I’ve been watching a lot of college basketball lately. One of my cousins coaches a highly ranked Division III team, and I love cheering them on from my kitchen table. More specifically, I enjoy watching them cruise to victory: hitting impossible 3s, racking up fast-break points, and forcing turnover after turnover. Even to fans with little basketball knowledge, it’s clear that this team is good. Really good. And while I experience a sense of vicarious success for every “W” they achieve, I’ve found myself also thinking about the teams they face. When you know it’s practically guaranteed your team is about to lose by 50 points, what does your coach tell you? What do you tell yourself?

There are days when writing—or accomplishing any part of a chapter or other academic project—can feel like being on one of these about-to-be-trounced teams. Instead of an all-star group of basketball players staring you down and making things difficult, it’s the world. Your day starts off with so much promise, but then: your laptop decides it doesn’t feel like cooperating; you spend an hour writing two emails and end up with seven to respond to later; the abstract you left till the last minute feels impossible to write; Zoom meetings drain much of your afternoon and most of your remaining focus. You give yourself a five-minute break to scan the headlines, and, well, that was a mistake. Suddenly, it’s dinner time. What did you even do today? Was it a waste?

Here’s where being your own referee can help: find a way to give yourself credit for what you did do. This lets you address a conundrum Oliver Burkeman describes in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals: “Since the quest to get everything done is interminable by definition, it’s easy to grow despondent and self-reproachful: you can’t feel good about yourself until it’s all finished, but it’s never finished, so you never get to feel good about yourself.” Burkeman suggests keeping a “done” list as well as a to-do list, as small wins are often not just consoling, but motivating. (He adds that if necessary, writing down and crossing off “brushed teeth” is fair game—I’m glad I’m not the only one doing that from time to time.)

If even the thought of making yet another list is too much, that’s okay. Just make a mental note of one thing you accomplished. Then feel good about it. Think of this as a mix of finding a silver lining and giving yourself permission. You spent fifteen minutes reading a source that piqued your interest? Victory. You replied to a couple of important emails? Yay, self! In a recent tweet, the fictional literary icon Duchess Goldblatt was thinking along these lines: “Friends,” she wrote,  “I’m exhausted after several hours of grueling work, but proud to say I’ve almost finished writing this sentence.”

I’d like to think that those opposing basketball teams are able to do something like this, too. Sure, the odds are stacked against them. But they keep hustling, score some points, and make brilliant plays, despite being heavily outmatched, and they can look back on these moments after the final buzzer sounds. Whether you’re on the basketball court or trying to remember what, if anything, you did today, give yourself credit for showing up. You deserve it.

Notes From a Writer's Desk: Give Yourself a Win

Banner courtesy of Shutterstock