The (IL)Logic of Self-Defeating Behaviors

Image courtesy of 89studio /

Image courtesy of 89studio /

In the US, the fall semester of most universities ends in early December with a break for the Christmas holidays. That’s not the case in Taiwan. Our 18 week semester ends sometime in early to mid-January in time for a break for Chinese New Year’s. (Which also means that, yes, I taught on Christmas). But the nice thing about the schedule here (other the fact that the semesters are 18 weeks long) is that when our break comes, I can use it to catch up on tasks that have been slipping through the cracks while classes are in session.

So I entered the month-long break with a list of things I wanted to accomplish. Now this wasn’t my usual crazy-ass mountain list where I try to climb Mt Everest, take 1st place in a cooking competition, and write my acceptance speech for a Nobel Prize all in the same afternoon. I was actually fairly reasonable, listing three major projects that I wanted to make progress on. I thought this would be a smart way to approach things instead of resorting to my typical over-achieving ways. I added a couple of personal projects that I was excited about to be used as a reward as I accomplished my goals. I even sweetened the pot by adding “fun” projects–quilting, blog posts, pleasure reading. We planned a couple of outings–a couple day trips and one overnight. A productive, yet restorative break lay out in all its promising glory.

The new 18-week semester begins on February 17, our opening faculty meeting is on Friday, the 14th. So, with less than a week of the break left, I wish I could report that my three main projects for the break have been completed, and that my “reward” projects are all moving along nicely. And that further, I’m refreshed, renewed, and ready to tackle the semester with gusto.

Instead, I am frustrated because during the past couple of weeks, I feel like I didn’t get enough done. And when I say “enough,” I mean the things that were on my “reasonable” to-do list. I sit here with one of the three projects finished, one at about 70% completion, and no progress on the third. What’s worse is aside from blog entries, and a tiny bit of quilting early on, I set those things aside. And my energy and motivation continued to fall.

With the help of a friend, I realized that I am actually being pretty ridiculous. I know the things that will energize me. Quilting, writing, reading. Working on projects that will further my long-range plans. So let me present you with two scenarios.

  1. Whenever I really invest in quilting, writing, reading, and other activities that energize me, I am able to tackle the things that need to be done. It’s like magic. I return to the deadlines and the results are very satisfying.
  2. When I tell myself that I need to finish my to-do list and THEN I can do one of the energizing activities as a reward for getting my work done, my already sluggish output eventually screeches to a halt or results in less than satisfactory results.

In the first scenario, I accomplish all kinds of things. My spirits are high, as is my motivation. I get lots of good ideas and am able to implement them without too much difficulty.

In the second scenario, I get even less done. I might slog through a few of the most critical things, but truth be told, it is not my best work.

It’s not that I need to play and take a total break. But taking significant things from my life and putting them on the back burner because they aren’t on the top of the priority list turns out to be self-defeating over time.There are things in my life that are not in the top priority list that are still a significant part of my life. Putting them on the back burner as an incentive to do the things that I “should” do first does not really work. But when I stop “thinking” and revert to automatic pilot, scenario two is the default setting.

If I incorporate the energizing activities as a regular part of life, I’ll end up being productive, less resentful. It turns out that getting everything done first before doing the things that feed us is actually counter-productive when viewed  from the moments when I feel most alive and creative.

I can’t go back and get these last few weeks back, but I can sprinkle my life with the things that will make life more colorful and energizing.

The new semester is looking brighter already.

Stories from the Past (The Quilting Version)

The Upcoming Quilt-Along

Yesterday, I posted a picture of the quilt that is being featured in the quilt-along I joined. Technically, it has already started, but we are still in the preparatory stages. So far, I’ve gathered most of the materials, and I’ve selected and prepared the fabrics that I will use.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to the posted schedule, I will get instructions tomorrow to make fabric sets for the blocks, and Thursday, the cutting begins. By the weekend, I can be sewing blocks! If I stay with the schedule, the entire quilt will be finished by Christmas; however, I will be happy just to have the top pieced. I can do the actual quilting at a more leisurely pace over my winter break.

My color scheme is more complex than the one recommended for beginners. Luckily, I’ve had a bit of quilting experience, so I’m willing to try a color scheme that deviates quite a bit from the recommended one. I am using fabrics in greens, pinks, blues, and purples. Many of them are fabrics I’ve collected over the past several years. I’m combining these fabrics with the quilt-along pattern so that I can finally make good on a quilt idea that’s been on the back burner for a while–one for my daughter, Kate.

A Recap

For those of you who don’t know, my daughter, Kate is the youngest of my four children, and she is the mother of Mr. Logan, the “not so little” guy you see at the right with his quilt. When I gave Logan his quilt in the summer of 2012 (when he was 18 months old), Kate asked me when she would be getting hers. Funny story!

1278316_10201658315880667_1692301913_nSeveral years ago, Kate showed some interest in having me make her a quilt. She knew the colors she wanted–pinks, greens, blues, and purples–and I started collecting fabrics in fat quarters and half yards. Occasionally, I would see a possible pattern and show Kate. But we never truly set on a definite pattern. Graduate school came along, and quilting went by the wayside, until I found out that Kate was pregnant with Logan. It took me until he was 18 months old to get the baby quilt done, but as seen in the picture at the top right, he did get it. As I was working on Logan’s quilt, I found myself wondering whether Kate was still interested in having me make her a quilt, and if her choice of colors would be the same. So when she asked me when she was getting hers, the discussion began.

She still wanted me to use the colors and fabrics that I had started collecting. The pattern didn’t matter except, now that she had seen Logan’s quilt, I knew she wanted something that included more specific blocks, something less “random” than the design I used for Logan’s quilt. Something with structure, but not too traditional. And something that, when I got to it, I would enjoy making. I’d been thinking about doing something with log cabin blocks when the conversation of the quilt came up in a chat back in February, as seen here:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAME: ok, here’s another. If I did a log cabin pattern, I would incorporate purple, green, and blue as well, unless you want just pinks.

K: If you want to roll with that, you can. And if you do, you should do each block a separate color.

ME: ok 🙂

K: or whatever you want 😛

ME: When I start playing with some blocks, I’ll send you pictures and you can tell me which you like best.  It will be a while, but I like to at least think about quilting, and yours is the next big project I want to do

K: Do an all blue one, and one that includes all four colors.

ME: ok 🙂 that will be fun:

K: keyword: fun. don’t make it a job! if it’s a present for my 30th birthday so be it.

ME: 30th birthday present! Crap! I only have 4 years! LOL

It will be a while, but I like to at least think about quilting

When I wrote this line in the chat, I thought it might be a couple years before I could even think about getting to this quilt, so I am thrilled that the quilt-along has provided a structured way for me to pursue this project at this point in time. One of the things I’ve really come to grips with lately is that there is no such thing as making time. And the things I have to do will always take up whatever time I have. I can let the obligtaions and things I believe I have to do expand to fill my hours. Or I can use the skills and tricks I’ve been learning in the past few months, and intentionally take time for me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I had that conversation with my daughter 9 months ago, I was still thinking about log cabin blocks, looking at the fabrics in my stash, and dreaming about some distant quilting time. Now, instead of just hoping, everything is in place. I have a plan with a schedule, a support group that cares whether or not I quilt.

I won’t be giving up my quilting time just because I could be doing other work. I will continue to take time for me, time that refreshes me for the other tasks that need to be done. Taking care of me is something that is necessary, not a luxury that can be relegated to meager scraps.

The closing words on that post of February 5 were: “Thanks, Kate! And maybe you won’t have to wait until your 30th birthday for the quilt. But no promises. The keyword is fun!” What a joy it is to be able to know that Kate will get her quilt well before her 30th birthday, and that I will be immersed in a project I love.

566 days to 60!

Time for Me

time flies

time flies (Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

Everyone is familiar with the feeling that time is just flying by, that there isn’t enough of it, that if we just had a little more of it, or if we could somehow manage it better, life would be less hectic. I mean, I hope it’s not just me. But for me, I must admit, I am often my own worst enemy when it comes to time.

If you know me very well at all, you know that I tend to be very busy most of the time. You would probably also know that no matter how much stuff I get done, I always have more waiting around every corner. In fact, if I wanted to never have a moment to/for myself, my to-do list would gladly oblige such insanity.

Ironically, this post about time for me has taken far too long to write, because other things keep getting in the way. Now, I know that I am my own worst enemy in this regard, and that I am the only one who can change it. Which is why I have made some really big steps toward that goal. I’ve made progress, even beyond the simple fact of recognizing it’s a problem. I know that I don’t want life to rush me by, leaving me wondering what was all of that rushing around about. I do have plans in place, and I have begun to follow through. But in the meantime, I still have to dig out of the current situation.

Bookshelf clutter

(Photo credit: HomeSchoolingHoarder)

It’s a lot like the clutter in my apartment. I know it has to go. I have already set up little appointments of time for myself to do the work of sorting things out and getting the non-essentials out. But the piles of clutter, and the endless to-do lists didn’t happen overnight. Therefore, the most important thing for me to remember as I work toward the life I envision for myself is to remember that finding my way clear is not going to happen overnight, or even in a week (or month) or two.

So when I thought about this post I almost called in “Making Time for Me.” Then I thought about crossing that out and replacing it as shown below:

Making Taking Time for Me!

What do you think? For example, can anyone really “make” time. No, it’s pre-made, or at least pre-allocated, and try as we might, we can’t somehow manufacture more of it. Of course, when people talk about making time, they’re really talking about managing it in a different way. Changing the way they use the available time they have. I may get up an hour early in order to have more time to read (or whatever else I choose to do), but I’m still not really making any “new” time. Taking time seems more proactive, and while I can’t take any time that doesn’t already exist, this concept does seem more about actively managing how I spend my time.

I used to think the answer was in discovering some new time management secret. I have gotten myself tangled up in trying lots of time management systems and tricks. I even have a few favorites when I need a little boost, but the real challenge of making my life better is to change my thinking about what I do and don’t say “yes” to. For my New Year’s “resolution” for this year, I incorporated a moratorium on taking on new projects and responsibilities. It worked well for several months, so maybe I need to dust if off and put it back in place.

The great thing about facing this process of digging out is that I realize that my thinking about things has changed a lot. So that even though I do have to dig out, I don’t feel as discouraged by the whole thing. Partly because I have decided to take time for me. In the past, I often put off quilting or pleasure reading or blogging if there was work to be done (and there was ALWAYS work to be done). As part of the process of reimagining my life, I make sure to put me first at least some of the time. Quilting and blogging are finding their way back onto my schedule. Today, you see evidence of the blogging. Soon, there will be quilting news.

594 days to 60.

My Recent Adventures with The Cat in the Hat

The Disappearing Blog Posts

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in more than two weeks. A few people asked me what was going on. I asked myself what was going on. How could something that I wanted and enjoyed disappear from my calendar? Unfortunately, it seemed to have devolved into just one more thing that showed up on my to-do list twice a week. And increasingly, it became one of the things that kept getting put aside.

Interestingly, the subtitle of this blog is TIME, SPACE, MONEY, THINGS.. This post is all about focusing on the THINGS part of it. And who better to start this literary journey than those endearing creatures from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat—Thing 1 and Thing 2. Aren’t they just so cute? Wouldn’t it be fun to have around?


If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this book or having it read to you, you’ve missed out. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it and then read it as I was growing up and then with my own children after that. I think this summer, I may have to introduce Mr. Logan to The Cat

Story Time

Sally and her brother (who serves as the narrator) are left alone while their mother goes out for the afternoon, entrusting them to follow the rules. Because it is raining, they are indoors. They are bored as they sit in front of the window just looking outside at the rain.

That’s when the Cat in the Hat shows up. A rather insistent fellow, he’s not put off by our narrator’s recitation of his mother’s rules. He keeps insisting that they need to have fun and that there is lots of fun to be had even when it’s raining outside. Over the course of the next undetermined length of time, the CitH shows them a variety of activities that they can do, all of them threatening to mess up the house and get the the two children in trouble. Even the talking pet fish tries to get them to make the Cat go away, but the Cat isn’t budging.

images (1)As if the Cat in the Hat weren’t causing enough trouble on his own, he went outside to retrieve a box. When he opens it, out bound Thing 1 and Thing 2. These two appear to be on an unmitigated mission to create total mayhem. Their success can be measured by the increasing dismay you see on the two youngsters’ faces as they become increasingly worried about how their mother will respond to the mess upon her return.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I’ll stop there. The Wikipedia link above has the rest of the story if you can’t stand the suspense. If you have a child in your life (or maybe even if you don’t), you might want to invest in the book. If you like this story, you might want to pick up The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, too. I might have to pick up another copy. I’ll use Mr. Logan as an excuse.  <wink, wink!>

My Own Thing 1 and Thing 2

If you’re a follower of my blog, you may recall (Come on, it hasn’t been THAT long!) my struggle with an overwhelming series of projects and responsibilities. While I’ve made some minor progress in my attempts at clearing away the list of tasks, it takes a lot longer to get out from under the pile than it ever took to create it. I sometimes am not very productive. Or at least, not very productive in MY opinion.

images (1)The problem is that I tend to get overwhelmed, so that even when I have time to work on things, I don’t always take full advantage of it. I realized that there is a separate organization issue involved in making progress on these projects. It’s not about just time management, but thing management–the physical organization of stuff. If I motivate myself to work on a particular project but can’t find the pieces of paper and other paraphernalia I need, I am soon at a dead end. Reaching that point reminds me of how I would if the Cat in the Hat brought Thing 1 and Thing 2 to visit me. Except that in my case, I also have Thing 48, Thing 79, and Thing 6,350, and all of the Things in between (too numerous to mention by name). And while 2 of them look really cute, they lose their appeal long before 6,350.

images (1)Duh! It turns out that once there are that many things, it doesn’t matter if they’re ones I want to spend time with or I feel obligated to spend time with. There are just plain too many of them. I am overwhelmed by ALL of them, pleasurable or otherwise. It’s like stress and eustress. Good stress, bad stress: to our bodies, it’s all the same, and too much is too much. My containers in were overflowing in multiple categories.

Return of the Blog

images (1)Which brings me back to my blog. Every time I thought about getting back to it, there were so many loose ends, so many THINGS that I needed to resolve. How many two-part (or more) ideas had been left undone? I know that the blog benefits are that you can do things in any order you want. It’s MY blog. But I started feeling that my blog was being overrun by those hyperactive little Things threatening my sanity and my blog. I became immobilized. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities.

So I sort of lost sight of the clearing that I was working on through the winter season. But now, I’m back. In this moment of clarity, I can focus on eliminating the unnecessary clutter, and make room for what’s important. I will have access to what I need to work to on when a time slot is available. I can plot a course back to the clearing and begin to expand it. And meanwhile, I will be blogging again. I can also order those Dr. Seuss books for my summer visit with Mr. Logan.

See you next time!images

The Costs of Choosing

Keyword Update

English: A snowy day, not so far from me - Loo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that my keyword for winter is clearing. I have way too many projects and tasks that need to be done. I had a four-week semester break from mid-January to mid-February, and I had planned to make big strides on many of the responsibilities I have and move toward the clearing. And while I got a fair amount done, it fell far below my expectations. During those four weeks, I often found myself just treading water or worse, falling further behind. I found myself getting more and more frustrated. I felt like I was procrastinating, but I made three observations that made me realize there was more going on. Specifically, I noticed three basic ways I approached tasks during the semester break.

  1. With many projects and tasks all clamoring for attention, I tried to juggle things and work a little on many projects. Or at least, I made sure to schedule everything on the calendar. I convinced myself that I could just power my way through. But there was so real focus. I figured as long as I’m making progress on ONE or more of the tasks, things would eventually work out. But then suddenly, a deadline would loom, and I would be in crisis mode. When a specific project was screaming for attention, I would focus on that project, eventually completing it on time. However, the process was usually stressful.
  2. This was a less effective version of #1, in that the pile of tasks was so overwhelming that I gave up on all the separate piles of stuff and stacked up all the tasks in one pile. I started at the top of the pile and moved through whatever showed up next. So the time was filled, some things got done, but it’s terribly inefficient because there is no grouping of tasks, no prioritizing, and no real progress. In the end, I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, with very little to show for it, and the important projects crash in on me as in #1 above.
  3. Sometimes, the pile of tasks is so overwhelming that even taking the top one or two from the pile seems like a waste of time. I start to feel immobilized by the sheer number of projects on my to-do list. I engage in activities to escape, even if that escapism is to rearrange my to-do lists in different ways. I keep trying new ways to schedule the activities, new ideas for organizing, in the hopes that a new method will break the logjam. Rhe problem is that in spite of all my list-making, prioritizing, and shuffling, I can’t seem to find my way to being productive in an ongoing way. I am constantly forced into action by deadlines. 

Freedom and Choice

In the blog, Farther to Go, the concept of choice as freeing is challenged.

The concepts of freedom and choice seem to belong side by side. What is freedom if not freedom to choose? The idea that we could be free, experience freedom, without also having and exercising the ability to choose is difficult to contemplate. But Krishnamurti believed otherwise.

We think that through choice we are free, but choice exists only when the mind is confused. There is no choice when the mind is clear. When you see things very clearly without any distortion, without any illusions, then there is no choice. A mind that is choiceless is a free mind, but a mind that chooses and therefore establishes a series of conflicts and contradictions is never free because it is in itself confused, divided, broken up.

It was the shift from thinking I was free to choose which activity I wanted  to work on next that was causing some of my trouble. It wasn’t just the number of items on the to-do list, it was the illusion of choice. My mind was confused, and I could not move ahead with any kind of clarity.When there are 10-15 or more things competing for my attention, my mind is confused. I have the illusion of choice. All those options and I keep trying to “figure it out.” As soon as I stopped looking at these projects as options from which to choose, it became easier to just complete the tasks that presented themselves. When the mind is clear, the next step doesn’t have to be “figured out.” I had to admit that while planning is important, I was getting caught up in shifting tasks from spot to spot on my calendar and trying a variety of different ways to organize as a way to avoid the actual work–a way of using choice and options as a way to continue the confusion.

Prioritizing vs. Choosing

Discovering the best use of my time at a given moment isn’t about choice as much as it is about priority.Once I prioritize, my mind starts to clear. Even though there is still more than I can do, priorities help move me toward the beginning of clarity. With most of the “noise” of endless possibilities removed, I am free to actually start working on the items that have emerged as important. Once my mind is clear, the steps are clear. Without the illusion of choice, I am free to be productive.

The Moratorium Revisited

I stumbled upon how freeing the absence of choice is when I put the moratorium into place at the end of December. Now that it’s March 1st, it’s time to renew for another day. There truly is no choice. I’ve discovered that by already knowing that I need to say “no” to any new responsibilities, projects, or activities that come along, I don’t have to consider the pros and cons of such things. I already know. Moving toward the clearing and having space and time for myself and what’s important to me can only happen if I get out from under the massive to-do list I have. And that can’t happen if I keep adding more things to the list. Now when some “opportunity” comes along, I don’t get sucked in. I am clear about my direction, and the moratorium reminds me to stay on track. It’s freeing to already know the answer to the question when it arrives.

Paradox as Challenge

I now recognize that my procrastination was more about a lack of clarity about what was really important. I kept getting stuck because I confused the tasks to be done with choice, will power, and “figuring it out.” With a clear picture of what I am trying to accomplish, the path is clear. I know what to do next. There are still challenges whenever that illusion of choice tempts me into cloudy thinking, but I will keep reminding myself about the freedom I’ve felt from relinquishing choice and moving toward clarity. It may seem a paradox, but it’s one worth continued exploration.

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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.

How Big is Your Suitcase?

Packing for a Trip

Brown & Red Duffel Bag

Brown & Red Duffel Bag (Photo credit: rebecca)

I do my fair share of traveling. Not as much as others, I’m sure, but over time, I’ve gotten lighter and lighter about the way I pack. I have special things I like to bring, like things to read, and journals to write in, but when it comes to clothing, I pack easy wash-and-wear items that mix and match. I can fit enough of these items in a duffle bag to last 5-7 days. Doing laundry once during a week-long trip is not a big deal to me. If it’s a longer trip, I just do laundry more often. Personal care items are kept to a minimum. I make sure hostess gifts and souvenirs on the return trip are lightweight and sturdy. In recent years, even the “project” items has become almost as easy as packing my netbook and an electronic reader. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it does make life simpler when so much of what I’m working on and reading can be carried with those two items.

Sometimes, when I have packed and unpacked for trips of 7-14 days to Philadelphia or Albuquerque, I felt like I was re-enacting the scene from Mary Poppins where Julie Andrews was pulling out all kinds of impossible things from her carpet bag. But this method of traveling served me well, and I was doing it long before the airlines started charging for checked luggage.

96 Leather Passport Airline Ticket Holder

(Photo credit: ExecGifts)

It’s only been in the last eight years that I started travelling internationally. Four years ago, when I came to Taiwan, I could bring two checked bags and a carry-on as part of the ticket. This was especially important when I first moved here. With two suitcases, I could bring enough things to get me started in my new home. When I travel to the US to visit in the summer, I sometimes packed my smaller carry-on in the larger one, and then had the second one to bring things back from the US, like my quilting fabric that was stored there.

Last summer things changed, and  I had a ticket that only allowed for one checked piece of luggage. Going from Taiwan to the US wasn’t too difficult, since I was already accustomed to going back with one bag, but it wasn’t as easy on the return trip to Taiwan when I wanted to bring a few things that I bought in the US. In the end, I paid for the second suitcase because there were specific things we had planned for me to bring back. But this year, I will plan my trip accordingly.

Making Connections

My duffle bag served me well for many years, but eventually it just got too tired to make the treks through those airports. But roller bags are great, and I love mine with its brown, pink, and white stripes. I didn’t think ahead, so I don’t have a picture to post of it, but it may show up some time. My roller bag is truly a carry-on size, so in some planes, it actually fits under the seat. But it holds a lot, and I almost can get that Mary Poppins feeling when I use it. Plus, she didn’t have wheels on hers, although she did have that great umbrella that made going through security a non-issue.

As I travel, I’ve noticed that some people seem to think the size restrictions for carry-on luggage don’t apply to them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has boarded a plane to find that the overhead bins are inefficiently utilized because someone’s roller bag is too large to fit front-to-back in the bin. But then, I have traveled with groups and seen people whose suitcases overflow with things that take extra attention and maintenance. When I travel, I don’t want to have to worry about stuff. I like the freedom of having less stuff to worry about. That’s why I was particularly fascinated by my daughter-in-law’s blog post about the preparations she and my son were making for their trip to Europe last September. She has gorgeous photos of the trip, but I was also impressed with the preparations she made for the trip. Talk about traveling light!

Speaking of Connections

Yup, it's February - How you doin'?

(Photo credit: Esther17)

You may wonder why I’m writing about travel and suitcases. I think about scheduling time the same way I think about packing a suitcase. And while I might say things about people who can’t seem to pack light, I’m totally guilty of overpacking my calendar.I want to somehow take what I know about traveling and bring it to my daily life. I’m sure some of the people who frustrate me with the over-sized bags are probably great with managing their time and packing their calendars effectively.

That’s actually why I’m writing about suitcases tonight. I was working on a post about my new work on scheduling as I focus on my keyword of clearing (see previous post). I discovered that my system was flawed in that it didn’t give me breathing room for a few major surprises that came along Tuesday night. I’m working through those now, with a planning system that uses index cards in a new way (at least for me). A post explaining this system is forthcoming–just not tonight. Stay tuned! I’m hopeful that the new system will be better suited for my journey to the clearing.

Keywords: Power Containers

(ReDiscovering Keywords)

I haven’t always thought of keywords as powerful, but they now play a key role in making my life less stressful and more infused with meaning. I have dabbled with keywords over the years, as my friend, Joycelyn, has developed and used keyword lists in countless ways. As she points out, single words can “evoke a concept or a mood or an attitude or a way of being , . . [that] can send you off on a journey . . .” As someone who knows how the written word can  inspire, motivate, heal, and challenge, I had failed to recognize how much power can reside in a single word. But there was no denying the power it held for for Joycelyn, or the impact it was having on her life.

A few months ago, she challenged me to select a seasonal keyword for fall. She had chosen one, as well as a song to go with it. I had to admit, the idea came at a perfect moment. A thematic focus was something I certainly needed. I was feeling really scattered and overwhelmed. And her explanation of using the keyword for a season at a time made sense to me. Choosing a focus for a year was a little too long, but changing every month might be too often, but a season seemed just right. I felt like Goldilocks and that I had just found the perfect bowl of porridge.

My Fall Keyword

I hemmed and hawed over my selection, looking for the right keyword. One that captured my motivation, my inspiration for the season. I was already well aware of the consequences of my over-commitment, and I needed something to help me focus; something to help ground me when I started to feel overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of ever catching up. I eventually settled on clamoring. For me, it evoked an image of lots of things all vying for my attention. For one reason or another, one (or several) would emerge as the top contenders at any given time, until something else was pushed into consciousness, sometimes by internal urgency, but more often something clamoring from outside. The point is that even the things from outside could be traced back to my unbridled assumption of tasks, ideas, and projects.

(photo credit: Gustave Miller)

(photo credit: Gustave Miller)

Interestingly, I had a really hard time coming up with a song, whose lyrics fit my theme. Realistically, I had to acknowledge, looking for the “perfect” song for my theme of clamoring seemed to be pointless considering all the things on my already overly-full to-do list. I moved to classical music and settled relatively quickly on Ravel’s Bolero. The dissonance throughout the relentless rhythm that builds and builds throughout the piece seemed to fit the way I felt about all the clamoring. But I also thought that maybe having a visual focal point was as helpful to me as the aural one. After looking around, I found this painting, Clamor, by Gustave Miller (see website). I love how it all the parts of it try to demand equal attention. I was ready.

The power contained in that keyword changed my life throughout the fall. I became more and more conscious of how my life was slipping away because of all the things clamoring for my attention. I hardly had a moment to think. The power of that word led me to my conscious decision to have a moratorium on new responsibilities and to focus on making space in my life for what was really important. In fact, I needed space to discover what I actually think is important. My schedule has dictated what I do, and I need to find time to listen to my heart instead of my calendar. My calendar needs to serve me, not the other way around.

My Winter Keyword

A Clear Path

A Clear Path (Photo credit: Michael Loke)

As fall leads to winter, my keyword clamor led me to a new keyword for winter. Clearing. I’m a little late in choosing this one, but it’s perfect in terms of the school calendar. We just finished our 18 week semester. I have four weeks before classes start again. I need to see how much of these excess responsibilities I can move through before classes begin. I will also build in restorative breaks, reflection time, and other gifts of time to help bring a sense of space and well-being to my hectic life. I will make friends with the calendar and with myself.

The picture on the left will become my visual cue for this season. I especially like its title, A Clear Path. As I explore the keyword clearing over the next several weeks, I like the image of creating a path to the new life that I will envision during this time. For music, I’m going to use Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I will primarily use Winter, but since I want to reconnect with my sense of the seasons, the entire album will be a good way to reconnect with the seasons, as I use my semester break for clearing.

The One that Won’t Let Go

Party hats at dawn 1

Party hats at dawn (Photo credit: Derek John Lee)

Today I publish the 20th post for Container Chronicles. That means I have been blogging for ten weeks, just over two months. People suggested for a long time that I start a blog, but I kept dragging my feet. Partly, I couldn’t decide what to write about. I had lots of requests for stories about my time here in Taiwan, but that wasn’t a topic that pulled me to the keyboard. Maybe someday I’ll do a small series as part of this blog, but my own struggle with sorting out my life and becoming more intentional about what I want to do is a bigger draw than a travelogue–at least for now.

I decided on Container Chronicles about three months before I launched it. During that time, I thought about the blog, I talked about the blog, but I did very little to actually start blogging. It wasn’t exactly perfectionism that kept me from it, but I did have a fear of sorts that it wouldn’t turn out like I imagined it. Which is crazy in many ways, because if I had stayed with that line of thinking, I’d still be thinking about it and I wouldn’t be publishing this 20th post. Sometimes, it helps me to make an external commitment, so I’m not just accountable to myself. So I came up with a gimmick. I gave the “promise” of a launch as a birthday gift to a long-time friend who had been pushing me to blog. On October 9, her birthday, I sent her an email that announced my intention to launch the blog in honor of her birthday. The announcement gave October 31 as the launch date. I missed by a couple of days, but it didn’t matter because my blog was real! I felt such a sense of accomplishment! Seeing the actual blog post as others saw it was amazing. I got excited updating my stats and seeing how many people visited my blog. I wanted that feeling to keep going.

CSS Bar Charts

CSS Bar Charts (Photo credit: alykat)

Once I launched, I was determined to maintain a schedule. Twice a week seemed like a good starting point. Not too often, but often enough that it wouldn’t drift too far from my consciousness. I made a list of potential topics along with a schedule for posting them. I could start writing, schedule them to post, and move on to the next ones, keeping ahead of the schedule a bit. It was a good plan on paper, but in reality I struggle to meet the midnight posting deadline almost every time. It felt a little stressful, but I knew it was something I wanted to do, but every Tuesday and Friday, I found myself racing the clock to get it done. But seeing my “body of work” grow each week made it all worthwhile. Tuesdays and Fridays became “blog nights” in my world. I liked this new part of my world.

Then something strange happened.  People tried to help me. Not just the expected comments, like “Kudos for getting started.” Or,  “Wow, you’ve done this for how long? It looks great!” But a lot of unexpected ones as well. “Why are you adding something else to your schedule?” Or, “You do know that it’s OK if you skip a post or two, don’t you?” Or, “Maybe you shouldn’t put so much pressure on yourself.” I felt like I had to defend my blog and my decision to spend time on it. Sure, maybe I needed to figure out a way to not be up against the deadline as often, but even that didn’t bother me that much. But it was bothering a lot of other people on my behalf.

To be honest, I was baffled by that response. After all, when I was struggling with how to make time for quilting, no one tried to talk me out of it. I had a lot of support to keep at it, even though I was stressed by my inability to quilt regularly. Luckily, my friend Joycelyn* heard me when I was pushing too hard to make quilting fit into a life already overflowing with responsibility. Even though I resisted at first, she helped me see clear to changing my attitude toward quilting (and therefore helping me to have SOME rather than no quilting in my life). Joycelyn also understood the satisfaction I was getting from blogging and commitment to continue it. But my puzzlement over the concerns of others was still baffling.

my new table and computer

my new table and computer (Photo credit: slackware)

Then it dawned on me. If someone watches (or imagines watching) me while I’m working on my blog, it looks no different than when I’m grading papers online, or when I’m doing an editing job, or when I’m working on the textbook project, or when I’m answering student emails, or working on any of the other multitude of tasks that I do at my computer. In fact, if someone took a picture of me doing each of those activities, and then put those pictures side by side in a row, it might be difficult to see any difference, particularly if they are taken from the back. I like to think if the pictures were taken from the front, there would be more a glint in my eye as I worked on the blog. From the back, however. these four pictures would likely look the same. On the other hand, if someone saw me at the cutting table or at my sewing machine, they could clearly see the difference. The quilting activities would appear to be creative and relaxing, even fulfilling, maybe just because they aren’t happening at the computer.

What I know now is that twice a week, I accomplish something tangible. I add two posts to a blog that didn’t exist three months ago. I find that I want to do more. While I will still spend my focused quilting retreats a few times a year, the blog gives me something that quilting isn’t satisfying right now. I am learning as much about process, both in terms of blogging itself as well as what helps me find meaning in the rest of my life. Blogging has become a tool that helps me de-stress, that helps me clear away a lot of mental clutter. In the end, it pushes me to reexamine my life  In the end, it may even open up more quilting time. It can certainly help me decide the purpose on which I want to spend my time. It can help me focus. But for now, it pushes me to finish this post so I can publish by midnight.

*Joycelyn knows well the satisfactions of blogging. Check out one or all.

Nine Paths

Farther to Go!

give me a daisy