Category Archives: Health

Productivity Experiment: The Next Challenges

Okay. So.

I’m still working on my schedule. I doubt I’ll ever settle on just one thing that will work for me forever. Life and its demands are always changing, and so is the time available for my work.

Here’s what I started working on last week:  Batching most of my chores on Saturdays and just doing necessary maintenance during the week (sweeping, dishes, litter boxes, cooking, etc) to see if I can free up time during my prime focus hours on weekdays (afternoon for me, which apparently makes me an oddball) to get more writing work done.

So far, so good. Working in the afternoon is SO much better for me than trying to wrangle my brain into anything like focus in the morning. Whether that’s because of my weird biological rhythms, the fact that I have a far easier time settling into deep creative work when I don’t have the groceries-dishes-walk the dog-phone calls-emails-newsletters-laundry on my mind, or some combination of the two, I find I can start work and stay focused far more easily if I start after lunch.

And amazingly, the children are surviving if I pause to say hello when they get home and keep working until about four.

This is the total opposite of what I was trying before, I know. As of right now, my mornings are for meditation, planning, reading…

And not doing NaNoWriMo. My other lesson from the past few weeks is that I really can’t divide my focus effectively between two projects, and I need to prioritize the revisions that have to be to my Big Bad Editor in January.

But time is only one factor in productivity, and I’ve started focusing more on the other two that you sometimes read about in productivity books: energy and attention. Because scheduling my day and finding time to work is fantastic, but doesn’t mean much if I’m too tired to do the work (hello, early mornings!) or I can’t get my brain to settle down and do the work even when I have the time scheduled.

There are a lot of factors that affect both of these, and we don’t have time here to go into everything. It seems like most productivity books are a little short on them, too; their focus is usually on how to find or make time, not on how to make sure you’re able to use it when you get there (The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey is one nice exception that deals with energy and attention more than time).

Sometimes it feels like exhaustion and distraction just aren’t issues for high achievers… but we know that’s not true, right?

I’ve already started making some changes* in areas that might help:

  • Meditation. I’ve been meditating almost every morning for a little more than a month now using the HeadSpace app in the hopes that I can train my mind to remain in the present moment, choose my focus, be a little more mindful, learn to let go of distractions, and maybe act a little less like a raccoon chasing every shiny thing that pops up. It could happen.
  • Diet. Not going on one, so to speak, but changing what I eat. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was starting the Whole30 program, and so far I’m sticking with it. I hope that eating better (especially cutting out added sugar) will help regulate my energy levels and prevent the fuzziness I get when my blood sugar crashes, as well as (fingers crossed!) figuring out whether there’s anything in my diet that’s inducing or worsening the migraines that keep me from working so often. I’ll post an update on how it’s going later this week. Spoiler: I’m so conflicted.
  • Sleep. This is why I’m shifting back to working later in the day, at least temporarily. I need to aim for eight hours of sleep per night, and the only way I can get that if I’m waking up at 5:30 in the morning is if I go to bed before my kids. Now, I like an early bedtime, don’t get me wrong. Somehow over the years I’ve changed myself into a morning person. It’s weird, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it, but there you go. But I also like tucking my kids in and being rested. Eight hours is the goal. Ten to six. And I’m aiming to keep it consistent, even on weekends.
  • Exercise. This isn’t new for me. I’ve been walking almost every day (weather permitting) for several years now, and it’s done amazing things for my mental health. This winter I’m going to substitute yoga on days that are too cold to go out to see if it helps with the low energy and winter blahs that accompany the season.

So far, the changes have been positive. I feel good eating the way I am, though it’s hard (and not at all for the reasons I anticipated). Meditation is really difficult some days, and the results are hard to measure. But I am learning to settle in, at least some of the time, and to observe my thoughts without letting them carry me away. I feel good about where it’s taking me.

I’ve got a few other things I’m working on, but I’m not exactly sure where they fit. Slightly less concrete things. Attitudes. Mindsets. Intentions. Accountability. Respecting my limitations.

Those can wait, though, for when I get this other stuff under control.

For now, I’ll be reporting back on some things that are a lot harder to measure than my time use. I’ll be keeping track of the hours I work, but more importantly I’ll be making notes on how much I’m struggling to start work (often my biggest challenge), how well I’m staying on various tasks, and what times of day I hit energy slumps.

Exciting stuff, right?

Do you find that time, energy, or focus is your biggest productivity obstacle? Some combination of the three? Let me know in the comments!


 

*Full disclosure: I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder a little over a year ago (I’m not hyperactive, which is probably why no one ever spotted it). I want to note it here because my medication might come up when I discuss energy and focus, and I want to make sure we’re all on the same page if I’m talking about my results in gaining energy or shifting my ability to focus.

I always hate it when celebrities get tummy tucks with their c-sections and act like the baby weight just melted off OMG, and not disclosing the help I’m getting seems like kind of the same thing. I’m not gaining hyper-focus superpowers, I’m not overflowing with energy, and I’m still struggling with creative anxiety and other issues that keep me from working when I want to. But I do feel like my brain is getting support that it needs, which is great. It’s a process, just like anything else. Let me know if you’d like to see posts on that topic. It’s kind of a sensitive one for me (people tend to jump to scream overdiagnosis and French people don’t have ADD when it comes up), but much like depression, I’m happy to talk about it if it might help someone.

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Godawful Early Schedule Results (Week 4 and Overall)

The one thing I can say about last week is that it happened.

It wasn’t a great one in terms of work hours. Monday was Thanksgiving, so I worked a bit in the early morning and then did nothing more for the rest of the day. Nothing work-related, at least. A migraine hit that evening (after I’d said I was thankful for not having one… that’ll learn me), and I was dealing with them off and on all week. I lost all of Wednesday to one.

But you know what? It happens. It’s a thing I’m prepared for, or that I at least should be by now. It’s nothing worth whining about, especially when things could be so much worse.

And there’s a bright side.

The hours I did work were pretty darned good. I was productive during work hours. After I decided to go ahead and try outlining my scenes in even more depth than I usually do, figuring out the little turning points and conclusions in bullet form instead of in the flow of trying to actually write the scene, my hourly word count crept up to 1600 or even 1700 wph (it’s usually closer to 1200 on a decent day).

Now, I haven’t done the math on whether this is actually more efficient. After all, that planning takes time, and that needs to be added to the time I’m actually spending writing the scene. In fact, it probably takes a little more this way.

But it feels less frustrating and wasteful, and that’s important for keeping me motivated. And it saves me from scenes that wander around too much before getting to the point, which means I might save time in revisions. So that’s cool.

Whatever keeps me going is good at this point.

Good lesson.

ALSO…

This makes 4 weeks of the Godawful Early Schedule. I’ve done my best to get up at 5:30 in the morning, to work for 90 minutes before the kids get up and then again for a few hours after they’re out the door. It’s time to look at my conclusions.

  • Getting some work done before breakfast/before anyone else gets up and I have to be a responsible adult is TOTALLY A GOOD IDEA. I absolutely want to continue with this. Knowing that I’ve accomplished something even if I have stuff going on later (or everything goes off the rails) is such a boost to my day. And having afternoons free means I have time for things like meeting people for coffee… or letting my schedule flip itself upside down if I need to take the morning off instead for an appointment.

BUT.

  • I miss my old morning routine. I want to make this morning work session a part of it, not a substitution for it. Meditation, planning my day, stretching, and reading are all important, too, and help me feel grounded and prepared for whatever comes later. So I need to get back to that.
  • 5:30 is just too early for me. Even after 4 weeks I’m still finding that my alarm clock is yanking me out of dreams instead of light sleep (never mind the fact that I don’t like having to go to bed at exactly the same time as my kids… or before them). 90 minutes of work focus is turning out to be a bit much to ask of my brain before food, caffeine, meds, etc. I thought I needed that big stretch of time, but as it turns out, 60 minutes is almost as good in terms of word count.

So here’s the next big plan:

  • wake up at 6:00. Drink water. Meditate 10 minutes.
  • work on planning/drafting new pen name project for 60 minutes in two 25-minute sprints with a 5-minute break between and at the end (aim for 1500 words). Get up, do floor exercises/stretches on breaks. Make notes for tomorrow’s writing session. Start making tea/coffee.
  • get kids up at 7:30, go through that whole routine (including eating breakfast).
  • After the kids are gone, take care of exercise* by either walking the dog or doing yoga depending on the weather. And shower, because ew.
  • work on Phoenix revisions from 10:00-noon, working in 25-minute sprints again.
  • After lunch, take care of pen name publication/promo concerns for no more than one hour, then relax, read, go for a walk, rest, or whatever I need to do to recharge.
  • And then the kids come home and I do the houseworks and makes the suppers and hangs out with the family peoples and all that jazz (try to find time for fun stuff… I’m still working on finding a hobby). Bed around 10:00.

So that’s the goal for the next few weeks. The ideal. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve had a hard time juggling multiple projects in the past, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn how to to it, especially when I’ve got a couple of natural breaks in my day. Two projects and then an hour for business stuff should be manageable.

We’ve got a few weeks left in October, and I’m going to try to make the most of them.

And then it’ll be November *gasp*. And that means NaNoWriMo *double gasp*. At that point I’ll have to either get my words-per-hour higher in those early morning sessions or make up extra on the weekends (when I’ll have to add sessions anyway… I’m currently not writing on weekends at all). That, or get these revisions off my desk so I can focus entirely on drafting.

Such tension. Such excitement.

If anyone else is doing NaNoWriMo this year, you can add me as a friend. I’m KittySparkes on the site . I probably won’t be on there a whole lot, but I’ll check messages.

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Gratuitous Halloween decor picture.

 

 


*I typed that as “exerscuse.” I make a lot of those.

 

 


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.


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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Batten Down the Hatches. The Squirrels and Pigeons Have Taken Over.

But we’re going to finish this post series.

I said we would talk about the things I do to help myself get something productive done during a work day. And I will. But first, I want to be completely honest.

I have days when none of it works.

This week, for example. I’m having a rough time because it’s a bad week for migraine symptoms like brain fog and confusion, and it’s a bad week for inattention. Blame hormones, blame the moon, it happens every month. And it costs me massively in productivity. On Monday I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together. Tuesday I kind of made up for it with almost 6,000 words in revisions. Wednesday was a write-off again. And today I’m struggling through the fog. Part of the problem is that I need a new scene, and my brain isn’t capable of putting one together. It’s a whole different ballgame from rewrites.

But we’re not here to talk about brain fog (though if you want to know how I deal with that, I’ll put my new video at the bottom of this post). We’re here to talk about the good days. Days when I can get things done in theory, but my pigeon-filled brain is scattered and I’m distracted by everything from an election I can’t even participate in to squirrels to “hey, I haven’t had poutine all week, is 10 AM too early?”

And again, please know that I am not good at following my own advice. At best I might manage to use a few of these tips and get some stuff done and feel guilty for not doing more.

We all do the best we can, right? And hope the little habits build into big success.

Here we go.

  1. Plan my day the night before.

I do this in my bullet journal pretty consistently. I don’t handle surprises well, and need to know what’s coming. Also, being able to look at my page, see what’s planned, and get into it is way more streamlined than trying to figure it out before coffee and then deciding to aim low. Some people might be fine with just writing down their top three goals for their work day, knowing they’ll remember other stuff. I, on the other hand, plan it all out. What my kids are doing. Who has gym tomorrow. Whose laundry needs to get done. Check-boxes for feeding the dogs twice, taking my medication, taking my vitamins, checking the mail. What scene I need to plan. What I need to do after that. What I need to plan for the next day.

When I know I’m going to be scattered (like this week), I’ll go so far as to create an ideal hourly breakdown of what I should be doing. I never achieve it, but it removes the need to decide what I should be doing, and that reduces my anxiety a whole lot.

2.  Leave social media alone.

I was doing SO well with this for a while, and it made a huge difference. I stopped using my phone as an alarm clock so I wouldn’t be tempted to check it first thing in the morning. And I still do that. It charges downstairs overnight. But though I find I’m far more productive if I don’t check facebook, email, etc. until after work, I’m a bit addicted. I get twitchy if I don’t check. My brain craves the distraction even though I know I’m not missing anything important (sorry, friends). I try every morning to leave it alone, and I usually fail. But it does work when I succeed. I’m more focused and more productive if I’m not waiting for people to respond to something I posted.

I do have a better option. I have a morning routine that involves meditation, reading, breakfast, and stretching before the kids get up. It’s lovely, and my brain never lets me stick to it. Work in progress, right?

3. Music.

I know most people recommend classical music for focus, and that does help me sometimes. But if I’m drafting, I actually find that I need something loud and heavy, complete with lyrics. It’s like my brain needs stimulation that it can drown out, and somehow that lets me focus on work. This is not a tip that will work for everyone, but if you’re not finding that ambient/classical/whatever is working for you, why not give it a shot? I’ve been enjoying Google Play’s Top Charts > Metal. Not my favourite genre, but maybe that’s why I can tune it out.

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Someitmes I get this weird feeling like Sum 41 has a new album out.

4. Timed sprints.

Sometimes the idea of just sitting and working is overwhelming. Breaking the day into short work sprints is sometimes the only way I can get started. A goal of 4,000 words can seem huge if I’m staring at a blank screen, but I can make myself write for 25 minutes. And if even that seems overwhelming on a bad day, I make it ten. Or five. But once I get the words started, they usually want to keep coming. This works best for me in the draft stage, but I have used focus sprints to get me going on edits, brainstorming, etc. Not much luck so far using them on things like taxes and emails, but maybe that will come.

4. Writing down distractions.

This is one I came up with myself, though I’m sure I’m not the first to do it. I keep a stack of post-it notes on my desk. When a distraction pops up (gotta check facebook, crap I forgot to change the filter in the Brita, I really need to get those last Christmas decorations put away, better call about that appointment I’ve been putting off…), I write it on a post-it and stick it to the wall. Right where I can see it. Does that sound weird? It works for me. See, if I just write it down and put it aside, it will keep bugging me because my brain is all WHAT IF WE FORGET?!! But if it’s visible, it’s acknowledged. It’s a thing I’m saying I will get to, and it loses some of its power as a distraction. Then, after my word sprint is done, I’ll pick one quick thing and do it. Kind of a reward (though social media is a dangerous one).


5. Just get started.

I waste more time at the beginning of my day than any other. Maybe I’d be better off if I could just get out of bed, make coffee, and work, but my day starts with other stuff. Get the kids up, make breakfast, make lunches, yadda yadda… I’m primed for distraction before I sit at my desk, and then it’s hard to get any kind of focus. But if I can turn off the baddistractions (leave the phone upstairs, close browsers) and get into the good ones (music and putting those notes in view), I might find my flow.

So there we go. On an ideal day, I would get up early and not touch my phone. I would do my perfect morning routine to focus and inspire me, have a coffee and a healthy breakfast, enjoy time with my kids, send them off to school, and slip into my office to get straight to work. On rare days when that has worked for me, I’ve had amazing results.

So why can’t I do it every day? Ask my brain. I have no idea. I don’t choose to do less than me best, man. But I accept that I am a work in progress. And every morning I have another chance to try again.

Any tips to add? Thoughts on productivity that work for you? I’d love to hear them!

Here’s that video, if anyone wants it. It’s long. I couldn’t brain, so there are awkward pauses and stalled sentences… You can see why writing r hard on these days, but this is how I cope.


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.😉


Calendar Squirrel

You know I was just waiting to use that song title.

I love my love my love my love my calendar squir–

Sorry.

It’s time to talk planners, and this is one topic that I absolutely can focus on. So much, in fact, that we’re gonna cut this one in half so your eyes don’t glaze over. Both helpful. Promise.

(Before we start, I just want to state that this is my thing. I don’t buy expensive shoes or purses. Or sunglasses. Or boats. Or designer cats. Or wine. I don’t go to movies or clubs. We all have our hobbies, and hopefully all spend within our means on them. You can TOTALLY be a planner dork with a $10 planner from Walmart. Or you can be me. Both are cool.)

So where to begin? I was never a planner growing up. Fact is, I probably couldn’t find an agenda book in the mess that was my school desk, even if I had such a thing. I tried to use them in high school, but it seemed like a waste of time. I left everything to the last minute anyway, and I didn’t really want to do my math homework, so…

Yeah. Planners didn’t seem to be my thing, even as I got older.

Not paper. Not electronic. None of it. If I remembered to note a doctor’s appointment on the wall calendar instead of losing the little card with the time on it, I congratulated myself. Quite frankly, I’m surprised I remembered my kids’ due dates.

That changed. And the change has improved my life immeasurably.

It started when someone–I don’t know who, but someone–posted a link to a promotional video for Kikki K planners showing how they could be decorated and personalized. This seemed like a ridiculously expensive product at the time, but I was entranced. See, I’ve always been fascinated by people who ARE organized. I have nothing against making grand plans and shooting high, and seeing people break that down into organized chunks and crossing things off is just… well, there’s a reason we use the term “planner porn” for a whole lot of YouTube videos.

I started watching more videos. People were posting “plan with me” videos and comparing  different planners and talking pros and cons and THEY WERE USING STICKERS AND WASHI TAPE, GUYS.

Have I mentioned that my interests shift a lot? I’ll have a burning interest for a few months or a year, and then it will fizzle out or be replaced by something else. Usually art or craft related. Well, I was due for a new one, and MAN did this tickle my fancy. Pretty paper and a chance at maybe getting my shit together?

Count me in!

I weighed my options and decided what I liked. Honestly, buying an Erin Condren planner felt like buying a house. I got my first one at a slight discount*, but normally these puppies are fifty+ bucks a pop (plus insane shipping rates to Canada). But I tried getting creative with my crappy planner, and it didn’t work for me. What can I say? I’m a paper snob. I thought that if I had a good planner, if I found other people who used them and decorated them and made the whole planner thing seem appealing, it would totally be worth the cost.

Was it an impulse purchase? A little, if you can still count it as impulsive if I stewed for a few weeks, tried alternatives, and made sure we could spare the cash. But when that box came in the mail, I was as happy as any of the people in their unboxing videos. And unlike most impulse purchases, it held my interest and became more valuable the longer I owned it.

Oh, I stunk at the decorating at first. Like, really stunk. And it was hard not being able to buy all of the stickers and doodads that people used in their videos. But it was FUN. And, more importantly, I used it. Suddenly I was writing down appointments and not losing them. I was breaking my day into morning, afternoon, and evening chunks, and I was getting things done because I wanted to be able to check them off.

You can joke that small things amuse small minds. I say it all the time. But I quickly learned that accomplishing things, even small ones, is extremely satisfying. Tiny tasks, when I had the energy for them, became more satisfying when I could watch them stack up over the course of the day.

I checked it off when I did the dishes, and it became a habit. I wrote it down when I finished writing a chapter of Sworn. I checked it off when I wrangled the kids into the tub. Check, check, check.

Does that mean I was suddenly on top of everything and my house was spotless and my work days flowed beautifully? I think you know me better than that. Of course I forgot to write things down. Of course I said, “I’ll remember that later” and didn’t. Of course I did write things down and then didn’t have the energy or focus to actually do them. Of course I still didn’t have enough time for work because children and home and CAN’T FRIGGING FOCUS.

But I was building a habit. I was learning that organization didn’t have to be boring. I was getting enough negative feedback from myself when I had to copy tasks from one week to another that it was motivation to just do it already.

Was that worth $50, or whatever I paid for it? Hell yes.

It worked well. It really did. I decorated my pages until they felt like MINE, until they were something I felt like I wanted to look at many times a day. This was really important if I didn’t want this to fizzle out like my other interests.

It saved my sanity when I had to organize buying a house and moving. Because guys? I can’t remember ANYTHING on my own. If it’s not written down, I might as well have never heard it. I learned to use my planner for school events, holding on to tickets and notes (in the handy back pockets), scheduling work time, keeping track of my husband’s schedule, paying bills, planning meals, tracking exercise, noting who I needed to email, keeping a TBR list… everything. For the first time, I felt like I was controlling my days more than they were controlling me.

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The week before a move is hell, but at least it was fun to look at.

Planning time on Sundays became something akin to a spa day for my brain. Lay it all out. Put it in boxes. See how it fits together. Notice that Friday is busy, so maybe try to get this and that done by Thursday so Friday doesn’t turn into a disaster. Put a sticker on it.

Put another sticker on it. Have some fun.

Feel in control. Relax.

But I got frustrated with the spiral-bound format. I wanted to have more note pages. I wanted a binder that would allow me to have adjustable note sections. My eyes wandered. My heart strayed.

I looked at those Kikki K binders again, and this time decided to shoot higher. For me, the ultimate treat was a Filofax Malden in ochre leather with horizontal Inkwell A5 inserts. And yes, I can recite that in my sleep. What a beast. What a beauty. She stole my heart, and my Erin Condren was demoted to a quiet life in the dining room, holding onto the family’s affairs while the Filofax took over as Work Central. Note sections for production, publication, and promotion. A spot to record paperback sales (my old, non-planner self would have been SO SCREWED come GST time without this). And in the front my planner, on this thick, buttery, GORGEOUS paper with colourful weeks and goal-setting pages.

Not a typical week by any means, but a fun one. Check out the Inkwell press site linked above if you want to see what they look like without the stickers. 🙂

Those goal pages were a big selling point for me. Right after the paper quality, which really is drool-worthy. I think I mentioned that I’m big on dreaming and making big plans, and anything that helps make those a reality is going to make me a happy camper.

I don’t focus well in my mind. But laying it out on paper helps so much. It doesn’t tame my pigeons, but it sticks them in a holding cage for a while.

Processed with Snapseed.

Dat mission board.

And it has been wonderful. The major drawback has been its size and weight. It’s fine for leaving on my desk, but I needed something I could carry with me everywhere. Because the more I learned the benefits of writing some things down, the more I understood what I could do if I could write everything down. If I could basically transfer my flighty brain onto paper, I could remember things. I could sort through big problems. I could be in control.

I tried using a smaller planner as a wallet. It was good, but not quite what I wanted. It was great to have on the go when I needed to make appointments… as long as I kept both planners updated at all times. And that was a little beyond me some days. And I never pulled it out to make notes like I wanted to. Still too bulky.

I asked for a Day Designer planner for my birthday to try it out. It was lovely. I discovered the joys of writing out not just tasks, but priorities, my top three of the day. But it was still massive, and still had no notes pages. Not quite the planner peace I wanted. (It has hourly lines on each day’s page, so I’m now planning to use it as a time use/energy tracker for weeks when I do that).

I did find an answer. Something completely different and totally unexpected that allowed me to put everything I wanted in one sleek, compact, fits-in-my-purse package that almost never leaves my side. Ever.

Future planning. Monthly planning. Weekly planning. Daily planning. Project pages. TBR list. Meal planning. Blog ideas. Instagram challenge tracking. Vacation memories. Goal setting. Random ideas. Space for doodles when the mood strikes. Inspirational quotes.

Planner peace.

Oh, the Filofax is still going strong as my command centre for family stuff and permanent notes for work that I don’t need to have on hand all the time (contacts, sales, ISBNs etc.). Those buttery leather covers aren’t leaving me any time soon.

But on Friday, we’ll talk about what’s become my brain on paper.

For now.

QUICK NOTE! I’m going to be at Krista Walsh’s release party for Death at Peony House tomorrow night (September 20, link here). You’ll want to check this one out, as it’s book one of a fantastic new urban fantasy series by an author I love. I’ll be giving away some ebooks and a paperback copy of Into Elurien.

I’ll update here when I know what time I’m on, but come on out for as much of the party as you can. Should be a good time. 🙂

*Stick around for the conclusion. But if you’re in the market for an EC planner, my referral link will get you a few bucks off when you create an account. Click here for that.

 

 

 

 


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