Think Small

The following is an excerpt from the second edition of my e-book on time management, now available on Amazon.

Welcome to the second edition of Time Management: The Basics. My goal is to offer the reader a way to take small steps to manage time more effectively. I have transformed the lengthier discussions from the first edition of this book into short passages that highlight one strategy at a time.

Here’s my deep thought: Anyone who wants to manage time better doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on the process. 

Here’s another deep thought: Success in improving the way you manage your time results from a series of small changes rather than a massive or overwhelming shift in how you spend your time.

Yes, that’s my advice, at least to get us started. Think small.

Thus I provide you with a menu of strategies. Consider reading one strategy at a time and then giving that strategy a try for the day, week, or month. Focus on that one tweak to your routine. I like the word tweak because some of these strategies may not seem new or transformative to you, yet committing or re-committing to them could be beneficial, perhaps in subtle ways.

You don’t have to read these strategies in order. You have my blessing to hop around to whichever strategy calls to you first. 

In addition to including one strategy per section, I end each time with a prompt for reflection. That’s because I don’t think time management works without reflection. That is, you need to spend a few minutes thinking about what is working and what needs to change. Devoting a little time to reflect will help you develop a time management system that works. Once you fine-tune that system through reflection, you may wind up spending less time on the system because the various steps and tools will become a habit, at least for as long as you need them.

Reflect: Take a moment to consider your experiences with time management systems in the past, both paper-based and digital. What worked well? What didn’t? Why?

The ride

When I was young, grocery stores often provided a mechanical cartoonish animal, sometimes a horse or a dragon, that children could ride at the cost of several quarters, perhaps for being good during the trip to the grocery store. While I don’t think I was particularly naughty, I rarely got to indulge because my parents did not like to waste money. The one or two times they did give in to my pleas, I had to agree that the ride was very short, going nowhere.

Yet I recall a child’s joy at the thought of it, the excitement of the treat, no matter how brief.

Lately this has been a metaphor for where I am in my life right now. On holidays, I am aware that more of my friends can no longer call or visit a parent. I compare notes with my friends about worries we have about various relatives. I look at my own life and circle of friends and feel the tick of time passing.

More and more, I am made aware how short this ride is, how briefly I get to enjoy the time I have with the people I love so much. I also remember as a child that I could never predict when the ride would stop. It was always a surprise, a sudden jerking halt, as if the creature had never moved at all.

When the time comes, I will beg for more quarters, for just a few more minutes.

Clear eyes

My husband had eye surgery (cataracts) today, and it turned into an all day event, with no time to write one of the blog posts I had in mind.

We returned home with just a half hour before we had to leave for our daughter’s sports banquet. He was groggy and sore enough to be justified in bailing out. But he came, eye patch and all. Which did provide some fun for me as people who know us would sidle up to me to ask, “Did Frank have eye surgery?” Although the smart aleck within wanted to say, “What do you mean?” I instead said yes, yes he did.

But it isn’t the eye patch that I am thinking of tonight but the way he didn’t even hesitate when I asked if he still wanted to come. Showing up for our kids is what he does. Always.

Feels like my vision got a little better today, too.

Be skeptical but not cynical.

I fear my country is being harmed by a penchant for dualism—yes, I know you hear that all the time, but I won’t rant about it today. Instead, this is an invitation to tackle the challenges we face as a skeptic but not a cynic.

Take voting, for example. Is it reasonable to be skeptical that some of the candidates who are stepping into the ring who seem so inspiring, and there are many this year, may not be as wonderful as we hope or need or want? Or that somehow they will let us down or themselves down? Or even that they might be perfect, and some of them come pretty close, yet they will be up against almost impossible odds in trying to help the people they represent? Sure, be skeptical. Hope for the best, make the best choice possible based on the information available, but leave room for skepticism that positive change is rarely quick or easy. And that humans are, well, human.

But don’t give into cynicism. Cynicism says not only might things go wrong, but they will go wrong. Cynicism argues that we should never bother, we should never try, that nothing we think matters actually matters. That everything we build will be washed away in the tide.

Cynicism leaves us vulnerable in dangerous ways. Cynicism is a fancy way to say, “I give up, and you should, too.” Here’s the sneaky part: Cynicism sounds smart. Cynics get to claim they were right when things go wrong, while ignoring the responsibility we all have to one another to at least try. The truth is, to be cynical is to be lazy. It is much easier to give up than to do something, so I guess it’s lucky for the cynics that they sound smart, because… how do I say this? it’s not smart. Cynicism means giving up any bit of power or choice or opportunity you may have (and I always concede that these things are not fairly distributed), but if I’m dealt some bad cards, I’d rather play them than throw down the hand and storm out of the room. Play the game. Build something that matters to you. Yes, we can be skeptical about how long it will last. In the case of writers, we probably should keep our day jobs. But build it anyway. And if it falls down, start again. Live this life now.

Be skeptical, but not cynical.

And if you haven’t voted yet, what the heck? Go vote.

Rowing Forward

I am making steady progress, working through revisions of the (currently) 52 scenes of my novel.

I’ve been here before. I’ve worked through most of these scenes several times now. Currently, most of the scenes have notes attached to them with changes to make. The final scenes need massive changes, which is a bit daunting to consider, but I’m not there yet.

Once I do make it to the end, I have to start again. Indeed, I have already added notes to scenes I just finished revising, as well as a list of goals for the next “write through.”

I love that I still generate fresh ideas or see ways to address a gap, even if sometimes I am shocked to realize what is still missing after so many revisions.

The image comes to mind of a rowing crew. Row forward then pull back, forward then back. Push, push, push forward. A repetition, a cycle, that nonetheless represents progress.

three people on brown canoe sailing on calm water

The shore is still so far away. It helps if I don’t pay too much attention to the finish line. Forward then back, forward then back. I just need to work on the task at hand. And then another. And again. And again.

Novel-Writing Meltdown

So the good news is that I am still, on average, on track with my novel. I haven’t written every day, but I have written most days.

twisted rootsThe not-so-good news but good-that-it’s-over news: I had a meltdown of sorts, a fit of doubt and despair about the novel. None of this makes sense to me logically because I already know that there is no reason to have any confidence in the future of my novel. I just want to write it and I will write it, so there. Very logical, right?

Here’s what happened. I was on a roll with the novel, making progress every day, getting ideas in between writing sessions, and all the stuff that usually makes me feel good about writing a novel. Then a radical idea struck: What if I split it into three books? Even as I thought of the idea, I reflected that it was a creative but unrealistic idea, but sure, let me entertain it to see what new insights I might generate.

For a day, I was energized by the thought of creating three novels, different protagonists, different genres, same historical and imagined context. I jotted down notes. I became aware of elements that might deserve more attention, whether it stayed one novel or evolved into three. I daydreamed about the possibility of publishing three books.

Then for the next few days, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and I was filled with despair that I would never finish three novels, that I would never stop working on this project. I suppose logically I can accept that writing the novel doesn’t bring any guarantees of next steps, but emotionally, the thought of never finishing just wasn’t okay with me.

It was a roller coaster ride, a real tangle of emotions resistant to my attempt to reason it out.

Eventually, I just told myself, you don’t have to do it. It was just an idea. It’s okay. I felt bad that I wasn’t writer enough for the job, creative enough to follow through on a radical approach. But it made me so stressed that I was glad to return to work on the novel as originally planned.

Relieved, I let myself scan through one of the sections that I thought could stand by itself. No, I thought, the sections work better together. So it’s not just that I am not as talented a writer as I wish to be. It really is better as it is.

Of course, it turns out that as much as I love this novel, I really want to finish it. Someday.

bear with yield sign

Yield Days

So I have been working on the novel for 21 days straight, though that is only true because I wrote one word yesterday. Some might call that grade inflation, but they are people who deserve pity for their obsessive need to judge others.

Ahem. Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to talk about what I call “yield days.” I frequently benefit from the strategy of setting daily goals, in which I commit to put in time every day towards the same goal, such as “write every day on my novel,” or sometimes, “go for a walk every day,” or least successfully “cut out sugar.”

I first experienced the power of such daily goals through nanowrimo.org, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, and if you are at all curious, you should check it out. I also found this strategy within college success curriculum, in which it might be called the 32 day commitment, or the 28 day commitment, or the fill-in-the-blank-how-long-you-think-it-will-take commitment, which is based on the premise that if you do the same thing every day for X amount of days, it will become a habit and easier to achieve. Most of my students usually appreciated this strategy, too, especially (of course) if they got to choose what goal to set.

I have found it helpful when I am pursuing a daily commitment to make myself recognize when I am in the middle of a “yield day.” That is, I realize that due to life events, I must yield on my goal. If I get sick, for example, I might not be able to keep up with a daily exercise goal for a few days. If a loved one experiences a crisis, I might not have the time or the focus to write that day. There are many days when small distractions tempt me to back off on my daily commitment, and on those days, I have to push hard or figure out how to make my goal happen, such as a pathetic version of a workout or, um, writing one word on my novel. Because I am pushing myself so much to stay focused on this goal, I sometimes catch myself becoming a (sulky) bear during a crisis or life event until I remind myself, yield. This is not a day when I can stick with this commitment. It is understandable and forgivable to be off track for today. Yielding today does not mean I won’t try again tomorrow.

Sometimes I even draw a yield sign on my calendar for the day, just to remind myself that I did not let myself down that day. I just had other commitments that took priority.

In defense of Mondays

My goal today is to reclaim Mondays from all the haters out there. It is not a random goal. In recent years, my adolescent children have come to dread Mondays and the return to school in ways they never did in the past. Monday casts a long shadow over Sunday and even sometimes Saturday, as they bemoan the return of the week, the structure and repetition of the school day, the work, the risk of failure.

As a parent, it is hard for me to gauge the intensity of their unhappiness. It seems to me that there can be the typical Monday blues or the intense something’s-got-to-change Monday blues, which I had during my first year teaching middle school. I was so unhappy in that role that I had to force myself to drive to work each morning. I remember literally clenching my hands on the wheel. Everything in my spirit called me to turn around, to do anything else. After four years, I made some progress in the role but found the public school climate so negative that I sought a career change, and from then on, Mondays marked the end of the weekend but nothing quite so traumatic.

So here are two extremes: Mondays where one notices the contrast between the freedom of the weekend and the pressure of the work week versus the Monday that casts a long shadow over the weekend and the horizon.

In my experience, if Mondays feel the way they did for me teaching middle school, it’s time to find another job. Any other job. A larger change is needed.

But the other type of feeling–that is the Monday blues I want to challenge. To rename. To reconstruct.

Here’s why: Your life, my life, my children’s life will be filled with Mondays. And as those who have had brushes with death and loss will tell you, every day is a gift.

Let’s start with the basics.

I am alive today.

The people I work with are alive and they all or almost all came back to work today. If any of us were missing, there would be a void in this office, there would be a loss.

So I can celebrate that we are here.

As I write, it is a Monday, and the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It is a cold but beautiful November day. I could worry about the winter ahead and the ongoing threat of bad weather, or I could notice that blue sky and generous bath of sunlight.

Here’s what also can make Monday a special day. I don’t yet know what this week will be like. I may think I do. I may expect more of the same, or I may think that looking at my calendar tells me exactly what will happen, which is perhaps the most foolish thing I ever find myself thinking, really. There are surprises ahead, at least the potential of surprises.

There is also the comfort of routine. At home, my children and spouse are sweet and easy to be around. And sometimes they are not. At work, the routine provides a space where I may step back from that volatility, a space to be someone else by day, someone I am still trying to get to know. I think I know who I am when I am at work, but I am still learning, still changing. The routine is an illusion; change is happening every minute, sometimes the best changes.

Mondays are full of potential, perhaps the richest day of the week in terms of what could happen this week. It is a launching point. If I am going to accomplish anything amazing, either internally or externally, it will start thanks to a Monday. To hate Monday, to avoid Monday, is to hate effort and to hate the steps forward that bring us to new places.

And of course, Monday happens regardless. So to make a stand against Monday is to make a stand against ocean tides. It is futile. We all have moments when we must endure hard times or even hardships. But to create a hardship out of something that could be a resource? That is a shame.

If I wish away my Mondays, I am sleep-walking through my own life. I am missing out on some of the best moments because I am deciding in advance that they are not worth my time or attention.

I often reflect on the idea of scarcity versus abundance. Monday by sheer perception can be a day of scarcity or a day of abundance. It is in your hands to decide which it will be.