Today, I wanted to talk about content marketing (as in, any article or blog post that is hosted on your website or other content creation sites). In the early days of the internet, great content was pretty easy to find, and the creators of it were rewarded. As with all things, the market was eventually flooded by every bad writer and their dog who wanted a piece of the pie. Actually, the dog is likely doing it better. Regardless, content marketing is always going to be a primary method of creating or driving traffic.
Because of those bad writers, high-quality content is becoming more difficult to find. It’s still out there, but it has a harder time gaining traction in a market dominated by dubious SEO practices. Basically, the internet sucks at discernment.
To combat the problems of keyword stuffing and link farming, the trend is increasingly longform–we’re talking 2,000-4,000 words or more. With a million screenshots or pictures thrown in, because the longer you’re on a page, the higher it ranks. We call these skyscrapers. Because they’re tall, obviously. (Final count of this post is 3600 words.)
What this means is that the winners of the content wars right now don’t necessarily have to be good. They just have to be long.
But!!! This is great news for you, a respectable business owner/entrepreneur. Because almost anyone can write high-quality longform content that ranks well, without being an SEO expert. You just have to be willing to put in the time.
So, let me show you around deliberately crafted longform content. I want you to see what it looks like when it’s done well, and the steps you can take to do it all by yourself. This isn’t rocket surgery; you just have to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Step 1: Start with a system
What kind of system you have matters not at all, but your writing and organization will be greatly improved if you can access everything you need all at once.
If you’re totally new to content creation, I highly recommend you check out Airstory or Notion. Both are rich text editors that allow you to save external clippings and notes. If Google Docs and Evernote had a baby, it’d be Airstory, but it’s web-based, not an app, so you can’t use it offline. Notion adds Sheets and is far more feature rich, but will cost you a few bucks if you’re using it to write. Both use blocks, which allow you to edit much more easily than a traditional text editor.
Feel free to use whatever janky system you’ve already cobbled together, but keep your research accessible, because you will use it a lot for this type of content.
Step 2: Create a copywriting outline
When you’re crafting deliberate content, you want to look at it from the reader’s perspective. Don’t half-ass this. The longer you spend asking yourself what your reader wants, the more it’s going to feel like you reached into their head, scooped out their brains, and perused them at leisure. You want them to feel like you know them personally. Will you connect with everyone who reads your thing? No. But that’s not the goal. The goal is your ideal reader–so the more you know about them, the more you’re going to be able to answer their actual questions.
For example, if you’re still reading this, it’s likely because you want to write better content, and you want it to rank better in search. You’re frustrated by the sheer amount of bullshit that gets shared on the internet these days, especially when you know that you have actual solutions to actual problems. And if you could just get your stuff in front of people, you know that you could help them. You have a genuine desire to serve your customers or clients, and also, you’d like to be able to pay the bills while doing it.
I’m not a mind reader. But I have done the work.
Now, my absolute favorite tool for a copywriting outline comes from the geniuses over at Fizzle. (I am not affiliated with them, although I do worship from afar.) The 80/20 Copywriting sheet is hands down one of the best tools in my arsenal. Go download it, read the instructions, and use it for everything you write. You won’t regret it.
You should go into this worksheet with a general concept about what you want to write, but it doesn’t have to be super specific yet. Pay special attention to the box on the bottom right, common words and phrases. Because that’s what you’ll be doing next.
Step 3: Ask questions
Currently, search algorithms are leaning pretty heavily to questions, because people are using voice interface. Think of how you’d talk to Alexa or Siri. You’re asking a specific question. “How do I do this thing?” “What’s the name of the guy on Brooklyn Nine-Nine who says cool a lot?” “I need a recipe for a no-bake dessert.” “What’s the best software to solve my specific problem?” You know, that sort of thing.
What you want to do is reverse engineer your content into these kinds of questions. Just pretend you’re Alex Trebek. If the answer is your content, what’s the question you’d ask to get there?
Next, you want to go plug it all into Google and see what comes up. There are a number of tools that you can use for this. Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush, Serpstat, Google Correlate (those last three are free for basic use). But if you’re not already using one of them, you don’t have to panic and start now. Google is more than enough to get you started.
SEO is based on keywords, which is why keyword stuffing is still a thing. But if you can put those keywords into the form of a question, you’ll have a little more leeway with the answers. So, if you ask, “What is the scientific name of a rose?” that exact phrase doesn’t have to be your post title, or even a part of your content at all. Just the keywords, plus the answer. In this case, that’s “scientific name,” “rose,” and “rosa.” If your content has all three of those things, then you’re well on your way to a good SEO ranking.
Before you move on, take a look at the competition. Click on every link on the first page (second and third pages too, if you’re really being diligent) and see what’s there. You’ll use this to form the basis of your outline, while also filing away quality outbound links to be used later. More on this in a minute.
Step 4: Create a content outline (or plug into a template)
So, now that you know what questions you’re asking, and what the competition is doing, you should be able to start turning this information into your own very long content. The value of an outline cannot be overstated. Taking ten minutes now will save you a ton of time later, and the more details you have, the easier it’ll be to do the actual writing. Use a bulleted list (or numbering if your topic is technical or especially complex) and come up with basic headings and subheadings.
This allows you to do a number of things. First, you’ll know what additional research you need to gather. The more quality links your content has, the higher it will rank.
Next, you’ll be able to design the flow of your content, especially if your goal is to get the reader to take action on something. Maybe you want them to subscribe to your list. Good content will guide them from the top of the page all the way down to your optin, where they will immediately subscribe because of all the amazing information you just gave them.
Finally, a good outline will help you figure out roughly how long your content is going to be. If you have ten headings and you average 200 words a section, that’s 2,000 words.
Outline for this piece.
Step 5: Research outbound links, affiliate links
I mentioned that using quality links will improve your ranking. Here’s how that works. It used to be that any backlinks from any site increased your traffic, and volume was a factor. The more links, the better. This led to a lot of link farming and other dubious SEO strategies, and it brought down the overall quality of searchable content. To combat this problem, search engines started prioritizing higher quality links. The better the site overall, the better the ranking from that site’s links, both inbound and outbound.
What that means, then, is that links in your content that lead to other high-quality content make you look good by virtue of association. If your outbound links are high quality, then your content probably is too, at least as far as the algorithm is concerned.
If you’re using affiliate links (and there’s no reason why you can’t–just make sure you disclose them), this is the time to gather them and any product screenshots. Longform content is often a great place to use affiliate marketing, because the length demonstrates to the reader that some actual effort went into selecting the products. It’s not just a generic listicle or gift guide, it’s a thoughtfully curated addition to your content. Your readers CAN tell the difference.
Cats wearing jewelry. Because obviously.
Step 6: Write post
Now you’re finally ready to write. The good news is, you aren’t starting with a blank page, so you can’t successfully claim writer’s block. You’re just going to plug in a few paragraphs per section to get things going. Remember, this is a rough draft, and you have lots of time to polish this thing up.
Unless you’re writing for an academic crowd, you’re aiming for an 8th grade reading level. The fact is that we love to share longform content because it makes us look smart. But we don’t actually read it. It’s just more noise (and a lot of it) in an already noisy world. So, the easier it is to read, the more likely it is to actually be…read. That’s a painful truth when you’re pouring hours of your time into something, but it’s reality.
On the other hand, that takes some pressure off of you. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner here. Just easy to read.
Gif of another dog and computer.
Step 7: Write subheadings, introduction, and conclusion/call to action
I never write my introduction first. I might scratch out a few sentences to get the ball rolling, but it’s nearly always crap, and I nearly always change it. It’s much easier to write a compelling introduction and conclusion once you know the actual contents of your piece.
The same goes for subheadings really–you can write a much snappier section title if you know what’s in there. Your headings matter. Keywords in header tags rank slightly higher than text, so if you can naturally incorporate your keywords here, you should. But ONLY if it’s natural.
Gif of a snapping turtle and a watermelon. Snappy? Snapping turtle? It’s the best I had here, okay?
Step 8: Write headline
Now for the fun stuff. It’s time to come up with a title. Let’s be crystal clear on this: your title is everything. You want to strike a balance between creative and SEO friendly, which takes some time. Start with keywords and include as many of them as you naturally can. Then, go snag yourself a copy of this printable from CoSchedule, and see if any of these power words will work for you. Make a list of AT LEAST ten possible titles. For extra credit, use this headline analyzer tool. If you can score a 70 or better, you’re in great shape (final score for this headline was a 77). Then sit on it for a day or two.
If there’s no obvious winner when you come back, pick the one that you yourself would be most likely to click on. Your writing is a direct conduit from you to your customers. It’s a safe bet that if they are buying something from you, it’s because they like you. Which means that if YOU like a title, there’s a reasonable chance that your readers will like it too. Don’t overthink it. Just consider if you yourself would click, and pick your favorite.
Screenshot of my last round of headline analysis. I did three total.
Step 9: Proofread a gazillion times
Next, it’s time for the sweeps. If you’re interested in the technical aspect of copywriting and how to make it better, Jo Wiebe of Copyhackers has a bunch of tutorials about sweeps, and how to use them. There are seven sweeps in all, and if you learn to apply them, it will automatically make you a better writer.
But, if that freaks you out, then print out a physical copy of what you’ve written and read it aloud several times. That will allow you to trim out most of the bad writing and inconsistencies, because the more conversational your writing, the easier it is to read.
Proofreading should make you feel good about what you’ve written. The more you read it, the more you should like it. Most writers spend a lot of time rereading their work and telling themselves how clever and amazing they are, and it’s an important part of the process. Don’t sell yourself short–you’re writing good stuff here.
Step 10: Add images
Once your text is all nailed down, go back and add images. The more you have, the better you’ll rank. That’s why recipes have step by step photos and completely inane stories to go with them. All that fluff makes the recipe itself rank higher in search. It adds theoretical value to the content and increases SEO.
Tutorials of any kind should be well documented, with photos for each part of the process. If it’s something that’s not as easily documented, then use photos that are in some way related to the text. Obviously, memes, gifs, and cat pictures work too, or you wouldn’t still be here.
Because I am writing this for Reddit, you’re missing out on the experience of photos as visual breaks. What I’ve tried to demonstrate here is how often photos should appear in between blocks of text. This isn’t an exact science, but try not to stack photos. Break them up with some kind of text in between.
Also make sure you use image tags, and add descriptions if you’re feeling fruity. Descriptions are great for clever asides, but if you go that route, make sure your tags are complete for accessibility purposes.
Step 11: Outbound links
Next you want to add your links. There’s two types of outbound links. Nofollow and dofollow. Don’t overcomplicate this. Dofollow links to sites you know, like, and trust (this is just a normal standard link). Nofollow the ones you don’t (this requires an HTML tag, but it’s not hard).
Don’t get cute. Links should say what they are, or they should just say here.
Step 12: Check your formatting
Before you publish, make sure you take a look at your content on mobile. Your content management system probably has a way to do this, but if nothing else, read it through on your own phone. You want easy navigation and lots of white space. Mobile users scroll through the text faster, so make sure that it’s easy to do.
Check that pictures resize automatically, that headers and subheaders don’t break off in unfortunate places, and that everything is visually appealing. In 2015, approximately 70% of users browsed Facebook via a mobile device. In 2018, that number was 95%. You likely know your own numbers, so make sure you look good for the audience and inbound traffic sources that you already have.
Take it sleazy. Honestly, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.
Step 13: Publish
Okay. It’s pretty, polished, and as close to perfect as you can get it. Plug it in your CMS, check formatting one last time, add your keywords to Yoast if you use it, and you are ready to go.
In veeeery general terms, the best day of the week to publish content is Tuesday. There’s an insane number of factors that go into that calculation though, so really, do what you want. SEO is a long game. You’re looking to score traffic over time, not create viral content (although if you do, that’s certainly a bonus). Virality is hard to predict though, and carefully optimized content will nearly always do well in the long run.
Step 14: Social media/email scheduling and other promotion
With content marketing, actually writing the thing is only half the battle, and that’s probably being generous. You have to get eyes on your stuff. Obviously, the first step is to promote it on all of your own social media channels.
If you have an email newsletter, promote it there. With these folks, you can go a step farther and ask them to share it for you, because they already like you. Give them the opportunity to share your message, and you’ll create a fan base that feels like they’re a part of what you’re creating.
Once you’ve done that, head over to your social scheduler and plug it in to be promoted later in the week, later in the month, and then every three to six months, depending on how much content you already have. The more content you create, the easier this becomes, and you’ll get new traffic every time you share, because there will ALWAYS be people who missed it the first time around.
Now, about that scheduler…. You have a LOT of options here, and they run the gamut from free to definitely not free. Hootsuite is a great way to get started, and isn’t so complicated that you’ll be overwhelmed. If you want more features to play with, then Coschedule and Meet Edgar are probably my favorites.
Finally, find yourself some content ambassadors. These are people in your niche or in an adjacent niche who will share your content for you (this is how you get your backlinks, and you’ll have to work for them). Reach out to your network. Ask friends on social media. Mention an influencer by name in your content, and then @ them on social. Guest posts, Slack channels, message boards, relevant subreddits. There’s a ton of ways to get links to your content.
And remember–this is a long game. You don’t have to do it all at once. You can spread this out over several weeks, even months. Mention it organically in conversation. Reach out via email. Make it a part of your regular routine to ask people to share your content–”hey I wrote a thing your people might like, would you please share it?” If you’re not an asshole, you’ve got a good chance.
Step 15: Interlinking
Once you have created a library of content (around 30 pieces), you can and should take every opportunity to link to it. The goal here is to keep your visitor on your site for as long as possible. If you can get them to click around to your other content, and read everything you’ve ever written, your bounce rate will drop, and you’ll rank higher in search.
It also helps you build your authority and reputation. There’s a difference between a skilled professional and a bad guru. We can smell it, instinctively. A guru wants to sell you something at all costs. They don’t care about you, they care about your money.
But you can make money while genuinely being of service. Your free content is what helps you demonstrate that. A library of free content says that your actual product or service is worth my time.
In conclusion, or your call to action:
We’ve done it, Reddit! I think. 15 very long steps later, we’ve reached the end.
A good conclusion should sum up your main thesis without being overly repetitive. You always want to assume the intelligence of your reader, so be clear and concise. If they’ve actually read the entirety of the content and not just skimmed it, they’ve been here for a while.
Finally, this is where you make your ask. For example, you should PM me for quotes on amazing longform content that’s done for you, just like this. That’s it.
Look, you did not do all this work to beat around the bush. Tell people what you want them to do. Just make sure you’re only asking for ONE thing. “Share this and subscribe to my newsletter and leave a comment,” is going to get you exactly none of those things. Be explicit, be nice, and if you’ve done everything right, you’ll get them to do what you’ve asked.
Content marketing is a skill, but it’s one you can learn. And while it’s a time-consuming process, it’s a pretty amazing feeling knowing that you’ve created something that’s both valuable to you as marketing, and to your customers as a resource. Good luck, and happy writing!
Greetings astrology enthusiasts! 2019 is upon us!
I’m issuing my usual disclaimers that I don’t quite get how astrology works (I don’t know that anyone really does), and while I have done a fair amount of research, I don’t buy into all of astrology’s…theories. What that means is that I find some of it relevant, and some of it straight up bullshit. (Stay tuned, because I’m going to be talking about the North Node later, and this falls firmly in the latter category.)
I’ve linked specific resources below, but I got a LOT of my material from better astrologers than me. Naomi Dunford’s 2019 Business Astrology Guide, Your Personal Astrologer 2019 by Joseph Polansky, and Cafe Astrology’s Astrological Calendars, specifically.
The planets in motion.
So let’s start with the good news–2019 looks to be a much better year.
It kicks off the night before, on New Year’s Eve, when Mars enters Aries. Remember how you wanted to take a nap all summer? That’s because Mars was retrograde. Not only do we not have to deal with that this year (for Mars or Venus), but we get to start with some action for once. Aries is a decider. It may take a while, but once the decision is made, there’s no going back. Don’t waste any of your time on indecision this year.
That means that you should already have a plan by January 1st. Stay home on New Year’s Eve. Go to bed early. Then wake up and kick 2019’s ass. This is a good year for strategic goal setting and implementation. Do the dreaming and planning now, because the first quarter should be all action.
Jupiter is currently transiting Sagittarius, which means an adventure. Jupiter rules Sagittarius, which makes this a kind of “home base” sort of state, I guess. Any time a planet spends in the sign it rules kind of magnifies the effects of that planet.
On January 6th, Uranus turns direct in Aries, which is great. I don’t know why, but it’s great. (Retrogrades of the outer planets are not something I worry about a whole lot. Their relative distance from Earth means that they can spend half the year or more in Retrograde. I don’t find these transits to be personally significant.) Enjoy the next few months of peace from this planet, until Uranus re-enters Taurus in March. My understanding is that this is going to be a rough transition, but on a global scale, not an individual one.
The rest of the solar system.
Saturn is in Capricorn, here and here. This is good because Saturn governs Capricorn, but Capricorn is also a pretty stable sign. It’s pretty much the definition of “slow and steady win the race,” and I have to admit, after the last couple of years, I will take some of that energy in my life.
Pluto is also in Capricorn, and you can tell someone’s into astrology (or from New Mexico) by how quick they are to defend Pluto’s existence as a planet. It’s…it’s far away, man. (On a pseudo-scientific level, I am skeptical about a planet so far away having any real impact. I suspect Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons are of greater significance.) So I tend to care more about the inner planets, and the bigger planets. Sorry, Pluto.
But since I’m giving you the full update, Neptune is in Pisces right now, which also means stuff.
Now, back to the planets we care about! On January 7th, Venus enters Sagittarius, and everyone’s long-term relationships breathe a sigh of relief. At the very least, you’ll be less likely to kill each other. Remember what I said earlier about Sagittarius being adventurous? Wear condoms, is all I’m saying.
The Moon, Eclipses, and Retrogrades.
If you are the kind of person who sets monthly intentions, then the New Moon on January 5th is the perfect beginning. The moon is in Capricorn, which will appear a lot this year.
A total lunar eclipse on the 21st of January will be visible in North and South America, as well as some parts of Europe. It’s a supermoon too, so if you can catch it, you should. And the moon in Leo means…I don’t know. That you should bask in your awesomeness that day, maybe.
There are a few other eclipses this year, a total solar eclipse on July 2nd visible in parts of South America. A partial solar eclipse on January 6th. And a partial lunar eclipse July 17th. These eclipses are on the Cancer/Capricorn axis, which is apparently significant because…we’re cleaning houses?
Mercury retrogrades this year are March 5-28, July 7-31, and October 31-November 20. Get those on your calendar. Obey standard Mercury retrograde protocol at these times. Don’t buy a car. Don’t sign a contract. Think before you speak, ESPECIALLY online.
Thus ends your tour of the solar system for the first part of the year. Next up: we go for a swim in some questionable waters.
When astrology gets…mystical.
Astrology has a lot of math in it. Specifically, geometry. These days it’s all done by computer programs, which is why it’s become a thing again. No one has to crank out the charts and tables by hand. That is an ungodly amount of work, lemme tell you.
So, when planets are in certain alignments with each other, this is a BIG DEAL. This one is a little…out there, but give it a minute. Here’s how it works (in theory). Each planet has an energetic influence. So when those energetic influences come into contact with each other, they create a new energetic alignment. Which doesn’t seem totally crazypants. Get some magnetic balls, play with them on a table. How they interact with each other is how the planets interact, on a much larger scale. Sometimes they attract, sometimes they repel.
Astrology believes that those planetary magnetic fields have a similar effect. On us, but also on our planet. These alignments happen often, because the planets are moving, but there are a couple of big ones this year.
It’s like fortune telling. But with planets.
First, Jupiter will square Neptune, which I’m told brings truth, resonance, and authenticity. And possibly the downfall of famous and corrupt people, so watch for that. This lasts from January to September.
Then Saturn will sextile Neptune, bringing material gain from your highest and loftiest pursuits. I mean, that sounds pretty sweet. This runs from February to November.
There are specific days when the actual intersections happen, and if you like fortune-telling, then this is something you should explore further–astrology has a ton of it. For the rest of us, it’s enough to say that in order for these specific planetary hookups to happen, they have to stay within the same relative range for a while.
And finally, we reach astrology’s sub-basement. The floor is slick down here, so tread carefully!
Believe it or not. I don’t even care.
This year, we have a North Node in Cancer. This is significant because….okay. Check this shit out, guys. The lunar nodes are a period of approximately 18 months. They’re not actual planets, they’re mathematically derived points on the natal chart. It has something to do with where the moon is in your chart, but I don’t see how or when or why.
This means that you’re reincarnated in groups of people who are here to learn the same lessons as you. That’s your node. And so a node in Cancer means that you’ll grow claws and do the Zoidberg or some shit, I don’t know, because when we get to this kind of religious quackery, I throw my hands up in disgust, and announce, “and this is why people think astrology is crazy.”
But, like all magical or metaphysical systems, I firmly believe in taking what works for me, and then ignoring the rest.
Now, on to the practical application!!!
This year should be one of action and adventure. You should put your mind toward developing those areas of your life. Then focus on making things happen and creating amazing experiences.
Move your work life forward. Maybe there’s a professional conference you want to attend this year. Maybe it’s time to attend some networking events. Maybe it’s time to get a new job.
Travel. See new things, even if they’re close to home. Schedule a trip to a local museum or gallery or tourist trap, and learn about the place you live. Try new restaurants, find tiny little bakeries, explore and engage.
Meet new people. Make new friends. Expand your real-life network. Making friends as an adult is hard. Be deliberate about this commitment, or you’ll decide not to do it.
Spend significantly less time on social media. Monitor it, make rules about how you use it, turn off notifications. It’s about taking control of your time.
How to make it work for you.
Be mindful of what you’re consuming this year. Uranus in Taurus means that we’re spending time examining our resources and how we use them. Going vegan isn’t practical for everyone, but less meat consumption overall is always better for the planet. Buy used or sustainable products. Have as many No Spend days as is feasible.
Finally, it looks to be a better year for your relationships overall. Plan FUN into your life. Dates with your partner. Field trips for your kids. Board game nights. Like everything else on this list, be deliberate about getting it on the calendar.
I make note of this kind of stuff when I’m doing my monthly review, and then slot it in where there’s time. The key to making this stuff happen is to make it realistic. So, plan one field trip. One food excursion. One date. One networking event. One movie night. Keep your list to four or five things–that’s one a week.
Then when it’s time to actually do the thing, you won’t bail on yourself. Don’t look at this stuff as “have tos,” look at it as “want tos.” Events to be planned, anticipated, and savored. Research indicates that more than half of our enjoyment of something is in the anticipation. So get good at creating that for yourself. Find things, large and small, to look forward to.
Make 2019 something to look forward to.
It’s going to be one of those days. I woke up with a to-do list a mile long, and every intention of doing ALL the things.
But we’re stuck in the middle of a high-pressure system, it’s cold and windy, humidity is high, and the pollen count is off the charts. Consequently, even after a massage yesterday, my joints are screaming, my head feels like it’s filled with molten lead, and I’m still not out of bed, at two o’clock in the afternoon.
Just another day in the life of a spoonie.
The question becomes then, what the hell do I do with my to-do list?
I think one of the most common complaints I hear from people who struggle with chronic illness, whether physical or mental, is that they suffer from a lack of motivation. But for us, that’s a lie.
You aren’t unmotivated. You just can’t today. There’s a HUGE difference.
I am incredibly fortunate to be able to structure my life and my career in a way that I can accommodate most of the obstacles I encounter daily with my body, and I recognize not everyone has that privilege. But there are a number of things that you can do to minimize challenges and maximize what you are actually capable of right now.
Cultivate your support system. Not gonna lie, I am profoundly grateful to have married a fellow spoonie. His chronic illness is different than mine, but when I tell him, “I don’t have the spoons for that,” he never questions me. Our support for each other in this regard is unwavering, and the end result is that I am much more confident in what I AM capable of.
Everyone needs a cheerleader. If your current situation doesn’t offer you one, then start seeking them out. I’ve found tremendous value in online support groups, and they’re relatively accessible. In person is always better, though, so find ways to add value to your social relationships. Churches, volunteering opportunities, and community support programs are out there for you.
And yeah, these are long-term solutions, but I promise you, the rewards are worth it. The spoons it takes to get there are worth the tangible benefits of having someone who believes that you absolutely can do the thing.
Implement systems. My days, (even the ones spent in bed), have a general itinerary because I’ve spent years figuring out exactly what I can do on those days. Even mental health days, those days where my anxiety or depression get the better of me, have a plan. It absolutely doesn’t matter that the plan is an entire season of The West Wing, a new coloring page, and takeout for dinner. That’s the plan, and when I accomplish it, I can feel okay about my day.
And just in case you’re wondering, you better believe there are days when I actually write that stuff down and check it off, too. I’m a big believer in pen and paper, but you don’t have to keep a physical to-do list. There’s any number of digital alternatives out there for you.
Regularly evaluate where you’re at. Part of my morning routine, before I even get out of bed in the morning, is to assess my pain and energy levels. Based on those numbers, I give myself a spoon count for the day, which is literally the number of tasks I think I’ll be able to accomplish that day. This is a vital part of my process; because it helps me go about my day without guilt. If I have three spoons, that’s it. I can do three things today. Everything else gets delegated or deferred (both of which I’ll get into in a moment).
Figure out your absolute minimums. There’s a difference between thriving and survival. I’m still technically in bed, but I’m dressed, and it’s made. It took real effort on my part AND one of today’s spoons to make those things happen, but I NEED them. Because instead of wasting the day on Facebook, I’ve spent it writing. I know what my absolute minimums are for all my different days, which means that I actually can go about my life accordingly, to the best of my ability.
Your absolute minimum to thrive will be different, but you know instinctively what makes you feel good. Make those things a priority in your daily routine, and it will give the rest of your day more purpose.
Plan ahead. One of the biggest struggles for me on days when I can’t get out of bed is making sure that everyone eats well. And by everyone, I mostly mean me. Takeout is also not always an option. I now meal plan meticulously, and batch cook when I’m feeling up to it, so there are ready-made meals available when I most need them. I also have quite a repertoire of pantry staple type meals, so that I can throw a few things in a pot and eat thirty minutes later. Most importantly, there are healthy breakfast and snack options regularly prepared, so that I can just grab something and eat.
Your struggles will be uniquely yours, but chances are good you can figure out a way to accommodate some things ahead of time. So that when these days inevitably happen, you’re already ahead of the curve. Not only is it helpful, it’s also tremendously empowering to know that you’re taking care of yourself.
Learn to delegate. This is what you had kids for, right? Yeah, I’m only kind of joking. There’s a lot of household chores on my list today that will be given to my children to do instead. Will it be done to my exacting standards, with my general attention to detail? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Will I have to sit and supervise? Yep. Will I get frustrated and have to repeat myself eleventy million times? Quite probably.
But the actual cost of doing those things is still less than doing the task by myself, so that’s what we’re doing. Delegating to competent adult-type people is even better. We regularly evaluate household chores based on life and job circumstances around here. Folding laundry is a physically backbreaking task for me, so my husband does it. When it’s financially feasible for us to do so, we outsource that one entirely.
There are a significant number of other work related tasks that I pay someone else to do or barter services for. As much as I can, as often as I am able, I try and get help where I need it. This is not a weakness.
Keep things simple. I hate clothes. Loathe them. I hate shopping for clothes, I hate trying clothes on, I especially hate spending money on new clothes. But you would never know it from looking at my wardrobe. Because I outsource it to my husband and my mother-in-law. They both have impeccable taste in clothing, and more importantly, an understanding of what looks good on me personally. They know my palette, favorite fabrics, and that it had better be comfy.
But having my own personal shopper is only half the equation. I also regularly solicit my husband’s help (and trust me, he has much better fashion sense than I do), to cull my wardrobe into a manageable size. I utilize a capsule system, with seasonal and nursing and maternity capsules, since I still hope to do that stuff again. I get easily overwhelmed by my clothing options, so everything works well together, and I can put together an outfit on a whim—what I’m wearing is dictated by any number of factors, so when I get dressed in the morning, it has to be easy.
I guarantee you there are areas of your life that you can decide are no longer worth your time and energy. HOW you simplify is a matter of discretion; I could have just as easily decided on a uniform of scrubs in a million different colors (and to be honest, I did, which is how I came by my current arrangement, as I was the only one happy with that idea). But it still works. I don’t have to think about my clothes, and they definitely look better than scrubs would have.
Learn to be flexible with deadlines. I’m not talking about the hard and fast deadlines that are impossible to get out of. I’m talking about everything else. Because trust me, almost everything falls into this category.
This isn’t some platitude about how laundry and dishes can wait, because babies or chronic illness won’t. But it is important to come to an understanding of what must be done today, and what can wait until tomorrow.
How many of your deadlines are self-imposed? How many of those self-imposed deadlines are attached to things that you want or need to do? How many of those things are really actually things you need to do, not things society has told you to do? I can’t answer these questions for you, but I can practically guarantee that if you really answer them honestly, you’ll find that you don’t have as many deadlines as you thought you did.
Which means there’s always tomorrow. It’s now well after midnight. My list has grown substantially since I first started writing about it this afternoon. In fact, I added more than I got done. My work day isn’t quite done yet, but when it’s all said and done, I’m deferring a lot of tasks to tomorrow.
I’ve learned to be okay with this. This isn’t procrastination. It’s not laziness, either. It’s the fundamental realization that over the course of my lifetime, I will be more than what I did this day.
Productivity with chronic illness isn’t just about what you do. It’s about how you think about it.
A change in perspective is required. Look, you know what you’re capable of. You know the same as I do that your illness isn’t an excuse, it’s your reality. But the only way it stops you is if you let it. I’m not physically able to do any strenuous hiking now, much less the rock climbing that I once loved. But it doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the outdoors. It’s just experienced in smaller doses, or with a really great air mattress.
Your reality may have changed, but your dreams don’t necessarily have to. You always have a choice in the shape of your dreams. And if it’s really important to you, you will figure out a way to make it happen.
A few final thoughts.
You already know this one, but keep some extra spoons in reserve. I probably would have neglected to mention this, except that life intruded while I was finishing editing this piece, in the form of vomiting from the five-year-old. The husband was still at work, and the teenager is completely unhelpful in these situations, so I was on my own. That meant I had to strip down his bed, plus go through several wipe downs and clothes changes. Not to mention the carnage that was the bathroom. This was physically backbreaking and draining work, but it was unavoidable.
And I am wiped out. I have nothing left to give, but I’m still not quite yet done for the day. Which means I have to generate an extra spoon or two.
Figure out how to create emergency spoons. In the long run, these will cost you. I tend to sacrifice sleep to make these things happen, which is often counterproductive. But when you gotta, you gotta. Tonight, that means a hot bath and really good sex. Between the two, I’ll be able to do the final few things on my list that can’t be put off until tomorrow.
At the end of the day, it won’t have been the day I planned. Not by a long shot. But I’m definitely counting it as a win.
Here you are. Fighting. Again.
This time, you were going to do everything right. You had one subject you wanted to address, knowing that things might get heated, but it’s important. You stuck to your guns, had clear intentions about what you needed from this conversation, and were ready to go to the wall for it.
Which would have been great, if the wall hadn’t suddenly moved four feet to the left.
You, my friend, are a victim of conversational avoidance.
Because instead of having the conversation YOU wanted to have, you’re suddenly having a totally different one, quite possibly about you and your faults. This was not at all what you had in mind. And now you’re also probably angry—it’s highly possible you weren’t before. Impassioned, maybe, but angry? Not until the conversation changed.
And of course, you’re now angry AND irrational. Because obviously, you’re going to have to do this crap all over again another day. There’s still no resolution to the original issue.
So what do you do?
Let’s start with understanding the source. Deflection is mostly about blame. Specifically, feeling as though you are being blamed for something. Say I’ve asked you for help cleaning the house. My intention is simple—the house is a disaster area of Chernobyl proportions, and I am simply not capable of getting this job done on my own. But what you might hear is that you never help me clean the house, ever. And of course, you’re defensive, because you know full well that you have, in fact, cleaned the house in the past. You also know that you aren’t responsible for the state the house is in, at least not entirely, which makes you righteous in your indignation, because you’re being blamed for something that isn’t even your fault. You can probably predict how the rest of this conversation is going to go.
However. I never once implied or insinuated that this was your fault. Nor did I ever suggest that you don’t clean the house. So this blame that you’re feeling? It’s mostly self-created. This is different from feeling guilty, because I’m far more likely to act so that I can ameliorate my guilt. But blame allows you to deflect—not just your feelings, but your actions as well. If I am not at fault, then I am also not responsible for fixing the problem either.
Chances are good, this is where you get stuck. Because if I am not at fault, and not responsible for fixing the problem, then there’s really not much left to talk about, is there?
And in point of fact, this is exactly why I do this. Deflection WORKS. I may not be able to make you go away, but I have made the conversation go away. And sometimes, I’d rather fight about something completely unrelated than deal with the matter at hand.
I’ve talked before about ground rules for fighting, and those can definitely help, but this is a different sort of problem. At its core, this is about who has control of the conversation. If I ask for help around the house, and you respond by saying that you work all the time and don’t have time to help, the conversation has suddenly become about who has more time, and whose time has more value. If you respond by telling me that I said I’d do it, the conversation has turned to MY inability to fulfill my obligations. If your response is not about the house at all, but instead about some other, more pressing commitment, then you’ve avoided engaging entirely, and have shifted the conversation to something you want to talk about.
In every example, that conversational avoidance puts me at a distinct disadvantage, because my immediate impulse is to offer a rebuttal to your deflection. After all, that’s the goal. The goal of deflection, at least in this case, is to dictate the terms of the conversation.
So now that you understand why it happens, let’s talk about ways to prevent it from happening.
First and foremost, you must be reasonable about your expectations. This is a conversation, one that you’re having with a real, live person, NOT with the version of that person who lives in your head. You simply can’t predict how the conversation will go, or why it will go that way. Have you ever had a seemingly benign post on Facebook blow up in your face? You thought you were sharing something cool, but by the end of it, you were wishing you’d just clubbed some baby seals instead, because that’s probably less controversial? This is just like that.
Even if you think you know what the response will be, you don’t. You may be able to predict a pattern of response, but the devil is in the details. You may guess that I’ll deflect, but you won’t know how or in what way. Don’t even try to prepare for that, because the very attempt puts you on the defensive from the start. Which leads us straight to:
Keep your cool, dude. I realize this is harder than it sounds. Personally, I have a very hard time with this. But, if you want to set the direction of the conversation, then you need to set the tone, too. There are so many metaphors to abuse here, I’m hard-pressed to choose; so… don’t bring a gun to a knife fight, okay?
Be specific! And I’m not talking about your argument, I’m talking about your request. There’s a HUGE difference between knowing what you want to say, and knowing what you’re asking for. Make those details work in your favor here. Let’s go back to my housecleaning request. Do you know what I want help cleaning? No, and that makes it infinitely easier to deflect from. However, if I say, “the kitchen is a disaster and I can’t make dinner until it’s clean. Will you help me out by doing some dishes?” You can say no, of course, but that’s about all you can do. There aren’t a whole lot of rabbit holes to chase down with a request like that.
Specificity of language is important. It’s not just about what you say, but also how you say it. The more direct your ask, the more direct your response will be. And, speaking of….
Knock off the always/never crap. Yeah, I know. I always do this, or I never do that; except, I don’t. If I can think of just ONE time where I DIDN’T always or never do that thing, it’s like I’ve won the deflection jackpot, baby.
I think it’s important to note here that, generally speaking, deflection isn’t deliberate. It’s an emotional response used to take power when we feel powerless. And we all do it—this isn’t about gender or gender roles. Men tend to deflect bombastically, women tend to redirect through changing the subject, but there aren’t any hard or fast rules there. The chances are good that once you become proficient at avoiding deflection, you’ll realize when you are guilty of it as well.
Set up is important. If this is a long-standing argument, or it has the potential to go badly, give your partner some warning. “I’d like to talk about dishes after the kids go to bed tonight.” I will acknowledge that this could possibly work against you—if deflection is your partner’s weapon of choice, this gives them time to marshal those arguments. On the other hand…. How do you feel when a potential gold mine of conflict is just dropped in your lap? Pretty pissed, would be my guess. So, if it’s possible to not blindside your partner, then you should do that.
However. DO NOT say, “we need to talk.” Because what I inevitably hear is, “you need to talk/yell at me for a half hour while I just kinda nod my head in abject misery.” Again, your specificity of language is important. “We need to talk.” About what? Are you dying? Are you leaving me? Did someone else die? Okay, yes, that may be MY anxiety talking, and no one else’s, but even if it’s not, those words can strike terror in the coolest heart. Even if it’s intentionally vague, SOME kind of set-up is better than that.
Finally, a couple of tips for what to do if deflection happens, even if you’ve done your best to avoid it.
Table it. This one works for me somewhat infrequently, but it’s worth trying. “That’s actually a really valid point, but what I want to talk about is this. Can we come back to it?” Remember, you’re having a dynamic conversation. Both of you have to agree to tabling an issue. But if you can learn this skill, it’s worth using—you are far more likely to have a conversation instead of a fight this way.
Provide options. This one is going to depend a lot on when deflection happens, but we’ll just stick with chores. “Look, I really don’t want to fight about this. I need help. You can either do the dishes or help with homework tonight. Your choice.” I won’t kid you, this is absolutely one of my favorite tactics for getting help. And once again, it is so specific that there’s not really any place to go.
Don’t take the bait. Another one that is easier said than done, but if it’s at ALL possible, don’t allow the deflection to work. “I’m not talking about that right now. I’m talking about this.” This is hard because it requires you to actively engage on so many levels, but it CAN be done. Keep your cool, keep your focus, and don’t allow the conversation to change. You likely WILL get resistance to this, and you’ll probably have to repeat yourself. A lot. But, if you do it calmly, without raising your voice, you have a real chance at directing the conversation.
And ultimately, that’s what this is about. It’s your conversation. You absolutely CAN take charge of it. And like anything, practice makes perfect. The more often you do this, the easier it will be to avoid. Let me know how it goes.