Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd, and Other Monkey-Mind Procrastinators

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd and Other Monkey-Minded ProcrastinatorsRecently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.

A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid.
Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.
Etc.

What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.

I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.

Anyway:

It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.

But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.

Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.

Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.

And yes, there’s an app for that.

Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)

Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:

Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.

Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.

I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.

Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.

Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.

~

 photo credit: ABC-Analyse via photopin (license)

This Week’s Muffin: Granola Blueberry, with Bonus Recipe

7223119808_685da574bdFor those of you keeping count, this is Muffin Maven’s third, yes third, blueberry muffin recipe in recent weeks. What can I say… each offers something a little different. These are wheaty, not too sweet, and are filled and topped with hearty granola.

We’ve been making granola from scratch the last few weeks, using a recipe from Brown Eyed Baker… which turns out to come from Cook’s Illustrated, our favorite source for all things culinary. That recipe is a bonus link below.

Muffin recipe from Taste of Home.

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granola without raisins, divided
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 400° and grease/line 12 muffin cups. In a small bowl, whisk flours, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Stir in 1/2 cup granola.
  2. In another bowl, whisk egg, buttermilk, oil and juices until blended. Add to flour mixture; stir just until moistened. Fold in blueberries.
  3. Fill muffin cups three-fourths full; sprinkle remaining granola over batter. Bake 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.

Bonus Recipe: My friend Keith turned me on to this granola, so it’s listed in My Fitness Pal as Keith’s Granola. But it’s actually called Maple Almond Granola and it’s fantastic.

By the way: Pinterest users, you can access all the muffin recipes I’ve collected here.

~

photo credit: 2n via photopin (license)

Off to Preacher Camp!

I’m off to be with my preaching peeps this week, and as is my custom, I refer you to previous posts about the joys and challenges of cohort groups as pastors and church professionals. I am a big believer in them.

Design Your Own Preacher Camp: A Re-Reprise

What Makes a Clergy Group Work

On Competition and the Church: what happens when colleagues “compete” for the same positions.

Off to the city of the big shoulders.

14509022473_796504ac02_b

photo credit: Chicago Skyline via photopin (license)

This Week’s Muffin: Glazed Grapefruit Poppyseed

We love grapefruit in our house, so I had to try these. Truth be told, they didn’t taste terribly different than lemon poppyseed, but there was a subtle grapefruitiness to them, especially in the glaze.

IMG_7124

This recipe was adapted from Girl Versus Dough. I didn’t have whole wheat pastry flour on hand so I improvised as noted below. I used less milk than the original calls for and ended up needing to add some flour at the end. I’ve reflected these changes in the recipe as best I can.

GLAZED GRAPEFRUIT POPPYSEED MUFFINS

For the muffins:
  • ⅔ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grapefruit zest (from about 1 large grapefruit)
  • ⅓ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup poppy seeds
  • 1 tablespoon grapefruit juice
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup cake flour *
  • 3½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup 2% milk (I used skim–it’s all I had)
For the glaze:
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1¼ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons grapefruit juice
DIRECTIONS
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 2 regular-size muffin tins with baking spray or line 14 muffin cups with paper baking cups.
  2. In a large bowl rub sugar and grapefruit zest together with fingers until well-combined and fragrant. Add oil, poppyseeds, grapefruit juice, vanilla and egg. Whisk until combined.
  3. In a separate large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and salt.
    (*If you don’t have these exact types of flour, use about 2 cups and eyeball the consistency of your batter in the next step. You know it’s the right amount because batter should not “pour” but drop into muffin cups with a wet plop.)
  4. To grapefruit-poppyseed mixture, alternately stir in flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, until just combined. Pour batter into prepared muffin tins. Bake 17-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center of a muffin comes out clean. Transfer muffins to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  5. In a small bowl, combine ingredients for glaze, adding more grapefruit juice or powdered sugar as needed to achieve desired consistency. Dip top of each muffin in glaze, then return to cooling rack or parchment paper so glaze can drip and set. I only glaze the ones we’re planning to eat and store the leftovers in the fridge. Muffins can be reheated and glazed as you go.

A User’s Guide to Iona, Beta Version

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

Recently a couple of people have asked me for advice on traveling to Iona. I remember feeling a bit lost the first time I went, and couldn’t find a go-to page with information (aside from the Iona website itself, which is good but not exhaustive, especially if you’re traveling from the U.S.).

So here’s a draft guide to traveling to Iona, an expanded version of an email I sent to one of these friends. I know many of you have been there and have even more experience than I do, so please pipe up with items to add, and we’ll make this guide better and better! (Be sure to check out the stuff in bold italic.)

What is Iona?

Iona is an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, and is said to be Christianity’s first outpost in Scotland back in the sixth century or so. The Iona Community is an inclusive Christian community that hosts pilgrims on the island throughout the year.

The Iona Community hosts folks in one of two facilities: the Abbey, mainly for adults, and Macleod (pronounced mack-CLOUD) Centre, mainly for families. There’s also Camas, but that’s off-island and for young people—not the focus of this post.

The Iona Community doesn’t bill itself as a conference center or a retreat center, though it has elements of both. It is an experience of living in community. If you stay in Iona Community accommodations, you won’t have a private room (though if you travel with someone you can room with them, and families are kept together in Macleod’s large rooms). Also, bathrooms are down the hall, with sinks in the bedrooms. The accommodations are perfectly serviceable and comfortable but not fancy.

As part of the community, you’ll be divided into work groups and given tasks to do each day. These are minor, like setting tables for meals, sweeping, chopping vegetables, or cleaning bathrooms. Meals are family style and the different task teams serve those. Tasks take 20 minutes each day, tops, and are nice for building community and doing your part.

What is a week at Iona like?

The Iona Community’s week-long program begins with an arrival Saturday afternoon and ends with a Friday morning departure.  Some weeks are programmed, with a speaker who leads things in the morning, with afternoons free. Check Iona Community’s website to see what they have planned each week. I’ve been to a programmed week and an open week and I prefer the latter. That said, the programmed weeks provide plenty of free time, and the open weeks typically have scheduled activities, such as tours of the facilities, hymn sings, and other options. Worship takes place each evening, with different themes each day.

The pilgrimage is the highlight for many people. It’s a multi-hour trek around the island to view the various sacred sites. There’s an off-road version for hardier souls and on-road for people who want a shorter experience. The off-road version is subject to be altered or canceled based on trail conditions, and they are insistent on proper footwear—waterproof shoes, ideally hiking boots with ankle support.

Which pilgrimage should you choose? I highly recommend the off-road version, provided that:
–you’re in good enough shape
–for a 5-hour hike with frequent stops (including almost an hour for lunch)
–on uneven (but not mountainous) terrain.

The pilgrimage is usually on Tuesdays.

There’s also an evening of folk dancing, called a Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), in the town hall. It’s fun and intergenerational. Think Celtic line dancing.

If you stay in the Macleod Centre you also have access to their beautiful and amazingly-stocked craft room. Many happy hours can be spent there.

What about island activities?

Here are a few fun things to do beyond the walls of the Iona Community. (Iona is great for wandering, so get yourself a map of the island from one of the shops.)

  • Have a cream tea at one of the inns and hotels and/or book a lunch or dinner.
  • Climb up Dun I (pronounced dun ee), the highest point on the island at a manageable 331 feet.
  • Have a drink and enjoy the view at Martyr’s Bay restaurant.
  • Visit the beaches and wade in the clear but coooooold water.
  • Book a boat trip to nearby Staffa to see Fingal’s cave and, if the timing is right, PUFFINS!
    Note: I have never done this because the boat is small and the seas are rough. Bad combo for me.
  • Browse the shops for souvenirs, folk crafts, wool (aka yarn), or an ice cream sandwich.
  • Stargazing, meandering walks… anything you’d do in a wild rural setting.

Where do I start with logistics?

As of this post, the Iona Community has not yet posted its schedule for next summer. When they do, it should be here. First step is to decide when you want to go and fill out a booking form (also available at that link). Once you are confirmed, you can investigate flights and other travel arrangements (see below).

What if I want to go on my own, not as part of the Community?

I don’t have a lot of logistical information to offer on that. Go to Isle of Iona’s website and poke around for accommodations and information.

If you go on your own, you’re always welcome to worship with the Community in the Abbey Church–services are daily–and the pilgrimage is also open to all, as well as the Ceilidh. Those events are in the early part of the week, so plan accordingly.

What do I need to know about traveling there and back?

If you can manage it, I’d get to the UK a few days before you head to Iona. This allows you to get over your jetlag. And IF heaven forbid you lose your bags, which happened to people in our group the first time, it gives you time to be reunited with your luggage before getting to the island.

Americans: Our family flew into Dublin a few days early and saw the sights there, then flew to Glasgow. Dublin is a great airport because when you return to the U.S., you do all the customs and immigration at the Dublin airport before you leave. So when you get to your home airport you just collect your bags and head home. Highly recommended.

Whatever you decide to do, you need to be in Glasgow by Friday night so you can start the journey to Iona first thing Saturday morning.

There is information on the Iona website about travel from Glasgow and back. It involves a 3 hour train ride, a 45 minute ferry ride, an hourlong bus ride, and a five minute ferry. This sounds very complicated but it’s quite easy, especially in the summer. If you leave Queen St. Station in Glasgow on the 8 a.m. train you pretty much can’t go wrong. They’re set up for pilgrims to come to Iona. Just follow the crowds.

 Breaking down the steps, you need tickets for:

  1. The train from Glasgow to Oban. Buy ahead of time so you’re not rushed that morning. Using the Rail and Sail site to get both train and Oban ferry tickets.
  2. The ferry from Oban to Craignure on the island of Mull. Buy these the day of at the terminal on the dock, or see previous note.
  3. The bus ride across Mull. Buy them the day of. Seriously. They’re lined up right next to the dock. I can’t remember if they accept credit cards or cash only, but it’s £11 round trip, so bring enough cash just in case.
  4. The ferry ride from Fionnphort (pronounced FIN-eh-for, best I can tell) to Iona. Same disclaimer about cash/credit, and I can’t find the price, but it’s less than the bus ride.

How about going with children?

Traveling to Iona with one’s family is obviously a huge expense, but for us it was worth the saving up and the effort. Sadly, some communities welcome children more in theory than in practice, but Iona really takes hospitality seriously, including for little ones. The Macleod Centre is a comfortable, accommodating place for children. (Remember, they’ve got that amazing craft room.)

I was curious to see how our plugged-in, chicken-nugget-eating American kids would do in a remote location with no Internet and unfamiliar food. (Iona serves mainly vegetarian options, and they’re good about accommodating allergies and sensitivities.) I’m sure our kids ate more than their share of bread that week, but they were none the worse for wear. And they really “got” the place, and enjoyed getting to know people from other countries. You know your own children and your budget, but I encourage you to give it a try if you can.

What about packing?

  • Pack light and plan to handwash items in your sink. There is a drying room in the Abbey and Macleod, and while it’s better than nothing, it mainly succeeded at giving our supposedly clean clothes a slight mildewy smell.
  • Layers and good footwear, preferably boots.
  • You do not need any dressy clothing while there. Worship is casual.
  • There are some boots and waterproofs that can be borrowed, but I’d bring your own.
  • Make sure you’ve got one of these outlet adapters if you bring electronics.
  • If you get carsick easily, bring Dramamine for the bus ride across Mull. It’s a single lane road so there’s a lot of pulling over to let other traffic pass.
  • Friends: what else should be added here?

Miscellaneous

  • There is no Internet access in the Iona Community’s centers. You can access WiFi at one of the nearby hotels for a small fee.
  • You can eat at the cafe on the ferry from Oban to Mull, but do yourself a favor and stop at the seafood shack for some prawn sandwiches instead. Get ’em to go and bring ’em on board. Nothing fancy, but fresh as can be.
  • Then when you get back to Oban on your return, stop by the George Street Fish and Chips shop for some piping hot takeaway (cash only).

Have you been to Iona? What have I left out?

~

P.S. Email newsletter will be sent soon. Sign up.