(Image description: In the lower left the cover of Avery Alder’s brilliant RPG Monsterhearts 2 is visible. In the upper right another RPG book is partially visible. There is a character creation sheet between the two books, and a pile of various sizes, shapes, colours, and types of dice. Photo credit to Scott Foster, who inspired this post.)

This is a Patreon reward post for Scott. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too. My Patreon supporters allow me to continue this work, and I appreciate them so much. You can join that small (but growing!) community, if you want!

Scott requested a post on self-care and new projects. They asked me to focus on projects that you’re not excited about, or that you’re afraid of.

Scott is a consummate gamer – when we started dating, they told me that they needed to have one whole evening to do nothing other than gaming at least once every few days, because that’s how they recharge and decompress. I have learned a lot about the value of gaming from Scott! They have also DM’d multiple tabletop roleplaying games, including D&D, Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, Mouse Guard, Goblin Quest, and more. When they game, they’re in their element. And they do a great job of making gaming spaces safe and accessible for the people they game with. (Someday I’ll interview them about that process for this blog.)

So, this post focuses on approaching new projects gamefully – not only because that’s a good idea in general, but also because of who I’m writing this post for.

For this post, I really appreciated Jane McGonigal’s work on gameful living, which I’ve been deep-diving into for the upcoming Gaming and Self-Care series that I’ll be launching on the Facebook page next month.

In the introduction to her book SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal writes:

You are stronger than you know.

You are surrounded by potential allies.

You are the hero of your own story.

She says, “This book is…about learning how to be gameful in the face of extreme stress and personal challenge. Being gameful means bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games – such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination – to your real life. It means having curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up the resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success.”

New projects are all about challenge. Whether it’s an exciting project, a terrifying project, a project you chose or a project you’ve been dropped into, it’s almost guaranteed to be a challenge of some sort. And gamefulness is all about stepping up to challenges.

So You’re Starting A New Project: A Brief Guide to Being The Boss of Your Project (and Practicing Sustainable and Gameful Self-Care While You’re At It)

Okay, so you have a new project about to launch. You want to make sure you get through the planning, launching, and in-process phases of the project without burning out, crashing into a wall of self-doubt, or losing track of your own needs in the process.

Start with some assessment 

Take a minute, take a breath.

Close your eyes and picture that project on your inner horizon. Think about what the project will look like, feel like, and how much of your life will be wrapped up in the project. Imagine yourself beginning the project, working through the project, and completing the project. Picture yourself right in the thick of it, and picture yourself surveying the final result.

How do you feel? (You can check multiple.)

a) I feel amazing! This project is gonna be so good!

b) I feel hopeful. This project has a lot of potential!

c) I feel anxious. This project is gonna be a lot of work.

d) I feel terrified. This project is gonna be a disaster.

e) I feel something else.

Whatever you feel is okay.

Projects that make you catch your breath in excitement and anticipation are awesome. But not every project is one that we want, or that we would have chosen. Projects that you find yourself thrown into unexpectedly, projects you would never have chosen for yourself, and projects that terrify you can also be approached with self-awareness, compassion, and intentional self-care and you can get through them.

You might even end up gaining valuable skills, insight, and experience in the process.

Knowing how you feel about a project, and being honest with yourself about that, can help you plan for the project and for the self-care you’ll need to focus on in order to get through it. In this moment of assessment, try to let go of your expectations for yourself, and other people’s expectations for you. You may be embarking on a project that you ‘should’ be really excited about, and you might actually be terrified. You might be starting a project that you ‘should’ be terrified about, but you know you’re going to rock it. You know yourself better than anyone else, and you know how you feel. Trust that knowledge. You are the protagonist of this story. You are the narrator. This is your story to tell.

And it’s also okay if you don’t really know how you feel, or if your feelings change over the course of the project!

Once you’ve given some thought to how you’re feeling about the project, it’s time to…

Identify your available resources

Think about resources in a broad and inclusive way.

This isn’t just the money, time, and space that you’ll need for the project. It’s also the social resources – that friend who is always available to tell you that you’ve got this who adds to your resource list, or the family member whose skepticism is always lurking at every family gathering who is a drain on your resources. It’s the internal resources – your sense of resilience, hopefulness, and self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to take action and to have your actions positively influence the outcome).

Sometimes it’s also domestic resources – help with laundry and the dishes, or the ability to order in when the project gets heavy, or the knowledge that you’re on your own to carry your own weight or the weight of the family, and needing to plan accordingly.

It can help to make a list of all the resources you have available, and to let that list be expansive and even silly.

Do you have an inner Elf Commander who can marshal your internal troops for a big productivity push? List that as a resource!

Do you have a family member or friend who will be your cheerleader? List that!

Are you creative, curious, compassionate, or committed? List them all!

Let yourself sit with this for a while, because often new resources will float up to the top of your mind the longer you let yourself look at yourself and your life through that lens. Keep the list open for at least a few days, and just keep adding to it as you think of things to add.

It can also help to make a list of the resources you might need. Are you going to need money, time, or energy that you don’t currently have? Be honest with yourself about that.

Finally, it can help to make a list of the things that will drain your available resources. This list is important because it can help you decide where to set boundaries and how to protect yourself as you move through the project.

If you end up adding a lot of the people in your life to that list of things that will drain your resources, chances are, you feel bad about it. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. You are not a bad person for recognizing the way that some relationships and some social interactions drain you. And that drain does not mean that you’ll cut those people out of your life or stop being a support to them. It just means that you’re recognizing your own needs.

Assessing our resources, and being honest about what we have, what we need, and what drains us is always an exercise in vulnerability. It’s tough! And it’s also really valuable.

Once you’ve assessed your feelings and your resources, it’s time to get your hands onto that project!

Find The Challenge 

Jane McGonigal writes, “A challenge is anything that provokes our desire to test our strengths and abilities and that gives us the opportunity to improve them. Crucially, a challenge must be accepted. No one can force you to tackle it. You have to choose to rise to the occasion.”

Regardless of how you feel about your project, you can choose to accept the challenge and to meet the project on your own terms. That’s the first step in turning the project from a threat into a challenge. Any project can be a challenge that you choose to tackle, even if (especially if) it’s a project that you don’t want to start, are afraid of, or don’t have a choice about. Gamefulness will help you avoid the hopelessness and the feeling of powerlessness that can accompany a project that we don’t want and don’t have a choice about.

What you’re doing when you find the challenge is switching from a threat mindset to a challenge mindset, and the reason that’s valuable is because it shifts the narrative and opens up new ways of engaging with the project. Threat mindsets focus on the risks, the potential losses, and the potential harms. It’s important to recognize those things, but when you’re about to tackle a project (or you’ve been dropped headfirst into a project), a threat mindset can get in your way.

(And, at this point, I want to make a super important point. Many of us are habitually in a threat mindset because we have consistently faced loss, risk, and danger. It makes sense to view everything as a threat when everything is scary! Shifting your mindset is not about blaming yourself for seeing everything as a threat, and it also isn’t about gaslighting or victim-blaming yourself. If you struggle with this, that is okay. It takes practice! And it works best when we start with shifting our mindset in areas that are low-threat, rather than trying to shift something that feels like it’s life-or-death.)

In contrast to a threat mindset, a challenge mindset focuses on the opportunity for growth, and brings realistic optimism to the table.

From SuperBetter, “In a threat mindset, your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. If your sympathetic nervous system is engaged continuously for hours, days, weeks, or longer, your immune system can become compromised, and you may experience more illness. With a challenge mindset, however, your nervous system finds a better balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic (calm-and-connect) responses. This balance helps you avoid nervous exhaustion and burnout.”

McGonigal also says, and this is really critical, “a challenge mindset does not mean living in denial of potential negative outcomes. It simply means paying more attention, and devoting more effort, to the possibility of positive outcomes or personal growth.”

So, how do you do it?

One way is to frame your project as something you’re moving towards, rather than away from. Find a potential positive outcome, and use this project as a way to get to it.

These potential positive outcomes might be increased resilience, increased independence, increased creativity, increased health. However, these potential positive outcomes are not always apparent or available. When that’s the case, another way to find the challenge is to identify (or create) “the unnecessary obstacle.”

From SuperBetter, “The key is to identify an obstacle that you feel capable of tackling within the larger obstacle, an obstacle that other people might not choose to tackle.

Use your imagination to answer this question: What would be the worst possible, least helpful reaction that you – or anyone else in your shoes – could have to [this project]? You don’t have to be completely realistic here. Let your mind go to extremes for a moment.

Now: What is the opposite of that worst reaction?

Whatever the opposite of your “worst possible, least helpful reaction” is, consider adopting that as your unnecessary obstacle. Challenge yourself to do something that requires more strength and determination than what someone else might do in your shoes.

Why it works: When you imagine the worst possible reaction you could have to the adversity, you highlight your agency in the situation. You do have options. And as long as you’re not doing that worst possible, least helpful thing, you can challenge yourself to do something better. It may not feel like total agency and choice, but it involves some agency and choice – and that’s enough to activate a challenge mindset.”

Once you’ve found the challenge and decided to tackle it, it’s time to…

Break Your Project Down Into Steps

Set yourself small, achievable goals along the way to your big end goal. Think of ways to reward yourself along the way, and consider how you can find the challenge in each of the smaller steps of the project.

When you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of your project, take a breath (again! Gosh, so much breathing in this process!) and find a smaller goal to accomplish within the larger goal. You have choices about how this project gets done!

And finally…

Design Your Self-Care Plan

Lean on all of the work you’ve done leading up to this.

Take a look at your resource list, especially the parts of it that are vulnerable – the places where there’s lack, or where there are significant drains on your resources. Think of self-care tools or activities that can help recharge you in those areas.

Remember that community care is a big part of self-care. Build social self-care into your plan! Ask a friend to be your cheerleader, or find a professional cheerleader in the form of a coach or counsellor.

Write a list of self-care tools that you know work for you most of the time. Put the list somewhere accessible, so that when you get tired or discouraged, you don’t have to think too hard before you can implement some self-care.

Turn self-care into a game, by setting yourself self-care goals and giving yourself points or rewards along the way.

Make a list of “power ups” – drinking a glass of water, texting a friend, walking around the block, whatever works for you! – and try to power up at least once a day.

And now…

Fill in the blanks!

What’s missing from this post?

What kind of self-care do you find helpful when you’re starting a new project?

What other advice would be helpful here?