Right Now: I cannot improve on Seneca’s advice

Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin. Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2456052

First a word about Seneca:

His full name was Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, and he was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and satirist.

He was known for his philosophical work and his plays, which were all tragedies, but we won’t hold that against him. (Comedy is hard.)

His prose includes a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with morality. His best-known plays include Medea, Thyestes, and Phaedra.

He was quite influential on later generations. During the Renaissance, Seneca was (according to E.F. Watling in Four Tragedies and Octavia) “a sage admired and venerated as an oracle of moral, even of Christian edification; a master of literary style and a model [for] dramatic art.”

This is a guy I’m going to listen to.

Here’s one of his quotes. This is the advice I cannot improve upon — and, I’m guessing, neither can you:

We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases.

Right Now: We need to talk about breaks

Gardening is my go-to for taking a break.

After last week’s post, I thought it might be helpful to go into a little more detail about taking a break from the work.

This column is usually about how to be more creative, more productive, more prolific. And that’s a good thing to focus on, especially when distractions are lurking around every corner, ready to pounce and rip all your good intentions to shreds.

But there’s a flip side. Sometimes all the work-work-work has to take a pause for a while. Sometimes, if it needs to stop completely.

When I say we need to talk about breaks, I don’t mean break-ups or breaking down or being broken – though Lord knows those are among the biggest distractions that wreak havoc on best-laid plans.

No, I mean setting aside whatever you’re doing – on purpose, with purpose. A planned separation from the work you’re devoted to. A deliberate exit from the Get-It-Done-Or-Else highway.

I know what I’m talking about. I’ve tried many times to do the push-the-train-down-the-track routine, and it invariably fails.

Note: I’m not talking about writing sprints, where you really do need to push yourself to complete a project. Sometimes that’s necessary. I’m talking about a day-in/day-out plan of productivity that burns you out. Trust me, it’s not helpful, healthy, or wise.

At this point, you might be asking: Why, if writing is so important, would anyone advocate taking a break from it?

I have an answer. Several of them, in fact:

  1. You’re not a machine; you’re human. Humans need rest and relaxation. (Let’s be honest: Machines are treated better than we sometimes treat ourselves. Machines get turned off now and then for maintenance.) R&R restores our tired bodies, improves our immune systems, and keeps our organs functioning properly.

  2. You’ll come back with fresh, rested eyes. This has happened to all of us: When you’re in the thick of a project, sometimes it’s difficult to see the problematic elements (the old forest/trees analogy). But step away for a bit and when you come back, you can see it. Hence one of the good reasons to take that break.

  3. You might discover how non-important some of the work is. Another thing that can happen is that you come back from the break and discover that the project doesn’t hold the same excitement as it did before. Because before, when you were pushing yourself to get it done, the treadmill you were on kept you going. Now, having spent time away from it, you can see the truth about your relationship with this project. This isn’t anything to be alarmed about. In fact, it’s good. Now you can move it to a place of lesser importance and move something else up – or you can dismiss it entirely if need be. The important thing is that you’ll be working on other things that spark you instead of continuing to feed the must-do that was sitting on your plate.

Whether the break is the weekend, a vacation, a hiatus (with or without an end date), or a sabbatical, the key is to take the break seriously. Respect it. Honor it. Put aside the phone and computer and day planner. Get into nature. Visit with friends. Read a book. Rest. Relax. Rejuvenate. You’ll come back better for it.

Your projects deserve a better you.

I Do Declare: *Right Now* it’s hard to tell what day it is

This I Do Declare post should have gone up Monday. Fact. I missed it because I was neck-deep in a project that took a lot of energy. Also fact.

And not only that: This is the first Right Now post I’ve done in a while, and that’s because I’ve been in high-productivity mode for a few weeks, which meant the mid-week post had to go on hiatus.

A touch of irony there. See, the Right Now posts are all about productivity, following through, keeping momentum, and making tough choices to stay focused and not get sidetracked. Things like: Do I keep going and meet the deadline on the paying gig, or do I set it aside and write a blog post? Do I push through to do everything until I’m completely exhausted, or do I get some sleep? Some choices make themselves.

So essentially, for the past few weeks, I was following my own advice.

Now, that doesn’t mean this blog is expendable or that my readers are less important than paying clients. Please hear me: I am dedicated to this blog and to all of you who take the time to visit, read, and respond. Fact.

I’ve simply come to grips with the reality that if my days are getting busier – and they are, which is a good thing (actually a fabulous thing, given the past year) – then my organizational methods need to scale with my increased activities.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, it was right after I’d been through a Covid-related RIF at my job. It was at the start of the pandemic, and lots of people were getting laid off, which meant finding another job was going to be difficult. I needed a reason to get out of bed, a task to focus on, a diversion from the scary headlines.

Hence these scribblings and screeds – not to mention the outlets for my sense of humor. Seriously, isn’t your life a little better now that you’ve met Belle, Vim & Verve, Writer Girl, Reggaetor, and Grammarcat?

I used to joke that I started a blog so I would know what day it was. It was funny because it was true. And it was true because I needed order and organization and I needed to keep track of time.

I still do.

Today is Wednesday, April 21, 2021. I have many writing projects on my plate, and I am determined to find a streamlined, effective way to be productive.

And there we have it. This blog is still a great time-telling device. I think I’ll keep it.

Right Now: Want to uncover your superpowers? Take a nap.

Not long ago I spotted articles here, here, and here that led me to one conclusion:

Science is finally catching up with me. When it comes to my philosophy on naps, I mean.

I believe in naps. Every day. More than once a day, if possible. That’s not laziness talking. That’s proper energy maintenance.

You see, our energy ebbs and floods throughout the day. Sometimes the energy is high, sometimes it’s low, and it has nothing to do with how many “energy drinks” are consumed. (By the way, I’m not a huge fan of those “energy drinks” – which is why I put it in quotes – but I’ll go into all of my reasons in a future post.)

Back to the peaks and valleys of energy. My high-energy time is first thing in the morning. After a good rest, I bounce out of bed and am ready to get the day going. (The one exception, of course, is if I’m sick – and that requires a completely different system of energy management.)

So if my energy is high when I wake up, then taking a nap means I get two mornings out of one day, effectively doubling my high-energy output.

And no, it’s not that simple. I won’t automatically be able to do twice the creative work. But taking that break in the middle of the day (at a time when my energy level has ebbed down to its lowest) has three distinct benefits:

  • A reboot. Sometimes there’s a lot going on, and the day gets busy and frantic and occasionally overwhelming. Those are the days when a nap is like a mental reboot. Shut down and start back up. Most of the time I reawaken from a nap in a much calmer state than my initial morning wake-up.
  • Possible inspiration. Naps are great for solving perplexing problems, even the heavy emotional ones where you can’t see a way out, over, under, or through. It doesn’t necessarily work every time, but more often than not, my subconscious will sort through the tangled mess and come up with a doozy of a dream. Then, depending on how sharp my dream analysis skills are at the moment, some things will start to make sense.
  • Off-the-grid. Many studies (again, topic for a future post) point to how harmful it is to our bodies to be constantly plugged in. And honestly, most of us don’t need a study to tell us that it’s not okay to carry your phone everywhere or check email all the time. Getting away from the electronic connection to Every.Single.Thing.In.The.World is mental health must. And the fastest, most efficient way to do that is to take a nap. Get unconscious for 20 or 30 minutes, and there’s no way you can check your email. Fact.

Just like the energy grids that bring light, heat, and A/C into our homes, proper energy management for the body means working with the body’s own efficiencies.

Instead of pushing through the low energy periods with caffeine or chocolate or a brisk walk around the block – things I often did in the past – why not give your body some respect? Take a nap. Your body will thank you for it later.

Right Now: A tale of two projects – or, there are reasons why some things take longer than you think

I recently worked on two similar projects – both journal books about the same size, both self-published (laid out and produced by me), both going up on Kindle/Amazon.

And I was equally excited about working on both.

One is a guided journal for the season of Lent. The other is a morning-and-evening guided journal about gratitude.

Logic says both should have taken about the same amount of time.

They didn’t. I have a few ideas why.

Firm Deadline. The Lent journal had an unmovable deadline of the week before Ash Wednesday. The prayer journal had no deadline. For me, a hard deadline is necessary. If the project has no deadline, I’m more likely to meander my way to completion. In cases where there isn’t an external or calendar-related deadline, I might need to set an agreement with a colleague to finish by a certain time.

Clear Focus. The Lent journal, obviously, is focused on disciplines, study, and introspection. The morning/evening journal went through several iterations because I had to find the precise way to invite the reader into the pages. Taking time to get the words right isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that the Lent journal already had a pre-defined focus, whereas the other journal had more of a blank-page beginning to the project.

Certainty About Audience. In both cases, the audience consists of those who like devotional books, introspective journaling, and writing prompts that lead to contemplation. The difference is that the Lent journal is aimed toward those who are familiar with the church seasons, and the other journal can be useful for a wider audience, including those who have no experience with churches or any religions. The second took longer in part because I wanted to be sure the book was engaging and valuable for the wider audience, which meant getting feedback from several people. Again, not a bad thing, just a different set of factors that determined completion time.

Have you noticed similar comparisons in your own work? Did discovering the differences help with future project planning? Tell me about it in the comments.

Right Now: If you aren’t sure about your path, check the oil

Battle of olive oil with olive branch in handmade clay plate over wooden table.

If there’s one thing that’ll stop my productivity right in its tracks, it’s second-guessing myself and my current path.

Is this what I should be working on right now? What about all those other things that are important? Am I actually doing what I was called to do? And the most distracting question of all: How do I know? (Along with its sequels: But how do I know that I know? And how do I know that I know that I know? – etc. until the cows come home.)

Those questions used to torture me until I discovered a reassuring way to know with some certainty:

Check the oil.

That probably sounds a bit strange, so I’ll unpack it for you.

When we’re inside God’s will, we’re anointed for the task. In Old Testament times, when people were anointed, the priest would pour oil on their heads, which signified God’s blessing.

Basically, they were oiled up.

So when we’re inside God’s will, we too are oiled up. Anointed.

Now, think of a car and what it means for the car to be oiled up. That means it runs smoothly, the pistons gliding inside the cylinders with ease, moving the vehicle down the road.

When the car has no oil – that is, when it’s not oiled up (“not anointed” for its task) – it’s basically metal against metal. Friction. Overheating. Sometimes complete engine failure.

In terms of knowing whether we’re doing what we’re made to do, here’s the clue: When we’re anointed for the task, even the struggles are easy to handle. When we’re not, even the easy things are a struggle.

The next time the questions swoop in, screeching and shrieking and dropping doubts all around your work, don’t let them bury you under their weight.

Just check the oil.

Right Now: Butt-in-chair is the only way

Advice on getting your work done is rampant.

I’m not kidding. Do a search for articles and books on how to complete your novel or screenplay or blog posts and … well, you might not come back up out of that rabbit hole. Maybe don’t do the search; just trust me on this.

I don’t have exact figures, but I’m pretty sure there are more write-ups on how to complete projects, how to stick to schedules, and how to get more paying gigs than there are actual things being worked on right now.

Ok, so there’s a lot of advice out there. That’s not a bad thing. Advice can be helpful.

What isn’t so helpful is that much of this counsel tends to skip the key ingredient that will ensure success:

You must get your butt in the chair and do the work.

All the reading about effective systems and chats with friends (even the well-intentioned ones who boost your spirits) and meditating on how to prioritize your 27 urgent projects — none of that will get the work done until you sit your butt down, position your hands on the keyboard, and start.

Or, in the words of the inspirational poster on the wall in my office:

Ass + Chair = Script

Truer words never spoken, my friend.

Not sure exactly what to write? Those words won’t write themselves. Get your butt in the chair and type until the words come.

Afraid it’s going to sound stupid? Maybe it will. So what? It can be fixed. (This is why God invented editors.) Get your butt in the chair.

Worried your plot might not be good enough? Guess what? If you don’t start, the whole thing will never see the light of day and, ergo, it won’t be good enough. Get your butt in the chair.

Stop the hemming and hawing, the planning and pondering, the dillying and dallying.

Stop talking about it. Stop wondering about it. Stop worrying about it.

Stop reading helpful advice – including this blog post. I mean it.

Butt in chair. Get to work. Right now.

Right Now: Stop it with the resolutions already

We’re into the third week of the year, which for most people means the new year’s resolutions are fading into the background.

And it’s no wonder, considering the mere statement of resolution is a bit lame and tame. “I resolve to…” Starting a plan that way sounds vague, almost wish-like.

And let’s be honest. If you do make resolutions, they can become high maintenance in a flash. They nag at you, remind you that you have unfinished business, and demand accountability – until you stop taking them seriously.

The reasons why resolutions tend not to work are many and varied, depending entirely on the complexities of the individual, but the fact that they transmute so quickly from imperative to ignored says everything.

Have I convinced you yet that I’m not a fan of resolutions? Good. Because I’m going to ask you to stop doing them. Right now. There are better methods out there that can help you chart a better course for yourself and kick your productivity into high gear.

Here are a few to consider:

Vision Boards

A vision board is a series of images clustered together, something  like a collage, that is used to help clarify and keep focus on the things you want to achieve or acquire. A vision board puts what you want into visual form. It’s not just written down: You can see it. There is something powerful about having your dreams in concrete form in front of you.

Benefits

  • Creating a vision board is a creative exercise.
  • You can change or update it as often as you want.
  • Working on a vision board can be revealing in that it might help tap into subconscious desires.
  • The vision board can double as a work of art. After you create it, put it on the wall.

Downside

  • It only shows the end results – the things you’re aiming for – without considering the means to get there.

How to get started?

Grab a poster board, some colorful magazines, scissors, some glue (or tape), and piece together what you want your future to look like.

Habit Tracking

Habit tracking is the act of monitoring specific things you do every day. These behavioral changes can help you achieve small goals that eventually add up to significant improvements in your life.

Benefits

  • Habit tracking provides the means to an end – or to other changes.
  • You can measure the progress you’re making; or, if you’re not making progress, the tracking might help you understand the reason why, and you can take steps to improve.
  • There are several habit tracking apps to help you keep track of your progress.
  • There’s a psychological reward in “checking the box” when you meet the goal.
  • When the habit is established (i.e., has become automatic), you can stop tracking it and move on to others.

Downside

  • Habit tracking is high maintenance, requiring constant monitoring and accountability.

How to get started?

Get a calendar, a dot journal, or a spreadsheet, and create a daily checklist of things you want to become a habit. Alternately, you can download a habit tracking app, and it’ll do a lot of this for you. Check the things you do each day; leave blank the things you don’t do that day. (Honesty is a must here.) Your progress will be easy to spot.

Intention Setting

Setting intentions is the practice of becoming “on purpose” in your daily life. With a starting point of “I intend to…” (and checking your fears at the door), your purposeful intentions essentially draw a map of where you want to go. Though they sound like resolutions, intentions are typically more positive-focused than resolutions and are therefore easier to commit to.

Benefits

  • Setting intentions helps bring your heart and mind into alignment, allowing you to consider the “why” behind your intentions.
  • Intentions begin with a focus on what you want to achieve, which can help you envision the means to get there.
  • You can develop a stronger sense of connection to your plans.
  • Intention setting involves appreciating the journey, not just arriving at the destination.

Downside

  • You must find a way to make the intentions measurable and accountable.

How to get started?

Open your journal book every day (I recommend doing this in the morning) and start with “I intend to…” and keep writing until all of your hopes, dreams, and desires are examined. Get into the “why” of it. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why do I want this? Be ready to reconsider some of your intentions as you get the answers to these questions.

Goal Setting

At first glance, goal setting may sound like intention setting (which itself may sound like resolutions), but there are differences – the key difference being that goal setting is specific and defined, whereas the other two are often broad-based and vague.

Benefits

  • Goals involve specific achievements, which help lay out the path to get there.
  • Goals require action, which keeps them from being pie-in-the-sky wishes.
  • Goals are typically time-bound, which means there will be a deadline to meet.
  • Similar to habit tracking, there’s a psychological reward in “checking the box” when you meet the goal.

Downside

  • Depending on how many goals you set for yourself, you might become overwhelmed, creating unnecessary stress and pressure.
  • The goal must be attainable within a reasonable amount of time or you’ll set yourself up for failure.

How to get started?

Whether you use a calendar, spreadsheet, chart, or some other tool, there is one thing you must do: Write it down. Goal setting does not work if you keep it all in your head. Write down what you want to achieve, make plans for how and when you’ll work toward that goal, and track the progress. My personal favorite tool for goal setting is the comprehensive checklist I created, which you can check out here.

Test these out and see which fits your style. And you don’t have to limit yourself to one. You can do a vision board and goal setting, or habit tracking and intention setting. Or all four.

Whatever you choose, go with it at full speed and full confidence.

And remember what Mark Twain said: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

Right Now: A comprehensive checklist might be just what you need

I confess. I’m something of a to-do list fanatic. Give me some lines with checkboxes and I’m in heaven. This is how I keep track of everything in my life.

Over the years I’ve looked into a lot of different systems. And while I haven’t ever found one system that works, I have discovered that I can pull pieces of many different systems and make them work for me.

And that’s what it all comes down to – what works for the individual.

I offer here what’s been working for me (i.e., my compilation of various systems) in the event any of you out there want to take this and incorporate pieces of it for yourself.

This is what it looks like:

MITgrid1

I track six days’ worth of activities, and my week is Monday–Sunday, so Saturday and Sunday are lumped together.

After keying in the specific dates (i.e., WEEK OF 1/11 – 1/17), I list in order of importance:

Row 1 – Most Important Things (MITs). These are, as stated, most important. They’re the things that will move my career forward, win the deal, give me a sense of accomplishment, etc. If I accomplish nothing else during the week, I want to hit these.

Row 2 – Tasks. These are not as mission-critical as the MITs, but they’re things that must be done, so I don’t want to lose sight of them.

Row 3 – Routine Items. These are everyday things that I might forget if I get too busy. Plus, I like checking them off. On my list, I have things like doing blog posts, exercising and taking vitamins. (Yes, I am prone to forget to exercise and take vitamins. Seeing it in print is a good reminder.)

Below the three to-do rows is where I list info on my current projects to keep them in front of me.

At the bottom are two “parking lots” where I keep track of things that need to get onto the calendar (i.e., usually into the MIT or Task rows) eventually and the list of long-term projects (e.g., pruning the berry plants, which I won’t do until the Fall).

The page is laid out on 8.5×11, landscape. The gap in the middle of the grid allows you to fold the paper without creasing over any text.

For some people this might look like overkill to the Nth degree. But it’s a system that works really well for me.

Want a free Word version of this to tinker with on your own? Drop a comment below.