“Visiting” Rome: Summer Camp 2014

Image courtesy of 89studio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of 89studio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This is my second week with this challenge. I’m late for this post, but I had an unusual schedule this week. Still I want to report my progress about last week’s goals and set a few for the next three days. And then I’ll be back on schedule.

Before I give you the update on last week’s goal, let me tell you briefly what I did the first four days of this week. We held an English Summer Camp at our university. It was the first year for such an endeavor, and it was an intense, but fun four days. On Monday morning, we met 30 young people, ages 10-16 who would stay with us for four days and three nights. I didn’t have to spend the nights. We had teaching and residential assistants for that part. I was one of three teachers, as well as one of the main developers of the curriculum we used. I’ll be posting more about it in my Ten Things of Thankful post in a day or two, but for now, let me just say that by the time I got home at the end of the day, I was pretty much drained from being cheerleader, entertainer, and energizer bunny–all in one. It was successful, and I’m glad I did it, but yeah, it was exhausting.

One side note: For one of the writing activities, I took students on virtual tours of a couple European cities. Hence, the title of my post: “Visiting Rome.”

Progress on last weeks goals (WEEK of July 8)

So back to last week’s goals (week of July 8). I wrote about how I wanted to designate 20 one-hour blocks of time and then schedule tasks that would fit into those slots. Last week, that meant setting up four one-hour blocks for each workday. I estimated how many “blocks” each of my goals would take.

1.  Complete 18 one-hour blocks.  The tasks for those blocks include:

NOTE: Since a couple of people expressed interest in the idea of these “working blocks,” I’ll just say that my first week of experimenting with this had mixed results. Sometimes, I used them, and had good results. Other times, it was still hard to get going. But one of the most amazing things for me was that on a day that the blocks were coming fast and heavy, I found I was able to move through the editing project at an amazing pace. Not that the editing itself went unusually fast, but I found that I was so focused. I attribute it to setting the music timer for the hour, and then continuing on because of the momentum.  I’m going to give this a try again next week (week of the 21st).  🙂

  • an editing project – EXCEEDED GOAL  (As I mentioned above, the block aspect really helped this project. I had mapped out this project over several weeks–it’s a huge project, and I completed five weeks! So, even if that’s the ONLY benefit from using the blocks, it’s something I’m willing to continue experimenting with.
  • writing project – some progress, not as much as I had hoped
  • completing a project spreadsheet – COMPLETED (I seriously underestimated the time this one would take, but it’s done)
  • preparing for fall classes – no progress on this one; more prepping for summer camp than I had planned.

2.  Maintain walking three times this week (in spite of the heat). YAY! I actually did it 5 times!

3.  Complete Step 2 of the Mystery Quilt Challenge. I did nothing with quilting last week. Thinking about quilting is not the same as quilting.

4.  Visit more of my fellow builders, now that I’ve jumped into the fray. I visited a few this week.

5.  Make a plan for my blog.  Thinking about blogging is not the same as blogging.

GOALS FOR what’s left of the week of July 14.

  1. Use one-hour blocks as needed to complete the following tasks:
  • an editing project – one more section
  • completing another project spreadsheet
  • preparing for fall classes – just type the notes for one session
  • write three emails regarding one of my fall classes and a meeting for next week

2.  Walk twice over the weekend.

3.  Complete Step 2 of the Mystery Quilt Challenge.

4.  Visit more of my fellow builders, now that I’ve jumped into the fray.

If you’d like to play along, you can join in here:   http://greenembers.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/building-rome-week-29-opensaysame/


Building Rome: My First Day

Image courtesy of 89studio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of 89studio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

After weeks of watching people make posts on this Building Rome theme (hosted by Green Embers), I’ve decided to dip my toe and try it. I chose today because I was particularly inspired by this week’s posts from Mental Mama and Not a Punk Rocker. The main idea is to have a place for goal setting and accountability. So today, because it’s my first time, I will post a set of goals that I want to accomplish this week. Then, next week, I’ll report my progress on those goals and post my goals for the new week. I know firsthand that this kind of accountability system works because I was part of a similar group with three other women located in various parts of the US. We did ours by email, and our weekly “check-in day” was Tuesday. We kept at it for about six months, and we all found that we were much more productive when we were using such a system. I’ve even tried to recreate it a could times–without success. So, after several weeks of hemming and hawing about joining this adventure, here I am. Since one of my goals is to have more time for writing and quilting, I want to reduce my working hours to 20, at least for the rest of the summer. But I want to those twenty hours to be focused and productive. My hope is that I can accomplish as much in those twenty hours as I normally would by working longer hours by being more intentional during those 20 hours. Taiwan 047To that end, I am setting up four one-hour blocks for each workday. I then make a general task list for those 2o hours, i.e. what I need to get done this week, and estimate how many of these “blocks” it will take to accomplish each task. Maybe it’s crazy, but I’m going to give it a try. I’ve been trying it for two days so far, with great results on Day 1 and less spectacular results on Day 2. BUT I still got more done on Day 2 than  I would have otherwise. I suspect it’s because it’s easier to tell myself, “Just focus for an hour. Then you can take a break.”  mmmmmmmmmmmm coffee! Part of the reason I told you all of that is that my goals are going to focus on blocks of time and more general names for some of my projects. I realized that part of the reason I didn’t join sooner is I didn’t want to post some of the specific things I’m working on, so now I have a solution for that issue. So now that I’ve bored you to tears, here are my goals for the week.


1.  Complete 18 one-hour blocks.  The tasks for those blocks include:

  • an editing project
  • writing project
  • completing a project spreadsheet
  • preparing for fall classes

2.  Maintain walking three times this week (in spite of the heat).

3.  Complete Step 2 of the Mystery Quilt Challenge.

4.  Visit more of my fellow builders, now that I’ve jumped into the fray.

5.  Make a plan for my blog.

There you have it. I feel more accountable already.  🙂   If you’d like to play along, you can join in here:  http://greenembers.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/building-rome-week-28-silver-napkins/

A Room with a View: The Quilting Edition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs part of the Writing 101 Blogging Challenge, we wrote a post about a place we wanted to be zoomed to. The post was supposed to be called A Room With a View: Day 2 of the Writing 101 Blogging Challenge or something like that. But for the life of me, I can’t get the title to show on the post. Even so, the text is still here if you want to read it.  🙂

While I didn’t do as well on the blogging challenge as I might have hoped, I wanted to write about a quilting challenge that I am doing this summer. It is not too demanding, and the third step was just published today. And I already have the first two steps done, so I’m right where I should be.

When it comes to quilting, I have my fabric stashed (not so neatly) into this storage unit. And most of my sewing is done on a table on the far end of our kitchen. I’ve always wondered what kind of studio I would like to have in an ideal world. Here is Taiwan, having a place for fabric storage and a place to actually sew is enough, especially since I don’t have as much time to quilt as I’d like. I’m trying to change that, but that’s a post for another day (like maybe tomorrow)!

Even when I haven’t had time and space to quilt, I love the spaces where quilting happens and where it’s displayed. Top on that list are quilt shops and the classrooms they manage to tuck into back corners and second floors. After I learn things in these classes, I love going to quilting exhibits to see first-hand people who have mastered the techniques that I am only beginning to learn. and in friends’ homes–Karol’s dining room (over 30 years ago) and Fran’s basement (about ten years ago). For some reason, I seem to be able to move into other people’s space and do just fine.

I’ve seen some wonderful spots for quilting, but I never seem to quite create the ideal spot for myself. Although I’ve tried on several occasions to carve out space for my quilting, this is probably the most successful I’ve been. I have workable space for quilting. When I move back to the States, I may create something different, but for now, I’m going to enjoy this space. It’s really no problem to sew in one room and then head to the fabric stash when it’s time to choose a new palette.

Now it’s time to put in some regular sewing time. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about what’s up on the quilting agenda.


Reframe, Retreat, Renew

A Change of Plans

Packing away the sewing machine into its prote...

Packing away the sewing machine (Photo credit: Miia Ranta)

It’s Friday and no quilting took place yesterday or today. No quilting will take place next week either. In fact, I packed up my sewing machine and cutting boards. They are tucked away in a corner of my closet. I know I kept saying I needed a break. I know that I need some time for me.

Unfortunately, as a couple people pointed out in my last post, I had unintentionally attached too many expectations to this retreat. Worse, I had–dare I say it–turned it into one more job with its own set of pressures. I didn’t want to admit it at first, but thinking back on Logan’s quilt made it pretty clear. Two years ago, I had the fabric for his quilt, I found the pattern I wanted to adapt, and I had motivation. With those things in place, it worked. This time, although I was motivated, it wasn’t for the right reason. And I had no pattern in mind, no fabrics calling to me. I ended up trying to create an agenda for the retreat, a sure sign that I had lost sight of the purpose of the retreat. In fact, I had lost sight of my keyword for winter–clearing. 



Frames (Photo credit: Editor B)

Frames can contain many different items: pictures, mementos, diplomas, and other markers of significant events. Not everything that is framed is tangible. We also capture ideas, expectations, plans, and hopes for the future in frames that can’t be seen, but that can be quite powerful. I think that’s what happened to me with my quilting retreat. I got an idea in my head about how I could get back to quilting and give myself a break from the stress, and that frame was pretty set in my mind. It wasn’t until after I made the decision to NOT quilt, that I began to reframe my thoughts about what was really going on.

I began by reframing my week. After accepting the fact I wasn’t going to do the quilting retreat, trickles (read floods) from my current commitments went up. Four new ones on Thursday, what would have been the first day of the quilting retreat. A real verification that I made the right decision. However, my stress level still went up. It took me a couple hours to wrap my head around what was happening with the projects, but then I did make some progress toward regaining control of the day. I spent the rest of Thursday patching things together, just nothing that involved bright colors and fabric.


3186629203_bfcf404f50_mThe next thing I needed to reframe was my idea about retreats. This part is kind of crazy since I have lots of experience with retreats. A retreat is a good container, a dedicated time and place to explore art, personal growth, creativity, spirituality, journaling, or quilting. I’ve had good experiences with retreats, but something wasn’t right this time. Maybe it was just the timing, but I was beginning to think I had the wrong focus for what is going on in my life right now.

I reviewed the purpose of retreat for me:

  1. To get away from everything and focus on what’s important; a time to renew, explore, refresh.
  2. Get away from stress; a break from routine and habits; a chance to look inward and reassess; to rediscover my path..
  3. Get away from distractions; a chance to focus and move forward on what is important. Set a course for the next steps.

A quilting retreat, in my current circumstances, would not have satisfied any of these for me. The results would have been a different kind of stress because I wasn’t focusing on what was important, and had made “relaxation” a job. Further, what I really need to focus on–away from distractions–is my my largest work project: the textbooks.

The Textbook Project

Disclaimer: Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you’d like. It would take away from the point of this post. However, I thought that since I keep mentioning it, I should give a little basic information about it for those who are curious.

One of the projects that moved up the list of priorities on Thursday involved the textbook project. I haven’t given many specifics here, so let me give you just a brief picture of what’s going on. I helped with a proposal to revamp our curriculum, which also meant producing 8 new textbooks (1 per semester for four years). The proposal also had other components, but the textbooks are the most demanding in terms of time and ongoing effort. I proposed a three-year timeline for implementation. The powers that be liked the ideas of the curriculum reform, but not the timeline. They want to implement this coming fall. So four books need to be to the printer at the beginning of the summer to be used in Fall 2013 and the others have to be done by December to be used in Spring 2014. I am the coordinator of this project which involves many things, including developing budgets and timelines.

I’ve completed two textbooks in the past, but only working on one at a time. Juggling the production schedule for the first four has been challenging, to say the least. It has taken a lot of adjustment and rethinking and revising to finally get the production timeline figured out. In the past, I only worked on one book at a time, so juggling the production schedule for 4 books at first and now 8 books has been challenging and stressful. I had to re-do the timeline for the first four books, to make some adjustments. Then I had to do another timeline for the second semester books. Suddenly, the project became more manageable. I could see that once I work through a few of the remaining snags for the first set, the second set will be much easier. All the set-up and planning activities will already be done. Having the layout and the basic plans set up frees up a lot of time

Reframing – Part II

So I will have a retreat next week, but it will be a retreat that focuses on the textbook project. This time I have the materials, I have the tasks, I have the motivation. Not quite a quilt, but a project that will benefit from the dedicated time and place to work on it. The textbook retreat idea finally takes away a lot of the stress and focuses my energy on moving forward rather than putting it off while I quilt without passion. Because my passion is tied up in moving these books forward. If I spend two days with the books as my focus, I can really make some significant progress, and move more toward the clearing that is really what my intention is.

Renewing the Moratorium

My 30 day moratorium on new work responsibilities ended on the 28th of January. Today is February 1, and I am renewing the moratorium for the rest of the month. I hope to make it a monthly commitment, but I will do it one month at a time. I have to say that I was surprised how full my days and weeks have been in spite of the moratorium. Even though I added nothing new, the obligations already in place continue to fill up my time. I am making some progress toward finishing a few things, and that will continue. The textbook retreat will also help..

Although I’m renewing the moratorium in terms of new responsibilities, I am instituting a daily “play” requirement. Before you think that I’m turning play into another responsibility, let me assure you that this is merely a mindfulness technique. In the past I had a play journal to remind myself to do something fun, something playful, even if it was just for five or ten minutes a day. I think part of the mistake of the quilting retreat was that I was forgetting that I don’t need a huge chunk of time to feel renewed. I can incorporate smaller quilting activities until a project actually grabs me.A regular infusion of playfulness, even small ones, can go a long way.

For me, play can be as simple as looking at quilting patterns, looking at pictures of quilts others have made, taking a puzzle book to a coffee shop, watching something on TV, or doing pleasure reading. Sad as it is to say, most of these things have vanished from my life lately. Rather than try to grab a two-day chunk of time, I will make a habit of noticing the small moments that bring me joy and kindle the sparks that could lead to a creative project that will tell me when it’s time to make a retreat.

What Can I Do in 20 Minutes?

Setting the Scene

I had a few contenders for tonight’s blog and I was going to write a post called Timers and Dice to discuss strategies that help when motivation is low. I had already been thinking about this post when another blogger asked what people did when they had trouble staying with their writing. I suggested setting a timer for ten minutes, a trick that she appreciated. After all, how can I protest doing something for just ten minutes? If the ten minutes gets the momentum going, great! If not, I can still stop after ten minutes, but movement will have occurred in those ten minutes. While this idea has shown up in many time management books and articles. I like to think that experimenting with the idea and combining it with other elements (like casting a die) provides an effective strategy that goes beyond the basics.

Setting the TImer

English: A mechanical kitchen timer

timer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m going to demonstrate what I mean by doing it as I write about it. I’m using a timer to get myself going on the blog entry as a way to get more in control of the process of posting. I’m giving myself 20 minutes to write the draft. I suspect it will take me a little longer than that to finish the draft, but in 20 minutes, I’ll be much further along than I would have been without the timer. Besides, if I gave myself “enough” time, the job would definitely expand to fill the allotted time. This blog is a perfect example. If I let it, I can just play around with the post and not really do my planning and prewriting. Soon, I will be pushing the deadline again. So by using the timer, I create an artificial deadline, something to push for. I make it into a challenging game of “Beat the Clock,” knowing that I can’t finish in 20 minutes, but interested in finding out how far I can get.

Take housecleaning as an example. If things have gotten out of hand–which they do on occasion, setting a timer for ten minutes per room can result in good progress in even 30 minutes, resulting in good momentum to keep the project going. Even if time runs out, it can be picked up again later without having to start from scratch. Besides, ten minutes while I’m challenging myself to see how much I can accomplish, often takes me further than I had thought it would. And I accomplish much more than I would if I gave myself the day to clean the house. I’d let myself get distracted by other things because I “had all day.” The focused drive of the timer running keeps me on task. When my children were young, I’d get them involved with the “just five minutes” or “just put away five items” thing. No one minded doing just five–ok, at least not much.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting started. One foot in front of the other.

Two Hours to Departure

I used the timer yesterday. With two hours left before we had to be out the door to head out to catch a bus for a wedding and our follow-up getaway, I needed to pack a couple last-minute items and give three projects at least some attention. I decided to give each project 20 minutes to start, and see how it went.

To-do list book.

To-do list book. (Photo credit: koalazymonkey)

I chose my first project–a paper that has a lot of problems. I’d broken it down to steps, and one of the tasks with it was to write several notes in the document to the other author so that we can move ahead on this draft. Of course, this step was dependent on a couple other things. Over the last few days, with one thing leading to another, it has felt like just too much.

But yesterday, I found the documents I needed and even started working before I hit the start button, This is significant in its own right because of the overall sluggishness of this project. This time, with the timer running, my fingers started flying. I was able to revise the introduction, move some things around from some three-day-old editing notes, and start writing the various comments that were necessary. Things were going so well, in fact, that when the timer went off 20 minutes later, I decided to go another 20 before switching to another project. By the time THAT 20 minutes was over, I had the project far enough along that I could write the email and send it off.

I moved ahead some on the other two projects, but eventually, I did have to stop. Even though I wouldn’t have given up the outing for anything, I did find myself thinking that my productivity was so high that it would be great to continue working. It’s been quite a while since I was actually excited about working.

Taking a Break

For out outing, I decided to leave most of my work behind, and in fact, the work I did bring, I didn’t even touch. What I did spent time on was something else I had brought along. Farther to Go! is something that Joycelyn is creating to help people who are in middle age unearth what is really important in their lives so that they can create a life that has the meaning and purpose they choose. The idea of discovering what has meaning for me makes my clearing project even more significant. I am making room for the things that are meaningful, not just the things that I can do.

I am currently working on Farther to Go! tasks that include setting a timer for ten minutes a day to make lists with specific prompts. A couple weeks ago, I decided I wanted to create a bag with the working items for the process, including a timer specifically dedicated to it, so that it was always available when I wanted to take the bag somewhere. I have my lists, my journal, a few different colored pens, and a die, which I’ll talk more about in a few minutes. When Dave and I went to breakfast at the hotel today, my Farther to Go! task was to make a list for ten minutes about what I enjoy. Interestingly, one of the things I’m finding is that I enjoy doing the Farther to Go! activities, and that I think about things I could add to my lists at other times of the day. It has me thinking about both what is important to me and what has been important in the past.

Rolling the Dice

English: Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged i...

Four dice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, the trusty die can be a nice addition to this system. Choose up to six projects that need your attention. Cast a die to determine which project gets the first 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Ten minutes is often enough for many projects, but I’ve found that 20 is a good amount for me for the kinds of projects I’m working on.My friend Joycelyn introduces an element of chance into what she does next in a variety of ways by rolling a die. Click to see her post on the subject. When I read the post back in August, I hadn’t started my blog yet, but I posted the following comment on hers.

I tried it using “what chore am I going to do next?” I took six items from my to do list, since I was having a hard time choosing one to start with. I know myself well enough to know if I don’t make some kind of decision, I may fritter away a good chunk of the day with meaningless activity.My list: 1) work on class hand-outs; 2) work on blog entries; 3) move forward on an editing project; 4) decide on my next quilting project; 5) finish sorting the last container of fabric; 6) work on sorting papers and books. I told myself that whatever the choice, I would spend 30 minutes on that project, and then move on to something else. The winner: sorting paper and books.

An interesting thing happened. I ended up (over the course of the day) making this organizational task the focal point of my day. I spent two hours in the first part of the morning, including setting up a filing system to organize the papers. I filed, recycled, and generally remade my workspace. It cleared some physical surfaces and also some mental cobwebs.

When I “took a break” after two hours, I made good progress on the editing, and the course preparations; but interestingly, I kept returning to 15-30 minute chunks of the organizational activity. I was aware that the part of me that wants to do some quilting was not totally happy, but the good news for that part is that there is now plenty of physical space to start playing with that activity, and it’s on the agenda for tomorrow–even without rolling the die.

This experience, combined with what I know about how the use of the timer works for me, provides a way to keep me motivated or to find a new source of energy when needed. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but I’m not going to argue with something that works.


My morning Coffee-1=

(Photo credit: Sheba_Also)

As I was working on this post, I remember I used a version of this timer thing when I first started my blog almost three months ago. I just let my husband be the one who set the timer. I would ask him to check on me in ten minutes to see how I was doing. That whole accountability thing. But now that I know the timer can serve that purpose, I’m going to put my husband out of that job and focus on using the timer as a tool. In fact, the timer, along with a couple of dice are going to be part of my clearing project for the rest of this semester break. I will use them to both be more productive and to build in some more break time. A 20-minute container holds lots of possibility for getting things done, whether it be a project that’s been nagging for a while, recharging one’s batteries, or just spending some time with a spouse, a puppy, and a cup of coffee.

Oh, and for the record, it turns out I can draft approximately 500 words in 20 minutes. Now we know.

Listmaking: A Path to the Clearing

3186629203_bfcf404f50_mRemember this? It’s a photo I used in last Tuesday’s post, when I wrote about my decision to take responsibility for my over-crowded schedule. I would use my four-week semester break and figure out a way to tackle my to-do list. I chose clearing as my winter keyword–I was beginning to gain a sense of calm as I mapped out a plan for these four weeks.

I even declared a 30-day moratorium on saying yes to any new responsibilities in an effort to get a handle on my schedule. I am ready to embrace a more intentional mode of living, but I am finally getting to know myself as I really am. If there is space in my calendar–or even the illusion of space on my calendar, I’ll get sucked in by every interesting idea that comes along. So the moratorium, along with my winter keyword of clearing is providing just the right focus for my process. I envision three steps that will lead me to the clearing.

  1. Make a list of all the tasks that I need to complete.
  2. Use the available containers of time to assign tasks appropriately.
  3. Follow the schedule.

Making the List

The Master List

The Master List

I won’t lie to you. Making a list that includes all the projects and tasks I have committed myself to is a rather immense task all on its own. Luckily, I had a head start. Over the last few weeks, I’d been working on breaking down big tasks and writing them in my calendar to do on a particular day, even if not at a particular time of that day. So to make the master list, I just gathered up all the calendar pages, along with my notebooks where I’d periodically make running lists to help clear my head of all the stuff swimming around. When I got done, I had the Master List shown here..

It still seemed overwhelming, and it’s not even complete. Many of the projects on that page haven’t been broken down into manageable steps yet. So there was still lots of work to do, but at least I felt as if the enormity of the project was “contained” on that sheet of paper. I could use it to move to the next step, Or so I thought.

Assigning Time Slots

My recent Weekly Calendar pages

My recent Weekly Calendar pages

My approach to time is to arrange tasks and activities into blocks of time (containers). The main point of this approach is to avoid stuffing the container too full. Unfortunately, I seem to have this idea that as long as there is even a tiny pocket of space on the paper, something else can fit there. Somehow, my brain hasn’t mastered the concept that open space on the paper is not the same as available time in the day. The amount of space on the page cannot accurately represent the amount of time in the day. Unless I actually arrange the space on the page in pre-measured time increments. Which leads me to a related problem.

A related problem–as you can see, is that while I pack a mean suitcase, my packing of time slots is not as efficient. I don’t think about time in a linear way. I mean, I get that there are just so many hours in a day. And I really do get that each task takes a certain amount of time, which often can be estimated with some degree of accuracy.

Discoveries on the Path

At this point, in the process, I had two realizations.

First, I need to figure out a better way to “package” time, so that I don’t have so much free-floating time on my planning sheets. I need smaller containers with which to plan. (This concept relates to the fact that I’m better with small suitcases than large ones–the illusion that the larger space is significantly larger in my mind than it is in the physical world.

Second, it is abundantly clear that I have to be realistic about what can be accomplished in this four-week break. I didn’t get to this point overnight, and I’m certainly not going to dig out of it on some kind of magical time schedule. I need to prioritize the projects and tasks to determine where to focus my time and energy. I also need to remember that this IS supposed to be a break and to allow some time for some R&R. I will focus on during the break, and which will have to be scheduled in at a later time. And of course, those scheduled later will be handled at a slower pace, because the semester will be back in full swing.

Following the Schedule

This is where things really fell apart. Actually, this step was destined for disaster from the get go. The tasks that hadn’t been broken down tended to stay on the list undone. Then they got moved to another list, where they still remained undone. Don’t get me wrong, things were getting done, but I was spending too much time moving things from one list to another, time that could be used more productively. For one, tasks needed to be more clearly delineated. For another, I had fallen prey to the mistaken belief that if I worked hard on this plan thing, it would work. I had conveniently forgotten that many things are beyond my control.

Last week, some major challenges threatened to upset my (mostly) well-designed plan. Not one glitch, not two, but several of them came at me in rapid succession. While the clearing keyword makes sense, I found that it was too delicately balanced on the mountain of tasks. I had taken a few deep breaths and began to believe that i had a plan, but it didn’t take much time with the reality of those glitches to throw me into a state of near inertia. Projects that I thought I had handled suddenly became more complex, with problems buried in each step. Something had to give.

Adjusting the Plan

Lovely Beans, a coffee shop just around the corner from our apartment

Lovely Beans, a llocal coffee shop

On Thursday, I was still struggling to find some momentum. I needed a change of scenery to regroup. I needed to make some adjustments to the plan. The local coffee shop seemed to be the perfect solution. I grabbed a secret weapon that has proved useful in the past–index cards!

The time at Lovely Beans didn’t solve all my problems, but it allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I am now experimenting with a way of using the index cards to help me prioritize the tasks and build a more realistic path to that clearing. More details will follow.

In the meantime, we are headed to a wedding this week. It’s not THAT far away, but we decided to include an overnight as part of it and have a little R&R. Next week, I’ll post the dates of my upcoming do-it-myself quilting retreat.

Seasonal Containers

Childhood in Michigan

I loved the four seasons, and the way they provided a way of containerizing time. Each season had its own schedule and events. Easter ushered in spring time and led to anticipation of my birthday and the end of the school year. We could start spending more time riding bikes and playing croquet in the yard. Summer brought camping trips, swimming, badminton games, and bike rides. We spent more time outside than in, and the days just flowed one to another with time spent with friends in the neighborhood.

Four Seasons - Fenner Nature Center

Four Seasons – Fenner Nature Center (Photo credit: Aunt Owwee)

In the fall, the new school year was almost exciting, especially when it was accompanied by the slow-motion fireworks of the reds, golds, and yellows of the leaves as they changed color and drifted to the ground. The peak of autumn color is breathtaking, and the smell of autumn is amazing. The plum tree in our backyard would give up the rest of its fruit, and Halloween was just around the corner. The season concluded with Thanksgiving and pumpkin pies, before winter took up residence.

While Winter is my least favorite season, there was always something magical about the first snowfall. I also liked Christmas music and going shopping with my sister to buy little gifts for our parents and siblings. And who could argue with Christmas vacation! The tough part of winter showed up right after the first of the year. Going back to school wasn’t nearly as interesting as it had been in September. The days were cold, and sunshine didn’t stay around very long. The evenings were dark. Snow’s novelty had worn off; the only good that came of it now was the chance of a snow day. Luckily, most winters, that wish would be granted at least once.

Seasons of Adulthood

As I started my own family, the seasons continued in much the same way, the ebb and flow of activity meshing with the way I remembered things from childhood. Even though I worked in the summer instead of spending my days outdoors, I still enjoyed the daylight that extended far into the evening. Even though I had a job that often required me to work on holidays like Easter and Christmas, we found ways to modify our family celebrations to honor the contents of each season.

As the children started leaving the nest, the academic calendar still guided my experience of the season, first as I completed my B.A. as my daughter finished high school, and then during my time at graduate school. The seasons and the academic year coincided–the dreary winter days coming at the very time when focus and purpose seemed to be at their lowest. Autumn and spring were once again the friendliest seasons.

My first Christmas in Taiwan

My first Christmas in Taiwan

Two things changed when I came to Taiwan, but they were only external changes. First, the academic year is different. A case in point: here it is January 11, and this week’s tasks include grading final exams and posting grades on the computer system. In other words, classes and finals are over, and winter break has begun. I know this sounds weird to my colleagues in the States. A couple of the differences: Our semesters are 18 weeks long. We don’t have a break at Thanksgiving or even Christmas Day–as evidenced by the picture on the left. We do get New Year’s Day off, but we made up the extra Monday that came with it by teaching on Monday of exam week.

The second thing is the difference in the physical characteristics of the seasons. My students talk about Taiwan’s four seasons, but they don’t have snow. Their winter is cold (but not as cold as many parts of the US), often with days and days of rain. Spring is beautiful, sunny and pleasant. Summer is hot, hot, and hot with very high humidity. Luckily, I visit my family each summer back in the States. It takes until mid-October, though, for the temperatures to be reasonable. Classroom temperatures during September can be rather unpleasant. But once mid-October comes, it’s hard to argue with the great weather. And there are days of sweater weather even in December.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about seasonal containers. Vacations, holidays, the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, and what that means to my schedule. And unfortunately, I have to confess that the seasons and other seasonal breaks don’t make much of a difference in my life. My busyness has taken away my sense of the seasons as containers for specific types of activities. The days have become a list of tasks that spill over into the next day, and the next day, and the next week, the next month, the next season, the next year. Unfortunately, I got to the point where I saw no end in sight.

While others are planning activities and even trips for the CNY (Chinese New Year) before the next 18-week semester begins, I am trying to figure out how to catch up on the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that I have added to my schedule, often without thinking things through. It’s second nature for me to take on every project that comes to me. Hence the moratorium of December 28 was so essential for me if I am going to reclaim any sense of balance in my life.

In the days ahead, I’m going to be creating containers of time and space to begin clearing my schedule and opening my life to the cyclical nature of the seasons. Calendars, to-do lists, index cards, grids with tasks arranged by time, by category, by priority are the tools I am exploring as I try to see my way clear to a more considered life. Stay tuned as I find a new way to create space for myself and begin to appreciate the seasons again.

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.

Compartmentalizing or Organizing?

When my friend Joycelyn recently posted this cartoon in her blog,* she added a question. “What do you think, maybe not so much organized as compartmentalized?”

I really like the cartoon, and her question got me thinking about how containers work–and why they sometimes don’t. Maybe there is more to the challenge of organization than simply placing things inside of containers. After considering the possibilities, I ranked the ways I use containers in a hierarchy of increasing complexity: Storing, Compartmentalizing, and Organizing. Based on my list, I have to say that although the items in the cartoon are certainly stored and compartmentalized, they aren’t really organized. Organization might mean something more than dividing things into categories.

A simple packing box can serve as an illustration of my three-step hierarchy of container functions. At the most basic level, boxes simply hold things. The items don’t need to be organized or even sorted. At the compartmentalizing level, the things can be categorized and grouped with similar items. When it comes to organization, the categories are arranged in a way that allows for their contents to be used for their intended purpose, with little hassle. Here is how I use the hierarchy to deal with some of my own clutter issues—a topic I will return to in later posts.

STORING: As much as I hate to admit it, I regularly resort to taking a packing box (or three) and loading them up with all of the papers and odd items that collect on any flat surface throughout the apartment. Once I gather everything up, the boxes are holding the items. The apartment almost looks uncluttered, and I know where things are, even though it would take a LOT of time to find a particular item among the contents of the boxes involved. Out of sight, but never really out of mind. But a visitor to the apartment doesn’t know about the boxes stashed in the corner of the bedroom. Rats! Unless they read this post!

COMPARTMENTALIZING: I make a game out of the sorting so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. In fact, I often start out with five or ten items at a time, something that can be accomplished in just a few minutes. I try not to overthink things; instead focusing on broad categories that can be more specifically organized in the next step. If I am using a block of time, I make some piles outside of the boxes to make room for all of the categories.set up the piles outside of the boxes to divide the items into. Afterwards, the categories can be stacked back in the boxes, ready for the next step–organization. It would still take a lot of time to locate something I wanted, but the odds would be more in my favor.

ORGANIZING: I start with two or three categories of related items–things related to work, things related to household things, things related to my hobbies and interests. I start putting things away in their appropriate locations. Sometimes, the organized items will still be in one of the boxes, but often, their “homes” are in other containers, such as files, or drawers, or shelves, or other boxes—you get the idea! And the bonus is that I often discover ways to make the items more readily available. They are no longer just sitting in containers; they are more likely to get used. Sometimes, organizational ideas build on one another and even cross-pollinate.

Why is this important? Because there is more to life than work. In my next post, I will share how the hierarchy is making a significant contribution to my quilting hobby.

COMING UP NEXT: Quilting in the Hierarchy

*Joycelyn’s blog Nine Paths features all kinds of things about the Enneagram. Since personality obviously has a lot to do with the way we collect, use, and organize things, this can be a good resource for understanding your own take on containers and many other things. Visit her blog at NinePaths.com.