Archive | productivity

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Declutter Your Inbox (Part 2)

A few weeks back, I took a break from RealDelia to declutter my inbox. Things had gotten to the point where every time I opened up my laptop and saw 2,896 messages, I started getting heart palpitations.

(Mind you, I’m someone who’s been known to start cleaning up dinner dishes *before* the meal is over – (I know, it’s awful) – so it really was torture for me to keep revisiting this primal injury every time I sat down to work.)

Needless to say, about four fifths of the messages either concerned an event which was already long completed or constituted a reminder to – guess what? – clean out my inbox.

But the other 1/5 were actually useful in a variety of ways. The last time I attempted a virtual declutter, I wrote a post about why clearing out my inbox made me feel both more relaxed and more productive.

This time, the process also proved worthwhile, although for slightly different reasons. So I thought I’d share some of the pearls of wisdom garnered from Clearing Out My Inbox (2.0).

Here are five (more) reasons to clear out your inbox:

1. You discover new technologies. If you’re like me, your partner (or a friend…or a fellow blogger) sends you the link to a really cool new technology and you immediately file it under “To be read/looked at/digested…” You know it’s something really neat that you really *should* take a serious look at but, hey, you’re busy. So you figure that it can wait until that miraculous day a few weeks from now when  the clouds part and it stops raining and you’re slowly sipping that cup of tea and calmly revisiting your bookmarks and…what’s wrong with this picture? That day never happens, that’s what. Which is precisely why it’s a good idea to clear out your inbox. In doing so, I stumbled across a little gem called Evernote – a free application that allows you to keep your to do lists online and access them from any computer, anywhere. Which – bonus feature! – means that you don’t need to keep them in your email, thereby increasing your inbox tally – or on small scraps of paper lying around your desk. So get thee to Evernote. You’ll thank me later.

2. You are reminded of old projects. Another benefit that comes from a good, healthy virtual decluttering is that buried underneath the 16 reminders to have lunch with Aunt Sue last December before the holidays (and be sure to call her first!) are a bunch of emails having to do with projects that you’ve let wither on the vine. That might have been intentional or it might have been an accident. But, either way, they have gone neglected. When you clear out your inbox, you stumble upon them and remember “Oh yeah, right! I meant to do that!” In my own case, this process enabled me to create a new list (guess where? Hint: See #1!) of U.S. agents that I’d like to send my book manuscript to. I hadn’t exactly forgotten that I wanted to do that, but cleaning out my inbox forced me to start dealing with it.

3. You are reminded of old contacts. In a similar fashion, you also stumble upon old contacts you need to get in touch with but have forgotten about, lost their emails, or otherwise dropped the ball. But once you start whittling down your inbox, voila, there they are. It pains me too much to talk about this right now, but we may need to move again sometime relatively soon. And we all know how I feel about moving. In going through my email, I came across the name and contact details for an estate agent here in London who was really helpful the last time we moved and whom I’d completely and utterly forgotten about. Yay!

4. You come across great book/movie recommendations. Whenever someone recommends a book or movie to me, I tryto write it down somewhere right away (in the case of a book) or add it to our queue in Love Film if it’s a movie.  But – as per #1 – I frequently fail to take this step and so, there it sits, languishing in my inbox. But one of the great joys of last week’s purge was coming across some great recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers that had fallen off the radar screen. Like this pick from my fave book blogger, Book Snob. Or the movie, The White Ribbon, which I’d heard so much about but somehow went MIA. I cannot *wait* to tackle these over the summer. And guess where I’m saving this new list of recommendations? (Hint: See #1. OK, I’ll shut up now.)

5. You realize how far you’ve come. This is the best part of all. Because so much of what’s cluttering up your inbox is old “stuff” you’ve already dispensed with, decluttering allows you to realize how very much you’ve accomplished. That might be in the personal realm – a new friend you invited to coffee – or the professional realm – the draft of an article that’s now published. For me, the biggest payoff was to see how much I’ve learned in the past two years about blogging. I’m still learning (thank goodness!) but a lot of the stuff lying deep in the recesses of my inbox were links to other bloggers offering tutorials on the basics of blogging. It was so great to be able to now delete those messages to myself, and to do so with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

So what are you waiting for? Try it!

Image: inbox zero by eweibust via flickr under a creative commons license

Spring Cleaning

Well hello there. I’m back from my travels. So I thought I’d pop in to say hello. (Cue: “Just popping in to say cuckoo. Cuck-oo!”) (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. And If you didn’t get that musical theatre reference,* I’m not quite sure what to say to you.)

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks in our household, what with all the continent-jumping we’ve been doing. And I’ve responded to the jet-lag induced craziness by…cleaning.

Yes, that’s right. Cleaning. It is Spring after all. (75 and sunny when we touched down at Heathrow Friday night, thank you very much.)

Since we arrived home, I’ve been a veritable machine, clearing out books…toys…clothing…videos. Heck, even the decade-old double stroller that once attached to our bicycles is finally getting tossed! (Why, you may ask, do *still* have a double stroller when our children are ten and seven?)  And well you might ask. Rest assured that the responsibility does not lie with yours truly. But thank goodness we hung onto that sucker for as long as we did, as it makes an incredibly useful device for transporting said goodies to the upcoming Nearly New Sale, where said stroller will remain…

There’s nothing quite like a good, old-fashioned de-clutter to relax the mind and bring peace to the soul. But I’m not going to stop there. Having tackled the dining room, living room and both bedrooms, the next target is…drum roll please…my inbox.

As I write, I have some 2,896 messages in my inbox. (Half of which probably say something like “Clean out your inbox!”) And while I was going to push off the horrid task of sitting down, rolling up my sleeves and ploughing through that bad boy until next week – after getting a few blog posts under my belt – I then thought, why wait?

After all, I’m already on a spring cleaning roll. So I want to capitalize on that momentum before it disappears.

Plus, I’m not sure if I’ve shared this little tidbit with you, but the country in which I currently reside (that would be the U.K.) has basically shut down for the month of April. Between the gi-normous Easter break they take every year, coupled with assorted Bank holidays (European Labor Day is next Monday), not to mention that whole Royal Wedding lollapalooza they’ve got going on later this week (and we all know how excited I am about *that*), this place has basically been a ghost town for the entire month. Every other day, it seems, is a public holiday.

A case in point: My son will have attended school for three whole days this month; my daughter, a whopping eight. Which means that I’ve been a bit short of free time of late.

So – channelling my old friend Naomi Williams – I’ve decided to go with the spring cleaning mania that would appear to be coursing through my veins, rather than resisting it. I’ve cleared out my inbox before with terrific results. But this time I’m going to go medieval. I’m giving myself five days to reduce my inbox – if not to zero – than to as close to zero as I deem reasonable.

So wish me luck. I can’t wait to come back to our conversation. So much has happened over the holidays that I’m dying to share with you.

But for now – as we say in The Sound of Music* – so long, farewell…

 

Image: Spring Cleaning – #3 by lastonein via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: How To Manage Without Your Spouse

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My husband is away on a business trip this week. I’m very lucky that he travels so infrequently. And usually when he is gone, it’s only for a few days at a time.

But this time he’s gone for an entire eight days. And because we don’t have a car or regular childcare, it can be a bit of a challenge to manage when he’s not around – both logistically and emotionally.

I tried really hard to gear up for his absence before he left, and so far (Happy Hump Day!) things are working out pretty well. Here are five tips for managing your life when your spouse or partner goes out of town:

1. Be relaxed but organized. That – courtesy of my fabulous life coach – is my mantra this week. As regular readers of this blog  know, the “organized” part comes easily. I am, after all, a walking calendar. But relaxed? Not so much. Especially when the carefully carved out division of labor between myself and my husband goes awry. (There’s a reason I’m not in charge of the kids’ music practice…) So every time I find myself tensing up, I just repeat that phrase out loud. I also keep a stress ball located in various corners of the house – my desk, the piano, next to the stove – so that I can just squeeeeeeze the anxiety out when it arises.

2. Do less. If, like me, you’re someone who tries to cram all of the 65,000 things you normally do in any given week into a week where – for whatever reason…school holidays…ill children…AWOL spouse – you simply have less time, here’s a radical proposal: do less. If necessary, pretend that you’re sick. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel.

3. Bribe your kids. I suppose the politically correct term here would be “incentivize,” but whatever. The point is – if you have children – you need to motivate them to get through the week despite all the changes to the normal schedule. In our case, because my kids attend different schools, the main hurdle is vaulting ourselves through the morning school run which is normally split between my husband and myself. This means getting up half an hour earlier, moving through breakfast at a brisk pace, and adding two additional 25 minute walks to my seven-year-old’s day. The incentive? Because I have one of those daughters who really cares how she looks, I have secretly saved a skirt and “half-jumper” (sweater) that we bought last week and she thought we were returning. I will bestow it upon her this evening just in time for…Come Dressed As Your Favorite Book Character Day at school tomorrow. (Isn’t it fortunate that Jane, the elder sister in Pride and Prejudice, wears long skirts?)

4. Treat yourself. Be sure to carve out time for yourself when your spouse/partner is away, where you can relax doing the kinds of things that you enjoy doing (particularly the ones he or she doesn’t like). In my case,  as a huge and often unrequited fan of the Oscars, I cordoned off all of Monday night to watch a special Oscar Highlights program (time change made it impossible to watch live), followed by Glee. Imagine my delight.

5. Appreciate the absent spouse. This is also key, for both partners and children. When someone’s away, try to set aside some time to think about and talk about why it’s sad that they’re not there, beyond just the inconvenience of it all. What do they bring to the family? What do you miss when they’re gone? (Be prepared that this may backfire. When I asked my kids the other day at breakfast “Imagine if Daddy was always traveling. Wouldn’t that be awful?” my son responded: “Well, we’d definitely have a car.”) Not exactly what I was looking for, but it’s a start…

*****

For those who are interested, here’s a post I did over at Politics Daily on new medical guidelines in the U.K. telling women that abortion is safer than childbirth.

Image: Glee by statelyenglishmanor via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Managing Re-Entry After A Vacation

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry following a vacation is trying at the best of times. You come back to “normal life” with looming deadlines, piles of unwashed laundry and all those things you really did mean to finish – but didn’t quite get to – right before you left. (Not to mention that fresh take on life you developed while travelling that you’re darn well going to start implementing…now.)

Toss in some jet lag and – if you’re me, about 10 gazillion bags worth of purchases you made at Target – and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Which is why – having just returned from a two and a half week vacation to the U.S. yesterday – I decided that this time, I’d really work consciously not to make re-entry the agonizing, adrenaline-fuelled stress-fest that it usually is in my life.

Well, I’m pleased to report that on day five of the Good Lord’s Year 2011…something I resolved to do differently in the new year actually worked.

Here are five ways to manage re-entry after a vacation:

1. Shower First. Pay no attention to that whole soap-dodging trend. It’s amazing what a shower can do to wake up the senses. Make sure you do it as soon as you get home, even if you’ve already taken a shower that day. A shower – plus a good, strong hot cup of coffee – are, I am convinced, the foundation for a successful re-entry launch.

2. Make Piles. I’m a big believer in lowering your expectations. Once you’re clean and caffeinated, the single best thing you can do for yourself upon re-entry is not to take on too much that very first day. You’ll exhaust yourself. Instead, what I’d recommend is making piles:  bills to pay…holiday cards to answer…dry-cleaning that’s accrued during your trip.You don’t have to actually *do* any of these things. But just putting them in the right piles will contribute enormously to your piece of mind knowing that they will, eventually, get done.

3. Fill In Your Calendar. Another small but not over-whelming task you can assign to yourself on that very first day back from a trip is to fill in the dates on your calendar (or “diary” as we say over here in the ‘hood.) Much like making piles, inputting your daughter’s swim class schedule, noting the next few book club meetings and (hopefully) setting aside a few date nights out with your partner can go along way towards making you feel in control of your life, before you actually step in to control it. And the beauty of this task is that it can be executed in a near-somnolent state.

4. Set In Motion One Big Thing. This may sound contradictory with points (2) and (3) but it doesn’t have to be. You know how we all have those giant, endless to-do lists that contain a small array of intractable items that never, ever make it off ground zero? While you’re wandering around your house in a bleary-eyed state after a vacation, take action on one of those babies – the really hard ones. You don’t need to resolve it that very first day. But even if it’s just about taking one small step to activate action on said item, you’ll feel so much better. In my own case, I decided yesterday that even though I’d been avoiding it for…um, like four months…I was going to defrost my refrigerator. Yes it was a pain in the neck. Yes, I had to sacrifice my favorite brand of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to the cause (Imagine Whirled Peace, in case you’re wondering.) But the prospect of opening the refrigerator in 2011 and *not* seeing an iceberg befitting March Of The Penguins? Priceless.

5. Open Your Mail Last. While it can be awfully tempting when you’ve been away from home for a while to open up all of your mail right away, it’s a terrible idea. Mail – whether it’s personal, business or just a doctor’s appointment – is deeply distracting. You get caught up in the photo of someone else’s cute kids. You learn that you didn’t get that job you applied for. You start reading all about the latest changes to your retirement plan. Do yourself a favor and get the small stuff done first. And then reward yourself by reading your mail last when you can really concentrate. Ditto Email. Trust me.

Happy re-entry.

And Happy 2011.

Image: – Mail Day!! – by Warm n’ Fuzzy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Do On A Staycation

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My family is doing a staycation this year. We’re taking a few local trips here and there. But mostly – due to assorted work deadlines and exhaustion from our recent move – we’ll be at home in London.

Apparently, we’re not alone. Here in the U.K., a combination of airline strikes and the Eurozone debt crisis have prompted many more British people to holiday at home this year. In the United States, the whole concept of staycation (a word now enshrined in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) has shifted from being a temporary outgrowth of the financial crisis to a social phenomenon that’s here to stay.

I love London, so I don’t really mind being here in the summer. Still, the longer days, warmer weather, and changes to the kids’ schedules do inspire me to do things a bit differently, if for no other reason than to shake up my own routine.

So if, like me, this is a summer when you’re going to give traveling a pass, here are some ways to mark the occasion:

1. Discover a new place. One way to make a staycation feel special is to travel somewhere new near your home. This might be a new museum, a restaurant you’ve been meaning to try or that park that’s just a bit too far to visit during the school year. At the top of my list is to take a backstage tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s oldest theatre. On their tours, a group of actors perform key events from this theatre’s rich history while you look around. I may even (gasp) do this on my own, since I don’t think any of my friends or family members quite shares my thespian enthusiasm. (Adulthood fantasy #6 is where I manage a community theatre troupe in which I also make the occasional cameo. Hey, we all need to dream…)

2. Get a new toy. Usually, we associate the novelty of a new toy with children. But it’s equally valid for adults, who also need to play. This year, my summer treat to myself is a bicycle. Because our new house is located considerably further from the kids’ schools and assorted other activities, I find that I’m often in motion between the hours of three and five on any given afternoon. And so we finally broke down and bought a bike for me on Ebay. It’s one of those funky collapsible things – (a Brompton, for those in the know) – because I’ll need to take it on the Tube and the bus with the kids. Bonus? I feel terribly hip and urban. Bonus-by-association? Guess who’s got a handy new gadget to play with?

3. Learn a new skill. “It’s like riding a bike.” The only problem with that old chestnut is that it only means something if you actually *know* how to ride a bike. In light of our staycation, my husband and I took the command decision that this was an opportune time to teach my nine year-old how to ride a bike. (I know, I know. Ridiculously late to be teaching him this life skill, especially since his six year-old sis has been bike riding for more than a year. What can I say? We’re bad parents.) But we’re on it now, and – in light of #2 – it also means that we can now go for family bike rides.

4. Tackle something on your “dreaded” to-do list. I once wrote a post entitled “Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To Do List.” One of the strategies I recommended was to divide your to-do list in half into long-term and short-term items. The idea was to tick something off of the short list every day, and to take a step towards removing something on the long list every week. I think this strategy works very well. But it does pre-suppose that every so often, you really do take that crucial step on the dreaded (long) to-do list. In my case, I’ve had “clean rugs” on there for – oh, you really don’t want to know how long. But darn it if I didn’t pluck up my courage yesterday and call around for some estimates. (Needless to say – and like most of the “dreaded” tasks – contemplation was much worse than execution.) And now I feel so much better as a result. Up next? Wash duvet cover…

5. Read some really long books. Let’s face it. We all have a list of books on our bedside table which – tempting as they might seem – we never get around to reading because they’re just too long. And I don’t mean the medicinal ones that you feel you *ought* to read so that you’re up to speed on such and such a topic. (Eternal Message of Muhammed anyone? Oh, is that just me?) No, I mean the really good ones that entail a level of commitment that’s just beyond your comfort level during a busy week. I just finished the third volume in the highly addictive Dragon Tattoo series – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. Now I’m on to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Up next? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. If time, there’s always Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, seriously. Don’t laugh.

What are you doing this summer around home?

*****

For those who are interested, I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about a lawsuit against the British government on the grounds of gender discrimination in its new austerity budget.

Image: Very early Brompton (number 333) by marcus_jb1973 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Clear Out Your Inbox

Every week I offer tips for adulthood.

As many of you know, I recently moved house. And in the process of tossing out assorted long-dormant items like my son’s erstwhile Playmobil castle and the fish poacher that was serving as a spice rack, I realized that I shouldn’t limit my decluttering to actual stuff. It was also time to do a virtual declutter.

As I’ve said before, I’m not one of those die-hard Inbox Zero types. I’ve come to accept that there will always be a certain base level of flotsam cluttering up my inbox. Otherwise, I’d do nothing but eliminate emails all day long.

But there comes a time – and everyone has a different threshold – when you just can’t bear to look at your inbox splitting at the seams anymore. For me, it was when my inbox went over 1000 messages. (I won’t tell you how much over or you might gasp.) And I knew that it was time to get our my virtual hacksaw and start chopping.

If you’re like me, you probably dread the idea of sitting down and going through your inbox. Maybe there’s stuff in there that you’re trying to avoid. Or you fear that by managing your inbox, you will necessarily *not* be doing something else with your time. Or maybe the whole task is just too daunting.

But today’s post is meant to help you see that by setting aside time to clear out your inbox, you’ll actually feel calmer *and* more productive. Here’s why:

1. You get ideas. I’ve posted before about how I come up with ideas, whether it’s taking a “thinking shower” or going outside for a walk. When I get those ideas, I usually write them down in a little notebook I carry around that’s precisely for that purpose. But sometimes – and especially if it’s an idea that I plan to save for a later date – I write myself an email about the idea with the thought of subsequently storing it in a file on my computer. Except that sometimes I never actually complete that second step. And so the idea – which has subsequently gone completely out of my mind – is essentially lost, drowning in the sea that is my inbox until I find the time (which could be weeks, even months) to rescue it. Clearing out your inbox reminds you of those little gems that are hiding in the recesses of your brain.

2. You take action. And once you’ve been reminded of that cure for cancer you came up with while jogging one Thursday afternoon back in March, you might actually be inspired to do something about it. In my case, my virtual decluttering prompted me to send off an essay I’d written (gulp) 18 months ago to a major media outlet and also to get in touch with an agent I’d flagged but never actually contacted. Those were both things I’d been meaning to do for ages. But until I happened upon those items in my inbox, I completely forgot that they were even on my to-do list.

3. You reconnect with people. Just as the decluttering entailed in moving house reminds you of important people from your past, so too does scrubbing out your inbox remind you of friends and relationships that matter. I just found an email that was several months old from a friend of mine who moved to Colorado last year. In it, she not only brought me up to speed on what she’s been up to, but sent me an article about her new employer that reminded me – in turn – of an idea I’d been meaning to write about (Twofer! See #1). Another email from an old friend reminded me that his father had passed away. While I’d already sent my friend a condolence letter, I now remembered that I’d wanted to send his mother one as well.

4. You feel accomplished. If you’re like me, half of your inbox is filled with things like “Buy bananas!” “Get birthday present for X!,” “Write post on Z!” So half of your inbox is filled with things you’ve already done. (And we all know the joy of retro-actively crossing things off our to do lists!) With the rest of the items, you’re hopefully either executing them (see point #2) or storing them in a virtual home. Either way, you’ll feel like you’re getting stuff done.

5. You relax. And this is perhaps the greatest benefit of all. There’s nothing quite like a good, old-fashioned declutter, whether real or virtual. It takes years off your life…removes pounds from your body…lifts scales from your skin. (O.K., I”m mixing metaphors a bit but you get my drift.) Short of doing yoga, there’s really nothing quite so soothing.

Image: Inbox Zero by eweibust via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Living With Mess: Radical Acceptance

Christina Katz has a great post over on her Prosperous Writer E-zine this week about what she calls “clarity.” She defines clarity as “lucidity…exactness…simplicity.”

It’s about figuring out what you need and what you want as a writer and paring down your obligations and responsibilities so that you can really zero in on what’s important. (Note: you must subscribe to her free e-zine to read this post, which I heartily recommend.)

This is great advice for both writing and life, and something I continually have to remind myself to do when I start feeling overwhelmed. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity,” as the man said.

The problem is that isn’t always that…well…simple. Sometimes you can’t achieve clarity because there are too many loose ends in your life and you have to accept that some of these just aren’t going to get tied up in short order.

Which is where I’m at right now with – oh – just about everything in my life. You see, I’ve just moved house. So everywhere I look I see unopened boxes.

There are the real boxes, those last stubborn few that simply refuse to empty themselves because – if you cared to tackle them – they’d require you to scratch your head and say: Now where does that plug go? Which cannister is that the top to? And why, again, did we decide to save that yarmulke from that bar mitzvah five years ago?

Then there are the metaphorical boxes:  The stack of New Yorkers that lie unread. The emails that began to pile up the day of the move and some of which sit still – unopened – in the dark recesses of my inbox. Those last few changes of address that haven’t yet happened because it turns out that you actually need to call the pension fund in the U.S. where you still have some pocket of retirement savings during (its) business hours because they can’t process an overseas address on-line.

And then there are all those technological boxes that can’t be opened because this is the U.K. where the customer comes last. So the internet provider lost track of your account and now you have to wait another 10 days for them to come to your neighborhood to set it up. Or the bank forgot to update your address so your credit card keeps getting rejected. Or – my personal favorite – the satellite dish for the TV can’t be installed because you live on the third floor and their ladders don’t go that high. (Um…no offense, but isn’t this what you do for a living?)

It drives me insane, all this mess. Because I hate things that are un-finished. I’m the lady who sometimes adds things to my to-do list *after* I’ve done them just to feel the satisfaction of crossing them off, remember?

So I’ve been feeling really unsettled lately. (It didn’t help that for the first five days of my move the U.K. didn’t have a government. I was like “C’mon, guys! Just make up your minds, would ya?“)

And then, something weird happened. Yesterday night was my monthly book group meeting. And, on top of everything, I hadn’t finished the book. This has never happened to me before. I’m one of those hard-core, unsympathetic book group types who *always* finishes the book. But this time, I just couldn’t.

But because I love my book club, I went anyway. Even though I hadn’t finished and felt wretched about that. (It helps that we were reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s marvelous Half of A Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. Speaking of learning how to live with mess…)

And you know what? It felt OK to be there, even half-read. Because it was the best I could do.

My life coach has a great phrase for moments like this. She calls it “radical acceptance.” It’s for situations where things are exactly how you’d like them *not* to be  – where you can’t, yet, achieve “clarity.”

So you force yourself to extend the parameters of what you’d normally find acceptable. And you decide to  just roll with it. Because you know that you are on the road to clarity.

And that’s O.K.

Radical Acceptance.

Image: Unopened Boxes by CDaisyM via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Sabbath Saturday: Five Things I Gained From Taking Saturdays Off

A month ago, I committed myself to testing out a new personal resolution: I would no longer work on Saturdays.

I defined work quite broadly for this purpose. It encompassed anything electronic (e.g. email, Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds) as well as conducting interviews and, of course, writing. And because I’m more of an abstainer than a moderator, I gave these things up for the entire day, not just for a few hours.

I promised that after one month, I’d touch base to let you know how my attempt to celebrate a secular sabbath was going and whether I thought it was really doable. And I’m pleased to report that it was not only doable, it also gave me a huge happiness boost, in ways that I both did and did not expect.

That’s not to say it was easy. There was not a Saturday that I wasn’t tempted to do at least a bit of work. But there also wasn’t a Saturday that I wasn’t glad that I had decided not to.

So here are five things I gained from taking Saturdays off:

1. I relaxed. My main goal in taking Saturdays off was to bring a few of my favorite things (cue Julie Andrews) back into my life: specifically, reading The New Yorker and going to yoga. Of those two – and somewhat surprisingly – yoga ended up getting relatively more air time than did The New Yorker (which is only surprising because I don’t need to leave the house to read The New Yorker.) But I think something about assigning myself Saturday as “yoga day” motivated me to go down to the yoga studio and sign up for a 10-class pass. And once I did that, going to yoga was not just pleasurable…but automatic. And now it’s part of my (new and improved!) Saturday routine.

2. I was more focused with my children. If you’ve ever attended a parenting seminar, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that if you really want to have quality time with your kids, you need to stop multi-tasking. Back when I worked full-time – in an office – I was actually pretty good about switching off work when I was with the kids. Once I became a part-time, work-from-home parent, however, all that went right out the window. But in the last month or so, I’ve actually sat down and focused on my kids for hours at a clip without feeling the need to simultaneously (fill in the blank): do dishes/check my email/scan the newspaper/etc. One day, my son and I actually took out the chemistry set that he’d gotten for Hanukkah – (which, to be honest, I’d sort of filed away mentally under “great educational gift that will probably never see the light of day” ) – and – gasp – used it. And the more I focused on the kids and didn’t try to get 12 other things done simultaneously – the more relaxed I was with them.

3. I re-connected with old friends. One of the big changes that has come with taking Saturdays off is that I’m now back in touch with old friends. Close female friendships are a big predictor of long-term survival and success. Back when I was still living in the States, I used to call my friends during my daily 45 minute commute home from work in the car. (I know, I know. I could probably be arrested for this now.) But it was a reliable, daily interval when I knew that I could make those calls. Now that I don’t commute, I’ve lost that window. Compound that with a time change that’s anywhere from five to eight hours, and over time, I just started calling my friends less and less. Until now. Now that I’ve given myself leave not to use spare time on Saturdays to jump on the computer, I can usually find 30 minutes somewhere in the day to call a friend back in America. And it’s been really great to re-connect.

4. I went shopping. For myself. Yes, I realize that this isn’t such a great admission for most people, but I am not a natural shopper. And so – even when I desperately need something, a pair of new boots, perhaps…a bra…heck, even some new socks – I will always opt to get some work done, rather than go out and shop. No more. Because I’ve now given myself permission to shop on Saturdays. In the past month, I’ve purchased some running shoes, a new jacket, some earrings…even a colorful scarf to brighten up this dreary London winter.

5. I’m more productive. Finally, taking Saturdays off has also helped my productivity. I would often drag myself to the computer on Saturday – not really wanting to wade through my inbox but feeling like I ought to “because I had the time.” Now, in contrast, I think about Saturdays as “my time” – a chance to re-charge those proverbial batteries. And then, when I do sit down on Sunday morning to tackle that cluttered in-box, I actually have more energy.

*****

Here’s a piece I wrote on Friday for PoliticsDaily.com about Tony Blair’s testimony before the Chilcot Inquiry on his role in the War in Iraq.


Image: Chemistry Outfit, No. 1, 1947 by Chemical Heritage Foundation via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Celebrating the Sabbath: Making Saturdays *Me* Time

I have an announcement to make:  I’m going to start celebrating the Sabbath.

No, I’m not getting in touch with my inner Jew. (For the moment, I think I’ll continue to remain Jew-ish rather than Jewish.)

I’m afraid it’s a much less lofty goal than that. I’ve decided not to work on Saturdays anymore (read: no blogging, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter) so that I can focus more on myself. Or – to put it more accurately – I’d like to designate Saturdays as a day for doing things outside of work that also make me happy.

Yes, I know it’s a radical concept. But as Colleen of Communicatrix fame points out with characteristic wit and insight, it’s really hard to find time for the things we wish to prioritize in our lives unless we make room for them. She’s turning all of January into December so that she can take stock, clear the decks and plunge in with some new projects. Back in November, I took a self-imposed vacation so that I could send out my novel to agents.

The break I have in mind for Saturdays is somewhat different. The above projects are all about carving out space to move forward on the work front. What I have in mind is moving forward on the life front. For as I sat in a Viennese coffee house over the holidays and reflected on my life, I realized that in my never-ending quest to get on top of my to-do list, two things that  bring me true happiness had both fallen by the wayside:   doing yoga and reading The New Yorker.

You see, this is how my mind works. If something gets deemed a necessity in my life, it gets done. If it’s deemed a luxury, it may or may not get done. But if it does get done, that likely only happens around 11:59 p.m. on a Thursday evening with half an eyelid open and the corresponding amount of energy. And because I had begun labeling both yoga and The New Yorker “luxuries,” they just weren’t happening anymore, at least with the regularity that’d like.

So I’m making a change. For the next month – and I’m telling you this because one way you signal a commitment is to give yourself a time-line and say it out loud – I’m going to experiment with assigning myself only two jobs on Saturday – going to yoga and reading The New Yorker. My hope is that if I can do just those two things (with anything else a bonus), I’ll not only be happier, I’ll actually be more productive when I do return to the computer. If this strategy goes well and proves realistic, I’ll commit for the year.

Of course, I’m hoping that this new routine will incur other benefits as well. To wit:

*more face-to-face parenting, rather than shouting commands over my shoulder as I hurtle through my RSS feed

*making a dinner that does not involve something out of a jar from Tesco

*quality time with my husband so that we can watch more DVD commentaries and listen to Garrison Keillor together

*actually playing all those board games that I bought for Hanukkah (BTW: Settlers of Catan? Totally worth it…)

And who knows? Maybe we’ll even make it to synagogue one of these days…

*****

On a much more somber note, here’s a piece I did for PoliticsDaily.com about the ongoing drama surrounding the theft of a sign from Auschwitz.


Image: The New Yorker Fugitive by Rakka via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To-Do List

Every Wednesday I post tips for adulthood.

I got a status update from a friend on Facebook last night that read something like this: “The ironing pile just never goes away! I’ve tried not ironing…but I hate wrinkly clothes. And the pile just keeps growing!”

I know. I know. Your first thought is “Don’t iron!” but it’s clearly important to her. (She confessed later on that she even irons her kids’ undershirts…Wow!) And let’s face it. Taking four people’s clothes to a dry cleaner is both absurdly expensive…and just plain absurd. So instead, my friend irons – and irons – but the pile just keeps growing.

We all have our ironing piles. For some, it’s our email inbox. (Guilty!) For others, it’s the endless pile of bills to pay. And at this time of year, the number of piles just continues to mount: holiday presents…holiday cards…holiday recipes. Calgon, take me away!

As I learned two weeks ago while taking a self-imposed vacation, you never completely eradicate your to-do list. But here are some tips to help reduce your “laundry”:

1. Take control of one thing. As my life coach loves to remind me: “Stress occurs when you feel out of control.” There are lots of things in life that we don’t control:  an ill relative…how many friends your kid has in school. But there are some things we do control and our stress is greatly reduced when we seize one of those and manage it. I recently realized that I was really stressed out because I hadn’t yet purchased holiday gifts for the kids. So one night – even though the holidays were more than a month away – I sat down for 30 minutes, went through my mental list of what they wanted/needed/I could afford – and ordered a bunch of stuff on Amazon. I immediately felt calmer.

2. Divide your to-do list in half. I read about this tactic while sitting in a doctor’s office one day. (Yes, on occasion, those brochures are useful!) The idea is to separate your to-do list into long-term and short-term items. Each day, you tick off one item from the short-term list (see #1). Each week, you take a concrete step towards something on the long-term list. So even if your long-term list contains such seemingly amorphous tasks as “figure out your religion” (mine does!), you can still phone one synagogue and arrange to attend a bagel brunch. Done.

3. Take something off your plate. I once attended a productivity seminar that was run by a ridiculously enthusiastic management consultant. What I remember most from that experience – other than the skip in his stride – was his mantra to “Get it off your plate.” He maintained that the trick to a productive life lay in figuring out where to “send” something once it landed in your inbox. In my case, I like to think of this as finding a home for the things on your to-do list. It could be a physical home – a space for those single earrings/errant socks/stray Pokeman cards. Or it could be a virtual home. (My husband has a file called “history” where he stores all emails relating to landmark personal/family/professional events.) Whatever the strategy, when there is less clutter in and around your to-do list, you’ll feel more relaxed.

4. Eliminate the shoulds. I’ve posted before that many of the things populating our to-do lists are things we really don’t want to be doing, but feel we ought to be doing. And then we feel miserable that they don’t get done. So the trick here, my friends – (much easier to preach than to practice, I’ll grant you!) –  is to be honest with yourself about which items aren’t getting done because they are a “should.” Just the other day, an old friend confessed to me that she hadn’t yet sent out her – wait for it – holiday…cookies. What?? You send people cookies? I mean, what a lovely idea. And what a huge, annoying pain in the rear. “Do you like making cookies?” I asked her. She paused. “No. Not really,” she confessed. “But I like the idea of doing it.” Exhibit A.

5. Think in terms of weeks not days. This was one of the most helpful things my life coach ever suggested. She said that rather than trying to figure out which five things you can/will accomplish on any given day (and then despair when one or two fail to materialize), figure out what it is you’d like to have done by the end of the week. Then, if you miss the yoga class on Thursday morning because you have to attend a meeting, you can still reschedule it for Saturday and check that box. Try it!

*****

I’ve gotten a lot of flack for my post on Politics Daily about why I don’t think the new mammogram guidelines are so bad. Have a look…

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Image: A Man’s Tools by Bob AuBuchon via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.