Tag Archives: writing

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)

The Beauty in the Ordinary

boyhood_still

I am a writer today because I was a blogger first. Some 11 years ago I began a pseudonymous blog, as was the custom at the time–a place to write about my kids, ministry, and life in general. I wrote poems and top ten lists and meditations on parenting. I wrote liturgy but also cursed freely. It was a liberating space because there were no names attached, though if you knew me and stumbled upon it, you’d recognize me quickly. At least that’s what I always hoped. Authenticity, with a Google-proof veil of privacy.

Now eleven years and hundreds of posts later, I write this blog, I author books and articles for a living, I freelance for a non-profit, and I speak to groups about a whole host of things. But I don’t write as much personal stuff. Sabbath in the Suburbs has some memoir-ish elements in it, but I don’t know that I’ll publish another biographical book any time soon. My kids deserve not to be on display as they mature.

There is one place where I still write personal things. For the past few years I’ve been keeping three paper journals, one for each child. I call it The Memory Project. In it I write one-sentence entries about what’s going on in their lives. I keep it to one sentence because a paragraph or page is too much. One sentence is a small enough goal that I’ll actually do it.

My hope was to write every day, but every three weeks is more like it. I strive to record the quotidian moments as well as the milestones. In fact, I hope to write more of the former than the latter, since the latter are often easier to recall later.

This beautiful Atlantic article, The Value of Remembering Ordinary Moments, helps spur me along in this discipline:

Quotidian life seems too banal to document. Why write down routine conversations, ones we’ve had a million times and will have a million times more? Isn’t it more important to remember extraordinary moments: first steps, graduations, jobs, awards, marriage, retirement, vacations? Yet people seldom realize how fondly they will look back on days spent mundanely: a day spent reading in the bay window, a picnic in the park with friends. These things may not stick out while they are happening, but revisiting them can be a great pleasure. “Who would call a day spent reading a good day?” writes Annie Dillard. “But a life spent reading—that is a good life.”

I write these journals because I hope my kids will want this window into their childhood some day. I write because some things are too precious for Facebook… and other things are too mundane for it. But according to the article, it’s the everyday experience that we crave:

The people in the study were most interested in rediscovering the mundane experiences. Asked to write down what they were doing on an ordinary day (a few days before Valentine’s Day) and then on an extraordinary day (on Valentine’s Day), participants had more pleasure reading their entry about the ordinary day three months later than their entry about the extraordinary day.

When I reflect on my childhood, I remember the Christmas I got the entire series of Sweet Valley High paperback books (at least, the mere fifteen that had been published at that point). I remember the family trip to Colorado and the sooty chug-chug of the Silverton to Durango train. I remember my baby brother getting into my prescription medicine when I had the chicken pox and watching from the upstairs window as the paramedics drove away with him to get his stomach pumped. But I don’t remember what my random Thursdays were like. I don’t remember what our go-to dinner was on busy nights before my mother led the Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember shoe shopping.

My favorite movie of 2014 was Boyhood. Many people appreciated the cinematic achievement of following the same actors for seven years, but thought the story itself was boring. I agree that the movie was about the in-between moments–the fight before the divorce, the party after graduation–but I consider that a feature, not a bug. The scenes of a mother driving her son to school or a father taking his kids for pizza–those are the precious places of everyday grace.

Those moments are what make up a life. That kind of vision, a vision of the sacred in the ordinary, is what I mean when I talk about living Sabbathly. Living Sabbathly means we are awake to our life as it unfolds. And life unfolds primarily in ordinary moments.

 

The Improv Life: Stop Trying to Be Clever

Leave the cleverness to these guys.

Leave the cleverness to these guys.

The writing workshop I attended in Collegeville involved unstructured writing time each morning and afternoon (heaven) with group gatherings in the evenings. One of these gatherings was a workshop on improv led by Greta Grosch, an actor and group trainer in Minnesota.

Greta led us through a series of exercises that built nicely on one another. We started with games in which we passed various words and movements around a circle, then worked our way up to improvising scenes. Which sounds more impressive than it was. We are all amateurs, our group is somewhat introverted, and as writers, our creativity often comes after staring at a blank page or empty screen, not after a facilitator points to us and says, “You. Go.”

As many of you know, the basic rule of improv, is to yes-and. It’s a decent way to live one’s life: to build on what’s offered (especially if you can’t change it).

Yet everyone in our group struggled to move the scenes forward. It’s amazing how ingrained the word but is in us. We resist the suggestion our partner gives us because we think we had a “better” idea. Or we have no idea how to run with what’s offered, so we veer off in our own direction. It’s not about rejecting the person; it’s about retaining some semblance of control. Yet improv is about mutual discovery. You agree to be swept along just to see where the thing goes.

I’ve done just enough improv that it’s not excruciating anymore, but I still like the theory more than the practice. I’m intrigued by improv, not because it comes naturally, but because it doesn’t.

But every time I do improv there’s a breakthrough.

Last time I wrote about improv it ended up on Collegeville’s blog. That time I had this realization: people aren’t looking at you and judging you nearly as much as you think. This is very freeing.

My takeaway from Greta’s workshop was this:

Don’t be clever.

What stops many of us from moving forward is the pressure to think of something good. So we stand there, racking our brains for a zany line or action. The silence not only kills the energy of the scene or game, but it raises the stakes for whatever’s eventually going to come out of your mouth. People expect it to be awesome, a bar that we novices mostly clear accidentally and serendipitously.

I realized how much more fruitful it is to do something, anything. Just act. For me, improv isn’t about learning how to perform for others (yet?) but how to silence my inner commentator long enough to act intuitively. In the beginning, my question was “Can I come up with something clever?” I found it helpful to shift to “How quickly can I respond to what’s been offered?” A quick response is uncensored, almost instinctive. And it may stink or it may be funny, but at least something happens that moves the action forward and gives one’s partner something to work with.

The problem is, many of us know improv through Second City or Whose Line Is It Anyway? We judge ourselves against the masters, but these are people at the top of their craft. (They’ve also learned the forms so well that the scenes they build aren’t truly anything-goes. If you watch closely, there are jokes they fall back on and moves they make that, while not quite scripted, aren’t truly spontaneous.)

As a sometimes-control freak with a perfectionistic streak, cleverness is my enemy. It means I never make the initial move, write the first word, because it’s got to be just right. A life lived improvisationally means that you start. Don’t just stand there, do something. Almost anything will do, because that first move provides information you need in order to make the second move.

Read other blog posts about improv here.

Off to My Happy Place

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Everyone should have a happy place—a mental location that you can visit in your mind when you need a little peace and well-being. (And ideally, visit for real every now and then.) For a long time, my happy place has been this:

peter_pan

The Peter Pan ride at Magic Kingdom.

A few years ago I acquired a second one: the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, sponsor of wonderful writing workshops, purveyor of gracious Benedictine hospitality.

See you in a week or so. In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me this poem for inspiration. A gift:

“Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?”
Ron Koertge

Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.

It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.

…Read the rest at the Library of Congress.

Write well. Love well. Live well.

#NeverPrayAgain — An Author Q&A

Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs, still available at fine online retailers) has some great stuff in the works these days. There’s Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, which I featured a few months ago. Traci Smith’s book Seamless Faith was also featured here recently. Coming next year will be a book by Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after he performed the wedding for his gay son.

NeverPrayAgain-e1383596869947Today we feature Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. I’ve known these guys online for a few years and find them to be provocative, yet humble and good-humored—and I think the latter two qualities are ideal in order to fully engage the former, eh?

Anyway, here’s a little Q&A that will give you a sense of their book:

1. How did this book come about? What was the initial impetus to write it? 

We don’t intend to imply that she supports the book, but we can kind of blame it on a heady cocktail of Unco11, insomnia and Sara Miles. We love what she does with Take This Bread, nailing down liturgical practice to concrete activity in the world, and we were brainstorming ways to do similar things. Sara Miles clearly articulates that her experience of communion was a call to feed her community, out of which grew their food pantry. It’s crazy to us that a church can celebrate communion, and talk about sustenance and welcome, and yet have starving people across the street, and whole populations who are anything but welcome.

So we came up with prayer, which to us was emblematic of this tendency. We pray to God to forgive us, and feel better without having to reconcile with people we’ve hurt, or who have hurt us. We praise God, but look down on people who don’t achieve success by our standards. We pray prayers of thanksgiving, but Christians are famous for being poor tippers, and we often fail to thank the many people who make our lives possible.

We went through a common liturgical structure, which is punctuated by various forms of prayer, and organized the book in that way. We picked the title Never Pray Again at first to be as attention-grabbing as we could, but by the end of the writing, we have a greater sense for prayer as being one among many spiritual practices, and in itself no more necessary than liturgical dance. Notice that the title isn’t stop-praying-because-you-are-doing-something-bad, because that is not our argument. It is our belief that you can do something so much better in following Christ which will naturally lead you to Never Pray Again. Ultimately this book is about how we are called to act, more than whisper things in love.

2. I can tell you all have the pastor’s heart. You are very clear at the beginning, “If this book is not for you, put it down.” Who is this book for? Who do you hope will read it?

We imagine people who struggle with the efficacy of prayer, or with the constant assurance from other Christians to just “pray about it” when things go wrong, will get a lot from this book. People who are open to progressive ideas and who want to be challenged in various areas of their practice will be challenged by this book, we think in a good way. People who are already consistent pray-ers will find many other resources and ideas that, we think, will only strengthen them. We also found that our crowd-funding efforts with the Never Pray Again coloring book caught the attention of a number of members of an atheist community, and people who heard about us from that community made up about a third of our backers. For non-believers, I think the challenge will be that this book is stuffed full of Biblical allusions, stories and quotes. So we’ll say things they agree with about prayer, but the challenge will be that the direction we go is deeper into Christianity, rather than away from it.

3. You do a good job building a positive case for a very active life of faith, and you spend less time critiquing prayer itself and why it’s bad. That’s a good thing–it makes the book ultimately more constructive and useful. But is it possible to “get to work” AND to be actively engaged in a life of prayer? Or do you see something problematic about prayer itself, as it’s currently practiced?

This question comes up a lot, and we anticipated it. In theory, one can be living an active practice of Christianity and also pray regularly. Many of our personal heroes were pray-ers (though many others were not). We make the case in the book, however, that there are plenty of situations where prayer can be an impediment to Christian practice, and as Christians in community we are surrounded by examples of this, and have impeded ourselves as well plenty of times. Aric said it really well, that if there is a situation where you can have a ‘good’ prayer life and ‘relationship with God’, but a poor relationship with other people around you, then you are deceiving yourself about your prayer life and relationship with God.

One thing we definitely want to challenge is that Christians must pray. Our experience is that prayer is presented as a panacea, and as such, it doesn’t work very well. We disagree that prayer is a sine qua non of Christian practice. So far we have found, unsurprisingly, that the idea of being Christian and not praying is challenging to a lot of Christians. But if we put all the Bible passages about how and what to pray in one column, and all the Bible passages about how to treat people in another column, we would find many things that are more central to Christian practice than prayer.

We also hear things like “Well, anything done for God is a form of prayer,” which might be true, but if everything is prayer, then does the word prayer mean anything? We don’t think so. In that case, we aren’t talking about the same thing. In Never Pray Again, we are talking about what people mean when they say something like “Let us pray.” What happens next is most often that we close our eyes, bow our heads, clasp our hands, or put them up in the air, and say words in our minds or aloud which are directed at God. This is what the word prayer means 99.9% of the time, and this is what we are challenging. And we are not merely saying ‘pray a little bit differently.’ We are saying that it is fruitful to at least consider that we Never Pray Again.

4. How do you understand the Sermon on the Mount in light of your book? Jesus has a lot to say about how we pray (in your closet, etc.), but he also lifts up the Lord’s Prayer as a template.

So, in Matthew, 5:1 through 6:4 is about things we talk about in the book at length. Matthew 6:5-13 is about prayer, and then we’re back to other concerns in 6:14 through the end of chapter 7. Interestingly, there is very little Jesus says about prayer in this passage, and this is the most he talks about prayer in any of the Gospels, as you pointed out. But the way he describes prayer is such that a person who prays regularly will look no different from someone who doesn’t pray at all, because he admonishes his followers to pray in secret. We think that this reflects Jesus’ concern that prayer can take the place of action – a concern we share.

So how is it that, for Christians, prayer is necessary, but the other things Jesus talks about are optional? Subversive blessing, being salt and light, fulfilling the Law and doing what’s right, extinguishing hatred and sexual objectification, truth-telling, integrity, nonviolence, loving enemies, giving to the needy, fasting, non-worry and courage, giving up certainty of food and drink and clothing, being non-judgmental – these are also things Jesus talks about, but they occupy far less of an average Christian’s time and energy than prayer, and few seem to see them as absolutely necessary to Christian practice. Why is this?

We have a challenging theory – Christians focus on prayer because prayer is easy. If on the one hand I can pray, and on the other hand I can be a homeless pacifist truth-teller who loves his enemies and judges no-one, prayer is the easy choice. And we wonder, with this focus on prayer, do we make ourselves feel better about consuming, hating our enemies, judging others and being hypocritical? Our experience is that taking prayer off the table, so to speak, leaves us bare to the fact that our practice is lacking, and that we use prayer to make ourselves feel better about that. Think about the criticisms of millennials of the church – that it is judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, that it does harm to vulnerable people, etc. These are all instances where we are failing to live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount, including prayer, because we don’t focus on prayer in secret. We even push the Supreme Court to rule on prayer at public gatherings! Jesus would say don’t pray at public gatherings at all.

5. How has the book changed (or has it changed) the way you engage in prayer with the folks in your congregations? What fruit do you see or hope to see with your faith communities?

This is a more of an individual question, so we will answer individually.

aric 2 color

Aric Clark

(Aric) Writing and publishing this book has definitely changed the way I pray in and with my congregation in that it has forced me to address some areas of real hypocrisy in my life. Where the phrase “I’ll pray for you” had previously served as a sort of lazy stand-in for almost any expression of compassion, I now have to consider in each case what the best way to express my sympathy and solidarity might be. I find myself saying “I love you” a lot more and to a wider array of people, because that is what I really meant by offering prayer. The fruit I already see within the congregation I serve is people having to think through their reasons for praying. I have had many discussions with people about “why” they pray, which for most of them isn’t something they’d ever even considered. Prayer was just “what you do.”

Nick 1 color

Nick Larson

(Nick) The collaboration and challenge of the book as an idea started changing me, which
I’m sure has influenced my own prayer life and that with my congregation. From that initial conversation the underlying challenge of directness asks more of me. Last night I was gathered with our college ministry, Disciples on Campus, for a final meal to end the semester, and we closed with group prayer, but we were also eating at a Mexican restaurant who had stayed open late to accommodate us. I found myself walking back into the kitchen (a few of the students even followed me) to thank our cooks, and server who stayed late for us before they could start to close up. Before this book I don’t think I would have taken that action.

Doug Hagler

Doug Hagler

(Doug) The process of writing this book, a year and a half of research and struggle and discussing and revision, has changed me a lot. It has given me a chance to think through my commitments more thoroughly, and has strengthened my sense of the call of the Christian life. My hope is that a big part of my ministry is encouraging people, and modeling as much as I can, not to let outward religious practices replace true commitment to living a Christ-like life. For me, it’s all about Isaiah 58, and that line of thinking has informed me from the moment I thought I might do ministry as a career.

Excellent responses, guys! I hope your book is a great success.

Read more about Never Pray Again here.