. Of course you would, right? You’d take the pill, do the dance, spin around and blink. You’d rub the bottle and speak your wishes. Or would you?

We all play the lottery game. We all imagine life on a beach. We all have moments when we’d like everything that keeps us up at night to go away. But what happens after a month on that beach? What happens when everything is perfect? We get bored.

I was thinking about this the other day. An email came through announcing kindergarten registration for the class of 2029, my daughter’s class. I did some math and realized I’ll be 51, still more than 15 years from retirement. It got me thinking about life and the long game. I’m a person that sweats the immediate. I worry. I wish it would all go away. But this subtle reminder of time and longevity made me realize that, despite the challenges I face, I’m not sure I would ever wish them away, even if I could.

We don’t learn anything when magic solves our problems. We don’t grow or expand. We don’t become better just because the bad parts get cut away. We get better by fixing the problems, by working through the challenges, by finding ways to heal the bad parts instead of wishing them away.

Life, I’m realizing, is a series of challenges and responses. It’s a continuous stream of problems and decisions made to solve them. I want to lose weight. I want to have more money. I want to have better relationships, be a better husband, friend and dad. I won’t get there through magical thinking. I will only get there through conscious effort and daily decisions, through tiny struggles that result in long-term solutions. It has to be that way – for me and for everyone.

There is no other way.

So, what if I told you you could take a pill, do a dance, spin around and blink or rub a magic bottle of Pepsi to solve all your problems? What would you do? What would you think when you’re 51 and watching your daughter graduate? What would you tell her when she finishes college? What would you tell her children when they are sitting on your knee? You wouldn’t have a lot to say and you probably would not have grown enough to say it well, even if you did.

I’m not saying we should embrace our problems. I’m saying we should cherish the overcoming, the working through, the piece-by-piece, inch-by-inch, step-by-step progress we make toward solving them. Because that’s our legacy as people. That’s the story we tell. That’s the tissue that connects our humanity.

And it doesn’t come from a pill.

 

I’m two months in to my Iterate project and I thought I would do a quick update of where I stand. This is a big week for me. I’m writing this, my 50th blog post of the year, which is already nearly twice the output of any the five years  I’ve had this site. That’s kind of worth celebrating, right?

Reading

The goal was 24 books in 12 months and I’m happy to say that I’m on track. I’ve finished four books in January and February – Brian Glazier’s “A Curious Mind,” “Impule” by Dr. David Lewis,  “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and “Wired to Care” by Dev Patniak. I’ve learned about curiosity, the mechanics of impulse, the resistance we face as writers, creators and doers and how empathy can overcome business challenges. Up next? I’m reading a Goosebumps book and diving into “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman.

Writing

If I stay on track, I will finish my first novel of the year Friday. However, much to my surprise, I will finish my second novel of the year Monday. This puts me almost two months ahead of schedule, which I didn’t see coming. I’ve skipped a few days writing, but have found my 1,000 words or 30 minutes a day habit of writing to be grounding. Writing isn’t work right now, it’s escape and that was the desired effect of the project.

Fitness

Tomorrow morning, I will get up run my very first 5K. I never would have thought it possible, certainly not seven weeks ago when I was struggling to run for 90 seconds without passing out. But I’m there and I feel, well, proud. It’s been drudgery at times, electric at others, but overall, I’m pleased. I still haven’t stepped on a scale and won’t, but I feel better. My pants fit better and I find myself looking forward to leashing up Penny and heading out into the crisp morning air. That’s a win.

Language

I’m 50% of the way through Spanish and Duolingo keeps me grounded. I’ve yet to miss a day and, as of this morning, I’m on a 62 day streak of at least ten minutes a day. It’s fun. It’s like a game. A couple weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Modern Latina, a free newspaper given away at a local Mexican restaurant. I was able to get through it, even if I didn’t completely understand everything. That’s progress. I have almost no confidence in speech, but I’m getting better at reading and hearing Spanish every day.

Journaling

I haven’t missed a day. Even if it’s done at the last moment, I’ve managed to get a journal entry on paper every day this year. It’s helped me focus. It’s helped me set priorities. It has become the thing that gets me going for the day.

Blogging

Fifty posts in 62 days. A friend recently pointed out that, if I don’t stick with it, it will become mathematically impossible for me to hit my goal of 300 posts in a year. And, true, I have missed a few days, but I can still make it. Stick with me. I’ll get there.

Interviews

If there’s been anywhere that I’ve fallen down, it’s been here. I’ve done just two of the four interviews I should have done by now, but I’m refocusing and hope to catch up. I’ll get my 24 by the time the ball drops on 2016. It’s just been harder to find the time than I thought. I’m readjusting my plan and will get caught up over the next couple of months.

That’s where I stand. Seven big goals and I’m about 80% on track. I knew this would be hard when I started. That was the point. I wanted to push myself to do something hard. And I wanted to do it through consistency, through iteration. Every day, I work a little bit toward achieving big things. It’s possible. In fact, the only way to take on big things is to do it a little bit at a time.

What are you working on? I’d love to know. Contact me at craig(at)craigheimbuch(dot)com. We’re in this together.

I’m a non-fiction writer. Nearly everything I’ve published over the last twenty years has been grounded in fact or, at very least, truth. My books, my work as a journalist, the ghost writing I’ve done – all non-fiction.

In fact, apart from college assignments, I’ve really only written two pieces of fiction in my life and both were intended for young readers. The first was an adventure story for my brother when he was learning English after my parents adopted him from Russia. It was like a bad Indiana Jones knock-off. The second was a chapter book that I wrote for my son and nephew called “The Red Backpack.” It fell somewhere between Gary Paulsen and Goosebumps. My mom loved it.

I don’t even read a lot of fiction. I love books about design and psychology, about history and sociology. If I pick up a novel, it’s usually one I’ve read before. I’ve read “The Old Man and The Sea” fifteen times. Or I’ll read every book by a particular author – John Green, John Grisham, Douglas Coupland – and the occassional Stephen King. Don’t get me wrong, I like fiction, but my brain knee-jerks toward non-fiction.

This year, I wanted to change that. I wanted to write the stories that have been dancing in my head for years, but I’ve never taken the time to write before. So that’s what I’ve been doing. A half hour a day, six days a week. And I’m proud to say that, this time next week, my first two novels will be done.

The first is called “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It’s book one of a trilogy, a love story written from the perspective of the man in high school, just out of college and as a father. They say write what you know and, while this trilogy is not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, but there are moments in it straight from my life. The time I was shamed as a virgin by a drunk Italian guy when I was working at a drug store. The time I woke in the middle of the night with a fever and, a couple hours later, went through seven spinal taps administered by a young intern in the emergency room. Apart from that, not much else is true, but it’s a story that’s been in my head for a long time about how a man wrestles with being in love at different stages in his life and how love, itself, changes to meet his needs.

The second, which I had planned to write over the summer but decided to sit down and work on a few days ago (and boy did it flow out of me), is called “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass.” It’s taken from an experience I had last summer on a small lake in Northern Michigan. My wife and I were sharing a canoe with our son Dylan. It was hot, he was bored and so I started telling him stories about the legendary monster bass that lived in this small lake. I told him a story about the time, in the 1920s, the monster bass saved a professional water skier from certain death and how she went crazy trying to prove that a car-sized fish had saved her life. He took the story and ran with it. By the end of the day and over the intervening months, we’ve come up legend after legend of the Red-Eyed Monster Bass. The stories serve as the basis for the novel and my son, for whom reading has always been an assignment, is literally begging me to finish so he can read the book for himself.

When I have sat down to write fiction in the past – sporadically and distractedly – I have been able to come up with a good scene, a good line, an interesting character, but little else. I think it’s because I was trying to write a novel, instead of trying to express a thought. The breakthrough that has happened this year has been a shift in thinking. I wanted to write “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (and the follow-ups “In Your Eyes” and “God Only Knows”) because I’ve been thinking about how much my relationship with my wife has evolved over the years; how we’ve grown and evolved together, how the feelings I bring to the relationship have grown as I have grown up. I wanted to write “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass” because I want my kids to find value in legend and imagination. I want them to love reading as much as I do and I want them to see how their ideas matter.

These little shifts have made a world of difference. It has been freeing, exciting and, yes, scary. I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I would be coming back and asking for support at some point and my plan, right now, is to publish both of these via Kindle after some editing. I hope to have them ready by the end of March.

Here’s where you come in. When the time is right, I’m going to ask you to read these books, if you’re interested. And if you like either one, tell a friend about them. Once it seems like they are viable, I’ll launch a Kickstarter to publish them in book form – not just eBook form. If you’re so inclined, support the campaign. If not, I understand.

Either way, the writing I’m doing now is no longer just for me. I’m writing for an audience and I’m writing with specific intentions. I thought by sharing them now, you might understand them a bit better later.

Thank you for your support so far and thanks, in advance, for helping in the future. This is quite an adventure for me and it can’t happen without you.

I had to do it. There was no way I could face myself in the mirror if I didn’t. But I was tired. I haven’t been sleeping all that well and Penny doesn’t care how long I’ve been asleep when she wakes me up in the morning with a paw to the chest and a lick to the cheek. It had been a long day. Work had been a blur, dotted with pre-travel day necessities. I came home to three excited children and a wife on her way out the door to a PTO meeting and then some friends were taking her to dinner. I knew I had to run, that it would the longest one I’ve ever done and that, deep down, I didn’t want to do it.

I didn’t want to do it because I was tired, but also because the last time I’d pushed myself to run in the evening after a long day, I’d bonked badly. And that time, just a few short weeks ago, the run was comprised of intervals of three and five minutes. This one was 2.5 miles on a 25 minute pace. I thought I’d bonk for sure.

Two days earlier, I’d run 2.25 miles at a similar pace and felt great. But that was different. It was a bright, brisk morning. Snow was in the forecast. I hadn’t slept well, but I also hadn’t spent the day working and commuting, checking in on meetings, emails, calls and travel details. Last night, by the time I got to thinking about it, it was dark. The warm day had faded to a cold, almost blustery night. Even the streetlight outside our bedroom window seemed somehow dim and foreboding.

Six weeks ago, seven, I would have talked myself out of it. I would have found a reason not to go. I certainly had plenty that would have, then, qualified as reason enough not to do it. But something has changed in me since the first of the year, something hard to pin down and define. I’ve begun to weigh my choices both in terms of benefit and cost of action and inaction. If I ran, I might bonk. I might hate myself for bonking. I might be discouraged. If I didn’t run, it would be at least Thursday before I got a chance to do so.

I needed to be up at 3:38 again this morning, the same flight to Atlanta as two weeks ago, then on to Raleigh for a four hour meeting, then back to Atlanta and, eventually, home some time after midnight. If you’re reading this today, Wednesday the 17th, I’m either in the air or in transit. Tomorrow morning, will be even tougher to get out of bed, unrested as I assuredly will be.

Waiting for Thursday was an option, but not one I was willing to take. Skipping the run last night would have been the worse of two evils. Inaction would cost more than the potential for action and failure.

So I cleaned up the dinner plates, put the food away and got the kids into their pajamas. They’re old enough to spend a half an hour at home watching TV. I changed into my running clothes. I’m used to doing that on the other end of the dark and was sitting on the stairs tying my shoes, dreading what I was about to do. That’s when Penny came to me, she sat down and licked my face. She knew what we were going to do. I know dogs are emotionally intuitive, but the more time I spend with my golden retriever, the more empathic I feel toward her. She’d had a long day too. She needed a run. At least that’s what I told myself. She didn’t even struggle when I put on her Gentle Leader, which she hates, but it makes it a little easier to contain her enthusiasm.

And so we went, stepping out into the heavy, cold night air, like stepping into a felt cloud. The five minute warm-up, a brisk walk according to the app, was filled with trepidation on my part and excitement on hers. She wanted to run. She knew the route, knew the driveway where we step out into and across the street to rejoin the sidewalk on the other side.

The first couple of minutes were fine, but my form was off. I was hitting the ground with the heals of my feet, causing a jarring of energy in my joints and back. Three minutes in and my form got a little better. My arms relaxed, my weight striking the balls of my feet. But my breath was labored. I was keenly aware of every step, even as I tried to fool my mind with a podcast. The whole situation felt ripe for a bonk. Then, at around eight minutes, a strange thing happened – I began to lose myself.

Maybe it was the way Penny bobbed and weaved in front of me, the gentle whooshing of her tail back and forth. Maybe it was the interview I was listening to. Maybe it was a lot of things, maybe it was nothing in particular. But my mind began to wander. My breath became more regular. I relaxed and, when I did, I went from pushing myself to run, forcing myself to do what I needed to do, to just running. For the next seventeen minutes, that’s what I did. I ran. Just ran. The podcast played on, but it became static in my ears. I could see my breath in the air but was unaware of it. Sweat dripped from my temples and soaked into my knit cap. My muscles felt like warm plasma. My heart rate, elevated, settled into a rhythmic groove and I became a part of the darkness outside.

It was only the sonorous ‘bing’ of the app telling me to begin my cool down just as I turned left and back onto my street that snapped me from the revery. I ran. I didn’t bonk, I didn’t blink. I didn’t think, fight or fail. I simply ran.

When I got home, I gave Penny, whose tongue dangled from the side of her mouth, a bowl of water and some treats for being good. I took off her leader and hung the leash on the banister, then sat with my kids and before putting them to bed. I stripped off my sweaty clothes and put them in the hamper, took a shower and put on my pajamas. I laid in bed to read until I drifted off to sleep and, when the alarm sounded at 3:38 this morning, I realized I’d slept better than I had in days, even if it was only for a short time.

I combed my hair after another shower this morning, brushed my teeth and shaved and as I took one last look in the mirror, I smiled a little. I had pushed through and the push had become a gift. I’d fought through my better demons, I’d overcome my propensity for excuse and sabotage.

I’d gone for a run with my dog when I really didn’t want to and I felt, even if just for a moment, proud.