Category Archives: about me

The Social Media Break

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my living room for a visit with two people. We talked… sort of. They both had their phones out, and their eyes were on the screens even when they were answering questions directed at them or offering distracted contributions to the conversation.

A few months ago, I’d have had mine out, too. It’s just kind of the way things seem to go these days. Even if we all start the evening with good intentions and our phones in our pockets, they come out as soon as there’s a question that could be googled (or someone gets a ping that says another conversation demands their attention, so everyone else gets theirs out, too, just to check). And then the devices don’t necessarily go away. There’s always another app to look at, a YouTube video everyone else just has to see while the phone is out, another response to that online conversation. A lot of us feel naked without our phones in our hands. Understimulated. Bored, even when we’re sitting with loved ones we haven’t seen in a month.

This post isn’t about criticizing anyone who’s committed to the always-online lifestyle. I get how appealing it is to have a constant source of (free!) entertainment. I know the pain of worrying about missing something.

And I’m not saying socializing online is bad. I have friends I’ve never met in person, but I consider those friendships as real as any I’ve had in real life. I credit social media with exposing me to a lot of ideas I’d never have considered if I was only experiencing life with the people who happened to live near me. A lot of us work or do our marketing online. Fairly important stuff, as it turns out.

Social media can be cool. I’m aware that Facebook is not, in fact, cool anymore. But neither am I, and it happens to be where my friends are. So that’s been my challenge.

And since I mentioned in a post a while back that I was taking some time away from it, I thought I’d share the results. (If you scroll back a little in my posts here, you’ll find that this wasn’t my first attempt. It has, however, been my most successful thus far.)

I didn’t track the results of this experiment like I am with my productivity stuff. It was just something I needed to do, and I did it (mostly). I didn’t like how much time I was wasting scrolling through my Facebook feed, refreshing it when I ran out of new things to look at. I knew while I was doing it that I was wasting time, that I’d be miserable after, that I should stop. That I wanted to stop. It didn’t matter. It was a thing that I did, one that occasionally rewarded me with an interesting (but almost always useless) hit of information or entertainment.

As Manoush Zomorodi notes in my current non-fiction read, Bored and Brilliant, “I wasn’t using my smartphone to connect. I was using it to escape.” We’re not talking about me using the service intentionally or productively for personal or business purposes. I was getting nothing out of it (except the pleasant little chemical blips in my brain when my efforts were rewarded with a comment or interaction). But it was there. So I was there, too, even though I knew it was bad for me.

Scary.

And then there’s Messenger. I always felt less guilty about spending time having conversations with friends than I did about mindless scrolling and reading, but my desire to always be available was hurting me. The fact that I was responding to every message right away was eating into work time. A lot.

And worse, I had my phone in hand when I was with the kids and they wanted my attention. I wasn’t neglecting them, but it was getting to the point where I was a little concerned that they might engrave just give me a second I’m talking to someone on my gravestone some day.

Now, I expect my family to respect the time and space I need when I’m working, reading, or doing something that’s important to me. I don’t want to raise kids who expect everyone to drop everything any time they want to talk about what Dan TDM is up to today. But I do want them to know that they’re more important than anything that comes through my phone, work-related or not. And when I’m with family or physically present friends, I don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of what I might be missing elsewhere.

Some of you probably know what I’m talking about, but obviously this isn’t a problem for everyone. You might be reading this and shaking your head, with words like willpower and self-control rattling around in your head because you have those things and I so clearly don’t. I’m not going to try to explain it.

Just know that I had a problem, I recognized that it was a problem, and I decided to do something about it.

Moderation isn’t my strong suit, so I went very nearly cold turkey off Facebook, only checking in occasionally with my reader group and posting once in a while to my author page. I deleted the app (not for the first time). I told friends that if I didn’t answer messages, it wasn’t because I was ignoring them. I just wasn’t checking my phone. I turned off messaging on my author page because a) the system is glitchy anyway, and b) my email address is readily available on my website if anyone really needs to reach me.

I was already in the habit of not keeping my phone in the bedroom. I had an alarm clock radio to wake me up, which meant that checking my phone was no longer the first thing I did every day. I’d seen the benefits of postponing that kind of distraction, even if some days that only meant delaying it until I got downstairs and gave in to the urge to check for notifications. Oh, and I’d turned off sound/vibration notifications for Messenger and incoming emails a while back, too.*

So what happened when I really tried to kick the habit, left my phone plugged in most of the time, and started going up to a week without visiting Facebook?

I started finding 99+ notifications when I did drop by Facebook, and found that almost none of them were anything I actually needed to click on. But when I was on there all the time, I’d have spent a lot of time clicking, anyway.

I missed out on finding out that my mom got a new car. And then she told me in an actual conversation. So that was cool.

I stopped checking in with author groups that are full of information I feel like I should know, but that I never use. So yes, I’ve learned less. I’ve also wasted less time learning stuff I won’t use, and I know where to find that information when I decide I do want to use it.**

I stopped feeling anxious when other people seem to be doing, being, and achieving more than me. I settled into my own goals and my current focus on writing, and I let go of my panic over all the promotion everyone else seems to be doing. For the first time in ages, doing my personal best started to feel like enough.

I realized that most of the people I interact with online aren’t really my friends. Those interactions of convenience are really fun, and I genuinely like a lot of those acquaintances. They’re funny and insightful and inspiring when I bump into them. But me dropping off their radar hasn’t made any impact on their lives, and not getting their news hasn’t hurt mine. I’m a lot less lonely than I thought I’d be without them.

I kept in touch with the people who really are my friends and those who made the effort to message me directly, but spent less time disagreeing with strangers and getting pissed off by posts from people I don’t really care about (but who nonetheless get under my skin). My stress levels dropped accordingly.

I had online conversations when it made sense in my schedule, when I wasn’t supposed to be working and when real life people didn’t need my attention. When I could give those online friends the attention that they deserved.

I started paying more attention when I watched TV and movies, and was actually there with the people I was watching them with.

I saw fewer ads for stuff I don’t need and suffered through less of that horrible feeling I get when I realize how targeted Facebook’s ads really are (don’t even get me started on how damn creepy that gets).

I missed Stephen King’s birthday. There’s no up-side to that, except that I’m 100% sure he’s not personally offended by me not posting about it.

I started reading more. Instead of having my phone in my hand while I cooked or when I relaxed after supper, I had a book handy. I started choosing nonfiction books on random topics that caught my attention and found that going deep in a topic in book form was way more satisfying than getting the Cliffs Notes version from a short article.

I started being a little more present in my own life. That night when my companions both had their phones in their hands and the conversation fell into regular lulls as they read posts or had other conversations, I enjoyed the cat who had plopped himself on my lap. I paid attention to how soft his fur was, tickled his little pink toe beans,  and tried to figure out how he managed to be solid and liquid at the same time, oozing into every little space between me and the chair. (I decided that his variable physical state had something to do with the constant vibrations coming from his throat. Or that he’s actually some sort of fuzzy amoeba.)

I stopped losing track of time so often. And I got a little more of my crap done.

And I realized that the things I do are real and important even if I don’t share them with everyone I know. Crazy.

That’s not to say I’m some kind of mindfulness devotee now. I’m still highly distractible, especially when there’s work to be done. Meditation frustrates me. If I’m sitting still, my brain’s working at top speed. My memory is still crap. I have trouble getting to work (though cutting out a few potential distractions has been very helpful). I’m still constantly searching for any kind of mental stimulation, and reading has picked up a lot of the slack that the Facebook void created.

That last sentence might look like six of one and half a dozen of the other, but I’m enjoying seeking out information that interests me instead of accepting whatever happens to be presented. Who knew cannibalism was so fascinating?!*** And yes, I’m missing out on a lot of current events-type news. But I’m learning to say, “No, I didn’t know, can you tell me more?” when someone asks “Hey, did you hear about…?” And that leads to a conversation, and to something I can find information about from sources I trust. So that’s kind of cool on both fronts.

It feels like more of my mental energy is going into ideas now. I’m daydreaming more. Noticing more. I’m thinking about story problems instead of reaching for the nearest distraction to numb my pain when I hit a speedbump in my draft…

…Sometimes. The temptation to just shove the problem aside and go read an unrelated book or write a blog post will likely never go away, and I’m starting to accept that it will always be a struggle.

The first few weeks were hard, but I was actually surprised by how quickly checking on my Facebook group turned into something I put off because I didn’t want to face the stressful information flood of my timeline and useless notifications. I’m actually way behind on posting there. Sorry, guys. (Side note: They’re an amazing bunch of people. I can’t quit them.)

So yeah. Taking time away from Facebook (and Twitter, which I never really liked anyway) has absolutely been beneficial for me. I feel less scattered, and more in control. I like the fact that I’m reading more. I like that I’m not saying just a second every time a member of my family wants to talk to me, and I’m so much calmer when I’m not reading a steady stream of opinions, complaints, and pointless arguments every day.

Is it sustainable? Probably not on a professional level. Being discoverable is kind of essential if I want to meet people who might want to buy my books. There is information out there that I need, and I’ve always liked picking up ideas from unexpected sources. I likely wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the people I happened to meet online when I was in the right place at the right time. I’m missing out on learning what other authors are doing to promote their work and on making connections with people who I might be able to help some day. I’ve likely gone too far into Full Hermit mode, and the pendulum needs to swing back a bit so I don’t become totally closed off and clueless.

But on a personal level?

Yeah. I actually think I’ll stay away for a while longer. And then I’ll creep back slowly. I’ll leave groups and unfollow people who aren’t really adding anything to my online experience. I’ll try to start getting photos printed for myself instead of just posting them for everyone else. I’ll focus on making sure that when I do post, it’s adding something positive to someone else’s newsfeed.

And I’ll limit my time. Instead of setting one day a week or a few hours a day aside as social media-free, I’ll only be on there for a set amount of time. I’ll use that time to make it work for me, and I’ll do my best to remember that my phone is my tool, not my master.

I mean, I’ll try.

It’s all I can do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some kitty cat toe beans to tickle.

 


 

*I highly recommend both of these ideas if you’re interested in cutting back on social media distractions. Having a bit of clear mental space in the morning helps me remember that exposing myself to the quicksand flood of newsfeeds and tweets is a choice, not a foregone conclusion, and it makes me think about the real world first. It also means my phone screen isn’t the last thing I see before I go to sleep. And turning off notifications means that I choose when I get messages. They can’t distract me from my work or whatever else I’m doing unless I let them. For me, setting those boundaries is in and of itself powerful.

**By which time all of the information I’m not learning now will be obsolete anyway. Another note: Checking in with these groups actually feels like work now. I’m at least temporarily off the obsessive treadmill of constantly needing to keep up with information. Whether that will be a good thing in the long run, I have no idea. But I am spending more time actually writing books.

***Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt. So entertaining. Really.

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The Sticky Stuff

I’ve tried a lot of productivity methods and planners that didn’t work out for me. Here are a few things that have helped. None of them work perfectly or keep me on track all of the time, but they’ve made a huge difference nonetheless. If you have questions or would like to see a separate post on any of them, please let me know!

  • Goal setting. Even if I don’t always hit my deadlines, knowing what I want to accomplish and how/when I intend to get there is the biggest idea that’s helped me in my work. I set goals for finishing books, set 90 day goals for work and home projects, and choose my top three goals for every week and every day.
  • Prioritizing. This connects to those top three daily tasks. By writing down what I’d want to accomplish even if nothing else got done, I remind myself what my priorities are and how I should be spending my time.
  • Weekly planning. Having a nice quality planner that I can decorate (or not) as the mood strikes me makes me want to use it. And taking time on Sundays to get a bird’s eye view of the week ahead helps prevent surprises and crises along the way because I know what’s coming and what I need to accommodate for. I plan meals for the week, too, so I’m not running to the store/scrambling to figure out what to eat/saying “screw it, let’s get McDonald’s” too often.
  • My bullet journal. I’ve tried other daily and weekly planners, and use a pre-printed weekly planner for family stuff. But for my personal needs, nothing beats a blank dot-grid notebook. It holds my long-term goals, project notes, ideas, reference pages for everything from school schedules to clothing sizes, weekly review notes, reading lists, brain dumps, reading notes, monthly/weekly/daily plans… it’s my brain on paper, basically, allowing me to externalize a lot of the things that I’d otherwise forget or be distracted by as I tried to juggle them all in my mind. My daily pages have space for my top 3 tasks, a reminder of the larger goals I’m working toward, to do list (with unfinished tasks migrated to the next day so I don’t lose them), my desired vs actual schedule, notes, and gratitude lists. Weeks include the meal plan, grocery list, goals, a look at next week’s events, and “to do” items I want to transfer to my days. And if I need it to do something else for me, I just create a new page for it or change my week/day’s layout.
  • Figuring out where analogue and digital work best for me. Planning apps, whether it’s iCal for scheduling or Scapple for brainstorming, just don’t work for me. I plan and brainstorm best with a pen in hand and pages I can flip back through, make charts on, doodle all over, and connect with on a physical level. I find that for me electronic notes seem to get lost or forgotten easily, and I find it harder to see connections between unrelated items in separate electronic documents than I do when they’re on physical pages. I remember things better when I mark them down in my own handwriting, and just reading them back in that format often jogs additional ideas that weren’t quite there yet when I made the note. BUT. I don’t draft on paper. Trying to do so drives me batty. I need to type so my hands have a chance of keeping up with my brain, so I can rework sentences as I’m writing them (just part of my personal process), and so I can easily search for previous scenes and information (GOD BLESS SCRIVENER xo). I plan my scenes on paper, then write them on my laptop. (Note: when I keep a journal, it’s on paper. And quickly turns into a bit of a scrapbook stuffed with movie tickets, candy bar wrappers, and movie tickets. It’s hard to do that in an app. I should get back to it some day…)21886923_10155476411810325_826380582_o
  • Limiting social media time and access. Social media is a problem for me. I can lose hours scrolling and clicking on Buzzfeed lists only to discover later that I gained nothing from that time except maybe a headache from staring at the screen, but the temptation to “just take a quick look” can be unbearable. I mean, come on. There are Ten Things I Don’t Know About David Hasselhoff’s Bellybutton? Click. It goes beyond simple willpower and self-control, and I’m aware that it’s not healthy. I try not to carry my phone around with me. I removed the Facebook app from my phone to make access at least a little less convenient. And I try not to let myself post until my work is done for the day, as the temptation to check for notifications is far worse after I do. Social media can be great if you like what you get out of it. For me, the costs aren’t worth the rewards on most sites, so I’m limiting my time. Side note: I am reading SO MUCH MORE now that scrolling’s not an option! Still in kind of a fiction slump, but good HEAVENS am I finding some interesting non-fiction…and none of it about the Hoff’s navel.
  • Daily exercise, ideally outdoors. I realized the importance of this several years ago. It has a huge impact on my mood and mental health as well as my physical condition. Taking forty minutes or an hour out of the day seems counter-productive in terms of getting work done, but I’m not bringing my best self to the office if I don’t get physical activity and fresh air into my day. It’s also a great time to let my mind wander–and if I don’t get that, I feel like a shaken-up soda bottle that’ll explode at any second. I need the release valve.

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    I have extra motivation to get out. This is the face that follows me EVERYWHERE until he gets his walk.

  • Having a routine. This isn’t important for everyone, but as it turns out, it is for me. A routine means I’m working consistently, not waiting on inspiration or a time when I feel like working (which honestly never happens). It also means I’m not using my mental energy and willpower on deciding what to do next. I know what to expect and what to prepare for. I know where my brain needs to be focused, so even when it’s difficult I’m a little less inclined to give up and do something easier. It also helps me remember to do routine tasks that I might otherwise forget, like feeding the dog (right after he goes out in the morning) or watering my plants (Tuesdays, with apologies to those who died in my pre-routine days). Summer vacation was a great reminder for me of two things: how great my kids are, and how desperately I need the routine that school provides for all of us. That said, I’ve learned that scheduling every hour of every day also doesn’t work for me. It’s too much pressure, and I instinctively fight against it. It works for a lot of people, though, so don’t write it off if you haven’t tried it.
  • Working in my office. Interruptions are my kryptonite. I can’t wrangle my brain into a focused state if I anticipate visitors, deliveries, or people talking to me when I’m trying to put ideas on paper. Like, it’s insane how my mind clutches its pearls and reaches for the smelling salts at the idea of distractions…. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because it takes me so long to get into that focused state that my brain knows it’s wasting its energy if it fights that good fight only to have to start over because MOM WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR SUPPER*. Not so stupid after all, maybe, even if it doesn’t help me much when I have 30 minutes to work and can’t get anything done. In either case, once I do get focused, I become quite irritable if I’m interrupted for any reason. So the best plan for me is to stick a Do Not Disturb sign on the office door and close that door, physically marking a separate time and space for focus.**
  • Writing down distractions as they pop up. Whether they go into my bullet journal or onto a post-it note, I write down every idea that threatens to derail me. Need to call the school about that thing? Write it down, do it later. Missed a birthday? Whoopsie-doodle, better make a note to get in touch with them later. Forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer? It’ll still be there when this work sprint is over. Writing it all down means it’s not taking up memory/mental processing space, and putting it somewhere visible takes away the worry that I’ll forget it. And if it’s a fun idea, I can use it as a reward and take care of it on my next break. WOOHOO LAUNDRY YASSSSS!
  • Sorting out my values. This is a huge, ongoing thing for me, but it’s making a difference in how I do everything. It’s easy to accept other people’s definitions of success and ideas of what a good life looks like, but if they don’t align with your personal values, they’re going to lead you to making choices that either don’t motivate you or make you miserable. Making a six-figure income is a pretty standard definition of success, and you can find loads of books, podcasts, and advice on how to do that as an author… but for me it would require changes in my life that I’m not ready to make. You can also find a lot of books/podcasts/posts on how to crank out more stories, faster. A fine goal, but what excites me is immersing myself in my stories and characters in ways I can’t manage if I’m rushing them out the door. I can’t have both at the moment, so for now I choose to go deep instead of wide. Hitting the NYT bestseller list is an amazing achievement, but it requires investment of money and promotion time that I’m choosing to spend on other things. My values and needs aren’t better or worse than anyone’s who chooses those other goals. As long as we’re both excited by what we’re doing and not hurting anyone in the process, we’re both successful. But if I chased their goals or they felt forced into my idea of a balanced life, we’d be miserable. Taking time to make a conscious choice about this has alleviated a lot of stress for me. It’s something I’ll have to keep coming back to (I’ll likely want to focus more on commercial success after the kids are out of the house, or maybe travel and new experiences will become a new value), but knowing what I want right now makes it easier to say no to things that don’t align with those values. And I hope that in the long run it will help me stop comparing my achievements to other people’s. (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is a great place to start looking at this if you want a fun, irreverent read that contains a ton of f-bombs and a lot of interesting ideas about pain, choices, and values. The audiobook version is excellent, too, though NSFW.)
  • Getting enough sleep. It’s not always good sleep, but I aim for 7.5 to 8 hours in bed a night. I limit caffeine intake after about 2:00 in the afternoon and try to stay off my computer/phone/tablet for an hour before bed***. I’ve had some bad experiences with non-restorative sleep and with loss of sleep time because of work or babies. I have no intention of going back to that kind of exhaustion if I can avoid it. My brain might screw up a lot on a good day, but it’s nothing compared to days when I’m sleep deprived. I’m having trouble with sleep quality these days, but at least I can try to control the quantity.

That’s about it, I guess. Some of it’s practical, some of it’s a bit more ephemeral, but it all works for me. And these are things I won’t be changing during this experiment (unless I have to to test something else out).

I should note that none of this turns me into a productivity machine. No matter how well I plan and prioritize my day, my brain will try to keep me away from writing, and making myself focus will be at best frustrating and at worst painful. I will likely never find a trick, a drug, an idea, or a coach that can turn me into an eight-hours-and-ten-thousand-words-a-day writer.

But at least I’m going into battle prepared, and I’m getting a lot more done than I used to.

If you’ve got thoughts on what helps you get stuff done, go ahead and leave them in the comments! We’ll take a deeper look at what’s happened since I cut down on social media in a future post, plus anything else that seems relevant to the experiment.

Next week: The results of week one of the Godawful Early Schedule. Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN…


 

*Answer: It doesn’t matter, just eat it.

**I haven’t always had an office door I could close. Before we moved to this house two years ago, I didn’t. I tried working at a desk in the living room, but you can imagine how that went. I ended up constructing a makeshift office space in the basement out of stacks of plastic storage bins, boxes, and pet carriers, with a sheet strung up for the door and my upstairs desk hauled down to serve me there. It wasn’t paradise, but for the first time I had my own space. It made a real difference.

***I’m running into a problem with this now that I’ve figured out how to borrow library ebooks. I’m like a kid in a candy store, reading a lot… but I can’t transfer most titles from the app to my Kindle Paperwhite, so I’m actually reading from a tablet before bed some nights. CURSE YOU, CANDY STORE.

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Attraction, Inspiration, and Crap I Found on the Road

Here’s the weirdest thing I’m willing to tell you about myself: I collect stuff off the street. Metal stuff, mostly, that looks like it fell off a vehicle.

It’s not as weird as it… okay, it is, but I can explain. I walk a lot. Like, almost every day, weather and health permitting. In the summer I have a lovely local boardwalk around a pond I can visit. And if I’m in the mood for treasure hunting, there’s a rocky beach not far away where I can find sea glass handmade by the ocean from the beer bottles people toss off of the nearby scenic lookout.

But winter means wandering the streets. Not much to see there.

Except that one day I noticed a ball bearing at my feet. I picked it up thinking one of my kids would find it cool. Trucks are kind of his thing.

And I liked it. It felt nifty in my hand. Really smooth and heavy and different.

So I kept it, and decided it would be fun to keep my eyes open for more (while trying not to worry about whatever vehicles were shedding these things around town). Sort of like wandering the beach looking for sea glass and shells, but more casual.

…And with more potential judgement from passing drivers who saw me bending over to pick up dirty metal garbage, but whatever. I have zero reputation to maintain, as far as I know.

Long story short, once I started looking, I started seeing. A lot of it was stuff I definitely didn’t want. Plastic bits (I mean, please, I DO have standards). Other crap that blew out of someone’s trash bags on garbage day.*

But I sometimes find what I’m looking for.

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I mean, not to brag, but guys? I’m kinda the Little Mermaid of crap that fell off of poorly-maintained vehicles. You want thingamabobs? I’ve got… well, three, but I’m getting more. Soon.

There is a point to all of this.

The thing is, I never saw any of this stuff lying around before I started paying attention to it. Just like how I rarely found sand dollars on the beach in Nova Scotia until I decided my prize was there if I kept my eyes open. After that, it was rare that I didn’t go home with at least one.

Same with sea glass.

Same with inspiration.

There was a time when I clung tight to the one story idea I had because I thought it was all I was ever going to get. This was THE THING. The story I had to make absolutely perfect because there was no guarantee that the well went deeper than this. I was miserly. I gave up frequently because the one perfect idea in my head never came out right on paper, and OH GOD WHAT IF I BREAK IT?!

Now? Now I believe ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be spotted. I don’t expect them to be served to me on a silver platter, though sometimes they are.** But I trust that if I keep my eyes open, if I believe inspiration is out there, my brain is capable of taking two random things I’ve seen and making something brilliant out of them.

Or something that’s the equivalent of plastic crap, but the point is that the treasures are out there. But I will never see them if I don’t walk around with my eyes and my mind open, believing they’re there.

I worry less about taking a chance and messing up, because there’s more.

I think this applies to a lot of other things in life, too. Like opportunities. Now, big opportunities are more frequent and easier to accept for some people than others, no question. Different people will have different doors opening for us, and not everyone gets kicked out of the nest with a great education or a “small” loan from his or her parents or a rolodex full of high-rolling contacts. But we all make choices that affect us, and we will have some kind of opportunity for something. But will we see it if we have our eyes closed, expecting nothing good come to us? Or worse, if we believe we don’t deserve opportunities?

I’m guilty of that one, and I’ve likely overlooked a lot of chances for success because I thought they weren’t meant for someone like me. But the times when I have believed in myself and been open to opportunity–to saying no to agents and publishers and going it alone, for example, or to joining in on a *shudder* group project with other amazing authors–have been very rewarding.

And if I believe that I don’t only get one shot, that success is not my only motherf*$%in’ option (contrary to what Eminem might preach in that one very catchy tune) because I will see other opportunities, I can relax about messing up, take more chances, and dream bigger.

Or luck. If I believe I’m lucky and define luck as finding ball bearings on the street, look how lucky I am! If I believe I’m unlucky and won’t find any, I suspect the odds of me seeing them drop significantly. I just won’t be looking for them if I don’t believe I’m lucky enough to have them appear in my path.

What if I broadened my definition of luck? What if I embraced it and didn’t feel guilty about believing I’m lucky/smart/observant/whatever word I choose for it, and really stayed open to what might be out there?

I don’t know a lot about this law of attraction and manifestation stuff so many of my online acquaintances talk about all the time. Do I think the universe is a big genie waiting to grant my wishes if only I focus hard enough on what I want? Do I think opportunity and inspiration and luck and MASSIVE WEALTH spontaneously appear because I desire them enough?

Not really, no.

BUT.

I do see the underlying, practical logic of it. The psychology of it, maybe. If I focus on the good things in my life, if I’m grateful for what I have, I’m going to be more aware of them. Kind of like how you never notice blue Volkswagens until you buy one, and then they’re everywhere. They were there all along. You didn’t call them into being because you were thinking about them. You simply see what you’re paying attention to.

Inspiration.

Opportunities.

Luck.

Metal crap on the street, man.

So no, I’m not going all woo-woo mystical and trying to like… vibrate… or whatever it is. But I think, thanks to a ball bearing I almost kicked into the gutter a few months ago, that I kind of get it.

Good things are out there. Utter crap is out there, too, if we’re being honest. But I’m trying really hard to stay focused on the good.

Because what I focus on is what I see. It’s what I get more of.

I’m just keeping my eyes open.

——

*Though true story, I once saw an empty Vienna sausage can in a snowbank and sincerely hoped–and still hope–that my mental image of some guy wandering down main street casually sucking tiny processed meat sticks directly from the can as he strolled along and then tossing the garbage aside is accurate. It could happen.

**In bed, once. You can’t beat that kind of service.

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Beautiful Mess

Completely non-shocking confession: I’m a perfectionist.

I want everything I do to be perfect on the first try. Right away. Because something deep inside me thinks that if I’m not magically gifted at something, I shouldn’t try.

Now, I am also fully aware that this is BS, and I’m fighting it. It’s a stubborn mindset, though.

But I’m trying to change the way I look at risks, messes, and mistakes. Because sometimes? Sometimes you have to make a huge mess before you can create something beautiful, and you have to take a risk to get a reward.

I’m thinking about this today because I got my hair done. Well… half-done. It was getting dull after over a year of purple dye, and I wanted a fresh start from root to tip so I could get back to something brighter.

But do you know what happens when you bleach hair that’s been purple for 17 months?

Highlighter pink, that’s what happens.

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I mean, I think it’s kind of fun, but it’s not the end result I’m going for. The point is, this little OMG this is not what I want what have I done mess is a step toward what I do want. A necessary step.

I couldn’t get what I want if I didn’t move through the mess.

(And honestly, I’m now considering going berry pink for a while before I return to the Land of Purple. Sometimes messes aren’t so bad.)

Hair is a tiny thing, but it reminds me of a whole lot of bigger stuff.

First drafts can be like this, too. I can plan everything and still make a mess of it when my fingers hit the keyboard. That happened to me not too long ago, when I got to the mid-point of a book I was SUPER excited to write and realized it just wasn’t working.

I could have called it a failure and walked away. But my mess showed me what, exactly, wasn’t working. And when I had a consultation call with my wonderful editor last night, I was able to talk through those problems. Now I can’t wait to get back to it and start over (though I do have some other stuff going on with that whole urban fantasy pen name thing…)

Life can be like that, too.

I’m working through a few medical issues right now that are kind of hit-or-miss with medications. We try stuff, maybe it works, maybe I feel like crap for a month while we wait to see whether I’ll adjust to it, maybe we try something else.

While this is going on, my productivity is lower than it would normally be. It sucks. I panic and want to stop trying. I get sick of feeling sick. I want to give up. But I’m taking a chance, hoping that getting through this mess will mean things will be so much brighter on the other side that it will be worth slogging through the side-effect circus.

I’m making a mess so I can make it better, tearing down walls instead of just wallpapering over the cracks, making a mess so I can rebuild something solid instead of settling for a cosmetic cover-up.

And whether it’s did you mean to do that?! pink hair, stress-inducing dead ends on projects, or just trying to get my *stuff* together in life, I’m trying to be okay with the mess. Not every step of every journey needs to be pretty or perfect, as long as I’m learning and growing and not stressing too much in the meantime.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to teach myself. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 


Squirrels Will Be Squirrels

…unless I can keep them in line.

Confession: I wrote the first four posts in this series on one of my fits of inspiration and hyper-focus. Just wrote ’em out while I had the interest. And now I have no idea what I was supposed to be doing here.

This is where notebooks come in handy, right? Looks like we were going to talk about habits/routines and how I use them to tame the squirrels… or rather, to get things done even when the thought-pigeons in my head are on a rampage.

Which is every day. Basically.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this one is that I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a really interesting book, one of those that I picked up from the library on a whim because it seemed like a tame pigeon, something I could get interested in and focused on for a few days. Really cool stuff about how our brains form habits, WHY they do so, and how we can use them to our advantage.

I’ll confess that I’m not much good at forming or breaking good habits. I’ll get into one for a few weeks and think it’s stuck, and then it’s gone again. We could take meditation as a recent example. I was in the habit of doing it every morning for 5-10 minutes, either on my own or (far better for me) with a guided program like HeadSpace or Buddhify (both available in the apple app store and possibly elsewhere). It was good. I wasn’t good AT it, and never felt like I was making progress, but it was a good exercise.

And then I lost the thread. I gave into the temptation to pick up my phone and check Facebook before I meditated, and that threw everything off one day.

And the next.

I’m really good at bad habits.

But it’s something that I’m working on, and there are habits and routines that really work for me. The key seems to be having the right cue. One that I absolutely can’t miss.

Sometimes having the task written in my bullet journal is enough. I have a section every day dedicated to a whole bunch of habits that I’ll forget about otherwise. If I complete them, I get the satisfaction of checking them off. If I don’t, I get reminded every time I look at that page.

(I used to have these habits on the weekly spread, but didn’t look there enough. Daily is so much better for me. Trial and error.)

Does it always work? Nope. I might look at my page in the morning, see that the kids need their vitamins, and then totally blank on that until I see it again after they’ve left for school. But it is slowly becoming a habit.

And I do still put things off. I write the litter box down every day, but it probably gets done every other day.

Sorry, cats.

But still. It beats waiting for the stench to become unbearable.

This way, the only thing I really have to remember is to check my bullet journal several times a day. And I’ve accepted my scatterbrain tendencies enough that I’m willing to accept that I need to do that. So it works.

Other habits have outside cues, and I’m really trying to develop those more. For example: Every morning, I have to let Jack out to pee. It’s not always first thing in the morning, but it does happen some time between 6:30 when I get up and 8:30 when I take the kids to school. I let him out, turn around, see his dish, and feed him his breakfast.

That’s not a conscious decision. That’s a habit. If I don’t do it then, if I override the habit and move the laundry over instead, the poor guy will not eat until supper time.

…And we can’t have that.

So I stick with it no matter what.

I’d love to say that seeing clutter around is a trigger for me to clean up, or that feeding Jack is in turn a trigger to put that laundry in, but it isn’t yet. I’m trying to get into the “if it will take less than a minute, do it now” mindset, but there’s always something else to grab my attention that’s so much more interesting than carrying a sweater upstairs. And even if I do start to sweep up the dog hair from the floor, odds are I’ll get distracted half-way through by another small task and do that before I grab the dustpan. It becomes an endless chain of unfinished tasks.

Progress is so slow, guys. But it’s happening.

Other things I’m doing to try to help me through the day:

Routines. I’m really fighting to try to get my brain to accept a standard routine. Some weeks it goes well, and it really pays off in terms of later productivity and me feeling like I have a solid start on the day. But no matter how great the rewards, I seem to keep slipping out of it. So I fight on. And it is getting better. I haven’t left packing lunches to the very last second once yet this school year! I mean, it’s only September, but still.

I’m going to keep trying for up-meditate-tea-breakfast-read-get boys up-make lunches before I pick up my phone. It’s a solid routine. I just need to make it a habit.

Preparation. If I have everything I need for a task, I’m less likely to get sidetracked when I go searching for it. Cleaning the bathroom? I’d better have the toilet cleaner, wipes, Windex, paper towels, and mop handy before I begin. It’s one less chance for squirrels to sneak in.

Making tasks appealing. Going back to my stationery snob tendencies here for a second, I’ll give you an example. For weeks I’ve been meaning to write down all of my notes on my new book series in one place, but kept putting it off. I had a notebook ready, but… well, it was fine, but not appealing. Not something that was a pleasure to write in. So yesterday I grabbed the Leuchtthurm1917 I won in an Instagram contest and started working. The paper is nice, and better yet, the pages lie flat so I don’t have to fight with them. I’m excited to use it. So I am. Same goes for buying laundry detergent I love the smell of (God bless Gain Apple Mango Tango) and making my office a place I want to spend time in. I reward myself with a wee spritz of a nice-yet-economical perfume when I’m focusing on work in my office.

So that’s kind of my take on routines and habits. My pigeons are still fluttering, but the more automatic I can make my actions, the less those foolish birds bother me while I’m making things happen.

Okay. I think next time we’re supposed to talk about my work time. That’s trickier. I’m struggling hard with that right now. But talking about it might help someone, so off we’ll go next week.

If I remember to draft it.😉


Are You Gonna Be My Squirrel?

Yeah. I’m just gonna throw “squirrel” into song titles for this series. I know I said my brain was all full of pigeons in the intro post, but… SQUIRREL.

For anyone jumping in here, I recommend reading that post. But if you don’t have the attention span for that (I hear you), here’s the gist: I have a hard time focusing, but I’ve found some ways of coping with HEY-LOOK-AT-THE-SHINY-THING brain that have allowed me to write and edit books and basically get my life together.

…at least, more than it’s ever been together before. Things like focusing on learning how to put an outfit together or do my makeup properly have never held my attention, and I’m not likely to ever have the extra mental energy I’d need to force it. But basically, I’m cool with where my introverted little life is right now, so I’m sharing.

First thing: Energy and physical health.

UGH, I know, right? Nobody wants to talk about this, but it’s been hugely important to me, and taking care of my physical health has been the foundation of everything else.

And I’m really just talking about one thing: exercise.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, I know. Hear me out.

I was fairly sedentary for a while. I had two little kids and never found time to get out of the house on my own, and didn’t have a particularly good walking stroller (and we lived on a hill, and whine whine whine). My depression and headaches were bad enough that as soon as my husband was available to watch the kids, I wanted to go to bed, not hit the pavement. I had no energy, so how was I going to spend it on exercise?

I don’t know what made me try. Maybe it was wanting to get down to a lower dose of one of my antidepressants. Maybe it was getting a dog–and not just any dog, but a Boxer. A well-behaved one, but they’re so bouncy and really need daily walks to help them behave (a lesson that relates to me, actually). Maybe I just wanted a better view of the ocean.

In any case, I started walking. When we lived in Nova Scotia, it was down a trail that ran beside the ocean. Sometimes with the family, sometimes with the dog, but I did what I could. When we moved to Newfoundland it was up and down the road. Short walks at first, but the more I moved, the more energy I had to do more. Eventually we were going from one end of town to the other.

Not that impressive if you know how small that town was. But it was progress.

And I started feeling better. Not bouncy energetic. Ever. And even when we briefly took up jogging last fall (doing the C25K program), I never once got that endorphin rush that so many fitness types blather on about all the time. Exercise as its own reward has never made sense to me.

But overall, I felt better. We had to stop running over the summer when it got too hot, and I kind of almost missed it.

Walking gives me mental space to let my thoughts wander. It feels good, even if they never go where I want them to (I’m so jealous of those writers who can work out story problems while they’re walking!). And when we were running and reaching goals, it felt good. It gave me a boost that lasted all day. A gold star in the morning that made me feel capable of MORE all day.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-5-27-11-pm

So happy togetherrrrrr… (and he’s the one who gets distracted by squirrels on walks. Okay, we both do. So cute!)

And I think it does help my mental focus. It’s not perfect. If you want to talk brains, I’d say exercise has done far more for my depression than it has directly for attention issues. Now, that’s nothing to shake a stick at. Motivation and attention seem like abstract concepts when you’re severely depressed, and these things all play off each other.

Baby steps turned into giant steps. A near-crawling pace turned into running (slowish) sprints. One victory led to another. I gained confidence, even if I didn’t lose weight or get an athlete’s physique. I felt stronger. More capable.

More in control.

So exercise is a daily habit for me now, barring heavy rain or blizzards. My mind feels calmer after I’ve expended some physical energy… kind of the same benefit my walking buddy gets from it, I suppose. If we’re walking we’ll do about 4 km, maybe a little less. Running about the same, but obviously it’s a little quicker.

And I’ve kind of promised my husband I’ll go to the gym with him for weights this winter.

WOOOOOO DATE NIGHT! Er, morning.

There are other things. Nutrition would help, but I’m behind there. Cooking isn’t something that holds my interest. My lack of attention means I burn things at least once a week (sometimes myself). And my family… well, they’re picky, and I don’t like cooking multiple meals, so we stick with what works while offering new (healthy) stuff when we can.

And as for supplements: my multivitamin might work, but nothing else has made an appreciable difference in my focus or energy levels. Not expensive combinations of supplements from GNC. Not ginseng or gingko or fish oil (though I still take that last one for other health reasons). But hey, these things are worth trying if you have a deficiency. Maybe just get a second opinion from a doctor or someone else who doesn’t stand to profit from what they sell you.

And meditation. Hmm. I struggle with this. Right now I struggle with it every day, which is an improvement over my previous “eh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Not once have I reached a mental state I’d call “calm.” My pigeons never stop flapping. But I’m trying to learn to observe them without chasing them, and maybe to choose my focus for a few minutes at a time.

But really, exercise is my big offering here. If I miss that, I get antsy and scattered and even weirder than normal.

As for how I work exercise into my schedule and remember to do it… we’ll get to that on Monday. 🙂

PLEASE COMMENT and let me know whether you’ve found that exercise has made a difference in your energy/focus/whatever, or if you have questions. I’m not an expert in ANYTHING, but I’m pretty familiar with my own experiences. Sort of. Mostly. And I’d love to hear your advice!

 

 


SQIRREL!

It’s been more than a year and a half since I did a few posts about trying to get my easily-distracted mind under control. I’ve fallen off the wagon and climbed back on more times than I can count, struggled with my overactive imagination (not in a way that’s good for a writer, unfortunately), and fought to hold onto focus while I’m working.

This summer I gave up the fight for a while, acknowledging that having the kids home is just too much of a distraction for me, and the stress of trying to work when my brain doesn’t want to co-operate was only compounding my frustration and distraction.

But overall, I’ve been making progress. And I thought that over the next few weeks I’d offer some of the tips and tricks that have helped me get a little more organized.

I’m not completely organized. And I’m anything but optimally productive. But the fact is that my brain throws up a lot of obstacles, and I’ve had to learn how to deal with them. I mean, in spite of my inability to focus much of the time (or my brain’s stubborn determination to focus on the wrong thing at the wrong time), I’ve published three massive books and a few smaller ones in a little over two years. Good ones, too.

That’s not nothing.

And if my experiences can help any of you, I want to put the information out there.

For today, we’ll kick things off with a quick description of what it’s like in my head. Because for some of you, this is all going to seem really basic or totally unnecessary. Maybe you can remember what you need to get done in a day without writing everything down and strictly prioritizing tasks so you won’t get distracted by shiny things. Maybe you don’t naturally forget minor things like picking your kids up from school because you FINALLY got in a writing groove. Maybe you don’t forget what you went upstairs for ten times a day, and you’re totally capable of organizing a three year-old’s birthday party without becoming overwhelmed and wanting to cancel.

If this is the case, congratulations. You’re definitely not me.*

If you were me, here’s how it would be:

Let’s imagine that every one of your thoughts is a pigeon. Every item on your mental to-do list, every upcoming event and thing you need to do to get ready for it, every memory and anxiety and interest and idea… all pigeons. Many people’s pigeons seem fairly well-behaved. Trained pigeons, maybe. Easy to catch when you need them, not too hard to hold onto. Pretty tame. If a pigeon needs attention, these people can grab them, do what needs to be done, and release the bird back into the room where the others are contentedly roosting and cooing, waiting their turns.

My pigeons… they’re not so tame. My pigeons are flying everywhere. Inconsequential pigeons flap around demanding attention. I’ll grab one and start working with it, and suddenly another one will be flapping around my head. The pigeons I know I should be catching stubbornly refuse to let me get close to them. Their feathers are getting ratty, my hair is full of pigeon poop, and we’re all exhausted. But they won’t give in. Between their wily ways and all of the other pigeons who are begging for me to catch them instead, it’s a real battle to grab onto that pigeon that I HAVE to catch.

Maybe that pigeon is the story I’m supposed to be writing. Maybe she’s planning suppers for the week. Maybe she’s something as small as finishing one bit of housework before moving on to another.

It’s usually easier to jump from demanding pigeon to demanding pigeon than to keep fighting for the flighty-yet-important ones, but I can win the battle sometimes. And if I can catch the right bird, things can go well. I might be able to hang on.

I might be able to get into the story and get some good work in.

(Sometimes I’ll even be surprised by an easy pigeon I can hang onto and pay attention to for hours or days. Not usually a USEFUL pigeon… but I’m sure my extensive knowledge of medical oddities and homesteading will come in useful some day, right?)

In any case, at some point another pigeon will need my attention. The kids will need to be picked up from school, even if I’ve only been in my writing groove for 20 minutes after struggling three hours to get there. Maybe I have to make supper after I’ve FINALLY tuned the world out and got into reading a book.

At those times it’s hard to change gears. To catch another pigeon. And it hurts, because my pigeons are so frigging NUTS that I know that as soon as I release one it will flutter off, and it won’t return willingly when I need it again.

Does that make sense? Can you see why I’m mentally exhausted by 4:00 every day? I mean, they’re only pigeons, but chasing them down is hard work, and breathing in feather dust is hard on the lungs.

There was a time when all of this meant I let things go when they were too hard. I didn’t finish stories because they were too squirmy and got away. My house was a certifiable disaster area because the little tasks of housework were too much to keep up with. I missed meetings and appointments and shifts because I wasn’t paying attention and I FORGOT. We were eating out too much because planning a meal AND having all of the ingredients on hand was completely beyond my mental capabilities.

Between depression and my focus issues, my life looked pretty screwed up. And the worst part of it was that I thought I was just scatterbrained and lazy, and no one knew how hard I was trying to be NOT LIKE THAT. How it hurt to feel doomed to failure.

Things are better now. Over the past few years I’ve learned to get into a routine, organize my day, and use tools that guide me through it. Basically, I’ve equipped myself with gadgets to help me manage my pigeons. Thick gloves to protect me from the scratchers, maybe, or a stepladder to help me reach the ones in the rafters. Binoculars to help me spot the ones I should be catching.

My pigeons are still frigging NUTS. But as I learn to deal with them more efficiently, they’re at least looking a little cleaner, and I have less poop in my hair.

My house isn’t perfect, but it’s getting cleaned regularly. My family almost always has clean clothes when they need them. A year after we moved into this house, we’re actually unpacked. I’ve learned to save money. And yeah, I’ve got a few books out, though turning my creative outlet into a career has brought a whole new set of problem pigeons.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at the following areas:

*Physical changes I’ve made that are helping me focus better (exercise and nutrition… kind of)

*planning (what I’ve tried and finding my planner peace)

*using cues and habits to keep me from forgetting things when I get hyper-focused on what’s going on in my head

*specific techniques that help me get work done when I sit at my desk

*…and something that I’m not able to discuss yet, but we’ll get there.

I hope you’ll join me, and that you’ll find a few shiny things to help you in your own organizational or creative life. These posts will have pictures, too, and

HAHAHA THERE’S A SQUIRREL** OUTSIDE AND HE’S…

*ahem*

Anyway. I’ll see you on Friday when we kick things off… unless that pigeon escapes and I can’t catch him in time.

*Though I should point out that being me is quite fun, in spite of everything.

**Not an exaggeration. I’ve actually had conversations derailed when I saw shiny things. It’s not good.

 


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