Motivation Monday


This holiday season, I am trying to be more positive about myself. I don’t want to do this just to toot my own horn, but instead to realize that I’m bringing something valuable to the table. When I feel like I’m a useful human being, I work harder and I get more things done well. Today, the exercise I wanted to share involves creating a Venn Diagram.

Basically, I know that I don’t have all the skills in the world, but there are a few I do have that, in combination, make me an asset. For instance, there are zillions of people who love to write; no uniqueness there. When you add that I write fairly error-free writing (only one typo per page on average), you narrow the pool a little bit. When you add in that I write extremely quickly, you narrow down this skill even more. So rather than telling myself I’m the best writer (super general and definitely not true), I can tell myself, “Self, you enjoy writing fairly error-free prose very quickly!”

Having these specific, niche skills can empower us to see our place on the team. For instance, I frequently meet people whose work is more lyrical than mine, or whose sentences have better SEO for their keywords. That’s great! We make a good team, because if I can write fast, error-free prose and they can optimize it for search engines or make it sound beautiful, we’ve complemented each other.

What are the skills you bring together to make a more specific, more niche skill? Figuring this out on Monday will help motivate you as you work through the difficult challenges this week. In some cases, it will help you realize that you are the person who is born to do this work, and in others, it will help you justify reaching out to others for help, since we aren’t all built to have all the skills.

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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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I don’t know what does it, but I feel like the longer we are focused on our daily life, the less we are able to think some of those “big thoughts,” the ones that make us feel like we are learning about life. I have recently had a surprising amount of this tunnel vision, getting to the end of every day exhausted and ready for sleep.

Recently, I visited the Monticello house site, where Thomas Jefferson built his home and lived. The history of the place, including the contraptions and the functioning of the whole plantation, made me think about how hard life was before the modern age, even for people with insane amounts of wealth. It really inspired me, walking through the pretty Virginia woods, to live deliberately and to think about the impact I want to have.

It’s hard to put down on a to-do list the things that end up becoming a legacy; so many of the people whose lives I admire lived their values each day in very small ways that added up to the achievements of their lifetimes.  Even so, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and committed high treason and started a new country when he was 33 years old. 33 is soon for me. I haven’t founded a country, as you might guess.

Part of my current stage of life is holding two opposing views in my head: one is that I need not delude myself that I will ever be famous or accomplish something encyclopedia-worthy. At the same time, I also need to keep working toward the smaller, daily and weekly goals I set for myself in order to create a life in which the extraordinary might happen, because I’ve been preparing for all potential opportunities as a writer, a teacher, a wife, a friend, a community member.

I would prefer to leave aside the impulse to be overwhelmed by the amazing things that people have done in the past, and I’d like to always take their actions as inspiration that by having my big thoughts and pursuing my daily tasks, I’m working toward something of a legacy, just like them.

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Today’s Monday Motivation is all about a common problem: unclear supervisors. Certainly, people talk about their bosses in a negative way, but I rarely encounter truly unpleasant bosses. Instead, I find bosses, or sometimes editorial supervisors when I’m writing, have trouble making their expectations clear.

I worry because I want my bosses AND myself to shine, and lack of clarity wastes time, exhausts both of us, and results in bad work. So when I don’t understand what a boss wants, I try to process a little first: certainly, my impatient self wants to run in and demand a clearer response, or (too often) a better project or writing design. Instead, it is important for me to clear away my initial impatience and rebellion and look at what will really help the situation?

9 times out of 10, giving my boss the benefit of the doubt and asking for clarification in a way that respects their vision of the project is the best way to go. I will only be really blunt with a boss who has persistently not answered my questions or made the work take much longer than necessary; otherwise, I want to avoid burning bridges.

So if you are dealing with a supervisor who isn’t clearly expressing what he or she wants, know you are in good company – we have all been there! Anyone who has also BEEN a supervisor knows how challenging it is to express what you want from a project before you’ve seen the final project. Respect, patience, and kindness can go a long way on both sides, and by giving each other the best you have to offer, you are more likely to power through your Monday and the rest of the week to come!

What do you do when faced with an unclear supervisor’s needs? Share your best strategies for remaining positive in the comments!

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One of my favorite writers is Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits fame. I recently read his piece on productivity and staying focused, and he used a term that I hadn’t used before: Most Important Task, or MIT.

I’ve always been pretty resistant to this kind of thinking, since one of my favorite methods of productivity is what I call the “snowball” – I do something fairly easy, and I ride the wave of my success by getting other, harder things done. However, the truth is quite the opposite: having an MIT selected, and focusing on it for a set amount of time seems to be the best way to start a day well and get going on something difficult.

So how do I identify MITs? I pick based on a few elements. The first one is time sensitivity; if it’s a small or large task, if it is the next thing that needs to be completed, that makes it super important. I tell my students all the time that “good enough and on time” is better than a hypothetical perfect thing that you will turn in late. Expectations go through the roof when you are late, and usually whatever was not ready at the deadline was still not ready after.

My next criteria is how it contributes to something difficult or important: with my writing work, I sometimes have harder assignments that are longer and more complex, as well as assignments that are about topics I really believe in rather than more generic content. I try to prioritize my meaningful, long-form work over my more day-to-day writing tasks; writing blog posts is sometimes my first MIT of the day. This goes for any kind of work, however; we all have those big-picture things that we know will take our strength and problem-solving. Tackling one of those face-on at the beginning of the day does wonders for the rest of the day’s productivity.

So here I am, saying what today’s MIT is: I’m writing a magazine article, and I need to get it finished so I can move on to other work. What’s yours, and how will you make sure you get it done first thing today? (Feel free to read up on Zen Habits for suggestions!)

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So, it was about the right time for me to start working on a new planner. Sure, it’s late October, not minutes before January, but a planning fiend often finds themselves thinking a couple of months in advance. For this reason, I did some research and settled on Blue Sky Planner, a nice medium sized one at 5×8 inches.

Blue Sky Planners stood out to me as having the things I like – nice clear monthly tabs, both weekly and monthly planning pages, and some space that can be co-opted for spontaneous lists and notes to self. They are also quite affordable, and after my splurge last year (well, Husband’s splurge), I thought I’d test myself out on something a little less costly.

This choice reflects something I’m realizing in more and more areas of my life: more costly doesn’t always equate to greater quality. I love my Get to Work Book, but after using it for a year, I realize that it is probably more useful for someone who is in a more project-based career than I am, and in a place where they need to prioritize differently each week. It’s a high quality product, for sure, but for my way of using planners – messily scrawl everything I need and everything I’ve committed to with very little regard for margins – it might not be my best choice long-term.

So I’m trying to do some intentional lifestyle reduction, what I see as the antidote to lifestyle creep. As it becomes possible for me to add more and nicer products and services into my life, I’m trying to intentionally scale back in other areas, reminding myself that at many times in my life, I was happy with a bent spiral notebook that had 14 pages of history notes in it; I didn’t even buy a planner specifically for each year! Occasionally and intentionally reining in my needs reminds me that it is a useful skill to be able to operate on a smaller budget, even if after next year I find myself desperately longing for another Get to Work Book or a different exciting planner. The experiment itself, I hope, will teach me more about what I need.

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I have been finding it astoundingly easy to focus on the future lately. How will I (make more money) (find more happiness) (have more friends) (grow more plants) next year? I’ve tried, on purpose, to think about why I feel the need to do this so much.

One part is natural: the future is exciting. Any day with me is probably a little humdrum by comparison with all that possibility. This part of my personality has always been with me, making me look forward to things even if I am also quite content in the present.

Lately, though, I’m afraid I’ve stopped giving the “now” enough credit. At work, I’m trying to get things done in the hope that some abstract future date will be less breakneck, less busy. I don’t know that such a day will truly come, but I do think that it might be beneficial to slow my roll a little and try to notice some of the cool things I’m doing before I immediately move on to another task.

I notice this tendency as well in (ironically) yoga class. I quantify (how many more leg lifts this week than last week) and I think about my cell phone and I think about how close we are to the end of class. I’m not proud of this: I don’t do yoga to somehow get a cool spreadsheet of facts and figures about how good it was for me! I do it because I want to be present, and the sensations in my body are usually good and challenging and healing.

So I’m telling myself more often that, while I can definitely daydream and definitely note my progress on things, I need to give myself space, even on Monday (“most high octane of all the days”), to do these things, participate in each minute of my life, without making it just a day to add to my growing stockpile of past days on the endless march toward “not quite yet.”

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I’ve been crocheting since I was 16 and in an extremely boring entrepreneurship class in high school (I don’t think entrepreneurship is boring at all, but the combination of bored students and a teacher who preferred showing us a lot of videos made for a pretty dry class). Since then, I’ve made countless hats, scarves, blankets, mittens, socks, and other fun treasures, but one thing has eluded me: stripes.

The only way I’ve made stripes in my creations was by cutting the yarn and tying on a new color, and that overall weakens the fabric I was creating, so this time I finally found an online tutorial that worked for me, and adapted it for the granny-square pattern I was currently working on. So far, so good!

I’ve been making a lot of baby blankets lately because of my many friends (and my sister-in-law!) getting pregnant, but I’ve really gotten bored of pastels, blue, and pink. Instead, I’ve been seeking really rich greens lately, for boys and girls: they are delicate even when they aren’t really a pastel hue, and children grow so quickly that you cannot help comparing them to other growing things in the world, like the many-colored plants in our gardens. Most new moms don’t complain about a handmade present, so I don’t know that people love it, but I have to imagine that all pink and all blue get quite boring. It also helps to work in greens when you aren’t sure what the gender of the baby will be!

What is your latest challenge if you do some kind of needlework? I find that I’ll make the same kind of blanket over and over if I don’t set goals for myself to try something new, like a zigzag pattern or some cabling. I don’t like working rigidly from patterns, so that limits my abilities, but new stitches are always exciting to me!


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I have a lot of lists going all the time, but most weeks on either Sunday or Monday I try to make a master list that helps me see the week in my head. There will be all kinds of things listed, but within the list there are a few categories:

  • Specifics that need done today, maybe tomorrow: I always have my best understanding of what I’m trying to get done today, with a few bigger things that might take till the next day. Fill in as many specifics as possible.
  • An outline of big events and needs for all the other days of the week: If I have appointments, or evening engagements, or meetings with friends during the week, those make the list because they will need to be on my mind as I flesh out better lists all week.
  • Concerns: Sometimes, I put things on my to-do list to remind me to do things like “be brave” when boldness is necessary to the tasks I’ve got, or “find rest” when I’m in the middle of a cold and still trying to get things done. Similarly, I flag tasks that I am dreading, because if I get those done quickly, it will really motivate me for the rest of the day.
  • Aspirational goals: I don’t just put one achievable list together; it makes Husband crazy when he sees all the things I hope to get done each day, because he thinks I cannot possibly do it and I’ll be disappointed or overwhelmed. He’s not totally wrong, but I also think life is too short to aim small, and I’m happy to have a few things undone at the end of the week if I still feel like I stretched myself.
  • Rollover goals: Similarly, I bring some hopes and dreams from last week into my new week’s list, where I can get them done and feel even more triumphant because something had been following me around for a while.

How do you organize weekly lists? I am, as you can imagine, pretty messy about it and always interested in learning.

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