on writing, organization

2 Simple Rituals To Begin The Work Day

Some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters, including Beth and Sarah of The Nuanced Life, have been talking about the importance of daily rituals. They help us slow down and appreciate a moment, mark the passage of time, and inject a special feeling into daily routines. In this post I’ll talk about the 2 simple rituals I recently implemented to start my work day.

Much has been written about the writer’s struggle to “stay in the chair.” A writer I used to know even signed his emails with a quote from French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Of course, this struggle extends to other professions, too. For example, I’ve noticed the human impulse for distraction while supervising my daughter’s piano practice. Yes, she is only four, but one of my takeaways from parenting toddlers is that they really aren’t that different from adults. We grown-ups have all the same emotions and urges; we are just better at repressing, delaying, or lying about them. So when my daughter sits on the piano bench, I see myself at my desk. She fidgets, looks for objects in the room to focus on instead, asks if she can make up her own song rather than practice the assigned ones. As she finishes a measure or a song, we pause for a beat. I coax her to keep going when she wants to be done already. These practice sessions last a mere 10-15 minutes but they’ve been very illustrative for me.

When I sit down to work each day, one or all of these things usually happen:

  • I realize I have to go to the bathroom. On my way there I notice objects that could be put away, cleaning chores that need to be completed.
  • I suddenly feel thirsty, tired, or hungry; therefore I need a glass of water, a mug of coffee, or a snack. When I sit down again, I think, “let me just scan the news headlines while I finish this snack.”
  • I get a strong urge to sort unread emails and organize the physical objects on my desk and in surrounding areas. I hated the admin jobs I held post-college, but suddenly filing papers seems like the most desirable task in the world. I think, “once my space is clear I will be able to work better.”

It’s easier to keep someone else on track (i.e. a child at the piano) than to police yourself. The mind can be very wily, making us think we are not procrastinating but taking care of something that Really And Truly Needs To Be Done. To counter the distraction impulse, I’ve started two easy and quick rituals that tell my brain, “get your butt in the chair and focus. Everything else can wait.” I once read that Joyce Carol Oates rewards herself for a morning of writing with housework and I totally get it. Sometimes a mindless physical task is the perfect refresher after hours of sustained mental focus.

Ritual One: Turn on the essential oil diffuser.

A friend gave me an extra aromatherapy kit she’d received as a gift. It came with one diffuser and two bottles of essential oil. I use the Grapefruit scent, which supposedly promotes energy, to start my work session. Plugging in the diffuser, pouring the water, and counting the drops of oil help my mind get focused. The nice scent adds that special feeling to my workday. Does it actually make me energized? I have no idea. Ask me again when my kids are actually sleeping through the night.

Ritual Two: Listen to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14

I like to listen to classical music while I write; it makes me feel “smart” and focused. After exploring different composers and playlists through Amazon’s Music Unlimited feature, I’ve settled on the album “99 Must-Have Piano Masterpieces.” It’s long enough to last through writing sessions of various lengths and it begins with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. Something about the opening notes of that piece imbue me with a sense of gravity and purpose, so that whatever I’m working on next, even the most mundane writing task, can make me feel like Tolstoy composing War and Peace. And really, that’s how we should approach anything we do because your work is that important to someone: your boss, client, or customer. The care you’ve put into it will show in the final product.

Do you have rituals or habits that help you ward off distraction and procrastination? I always love to hear other people’s tips and hacks.

organization, personal, time tracking

Adventures In Time Tracking

time tracking

I have long been resistant to suggestions (mainly coming from my much more time-aware husband) that I track what I do all day: how much I work, how much I sleep, and the rest of life’s daily shuffle. Why didn’t I want to know this possibly helpful information? Well, I like to take my time, I hate feeling rushed, and I want to feel like my days have room for the unexpected. But as every other parent knows, this isn’t really possible during the “rush hour years” of having babies and raising small children. Time becomes a precious resource, at least the time that you hope to have to yourself. So by the time I read Laura Vanderkam’s 2016 New York Times article, “The Busy Person’s Lies,”  I was more receptive to time tracking.

Still, as you can see if you do the math, it’s taken me two years to actually implement this strategy in my own life (after a few false starts and stops that summer). Like I said, I move slowly. Plus, it took me that long to realize I could use Vanderkam’s weekly spreadsheet (sign up for her email list to get it) on my phone with the Google Sheets app instead of the clumsier process of turning to my laptop to record my day in half hour brackets. For the past two weeks I’ve logged my time, though my focus is on sleeping, driving, and working, as those are the areas of my life I’m least aware of and could benefit the most from tweaking. I’ll start sharing some of my insights here, in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

Week One (3/26-4/1): Our routine was a little off due to my kids’ spring break from preschool. I didn’t work as much as I normally would on Monday and Tuesday. Still, I was shocked to discover I’d only spent about 21 hours on income-generating work tasks. (I receive a stipend for the classes I teach as an adjunct, so I count all teaching related hours from class prep to classroom time and grading. But for my freelance writing I try to be stricter in only counting the time I’m writing, not miscellaneous email/admin tasks, for example.) Just as Vanderkam’s article illustrates, I felt busy, but a 20-hour work week is nothing to complain about.

Right now I’m teaching four days/week at two different campuses, each about a 50 minute drive from my house. And my kids’ school, which they attend two days/week, is a 30 minute drive from home, adding more time to my teaching-related commutes on those days. Luckily, the obscene amount of driving I’m doing will come to an end later this month and I’ll be smarter about scheduling in the future now that I can see the hours in black and white. (Sure, I’m breezing through the audiobook version of Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, but that still doesn’t make the great expense and time suck of two-plus hours/day of driving worth it.)

With my new realizations from Week One, I focused on finding more working time in Week Two. This had mixed results: overall I increased my work time by ten hours, but often at the expense of exercising and getting to bed early enough. Plus I’m just slow and error prone when I try to write at night. And as soon as I let go of my commitment to self-care, I started to feel very unhappy, which manifests as snapping at my kids and so on. The most successful part of the week was working for six hours on Saturday while my husband took the kids on an outing. So in the future I’ll look to the weekend to make up time instead of trying to work after the kids are asleep.

Do you track your time? Even if you don’t, I’d love to hear about your daily routines and tricks for finding more time in the week to do certain tasks. I geek out on other people’s time diaries and now I’m enjoying keeping my own.

organization, teaching

Back to School for Teachers

Back to School for Teachers

Classes begin next week at one of the two colleges I teach for. As an adjunct, preparing for the semester can be a gamble. You don’t want to begin too soon in case your class is cancelled, but if you start too late it’s hard to catch up. Being prepared is the number one thing that gives me confidence as a teacher, but I also struggle with procrastination. So what to do? I turned to my friend and fellow writer/teacher, Katie Ionata, for help.

Katie and I share an office, so I’ve personally witnessed her organization skills. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing her teach, so I know she prepares great classes to engage her students. Recently I asked Katie how she prepares for the semester. These are the tips she gave me:

  • Make a big list of everything you need to do before school starts. Then try to do a few things each week, starting in August. Breaking a long list into manageable portions makes it feel less daunting.
  • Write or revise your syllabi.
  • Proofread/have someone read your syllabi.
  • Submit syllabi for copying.
  • Set up Blackboard or Webstudy (or whichever online learning platform your school uses) sites for your classes.
  • Review new readings.
  • Complete lesson plans for Weeks 1 and 2.
  • Start thinking about the first paper assignment.
I’m proud to say I’m off to a good start so far. My syllabi are finished and off to the copier and I designed a new assessment and writing sample prompt for the first class. I’m going to work on subsequent lesson plans next. Another way I’ll improve my planning and organization this year is to record paper due dates on my calendar and block off extra time for grading. So although it’s still 90 degrees outside and seems too soon for the “fall” semester to begin, I’m ready.
How do you get ready for a new semester or school year? How do you stay organized throughout the term? Please share any tips to add to Katie’s list.