Getting a Jump on 2013

Resolution - better time management

(Photo credit: vpickering)

New Year’s Day conjures the tradition of resolutions and starting over. Changing our lives and becoming better people. Grandiose ideas of how we can break habits, institute a shiny list of things we will accomplish, and generally make the world a better place for all. Well, I’m going to do something different this year. Something that challenges my most troublesome trait while giving myself a gift of time in the coming year.

As my regular followers know, I post on Tuesdays and Fridays, which meant posting on two holidays. On Christmas Day, I posted (A Gift of Time), and I will also be posting on New Year’s Day. The plan was to post my New Year’s Resolutions on January 1, but I have decided to do that today instead and offer another surprise for New Year’s Day. Besides, if my post about resolutions happens today, it will be one of the few times this year that I’ve actually finished something EARLY!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve accomplished a lot this year, much of it on schedule. In fact, I’ve accomplished more than I thought was possible. Largely, it’s because of my juggling skills. I’m a master of several tricks that allow me to appear that I have things together, even when I’m wondering how I’m really going to pull it all off. Usually, I do, but not without a lot of unnecessary stress. And for all I’ve accomplished in the past year, there were others that didn’t get done. Some of them were things that were more important to me than the ones that did get completed, but I didn’t always look before I jumped. The reality is that I have way too much going on and that most of my days are at the mercy of my schedules and deadlines–of my own choosing in many cases. I have such a strong sense of responsibility that I get done what has to be done, but I drive myself crazy in the process. So I have to consider why I end up in the same situation over and over again. And resolve to change it.

But when it comes to frustrations associated with the making and breaking of New Year’s resolutions, apparently I’m not alone. According to Psychology Today (see link below) British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that 88% of all resolutions end in failure. We all know the rules: make them doable, make them measurable, take small steps, and keep an element of positive motivation in them.

I hadn’t really thought too much about that last one, but it seems pretty true for many of my own resolutions as well as for the resolutions I’ve heard and read about. Why is it that most of my resolutions have been filled with SHOULD’s instead of WANT’s? This isn’t actually the time or the place (YET) to explore what I have trouble figuring out what it is I want, but that is one of my problems, maybe one that explains why the should’s win out for me most of the time. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this year will be different. First I have to avoid the typical resolution traps.

So that brings me to my alternatives for resolutions for the new year. I can:

1. Do the usual, and end up as part of that 88% statistic. (Obviously, this is the easiest habit to fall into. Just say no.)

2. Make things more measurable, and build in a better system of accountability. (Damn! it looks like that one involves multiple resolutions to implement make a list of resolutions about how I will manage time better.)

3. Skip the resolutions all together this year. (Tempting, but not effective in really changing things.)

English: Danboard holding a Christmas gift.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I may not yet be sure about what I want to do with the gift of time I want to give myself, but I do know I need to do less this year. But that is not a solid enough resolution to make a difference. I’ve known for many years that I don’t know how to say no. I even got hired for a job many years ago based on giving my inability to say no as a “weakness.” And I have resolved from time to time to change my activity-collecting ways, but without much success. If I do nothing but make another vague and impossible resolution for January 1, 2013, the results will almost certainly be the same. So, my fourth option will be:

4. Do something dramatically different. (This seems to be the path to a different outcome, and I certainly want a different outcome.)

What about giving myself 24 hours to consider a request on my time? I could just tell the requester that I need to sleep on it, and I’ll get back to them. Maybe if I took the time to STOP AND THINK, I might not simply jump on every opportunity that sounds remotely interesting. The problem is that without knowing what I ultimately want to do, I have no way of evaluating whether an opportunity furthers my overall life vision or just fills up more time containers. Unfortunately, without some kind of evaluation system, I would have to hope that my enthusiasm for a new project would wane to some degree in my allotted time frame and that I could be strong if the person or people involved tried to play on my sympathies (and my difficulty with saying no). That seems to be another recipe for ending up in the 88%. This is another situation where I would need to implement another system (evaluating and deciding) in order to follow through. No,  I need a stronger defense against my tendency to over-commit. And then it hit me. I knew what I needed.

A MORATORIUM

a 30-day container in which I say “no” to every new demand on my time.

  • Social events are exempt.
  • I get one “get out of jail free” card in the event the opportunity of a lifetime really does come along.
  • The moratorium is renewable at the end of 30 days.

A moratorium gives me the tools to say no without having to deal with my typical loopholes. I don’t have to go through a decision-making process. It becomes a non-issue. I don’t have to second-guess myself. For the next 30 days, I can work on digging out from under the commitments I have and know that nothing new will be added. Hence, the renewable aspect of the plan. Eventually, I will see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, I can use a few moments here and there to gain a better sense of what I would rather be doing with my time. Then I can put on the training wheels and begin to consider requests again, once I have a basis for making such decisions.

In the meantime, I have hope that I may make it into the 12% this year. Wish me luck!

How about you? Are you making any resolutions this year?

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A Gift of Time

English: Hagnaby Road, Old Bolingbroke Another...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was younger, I used to get excited about snow days. Although I wasn’t a big fan of winter, snow days almost made winters worthwhile. Even better is when the weather was bad enough that school was called off for the next morning before we even went to bed. Going to bed without turning on the alarm clock was great. But even if it didn’t happen before bedtime, we didn’t mind too much. We’d get up right on time the next morning and turn on the radio and listen intently for the name of our school district to be included in the list of cancellations. Since we were already up, it just gave us a little extra time to celebrate the day.

Whether we found out the night before or on the morning of the snow day, I loved the unexpected release from the usual schedule. It’s not that I disliked school (at least, not most of the time), but I liked the surprise of having an unexpected chunk of time to use for all kinds of fun and exploration. My sister and I had a variety of activities that we enjoyed on these days. Our multi-day Monopoly games, writing letters for our pen pal competition, reading, or baking. We would put music on the stereo and explore the possibilities.

When I had my own family, I still loved snow days. I enjoyed the unscheduled days with my children. My office was located in a neighboring school district, and if a snow day was called in that district, our office was also closed. When the weather looked “promising,” the kids and I could often be found refreshing the TV station’s website every couple of minutes, waiting for the moment when our two school districts would announce closures. Games, puzzles, special menus, baking, and art projects were a few of the activities that we enjoyed on those days. And sometimes, it was nice just to catch up on a few things that had been falling behind. But even when those snow days involved a few chores or tasks, they always seemed a little less burdensome when they were done after being excused from something else.

In Time is Money?I wrote that there are no savings accounts for time, but snow days at least served as a coupon for some additional time that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. They became my first conscious experience of a gift of time. Whenever the weather graced me with a day off, I had a few projects ready to take advantage of the coupon before it expired. I would also receive gifts of time when piano students cancelled or postponed lessons. Or when my husband would suggest that we go out to dinner, and my afternoon would be freed from thoughts of dinner preparation.

Sometimes, a gift of time doesn’t seem like a gift initially. When I wrote about the burst of creative energy I experienced after a job loss, that was a real blessing, but I didn’t find feel that way at first. I had to get past some of the negative aspects of the experience and begin to see what I could do with the time I suddenly had. It took a while, but eventually, I saw it for the gift it was. A further gift of time came after a move across the country to take a new job (to replace the one I had lost). When I was hired, the job didn’t actually start for nearly a month. With that much time available to me while knowing I had a job to go to made settling into our new home a real pleasure.

Pile of gorgeous gifts

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I live in Taiwan, where we don’t have snow days–ever. Occasionally a typhoon day, but so far during my time here, they only happen on the weekend. Still I find ways to make pockets of time for myself, time coupons that I capture for myself, even though not as often as I would like. Still, there are times when a meeting gets postponed, or a student changes an appointment, and there it is–another gift. Just last week, a student who meets with me weekly, wrote down Wednesday, but thought it was Thursday. So on Wednesday, she didn’t show up at the appointed time. I started work on a project while I waited for her, and by the time I figured out she wasn’t coming that day, I had quite a bit done. We figured things out, and she ended up coming the next day, but even the rearranging of the schedule offered a gift of time, a different perspective of how to use the containers of time I had available, shifting things from one day to another and back. In that particular instance, it is possible that I accomplished more in those rearranged two days, than I would have if we had stayed with the original plan. The gift allowed me to think about those pockets of time differently.

The other thing about living in Taiwan is that school semesters are marked differently. We had classes today, December 25. I personally don’t teach on Tuesday, but while schools in the US are on their holiday recess, we are meeting. We have January 1 off, but then we finish week 17 of our 18-week semester. After I finish grading finals, we have our break, and for Chinese New Year, that break is substantial–about a month. Like any gift of time, I can squander it or cherish it.

This year brings a special challenge. I have a major textbook project that needs to move forward substantially during the break. But I also desperately need to recharge my batteries, to find some enjoyment in the days, and not just run from one to-do list to another. This time, I have to give myself the gift of time. I can’t rely on snow storms or typhoons or cancelled meetings. The gift I need to give myself is to find the balance in those days–to decide what’s important, to arrange the days into containers of time, assign some of those containers to the responsibilities I have, and allow for others to be open to surprise and wonder. The best thing is I don’t have to rely on the weather to give me what I need. With a little planning and creativity, I can give this gift to myself.

Finding Fabric 2

With a few specialty shops on the first floor, the real action for quilters is on the second floor. Stairway to heaven?

With a few specialty shops on the first floor, the real action for quilters is on the second floor. Stairway to heaven?

Last month, I wrote about how my fabric stash came to be in Taiwan. Along with the story about the fabric I brought from the US and a picture of my grandson with the quilt I made him, I also told about the fabric district in Taiwan and my two visits there. I’ve been trying to get back there, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that it actually happened. After several previous cancellations and false starts, my husband and I took a train to Taipei and met up with our friend Jean to visit the fabric district at Yongle (Chinese for “forever (yong) happy (le)”). The street that leads to our target location is lined with all kinds of shops, including many with rows and rows of fabric bolts, but I was holding out for the big corner store that is full of fabric stalls. Here is the stairway to the second floor.

If your only fabric shopping experiences have been at chain stores like Joanne’s or Hobby Lobby, or the labor of love fabric and quilt stores that can be found in almost every city in the US, you may not believe what you are about to see. The closest thing I’ve experienced is shopping in south Philadelphia in what is known as Fabric Row. You can go from store to store, and encounter a seemingly endless array of fabrics for every conceivable purpose. With patience and perseverance, you can find almost anything you can imagine. The second floor of this corner building at Yongle is very similar, except the floor is mapped out with stall after stall of fabrics and other textile delights. You can actually get lost. OK, maybe not you specifically, but we did.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI felt disoriented as we entered the building, like the orientation was wrong, the entrance didn’t look right, and so many things since the last time we had been there, which–in truth–hadn’t been THAT long. Then I couldn’t find my two favorite fabric stalls. There are enough stalls that I knew I could find something, but it just felt a little “off.” .Luckily, while I was wandering with Jean finding new fabric haunts, my husband (Dave) was doing some wandering of his own. He discovered that we had actually come in the back of the building this time; there are TWO main doors to this place! He found a map on the wall. The entrances are indicated by the corners of the building that have circular entrances..

A map for a giant room of fabric stalls! Do you see how many of these things there are? Every one of the stalls represents a container absolutely overwhelmed in fabric.Do you also notice that if you are near one entrance (looking at the map on the wall) and you want to get to the opposite entrance, that there is no direct diagonal path? It took us two tries to actually find the other entrance. But when we did, I was able to go straight to my favorite stalls and dream.

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Just remember that for every picture you see, there are rows and rows and aisles and aisles of these stalls. Sensory overload if you’re not prepared. But it’s truly a lot of fun if you are into this kind of thing. I have to admit, I can’t think of a better maze to be lost in.

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Dave wandered around taking photos, while Jean helped me communicate with the vendors. I’ll share the details of those encounters in a later post. For now, I’m just smiling at the memories and thinking about next time.

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Time in a Bottle

glass bottles

glass bottles (Photo credit: eselques0)

In the song alluded to in the title, Jim Croce writes:

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do once you find them

These words seem to be nearly universally true. It’s much more common to hear someone bemoan the lack of enough time than it is to hear people complain about having too much of the stuff. And unlike money, it can’t be shared or given away. No matter who we are, we all have the same 168 hours each week.

In my last post, I wrote about how one view of time management pairs the concept of time with money, using similar verbs and principles to discuss the management of both. While this model is a popular one, it seems that it can lead to frustration and regrets. Not all budgets work out as planned. It’s hard enough to have budget challenges in one area of life without having it in both. I suspect that in reality, whether one has a stronger desire for an orderly ledger sheet or a streamlined environment is more about personality and personal preference than about the actual methods one uses to manage time.

I get more excited about an orderly kitchen, rows of books neatly lined up on shelves, and colorful fabric stacked in open shelving. That kind of breathing room makes me smile because the space is comfortable and inviting. I like the idea that open space means I can add something beautiful that comes into my life, like a beautiful vase or a woven basket, without it getting lost in endless clutter.

I like to think of time in terms of space. If I have a set of boxes or baskets, I know how much I can fit into those containers. If I try to put too much into it, it will overflow, or look cluttered. My sense of aesthetics is helpful in this regard. I can SEE when things look too messy, too disorganized,

Imagine a calendar page that has a sense of space. That something could be added without the whole thing coming apart. This model of time management appeals to me. Tasks can be seen as physical items that fit into containers of time. The containers can be in different sizes: a day, an hour, a week, ten minutes. I can schedule my tasks into these containers of time. Leave some containers open for the unexpected things that come along. Room to breathe.

With that kind of model, maybe I can move toward arranging the time for the things I want to do once I find them. For now, I’m happy to take the time to find the things that I most want to fit into my containers of time.

Time is Money?

Time is Money

Time is Money (Photo credit: Olivia Alcock)

I’m not one to argue with a “time”-honored cliche started by Benjamin Franklin, and I get the general idea behind the words. The problem for me (and for many others, I suspect) is that the way we talk about time and money tends to affect the way we think about them. And thinking about time and money in the same way can create havoc in the way I manage my time.

It starts when I think about time as something that can be managed on a ledger sheet, balanced at the end of each month. Don’t get me wrong. I will admit there are similarities between time and money that can be helpful. I’m all about planning and managing time, but using the same principles for time and money seems to break down at critical moments. Let’s look at the way we use the same verbs for describing both time and money  management.

We budget. With money, we make a plan; we budget our money. We make a list of the expenses we have each month. We allot money for special projects; we set our long-range financial goals. With time, it is also important to budget our time, to plan for the routine things that need to be done. We consider short-term projects and long-term goals for what we want to accomplish and try to plan accordingly.

We spend. With or without a plan, we spend both money and time. Whether we follow our plan or go with our impulses, we have an outlay of time and money. We spend money for many purposes: necessity, pleasure, security, satisfaction, meaning. We spend time for many of the same reasons. One big difference: while we can stop unnecessary spending, we can’t stop the clock. Which leads me to my last time/money management verb.

We saveWhen it comes to money, we save for our long-term goals. We are willing to put off gratification today for something worthwhile in the future. When we don’t spend money on today’s desires, it can be saved and used for something else at a later time.  We look for ways to save time, but regardless of whether we eliminate a task or finish a project more quickly than we anticipated, the saved time can only be used for something else in the moment. We can’t put time into some kind of savings account to be used for a future project. Unlike money, saved time cannot be put away for a rainy day. Once it passes, regardless of whether we’ve used it well or wasted it, it’s gone.

In my organizational matrix, time is one of the three axes I need to consider. I clearly want a different relationship with time. One that is less nebulous. One that lets me visualize time as a series of containers. Containers that have a set amount of space. Containers that will hold activities and projects in a way that allows me to breathe.

I plan to explore this kind of time management system, in which I can arrange activities and projects without over-stuffing the containers. Maybe a perspective removed from the verbs of money management will allow me to examine the other two legs of the matrix–space (resources) and to-do lists–in a more relaxed and productive way.

Coming up next:  Time in a Bottle

Before Entering the Matrix

to do list

to do list (Photo credit: ebby)

After last week’s log jam, I began thinking about how I can break the cycle of inactivity that results from task overload and organizational glitches. Without a to-do list, it is easy to just move aimlessly from task to task, accomplishing things without being very efficient about it. Prioritizing the tasks takes a structure (or container); otherwise, the most important tasks can be overlooked. With a list, prioritized tasks can be mapped into appropriate time slots while providing a basic plan for the materials that need to be in place for the work to occur.

While a to-do list is essential, a method for integrating it with time and physical resources is vital. I suspect that I’ve been using two-legged systems lately, rather than a three-dimensional one. While having two parts of the equation in place–a to-do list and time, or time and resources, for example–can work for a while, eventually things fall apart. So I’m on a mission to create an integrated system of organization that will take all three elements into account, a three-dimensional matrix that organizes the tasks across time and space.

But maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse. Have you ever found yourself trapped in an endless array of activities, one after another? If there is no real satisfaction, what is the point of fine-tuning an organizational system? Without motivation, trying to become more efficient for its own sake is likely to become a futile exercise. Instead, maybe I’ll take a look at each element of this matrix before assembling and entering it; to explore what I really want from the process. Then the organization will serve as a tool for accomplishing something meaningful, not just one more item on the to-do list.

Join the discussion:

If you could remove one thing from your to-do list, what would it be?

What organizational glitches do you face?

The Joy of Index Cards

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη

Ελληνικά: Δελτία για αποδελτίωση και δελτιοθήκη (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Index cards are a special kind of container. There are a limited number of sizes, but an unlimited number of ways to use them. Besides, I just have a thing for index cards. I can’t go into an office supply store without checking out the index cards and attending paraphernalia. I like them lined and unlined; white, pastel, bold, and florescent. I like 4 x 6 and 5 x 7, but I will always have a special affection for the 3 x 5 size. Then there are file boxes in colors and patterns, as well as open containers for filing the little treasures.

As I move into a series of posts about the organization of time, space, and activities, I will be sharing some of the ways I use index cards. But for today, I thought I’d share just a few of the many excuses I have for stocking up on these little gems. And you won’t be surprised when I mention index cards as I go through my organizing and containerizing stories. For example, I use them for:

Hipster PDA. Photo by John Arundel, September ...

Hipster PDA. Photo by John Arundel, September 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Note-taking. All purpose note cards for any purpose that comes up throughout the day. I try to always carry a few index cards in my purse or my bag for whenever I need to take notes or give information to others.

2. Daily to-do lists. Using an index card for the list keeps it more manageable (hence my preference for 3 x 5’s).

3. Weekly to-do lists. This challenges me to really focus on what’s important for the week within the space limitation of the card. It contains my activity somewhat. Keeps me from getting too carried away. In theory, anyway.

4. Menu planning. There was a period of time when I used index cards to plan a week’s menu. Each week I created a plan for that week. And after several weeks, I was able to start recycling a card here and there, until I eventually had quite a repertoire to choose from. Saved a lot of headache when thinking about what should we have for dinner. Saved and recycled the shopping lists as well.

5. Shopping lists. The cards work well for companion lists for the meal plans. Also good for other shopping lists. Or errands in general.

6. Project ideas. I like to keep track of ideas for creative projects on cards. One idea to a card allows me to add notes about the project to the card. After the ideas outgrow the index card, the project can be moved to its own file or incubation box. This provides not only incubation time, but provides a source of ideas when I’m not quite sure what I want to do next. It’s fun just to go through the ideas.

7. Research topics. Similar to project ideas, I can keep track of the different ideas I have for research, recording notes about ideas for exploring each one.

8. Organizing Book Chapters. In my current project, there are lots of ideas that have to be determined in terms of layout and which activities are going to be included. By putting the ideas for each section on index cards, I can shuffle things around and consider the most effective arrangement. (Works for organizing notes for research papers as well.)

9. Lesson plans. I like to plan out my syllabus on index cards, one week per card. Topics, assignments, group activities. Then they can be arranged by week, shuffled around, adding notes and details as I go. On the backs of the cards, I can write notes about what worked, what adjustments can be made.

10. Concise journaling. A quick and easy way to keep at least minimal notes about the thoughts and events of the day. Not as a replacement for other journaling practice, but as a helpful way to keep things going when time is short, or when all I have is the stash of note cards.

Watch for more index card fun in the weeks ahead.

When Containers Go Rogue

Log Jam

Log Jam (Photo credit: heathzib)

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the number of things on your to-do list, that you became immobilized? This has happened to me more times than I care to admit.It’s like a log jam. Everything nicely contained with no where to go. Everything comes to a standstill; frustration sets in.

Three days ago, it happened again. I had a massive to-do list and a block of time. It could have been an easy thing to do: by any method, just choose a couple of things to start on and get moving. Even without a lot of prioritizing, the potential was there. Except for one thing. The folders and materials I needed were not organized. Some things were in my bag. A couple piles of papers were near my desk. Other files were on my sewing table. A few things were on the kitchen table. No matter where I looked, I couldn’t get the stuff to work on one project without upsetting the balance of something else I was working on.

Now I’m not crazy enough to think that logs (or files) set out to block the movement of logs (or projects); but it is easy sometimes to forget that reality sometimes. These container malfunctions, if you will, are often the results of mismanaging of some sort. In my case, I can trace this problem to two main causes.

1. It’s part of my personality to be (almost) compulsive about “doing” something all of the time. Not that I don’t enjoy a lot of it. I do, but that’s the stuff of other blog posts. For the moment, just let me say that I get wrapped up in way too many things. I know this, but I haven’t figured out how to stop myself . . . yet.

2. I still struggle with that containerizing versus organizing thing. So while things are contained (and organized in a limited way), the volume of projects and related “stuff” that goes with them sometimes overflows, and it feels like nothing can move. I look around me at my list and the piles of materials that go with the lists, and I want to throw up my hands and run away.

Luckily, I found a solution–using the log jam image, as I have in the past. If I can dismantle even one little part of the log jam (pile jam), things will start to move along better. In Saturday’s case, the kitchen table became the detangling station. I started by taking all the things from the bag that goes back and forth to school with me. I set each set of papers on the table, one pile for each of my projects. After I finished that, I took a pile from next to my desk and sorted those papers in the same way. Before long, I had several stacks of papers on the kitchen table. It offered a temporary solution, I was able to once again start making progress on a number of projects without losing the whole day to disorganization and despair.

The interesting thing about this ongoing problem is that I almost always figure out a way to meet my deadlines and get things done. The bad news is that there is a cyclical element to this process. I organize, plan, and begin to implement, and then I start to let the system slip. Then I have to work through the log-jam again. I need to figure out a  way to keep all of my projects organized so I can move easily between them. Of course, I also need to reduce the number of projects I try to juggle. And while I can’t accomplish everything at once, I think a three-dimensional matrix model might help me think about how to tackle both of these problems eventually. All three elements–time, projects/ideas, and resources–must come together.

As I pursue the matrix idea, I’ll report back. In the meantime, I’m going to knock off a few items from that to-do list.