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At the end of each year, the calendar often seems to have just the kind of dip in deadlines and workload that invites a contemplative wallow. Especially so for me this year, since I was traveling the first half of December.

I knew I’d want to spend some time over the winter holidays processing my thoughts and sensations from that trip: writing about the places, cataloging the sounds I recorded, sending follow-up emails to those I’d met, and organizing photos like this one:

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

But I also wanted to devote some time to thinking through my plans for 2010, to set out some specific and concrete goals, and decide how to achieve them.

I had a basic structure in mind, using questions and exercises I had accumulated over the last few months, some of my own creation, others pulled from books like Carol Lloyd’s fantastic “Creating a Life Worth Living“.

At the end of two weeks, I imagined I’d have some combination of “outputs” like:

  • a writing schedule for the blog and podcast
  • a tidy page full of measurable goals
  • practical achievable quarterly reading lists
  • answers to all the deep questions
  • maybe even a Gantt chart or two

All the kinds of artifacts you’re supposed to have to switch into the past tense with confidence, and say: “I planned.”

Well, enlightenment didn’t arrive in a neat bundle. Despite all the planning for the planning, my brain has been wiggling and writhing away from most of the tools I’d selected.

Sitting at the table, I kept reaching past the activities I’d assembled to pick up Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt or Anne Carson’s translations of the Sappho fragments, or Borges or Chatwin or Emily Dickinson or Marcus Aurelius — or even Mark Bittman.  All delightful, and all worth reading, put not necessarily frameworks for long-term planning or establishing those measurable goals.

Or maybe they are, indirectly: I found that each changed the contours of the course of my thoughts throughout the rest of a day.

I’ve read in those repositories of modern American myth known as business magazines that there are people who put “30,000 feet” projects on their schedule at a given time, for example “Plan future from 10:00 to 10:30″, and it works for them. They must be under some spell that I haven’t encountered. I sometimes envy creatures with such clockwork minds — but only sometimes.

When the mind wanders, why not let the body follow? Or at least try, if it can keep up.

Rather than confining myself to my desk, as though I was back in middle-school detention, I went walking — in rain, sun and even snow.

Amidst what seemed more like a muddle than work – walking on a whim, whenever the mood struck — I found myself engaged in a different approach to planning: I wandered with a pen and a pocket full of index cards, stopping as needed to scribble thoughts as they came to me.

Now, looking back at it, I don’t have all the fastidious “deliverables” I had expected, but I do have some clues:

So...who's going to type all this up?

So...who's going to type all this up?

Each card is like a ballot. Sorting and counting and typing and editing them has become a kind of informal, non-binding straw poll of where my mind is headed.

As I tally the votes, look for ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that might signify unwanted interference, and make note of all the write-in candidates and ad-hoc ballot initiatives with scarcely any support, I’ve discovered several patterns amidst those scribbles.

I’ve achieved much more than I originally thought.

And I’ve also been reminded: not only do we often find answers in unexpected places, but the path to those places is often unexpected, too.

So what do I have in the works for this year? I hope you’ll keep reading as it unfolds.

What’s your 2010 looking like? Did you do any year-end planning? How did it go? What methods worked for you? Please add a comment or send an email and let me know. And Happy New Year.


Home Made Pumpkin Pie

“If you don’t need a new technique, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new…” — Philip Glass

I like pumpkin pies. A lot.

Over the years, I’ve baked a lot of them, trying nearly every recipe I can find, and I’ve been intrigued by the variations.

I remember one recipe that didn’t mention turning the oven on until after you’ve already put the pie filling together.

Pumpkin Pie in progress

Measuring is important, too (via marymactavish on Flickr)

Others merely list ingredients, followed by terse commands to mix and bake.

Of course, some recipes — especially the older ones — make assumptions about what ‘every homemaker’ should know about cooking and baking. Such stereotypes about audience are a topic for another time…

The recipes I’m drawn to carefully explain the steps: mix the sugar and spices first, then beat the eggs, add the pumpkin, stir in the dry ingredients, and slowly adding the evaporated milk, until everything is well-blended — but not whipped.

That’s the process I prefer. I’ve learned that without following the right order, you can end up with a mess of nutmeg clumps and unblended eggs.

Pumpkin pie shouldn’t be chunky.

Sequence matters.

After working with the same materials, in the same medium, for years, we have developed skills, and patterns and habits.  Many of them are good habits.  We are so used to our standard sequence that it becomes difficult to imagine other ways of doing it.

I would never do this, for example:

recipe #2

But maybe I should try it?

If you are creative in your work, why not re-create how you work from time to time?  Or at least try other ways, to gain a new perspective on why the methods you prefer actually work?


What sequences in your creative work are assumed or automatic? Which change the most from project to project?

When was the last time you had a major change in your process? What caused that change? Was it voluntary?  How long did it take to feel comfortable with the new change?

What’s the most inviolable part of your process? Do you preserve it for practical reasons?

If you had to leave any step out, what would it be? What if you had to leave two steps out?


On a single sheet of paper, make a flow chart of how you plan to turn your next creative idea into a project. This should be a linear map, from A to Z, from starting idea to end result, that shows every action you will take.

Next, write each step down on an index card, and stack them in order.  Go through the stack, and put a number on the back of each card to indicate the original order.

While looking at the numbered side, shuffle the cards.

Flip them over, and go through the new sequence. Identify any truly absurd or impossible series of steps.

For example, putting the raw eggs and bottles of spices directly in the oven is not going to make a better pie, and we can guess that without running an experiment.  Negotiate a little bit around the physical impossibilities, but don’t go too far with it.

Once obviously bad sequences have been eliminated, go through the new order step by step. Examine each transition. Could this re-ordering reshape your work in a useful or interesting way? Why or why not?

What does it tell you about the way you’ve been working? Does it suggest any experiments worth testing in your next project?

The point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to change the way you work permanently, but simply to encourage you to examine why you work the way you do, and at hint at some alternatives.

Be really honest about the possibilities, and if anything even slightly piques your curiosity, try it, and please share what you learn!

If you liked this one, I invite you to read the rest of the exercises on this site. I’ve been posting one a week through the month of May.