time management

Item Number One 6

I’m having one of those days.

There are a zillion writing ideas bouncing around in my head and at least ten other things that I should be doing. Even as I type these words, all I can think about are all of those other ideas, all of those other activities, all of those other errands that have found their way onto my plate. They are all things that I like, things that I have promised that I’ll do, things that are good for my health, things that I’m good at. But I can’t seem to get down to any of them today, because the one thing that I am not good at is managing my own time.

I have the house to myself and a car in the driveway. I can do anything or go anywhere I want. It’s a warm, clear autumn day. The only thing standing in my way of accomplishing anything is—well, me.

The Fitbit on my wrist just buzzed telling me that I owe it forty-eight steps to make the quota for this hour. So close. Be right back.

Done. One accomplishment anyway, though not much of one. The three-mile walk that I try to fit in most days is nagging at me, but if I give it the hour that it requires, plus the half-hour to shower and change afterwards, then I won’t get to the reading that I want to do for next week’s book club. But if I do the reading, then I’ll feel bad that I spent the afternoon sitting on my ass instead of getting some much-needed exercise. I have some errands to run, but in the time it would take me to dress appropriately, go out and get back, I could have studied my choir music, practiced my ukulele and started dinner. I have lots of writing to do but if I start a new essay on one topic, that means that I’d have to ignore the twenty other topics fighting for my attention. And, even if I settle on a topic and start that new essay, that means that I’m not writing for my blog, writing for my Facebook page, writing a grant application, working on a marketing strategy or getting started on my Christmas cards.

You see? Doing any one of these things precludes doing all the other things which, on days like today, drives me into a state of inertia where NOTHING gets done. Frittering happens. Facebook, email and online shopping happen. Fitbit spurts happen. Non-consequential housework happens. Aimlessness happens. Wine happens. And then it’s time for bed.

On days like this, focusing on any one thing is the same to me as neglecting all other things—which makes it impossible to concentrate on the thing that I am doing. So, like a mother who has more children than she could possibly take care of, I wind up abandoning everything. I waste time even though I am of an age where there is no such thing as time to waste.

Then I feel terrible—harebrained, distracted, inadequate, incapable of getting the job done.

And then I make a list. I force myself to do the first thing on the list regardless of what it is or whatever else follows it. And when it is done, I cross it off with a flourish and go on to the next thing.

And I feel a little better.

I may have to feel rock-bottom useless before I resort to this. But it is my big gun and it almost always works—like today.

Now, on to item Number Two.











Escape from the Wood-Oven Pie Tower 1

I am a teacher. So here’s a lesson—one that took me a long time to learn.

Do you remember playing “Gossip” when you were a kid? It was a game where one person whispered a “secret” into the next person’s ear. Then the second person whispered the “secret” into the third person’s ear and then third person passed it along to the fourth. When the “secret” got around to everyone in the room, the last person would reveal the “secret” that he heard. Then the originator of the “secret” would reveal what she actually said. And you know what?

The two secrets were never, ever the same.

So a “secret” that started out as innocently as “I love my mother and would never lie to her if I could help it” could wind up as sinister as “I shoved my lover into a wood-oven pie tower. Fire in the pit!”

See the difference?

In a game like this, the only person who knows the real “secret” is the person who started it.

And that’s you.

All of life is like a game of Gossip. We hear a story one way and remember it another and retell it in yet another. Then the next person hears the story we told (which is already three versions removed from the original), remembers it another way and retells it now in its sixth incarnation.

It doesn’t take very long before the story bears no resemblance to the original.

If that story was yours, it’s not anymore.

There’s only one way to insure that your stories will survive in their original, definitive versions. You have to take charge of them.

If you keep them inside, they will be lost forever. If you trust that others will keep them for you, they will be lost forever. If you think about writing them down, but never do it, they will be lost forever.

People will remember your stories their way, not yours—that is, if they remember them at all. So, if you don’t take charge of your life stories, what survives of them will be distorted over time. Eventually, they will disappear.

And so will you.

Oh my. This has taken something of a dark turn, hasn’t it?

The lesson I’ve been working toward is this. If you don’t do it, no one will. And even if they try, they’ll never get it right. So take charge. Right now. I mean it. Right now—this minute. Choose one thing, one small thing about yourself to commit to paper and save forever.

Try this. Pick one thing that you do deliberately. It could be something you choose to wear (or not wear), something that you choose to eat (or refuse to), a place you like to go (or hate to go), a pastime or hobby that you engage in, a way you like your living room to look, how careful you are when you drive, how you manage (or mismanage) your time, what kind of pets you keep, how you discipline your children, what you do for a living, etc. Just make sure that it is something that you do because it is your choice to do it, to do it a certain way or to not do it at all.

Having trouble choosing one thing? Be ruthless. It’s too easy to put off writing because you can’t settle on one thing to write about. That, I’ve discovered from experience, is a lame excuse, a procrastinator’s ploy, a cheap way out of doing something that you’re not sure you can pull off. Make a list. Then flip a coin, throw a dart, close your eyes and point, draw a slip of paper out of hat or throw them all on the floor and see which one the new puppy pees on. Do whatever it takes. Give yourself permission to A) take the time out of your busy day to do this B) not worry about what anyone else thinks C) believe that you are worth it. Commit yourself to that one small thing and forget all the rest—for now.

Then sit down in a quiet, clutter-free spot (good luck with that), and start to explain yourself in relation to the one thingthat you’ve chosen. Tell the story of why you do that one thing the way YOU do it.  Describe the thing, describe yourself doing the thing, describe the feeling you get when you’re doing the thing, describe how you feel when you’re not doing the thing and describe what all of this reveals about who you are. (If you don’t know where to start, then the subject is still too big. Break off a piece of it, set aside the rest and try again.)

When you’re done, you’ll have a snippet of your life—saved. Your way. In your words. The wood-oven pie tower never had a chance.


Imagine your great-great grandchildren someday reading your words, seeing a bit of what they’re made of and making a connection—with you. Gives me chills.

Do it. You can. And you should.

Starting Again 4

Done! Yay me!

You know that feeling. When the project that you’ve been slaving over is finished and it’s good. When you can breathe easier without the wrath of the unfinished bearing down on you. When you can stand back and admire your work. When you can finally relax.

That’s how I feel right now. In my working days, it was because the school year was ending and I was coming home with an empty book bag for the first time since September. Now, even though my projects are orchestrated 100% by me, they still tend to wind down in June. So, I have just finished up some cool things.

For instance, our Chorale just gave a concert of music that we worked on for months. It’s so satisfying to finally perform a difficult piece that has taken so long to get right. At the beginning, I always feel as though I’m just not up to it, that I’ll never learn it all, that it’s presumptuous of me to think that I’m musician enough to even be in the room. And then, over time, it comes together and the result is glorious.

And then it’s done.

I finished and published Saving Our Lives: Volume Two this winter, nearly a year after I thought would. I took a new business tack and had a few (million) things to learn. And the editing is painstaking and always takes longer than I think it will. It kept me occupied for a long time.

And now it’s done.

I just finished an essay for Volume Three of Saving Our Lives that took me a month to write. It had been rolling around in my head for ages and, for some reason, was really hard to start. And once I got it started, it faltered and sputtered along until I was ready to ditch it. I came close. But just as I was about to throw in the towel, a sentence came—and then another and another and another until I got to the end.

And now it’s done.

My niece and my sister and I set out to tackle some really hard (for me) crochet patterns with thin thread and teeny-tiny hooks.  We met weekly for our Stitch ‘n Bitch session—and believe me, especially at first, there was way more bitchin’ than stitchin’.  It was hard! Starting these projects is brutal, even now that I have some experience with them. Turning nothing into something in any medium is a feat, but these lacy crochet projects are barely visible at the start—and really easy to give up on. But once you get a few rounds behind you and you actually have something to hold on to as you work, it gets more manageable. And once you see the pattern forming under your fingers and you realize that you are making it happen, well, then it gets addictive and you strain under the brightest light in the house late at night, keeping at it until your head bobs and your work falls in your lap. I made an afghan, a shawl and three intricate doilies this season, sometimes with two or three projects going at once—huge for me.

Now they are all done.

Book club is done for the season as is our ushering stint at a local theater. We made our spring trip down south to visit the kids and we gave the annual Memorial Day Birthday Bash. We planned and pulled off participation in two full-weekend book vendor events—our first ever!

And now, all that is done. I should be basking in the glow of being done, but I’m not. What’s up with that?

Ernest Hemingway once said that a writer should never empty the well. Never stop a writing session by bringing the idea to a close. Save some of that already developed thought to get you started the next time. Never stop a writing session at the end of a sentence. Instead, stop in the middle. Leave something to prime the pump.  Starting from scratch every time sucks, so think ahead.

In other words, it’s so much easier to continue an ongoing project than it is to start a new one.

Oh, no. What have I done?

I think that I have inadvertently emptied my well on all fronts. I even finished the last book I was reading and have yet to start a new one. And now, as I struggle to choose a new project from among a million possibilities, I have nothing in the works to focus my attention, nothing that I can just pick up and work on, nothing where the agony of starting is behind me.

Even this blog post is almost





Nary A Cross Word

I never took a course in time management when I was in school. It’s a good thing, too, because I would have failed.

When I was teaching, my time was planned for me. The life of a public school teacher is fraught with bells and calendars and deadlines and due dates. You have to account for every minute if you’re ever going to fit everything into a school day—and that includes grabbing a snack, returning that urgent phone call from your lawyer or opting out of both so that you can steal five minutes to go to the bathroom. When I got a little time off, I’d spend the first half of it sitting and staring and the other half catching up on the laundry.

Now that my time is my own, I find I have no talent for managing it. I stare less and my clothes are always clean, but I have discovered that I am more prone to distraction when left on my own than I ever knew. There’s just so much out there and, unless I am deeply involved in something, I tend to lose focus and flit from thing to thing. Yes, I’m a flitterer. For a writer without a deadline, this is lethal.

The first stop on my daily flit is the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. When I was working, doing crosswords was one of those activities that was restricted to summer vacation (along with drinking gin and tonics and staying up late to watch David Letterman). But now that my mornings are mine, that crossword is a temptation I cannot resist.

Every morning I wake up, grab my phone, read my email, scroll through Facebook, get out of bed and tell myself that TODAY, right after a healthful breakfast, I will head DIRECTLY BACK UP to my desk to work on the writing project of the day. Then, I tell myself, once that is done, I can sit down at the kitchen table with my favorite blue ball-point and tackle the day’s crossword. It will be a reward for all my focus and discipline.

But then, I think, why not kill two birds with one utensil by starting in on the crossword while I’m eating?  You know where this leads, right? Exactly. Through the crossword and down to the Jumble. And before I can stop myself, my breakfast is cold, my writing focus is fuzzy and another day of flittering is in full swing.

I don’t know what it is about crossword puzzles that I find so addictive. But when I see the newspaper on the kitchen table, my resolve dissolves. I grab a pen and find the page, fold it back and get to work as if it were my job. Monday is my favorite day because it is the easiest. Puzzles get incrementally harder as the week progresses. It’s not generally the solutions themselves that are more difficult, but rather the clues that get craftier, punnier and less direct. I do appreciate the challenge of the late-week puzzles, but they take me longer and then I feel guilty for giving them all that time.

Since I work in ink, my personal goal is to finish a puzzle without a crossout. This means that I have to strategize a little differently than people who puzzle in pencil. I only write down answers that I am damned well sure of, so I look for the easiest answers first. This is not fool-proof but you have to start somewhere. Then as I fill in, I try to hold possible harder answers in my head as I check to see if any intersecting words might have the same letters. Sometimes I can fill in three or four words in a single swoop this way, certain that they are all correct because they share key letters. The satisfaction that I get from this reinforces the fact that I am really just a nerd—and an old one at that.

Why ink? Not to show off, believe me. I just love the feel of a ball-point pen on newsprint. The paper cradles the tip of the pen in a way that I find comforting. At first I only inked on Mondays, but then it was hard to revert to pencil unless I could find one with exactly the right lead softness and a tolerable eraser. Also, the crazy risks you can take puzzling with a pencil began to seem frivolous and undisciplined to me and so now I do all but the hardest puzzles in blue. Inky crossouts are infuriating and can really mess up the grid, but they are part of the game. A perfect blue ball-point puzzle, when it happens, is an accomplishment—and a sight to behold.

Does this make me a better writer? No. Does it get the laundry done? No. Does it exercise my brain to keep it sharp? Not really, no. Is it a major life distractor that helps me to justify procrastination? Bingo. It is pure pleasure, baby. And I think I’ve earned it.

And now it’s time to get to my desk and start writing.

But first, let’s see how fast I can do that Jumble.