Tag Archives: To-do Lists

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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Throwing Away The Outline (In Writing And Life)

There’s a lot to be said for having an outline when you write.

It gives a structure to your story. It reminds you where you are when you wander off to embellish some minor – but important – point and then realize that you’ve wandered so far you have no idea where you started. Above all, it’s just reassuring:  it suggests that you may actually get to the end of whatever it is you’re writing.

I usually work from a sort of loose outline when I write. Occasionally, I don’t. I just sit down with a bunch of points I want to make and improvise my way towards a conclusion. Usually – about half way through that sort of writing – I figure out what I really wanted to say. And once in a while, I create a really detailed, formal outline of exactly how I’m going to proceed with a given piece.

I used this last strategy – to my own detriment – last week on a feature I’m writing for PoliticsDaily.com about the BBC (watch this space.) It’s a topic that’s obsessed me for as long as I’ve lived in the UK, and I’ve been dying to write about it for years. But I needed to wait until there was a news hook to have an excuse to write the article.

But when I finally sat down to write, I had so much material buzzing around my head – research…interviews…newsclips…my own experiences – that I was a bit overwhelmed. So I started outlining. And outlining. And outlining some more.

I thought that this would help me write the piece more quickly. But the truth was – when I actually put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys), I was so immersed in the subject matter that the points I wanted to make just flowed on their own. So I ended up tossing my outline aside and just running with it. I let the piece “write itself” as it were, rather than trying so hard to control it.

And guess what? It came out much more quickly. And I realized after a few days that I probably could have finished the whole thing much sooner if I’d just given into the creative process rather than obsessively trying to outline my way through it.

This is true in life as well. You see, I’m a planner. (Some might – ahem – say I plan too much. Darling? Is that you?) I tend to approach things that make me stressed (read: just about everything) by scheduling:  carefully planning out my time,  putting dates in the calendar, making endless to-do lists. But we all know that life is best lived in the moment, not through an outline.

I’m trying to keep this in mind as I gear up for my upcoming move which will occupy a lot of psychological real estate in my head over the next six or seven weeks. As I near the move date, my instinct will be to immerse myself in the boxes and the movers and the change-of-address forms. And, sure, those things need to happen.

But what I should really focus on is how happy I am that we are moving to a bigger space, with really nice views, right next to a gigantic park, where my kids can play football (soccer) and run around. And I can take long walks and chill. And *that’s* what this move is about.

Watch this space.

Image: Outlining by dmscvan 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.

Tips for Adulthood: Five Great Lifehacking Websites

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Yesterday I fessed up to not being a lifehacker. But just because I don’t employ many lifehacks in my own life except, perhaps, accidentally (hmmm…”The Accidental Lifehacker” – perhaps that should be the title of my memoir…), this doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the beautiful simplicity of short cuts for daily life.

So today, in honor of all my lifehack-loving friends out there – including, and especially, my lovely husband – here are five great lifehacking websites:

1. Lifehacker. This eponymous lifehack website is mostly geared towards downloads that fuel productivity. But lest you think it is only for computer nerds, there’s something for everyone on Lifehacker. Given my sleep issues, I was particularly drawn to this post on how to improve your sleep posture.

2. Zen Habits. Here’s another lifehacking site focused on – as the sub-title has it – “simple productivity.” So, for example, here’s a post about “executing your to do list” (Sub-title: why writing it doesn’t actually get it done). Egads! But it’s all about the crossing off…I mean isn’t it? I sometimes write things down after I’ve done them just to experience the thrill of crossing them off the dreaded to-do list! Clearly, I need to spend some more time here.

3. Dumb Little Man. This website offers “tips for life” that run the gamut from personal finance to self-development to improving your productivity. In light of my new-found enthusiasm for physical therapy, I was quite taken with this post on how to improve your hunched over PC posture. (You mean leaning in further, typing faster and more furiously, and telling yourself that you’ll stretch in the next half hour – but then never managing to actually do it – isn’t the way forward?) Insider Tip: My husband has a “stretch shoulders” alert on his computer that reminds him to stretch once an hour.

4. Write to Done. Started by Leo Baubuta – creator of Zen Habits – it provides productivity tips to writers of all kinds. It also features a lot of guest posts, which makes it feel like a real writing community. As a sometime fiction writer, I really liked this post on how to let loose with your story telling.

5. The Happiness Project. Penned by my old pal Gretchen Rubin, this blog narrates the author’s journey through a year of learning what makes people happy by “trying on” advice, bromides and strategies from Aristotle to Oprah. But every Wednesday, Gretchen also offers happiness tips. Some of my favorites have been her tips on parenting, including this post about “Seven Tips to Defuse a Tantrum” and this post about “Five Tips for Getting a Little Kid to Take No for an Answer.”

OK. I must admit that after that brief stroll  through lifehacker-land, I’m beginning to see why these sorts of things are so addictive…but can a zebra really change its stripes?

Image: To Do List by Ebby via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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