This week I’m over at the NEXT Church blog. This fall they’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Here’s my offering.
What’s saving my ministry these days is a five minute journaling practice I’ve been doing each morning (and most evenings) for the past few months. I’ve tried various journaling methods off and on for years. Something about holding the pen in my hand allows me to focus my prayers in a way my monkey mind can’t do by simply sitting quietly. And now that I work from home “for myself,” I have lots of possible things vying for my attention and time. I was looking for something short and focused that could bring clarity and discernment to my day.
Many of us are familiar with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, which she calls her “spiritual windshield wipers.” This practice serves the same purpose, but instead of writing stream of consciousness, I write short pithy statements. Whereas morning pages are like an epic poem, this is journaling as haiku. I adapted it from Tim Ferriss, an author and entrepreneur. He’s a little too “guru” for me, but I think he’s hit upon a good structure to get the day started with intention.
Here are the questions for the morning:
Three things for which I’m grateful:
Three things that would make this a fruitful day:These don’t have to be things I want to accomplish, but they usually are. Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.
I am… I have three kids, so “patience” shows up a lot here.
I’m curious about: This is something I’ve added recently, thanks to Brené Brown’s work. This is often where I think about my reactions to things and wonder “What was THAT about?!”
As for the evening practice, it is similar:
Three things to celebrate about the day:
One thing I could have done better:
Those of you who know the Ignatian examen will recognize threads of this practice in these questions. The questions are framed in terms of gratitude, and there is ample space to acknowledge the times I’ve fallen short—to see them written in my own hand, and to let those moments go—to let God absorb and hopefully transform them.
Recently 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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?”
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.