Prime time

On a day when I have complete control over my time, which does not happen as often as I wish, I am most focused, most inspired, and most productive around 9 and 10 am in the morning.

I can surprise myself and channel my inner busy bee at other times in the day, but really, by afternoon, I’m much more in an eat-chocolate-and-wish-for-a-nap kind of mood.

I have several important projects on my plate this month, so I find myself wishing there was such thing as a day full of 9 am’s—me at my prime, knocking out the words, drinking coffee (hmm, there may be a correlation, coffee in the afternoon is never worth it, sigh), living the dream.

Perhaps I can’t have that, but I can still try to channel that 9 am energy every hour–that feeling that the entire day lies before me, and I am off to a good start.

And perhaps keep the Ghiradeli out of sight.

clock

How I make time to write

Trying to find time to write is one of the main ways I learned time management, which I went on to teach to college students for over twenty years. I thought I might share some of the strategies that helped me most, with the YMMV caveat (Your Mileage May Vary, that is, your experiences may be different).

1. Write every day. If possible, save one specific time each day to write. Or vow to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes every day.

The power of daily practice amazes me. When I write every day, I find myself solving problems in between writing sessions; little ideas or insights appear as if by magic as I do random activities such as washing the laundry or picking up the kids from school. If I spend time with a writing project every day, the project itself begins to marinate, and even the time in between writing becomes fruitful.

I have also noticed that writing each day makes it easier for me to write.

Note: In order for me to implement this habit, I have to accept that my daily writing results may be meager. On some days, I might put in ten minutes just to honor the commitment. Or I might write for a decent amount of time, but I accept that what I am writing is mostly a warm-up rather than anything worth saving.

2. Identify then eliminate/avoid time wasters.

This was the most helpful strategy for me. A time waster is any activity that takes up time that I did not mean to spend in that way at that moment or that I did not mean to spend as much time doing.

My best example is when I first started teaching full-time, and I identified 8 pm each evening as my “time to write.” Weeks passed. “Why am I not writing?” I asked myself. I replayed my evenings in my mind and saw myself turning on the TV just around 8 pm “for a minute.” The next thing I knew, hours had passed.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

A miracle.

3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t try to get the perfect mood or atmosphere for writing. Just write.

I admit I love to indulge myself in writerly treats—a beautiful journal, a cool writing app, a well-stocked desk. But I don’t need any of these things to write. I don’t even need to be in the mood to write. Once I learned that, I spent far more time writing.

4. Identify a portable system to capture ideas on the go. A scrap of paper works as well as a high tech gizmo. Just make sure you have it with you at all times.

Some of my best ideas come to me when I am far from my writing tools. It has been difficult to make myself record these ideas as they arise because I am so sure I will remember that great idea later. Spoiler alert: I don’t/I won’t. So now I always have something with me to capture ideas, which is also a way to sneak in more writing time without even realizing it.

Reframe your words to boost success

In my work with college students, I have become a fan of Carol Dweck’s concept of the Growth Mindset. Here’s a youtube video on the subject that I quite like.

When all is going well, it may not matter how you tackle your endeavors–a fixed mindset won’t necessarily get in your way. When you face setbacks, however, adopting a growth mindset may increase your ability to overcome them… or at least feel better in the face of them.

One strategy for cultivating this mindset is to change the way you speak of your challenges. Here are a few examples:

Fixed Mindset Language: I am not good at Chemistry, and the professors cover too much material too quickly.

Note–the above statement may be, more or less, factually true. You may not have experienced success when working on Chemistry content, and your faculty may indeed move very quickly. Yet this statement would inspire me to do… very little. It feels as if there is no reason to try when I speak of my challenge in this way.

Here’s the same factual information reframed:

Growth Mindset Language: This Chemistry class is very challenging for me *right now*, therefore I will need to approach this situation differently. I need to dedicate more time every day to working with the material, I will seek out tutoring or study groups, I will visit my professor’s office hours as frequently as I can, I will find extra review materials in the library and online, and I will ask for advice from students and faculty who enjoy Chemistry.

Same facts. Different way of looking at this challenge. Note the phrase *right now*–growth mindset means that we can imagine a future in which there is change.

Sometimes, students run into setbacks because of huge challenges–health issues, family crises, financial woes. Those are the kinds of challenges that can be very difficult to overcome. Yet even when the challenges are significant, and the near future does not look very hopeful, the language you embrace can affect your ability to move forward.

Fixed Mindset version: There’s no way to succeed under these circumstances.

This is an understandable perspective. Indeed, this may be 99% factual. But this language will again inspire me to give up rather than move forward.

Here’s a growth mindset version: I am managing some severe challenges, so I need to be strategic in prioritizing my time and connecting to resources.

This is factually true, and indeed, I did not make any overly optimistic claims about how soon the challenges will be overcome. But I emphasized actions that I can/should take that make sense given the challenges I face. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am focusing on what I can do rather than on what I cannot.

 

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a new year, and as those who know me might predict, New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday because of the chance to make resolutions. I actually set goals as often as every day, every week, and/or every month, so of course I like having one more reason to resolve to do something. I am drawn to the potential of the blank slate that lies ahead. Even though people like my husband are often eager to tell me that no one ever keeps New Year’s resolutions or similarly dire insights, I believe it is never wrong to hope or to resolve. I can’t control how it all will unfold, and I may have to adapt or start over, or even fall down and get up again more than I would like. Yet how inspiring to imagine something better and move towards it.

I have taken a bit longer this year to sort out my resolutions due to some kind of sinus infection, but I think I am ready to make a few commitments.

1. I have a list of several books that it’s high time I read, and I will tackle them this year (and buy them, if possible, from our local bookstore). If I love them, I will share more on here later.

2. I have finished the (I lost count)th revision of my novel set during the 1898 Wilmington race massacre, and I have begun seeking feedback from readers. While I work through that process, I will use the time to research and reflect on how I might seek to publish this book.

3. I will post on this blog once a week. Or maybe an average of once a week, since some weeks will be busier and/or offer more inspiration for blogging.

4. I will post on social media once a week, too. I have had such mixed feelings about social media due to the terrible ways our data is being used and our politics have been subverted. But this article was helpful https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/opinion/delete-facebook.html among others that discuss ideas for regulation, something desperately needed even though, like all solutions, it may take time, tweaks, and political courage. Sigh. I also saw a similar sentiment on Hasan Minhaj’s fabulous Patriot Act, which I just now have started to watch. Our checking out of social media won’t change the harmful effect it is having. So we need to explore ways to reclaim it.

5. I will work a few days a week on my YA/SF series. I seem to have lots of choices of next steps for that project, so it may be a bit like tending a garden, just checking in to see what deserves attention right now.

6. My health and fitness goals will chug along as usual. The general theme is to exercise a bit more and eat a little less. Piece of cake, right?

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.

On time.

Some friends do not approach time management as I do. I try to control time by getting in front of it, structuring it, protecting it, prioritizing it. As best as I can tell, they control time by denying its existence for as long as possible. If they arrive late to an event, it is not, as it is for me, a failure in time management but a victory—they squeezed out more time for something they’d rather do at that moment. It is not necessarily that they don’t want to do whatever else they were supposed to do, but that they love not giving in until the last minute.

It is an approach that would drive me crazy, and has occasionally driven me crazy as someone on the receiving end of it, but I admit that there is a richness to the way they approach their lives that is sometimes missing from my much more structured approach.

Hmm. Note to self. Slow down. Embrace the richness of this moment now.

Okay, my self immediately answers. As long as I won’t be late.

Music to my ears

Earlier today, I was ready to give up on most of my goals for the day. Instead of writing or working out after work, I crawled in bed for a short nap and kicked myself for not starting earlier. I had a bad feeling I was going to waste the rest of the day.

But a short nap later, I realized a quick work-out was possible. And then that work out re-energized me, and I decided I could squeeze in a short visit to see a loved one in an assisted living facility. Ran back home and convinced my husband to join me at a hastily scheduled protest in downtown, which turned out to be conveniently short so we arrived in plenty of time for my daughter’s evening orchestra concert.

As the music filled the air, I felt a delight at what happens when I actually spend time on things that matter.

Though the nap helped, too.

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.

Run towards the work

Though I am making steady progress on my novel, each step forward reveals the need for many, many, many more steps ahead. Thus writing this novel is what I define as both a major project and as time-consuming work, which are not necessarily the same. In this case, though, both terms fit. Getting this novel across the finish line will not happen overnight, so it’s a major project. Yet it will not be completed by several quick bursts of creative writing, but rather hours of seat-of-the-pants to seat-of-the-chair kind of work.

To which my advice, in my e-book on time management, and now to myself, is to run towards the work, not away from it. When a project seems daunting, or when the work seems all-consuming, the temptation will be to run away, to wiggle away out of it, to do anything else, for any reason, worthwhile or not.

When I feel that temptation to escape, I need to remind myself to run towards the work. Run towards what I fear, not away.

In this case, it is the smartest choice I can make.

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.