I used to have a PDA, or ‘personal digital assistant.’ I loved that thing and I took it everywhere for several years. I still wish I could use the symbols I had to learn for the stylus that went with it. One day, I had it open at my desk at work. A colleague laughed at me. I happened to have a sticky note inside the cover. “Do you even know what a PDA is FOR?” he scoffed. Of course I did! It was to keep me organized, expand into an extra brain annex, and remind me to do things. It just so happened that the apps and technology available at the time weren’t a perfect fit for my productivity needs, not to mention the aesthetic. It might not have suited me perfectly, but that old PDA served as an object of power in my life. The right planner can do the same for anyone.
An object of power is to be distinguished from a tool. For instance, I can use any spoon, pencil, or cup as a tool in daily life, and none will be more valuable to me than any other. On the other hand, my dog has a tiny shred of an old stuffed toy that is a major object of power for him. It’s so small that it’s useless, it’s filthy, and it smells bad, but it matters to one little woofy heart.
A calendar can be either or both, an object of power and/or a routine tool. It can also be a piece of useless clutter.
One common feature of my people’s homes, along with a vast collection of refrigerator magnets and a bunch of coins scattered everywhere, is a wall calendar that features the wrong month or year. (I always ask before I change it, figuring it may be part of a magical ritual or something). The standard-issue wall calendar is a total fail for most people’s needs. We take them because they’re free and they often have nice pictures. Then we hang them in inaccessible places. They’re visible to all guests, so most people avoid writing anything personal or private on them. They’re extremely limited in format; for the space they take up, there’s very little room for the individual day or week. To use them, we either have to write against the wall, which leads to strained and crabbed penmanship, or take the whole contraption off the wall, where the little finishing nail inevitably pops out and gets lost. Maybe keep your wall calendar, if you really need it for the four dentist appointments and two vet appointments that get written on it, but don’t blame yourself if it fails you as a true planner.
The sorts of things we write on the common wall calendar are the sorts that don’t really need to BE on a calendar. I don’t know about you, but my dentist, veterinarian, and all other appointment-based business relationships always send multiple reminders in the form of calls, texts, emails, postcards, and business cards with peel-off stickers. This is the kind of thing most of us are least likely to forget.
I may be wrong. I generally don’t use a grocery list, a to-do list, or a schedule. I still manage to get a lot done. But then, maybe I’ve got it backward and I would do even more if I used more traditional tools? Why do I even bother myself thinking about planners?
I use a planner as an object of power as much as anything else. I’ve found that I really like a monthly calendar as a visual when I do strategic planning. Yet, although I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go, I haven’t found an app or digital calendar view that does the job. Most of the sort of activities that I want to “plan” are not specifically schedule-based, like in the time dimension and everything. I plan at the yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly level, and digital minute- and date-based reminders don’t work well for my needs.
What do I plan?
I plan my work in time blocks. Those time blocks are built around the few time-bound elements in my schedule. Classes at my gym, club meetings, and my husband’s work and travel schedule are the non-negotiables. I put those first because that’s how I prioritize my marriage, my fitness, and my educational and career growth goals. Why? My husband travels three or more days a week, so he has to come first if I want to see him at all. Classes and club meetings take up about six hours a week. Almost every minute of the remaining time is mine to squander.
Most of the things I do can be done at any time. That means if I’m not careful, they’ll never get done at all. That’s doubly true of creative projects that I can’t delegate, that won’t come into being if I don’t pull them into the time dimension somehow.
Artists, this might be useful. I think of my projects in three phases: gestation, work, and editing. Others might think of the first phase as ideation, daydreaming, woolgathering, or aimlessly staring out the window. The second phase might be anything from painting, sculpting, typing, or pattern drafting to chopping vegetables, soldering, or welding. The third phase might be called polish, styling, performing, plating, peer review, or whatever else works for you. For my purposes, the first phase requires the ability to drop what I’m doing and take notes, sketch something, snap a picture, or research something. The second phase is almost entirely typing and doesn’t even require internet access. The third phase includes formatting and scheduling, and occasionally a human intermediary.
It just occurred to me that there’s actually a FOURTH PHASE, which explains most of my problems in life. That fourth phase might variously be known as publishing, shipping, launching, or... finishing.
Everyone is most comfortable in one of these stages, and we can tend to languish, not realizing that it takes at least a minimal amount of planning to carry an idea through all four phases. I do my best work at phase one, ideation, while I always go to my husband for phase three. (Phase three and no sooner!)
See that it’s entirely possible to have multiple projects in progress in various phases along a timeline. Any or all of them might eventually become hung up on the input of another person, access to materials or facilities, delivery schedules, and so forth. A delivery driver or a waiter or an artisan in a framing shop might work almost entirely in phase four of other people’s projects, in what would be phase two of their own workday. My people, just like me, tend to work mostly in phases one and two. That’s where craft stores make all their money.
As a working artist, I don’t really use a planner for its calendar function. I use it as an adjunct brain. The monthly grid is how I try to avoid bunching up several posts in a row on the same topic, and how I anticipate writing around seasonal topics. The weekly view is where I write out errands I need to run, because it doesn’t matter what day I do them, and projects I want to get done, because I’m not always sure how long they’ll take. I’d rather look at them in my preferred format than spend a lot of extra time tinkering, shuffling, writing, erasing, and rewriting. That attention should be on my real work. The point of the planner is so I can use as much mental bandwidth as possible for making things, not for massaging and canoodling with the planner itself.
A planner as an object of power should be compelling to its possessor. It should attract the eye. It should be of a shape and size and weight that makes it irresistible, and it should suit the context. Consider whether you will use it mostly on a cafe table, at work, in your bed, at your desk, in the driver’s seat of your car, or whether it will spend most of its working life in your bag. Love the color and style, because if any aspect of it disappoints or annoys you, you won’t use it.
The more you use an object of power, the better it works. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes. The more you use it, the better you get at figuring out what you want out of it and what you’ll change the next time you choose one. There’s nothing wrong with writing on the wall or using a paper napkin, if it inspires you and brings you focus.
Skip January, you know that, right? Nothing you do in January counts toward your New Year’s Resolution. Also skip December because come on, let’s be real. It makes much more sense to keep your goals only ten months out of the year.
This is how I think of a calendar year. One month, January, is the research month. January is for taking notes.
Ten months equals ten percent each. Give or take. It’s okay to do five percent one of the months, if you’re busy or sick or distracted, because you can still get an A+ over the remainder of the year.
Then December, the final month, is for writing up your report. Journal and strategize and think about what worked and what didn’t work.
Ten months on, two months off. It works, it’s easy to calculate, and there is no moral hazard in it. You can still be a total perfectionist this way.
Choose your major personal goal based on the level of challenge, because it works much better if you use your curiosity and imagination. What is this like? How do I do it? How will doing this make me a better person? Will it make my life easier or more fun or more interesting? Will doing this help me make more friends?
Choose your major personal goal based on whether it will make you more confident. Personally, I like to aim for something that does not come naturally to me, something about which I know nothing, less than nothing. When I feel uncertain and awkward and useless, it’s the best use of my time, because I have no bad habits to train away. I can start with an empty cup.
It also means I’ll get the maximum value out of my work. The gap between where I started the year and where I ended the year will be wide and noticeable.
The year I decided to learn to cook, I started out by screwing up the instructions on frozen food. I ended by throwing dinner parties for twenty people. This is one of the best year-long projects because the results are delicious!
The year I chose running, I started unable to run around the block. I couldn’t run a quarter mile. I couldn’t even run for three full minutes. My goal was 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks.
The year I chose public speaking, I was so scared I had to force myself to stand up and say my name. By the end of the year I was winning ribbons for Best Speaker.
It feels great to do something that used to scare you and not be scared anymore. It feels even better when you realize that you’re good at it. After that, you start to enjoy it. It seems weird to know how scary it used to be.
People of the fixed mindset persuasion always say things about Still Being the Same Person. They feel like doing anything different will be bad, that it will make them into someone unrecognizable. Someone, what? Arrogant or full of themselves or vain or shallow or boring or dumb? An attitude along those lines comes from contempt for other people, people who are different. Where I am now, in my comfort zone, it’s safe here and it also proves that I’m the smartest and the best. I’m on top of my hill of pride and I’m happy to be stuck up here, thinking I’ll never change.
Fixed mindset people hate being beginners. Fixed mindset people don't learn as much because they’d rather pride themselves on what they already do know. How can I feel like an A student if I try to study something new? Especially if I study something physical, no way am I going to expose myself to embarrassment by moving my body. Ugh, eww, yucky.
This is who I am. It’s just how I roll. That’s not me. I’m not doing that.
In my public speaking club, we often get newcomers. They’ve been told by someone, often their boss during their annual performance review, that they need to develop their presentation skills. In other words, their intense fear of public speaking is holding them back professionally, damaging their reputation, and costing them money. That’s what I call motivation, am I right? I know better, though, because I’ve sweated through my own fears and that is an intense one. At the end of the meeting, when they refuse to stand up, I recognize them as just like me. I pull them aside as everyone is leaving.
“Now that everyone is gone, you can practice if you want. We’ll turn our backs and you can stand in front of the lectern, just to see what it’s like.”
They won’t do it. They literally never will. People who haven’t met each other react the same way, like they’re reading a page from a book. They won’t stand in an empty room and pretend they’re giving a speech. That is the NO energy that can stop anyone from accomplishing any goal. It comes from a negative imagination, it comes from stasis, it comes from fear, it comes from a fixed mindset, and it comes from perfectionism.
The perfectionist mindset does not like the idea of blowing off two months out of the year. Oh, no no no, if I’m going to bother to do it at all then I must maintain a perfect streak, never missing a day for the rest of my life. If I miss a day in January, because January is the worst month for goal-setting, then it’s proof that I should just quit and start again a different year.
I say that this is a sloppy and imperfect attitude, a mustard-on-your-shirt attitude.
A REAL perfectionist knows how to use a calendar year to achieve a goal.
A REAL perfectionist is smart enough to plan. That includes multiple backup plans and recognition of predictable obstacles.
One predictable obstacle is that January is the worst month to keep a goal. Another is that December is busy.
Choosing year-long projects keeps life interesting. It’s a good structure for arranging projects and goals and challenges. Just think of it in an academic sense and pick a ten-month year. Ten months on, two months off, and that’s your perfect streak.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. I didn’t make this up. Of course I didn’t! Anything to do with the time dimension always has me running up last, late, to the end of the line. It’s given me a lot of pause lately. Think it out.
We all have different personalities, different families, different incomes and tastes and habits. Even people who work at the same job, keep the same shift, live in the same building, or come from the same family tree are not alike in every way. We do, though, have the same 24 hours a day in common.
That’ll be a bit different after we establish a colony on Mars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here we are at the change of another calendar year. It’s arbitrary. Why so many of us are following the Julian calendar instead of some other system is an accident of fate. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a scaffold around all our days. We might as well accept that time is a standard that applies to everyone equally, since nothing else does.
Time passes by the hour and minute, and I don’t feel it. It’s like being color-blind. Direction is another sense I seem to lack, and I struggle with maps in the same way that I struggle with clocks. That’s part of why I take my yearly and seasonal planning so seriously. I like having some kind of metric to measure my progress. What am I doing with my time on Earth?
A year is also a useful benchmark for comparing one physical state to another. Haircuts are the easiest to spot in a timeline of photos. Fashion trends, puppies, kittens, small children. I’m more interested in my personal condition: my health, home, finances, and relationships.
Am I still in touch with the people who matter to me? When’s the last time I talked to them or saw them in person?
How do I feel when I’m at home? Can I relax there? Can I have people over? Does my home feel warm, comfortable, and welcoming? Am I proud? Does it look intentional?
How are my finances? Am I busy spending money I don’t have living a lifestyle I can’t afford? Am I being fair to Future Me? Are Big Banks sucking my marrow?
How is my health? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Can I get down on the ground and get back up again without holding on to anything? Can I run up a flight of stairs? Is my energy level more like “kick down a fence” or “fell down a hole”?
Compared to last year, compared to two years ago, compared to three years ago, how am I doing?
It would be nice if we could see some pictures of the future from time to time. How am I doing today compared to Future Me? If I knew more, would I change my behaviors? Would I save more money? Would I strut my stuff, realizing I’ll never look quite so fly ever again? We can’t know the future.
We can, though. We can know the future by creating it. Things we do today can affect our setup for tomorrow. We can send ourselves stuff in the future, like journals and money and muscle and real estate and specific effort.
If I want Future Me to get a PhD, I have to apply to school and do all the homework in the now-today.
If I want Future Me to be married, then Today Me can’t go around verbally abusing Today-Husband.
If I want a lunch to eat on Tuesday, then I have to go grocery shopping today.
It seems so dumb and insignificant on the day or week scale, but on the year or decade scale it makes all the difference. Can I play a musical instrument, can I touch my toes, can I speak another language, am I up for promotion? Am I giving as much love and kindness as I wish to receive?
Other people do such impressive things with their 24 hours. Other people out there are playing the cello or going to the culinary institute. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I have bookmarks in thirteen different books.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. Most of what I do doesn’t, anyway! A hundred years from now nobody is going to care if I left dishes in the sink or made a scene at a party or won the lottery. A hundred years from now, even my own descendants won’t know my name or give a lick about me. They probably won’t have seen my photo or heard a recording of my voice.
In some ways, that’s liberating, ever so freeing. It gives a certain license to behavior of all sorts. We’re judged only in the moment and only by how we made other people feel. The metric is whether we take responsibility for the effects of our words and facial expressions.
In other ways, it’s a tall order, trying to think of something that matters enough to be significant on a longer time scale. Am I capable of more? Am I capable of leaving a legacy of some kind? Have I been working on it? How can I tell if I’m making progress?
In time, in time, certain names stand out for their work and the impact they made. They participated in the great conversation and played a bigger role on the world stage, for good or ill. Could we be among them, you and I? Are we making as much use of the same 365-day year as they did?
Time is the only thing we all have in common, the queens and the killers, the poets and the pop singers. Let’s just pause at least once a year to check in and see if we’re using our time as well as we’d like.
It’s that time again! Goals and resolutions time! This year we’re doing our annual review and planning session on the Las Vegas Strip, because we’re party animals and because planning leads to awesomeness.
This is the mistake so many people make, to choose a “resolution” that is grim and dire, the kind of thing that any sensible person would of course immediately want to sabotage. Get out of here with your “drink more water” and “Get Organized” and “lose weight,” just crumple all that into a ball and toss it over your shoulder, and let’s do this with a little more anticipation and delight, okay?
I’ve been interviewing various Las Vegan personages and asking them to tell me their “New Year’s wish.” Everyone had one. EVERYONE! A TSA agent: “To get paid.” A dreadlocked young fellow: “Growth and prosperity.” A balding guy, blushing: “A new baby.” A bearded kid: “To go back to school.” Wanting something better for the New Year is the driving force behind all human progress.
Personally, I don’t stop at one, because there is no upper limit on wishes. It’s also a technicality, because if you make a longer list, then your chances of succeeding at least once are increased. I’ve been doing this process in one form or another since I was nine years old, and each year’s failures and near misses have simply made me better at formulating my plans. First I’ll share how I did last year, and then I’ll go into my plans for 2019, because publishing my quarterly results keeps me accountable.
These were my goals and resolutions for 2018:
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
I’m making some changes to my template this year. First, I tried doing a mantra for two years, and both times it wound up feeling like I somehow managed to troll myself. Dropping that. If I do one, it will be to come up with a word or phrase at the end of the year instead of the beginning. Instead, I’m publishing the metrics I plan to track. What gets tracked gets managed. I’m also being more careful about not trying for a twofer, because then if it doesn’t happen for some reason, it screws up two categories instead of one. Another thing is that I realized I keep screwing up my “couples goal” because it IS a goal, rather than a resolution, and goals are much less likely to lead to long-term success.
Goal: a specific outcome. Resolution: an implementation intention. Project: a planned piece of work with a specific purpose. Plan: the part most people leave out of their resolutions!
Personal: My personal project is typically something on what I call the Challenge Path, the specific purpose of which is to push my limits drastically and force me to run full speed in the direction of my greatest fears. Contemplating these projects in advance always makes me queasy. At some point within the first three weeks (aka The Gauntlet), I tell my husband I’m going to quit because it’s too hard and I’m wasting everyone’s time and I don’t belong there. Then I stay with it and within three years I’m as good as anyone. This time it’s to submit a book proposal to a publisher. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do many of these and that they will eventually become a regular, predictable part of my life, but bawkbawk-baGAWK! [chicken sounds]
Career: See above. Also, I’m in the final stages of completing the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. If I can hold the line on all the projects I’ve been doing over the last six months, I can finish this by June 30. If I slip on anything, it will take an entire extra year. The further I go in Toastmasters, the more I see how directly relevant these skills are to what I want to do with my life. That being said, the DTM represents a massive amount of work. It will take the majority of my focus for the first half of the year.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. If this works the way I want it to, it will help me with my roundhouse kick, my goal of doing the splits, and maybe even my heartfelt desire to turn a cartwheel. Currently I have the ludicrously tight hips of any distance runner and I’m ready to leave that behind. There are a LOT of people in Las Vegas who can do the splits, and most of them can do them while doing a handstand on one hand. This is possible.
Home: My home project is to set up an outdoor writing area. I spend a lot of time on our tiny patio, so my parrot can get some nice daylight, but it makes us visible to a steady stream of foot traffic. We get interrupted a lot by looky-loos. I’m going to set up a folding screen so the wandering public don’t have line of sight with my chair.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. We’ve been taking an evening kickboxing class together, and because it runs from 7-8 it has been making weeknight dinnertime and cleanup complicated.
Stop goal: Every year, I think of a way I’ve been annoying myself (and usually others) and decide to stop doing it. It’s always something I have no idea how to handle, or I would have already done it. Spending an entire year examining my worst character flaws and most obnoxious habits helps me to figure out how to work on them, at least a little. This time, I’m trying to figure out how to clear up the wreckage of my poor health from 2018, a year of chronic colds and the worst sleep I’ve had in fifteen years. Waking up crouched on my living room floor, crying from a night terror that lobster-sized scorpions were crawling on the bed, was the last straw. In 2019 I resolve to stop being sick and tired.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution is to buy a new desktop computer. I should have freaking done it last year, after I decided I didn’t want another laptop, but I’m such a tightwad that few forces on Earth can convince me to spend money on myself.
Do the Obvious: “Do the Obvious” is my thing, because as a divergent thinker one of my best skills is overcomplicating things without even realizing it. It means looking at something so commonplace, such a routine keystone habit, that even a stranger on the street could point it out within five minutes of meeting someone. This year it’s to schedule a time block for everything, every last single thing I want to be a part of my life. I’ll write more about this as I work it into practice. Basically it means I need to have an extra “power hour” every week for random tasks that don’t seem to fit into any other category. I also need to be more protective of my writing time.
Metrics: I track a lot of stuff. It’s what helped me figure out how to eliminate my migraines, for one thing. I track my hydration, I wear a fitness tracker, I record all the books I read, and I follow a budget. This year I’m going to try out gear to track my sleep metrics. I’m going to track specific HIIT exercises, because it will be funny to know how many burpees I do in a year. I’m going to track how many martial arts classes I attend, and I’m going to track how many speeches I give. A big one is that I’m going to track how many news articles I read, because that trend line should be going down. I’m also going to track my daily word count. A whole page of metrics! If I make a project of it I’m more likely to catch everything.
Quest: My quest this year is to pursue a Sleep Project and figure out how to get more and better-quality sleep. I’m enlisting the assistance of my husband, who is willing to apply astrophysics-level mathematical analysis to my metrics, just as he did to help me finally reach my goal weight.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. Did I just say that out loud?
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area
Couples: Meal prep
Stop Goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle Upgrades: New desktop computer
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
Read this book even if you have no particular curiosity around the practice of bullet journaling. Read The Bullet Journal Method, because it happens to be one of the greatest productivity books ever written. Ryder Carroll makes a truly compelling case for why Getting Organized can be so transformative for so many people, whether their struggles are with attention deficit, PTSD, or, memorably, talking to emergency medical responders while a child is having a seizure. This book has so much to offer that the artistic aspects are really just a side bonus.
I use a paper day planner with bullet journal techniques even though I also use a tablet and a smartphone. Writing longhand really does work to help focus, think clearly, and remember details. Another benefit that Carroll describes is differentiating between our memories of what happened and what actually happened; we may have positive memories of something negative and vice versa. Writing down accurate details can help us see the truth that a job or relationship isn’t going quite the way we thought it was. This is why a written journal is so instrumental in spotting patterns and deciphering mysterious health problems.
Part of the practice of bullet journaling is the daily reflection. Carroll points out that it’s better to spend even one minute a day on this, as long as it’s done every day, because that is more valuable than longer but more sporadic sessions. He says he usually spends 5-15 minutes per daily session, and I can back this up. With a clear system in place, it takes very little time to maintain. More, it becomes a pleasure, even a stolen thrill, rather than a chore. This is where the beautiful artwork and hand-lettering of so many BuJo aficionados begins, because it’s a treat we give ourselves.
Productivity is all about gamification, or how we choose the metrics that will measure our success. Carroll includes some very interesting ways to gamify goals, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Set some goals for five years, four months, three weeks, two days, and one hour). He also teaches Agile methods, Sprints, and the Five Whys, which transfer readily between the home and the workplace: my husband relies on this system as an aerospace engineer, and we use it in our marriage as well.
The examples of problem-solving that come up in The Bullet Journal Method say everything about how universally useful it is. Everything from how to plan a vacation to I CAN’T PAY RENT is in here somewhere. Carroll writes lucidly about self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and all those catchphrases that seem so abstract, until we see how directly they apply to daily life. This is a remarkable book that far exceeds its remit, turning “productivity” into pure poetry about how to live life well, even amid the massive jumble of it all.
Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
Often all it takes to live intentionally is to pause before you proceed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.
News junkies like myself often have a lot of trouble constraining our news consumption. That’s because the news cycle has been deliberately designed to hook users. It sells advertising and bumps up ratings. (“Ratings” as defined by number of viewers or readers, not by quality the way we rate other products). Constant news engagement is stressful and often pointless, since it’s planned around program schedules rather than merit or relevance. There’s a better way to stay informed. More books, less news, might be the answer to reclaiming some perspective and mental bandwidth.
‘More books, less news’ is not the same as recommending a complete news blackout. Not at all! The premise is to limit news time to a pre-defined chunk of the day. This is much easier to do when the first priority is to read a book. Headlines can be fit in the time that’s left.
At some point during 2018, I realized that I had only been reading maybe half the number of books I did in the past several years. I knew exactly where my time had gone, and it made me disappointed with myself. Five years from now, I probably won’t remember how many versions of speculation and guesswork I read about the latest hurricane or whether various royals might be expanding their family. I probably will remember the novels and non-fiction books I chose instead. I can stay informed on current events without sacrificing my lifelong reading habit, as long as I keep my book nearby.
An extra hour of news consumption a day is likely to raise my blood pressure, give me a headache, or make me want to crawl into my closet and hide. An extra hour a day of long-form reading is likely to keep me both informed and relaxed.
Choosing the right book is key to this enterprise. Sometimes certain books can only be appreciated in the right mood, and other times a poor fit can stall a reader’s progress for weeks or months. Don’t feel obligated to finish a book that isn’t working for you. Maybe it will seem like the perfect choice a couple of months from now. Something suspenseful or funny may remind you just what it was that you always loved about reading.
Books have, dare I say it, a shelf life. I’ve found that buying too many books in advance can put me off ever cracking a certain cover. If a particular title has caught my attention, I like to use that curiosity to get me into the book right away. If I set a stack aside, I might not touch it again until the next time I pack up my bookshelves to move to a new place. When that happens, I might as well give up. What was once an enticing treat somehow becomes boring homework.
Some people are devoted re-readers. I am not one of those people. Every time I have re-read a book, I’ve found that it ruined my first impression and spoiled my memory. I’ve never liked a title as much the second time around. This is why my book collection continues to shrink, as I move more toward e-books and sell off the hard copies I have finished reading. I share this because anyone who does love reading the same book over and over will be so offended and protective of these cherished favorites that it might inspire a mass re-reading marathon.
Shared reading is something I enjoy very much. My husband will occasionally read a book with me, if it interests both of us, and he prefers hard copies. He does a lot of business travel and it’s a good habit for the long flights and the endless waiting. He has this bizarre habit of picking up a book and starting to read it the very day he brings it home. This keeps me on-trend, reading our shared books while they are still fresh enough in his mind that we can discuss them. (A point of contention in the past is that I would foist a book on him and then not get around to it for several years). These hard copies often get passed around at his work when we’re done. It can be really exciting to sit down to dinner with friends and find that everyone has just finished a book we have in common. Discussions about a book tend to be much more interesting, nuanced, and provocative than discussions about current events.
(Particularly when the discussion veers off into professional sports, and not everyone knows anything about that sport or those teams...)
Books are great in so many ways and so many formats. I like reading in dark mode while my hubby is sleeping next to me. I like reading a hardcover library book on the elliptical. I like reading an audiobook while I do the laundry or walk around town doing errands. I like reading in the comfy chair while my hubby stretches out on the couch, and our poor dog has to decide who has the snuggle token for the day. It’s one of the best things to do when daylight is scarce and the weather is icky.
Reading is contagious, like most social behaviors. When one person turns on the TV, all heads swivel toward it. When one person whips out a smartphone, everyone else uses the opportunity to do the same. When one person curls up with a book, somehow it looks so cozy that others want to join in. Then, when everyone is done, all that’s needed is to swap books and begin at the beginning again.
We could probably use more school bells, don’t you think? Once upon a time, a bell or buzzer sounded at the end of each class period, and you got to get up and leave. No more math problems, no more P.E., at least for that day.
Sometimes it would be nice to have a bell go off to get you out of traffic or boring conversations.
On the other hand, there’s a built-in end to nice things, too. Whether you want the bell to ring or not, sometimes it’s time to get out of the bathtub or quit licking the ice cream spoon. Or both; I don’t know your life.
Accepting these natural rhythms is part of living a full life. It’s also a big part of living in the time dimension, figuring out how to get to places and get things done without all the extra stress, strain and confusion of being late and disorganized. It’s time to go. The bell has rung.
This phrase can be a big help in shifting paradigms. Those of us who don’t work well in the time dimension tend to get into the zone and want to keep working on one thing as long as we can. This is how we “lose track of time.” We’ve stepped right out of the river, so of course we can’t feel time flowing on the way that everyone else seems to. Even when we use alarms and reminders and alerts, they don’t always solve the problem, because it’s still up to us to estimate when those alerts need to go off.
When the bell has rung, it’s time to quit doing what you’re doing and move down the hall. There’s something else that needs your attention, something else that you’ve chosen as a part of your day. You’ll be back again soon enough, maybe even tomorrow.
This is a transition that feels familiar and natural. It divides the workday/school day into equal units of time with established breaks. A lot of us were more comfortable in school, when we knew what the expectations were and we knew how to get those A’s. Others feel like we’d like another bite at that apple and we know we’d get better grades this time around. We can take consolation in the fact that in many ways, the working world is easier and less time-consuming than school.
Just like we probably don’t think about the academic work of third grade too often anymore, we can look at this time in our lives as just one grade level. This is just one level, not as interesting as future levels still to come. We’re learning and preparing for the next level, and in retrospect this one will feel a little too basic and uninspiring.
Looking at time like part of a school year also fits well into sprints. We can structure our projects by quarter or semester, we can set milestones like we had with exams and papers, and we can even build in extended breaks and vacations. This works just as well for athletic training as it does for art projects, writing, marketing campaigns, space clearing, landscaping, interior design, and self-directed educational projects.
As a runner, I had to learn to accept that if I try to run for distance all year, inevitably I will wind up on the couch, swearing at my ice massage cups. Every year, 80% of runners are sidelined at least temporarily by injury. It pays to plan around an off-season and to cross train. Burnout applies to everyone, everywhere. Push too hard on your goals without a break, and you’ll develop frustrating health problems. Train sensibly, and you start racking up the PRs.
Seasons are great for ambition when we can put our goals in the context of an otherwise long timeline. Yes, I’m training hard for a belt promotion in martial arts, and no, that doesn’t mean I will immediately lose interest next week. There’s just another belt, another symbol of advanced knowledge, effort, and ability. A goal without the context of a timeline is a lonely goal, a goal that probably never will be beat. It’s a snapshot when a movie would be more interesting. The bell has rung, the match is over, the scores are largely irrelevant because we’ll be hitting the mats again on Monday.
In this context, the ringing of the bell is nothing more than a marker.
In the classroom, we might be studying something incredibly absorbing, yet still have a bad class period. Maybe we can’t focus because we didn’t get any sleep, we’re fighting the flu (in which case, GO HOME), or that just wasn’t the best organized lecture. That doesn’t mean we don’t love the class and it doesn’t mean we’ll walk away with a bad grade. Maybe we still get that A. Maybe we continue to be absorbed by that topic for our entire lives. We can accept that today was a write-off and that the bell has rung.
This phrase has been a big help for me as I learn how to navigate in this, this most unfamiliar and awkward Time Dimension. It’s how I get so much done: three projects that I put out five days a week, including a newsletter, a blog, and a podcast; martial arts training; working on my Distinguished Toastmaster credential and supervising five clubs; coaching; travel; my main writing projects. Work on one until the bell has rung. Switch projects until the bell has rung again. Even when I’m writing hot and I don’t want to quit, I remind myself that the bell has rung and my other projects will suffer if I don’t pick up my books and shuffle out.
The bell is about to ring on another calendar year. This is a massively important time in my personal year, a time when I focus on how my life and my relationships and my work and my finances are going. I accept that whatever I did or did not manage to do, this year will soon be gone. It’s going to be rolled away and stored. Anything I want to happen in my life will now have to happen Next Year.
The bell has rung. It’s time to put things behind us and move on.
Make two columns. On the right-hand side, write the things you enjoy the most. In my case, that would be sleeping in, hanging around in my pajamas reading and playing with my phone, playing board games with my family, and cooking and eating legendary meals. Now, in the left-hand column, write the things you find most annoying. In my case, again, those would be driving in traffic, looking for parking, waiting in line, being accosted by aggressive kiosk salespeople, going outside in cold and wet weather, having to smell a mix of strong perfumes, and leaf blowers. All but one of those are included in the typical Black Friday shopping trip. By a bizarre coincidence, I can avoid them AND indulge in my favorite things AT THE SAME TIME just by staying home!
That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop there. I’ve already begun my annual shopping sabbatical, and it will continue until the New Year.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I keep adding more to my list every year. My sabbatical keeps getting longer and longer as well.
One, I despise feeling pressured to shop or spend money or buy things. I find it rude. No, you’re not going to tell me how to spend my time. No, you’re not going to tell me what colors I’ll be wearing for the next few months. No, you’re not going to succeed by using peer pressure to make me act or dress or eat or spend in a certain way. Cretins.
Two, I loathe Christmas music with every fiber of my being. I can’t even begin to say how much it drives me up the wall. Every year, stores start playing it earlier and earlier, and every year, as soon as I notice, I shrug and write off that store until January. I always ask, and they always say the directive comes down from corporate. I’ve tweeted or emailed Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about this, and Whole Foods is next. SCHTAAAAAAAPPP!
WHY should a one-day holiday (or give it twelve per tradition) be “celebrated” for two months or more every year? Why? If you want to do it at home, go right on ahead. Festoon your entire house in tinsel, wear green and red stripes, play carols on your headphones every single day, knock yourself out. But do you really need every inch of public space to do it as well?
Ahem. Back to my list.
Three, I work with clutter and chronic disorganization, and it just breaks my heart that this time of year always sets my people back so much. On one hand, they have all the stress and anxiety of upending their finances to try to buy appropriate gifts for everyone on their list. Compulsive accumulators have a lot of trouble setting boundaries around this behavior, and this season pushes all their buttons like nothing else. Also, they find themselves paralyzed by the thought of letting go of gifts, even if they were totally anonymous and unsuitable. I always find unopened gift bags among the unopened shopping bags. Everything will still be in the wrapper with all the tags still on, often three or four years later. We passed what should have been Peak Holiday Madness at least a decade ago and it doesn’t get any easier for my crowd.
Four, my family usually eats Thanksgiving dinner on Friday instead of Thursday. Like many families, at least one person works on the holiday and we’ve done it this way since the Eighties. What, we’re going to skip one of our few chances to play Scrabble together just to fight traffic in the rain? Just to save a hundred bucks? My family Thanksgiving Friday is worth a lot more than a hundred dollars to me.
Five, my husband and I have financial goals, and for a variety of reasons, doing a bunch of shopping and exchanging a lot of gifts does not fit in with them. We live in a studio apartment, so where are we going to put a bunch of extra stuff? We’ve also done pretty well with saving 40% of our income and trying to get ahead on our retirement strategy. No amount of sales or coupons is going to take priority over our carefully agreed-upon plans.
Six, it’s just a good idea to build breaks into the schedule. That should be every day, every week, and of course every year. I like to take a couple of weeks and sort through our entire place to take inventory. Every drawer, every cupboard, every closet, every pocket. What do we have, and why? Do we need to fix or replace anything? Is there anything we actually do need? (Earlier this year, one of our sets of sheets basically disintegrated after five years of heavy use). We go through our account statements and compare our plans to our actuals, meaning we want to make sure the reality of our spending matches what we wanted it to be. This is how we get better at financial forecasting every year, how we’re able to save so much, and how we’re able to plan great vacations. An extra $25 a week translates to a nice chunk of change in the annual vacation envelope!
Seven, my position is that New Year’s Eve is the best holiday of the year. My favorite day is New Year’s Day, when my entire home is clean and organized, all my loops are closed from the previous year, and I have a fresh start for a fresh year. December is my precious planning period, the time I use to think and daydream and envision how I can make the biggest splash with my one and only lifetime.
Rather than finishing off the year in a frenzy of shopping, driving, parking, waiting in line, cooking, cleaning, gift-wrapping, hosting, eating, and spending, I prefer something else. Winter is traditionally a time to wind down, get more sleep, and prepare for the year ahead. Of course I’ll still visit people, and do some holiday cooking, and of course I’ll always do my annual cleaning rituals. But I refuse to have my holiday and family time dictated by advertisers and major corporate brands.
Panic over routine events such as Thanksgiving is something that Future You can avoid, but only if Today You is willing to help. Do you think you can do that? It’s really pretty simple. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, make a note. Figure out a way to send some kind of reminder to Future You so you don’t find yourself in the same situation next year.
The last time I did this, it was summertime. There’s a weeklong event that my husband and I go to every year, and I notoriously always get myself wound up by overcommitting. I set a reminder on my phone for about a week before I will be packing for that trip. In the notes section, I wrote myself a little letter reminding Future Me of all the entirely predictable things I will inevitably try to do. Some of those things include: trying to do housework on the day we leave for the airport, trying to pack more books than I can read, and getting dehydrated. When I see the note, I’ll be surprised, because every time I do this I’ve forgotten all about it.
Sometimes I leave myself a voicemail, even though Today Me hates voicemail exactly as much as Past Me always has, and presumably Future Us does too. I’ll say, “Hi me, it’s me.” Blah blah blah. For some reason this never fails to crack me up, both while I record it and while I listen to it as a future iteration of myself.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is basically here. The next six weeks are going to be holiday madness. Nothing goes at the same speed, whether that’s traffic, shipping times, travel delays, or any line at any store or facility. Our stress levels go up at the same time that everything takes longer and gets more complicated. It’s the perfect recipe for a total emotional meltdown. That’s before adding in family visits, bad weather, a packed social calendar, and cold and flu season. The only things that can help are patience, better planning, or perhaps chocolate.
I am a bah humbug of the first water. I’ll just say that right now. The only things I enjoy about the winter holidays are eating a fabulous meal with my family, and knowing it’s time to start my New Year’s goal-setting extravaganza. Because I don’t like the color combination of green and red, because Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and because I object to the concept of a one-day holiday being stretched out over a minimum of two months, I tend to see the shady side of the season. My skepticism and many petty annoyances help me to plan like I would plan any other chore, say, a remodel or bathing my dog. Ugh, let’s just get through this the best way we can.
As a result, sometimes my cynicism is brightened by a genuine moment of kindness, friendship, or family togetherness. Aww.
For holiday junkies, though, all the anticipation of the sparkling lights and tinsel streudel or whatever the heck makes people live for December, well, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection. Being stuck in a slow line or getting a tired sales clerk seems not just ordinary but positively unholy. How dare you ruin my snow globe image! This is MY MONTH!
As the song says, The weather outside is frightful... let it go, let it go, let it go.
Anyway. Family are coming, people are going to start putting us on the spot by springing non-reciprocal gifts, materialistic pressures are going to start building, and things are going to get tense. Let that be the expectation. Let that reality sink in. Accept it, and plan around it, and maybe smooth out the rough parts.
Every time I have a less-than-ideal time, it tends to be a result of a poorly planned transition. It’s almost always me who is responsible, because my husband likes to be everywhere half an hour early (at least) and he has never bought into many of my weird guidelines and expectations. Whenever we go on a trip or have anyone come over, and I include the plumber who is here to fix the garbage disposal on this list, I feel this inner need to deep-clean our entire home from top to bottom. A maintenance person was here the other day to test our smoke detector, and I even cleaned out the fridge just in case. I have all these high hopes about entirely handmade dishes and vast, complicated menus. If I extended my food fantasies to interior design, floral arrangements, or gift wrap, I’d go around the bend. You know what isn’t festive? A hostess with bags under her eyes and a flour-coated shirt, trudging down the hall with a migraine, making the guests feel bad they ever came.
If you’re anything like me, or if you spend a lot of time looking at Pinterest, which I don’t because I pressure myself enough already as it is, you can have it one way or the other, but not both. Either lower your expectations and take some pressure off yourself, or extend your planning session further back in time next year. Add at least a day, preferably three, to what you consider “the season.” It might seem that adding time allows for raised standards as well, but it doesn’t, due to the planning fallacy. It’s simply human nature to be poor at guessing how long it takes to do things. Adding one more item multiplies the complexity.
I got rid of most of my holiday jitters by downsizing into a studio apartment. True, I have to travel a significant distance if I want to party with anybody. The advantage to that, though, is that the travel itself counts as a contribution, so anything I do to help cook or set up is a bonus. Because I’m in someone else’s home, I don’t feel responsible for the overall level of cleanliness, planning the menu, or staging the view of every room from every angle. It’s almost like... it’s almost like other people don’t really care that much about whether every single thing gets done?
The metric is joy. Almost all of joy consists of stepping out of the moment and forgetting all the background troubles and worries of daily life. The more of those concerns we can drop or discard, the closer we can get. Whenever we think about whether to take on a holiday project or chore or special dish, we can pause and ask, Is this going to give joy a chance, or is it going to make it less likely? There isn’t a complicated joy. Simple joy is the goal.
What day is it? What time is it? Were we going to do anything today?
One of the common traits of my people is the ability to live completely outside the Time Dimension. This is of course a good thing, as long as we can move back into the Time Dimension on demand. Most of my people struggle with this. As a result, we miss out on a lot. Too late, brunch is no longer being served. Too late to get seats together. Too late, sold out. Too late, already closed for the day. All of that can seem like a fair tradeoff if the reward is the perpetual and endless morning.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the endless morning is that it can be declared and perpetuated by an unlimited number of people. A single person living along can do it forever. An entire household of roommates can string it along from [early] to [late]. What’s more, a Time Dimension-oriented person is usually powerless to disrupt an endless morning. You can’t even do it with hand clapping or banging a spoon on a pot.
How do you do it? How do you create an endless morning?
The first step is to make it unclear whether you are up for the day or not. It is vital to maintain the possibility that some or all of the people present may be going back to bed at any time. It’s best when these sleeping segments are staggered. For instance, one person gets out of bed while someone else is asleep. Someone else gets up, and someone else goes back to bed. At some later point, when the last person gets up, the first person should be heading back for a nap.
Showering is another aspect of the endless morning, or, rather, the scheduling thereof. Everyone involved has an interior trigger that is programmed to wait to bathe until someone else bathes first. Thus, everyone is wearing pajamas, which is of course necessary to set up the infinite back-to-bed/nap loop.
Then there’s ‘breakfast’ or facsimile thereof. What do you call a meal if there are multiple people eating different foods at different time slots? What’s more relevant, the type of food or the time of day? Is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s French toast at 10 PM, or is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s cold pizza at 10 AM?
Also key to the endless morning is that time of day, meals, showers, and plans should be left as vague as possible. Nobody is to broach the topic or risk puncturing the endless morning.
I’m down for this, by the way. I have a pretty cozy, dozy image of myself dressed in squirrel pajamas and snuggled up with my phone for the duration. Far be it from me to be the ender of the previously endless morning.
As a frequent traveler, I encounter every type of household. Both my parents and my in-laws are early birds. My FIL has been retired for many years, yet he gets up at 5 AM, seven days a week, to have coffee with his friends at the grocery store cafe. When I visit this sort of home, I make sure to shower and dress as soon as I get up, because I’m usually last and everyone is waiting on me. I’m most likely to cook dinner in an early-bird home.
At the other extreme are my many endless morning friends. These are the homes where I’m more likely to be the one cooking breakfast. I like a big, fancy breakfast, and I’ll fix one for myself, but it takes a crowd before I’ll bother to do certain things like pancakes or desserts. To my way of thinking, if you’re the first one up on a weekend, you have three options. 1. Entertain yourself very quietly until others start to stir; 2. Wait until a decent hour and then cook breakfast, the aroma of which will wake everyone; or 3. Leave silently and come back at noon. At least one day a week of completely unstructured time is, I believe, a basic human right.
Endless mornings are great, am I right?
There’s a time and a place for everything, though. For instance, we don’t do endless mornings on vacation, because, well, we can do them for free at home. What’s the point of hanging around in a hotel room all day? We’re more likely to sleep in a bit, get a late breakfast, and then have endless pool time. I’m also a big fan of the two-hour vacation dinner.
Some of my friends have an endless morning basically every day. There are some telltale signs that go with this. Chronic sleep issues. Weight gain. Clutter. Why do they go together? After many years of investigating my own parasomnia disorder, I’m pretty sure that it has to do with hormone regulation. Not having a regular and predictable meal schedule disrupts hormones. This, in turn, disrupts sleep patterns, which is a vicious spiral. Lack of sleep and meal patterns means less predictable exposure to natural sunlight out of doors. That again contributes to further hormone disruption. My people tend to eat very late at night, especially right before bedtime, and this alone will lead to weight gain. The clutter, of course, comes from lack of systems in general. How do you know when it’s ‘time’ to do something (vacuum, laundry, meal prep, dishes) when there is no real ‘time’ for anything?
I’m writing this midway through a bad cold. In some ways, being sick is an endless morning, because you’re in bed in your pajamas. In other ways, it isn’t. My pets still need care, and believe me, nobody around here is going to let a mealtime pass by unnoticed. Having a dog brings a certain amount of natural daylight into the routine. I’m not going to punish Future Me, who is recovering nicely, with a pile of trash and laundry and dirty dishes. I can certainly still put dishes in the dishwasher and garbage in the trash can. The day I can’t manage five minutes of basic daily chores is the day I call the nurse hotline. More importantly, I’m still on the same meal schedule as any other day, and going to bed at the same time, even though I’m napping a lot. I put years of effort into syncing up all my physical systems, and I’m not letting that go without a fight. Mealtimes and bedtimes mean I can do my life without constant disruption from migraine and sleep problems.
I’m still a big respecter of the endless morning. I did one recently with a fancy breakfast for all. Then, when the nap dominoes started to topple, I had some nice private time to finish reading a novel and then play with my phone. It’s like living in a parallel universe, where you can see everyone else but they can’t see you. Being able to step in and out of the Time Dimension on demand is a minor and underrated super power.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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