The year-end mental inventory continues, so bear with me a little. This one is going to be fun.

I’ve talked a bit about my struggles with depression over the last half of 2015 and before that, and scheduling schemes and deadline fails and so on, and I’m working hard to start 2016 in a better place and stay there. So I’ve been doing lots of thinking this month about what little things I can do to reinforce that, but in a positive way.

I think that if we start any sort of “New You” program—a diet, an exercise plan, etc., with a sense of “I suck at X and need to force myself to do Y because I’m a huge failure and will never achieve Z” all we end up doing is wallowing in misery and failure and changing nothing because who wants to self-punish? I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re okay. No one needs to be punished for, say, not finishing a 50,000-word novel in November, or still being IP on the WIP you planned to have finished by now, or you don’t read enough or travel enough or actually like the movie 50 Shades of Grey, or whatever it is about yourself that you want to change.

Let’s face facts. Some stuff just isn’t fun and it isn’t going to be. I get no particular kick out of paying bills or doing accounts receivable work for my one-man business, but I do it. I get it done. I try to see what’s working and what isn’t and modify things in an effort to make that more efficient, and so on, but I don’t expect I’ll get a lot of joy out of that. I’ll leave it to the Dali Lama to be “present” while doing the dishes. I’ll just do the dishes as quickly and effectively as I can and get on with my life.

Let’s talk about writing, which is supposed to be a joy—and it is. And I want to do more of it not because there’s some dollar figure I’m chasing after but because I’d rather be doing that than anything else—and I bet you would too—so let’s frickin’ write already.

But depression is a real thing, time pressures for grown ups with families and bills and whatever else is real, and it’s all too easy to get into a rut in our thinking . . . I’ll speak for myself anyway: I can find ruts like nobody’s business and when I get in one, fuck you if you think you’re getting me out of it.

I won’t punish myself for doing that, but I will work at making it so that’s no longer part of how I live.

That’s a long way of getting to this one goofy idea that I’m going to try over the course of January, and would love to hear from other people who are willing to try it too and let’s see what sort of positive changes can come from it.

We now live in a science fiction world full of amazing technological tools that we don’t always take advantage of. One of the things I think we take too much for granted is the smart phone. Now that I have an iPhone that’s compatible with my iMac I have a calendar that syncs and sends me reminders with a little chirp. This is great, but what am I actually reminding myself to do?

This got me thinking:

What if I used that technology to remind myself to do little things at random that would break up my day—stop me in the middle of whatever rut I happen to be in at the time and suggest I do something that will change my mental state right then—just for a few minutes?

Changing your mental state has all sorts of positive psychological potential. Uber life-coach Tony Robbins talks about it all the time. Would he lie to Marlo Thomas of all people?

This is a real thing—it does actually work, but like most things sometimes the biggest stumbling block is just remembering to do it, and this is where my little prompts come in.

First I made a list of ten things I can do pretty much anywhere at any time, and can do it in less than five minutes—in some cases in less than one minute. These are not “tasks” that will have a payday at the end of it. These are not to do list items. these are instructions to do something other than whatever it is you might be doing at the time.

Here’s the list I came up with:

1-write a 10-line poem

2-do a little dance

3-superhero pose


5-jot down a story idea, must have a title

6-play a game

7-something appreciative on Twitter

8-write one sentence—the first thing that comes into your mind

9-pick something up off the floor

10-read the first page of a random book

More on each one:

1-write a 10-line poem: This is not meant  to be your generation’s “Howl” but ten lines of any words you can think of that might rhyme or not—just write anything that comes to mind. Ten sentences, sentence fragments, or single words. It’s a poem if you say it’s a poem because you’re the poet. And what the hell, you might end up 2016 with a solid little chapbook.

2-do a little dance: This was inspired by a tweet in which I admitted that sometimes, when no one is looking, I perform a little dance for my dog. He doesn’t always notice and never seems to understand what I’m doing, but I get this weird little endorphin rush every time I do it that staves off the limitless blackness for as long as twenty minutes. Just like you don’t have to be a good poet, you don’t have to be a good dancer, just shake what yer mama gave u.

3-superhero pose: I got this one from a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy.

4-stretch: My back hurts because I’m too fat and I also have a tendency to lean to the left—slouch to the left, more accurately—when I’m at my desk so my back hurts most of the time. It hurts right now, in fact. I try to stretch periodically during the day, but even if you aren’t in pain, when this prompt appears stretch your arms, legs, and back in a safe and non-strenuous way. I’m not a doctor, I have no idea of your personal physical situation, just do what is safe for you.

5-jot down a story idea, must have a title: This could be “Jim Zombroni, Undead Contractor,” or the next Catcher in the Rye. I don’t care what it is. Anything could be a story idea: “The Big Pullover” is the story of a guy who pulls into a parking lot to jot down a short story idea but is then carjacked by bank robbers fleeing a heist gone bad. Anything . . . but spend no more than fifteen minutes beginning to end.

6-play a game: I like Dicewars or Super Planet Crash for this sort of thing, but what else can you find, online or analog? Have a deck of cards? Play Blackjack against yourself for five minutes. Whatever you do, do not start up Fallout 4 or anything else that will then overwhelm your entire day. Find a mini-game. They’re all over the place.

7-something appreciative on Twitter: I always have Tweetdeck open and too often use it to bitch about stuff. Has anyone done something in the last day or so you thought was nice? Did you just hear a song you like? Is it someone’s birthday? Use Twitter or some other social media outlet to say something nice about someone. Don’t get sucked into Facebook or Tumblr, just a sentence that says someone did something good, something you like, something you appreciate.

8-write one sentence—the first thing that comes into your mind: Let’s get some more photos up in here. That just came into my mind. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t matter. Write one complete sentence that’s not connected to anything you’re doing just then. Maybe, if you read that back in a year, you’ll find it has some kind of meaning you didn’t recognize at the time.

9-pick something up off the floor: There’s always something that’s fallen on the floor. Even if you’re out in public, pick something up off the floor and throw it away, or put it back where it belongs, or bring it to the lost and found. Trust me, when this pops up on your phone you’ll be amazed by how quickly you find something on the floor wherever you are, whenever that may be. But you have now cleaned up the Earth a tiny little bit. Go you!

10-read the first page of a random book: I live surrounded by books and you should too. Grab a book at random—close your eyes and take one down from the shelf. I don’t care if you’ve read it before or not. Read the first text page (the title page doesn’t count!) and stop at the end, even in mid sentence. Put the book away and go on with your day. I have no idea what that might do for you, but I’m anxious to find out!

Having made this list, I then set up calendar events for random times over the course of each weekday, during what I’ve carved out as my work hours. These will now pop up on my phone at 9:15 or 3:00 or . . . whenever. I rolled a d10, because of course I have a set of D&D dice in my drawer, then randomly generated a time. I use my nerdness freely and for my own purposes.

Come along for the ride in the next month. What have you got to lose but the occasional rut, panic attack, back ache, or a few minutes of a TV show you can just pause anyway?


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in creative team, how to write fiction, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, technology, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Scot Hanson says:

    Sounds like a good plan you’ve got lined up here. I hope these small touches of enjoyment help make each day more pleasant. (But the nerd in me is now hankering for a hack or an app that combines the calendar reminder and the randomizer! Got to be a way….)

  2. Doug says:

    I’m a beginning writer (52 years old) and have the first draft of my first novel done-working on rewrites now. I read your blog religiously, and I can honestly say I understand where you are coming from with your last few posts. I also fight (battle, really) depression and am seriously overweight (320#, 5’8″ tall). I love the latest post and am thinking of my own list of wacky 5 minute items to do. I’m thinking I want to add “take a walk” to mine. Anyway, thanks for sharing and being vulnerable.

  3. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…1/4/16 | Traci Kenworth

  4. Pingback: PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  5. Pingback: JUST . . . WRITE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: DOING MY OWN WRITING EXERCISES, PART 4: A LIST OF LISTS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. Pingback: WHAT I’M READING RIGHT NOW AND WHY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. Pingback: A REMINDER TO READ! | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  9. Pingback: SUBSCRIBE TO A LITERARY MAGAZINE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  10. Pingback: THE LONG AND WINDING READ | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  11. Pingback: I COLLECT BOOKS, DAMN IT | Fantasy Author's Handbook


  13. Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXXII: SHOW YOUR WORK! | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  14. Pingback: I SURRENDER | Fantasy Author's Handbook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s