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I’ve noticed lately that there is a trend toward creating small businesses, working mostly for oneself, and generally starting a lot of new projects. Whether these projects are non-profits meant to benefit the community or businesses meant to benefit with money, I see people wanting the luxury of exercising full control over their enterprises. Sure, the blame is there too, but people seem to be excited to take credit and all the benefits from the things they start.

Much of the media attention and notoriety in my small city goes to people who started something: a non-profit agency, a business, a new city program. There are very few ways in which “serial joiners” like me and Husband are recognized. This is fine, but it is interesting. Serial joiners, as I define it, are people who join forces with those who start new initiatives rather than adding to the initiatives themselves.

My perception is that, as our city starts to prosper with a lot of momentum but few solid results so far, we don’t just need new initiatives. We need more joiners. We need people who will show up for the meeting, take the survey, give two hours to the volunteer project, and go home afterwards. These people seem to give less, but they also get less: no one writes about the regular old members in the newspaper. However, without a strong base of people who are willing to donate 20 dollars, the campaign never gets funded.

Lately, I’ve really been interested in how people do little things – sure, it’s wonderful to get the $10,000 grant, but how often do you put $10 toward a project you care about rather than buying a burrito or a new lipstick or a phone case? I’m interested, more than ever, in the many ways that individuals make small contributions, because I really believe we get farther when many people band together behind the ideas of those around them than we do when we each are angling for our own slice of big-idea fame.

So I’m challenging myself this week to find 3 important, interesting projects/businesses/non-profits that could use my small-impact support, and I’m going to do what I have to do (volunteer, donate, or just show up). Is there a way that you can do the same thing? We probably won’t be recognized for it, but when big things happen, we’ll know that we had a tiny part in it.

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On Thanksgiving, we started (or re-started) a tradition of running for 3 miles through downtown, and actually paid for the privilege to do so. Husband and I ended the race satisfied with our performance (we each ran the whole time, though my run is a snail’s-pace jog, not a spritely trot like his pace). However, I did think: why didn’t we just run for 3 miles… for free?

I’m realizing that, in my current state, there are a few expenses that I make simply because they pressure me into making an experience happen or push me toward a bigger goal. The biggest example that is coming up is signing up for a marathon next summer, spending more than 100 dollars on it, and using that investment to propel me to the gym early in the dark cold winter mornings.

A perfectly, supremely rational human being would be able to go to the gym 3 times a week simply because it is good for her, but I am not that girl. Much of my discretionary income goes toward “bettering” myself, but not directly; rather, I bribe or goad myself with this money! I know that saying “going to the gym is good for you” rarely gets me out of my warm bed an hour earlier; for some reason, “you’re going to do SO BADLY in that marathon if you don’t train RIGHT NOW” works better.

One of my recent resolutions, ironically, is to stop trying to see the negative in everything and fear it, and rather see the positive in things and hope for it. Sure, I’d be disappointed more often, but I also wouldn’t be so driven by fear. I’m hoping that the same can be true for some of these non-rational expenses too: rather than thinking of how likely I am to fail, I will try to focus on how good road races feel when you are well-prepared. For instance, my half marathon this past year was wonderful because I had a body that was ready for that distance.

 

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I would argue that the March Madness has nothing on the December Madness: somehow, people think it’s a good idea to put ALL the parties, all the merriment, and all the travel into this one, ice-slick month and hope that we will still be able to finish up a school semester in our free time. It’s bonkers.

That’s why I am grateful that, in between the goal-setting pages and the gratitude questions, my Self Journal has some regular old monthly calendar pages, and they aren’t labeled. This journal can be started at any time, and let me tell you: having December as the “middle month” of my challenge is nothing if not exciting.

Having the many engagements that are coming up written out makes me a little less frightened that by tomorrow, the month that has Christmas in it will be upon us. I can note which days I have not commitments and thus save them for baking or shopping or wrapping presents. Despite my love for Buy Nothing Day,  I am definitely a holidays participant, and I want to make sure I’m doing my share of giving if I will be receiving from my generous friends and family anyway.

That being said, I also want to be able to focus on my goals, and the only way I seem to be able to fit the writing, the exercising, and the healthy cooking in are by noting the big picture rather than just my daily schedule. Having this wider view on the page helps me note which weeks are worst and make sure that I have a few slow cooker freezer meals at the ready before I get there, rather than approaching each week as if it will be equally busy.

What is your preferred mode of monthly calendar: email, online, physical on the wall, in a planner? Regardless, I think somewhere to put the weeks-out commitments is totally essential to my sanity.

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I came to David Allen’s Getting Stuff Done because it came recommended by the editor of the The Billfold, an online site for personal finance. The editor there is incredibly productive (she is a freelance writer full-time, and writes about that life on her site) and I knew that if someone like her thought this system was interesting, it might help me.

Allen’s system is logical and intuitive, but he clearly brings a wealth of experience not just on how people get organized and productive, but also in the many, many ways that people sneakily get “un”productive even in the midst of an attempt to organize their lives. He says that when he consults, it often takes two full work days to get everything in order and ready to use his system.

In many ways, the organization of Allen’s to-do lists and filing systems reminds me of Marie Kondo’s Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up book; the principle is that if you can just get your space to an optimum state, all you have to do is maintain.

Rather than focusing on how to keep your office clean, though, Allen notes that everything needs to be framed in terms of the next task to do, and needs to be re-shuffle-able in order to accommodate new tasks. He also emphasizes that most people need a clear way to find old papers but don’t need to have to see them all the time, like I do when I just leave everything pressing covering different parts of my desk (and raising my blood pressure in the process).

What I took most from the book was that I could save all the important papers that come across my desk without letting them pile up infinitely, and that I needed a more central to do list rather than a million tiny ones that I add to all the time. I actually am “allowed” to write things down anywhere, per this system, but I need to always add tasks to the central to do list or they may, in the end, not get done or get done at a non-optimal time.

I also realized that I tend to write to-do lists with lazy phrasing. For instance, yesterday I made a list of kinds of vegetables I want to grow next summer by just listing the names of the veggies, when really, to make it task-oriented, I needed to write “buy pink bumblebee tomato seeds from High Mowing Seeds,” and “Find zucchini and cucumber seeds in the seed box,” and “ask Husband’s brother for some sweet potato slips in the spring.” Even those tasks could be more time-marked, but just rephrasing little reminder words into actual tasks is one of the big take-aways from this book for me.

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If anything has romanced me entirely, bewitched me and kept me hostage, it is brown butter. All you do to make it is caramelize a pat of butter, moving it constantly to keep it from burning but allowing it to toast up into a dark brown smooth sauce that is perfectly sweet from the lactose in butter turning into, essentially, caramel. There is nothing better… Lots of things better FOR you, but nothing that tastes more rich and decadent!

My first encounter with it was with a banana bread recipe – i heart eating has a scrumptious version. The brown butter made a great complement to my version of banana bread, which uses mostly fruit for sweetener and thus isn’t naturally super sweet. It doesn’t bother me as much as other butter applications, because without that glaze I’d still put butter on warm banana bread… such is my weakness. The glaze, however, does satisfy me to the point of not needing another layer of butter!

Recently, I had the above-pictured meal, and the brown butter was a treat. A sprig of crispy sage garnished a pile of ravioli filled with butternut squash; a little parmesan, some pomegranate arils for tang and color, and olive oil were all it needed. I knew that butternut squash was a sweet vegetable, but I think the brown butter sauce brought it out and made me feel like I was eating one of the sweet potato casseroles that is so popular at thanksgiving, not a regular savory pasta dish at all.

If you are looking to try out brown butter, I can recommend it as a sauce for… pretty much anything? Specifically pretty much anything that could use a sweet counterpoint to some other dominant flavor, since sweet on more sweet is not usually my style. For great, step by step tips on browning butter, check out the Kitchn, which always seems to be there to help me in tricky cooking situations.

If you aren’t a butter eater, I’m always in the market for healthier sauce alternatives, so feel free to fill the comments with your favorite kinds of sauces that can be slightly less rich but still make a dish pop the way that a concentrated little amount of brown butter does. See you all tomorrow; I’ll just be over here daydreaming about that ravioli again.

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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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Amazing enchiladas, avocado, and salsa with rice; one of my rare forays into a real, complete home-cooked meal.

Husband has been getting prepared for our 2nd anniversary, and his favorite idea was for us to do a cooking class together: we’d learn how to make some really nice food and learn some nice side benefits, like knife skills. However, I balked at the price: $160 for us both to learn and eat.

In looking for other options, we stumbled upon HelloFresh. It ends up being a great deal for us: for 60 dollars a week, we get three meals for us both, we avoid at least one trip to the grocery store, and we save time on chopping and locating various items throughout the kitchen and pantry. So we decided that getting three weeks of meals for the same price as the one class would make more togetherness!

I am especially in love with a new feature they have, called Dinner+Lunch. It uses the same main ingredient, like chicken, and makes it really easy to assemble a second meal that isn’t just leftovers. For instance, you roast up chicken for a pesto pasta dish one night, and leftover pesto chicken gets added to tomatoes on a baguette for a lunchtime sandwich the next day. I really like it and the added lunch is cheaper than the normal meals, only 5 dollars a person, which is way less than the typical 10 per person.

There are tons of subscription services, so not all of them are best for everyone, but this one was advertised on a ton of podcasts I listen to so I gave it a shot, and I figured, no matter what, 10 meals for the price of one cooking class was awesome! I’m committing myself to watching some online videos on knife skills and other integral parts of being a successful cook (what is a sear, for instance?) while I work on these meals too.

Lastly, there will be no banishing of Husband from the kitchen while I’m cooking; it’s a small kitchen, and so when I’m really focused on a meal, I often get Husband to go have fun elsewhere. With these meals, it is usually easy enough to create them that I know there is no reason why we can’t do it together, even in close proximity.

If you want to give it a try, this link should get you 40 dollars off your first box! Let me know if you have other subscription food delivery kits that you like, because I might do it for other “presents” in the future too. 🙂

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I once was teaching a classroom full of teenagers about American customs, and I thought that they’d probably had lessons on American Thanksgiving and Black Friday before. I explained, just in case, that we had a day of gratitude followed by a day that was well-known for crazy good deals and sales. I talked about the concepts of consumerism and planned obsolescence, and ended with the radical concept of Buy Nothing Day.

Needless to say, the teenagers were UNIMPRESSED with Buy Nothing Day and thought that Black Friday sounded awesome. I had to laugh at myself for thinking that they’d get behind my goal of reducing consumerism and promoting the idea of making things and spending quality time with people you like.

I don’t truly hate Black Friday – I have a few wonderful memories of getting a ridiculous box of yarn for very little money because of the sales at my local craft store. Still, I do think that when the “reason for the season” after Thanksgiving is all about getting good deals, a bit of the magic of the holidays gets turned into a big old shopping trip.

I still buy gifts for people, especially if I know that they really would like something but are unlikely to get it for themselves, but I do try to spice it up a bit as well: I try to sometimes gift tickets or experience gift certificates, so that someone feels freed to go ziplining or eat at a lovely restaurant because they have the gift certificate. I try to also send Christmas cards… which I need to get started on! I think that sometimes hearing from someone who cares about you is almost more important than getting a thing from them.

At the same time, there is a part of me that wants to make a big deal out of Buy Nothing Day sometime, if I have a friend or family member who wants to sit out the madness on Black Friday… maybe some year my dear ones will be in the mood to hole up with hot cocoa and board games and sit out the doorbusters for a year.

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Happy Thanksgiving! I know that most of you are busy eating and watching football and hopefully going for a nice afternoon waddle with your dear ones to work off all that tryptophan… or just napping on a comfy couch! I thought, though, in the spirit of gratitude, I’d share what the weekly pages for the Best Self Journal look like.

(Just a quick reminder: I don’t get anything from you checking out the Best Self Journal or buying it; I just really like it and am finding it useful!)

It took me a couple of weeks to get the hang of the top section of this page, where you choose activities and how often during the week you want to do them. I remember to do my daily pages but end up, often, catching up on these logs of activities later on in the week. One benefit is that, for instance, if I realize I only did yoga or went for a run 2 times that week, I can redouble my efforts for the next week. It’s a way to look back at more than just the one daily page.

I also like the 1-10 scale that it gives me to rate how I “did” this week. Sometimes I write about external factors, like good news from my editors, or internal factors, like feeling alert with less caffeine in my life during my quest to master my coffee addiction.

The rest of the questions are like a compendium of similar questions I ask myself every day, and I’m already starting to notice and say to myself, “this isn’t just a win, it’s a weekly win!” or “This is not a great circumstance, but I’ve definitely figured out my “lesson learned” for the week.” For this reason, I’m glad that once every 7 days I have an extra step to my Best Self planner.

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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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