Habits

nanowrimo

Nanowrimo is one of those challenges just crazy enough to lure a lot of people into it. If you haven’t heard, National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated with the first few letters of each word) is the challenge to write a short novel in November, a 30-day month for 50,000 words or more. The month draws droves of people back to their dusty dreams of being a writer, being a novelist, and let’s them really live it.

I LOVE IT.

I’ve only successfully written the 50,000 words on two… maybe 3? occasions. That being said, the past few years, as I’ve tried to get better and better at writing short pieces and essays and blog posts, I’ve given myself a different challenge in the midst of the excitement of November; I challenge myself to write 50,000 words total, on whatever I need to write: sometimes its emails or pitches or notes or freewrites, but every word counts and I aim for 50K.

This year, I got it! This very blog post, written ahead of time and queued for you to see, was part of those words. I like the accomplishment of setting an arbitrary and unrewarded goal and hitting it. It makes me think that I can do a lot more than I do on an average day if I set my mind to it.

One thing I’m all too aware of is that most of the novels written during Nanowrimo are not ever published; they often aren’t very good at all. At the same time, the people who wrote them are a little better somehow: they figured out a good synonym for a word, or they practiced what they’ve been saying for years about how they “love to write,” or they are a little more confident in themselves. I really think it is a challenge that changes people for the better, even if the prose it generates isn’t all that great.

Is there a major challenge you set up for yourself, only to make sure that you are continually pushing yourself? It’s a bit like bravery practice, actually, but perhaps a little different. Feel free to share in the comments.

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It is time to start a new week. Many of us here in the States are returning from a modified routine, and maybe from a full-blown vacation. We’ve been off our game, but we are ready to really make things happen for the last week of November and into the holiday season.

There are a few extra pounds on our hips, and the looming spectre of Christmas gifts, cards, parties, and cookies are here, whether Christmas is just a cultural phenomenon to you or a religious holiday. What can we do to make sure the overwhelm stays at bay?

The first thing, for me anyway, is to clean my desk.

I see the desk, both at work and at home, as the state of my brain. If it is full of things, I may be happy and healthy but I am also scattered, trying to do too much. My ideal desk space, like my ideal brain, has one, at most two, items of first importance on it, and everything else is filed away, ready to be accessed when needed.

This means also digging through those desk drawers, getting rid of old notes, receipts, candy wrappers (oh hi, Halloween…) and making sure that that space is available to me for really important things that I’ll want to be able to find without searching through a pile.

The way I calm down and get to work on a clean desk is nothing less than awe inspiring. So even if it just means moving the crazy-person pile of papers to another part of the room for a little while, clear that desk. Also put a half-hour on the schedule to “deal with the crazy-person pile of papers,” but that might not be the top priority upon a return to work, even after a weekend. Instead, the desk itself must be ready, just like we have to be ready, for work to even start on the right foot.

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Thanksgiving week is a time that my students have off, so it is a particularly good time for me to try to stop thinking about work for a little while. However, a few things stand in the way, namely emails, goals, and unfinished projects.

Emails are the most obvious one; I automatically check email whenever I log onto a computer and often when I open my cellphone, so I am instantly informed of anything going on at work. Never mind that, this week in particular, most of the emails are big-group emails and don’t have anything to do with me. I still read them, and sadly, I still think about them and let them occupy my headspace.

To detox from email, I give myself two “checks” a day: one in the morning, and one in the evening, after dinner but not right at bedtime. I do what I have to do (usually nothing) and I avoid the thoughts the rest of the time.

Goals are harder; I spend 40 or more hours a week trying to figure out what directions I need to go with my work, so it can be tough to turn off the mind-wandering part of my brain that wants to plan. Especially now, 3 years into my job with not a lot of change in responsibility, the ability to make the job go in a productive, new, and interesting direction is available, but I cannot just magically know where to take my work. I have to plan!

To stop planning as much during breaks, I try to, paradoxically, plan on purpose for a few minutes when I have a waiting moment. I might plug a few notes into my cell phone or Best Self Journal. This way, I know for sure that I’ve thought about the goals and gotten them on “paper” or paper, leading me to stop dwelling on those ideas.

Finally, unfinished threads: I didn’t finish planning my class for next semester, and there are a million small things to resolve as the semester concludes in 3 weeks. It’s so hard not to want to keep working even though I know that there is time enough to efficiently do my work when I get back!

The best way to avoid thinking about the unfinished threads, I find, is to fill my days with activities. I’m not a person who loves total-relaxation vacations, but even a game of backgammon with family or a good book is enough to make the buzz in my brain about unfinished work quiet down a bit.

I feel lucky that I have more than just a weekend this year to think through how to get my work thoughts out and make space for other thoughts of friendship and family, gratitude and community.

 

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I recently learned about Hal Elrod’s book The Miracle Morning when listening to back episodes of The Lively Show. Elrod’s story is amazing, and I’m waiting eagerly for the book to show up at the library, but in the meantime, I wanted to share what makes a great morning for me.

  • Non-hurried wake-up: My tendency is to leap out of bed as if the house is on fire, for fear that I’m not going to get up at all otherwise. This tendency is even worse in the winter, when we let our house get quite cold so that we can save on heat. My best mornings, though, are where I wake up energized and can take a few seconds of gratitude and happiness in bed, before I get up, to make sure I am ready for what is coming. It always makes me more measured, even if all I do is plan my outfit for the day.
  • Pedal to the metal: I have a set of exercise pedals (like an exercise bike, but it can sit in front of any chair) that I love to use when I first wake up. I also like going on a run, but most mornings I just don’t have the gumption for that much physical activity. Either one of them, though, gets my blood flowing and helps me wake up happy and quickly.
  • Vitamins and healthy breakfast: I’ve only recently gotten into my habit of taking a vitamin, but it is now one of the most routine parts of my morning. I also try to get a smoothie, some whole grain toast, or an egg-in-a-basket for breakfast, something small but packed with nutrients. These make me feel so much better than my old habit of scrounging for whatever junky breakfast food I had handy… a very common activity in my life.
  • Reading or writing something uplifting: I like to find something interesting to read or a good topic to blog about really early in the morning: not only does it feel like I’ve already accomplished something, but it also helps me set a positive tone for the day rather than just waiting for the first little disappointment or annoyance to throw me off my game.

How do you make your mornings great? When do you start them? I tend to wake at 6, but I’m pushing myself lately to see all I can accomplish by getting up at 5:30.

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I’m heading out on a trip today, and to save money I got a ticket on a low-cost airline. They call it “low cost,” but what they really mean is “low base price, plus add-ons.” What I do love is that I’ve developed a method for using a personal item sized bag as my entire luggage, and it saves me tons of money on low cost airlines and tons of time getting in and out of the airport.

I cut a few corners, so not everyone will love this method. For instance, I focus on having one or two important outfits (business casual for a conference, for instance) and otherwise wear the same outfit on any days that no one will notice (each of my travel days, and any days I have to explore on my own). Once you realize that on a trip there will be few people to judge you for re-wearing the same jeans, you can survive on a lot fewer clothing. I then have more room for all the socks, underwear, and a pair of pajamas.

I also limit my “fun” packing to one laptop, one cell phone, their chargers, and a single book (for when everything is dead and I cannot charge anything). More than that would make it totally impossible to fit everything in my bag.

This means that when I’m out exploring a city, I can usually bring the whole bag with me and not worry about where I left something. It makes me feel like a light-travelling turtle with everything I need nearby. I’m also less likely, in my silly way, to lose things, and that makes me more capable and ready to handle whatever life throws at me when I do need one of the two or three things I did manage to fit in the bag.

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Husband and I have a fairly small freezer in our kitchen, and way too much of it, at any given time, is totally full of coffee. Sometimes it is packs of green beans from Sweet Maria’s, which Husband then roasts to a delicious toastiness on our back porch. Other times, it is a bag of socially-conscious Javesca Coffee, from a company that combines fair wages to their growers with a commitment to provide meals to impoverished people from the proceeds of every sale. Sometimes… it’s too many bags of too much coffee, usually purchased as a souvenir from a recent trip somewhere, and it takes us a while to drink it back down to a manageable amount of space in the freezer.

Part of the reason that we take so long to drink our coffee is how long it takes us to brew our coffee. We are not a K-cup household; I love doing things quickly, but the habits we’ve developed are anything but fast. We start with whole beans from the freezer that go into one of two grinders: we keep a daily blend in an automatic burr grinder, which grinds the right amount with the touch of a button, but we also have a hand grinder in our kitchen, which we use when making a specific amount of a special coffee.

After grinding, we heat water on the stove or in an electric kettle, and prepare a French press, a pourover, or an Aeropress. They all make great coffee, so the decision usually comes down to who wants how much coffee and which filters do we have handy for the process. I like a dark, pressurized and almost espresso-like drink from the Aeropress, but the pourover is easier to do and quickly get on to business like making breakfast.

In each case, the coffee that results is awesome, at or above the level you’d get in a coffee shop, and much cheaper if you don’t count the minutes of work it takes to make the stuff. It’s worth it to us because we have long commutes that are made infinitely better by having a really amazing cup of joe by our side, and because we bonded originally over coffee, and because it is a fairly inexpensive hobby to keep up and can come with us camping or on trips with only a few things carried along and a hot water source.

What characterizes your favorite hot drink? How do you make a pleasant ritual of it, even if it means taking a bit longer or costing a bit more?

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