While I often recommend books as a footnote in this column, every once in a while a book comes along that’s so chock full of wisdom, practicality, and inspiration that I feel the need to devote more time to it. Your Best Year Yet, still my favorite authentic goals-setting how-to, is one of those books; The War of Art, a classic artist’s manual by Steven Pressfield, is another.

Recently, I was sent a review copy of Running Down a Dream, by Tim Grahl, and published by Black Irish Books—aka, Steven Pressfield’s publishing imprint. In it, the author (who is, full disclosure, a friend, and who name-checks me in the book) runs down exactly how he brought his impossible vision to fruition, sharing the actual tools he used by linking them the pain points in his story that woke him up and made him willing to try things a new way.

There are 20 tools in all, and not a dud in the bunch. How do I know? Because I’ve used a number of them myself, and successfully; ergo, I’m exceedingly interested in checking out the rest. (Think of it as that perfect playlist you stumble on when you’re looking for new-to-you movie or music suggestions that includes 5 of your all-time favorites and 15 that are totally new to you. Those kinds of lists? Gold.)

For instance, one of my favorite tools is Tool Number 4, “Create Systems for the Essential”. This tool is a three-parter—or, if you like, contains one tool and two bonus tools. As Tim puts it, when he was building his writing empire, even after cutting out non-essential items (more on that in the book), he still had a lot of essential things that needed getting done. His framework for figuring out which is which is straightforward:

  • If it’s extremely simple—say, a handful of steps—just make a decision about how you’re going to handle that thing from here on out…and then do it that way every single time. Possibly the world’s dumbest example (which is also one of the highest yielding) is designating one place to keep your keys, then actually putting them there every time. Which means, even if you walk past your key-place and to the kitchen for a glass of water, as soon as you realize those keys are still in your pocket, you march back to the key-place and put the keys there. Create a trigger action (“I unlock my door, I remove my keys from the lock, I put my keys in the key-place”), do it regularly, and you will never waste a moment looking for keys again.
  • If it’s more complex, make a checklist. (I’ve actually read an entire book about checklists, employed checklists successfully, and still resist doing checklists.) The example Tim shared was using them for prepping podcast audio for his editor, so he didn’t have to waste time recalling—or going back, because he missed something, and disrupting flow.
  • If you can, outsource it. You’re already outsourcing some of your work if you have an agent, manager,  or lawyer. (Although you’d never want to completely outsource this, because you’re always your best advocate for your work. And Tim, though he’s a writer, not an actor, would agree.) You’re also outsourcing if you pay for tax preparation, either through a paid online service or an actual human.

The driving concept behind creating systems for non-essential tasks is to free up creative energy for your passion work—your acting. So you can also create systems that help you get your day job done more easily, if you have one; anything that reduces cognitive load in any area frees it up for the Big Work.

I also love Tim’s more ethereal “tools”, like Tool Number 7: “Create for One.” As actors, we know that the road to universal appeal  lies in specificity, but it’s easy to forget. Tim used this tool to break through writer’s block, and it certainly applies to targeting your writing, but as an actor, you can also use it bring you back into the body of a specific character.

I could go on and on—about why you should “Create a Worry List” (Tool Number 10) or “Find the Right Kind of Criticism” (Tool Number 9). To be honest, I’m still not sure I’m ready to try Tool Number 8: “Seek Out Rejection”. (Although I’m certain it will be wildly useful and illuminating when I finally do.)

Whether you’re in search of inspiration, better tools, or just a ripping good yarn, act smart and grab Tim Grahl’s newest book.


BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: I’m a latecomer to the lyrical, clever, and oh-so-absorbing fiction of Amor Towles, but on a recent trip home to Chicago, I made up for lost time. I started with Rules of Civility,his debut novel about class-conscious social climbing in Depression-era New York City, and immediately jumped into A Gentleman in Moscow, his sophomore novel that follows the exploits of a Russian noble confined to house arrest in a glamorous Moscow hotel in the early years of the Soviet ascension. Both are rip-roaring reads filled with great character studies revealed through detail, dialogue and action. Highly recommended!

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “The Communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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